341. Special National Intelligence Estimate1

SNIE 53–64


The Problem

To assess the chances for the emergence of a stable non-Communist regime in South Vietnam.


At present the odds are against the emergence of a stable government capable of effectively prosecuting the war in South Vietnam. Yet the situation is not hopeless: if a viable regime evolves from the present confusion it may even gain strength from the release of long-pent pressures and the sobering effect of the current crisis. Of the men on the scene, General Khanh probably has the best chance of mustering sufficient support to restore a reasonably stable and workable government.


The downfall of the Diem regime released powerful political forces previously suppressed or underground. Religious groups, principally the Buddhists, the students, labor, and the diverse array of intellectuals and politicians both at home and in exile moved quickly to voice their aspirations and make themselves felt. These cross currents were reflected within the military establishment, particularly among the senior officers. The struggle among these various forces can [Page 743] be expected to continue until an acceptable balance is struck, one group proves strong enough to dominate the others, or the fabric of central government is torn apart.
The convulsions of recent weeks have surfaced and exacerbated these deep-seated divisions and strains. They have intensified reciprocal suspicions between the military leadership and segments of the populace, at least in urban areas, increased disunity within the military establishment itself, and produced serious discord, including religious strife, among the civilians. The present situation is far more serious than that of November 1963, for the Viet Cong are now stronger, and in 1963 popular enthusiasm over Diem’s ouster gave his immediate successors a degree of general support and period of grace the present shaky government does not have. Furthermore, the events of the past nine months have inevitably increased sentiments of war weariness and frustration, and probably caused “neutralism” (i.e., an end to the constant struggle) to appear increasingly attractive to many. Also, the factors inherent in the US/GVN relationship have caused some rise in anti-American feeling, which probably will grow.
The situation is fragile and vulnerable to attack or exploitation from all sides. It affords obvious opportunities to any person or group reckless or ambitious enough to undertake a coup. There are indications of such plotting by at least two groups: disgruntled Dai Viets allied with officers who presently command key military units, and another group influenced by Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao. Among the civilian population some Buddhist and Catholic leaders appear to be trying to avoid new violence, but the spectre of religious strife has not been laid to rest. Recent Buddhist demands have alarmed the Catholics and militants of either persuasion may provoke fresh crises. While some civilian politicians wish to play a constructive role, most remain more concerned with personal power and prestige than national unity. The students seem to be calming down, but this volatile group remains vulnerable to manipulation from various quarters, including the Viet Cong and, perhaps, the French.
The present governmental arrangements are likely to undergo several changes during the next few weeks. The shaky solution evolved amid riot and discord—a sixty-day caretaker government headed by an ostensible triumvirate of rival generals—was patently a stopgap. Some other arrangements will be tried-perhaps in connection with the proposed National Congress. Beyond the immediate crisis over governmental arrangements, however, there is the question of whether any stable regime can emerge, capable of effectively prosecuting the war. On present evidence, chances of this outcome must be rated as less than even.
The situation in South Vietnam is so fluid and complex, however, that those developments which appear most likely will not necessarily occur—as, indeed, they have not on many occasions in both ancient and recent Vietnamese history. There is a chance, even if it be slight, that the experiences of the last week or so may ultimately prove salutary, that the situation had to get worse before it could get better. In the political chaos and conflict, some longstanding pressures have been released, some smoldering grievances and quarrels have been aired and possibly ameliorated, and the dangers implicit in continued drift have been made more real. It is not impossible that adroit leadership could turn these conditions to advantage in convincing influential figures of the need for national unity under available leaders, imperfect as they may be.
The real relationships of the persons and groups involved in the present situation are obscure.2 It is not clear how much power General Khanh actually retains or what role he will play in forthcoming weeks. In some respects, recent events have damaged him politically. At least some of his military colleagues are obviously unhappy at what they regard as his weakness in the face of Buddhist and student disorder. On the other hand, his manifest reluctance to use force against protesting civilians may lay to rest longstanding civilian suspicions that he is a neo-Diemist anxious to reverse the verdict of November 1963 and restore a Can Lao dictatorship. His courageous willingness to stand alone and unarmed amidst demonstrating crowds won him personal respect.
In the context of present realities Khanh probably has a better chance than any other obvious figure of providing the leadership around which a stable government could be built. His success in this venture, however, is far from assured. Even if he himself shows the necessary astuteness and willingness to tackle the task his success will depend to a great degree on the willingness of other influential figures (e.g., General Khiem, General Minh, and Tri Quang) to lend him support or, at a minimum, to refrain from working actively for his downfall. General Minh in particular probably retains enough prestige so that a government which did not have his participation, or at least his approval, would have considerably lessened chances of survival.
There are, of course, several possibilities other than a government in which Khanh plays the paramount role. Some new figure may arise or some already prominent personality may prove to have hidden talents or unsuspected support. However, at the moment every likely alternative candidate has individual drawbacks or enough known opposition to cast serious doubt on his ability to provide unifying leadership. Several groups or figures seem strong enough to exercise [Page 745] what amounts to a de facto veto in the business of creating a government. Although it is possible that some individual or faction may succeed in overthrowing the present government, none—other than Khanh—presently seems capable of holding power.
The longer the present unstable situation lasts, the more difficult it will be to form a government which can preserve even the appearance of unity and determination. In such circumstances, neutralist sentiment would almost certainly increase, together with the danger that a loosely organized coalition would emerge which could take advantage of frustration and war weariness to seek a neutralist solution. In the prolonged absence of firm central direction from Saigon, the morale and effectiveness of individual unit commanders in the field will decline, and there is even the danger that some might make their own accommodations with the Communist enemy. There is also a chance that some province or region will secede, and there are already rumors of separatist tendencies in Hue.
On the other hand, except for tensions in Hue, there is as yet little sign of the imminence of such dire developments. Furthermore, in weighing the situation in South Vietnam it is important not to focus exclusive attention on events in urban areas. During the past month, the war in the provinces has been carrying on, the army shows no signs of slackening its efforts and, indeed, has recently scored two major successes. Local officials have probably adopted the traditional Vietnamese wait and see attitude rather than taking actions which might jeopardize their own position. Prolonged discord in the cities will inevitably affect the rural pacification effort, but so far the limited momentum which the counterinsurgency effort had in the provinces has not diminished.
The Viet Cong obviously are not indifferent to South Vietnam’s current troubles. Hanoi and Viet Cong propaganda emphasizes that the Communists expect victory to come primarily from South Vietnamese political failures and instability. There is no evidence that the Viet Cong triggered the recent actions which led to urban upheaval, but the Communists have almost certainly been actively encouraging discord and violence (eleven of those arrested as directly responsible for the worst of recent disorders in Saigon were claimed by the police to be known VC agents). Militarily, recent weeks have been marked by an actual decline in VC attacks, though this “lull” is probably a normal phase and there are signs that the VC may now be preparing to step up their activity. Judging from past experience, it will take some time for the VC to ready themselves to take full advantage of recent developments. Also, the Communists may wish to avoid the risk of increasing the obvious VC threat to a point where it might unify anti-Communists presently engaged in internecine political strife.
Some of the recent agitation against Khanh’s government has had anti-American undertones. In some circles there is a belief that the US prodded Khanh into attempting to eliminate Minh as chief of state and into resuming the kind of tight controls formerly exercised by Diem. Minh himself is manifestly resentful of what he regards as US undercutting of his position (though Khanh too has been uneasy about what he considers US endeavors on Minh’s behalf). There has been a growing anti-American feeling among some Catholics who blame the US for Diem’s overthrow and resent what they consider US favoritism of the Buddhist cause. In some military quarters (e.g., General Khiem) and probably in some civilian circles as well there is resentment at what is inevitably viewed as US “meddling” in internal Vietnamese affairs.
Communist—and possibly also French—agents have encouraged and exploited anti-US sentiments. The idea is also being circulated that South Vietnam is really a battlefield on which two alien powers, the US and Communist China, are waging war by proxy. It is likely that anti-American sentiment will grow.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Memos, Vol. XVII. Secret. Submitted by the Director of Central Intelligence and concurred in by the U.S. Intelligence Board. Also published in Declassified Documents, 2978, 31A.
  2. See Annex. [Footnote in the source text. The annex is not printed.]