404. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State 1

1414. Following is offered as preliminary assessment of new government in context general political situation, in full recognition its policies and programs as yet only broadly outlined in PriMin Huong’s presentation before High National Council.

Promulgation of provisional charter and election of Pham Khac Suu as Chief of State and Tran Van Huong as PriMin represent major stage in political evolution which was sparked by popular reaction to Khanh’s promulgation of Vung Tau charter in mid-August and followed by dramatic deterioration in governmental authority in late August and September. We hope it also represents beginning, albeit slow and painful, of mending of SVN’s battered body politic.

Looking back over month it is indeed remarkable that decisions taken by MRC in late August to return power to civilian govt have in large measure been adhered to so far. That they have is attributable in part to negative factors: 1) widespread fear of recurrence of August mob violence; 2) temptation of Khanh and military leaders generally to let civilian govt make mess of running country to show Vietnamese people that only military are capable of directing country at this grave juncture; and 3) growing concern at rapid deterioration in security situation. Embassy also actively encouraged support for this first effort in recent Vietnamese history to arrive at a consensus on a govt by an orderly process of consultation among reasonably representative groups.

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However, more positive and commendable factors can also be found: civilians whom military charged with drafting provisional charter and selecting Chief of State and PriMin accepted their heavy responsibilities and, despite frequent waverings and evidence of timidity, performed creditably under strong diverse pressures. Moreover, despite Khanh’s temptation, and indeed efforts, to discredit High National Council, in end he correctly read danger signals which these tactics produced and decided wisest course of action for present was to return to military and wait for more auspicious opportunity to retake power. Finally, religious leaders and “out” politicians, also reluctant to see recurrence of demonstrations and violence, were willing to give High National Council a chance, despite its lack of broad popular base.

Thus, on first anniversary of Diem regime’s demise, political prospects are at least faintly encouraging. However, it is premature to judge whether present situation is only breather in political turbulence or whether in fact workable political solution has been found. Following factors contribute to present clouded crystal ball:

Pham Khac Suu is widely respected and well regarded among Southerners as long-standing revolutionary against French and antiDiem oppositionist. However, both general popular acceptance of him as Chief of State and his effectiveness in that position likely to be tempered by fact his years of prison have left him with little dynamism and in ill health.
Tran Van Huong, while not enjoying the great reputation Suu does, is also respected as honest, hardworking man. Like Suu, however, he is not well man (has heart condition), and same reservations apply to him that apply to Suu in this regard. Encouraging indicator is Suu’s claim that Huong appointment was subject to wide consultation among major groups (religious, military, political) and that Huong is acceptable to all.
Team that Huong has collected around him is made up of men with reputations for honesty and competence. They are in large part, however, not political figures but men with professional or civil service experience, and are likely to be criticized soon by “out” politicians as technicians without stature (like Minh-Tho govt). Many politicians and qualified technicians were reluctant to accept positions in new govt which they believed would have only short life span. Another reservation is new govt’s predominantly Southern complexion—whether Northern refugees and center populace will sit still for this for long remains to be seen (criticism in this view [vein] already being heard).
Power balance in military establishment is confused at present. Buddhist-led violence in August and unsuccessful Sept 13 coup attempt provided Khanh with opportunity to rid himself and army of virtually [all] remaining potential competitive leadership factions, and brought to fore new military leadership group (“Young Turks”) which since mid-Sept have been generally loyal to him. However, High National Council’s ninth-inning switch to Pham Khac Suu left General Minh with no place to go except back to army and into competition [Page 890] with Khanh. (Minh had been mentioned most likely candidate for Chief of State in the early maneuvering within the High National Council.) This combined with Khanh’s earlier surprise move in reintegrating Dalat Generals back into army, may have created potential sources of friction within military. There are already reports that Young Turks resent return of Dalat Generals. Problem of Minh is at least temporarily postponed by his decision to take a trip abroad.
In drafting provisional charter and electing Chief of State, High National Council members have shown themselves vulnerable to pressures from many quarters and suffering in many cases from personal political ambition and rivalries. Whether these centrifugal tendencies can be controlled and HNC can continue momentum toward selection of national assembly remains to be seen. Close personal relations between several members of HNC and Suu and Huong are favorable factors.
Buddhists are in somewhat precarious state. Split between Tri Quang and Tam Chau factions has waxed and waned during month, but at month’s end both factions opposed Khanh’s retention of premiership. Since beginning of Nov, however, there have been growing number of reports that Buddhists displeased that Huong selected instead of Nhut. Most gratifying Buddhist development has been firm anti-Communist statements made publicly both by Tam Chau and Tri Quang, although there were undoubtedly internal tactical considerations which played part in issuance such statements.
Working relationship between Suu and Huong also a question mark. High National Council has made clear in public statements that intent was to create symbolic, ceremonial Chief of State, leave PriMin as action officer of govt. Provisional charter is unfortunately not quite so clear and leaves Chief of State with major powers which if wielded by an ambitious man, might bring him into conflict with PriMin. Essential, therefore, in the interests of smooth governmental operation that both Suu and Huong on same wave length.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 15 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Limdis. Repeated to Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Bangkok, London, Paris, and CINCPAC for POLAD. Received at 10:53 a.m.