448. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
1836. For the Acting Secretary from Taylor. CINCPAC for POLAD. Pursuant to your request2 following is summary of attitudes and our contacts with key groups:
1. Buddhists: Despite slight opening for possible compromise indicated in conversation yesterday with Tri Quang (Embtel 1833),3 our assessment is that Buddhist Institute leadership still remains intent on confrontation with GVN and at this point will not be greatly swayed by efforts at direct persuasion by us.
Extent to which they willing to go in reaching compromise will undoubtedly depend far more on their assessment of local strength and support they are able to find (or manufacture) for such confrontation than on our views. Other major factor is their estimate Huong’s ability to resist their demands and their necessity to “save face” if Huong’s resistance is successful. Therefore, most useful role for us at moment is maintenance our firm position of support for Huong while at same time continuing quiet contact with Buddhist Institute leaders to ensure they understand fully US position and to explore and possibly facilitate establishment of dialogue between them and GVN.[Page 1001]
Some elements of direct US action with Buddhist Institute leadership as envisaged reftel already being undertaken, while certain other suggestions would seem to have only limited or even no positive effect at this time. With regard to specific lettered paragraphs your message:
(a) EmbOffs have been maintaining constant contact with Buddhist leaders Tri Quang and to lesser extent with Tam Chau and Mai Tho Trayen. EmbOffs also see various secondary members Buddhist Institute leadership and other Buddhist elements frequently. Gard currently in Saigon and will be assisting us in this effort while he is here. Believe contacts to date have given Buddhist Institute leadership clear idea of US attitude to extent they willing listen to it. It is clear that they have decided to proceed with campaign of pressure on government in full knowledge it contrary to US position.
A.(b) Buddhist Institute leadership, like other Vietnamese, believes VOA is voice of USG and while they will interpret playbacks as USG pressure against them, believe it useful to keep before them evidence that foreign observers, particularly local correspondents, view Buddhist Institute campaign of opposition as being without justifiable foundation and a negative exercise.
A.(c) Believe that for the present, official statements from Washington directed specifically at Buddhist Institute leaders would likely prove counterproductive. They directly aware of US position. However, they will probably interpret public statements as attacks on them before Vietnamese public opinion, and this would work against our efforts to keep channels of communications open. At same time, statements from Washington on need for political stability and orderly processes of government, such as that proposed for President’s press conference,4 will continue to be useful.
- Believe letter from Lodge might prove useful, but would prefer to hold this one in reserve for time being. At moment, Buddhist Institute leadership still seems intent on confrontation and we doubt that they can be dissuaded until situation develops in manner which will either indicate to them they are playing a losing hand or pave way for reasonable “face saving” compromise that they can accept without achieving their major goal, i.e., ouster of Huong.
- Believe this too might be useful in future. But at present juncture this would be interpreted either as sign of US weakness or as effort to buy them off. US posture of quiet strength more desirable at present and stakes for which Buddhist Institute leadership now playing are for effective control of GVN so that material US aid would at present look like very poor consolation prize. We have discussed this very subject on numerous occasions with Buddhist Institute leadership but in each case they have failed to follow through because of their lack of organization and experience. This continues to be one of our principal aims but Buddhist response to date has been most disappointing. Even concerted direct welfare effort by American wives has fallen on sterile ground.
- As noted above, we believe essential Buddhist Institute aim at present is incompatible with retention of Huong government and little room for maneuver exists. At same time Embassy is quietly canvassing Buddhist opinion in effort to determine extent to which Tri Quang and Tam Chau and followers might be isolated within movement. Mai Tho Truyen has given indication to Political Counselor and Gard, for example, of his dissatisfaction with current Buddhist policy as expressed by bonzes. Theravada leaders have stated that Theravada groups dissociating selves with UBA campaign, which they view as political. Other prominent lay Buddhists expressed similar sentiment. However, there does not appear to be a lay leader on scene who is now capable or willing serve as focus for this discontent and to return direction of Buddhist Institute’s political activity to lay leaders.
- Embassy is currently examining this question with Gard.
In short, we believe that if correct posture pursued by Huong (combination of obvious fairness and strength) and mistakes by his government can be avoided so as to deny genuinely exploitable issue to Buddhists, and if continuing support can be assured him from Suu, HNC, and the military, we believe essential weakness of Buddhist Institute’s position will become increasingly evident and way may then become open to getting Buddhist leaders off hook (should that then appear desirable). At present, therefore, we plan to stand strongly behind Huong and advise him of our views.
However, at moment we do not believe Buddhist leadership can be dissuaded from pursuing confrontation until they have more fully grasped unfavorable conjunction (from their viewpoint) of political variables or until face saving device found to get them off hook.
Specific suggestions we have envisaged making to Huong include following:
- That Huong maintain non-provocative course combined with strength and focus public attention on the positive GVN programs.
- That he consider taking additional steps which, without being
labeled as such, will be interpreted by the Buddhist hierarchy
as nods in their direction; for example:
- Huong might consider appointing additional members of his cabinet such as a Minister of Defense and a Minister Without Portfolio (for liaison with the HNC and religious and private groups) who would be acceptable to the Buddhists. This can be done without the charge that he is changing his government under pressure.
- Huong might create a citizens’ committee for flood relief and appeal again for support of religious and private groups in the flood relief area thus providing the opportunity for the GVN to work cooperatively with the Buddhist hierarchy at the Saigon level.
- Huong might seek to clarify in a future public statement the impression alleged by the Buddhists that he had lumped the Buddhist hierarchy, out-politicians and the VC as sharply the same motives in their opposition to his government [sic].
Longer range steps which the GVN might take are as follows:
- Arrange for the Dalai Lama, his brother, or other Buddhist leaders from other countries to visit Vietnam to educate Vietnamese bonzes on the perils of Communism and their civil responsibilities.
- Consider changes in his current Cabinet at the proper time, replacing those Ministers who have not performed well or whose past history is demonstrably open to question.
Measures which the US Mission might take in addition to maintaining close contact with the Buddhist hierarchy are:
- Maintain pressure on them.
- Continue with a program directed primarily toward Buddhists recently approved by the Mission Council. These measures are designed to foster desired Buddhist views and activities in the following fields among others: (a) Buddhists against Communists, especially Viet Cong; (b) Buddhist responsibility toward political authority and stability for GVN; (c) Buddhist contributions toward social stability, especially through education and social welfare; (d) Buddhist contacts with foreign countries in ways best for GVN-USG interests. Gard is especially working on the implementation of measures (b), (c), and (d) stated above, both in SVN and elsewhere in Asia.
- Continue our work with students to keep them in classroom.
Summary attitudes of other key groups follow:
“Out” politicians: Political spectrum of “out” politicians ranges from active oppositionists who desire Huong’s downfall to other wing—represented largely by Southerners—which actively supports him. Main body of politicians, such as Sung’s Northern Dai Viets, Hoan’s Southern Dai Viets, Hiep’s Southern VNQDD, who together probably constitute most important mass of politicians in Vietnam, today are essentially opposed to efforts to overturn Huong government by force. Though not personally devoted to Huong or his Cabinet, they nevertheless would view his removal under pressure as blow to efforts to establish orderly political processes in Vietnam, and possibly first step on way toward another military takeover. In total political spectrum there are also numerous irresponsible politicians (such as Hoang Co Thuy, who was involved in exploiting Buddhist memorial services in early November) who see opposition to Huong simply as means to further their own ambitions. Although they have potential for trouble-making, they have little following.
Political Counselor and other Embassy officers are in frequent touch with all these political figures.
[sic] Civil servants: Primacy of concern for furtherance of their careers renders civil servants circumspect at all times with regard to taking conspicuous positions for or against any incumbent government, and also renders them timid in taking initiatives during periods of instability. They also tend to approve developments which might lead to strong stable government, and Huong’s early display of strength has found favor for that reason. Prime Minister Huong has also won approval of many civil servants for his record of integrity and his willingness to accept humble circumstances. In many ways, Huong resembles ideal Confucian government official. On other hand, his reputation for honesty also causes concern among individuals who are uncertain what this reputation might mean in terms of stringent insistence on efficiency and honesty. As known Southern regionalist Huong finds his strongest support among those bureaucrats who come from South, with rather less warmth than those of Center and North.
Embassy Political Section has numerous close contacts among upper and middle level of permanent civil service. Other elements of Mission, and notably USOM, have close working relations with Vietnamese bureaucrats at all levels.
Press: Since imposition of martial law, press censorship has been enforced. Ten papers have been temporarily suspended and several others have voluntarily folded. These harsh measures have been privately applauded by more responsible journalists who have watched Saigon’s journalistic world become more and more chaotic in past year to point where some fifty dailies were being published. Rumors were rife that more volatile papers were infiltrated by crypto-VCs or their sympathizers.
Undoubtedly many journalists oppose Huong, but their opposition will be permanent or temporary depending upon amount of success he enjoys. If he proves capable of governing and then succeeds in issuing some sort of reasonable press statute, ranks of journalistic opposition might be thinned to point of inconsequence. At same time, many editors and journalists have ties with political and other groups, and their attitudes toward Huong government will be affected to large extent by actions and attitudes of these larger groups.
Embassy maintains frequent contacts with journalists through Political Section, USIS [less than 1 1ine of source text not declassified]. Ambassador has had two receptions for selected editors and publishers to discuss political situation and expects to have others in future.
Cao Dai: Leaders of Tay Ninh or founding sect of Cao Daiism have expressed full if unenthusiastic support for Huong government. This support is due in part to realization that Huong was choice of Suu, devout Cao Dai coreligionist, and High National Council, whose Deputy Chairman is Cao Dai Archbishop Vinh. There is respectiveness [Page 1005][sic] long known to many Cao Dai leaders, but also concern that he may not provide strong leadership and that security conditions, especially in Tay Ninh, may deteriorate.
Nevertheless, Cao Hoai Sang, administrative head of ecclesiastical hierarchy, has issued formal statement backing Huong. Prime Mission contacts include Vinh, Sang, other church hierarchy, and provincial officials, especially Brig Gen. Le Van Tat in Tay Ninh.
Hoa Hao: Hoa Hao seem to be hopelessly split rather than incohesive organization, and no overall “Hoe Hao attitude” is discernible. In general, major factions and leaders of sect support Huong and GVN. Chairman of sect’s central committee (i.e., religious organization), Luong Trong Tuong, is member of High National Council and reportedly voted in favor of Huong’s investiture. Just after late November disorders, Tuong issued statement in favor of Huong and GVN. One Hoa Hao party politician, Phan Ba Cam, has expressed opposition to Huong, but Cam does not enjoy wide prestige in sect itself. Factionalized politically as Hoa Hao are, it would be difficult to envisage any effective political opposition to GVN on their part unless GVN tried to curtail greatly local semi-autonomy many Hoa Hao groups now enjoy in lower Delta.
Mission contacts include major Hoa Hao leaders such as province chiefs of An Giang, Chau Doc, and Kien Phong, various district chiefs and lesser officials in these and other provinces, and some Hoa Hao politicians in Saigon, including Truong on HNC.
Chinese: Chinese press and leaders of economic elite and Chinese congregations, who view urban unrest as extension of threat which Viet Cong pose to Chinese commercial and social interests, have given full moral support to Huong government. Most of them see activities of Vietnamese Buddhist leadership as disruptive influence in already unstable political situation, and, accustomed themselves to order of contemplative monks, tend to brand leading Vietnamese bonzes as “un-Buddhist.” Broad mass of working class Chinese, on other hand, probably are fully engrossed in day-to-day struggle for basic necessities and are little concerned about future of government, Buddhist leaders or Viet Cong.
Contacts: Number of Embassy and USOM officers have social and business contacts with Chinese commercial, financial, and educational leaders. There are two Chinese language officers in Economic Section, one who speaks Mandarin, and another, Sino-American, who speaks Cantonese.
One political officer is member of Chinese branch of Rotary Club in Cholon, and another, who speaks Mandarin Chinese, maintains social contact with leaders of two of five congregations and with [Page 1006]Deputy Chief of Federation of Congregations, as well as with Chinese Embassy officers. Political Section also monitors five of 12 Chinese daily newspapers.
Montagnards: Political changes which have occurred in SVN during past year and half have had little impact on attitudes and allegiances of Montagnard people, who have never had feeling of loyalty and attachment to Vietnamese Government. In fact, average Montagnard in both cities and hamlets would like to rid Highlands of Vietnamese settlers and government. At same time, however, vast majority of Montagnards also dislike Viet Cong and seldom provide them willing support. Montagnard rebellion which occurred in September and subsequent Pleiku conference in October did not basically change relationships between Vietnamese and Montagnards but they pose both new dangers and opportunities for GVN program in Highlands. Sincere fulfillment of promises made by General Khanh at conference would undoubtedly do much to win more enthusiastic response from at least some of Montagnards. (Implementation of some of these programs by new Huong government have occurred too recently to gauge Montagnard reaction.) Rebel organization behind Rhade revolt still commands allegiances of CIDG in several Special Forces camps and consequently still poses serious threat to GVN. Demands of this rebel organization are tantamount to request for complete autonomy for Montagnards, and it is clear government’s promised program will not satisfy this group. There have been some indications that this group will stage another demonstration and/or revolt sometime in late December if its demands are not met.
US Mission is cooperating with GVN in initiation and development of programs aimed at improving economic and social conditions of Montagnards. Mission has urged GVN at various levels to show due urgency in implementation of its programs for Montagnards. At same time, United States is making it clear, as it has in past, to Montagnard CIDG that US stands with Vietnamese Government and will assist it in suppressing rebellious acts which would only benefit Viet Cong in long run.
MACV, USOM and Embassy officers maintain regular contact with Montagnard civil and military leaders.
Labor: Attitude of great majority of labor leaders and rank-and-file can best be best be described as ambivalent, passively loyal and apathetic. While organized labor’s hostility to Communist ideology as such has remained fairly active, its interest in promises of more radical approach to such problems has been increasing rather than decreasing. This is partly attributable to frustration caused by fact that post-Diem governments have not carried out any of revolutionary reforms which fall of Diem made appear imminent. Moreover, as [Page 1007]insurgency continues and fatigue of general population increases, labor seems to have begun to doubt in ultimate victory against Viet Cong.
Thus, under slogan of “apolitical activities” workers have tended to withdraw from public life, seemingly waiting for outcome of military effort.
American presence in Vietnam is perhaps most important factor holding organized labor from jumping on other side of the fence. Labor members realize that without American help economy of country would have suffered and standards of living would not be what they are today.
Embassy Labor Attaché has frequent contacts with labor leaders, management representatives, and with senior Ministry of Labor officials.
Students: At base of student discontent is disappointment that revolution has not produced leadership with dynamism and charisma. Most students who think about it are uneasy about some of Ministers, but most are unwilling to take violent action—in fact, there is some indication that some student leaders believe Buddhist movement has been discredited and are trying to detach themselves.
There seems to have been some increase in regional feelings, with Southerners in general tending toward at least mild support of government. Ones who do not support government feel, apparently sincerely, that urgency of situation does not permit men whose past records have been ineffectual (some Cabinet members) to remain in office. In short run main danger, however, seems to stem from fact that students can be easily used by outside forces, such as Buddhists or politicians. In fact, these outsiders are probably more effective in drumming up student support, especially among high school students, than main student groups themselves. In this context students’ capacity for troublemaking should not be underestimated.
Most students do not feel they have been properly “called” to service by country: they are in large measure ashamed of appeal of their government and its ineffectiveness. In this sense, there will probably be certain favorable reaction to government which shows itself to be strong, and especially one which shows itself anxious to draw on student participation. However, actual strong measures taken against students on streets have drawn unfavorable reaction and have made good propaganda against government. Students also strongly object to military government and Gen Khanh in particular.
Between them various elements of Mission have contact with virtually all surfaced student leaders, and there are frequent exchanges of views with many of them. Beyond this, such multi-agency programs as English teaching and USOM and AID work with student economic [Page 1008]projects bring US representatives into contact with students at many levels. The Mission Youth Committee meets once per month under direction of cultural affairs officer.
Summary of military attitudes toward Huong government: Since transfer of power from military to civilian government, VN military has taken public position of full support for such transfer and of somewhat ambiguous support for Huong government. Following December 2 Generals’ meeting at Dalat communiqué was issued (Embtel 1732),5 signed by Gen Khanh and highest ranking military officers which promised “to support without reservation civilian government working for people” without specifically mentioning Huong government. Position of Gen Khanh himself, both publicly and privately has been something less than forthright and has led to fears in many circles that he is harboring ambitions to take over government again. These fears are based on such Khanh statements as that carried in local press on November 30 that “troubled political situation in Saigon should not drag on” and remarks to Political Counselor (Embtel 1752)6 that he would stay out of politics “until time is ripe”. Misgivings concerning Khanh also based on his precipitate action before relinquishing post of Prime Minister to grant sizeable across-the-board pay increases to military and civilian personnel, to reinstate Dalat Generals, and to make last minute promotion or transfer of number of Generals.
Finally, under Huong government Khanh has attempted, with some degree of success, to transfer authority from civilian show [side?] of government to RVNAF High Command or to himself. Khanh has obtained authority to appoint most general officers, to make promotions up to rank of Colonel, and for expanded mobilization authority for the High Command. He is currently attempting to obtain greater promotion and budgetary authority. Khanh’s moves have been countered by recent action of “Young Turks” who ostensibly called Dalat meeting in order to obtain active expression of support for Huong government and inaugurate certain reforms in military services. In fact there is evidence that “Young Turks”, rather than seeking more support for Huong, are trying to curb Khanh’s personal power and even that some (notably I Corps Commander Gen Thi) may have ambitions of replacing Khanh as Commander in Chief.
There is also some indication that Sub-Brigadier Generals who were last to review [receive?] their promotions under Khanh may be rallying around him as counter-balance to “Young Turks”.[Page 1009]
In terms of practical support, military has put its full weight behind Huong’s thus far successful efforts to curb demonstrations and maintain government’s authority. This was demonstrated by actions of troops assigned to handle demonstrations, obtaining of authorization to draft demonstrators, and by forthright expressions of determination to preserve law and order on part of Saigon Commander, General Dong.
There are two dangers against which we must remain alert: First an outright military attempt to seize power, and second greater erosion of governmental control over military from civilian to military hands. We have made number of attempts to influence latter. Ambassador interceded directly with Huong and Khanh (Embtels 1452 and 1460)7 to obtain modifications of proposed reorganization of armed forces which would have confused chain of command and given Chief of State stronger position than that intended in charter. He has impressed on Khanh and other Generals, most recently following his return from Washington, the necessity for full support for Huong (Embtel 1760).8 In addition Gen Westmoreland and his staff are monitoring closely current military organizational efforts and attempting to prevent any being adopted which are unsound and would erode Huong government’s authority. We will continue our efforts along these lines.
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 23–9 VIET S. Secret; Limdis. Repeated to CINCPAC.↩
- Document 445.↩
- Telegram 1833, December 16, described a 3-hour conversation between Manfull and Tri Quang which gave the impression that the Buddhist leaders were determined to seek Huong’s overthrow despite some slight indications that a settlement short of that might be worked out. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. XXIII. Cables)↩
- The proposed statement had been sent in telegram 1255 to Saigon, December 11. (Ibid.)↩
- See footnote 5, Document 442.↩
- Telegram 1752, December 8, reported on a reception Taylor had given for senior Vietnamese officials and Khanh at which the Ambassador briefed them on his trip to Washington. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. XXIII, Cables)↩
- Telegram 1452, November 10, transmitted a report on a meeting with Huong on November 9 to discuss the reorganization of the armed forces. Telegram 1460, also November 10, reported on a similar meeting with Khanh on November 10. (Both in Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)↩
- Telegram 1760, December 9, transmitted a report on a dinner that Westmoreland had given for Vietnamese military officers at which Taylor reported on his trip to Washington. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. XXIII, Cables)↩