460. Telegram from the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
1915. For Secretary from Ambassador. Deptel 1324.2 This cable responds to questions 1 and 2 of reftel. Since his collapse before the Buddhist pressures last August, Khanh’s standing with his military colleagues has been low. On several occasions, they would have dropped him except for the understanding that he had U.S. support.[Page 1030]
His position now is somewhat different. Insofar as the current issues are concerned he seems to have the full support of the 20 Generals of the Council of the Armed Forces who include the “Young Turks” and the corps commanders who accept responsibility with him for the illegal acts of December 20. Since they are all out on the same limb, that uncomfortable position imposes considerable unity in the ranks. Khanh is smart and will try to hold them in line by using anti-American themes and reminding them how offended they have been by U.S. disapproval of their actions. However, in the long run, he will probably fail to retain their support because of the normal tendency to bickering and disunity within any VN group and because of his personal unpopularity with most of the Generals.
As to likely candidates to replace Khanh, I can only mention a few who seem to us the best qualified. General Nguyen Huu Co, now commanding II Corps, seems to be an able soldier who commands the respect of the Vietnamese and Americans close to him. So far as we can see, he has thus far stayed clear of politics. General Pham Van Dong has handled himself very well in his sensitive assignment as CG, Capital Military District, and has the confidence of Prime Minister Huong. Although one of the oldest and most senior officers in length of service, he works closely with the Young Turks. General Nguyen Van Thieu, commanding IV Corps, is usually included in our list of possible candidates. He has had wide experience including that of Chief of Staff, Armed Forces and I know General Westmoreland thinks well of his military ability. However, he has two political strikes on him—he is a Catholic and a Dai Viet, hence a target for the Buddhists.
I am not putting Big Minh on the list. Even if he were not lazy and generally incompetent, he is too controversial a figure in the officer corps to consider for Commander-in-Chief.
With regard to their relationships to the political groups, Dong is not liked by the turbulent elements of the Buddhists or of the students because of his execution of the orders of Huong to put down demonstrations. Thieu would have the disadvantages cited above. I do not know of any political counts against Co.
Of the three, I believe that Huong knows only Dong and likes him. I have no reason to believe that Co and Dong could not work well with the Huong government. However, Thieu, having many of Khanh’s characteristics, would have much greater difficulty.
As to desirability from U.S. point of view, General Throckmorton, speaking for MACV, would rate the three in this order: Co, Dong, Thieu. If General Westmoreland is still available, I suggest you get his personal opinion.[Page 1031]
Before signing off, I must point out that, while Khanh is definitely dispensable, no officer in the RVNAF stands out like a light as his possible successor. Any choice will involve some risk as we will never fully know his capability and limitations until we try him. In any event, the choice will by no means be entirely with us.