478. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

2010. Alex Johnson and I send the following reflections on the politico-military situation as it appears at the moment. General Westmoreland concurs.

As we contemplate the possible course of future political events in SVN, it is apparent that we may be faced with any one of the following possible outcomes arising from the current situation:

The generals may acquiesce in the demands of the government and undertake to restore the status quo ante December 20, 1964 coup. This outcome seems very unlikely without a break between Khanh and the generals with the consequent departure of Khanh from the scene. Given Khanh’s present mood, such a break could be accompanied by some violence between individuals or elements of the Armed Forces.
The government and the generals may reach a compromise on the issues at stake. These issues are the future status of the High National Council, the disposition of the prisoners taken by the Armed Forces in the course of their coup, acceptance by the military of responsibility for and participation in the Huong government, and the vendetta of the generals with Ambassador Taylor. For each one of these issues, there are several possible compromises. With regard to the High National Council, one might be to change its name and retain its present functions. Or another might be to retain its name but change its membership. With regard to the prisoners, the Armed Forces might release all to the government or only the prisoners who are members of the High National Council (Prime Minister Huong does not seem to be much interested in the fate of the others). The release to the government might be unconditional or be based upon acceptance of some commitment by the government that the prisoners be kept out of political activity. The issue of military support and participation in the Huong government could in part be met by an announcement by the generals of specific support to the Huong government and of willingness to accept certain positions in the cabinet and in the HNC (or its successor). At a minimum, the position of Minister of Defense should go to a military man or a civilian representing the Armed Forces, and one or more other posts might be considered depending upon the merits of the military candidates. As to the ambassadorial issue, it appears less and less likely that the generals will seriously press for the recall of Ambassador Taylor, but Khanh might remain adamant on the point. Thus someone might suggest that [Page 1061] both the Ambassador and General Khanh withdraw in order to clear the atmosphere. The most likely proposal is that both individuals remain in place and try to live together, at least for the time being.
A third possible development could be the resignation of Huong, a victim of the current pressures directed at him, to be followed by a new civil government (possibly containing military representation). The auguries for such a government would not be favorable since Huong would presumably have been defeated by the generals and forced from his post. It is very doubtful that any strong civilian could be persuaded to be Prime Minister under such circumstances.
A fourth situation resembling the preceding would be the case of the resignation by Huong, followed by a military government. It would make considerable difference to the USG whether this military government were headed by Khanh or some more acceptable officer.
A final possible development is a straight military coup which, as in the foregoing case, might be headed by Khanh or someone else.

Now let us take up each one of these possible situations and consider what the U.S. attitude should be towards it if it occurs.

In the case of a capitulation by the generals, we have nothing to do but rejoice and anticipate increased strength and performance on the part of the Huong government.

In the case of a compromise, much will depend on the form the compromise takes and we should reserve final judgment until we see its full dimensions. If the overall outcome is a stronger civilian government, then we have cause for much the same rejoicing as in the former case. If, however, the result is a weaker Huong government, virtually a straw government under military domination incapable of controlling its Armed Forces, then we are in for real trouble. Although there will be a strong temptation to try to rock along in this unhappy situation, there can be no real hope for ultimate success through U.S. cooperation with such a line up. The question will be whether the line up seems indefinitely fixed or whether it may be subject to early change. Even in the latter case, the thought of further change is a discouraging one. Much would also depend on whether Khanh remained or whether he left sooner or later. Given their experience with the consequences of their December 20 action, with Khanh out of the picture, the other generals are not likely soon to repeat the experiment.

Our attitude toward a military government following a resignation by Huong will necessarily depend upon the character and apparent promise of the new government. While we will regret conceding the failure of civilian government and accepting a return of the military, we cannot for that reason alone refuse to cooperate with it, although the long term prognosis for Viet-Nam under a strictly military government is not good. If the latter were headed by Khanh, I [Page 1062] would feel that it would be impossible for us to do business with it. Khanh has too many strikes against him and is too clearly unreliable for us to try to get into bed with him once more.

The foregoing consideration leads me to conclude that since it is unlikely that the generals will cede on all points, the U.S. effort should be toward effecting the best possible compromise, hoping that there-from will come a stronger civilian government than the present one. We should encourage a cabinet reshuffle to include the inclusion of some military representation without thereby creating the impression of military domination. If possible, we should get Khanh out of his present post or even better out of the country, although we may have to agree to live with him somewhat longer. I feel that his own facility for getting into trouble will drive him from the scene later if not sooner.

In conditioning the military for a satisfactory compromise, we will draw heavily upon the Department advice contained in paragraph 6 of Deptel 1347,2 pointing out to the generals that the sure way to get in Phase II is to line up with Huong, intensify the campaign against the Viet-Cong, push pacification and help the government to get going again. Of course, the more definite we can be, the more leverage we will have. Considering the Vietnamese capacity for misinterpretation, there is danger of creating misunderstandings and of raising expectations which are not subsequently realized.

If worse comes to worst and a straw civilian government unable to control the military with Khanh at their head is the outcome, we are in for a bad time. Under these circumstances we could try to carry on about as we are now, hoping time and his own ineptitude will eliminate Khanh from the scene and that a sounder government-military relationship will eventually evolve. But I doubt that we have this kind of time.

Alternatively, we might seek to disengage from the present intimacy of relationship with the GVN, withdrawing the bulk of our advisers and turning over a maximum number of functions now performed by Americans and, while continuing sufficient economic and MAP support to keep GVN operating at present levels, shrink MACV to the status of a MAAG and USOM to an economic-budgetary advisory group. At the same time, we would continue to accept responsibility for the air and maritime defense of SVN against the DRV. By this means we might hope somewhat to disengage ourselves from an unreliable ally and give the GVN the chance to walk on its own legs and be responsible for its own stumbles. The hope would be that, having to accept full responsibility, SVN would rise to the challenge and “pull up its political socks”. The danger is that, panicked by what could be [Page 1063] interpreted as abandonment, the leaders here would rush to compete with each other in making a deal with the National Liberation Front. This danger could be offset if at the time we were engaged in reprisal attacks or had initiated Phase II operations against DRV.

With regard to the occasion for initiating Phase II operations against North Viet-Nam, such operations could be considered under three possible conditions: [unknown amount of source text missing] initiation of Phase II operations. Without Phase II operations, we see slight chance of moving toward a successful solution.3

  1. Source: Department of State, Saigon Embassy Files: Lot 68 F 8. Top Secret; Priority; Exdis. Drafted by Taylor and Johnson. Repeated to CIA for McCone, to the Department of Defense for McNamara, to the White House for Bundy, and to CINCPAC for Admiral Sharp.
  2. Document 465.
  3. At 8:06 p.m. on December 31, the Department of State cabled Taylor that with regard to this last paragraph, NSAM 314 (Document 345) had been superseded by the December 7 policy statement (Document 440), and that, while the policy statement remained in force, the Department did not envisage that this action was automatic. (Telegram 1380 to Saigon; Department of State, Central Files. POL 27 VIET S)