75. Memorandum for the Record by Brigadier General W.W. Stromberg of the Army General Staff1
This morning, Sunday, 8 March 1964, I paid a call on General Duong Van Minh. A single soldier stood guard behind the closed gate. I saw no other security except possibly three civilian occupants of a white jeep across the street. One of these assisted me in gaining entrance by speaking in Vietnamese to the soldier guard who spoke neither English nor French. At his residence in Saigon, I presented General Minh with a box of orchids and the red canary which was the personal gift of General Wheeler. When I explained to him that the gifts were a token of the high esteem with which he is held in the Pentagon as a soldier and patriot, he was visibly touched. Tam, his son was in the house as was General Kim’s son whose name I did not catch. Mrs. Minh joined us for a brief period. She appeared nervous and sad. I attempted to carry out our discussion in English as I had assumed General Minh had continued his English lessons since I had last seen him in 1961, but he quickly reverted to French.
Initially, we covered events leading up to the overthrow of the Diem government. He said he regretted terribly to have been obliged to organize the coup as he had the greatest admiration for the President. As the internal situation deteriorated and he saw that Diem was losing the support of the people to ever greater degrees, General Minh said he constantly attempted to influence the President to make the necessary reforms and to rid himself of the influence of his family and [Page 135]other evil people who surrounded him. Finally, when he-saw that Diem would never listen, he decided to overthrow him before the Viet Cong did so. General Minh said he prepared the coup during a period of two years. For all but three months of this period, General Kim was his only confidante. They constantly discussed possible situations, personalities, forces and the risks involved. Three months before the coup went in, General Minh sent Kim to General Don to cut the latter in. (Kim is married to Don’s sister Gabrielle.) Don agreed to the coup. One month before the coup, General Minh asked General Dinh, whose III Corps was essential to success, to his home. This was the critical moment. There was some talking around the point on the part of both but finally, General Dinh suddenly said “Big Brother, our country is in danger, tell me what to do.” General Minh gave him his instructions. Finally, every key General and agency was brought into the coup except for General Cao’s IV Corps and the Navy. General Cao was not brought in as he was pet of Diem’s. The Corps Deputy was in on it. Dinh’s III Corps was between Cao and Saigon; and besides, plans had been made to control or destroy two essential ferries between III and IV Corps areas. General Khanh, then CG, II Corps was in on the coup but told Minh he would remain at Pleiku. This way Minh said Khanh could stand back and go either way depending on how the coup worked out. General Khiem played an important role. General Minh did not cut the Navy in as they were too unreliable. He charged General Xuan, CG of the Quang Trung Training Center outside Saigon to take care of the Navy whose headquarters was taken with 40 men. Xuan was also given the job of taking care of the Saigon police; a cause of worry to Minh. During the last month’s preparation for the coup, Minh was able to reconcile Dinh and Kim.
(After the abortive coup of 11 November 1960, Kim, then Commandant of the Military Academy at Dalat, had been arrested by Dinh.) In any case before the 1 November 1963 coup, Kim forgave Dinh in order that the larger interests of their country could be served. The final consideration that encouraged all of them to go ahead with [was] the knowledge of the disenchantment of the United States with Diem’s government and that the revolutionary government would probably be quickly recognized and supported. General Minh said it was regrettable that his junta had been overthrown because if people could have been patient, he felt they would have pulled the country back on the road to victory. He said that the situation had been deteriorating for so long and with such increasing acceleration, that the situation was bound to continue to deteriorate for a period under his junta before the effect of their measures could be felt. He said it was like a dive bomber plunging at a target. Even after the pilot pulls back on the stick, there is a period when the plane continues in its original speed and direction. He said one of the main objectives of the junta was to win back [Page 136]the support of the people. One of the important considerations here, for example, was to cease promptly attacks on inhabited areas where the Viet Cong were reportedly holed up. General Minh said that ground and air attacks in such situations which resulted in casualties among the civilians had been causing the government to lose the support of the people. Minh said that the relatives and friends of the victims became embittered. Minh said that, therefore, his junta attempted to get rid of the internal Viet Cong organization in the villages. Once the Viet Cong lost their “guides” who prepared their entry into the villages, the Viet Cong would be afraid to enter. He said maybe Americans could not understand how the Viet Cong could be driven out of the villages but that I could be assured the Vietnamese understood how this could be done. Minh said once the Viet Cong was separated from the villages, they could be isolated and destroyed. In the meantime, the infliction of casualties on innocent people would have ceased and chances of winning back their support would be increased. He also said that the junta had been attempting to find effective province and district chiefs who were natives of the area. Minh said this was essential as it carried along with it a built in information system on [of] old family ties and friendships. He said the junta had been making real progress in this program and cited these successful operations in point. One was the district of Cho Cao where the villagers gave information on the Viet Cong inside the village, disappeared from the village before the attack and enabled friendly forces to gain a victory without harming the civilian population. Minh said General Don was on the spot to verify personally the operation The next operation, the success of which was due to information provided by the people was the destruction of a Viet Cong depot on the Canal Commerciale in the Plaine des Joncs. Don was there also to verify personally. The last operation Minh mentioned was the successful ambush set by a friendly battalion of the 21st Division. The Viet Cong were caught in a canal at Chuong Thien in the IV Tactical Zone. It was the first time in the history of the war that friendly forces had been able to set up an ambush of battalion size. It was made possible by the information furnished by the local people. He said of course the measures which make the people want to give information take a long time to implement. Unfortunately, Khanh and the others were young and impatient.
Minh said the junta knew about the 30 January coup one hour before it went off. The other members called Minh and wanted to take immediate action. Minh, however, said they should do nothing and see what would happen as to set Vietnamese against Vietnamese would only play into the Viet Cong hands. Minh said he is absolutely positive that the charges of neutralist and plotting with the French are completely false. He said that although he did not know Kim well [Page 137]before 1959, he had observed him closely ever since. In fact, he had put him to some severe tests of his determination and loyalty and Kim has passed them all. He said that because of his concern over De Gaulle’s philosophy of neutralism, he had convoked key French bankers and other businessmen of Saigon whom he knew to his office to inform them how empty and dangerous such a philosophy was. He said these were all official visits. Kim and Don always participated in these meetings. Kim was always the most adamant in denouncing De Gaulle’s views to the point where Minh had to remonstrate with Kim about his violent reaction. Minh then stated that he had watched all the other members of the junta closely and worked with them during their three months in power and that all of them were staunch patriots and only desire to defeat the Viet Cong.
Minh said so long as these Generals remain under arrest2 the Army will be cut by schisms and the war effort will not be pushed vigorously. He said since the coup many officers have talked to him about the situation in a way they would talk to no other officer. They are bitter and frustrated about it. Minh says he calms them down by telling them to following his example and wait for them to be freed which he is sure will be done. He tells them that he, Minh, loves these Generals as much or more than they do. Minh says the problem stems from the fact that all of these officers have a host of loyal supporters. Don was CG, I Corps for five years and the population in I Corps area and the officers who served there admire and support Don. The same applies to Dinh, who served as CG of II Corps for two years and then for two years as CG, III Corps. As for Kim, an intellectual, Minh said, he had been running the schools. Kim has a group of supporters among senior officers dating from Kim’s duty as Commandant of the C & GS School. There is also a large group of young officer supporters dating from the time he was Commandant of the Military Academy. Xuan has his supporters stemming from young officers and NCO’s who served under him during his long tenure at the Quang Trung Training Center.
Minh said that besides the bad morale problem caused by their unjust imprisonment the Army needs badly the experience of these officers. He sited as an example the impossibility of the young and inexperienced Khiem attempting to serve as both Minister of Defense and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. He mentioned General Duc, recently promoted to CG of IV Corps being both incompetent and crazy. Minh admitted he arranged for Duc to return from France after the 1 November coup but now regretted it. He thought Duc, who had been carrying out a campaign against the Diem regime [Page 138]from outside the country, would be a useful patriotic officer. Minh arranged for doctors care for Duc’s crazy tendencies as he believes it comes from some physical ailment. Moreover, Duc proved to be irritable and constantly unhappy about everything. Minh said he believes Khanh gave him the IV Corps job [to] pacify him. As for Khanh, Minh feels that through inexperience, he is trying to develop a climate for politics too fast and that this could be dangerous for the country. However Khanh believes this makes a good image in the eyes of the rest of the world. Minh said after all there was no party system under Diem. Minh mentioned Khanh’s willingness to let the Dai Viet operate, a party formed around 1943 to oppose the Japanese occupation. He cited General Thieu, Chief of Staff of the Joint General Staff and a Catholic, who is a member of the Dai Viet. He says Thieu’s brother is Minister of Youth, as I understand it, and is also in the Dai Viet. Minh said the Vice-President also of the Dai Viet, Nguyen Ton Hoan, did not accept that post to remain there indefinitely. He covets the Presidency. Khanh seems happy to have the Dai Viets (Catholics) and the Buddhists in a sort of friendly opposition. In the meantime, try as he may, it will be difficult for Khanh to regain the support of the people. He is putting more and more of the old Diem crowd back in power. He is using the same Diem experts to organize his visit to the countryside and “spontaneous” demonstrations. These tactics, as for Diem, only promote counter-propaganda. Counter-propaganda against the Americans will probably result from “spontaneous” demonstrations such as the one organized for Mr. McNamara this morning at the airport.
However, Minh said the number one problem now was to reunify the Army and carry the war vigorously to the Viet Cong. He said we can worry about Khanh’s political fortunes later. He said the four generals must be freed and reintegrated into the Army or the war will not be carried through vigorously because so many officers throughout the Army will not have their hearts in it.
Minh said Khanh must call these officers in, state there has been a misunderstanding, offer his apologies and reintegrate them into the Army.
At this point, I told General Minh that if Khanh refused, and if he or any other group was thinking of a coup, it would be disastrous for both our countries and only the Viet Cong would benefit. Besides, I told him, another coup would just further deteriorate the morale of the Army and destroy the faith of the people. I told him that my superiors in Washington were counting on him to put the interests of his country and his people above his own and to lend his enormous prestige and popularity to support the government, restore the morale of the Army, and prosecute vigorously the war against the Viet Cong.[Page 139]
He thought for a long time and replied he would do everything in his power to support Khanh. However, he said he would like Ambassador Lodge, who enjoys tremendous prestige with the Vietnamese people, Mr. McNamara, and General Taylor to force Khanh to reintegrate the four generals back into the Army. He said the Americans have the power to do it and that it was absolutely essential in order to get the war going again. He said that the reintegration process must be handled carefully. If Khanh told them directly Khanh would be dead of old age before they would accept. If Minh can talk to them (he was unable to see them up to this point) he can influence them to accept, as it is a question of prestige and honor. Minh is ready to give his personal guarantee that the four will bury the hatchet in the interest of the country. Minh will also handle their assignments personally, with the concurrence of Khanh, in order to avoid an embarrassing assignment situation as between these older, more experienced officers and the new crop of generals.
Then as concerns the Army, Minh said he would do everything possible so as to reunify the Army for the government. He said there was only one man in all of Vietnam who had the possibility of doing it and that was he, Minh. He stated he wanted to emphasize the word possibility.
I asked General Minh if he couldn’t see any other alternative to the problem of the four generals, such as, for example, freedom and retirement with full benefits. He reacted promptly and vigorously and stated that it wouldn’t work and that the only solution for the good of the country was reintegration. He said such a solution would not repair the schisms at all, that the deception of the officer corps would remain.
- Source: National Defense University, Taylor Papers, T–233–69. Top Secret; US Eyes Only. Stromberg sent a copy of this memorandum to Lodge, Taylor, McNamara, and Harkins.↩
- Generals Tran Van Don, Le Van Kim, Ton That Dinh, and Mai Huu Xuan were arrested during the January 30 coup.↩
- Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.↩