96. Message From the President to the Ambassador in France (Bohlen)1

As agreed [in] recent consultations Washington, you should seek early appointment with De Gaulle for frank discussion Vietnam. You should indicate that you will have message from me for the General, draft text of which appended this instruction.

In presenting this message, you should stress our determination to assure that communist-directed aggression will not succeed in overthrowing independent states in Southeast Asia and our willingness take necessary measures to implement that determination.

You should point out that in Vietnam, we have come to this determination after having thoroughly examined and rejected arguments for disengagement or for political negotiation starting from current circumstances. You should draw upon March 17 White House statement2 following National Security Council action on McNamara report3 to describe nature our current commitment and action which we pursuing jointly with Khanh Government.

What we actually want from De Gaulle is a public statement, prior to SEATO meeting,4 that the idea of “neutralization” does not apply to the attitudes or policies of the Government of Vietnam or its friends in the face of the current communist aggression. We want him to state that he does not favor “neutralization” of this sort at the present time. We are not asking him to drop his idea for all eternity. What we want is a statement that he does not think it applies now. French spokesmen like Couve and Baumel have repeatedly said in private that a US pullout now would be disastrous and that we must keep up our end in South Viet-Nam. What we need is some parallel expression from the General.5

We leave to your discretion whatever action you feel appropriate to develop the forum or the manner in which such a statement might be delivered. You will have noted from other messages that the [Page 192] Vietnamese Foreign Minister expects to be in Paris in the near future; and it might be opportune for the statement to appear in the form of a joint French-Vietnamese communique on that occasion.

You may use whatever argument or persuasion you deem most effective in the presentation of this demarche. But you should make it clear that we expect France, as an ally, to adopt an attitude of cooperation rather than obstruction in this critical area of United States interest. I would welcome any comments or suggestions you may have on the text of my message to De Gaulle and will consider them urgently with Secretary Rusk.

Secretary Rusk has sent an advance copy of this instruction to Ambassador Lodge, who made constructive suggestions which have been incorporated into the message as you have received it. The full text of his cable presenting additional argumentation for your demarche is being repeated to Paris.6

Message to De Gaulle

The most immediate and the most complex problem of foreign policy which faces the United States today is centered in Southeast Asia. The type of subversive aggression which is being conducted against independent states and innocent populations in that part of the world poses a dangerous threat to the prospects for the stable evolution of developing nations everywhere. The Republic of Vietnam is, at the present time, the principal target of this aggression. As you know, it is the policy of my Government to furnish assistance and support to the Republic of Vietnam for as long as it is required to bring this aggression and terrorism under control.

Our objective in the pursuit of this policy is to assist in the establishment, throughout Southeast Asia, of independent states, secure from their neighbors, and each with an opportunity to determine its own policies, both foreign and domestic.

It is understandable, in the larger perspectives of history, and, given the political and economic circumstances, that these states might eventually choose an international posture which could be described as neutral. In this sense, neutralization might be held out as a long term objective to which these states could aspire.

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However, all our reports from the area show that current public discussion of this objective has left a twofold impression: First, that the present victims of aggression should adopt an attitude of neutrality towards it; and second, that these same victims should be required not to accept external assistance to meet that aggression. It seems clear to us that these two courses would amount to a prescription for disaster.

Ambassador Lodge has informed me that in Vietnam today, there is a widespread impression that France endorses such courses. This impression has stirred up a sharp reaction among many elements in Vietnam, a reaction which has been moderated only by our own diplomatic efforts. At the same time in private conversations leading representatives of France have made it clear that France does not believe US help can safely be ended now, and that France does not believe in letting the Communists take over South Viet-Nam.7

I believe it is important that all erroneous public impressions concerning the policies of nations which have an interest in the future of Southeast Asia be eliminated so that the problems of that area can be seen and dealt with as lucidly as possible. I have directed that the policy of the United States be set forth with precision; and senior members of my Government will do this in the course of the next few days.

It would be most helpful to our common cause if the real policy of France could also be clarified publicly in the minds of those who may feel disturbed by implications which have been read into its most recent expression. It would be particularly useful if such clarification should be made prior to the Manila meeting of the SEATO Council.

With these thoughts in mind, I have asked Ambassador Bohlen to discuss these matters with you and to report your views.8

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. The message was drafted in the White House; discussed and revised at a 1 p.m. luncheon meeting among the President, Rusk, McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy; and approved by Rusk. Transmitted as telegram 4793 to Paris, which is the source text. Also published in Declassified Documents, 1978, 296A. A draft with McGeorge Bundy’s handwritten revisions is in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. VI, Cables and Memos.
  2. See footnote 4, Document 79.
  3. Document 84.
  4. The ninth Ministerial Meeting of the SEATO Council, Manila, April 13–15.
  5. The last sentence of this paragraph was added to the draft by McGeorge Bundy: see footnote 1 above.
  6. Document 94. On March 23, Lodge informed the President that he had told Khanh about the proposed demarche to De Gaulle and that Khanh was “extremely positive” about the idea of having a public statement by De Gaulle on record. (Telegram 1811 from Saigon; Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S) After a night’s reflection, Lodge informed the President that such a De Gaulle statement could pave the way for a new Vietnamese-French relationship and allow Khanh to drop his plan to break diplomatic relations with Paris. (Telegram 1817 from Saigon, March 24; ibid.)
  7. The last sentence of the paragraph was added by McGeorge Bundy.
  8. Telegram 4793 does not bear President Johnson’s signature.