21. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam1

1436. Following views are forwarded on the theory that it will be more useful for you to have tentative Washington thinking prior rather than subsequent to an “unpleasant surprise” in Saigon.

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Thrust of Khanh’s remarks to Johnson and to the CAS2 together with reports and rumors of a Khanh coup lead us to believe that chances that Khanh will take over control of the Government, directly or behind a transparent facade are sufficient to warrant our developing broad contingent guidelines to extent possible.

We are very much aware that the eclipse of any form of meaningful civilian government in Saigon will create awkward and even serious problems for the Embassy, responsible officials in Washington and our Vietnam policy generally. We would be faced, as you have pointed out in your thoughtful Saigon 2010 of December 31,3 with two difficult and unpleasant choices: To work as best we can with Khanh, or virtually disengage from an in-country military and economic role.

Choice between these alternatives would obviously involve most serious issues and might hinge on judgment that could only be made over period of days as to whether new military government or present one effectively dominated by Khanh had some degree of popular support, would get on with war, and was ready to work genuinely with US. If so we might well have to swallow our pride and work with it. Hence our only short-term guidance would be to avoid to extent possible action that commits us one way or the other. This might well involve, for example, taking no early initiative to see Khanh, letting him come to us, but also doing nothing to change pattern of working relations at all levels until situation clarifies.

Realize above does not get us very far, and would appreciate your thinking on possible shape of events and additional measures we might take if it happens. So far as we can see here, you are doing all you can to prevent it.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIETS. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Drafted by Cooper and William Bundy, cleared by Cooper and McNaughton, and approved by Rusk. Repeated to the White House and DOD.
  2. U. Alexis Johnson’s account of his January 9 meeting with Khanh was sent in telegram 2102 from Saigon, January 9. (Ibid., POL 15 VIET S) Khanh’s views as reported to the Central Intelligence Agency in Saigon on January 8 are in TDCS-314/00099–65, January 9. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. XXV)
  3. Printed in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. I, Document 478.