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

2186. For the Secretary. Reference: A) Deptel 1477.2 B) Position paper on SE Asia December 7, 1964.3

I was pleased to receive the authority to discuss the matter of the evacuation of dependents with Huong and will seek an appointment as soon as I receive a reply to this cable which raises matters which need to be pretty well settled to permit response to questions he is likely to raise. Incidentally, because of Huong’s limited perceptiveness in such matters as assessment of political and psychological reactions, Alex Johnson and I feel that Vien should be included in our discussions with Huong. We will do so unless you indicate an objection.
Our main problem remains how to explain our evacuation of dependents in way which will seem reasonable and straightforward and thus avoid alarming SVN, and third countries who have nationals here, or who are providing or may provide free world aid. In developing such statement of our case, VC have given us some assistance in the explosive charge found January 16 at the special services pool near Tan Son Nhut Airfield. Assuming it remains your view that dependents should be withdrawn, statement such as following appears to us about the best we can do:
  • “A. The finding of the explosive charge at the special services swimming pool on January 16 confirms previous indications that American personnel, including their wives and children, will henceforth be targets for VC terrorist actions. This conclusion has been reached at a time when USG has been reviewing its policy regarding dependents in SVN in light of developments of situation in that country and clear need to concentrate all US efforts on assisting people of Viet-Nam in their efforts to resist Communist subversion. Under such circumstances, it has been question for some time as to whether continued presence of dependents is consistent with desire of US to maintain a posture of maximum readiness to meet whatever contingencies may be forced upon US and Vietnamese people.
  • “B. The probability of further VC terrorist activities, added to these other considerations, has led to decision to adopt policy of removing wives and children from South Viet-Nam. Movement of dependents to [Page 58] SVN will cease at once and movement of dependents from SVN will begin at once on phased and orderly schedule. It is not possible at this time to estimate length of time required to complete this movement. Inevitable personal problems of affected households will be given sympathetic consideration in carrying out this policy.”
Foregoing seems to me best argument we can make. You will note that we avoid suggesting that presence of dependents is cause for personal concern by heads of families or is significant burden on US and Vietnamese authorities. We do not believe these could be accepted as valid points here and their inclusion in US statement would weaken its credibility.
There are several additional questions related to evacuation upon which I need guidance as they are likely to arise in our discussions with Huong.
When and how do we propose to inform other friendly govts of our decision and what do we think they are likely to do about their dependents? (We presume initial notification would take place in Washington and we would chime in shortly thereafter. We have here no real estimate of governmental reactions as we have avoided any discussion of subject and recognize difficulty of Washington in making any such estimate.)
What action would we propose to take with regard tourist and other non-essential US travel to SVN? What advice will we give to private Americans and their families here? (It seems to us that, to be consistent, we should advise withdrawal of dependents of private Americans and discourage tourist travel which is still considerable to Saigon.)
What effect do we anticipate on airlines and their willingness to continue to fly into SVN? (As you know Pan American (which is only US commercial service here) pilots have long been threatening to refuse to fly into Saigon because of alleged dangers. Only because of strenuous Embassy and MACV efforts have they been willing nervously to continue. With announcement on dependents and the probable decline in tourist traffic resulting therefrom, Pan American may drop its commercial passenger service here.)
What is our estimate of the effect on the ability to obtain additional free world assistance (particularly non-military) and to retain that already committed? (Although we are not able to estimate its extent, it seems to us this kind of assistance is sure to decline.)
About how long do we estimate it will take to remove our dependents? (On the latter point, I would like to say at least month, perhaps longer. There should be no emergency air about this operation; it should be viewed as an administrative procedure and conducted accordingly. Any pell-mell atmosphere will completely destroy impression of calmness which we wish to convey. If during this period need for [Page 59] reprisal should arise, we should execute reprisal, then accelerate evacuation if necessary.)
Remainder of this cable deals with various aspects of retaliation—first, requirement to retaliate within twenty-four hours after event. We are assuming for purposes of this discussion that clock starts at time of verification of facts and nature of event and that occurrence of spectacular actions of kind listed in Tab E Ref B will be accepted as enemy acts without need for formal investigation or proof. These two assumptions are essential to any realistic reprisal policy which includes a twenty-four reaction requirement. It took us about 29 hours to learn full extent of casualties in Brink bombing and to get any confirmation of our immediate conviction that it was VC-conducted. If such an event had occurred in provinces, many more hours would have been required for these purposes.
We are making close analysis of feasibility of twenty-four hour reaction under foregoing assumptions. It is probable that following preliminary measures will have had to be taken in advance of incident to offer any likelihood of being able to retaliate in 24 hours:
Advance Washington approval of attack plans of six to ten possible reprisal targets.
Discussions with PriMin with regard to possible need for his concurrence in reprisal action on very short notice.
General discussions with restricted number of Vietnamese military of possible VNAF/USAF strikes against southern DRV targets with maximum effort to avoid any suggestion of commitment to ACL. It may be necessary to keep certain number of aircraft on alert at Danang with pilots briefed on number of DRV targets in order to meet reaction time requirement. Inevitably, this action would connote strong intention to strike which, if not carried out, would cause us serious difficulties with GVN.
Procedure for flash transmittal to Saigon of Washington authority to execute reprisal.
Even if foregoing preparatory measures are in effect, twenty-four hour requirement may be defeated by time of day or year of incident and by weather conditions at time. Weather is likely to be particularly troublesome and could entail delay of several days. Should wicked be allowed to escape by these fortuities? We will have shortly more specific comments on twenty-four hour problem when our current analysis is completed.
Final comment on retaliation relates to need of Presidential statement mentioned in subpara 2 Ref A. We think that there is much to commend in views of Thais and Souvanna that we should act and then not talk about our actions. More public the challenge we present to DRV more difficult becomes for them and their friends to back down or [Page 60] remain inactive. Without any statement, news will get around fast enough (witness overly rapid dissemination of word on Ban Ken)4 to serve purpose of bucking up our friends. I recognize there is US domestic problem but I would hope it could be met without involving President. If, nevertheless, some US statement is considered essential, I would think it important to preserve thesis that this is Vietnamese war in which we play supporting role and thus that first statement should be made by GVN. Such action would be consistent with operational concept which we prefer of having first bombs dropped by VNAF aircraft. In short, we feel that we should keep Vietnamese in front as we move into reprisals against the DRV and/or Phase II operations.
In summary, we request (a) general approval of the substance of the proposed statement on evacuation, (b) guidance to answer questions of para 4 above, (c) approval of assumptions of para 5 above, and (d) any comments on our discussion of various aspects of the reprisal problem. We will not open discussions with Huong and Vien before receiving reply to (a) and (b).
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Nodis; LOR.
  2. Document 27.
  3. For text, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. I, Document 433.
  4. The attack by U.S. aircraft on January 13 (designated Barrell Roll Nine) on a bridge near Ban Ken, North Vietnam, over which the North Vietnamese Government was supplying its own forces and the Pathet Lao in Laos.