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

3878. For the President. Abortive coup of May 20–212 has been principal topic of conversation in Saigon this week. In this case, Quat and his senior officials acted promptly on info, part of which we contributed, to arrest about 40 military and civilian officials who were plotting overthrow of his govt. Since round-up, we have been trying to evaluate pattern and political motivation of those involved. Some of plotters had been connected with earlier attempted coup of February 193 and had already been convicted in absentia. Others have Catholic or Northern connections but, on whole, there seems to be no ground for describing movement as being Catholic or regional in its character. Our overall impression is that conspirators are hodge-podge of individuals and small group disaffected for differing reasons but all responsive to string-pulling of perennial troublemaker, Lt. Col. Pham Ngoc Thao. We had warned Quat previously about danger of allowing Thao to remain at large to plot. Now I believe for first time police are sincerely trying to catch him.

This morning (Tuesday, 25 May), Quat finally carried out cabinet changes at which he has been working for several weeks.4 His difficulties in doing so have illustrated delicate balance of relationships holding his govt in place. He may not yet be out of woods as he is still encountering opposition from Chief of State Suu, who up to last minute has been expressing unhappiness at what he feels is Quat’s failure to observe required legal niceties in changing his ministers. New members of cabinet include several southerners who, while not well known, should give greater regional balance to govt and will probably bring greater competence to their several ministries than that of weak officials whom they replace.

Generals added to Quat’s last minute difficulties by repeating past objections to General “Little” Minh even in his reduced role of Chief of [Page 685] Joint General Staff. Quat evidently felt that he is still not strong enough to challenge any important grouping of generals and agreed to sacrifice Minh. His replacement, General Co, is good man but we are likely to miss Minh who was competent professional staff officer of kind not overly abundant in Vietnam.

Viet Cong, while not notably active during week, conducted two successful ambushes of convoys and appeared to be concentrating attention on lines of communication around Saigon. They interrupted road traffic to Dalat, source of much of fruits and vegetables on Saigon market, and sabotaged several towers on transmission line carrying large part of Saigon’s electricity from Danhim hydroelectric complex in Tuyen Duc Province. They can cause us serious trouble if they continue to attack power lines which pass through wild and difficult areas where defense, repair and maintenance of lines are very difficult. If we are looking for reason for retaliatory action against North Vietnamese power plants, we have one in this situation.

After several unsuccessful efforts, we have finally got Quat to agree to sit down with us to discuss factors in eventual political settlement. We are initiating this discussion with him tomorrow along with his FonMin. It may be significant that, in his speech today to Legislative Council, Quat emphasized that GVN must be master of its house in conduct of war and in eventual negotiation of political settlement. While it may be that Quat wished merely to offset anticipated criticism on this score, there is no doubt that he and his ministers are very sensitive to recurring charge that Americans are in control and that Washington is calling shots.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Nodis. No time of transmission is indicated on the source text, but it was received in the Department at 10:24 a.m., and passed to the White House and to the Department of Defense, exclusive for McNamara.
  2. In telegram 3838 from Saigon, May 21, the Embassy reported Quat’s account of the coup attempt. (Ibid.) The Embassy had received prior warning of an impending coup from General Don on May 17. (Airgram A–857 from Saigon, May 18; ibid., POL 23–9 VIET S)
  3. See Documents 141 and 142.
  4. The new cabinet appointments announced by Quat on May 25 included Nguyen Trung Trinh, Minister of Economy; Tran Van Thoan, Minister of Interior; Tran Thanh Hiep, Minister of Labor; Dinh Trinh Chinh, Minister of Information; and Lam Van Tri, Minister of Agricultural Reform.