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

474. Reference: Department telegram 610 rptd CINCPAC unn.2

Prospect of fresh political instability in Saigon which Gen. Thi’s ambition may represent is merely most recent manifestation of long-term, well-known problem. It is, of course, not related simply to Thi or any other individual. Since early 1963 political instability has been a fact of life here. It does not arise or disappear because of failures or successes against Viet Cong, but it is affected by the way the war goes and changes form accordingly. Were the war to end under acceptable circumstances the problem would not disappear. As the Viet Cong find themselves increasingly frustrated and as Hanoi sees the path to military victory blocked, they may even come to regard the possibility of political chaos and ineffective govt as their best hope for ultimate success and increase their efforts in this sphere accordingly. However, if we were to find ourselves on the threshold of or involved in negotiations with the DRV, they would hope to gain in such negotiations by virtue of political weakness in the south what they could not gain because of combined US-GVN military strength.
The Directorate govt has so far taken the line that there must be a moratorium on political activity until the Communist threat has been dealt with. Such a policy is unrealistic by itself, but when complicated by the possible fragility of the unity of the Directorate, it becomes even more probable that we face the danger of sudden opportunistic political moves and unpredictable political change. It is in this context that the evidence of Thi’s ambition or the maneuvering of Tri Quang must be examined.
Political instability has tended to fluctuate in intensity. Two weeks ago the political pot began to bubble in Hue with mild anti-mobilization demonstrations which developed an anti-government theme.3 [Page 373] But now, due to a variety of factors, the intensity of opposition to the government and the maneuverings of ambitious individuals seem for the moment to have been checked. Moreover, the government’s decision to establish a civilian advisory council (Embtel 737)4 could take some of the political heat off the govt for the immediate future.
The Directorate has been operating in something resembling a political vacuum when it comes to domestic politics, non-military power groupings, and individual ambitions. One of Nguyen Khanh’s essential weaknesses was his failure to deal effectively with non-military political elements and eventually they brought him down. The new advisory council seems able [garble] on part present GVN to cope with such elements.
With these introductory remarks in the broader context the more specific comments requested in reftel can be provided.
Given the personality of I Corps Commander, Brigadier General Nguyen Chanh Thi, it is extremely difficult to predict with precision just how he might try to make his move or even whether he will try. By common consent, among those who have known him well, Thi is an extremely complex individual. Low-born, he has always been quite aware of the poverty of his antecedents. He has had little formal training outside the army. He is acutely sensitive to this lack. His role in the coup manque of November 11, 1960 has been cast into doubt by those who contend that he was a “late starter” who threw in his lot with coup when they seemed on the verge of victory and broke violently with them in exile in Phnom Penh, berating them for involving him in a lost cause. Exile cost him dearly in terms of pride because he was forced to accept handouts and menial jobs from those he considered inferior merely to live. During this period his wife, in Viet-Nam, took up with another officer and left him.
When Thi returned to Viet-Nam following coup of November 1, 1963, he felt that Military Revolutionary Council owed him something in the way of promotion and reward in view of his association with attempt of November 11, 1960 and his long exile. But he was given his old rank and shipped off to I Corps. There he associated himself with Nguyen Khanh who had himself been “late starter” in coup of Nov. 1, 1963. Through his old connections with the airborne brigade, Thi helped Khanh organize the coup of January 30.
In wake of January 30 coup, Thi found himself back in I Corps despite promises by Khanh that he was to be his “right hand man” in Saigon. He was First Division Commander and much later he rose to become Corps Commander.
At various times during past year Thi has played controversial political role in I Corps. One has only to recall embarrassment Khanh suffered at hands of hostile crowd in Hue the day that a Ngo Dinh Can henchman, Phan Quang Dong, was executed. Such an incident could not have transpired without sure foreknowledge permissive attitude Thi’s part. There was also Thi’s “hands off” attitude on Hue demonstrations that led to downfall of Huong. Embarrassment of Thieu during course visit to Hue just after Directorate formed is another case in point.
There is no doubt that Thi has often thought of himself as a potential saviour of his country. These thoughts have probably also been accompanied by grave doubt about his real ability to govern the land. He seems genuinely convinced of his own honesty and his determination to cope with corruption and bad government (according to his own lights).
There seems little doubt Tri Quang and his adherents have felt for some time that Thi was sympathetic and usable. There was a certain identity of interest between them, but at the same time there was also a certain condescension on the part of Tri Quang and company. Probably some of the Hue group of intellectuals around Tri Quang began talking about how Thi could be used. Whatever the means by which he learned of it, Thi appears fully aware of an effort to transform him into a deus ex machina and he resents it.
Articles 10 and 15 of Constitutional Charter promulgated June 195 contain provisions for replacement of President of Directorate and Prime Minister respectively. These articles are concerned with death or incapacity, however, and not orderly succession for other reasons. Either could, of course, be used to cover case where either Thieu or Ky resigned and withdrew. By-laws of Congress of Armed Forces (reported in FVS-11,922)6 are more specific and deal with such subjects as reprimands, no-confidence and replacement by Directorate members. Thus legal machinery does exist for orderly and peaceful transfer of power to Thi assuming all parties are agreeable. Nevertheless it is not a question of legal procedures but more a problem of power groups and power plays that will determine the end result.
In his conversations with Mission officer regarding his destiny, Thi has come down on side of a peaceful and orderly transfer if he is to take power. He has said on one occasion that he would hope that Ky, on becoming aware of his incapacity to lead, would turn to him and say, “I tried, now it’s your turn,” and quietly return to his air force. Such remarks by Thi must be weighed carefully, because they were meant for American consumption with full knowledge of our anxiety that governmental stability be maintained. Given Thi’s mercurial nature, one must [Page 375] conclude that the circumstances of the moment would determine whether he made his play within or outside the framework of the existing government. In any event, were he to assume either Thieu’s position or Ky’s one would have to expect many changes in personnel (Thi has always wanted his own men around him), programs and probably even in fundamental GVN policy.
It is our judgment that Thi would be seriously deficient in either military backing or popular support were he to try and assume power. One can imagine a situation developing within the Directorate itself through which he might be named either Chairman or Prime Minister, but he would face virtually insurmountable difficulties from outset in attempting to allay any broad base support. Your judgment is accurate that there would be sharp reaction within the northern Catholic refugee bloc. In addition, the southern mass would probably find this impossible to stomach. His only assets would probably be in the center and even these are uncertain if he were unwilling to accept guidance from Tri Quang. (Thi and Quang are possessed of personalities which are not dissimilar and potentially antipathetic.)
In view of foregoing, we will continue taking line proposed in Embtel 6717 with Thi and would hope that we can convince him that he can best serve the nation in present role as I Corps Commander and by lending his support to the principle of continued unity within the Directorate. Defense Minister Co has told us that he was sent to Da Nang while Hue protests were going on for the purpose of reaffirming Thi’s support for the government about which certain members of the Directorate were worried. Co claims to have gained Thi’s understanding and that Thi continues to support status quo.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 15 VIET S. Secret; Limdis. Repeated to CINCPAC for POLAD. The source text does not indicate a time of transmission; the telegram was received at 2:51 a.m.
  2. In telegram 610 to Saigon, September 1, the Department of State noted with concern the Embassy’s report that General Thi believed that events in South Vietnam favored his eventual ascension to power. The Department agreed entirely with Lodge’s plan to discourage Thi since it feared that the effects of further political instability in South Vietnam would have serious consequences on U.S. and international public opinion and could only disrupt the war effort against the Viet Cong. The Department asked for the Embassy’s assessment of Thi’s chances and methods of a possible takeover. (Ibid.)
  3. In telegram 724 from Saigon, September 2, the Embassy reported on anti-government student demonstrations in Hue. (Ibid., POL 27 VIET S)
  4. Dated September 3. (Ibid., POL 15 VIET S)
  5. For text, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1965, pp. 880-883.
  6. Not found.
  7. Telegram 671 from Saigon, August 28, contains the report of Thi’s statement to an Embassy official that he would eventually replace the corrupt and inefficient Thieu/Ky government. Lodge suggested, according to the cable, “that continuing exposure to Americans all voicing the same line of the need for stability and unity among the members of the Directorate will eventually convince him that he is not our man on the white horse.” (Department of State, Central Files, POL 15 VIET S)