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

4220. For the President. My first action upon returning from Washington was to seek out Prime Minister Quat, General Thieu and General Ky to find out the meaning of the action of the Quat government in returning political power to the military. I presume that you have seen the result of this interview reported in Embtel 4190.2 In essence, a ten-man National Leadership Council initially composed entirely of Generals will oversee the affairs of the government. The chairman and head of state will be General Thieu, who was formerly Minister of Defense, and General Ky, former Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, will become Prime Minister with the long-handled title of “Commissioner in Charge of Directing the Executive Branch”. Ky as de facto Prime Minister will form a Cabinet largely of civilians and present it for approval to the National Leadership Council.

While there are some favorable aspects in this situation, I am disturbed by the selection of General Ky as Prime Minister. While he is a well-motivated, courageous, and patriotic officer who has matured considerably over the past two years, he is completely without the background [Page 14]and experience necessary for an assignment as difficult as this one. The American General officer closest to him describes him as “a proud man and a fine military commander, although a naive, inexperienced politician and civil affairs administrator. I believe he will do his absolute best to succeed in his new position, but he will require a lot of technical assistance, moral support and a normal amount of conscientious understanding.” We will do our best to provide these missing ingredients.3

Second only to the importance of the political situation is the military. As you know, the Viet Cong monsoon offensive is clearly on, marked by another large battle (as Vietnamese battles go) at the district town of Dong Xoai. As in the engagement near Quang Ngai on May 29, the Viet Cong here sought to destroy regular GVN forces and were willing to take heavy losses to accomplish this objective. They succeeded to the extent of about two battalion equivalents of GVN casualties. The performance of the Vietnamese troops in this very hot engagement appears to have been first rate.

It is clear that the primary objective of the Viet Cong is to chew up the regular forces of South Viet-Nam and to cause their attrition to a point where major geographic objectives can be taken and held for considerable periods of time. They are counting upon the habitual reaction of the GVN to come to the aid of remote posts attacked in areas favorable to Viet Cong ambushes. Since GVN forces come by helicopter with limited cargo lift, inevitably they arrive piecemeal on the battlefield and too often suffer heavy casualties upon landing.

As a result, over the past three weeks, the number of GVN ineffective units has risen from two regiments and three battalions to four regiments and nine battalions. Ineffectiveness is caused largely by under-strength conditions resulting from battle losses.

General Westmoreland is thoroughly aware of the problem and is studying new tactics to cope with the Viet Cong. Unfortunately, they are presenting us with two alternatives, both unattractive, either to intervene piecemeal as in the past and take the casualties, or to concede the loss of remote towns difficult to defend. While these towns are not important in terms of population, the effect of abandoning them can have a serious effect on national morale.

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It is unfortunate that the present political instability and the Viet Cong offensive coincide with preparations for the Algiers conference which begins on June 29.4 In anticipation of this meeting, there is no doubt that the Viet Cong will take every action possible to undermine GVN prestige and to bolster the appearance of strength and legitimacy of the Liberation Front.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Nodis. No time of transmission is indicated on the source text; the telegram was received at 10:01 a.m. and passed to the White House. On a copy of this telegram, which was retyped for the President's reading file, there is an indication in the margin that the President saw it. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, NODIS-LOR, Vol. II (A))
  2. Dated June 14. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 15-5 VIET S)
  3. In his diary entry for June 21-27, Ambassador Taylor wrote:

    “General Ky seems to be serious about fulfilling his campaign promises to stir up the country and get it on a war footing. Impetuous as some of his actions have been, they seem to have the honest intent of energizing an apathetic people and creating an atmosphere of urgency where day-to-day routine has been the rule. With his hip-shooting tendencies, Ky is likely to continue to take ill-advised actions from time to time such as his breach of relations with France but it is just possible that he will be able to create a new outlook favorable to getting things done.” (National Defense University, Taylor Papers, Box 52, T-272-69)

  4. The second Afro-Asian conference, originally scheduled for March 1965, after having been postponed several times, was scheduled to meet in Algeria on June 29, but it was ultimately postponed; see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1965, pp. 636-643.