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

4312. Prospects for new GVN.


The new GVN which was launched on June 19 has made a fresh start with regard to the organization of political institutions, but it faces the same basic divisions of Vietnamese society which have proved the undoing of four previous governments. This message presents the Mission Council views of the assets and liabilities of the new government as well as its immediate prospects.

On the positive side, the GVN begins its tenure with the following assets:

In breaking with past, GVN has eliminated not only older political institutions, but also the pressure groups which had grown up around them have been cut adrift, at least for the moment. Conspicuous example of this advantage is removal from scene of Phan Khac Suu and his entourage from a strong position of influence.
Military has accepted full responsibility for government although not excluding civilians from sizeable participation. Army represents country's principal base of power, and its engagement in political control and responsibility responds to reality of situation. Despite numerous changes of membership, organization of top Generals—as an entity—has maintained a high degree of unity and has been body of ultimate decision in Vietnam, providing country with its most important single institution of national cohesion since downfall of Diem regime. At least for the present, top Generals appear to retain this communal unity. Strength which this brings to government will make it somewhat more difficult for opposition groups to successfully attack government.
Desire for “revolutionary” government has been widely expressed especially among younger Generals and junior officers, bureaucrats and university youth. The program of action which GVN has announced should initially elicit support from such individuals and groups. Whether this support is retained will depend upon performance.[Page 24]As noted in septel,2 however, program of action strikes at interests of many powerful special groups, majority of whom will not view happily the prospect of being organized for greater service.
Cabinet is composed for most part of competent technicians, for the most part young, and in many cases dynamic. For example, the economic wing is in our judgment the most capable, experienced and highly motivated group to have served since November 1963 coup. Southerners are more widely represented in this cabinet than they were in the Huong and Quat governments, which may relieve some of sudiste sense of grievance.
Apostolic Delegate Palmas appears ready to play more active role in working to prevent Catholic involvement in civil disorders. This could make major contribution to easing political life for new government.
The new government has indicated its intention to act strongly and this no-nonsense attitude may also smooth its political way. If fears of military dictatorship do not rise above threshold point, reluctance of discontented individuals and groups to tangle with determined military leadership will be factor working to dissuade public disturbances.

On negative side, government starts with following liabilities:

A potential opposition grouping lies in the recent temporary alliance of Catholics with southern regionalists. This coalition might tend to regard present GVN as being in a sense Quat's spiritual heirs. One of major roots of Catholic enmity towards Quat had been belief that he was in league with leaders of central faction of UBA (Tri Quang-Thien Minh) and was consolidating his power through backing of coalition of Generals and police officials whose hostility towards Catholics they believed was clear. If it now appears to them that after Quat's removal, coalition behind him has moved to forefront of government, their discontent will continue. Some priests have in fact already made this interpretation. As yet, however, there are points that remain unclear about the new GVN, such for example as the precise position and conduct of Police Director Pham Van Lieu, whom Catholics regarded as important member of Thi-Ky coalition and whom they regarded as especially hostile to themselves. Furthermore, more active role by Apostolic Delegate as well as reluctance of such leaders as Father Hoang Quynh to see his people engage in confrontation with army itself are important moderating factors. Nevertheless, state of feeling against Ky personally and against new military government in general is high amongst Catholic extremists at this point.

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Attitude of sudistes not yet so clear. They are more prominently represented in present government than they were under Quat, including such key posts as Defense and Interior. This may remove some of edge from their feeling, although many will undoubtedly continue to resent large number of “carpetbaggers” who remain in positions of great power over them. However, still true that sudistes remain poorly organized and lack means (such as Phan Khac Suu as Chief of State) for bringing pressures to focus, although many of “politicians” among them would of course serve to swell ranks of opposition, if leadership were provided from somewhere else (for example, by Catholics). Furthermore political scene is clouded by extent to which Saigon intellectuals continue to enjoy conspicuous—and unmerited—influence. For these men as class, opposition politics is traditional—unless they should happen to find selves on inside of government—and political intrigue and maneuver are more important to them than war.

To existing nucleus of opposition, new GVN may add other key groups if it presses its program of action vigorously. Such groups might include businessmen, some students and other youth, the wealthy, and possibly higher-level civil servants (see septel).

Organization of government especially at echelon involving senior Generals may well bog down in a structure of interlocking committees resulting in a diffusion of authority and responsibility.
If attempt is made to press 26-point program of action vigorously, not only will key groups be alienated, but there is real danger of serious administrative and economic dislocations. There is a finite limit on the number of programs which can be implemented simultaneously.
Although they have possessed the ultimate power of decision in Vietnam since downfall of Diem regime, senior military men have not proven their capacity to govern more effectively than civilians. In facing immediate problems of country, skill and finesse in governing will be at premium.
Abilities of Nguyen Cao Ky at this juncture are in question. He has created image of brash, courageous young officer, who has led squadrons on attack missions and who was apparently willing to employ air force against city of Saigon if necessary to break coup attempts. He will have difficult task in changing this image, which he will have to do if he is to acquire stature which Vietnamese people as whole will desire to see in their national leader. He clearly lacks experience in art of government, and until now has had no opportunity to demonstrate whether or not he possesses the qualities needed to make a good Prime Minister. His rise in the military does suggest that he possesses decisiveness and leadership abilities, both of which qualities are among the pre-requisites for being an effective PM. However, he was considered by his principal MACV advisor as a poor administrator. Furthermore, it [Page 26]should be noted that Ky's role, while obviously very important can still be overstated since it appears likely that Generals will continue to watch and moderate his actions as needed. This control may safeguard but it also may retard, depending on how it is applied.
By very fact of engaging itself so directly in responsibility of government, club of top Generals adds to divisive pressures playing upon it. As noted earlier, unity of this group as an entity has been a major factor in preserving unity of nation. Adding another element to centrifugal forces at work, is fact that grouping of central Buddhists has begun to zero in on General Thieu. Tri Quang as well as Thien Minh apparently intend to hold their fire, at least temporarily, probably because they do not wish to add to problems of government with which they are in sympathy. However, if things should go badly for Ky government, there is excellent chance that they would flex their muscles in center to make clear that they remain force to be reckoned with.
In addition to whole range of other problems, GVN must at same time face major military threat represented by VC monsoon offensive, perhaps supported by PAVN elements.
Prospects for new GVN. The range of problems confronting this government are formidable in number as well as in depth and complexity. Most important single factor in its success or failure will be degree of administrative and political skill which new government brings to bear in managing these problems. It is as yet too early to assess this element.

The problems themselves are formidable. Opposition to previous governments has often been based less on what these governments have actually done than on fears (usually ill-founded) of religious and regional groupings as to what that government might do in future. These basic religious and regional antagonisms and divisions remain unchanged and constitute facts of life for this GVN as for any other. At present, as noted in foregoing, this government starts with Catholics predisposed against, UBA in favor (though opposed to Thieu); Sudistes probably against anything but pure Sudiste government, Centristes (following Tri Quang) in favor; Saigon politicians against (as they are against any government that excludes them from power). Because there are numerous uncertainties to present situation, there will probably be at least some period of time during which a wait-and-see attitude is adopted and during which certain of these predispositions may be hardened or possibly modified. If prosecution of war proceeds vigorously and effectively, this would mollify Catholic attitude, and would impress Buddhists also.

Nonetheless, despite the inherent hazards that confront all governments in South Vietnam, and the strengths and weaknesses of this particular government, both of which have just been enumerated above, the present government is likely to be as good as can be reasonably expected [Page 27]at this juncture. At a time of increasing Viet Cong pressures, it also appears probable to us that the Generals are less likely than any purely civilian government to panic and abandon the war effort in favor of negotiations and neutralism. Accordingly, it will serve our best interests to strengthen, support and endorse this government.

Summary: Four factors stand out as probably of determining importance to future of Ky government, apart of course from military operations. These are (1) extent to which the military remain unified and in support of Ky and his Cabinet and policies, (2) whether Ky can erase present image of bravado and shallowness and develop as leader of stature, (3) degree to which GVN can implement selected program having real importance to people, and (4) extent to which government succeeds in handling opposition groupings.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 15 VIET S. Secret; Priority. Received at 8:35 a.m. and repeated to Algiers, Bangkok, Bonn, Canberra, Djakarta, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, London, Manila, New Delhi, Paris, Rangoon, Rome, Seoul, Tokyo, Vientiane, Wellington, CINCPAC for POLAD, and Hue. Passed to the White House, DOD, and CIA.
  2. Presumably a reference to telegram 4311 from Saigon, June 21, in which Taylor analyzed the government's new 26-point program. (Ibid., POL 27 VIET S)