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

3467. For the President from Lodge. Herewith my weekly telegram:

Governmental stability.
From the standpoint of the ability of the Government of Viet-Nam to influence events and promote stability, last week was bad and so is this week.
On the one hand are certain Buddhists who are making impossible and preposterous demands. They actually say they want to change the government and yet are utterly unable to give the names of anyone who would be able to step in and run the government. Tri Quang even says: “Overthrow the government and then elect Ky Prime Minister.” These Buddhists actually say that they want to hold elections now when there is no election law, no suitable election machinery, and when the country is evidently totally unready.
This Buddhist attitude undoubtedly reflects Communist advice, subtly planted among Buddhist priests, who think themselves very clever but who actually are lacking in knowledge of the world. They have all been told time and again by me personally and by other Embassy officers that to follow the course which they suggest would look crazy to Americans. But they are so parochial and so limited in their outlook that it apparently leaves them indifferent.
Now we have the beginning of an anti-American flavor in Hue, with widely untrue and improbable charges being made, which I am certain reflects Communist activity among the students.
If I were required to prove what I said about Communist influence, I could not do it. But the logic of the situation drives me to that conclusion.
So much for the Buddhists. Now, what about the government?
The Buddhists have in effect infiltrated the government in many posts. The government radio is publicizing Buddhist meetings, and government broadcasts are actually stimulating opposition to the government. I worry lest the Directorate may be coming apart.
And what about Prime Minister Ky? He stayed too long in Dalat, and it is absolutely impossible for a Vietnamese political leader to influence events when he is in Dalat. I was content for him to go up there for Saturday and Sunday because I believed his stomach was giving him trouble, but I hoped he would get back Sunday night. I heard that over the weekend the Minister of Youth, Mr. Trieu, who is a close personal friend, berated him so harshly in Dalat that Mrs. Ky left the room.
It is ironic that many Vietnamese are saying the U.S. should “fix things up” without ever saying how, it being absolutely certain that if we tried to impose anything there would be first an “anti-colonialist” howl from those with whom we differed and ultimately a howl from everybody.
I do not, therefore, think that what is happening now will mean the end of the world, or anything like it. But I wish to heaven that it wasnʼt happening.
One reason Hanoi thinks it can win, I believe is because it knows the fragility of the government structure here. They are counting on this to weaken American enthusiasm. They realize that the average American at home cannot possibly understand the social structure in Viet-Nam and the lack of a tradition of national government in this country, even though there is a strong sense of peoplehood and a strong and courageous desire not to be a victim of aggression. This governmental fragility is what Hanoi is depending on, and if I were advising them, I would advise them to do just what they are doing to encourage the natural divisiveness in South Viet-Nam.
We are at the stage here when everything you try to grab is like quicksilver. Moreover, as the Buddhists go further, the chances of Catholics and Southerners (Cochinchinese) getting going increases and instead of the delicate balance we have had for 8 months, the scales will start wildly clashing up and down.
So now I find myself thinking the same thoughts that I was thinking in October 1963, that is: “What can be done without a civil government?” I think it is clear that military operations could go on for quite a [Page 297] while but everything which requires forward planning, such as “revolutionary development”, would start grinding down. But also everything else today is so much better than it was in 1963 that there is scarcely any comparison.
I still strongly hope that this government will not fall, and all of us here are leaving no stone unturned to do whatever we can.
Public attitudes.
As far as the general public is concerned, it appeared interested in but not worried about the dismissal of Thi. In the southern delta there appears to be little interest in the maneuverings by the Buddhists and by various center Viet-Nam personalities. Even in the Hue-Danang area there appears as yet to have been no genuine popular interest in the strikes, meetings and speeches of the past week which have been the work of individual Thi partisans, students and certain politicians interested in stirring things up for their own purposes.
Among influential middle and upper class Vietnamese there are both optimistic and pessimistic views. The optimists believe that the agitation in the wake of Thiʼs dismissal will blow over after a certain amount of jockeying for position among the Buddhists and the Generals. The pessimists, most of whom are journalists or intellectuals fear that the agitation may drag on for several months with unfavorable effects on government stability.
All parties seem agreed that if the government maintains the initiative in moving towards a more representative base and avoids making a martyr of anyone, the Vietnamese public attitude will not change appreciably.
Port congestion in Saigon became worse during the first half of March. Slowness in moving goods on the part of both importers and customs officials seems to be the explanation. We are giving this question our urgent attention to see what can be done to get things moving.
At the same time applications for new import licenses dropped sharply, reflecting uncertainty in the Chinese business community after the execution of a leading Chinese businessman for economic crimes and uneasiness about increased police visits to business firms.
The overall level of retail prices in Saigon remained unchanged. The piastre price of dollars declined somewhat while the price of gold rose, slightly indicating some uncertainty among dealers about the GVNʼs economic policy.
The rice situation improved relatively during the first half of March with deliveries from the delta up slightly, prices declining and stock levels comparatively high.
Large unit operations by friendly forces decreased slightly during the week but the number of large unit contacts increased reflecting some increase in incidents initiated by the Viet Cong.
Killing—and saving—civilians.2
I understand Congressional committees are exercised about U.S. killing of civilians in Viet-Nam3 and I make the following comment which may be useful:
There is a moral difference between accidentally killing civilians, as we and GVN sometimes inevitably do, and deliberately and cold-bloodedly killing civilians as the Viet Cong do through terrorism, torture and murder, shamelessly acknowledged as an instrument of military policy.
It is hard here in Saigon to understand why there is so much distress in the United States about accidental killings by our side, and apparently so little indignation about the fact that every time an American is killed here in Saigon about 20 or 30 innocent Vietnamese women and children go down with him.
Innocent civilians have always been killed in wars. I can remember a number in World War II. It is always an accident. But instances are all too common here of a Viet Cong who was apprehended with a large load of explosives and who said, when asked, that he realized perfectly well that many innocent civilians would be killed, but that it was part of the doctrine to do this. In fact, without torture and murder of civilians, Viet Cong recruiting would shrink to an insignificant dribble.
I realize it is quite impossible to get figures on the number of Vietnamese who have been terrorized by the Viet Cong, and this is perhaps one reason why the press doesnʼt talk about it or print photographs of it, as it always so eagerly does whenever we have an accident.
But another reason may be found in the following thought: in World War II there was no hue and cry about accidental U.S. killings of civilians because at that time the extraordinary Communist propaganda machine aimed at non-Communist opinion, which is emerging today as just about the most successful Communist activity, was not working against us.
Under Communist practice classic international law does not apply since there are no Communist “civilians.” Everyone is supposed to be either “fish” or “water.” This would not, of course, apply to the killing of non-Communist civilians, of which there is undoubtedly some.
If Congress wishes to compute civilians killed by Americans, should they not also list civilians whose lives have been saved by Americans? I refer to Dr. Humphreyʼs program, which is a great American success story and a direct personal accomplishment of yours.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Nodis. The source text does not indicate the time of transmission; the telegram was received at 11:05 a.m. and passed to the White House.
  2. Telegram 2749, a State-AID-Defense message to Saigon, March 17, noted “increasing Congressional interest and concern here” in the question of civilian casualties and indicated “a need for more complete figures which can be used by all agencies here and in SVN in response to queries.” (Ibid.)
  3. Lodge provided a much fuller discussion of civilian casualties in telegram 3594 from Saigon, March 30, approved by COMUSMACV, USAID, JUSPAO, and the Embassy. (Ibid.)