105. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State 1

3589. For the President from Lodge. Herewith my weekly telegram:

Current crisis.
The delicate balance which has prevailed for nine months having been disturbed, the government now finds itself caught between two dangerous alternatives:
To restore order too soon, and too forcefully, thereby creating opportunities for Communist agents-provocateurs, for incidents, for bloodshed, and for the creation of martyrs. This is what the Diem government did three years ago with results which are well remembered.
The other danger is that they wait too long, that as time goes by, the “struggle” forces, which I believe to be subtly but effectively influenced and utilized by the Communists, get more and more boistrous so that the more time goes by, the greater the danger of agents-provocateurs, incidents, bloodshed, and martyrs.
It is hard for me to conceive that another week can go safely by in Central Viet-Nam with the government doing nothing to restore order. I said this to the GVN, notably to Foreign Minister Tran Van Do, at a recent dinner. He was very solemn, but quickly added that he was optimistic, and that he thought that in “two or three weeks” the Saigon Buddhists and government would get together on a scheme to move toward constitutional democracy.
Frankly, this seems to me to be the merest figment of the imagination. The Buddhist clergy hardly ever gives its word, and when it does, it doesnʼt feel obliged to keep it. To make the restoration of order in Hue-Danang dependent on this will-o-the-wisp is to me fantastic.
At this same dinner, I told Tran Van Do that I was specifically worried about the U.S. Marines in Hue-Danang, if the government continued the policy of not taking effective measures to restore order. I sense that my remark led to a call from Ky to me the next day in which he asked me to come in and assured me that he was definitely determined to take all the necessary steps to protect the U.S. troops from any kind of mob violence.
If one omits the very fallacious estimates which Ky and Thieu both made regarding the reaction to the relief of General Thi, it must be said [Page 307] that, since then, Ky has said many right things and said them quite well, as regards: moving toward constitutional democracy, restoring law and order, dividing the Buddhists, and uniting the Directorate. He is thinking hard and seems to be thinking straight. He also maintains his poise and appears to be in good health.
But to me, as a typically impatient American who naturally wants action, most of the things he says come about a week too late. He seldom gives dates or specifications. Also, one always wonders whenever a Vietnamese says something intelligent and true, whether he is in any way able to do anything about it. One must, to be sure, concede the dangers of moving too fast and he is, as he says, following the advice of Confucius “first to try protocol (negotiations) and then to use force”. (Incidentally, this is his second reference to Confucius.) Maybe his timing is right, although I believe strength tends to beget strength and that he has lost precious time. But Iʼm glad to have gotten this promise out of him as regards our Marines—and I impressed him with the vital necessity of moving quickly and sure-footedly when the time comes to move.
I, therefore, think the situation is precarious and, although there are a few hopeful signs, I fear serious developments unless the government moves in to restore order.
While there is a non-Communist element in all this, brought by the envy which the “outs” feel for the “ins” and by their reckless selfishness, there is no doubt that the Communists have subtly taken advantage of the “struggle”. There is also a believable report of French trouble-making and Communist collaboration. Having been hurt on the field of battle, seeing the Chieu Hoi rate going so much against them, and observing the promising beginnings as regards revolutionary development, they are trying out their political arm.
Buddhist (and presumable VC) agitators have tried—unsuccessfully so far—to start trouble in Saigon. They will surely keep trying despite some signs that Buddhist moderates such as Tam Chau are exerting a dampening influence. It is vital to keep Saigon and the South calm. If the pot boils up there, the gravity of the governmentʼs position will increase immeasurably.
The government has decided to move toward the “speeded up” establishment of a constitutional preparatory council (the precise name not yet decided). At a meeting of the Directorate on March 25, it was agreed this body would be composed of one representative from each of the 43 provincial and municipal councils, with an equal number of members selected from religious and social organizations. In addition there would be a small group of lawyers to act as a secretariat to the council.
By seeking to settle the national political uncertainties the government hopes to strengthen its hand in dealing with local disturbances. By seeking to separate the Tam Chau and Tri Quang factions the government [Page 308] hopes to make its task of dealing with Buddhist agitation easier. By enlisting support of other political elements, government hopes to limit extent to which it cedes its authority to Buddhists. Finally, by establishing acceptable national council with firmer schedule for return to civil government, authorities hope to neutralize those demanding immediate civil government, and to take away what has become the rallying cry of the agitators. The preservation of the form of the present government would then become easier, allowing some sense of national unity to be evident, and providing a transition period in which the job of governing could be pursued with some measure of continuity and efficiency. These are the optimistic objectives. Difficulties are obvious, and the weakening of government authority over the past weeks has increased the seriousness of the problem and lessened the chances of success.
All of the above must be a real shot in the arm to Hanoi who, according to reports, have been badly hurt and urgently needed this evidence of the “inner contradictions of capitalism.”
I do my best to see to it that every contact we have and every bit of influence which we possess is being brought to bear as rapidly and as effectively as possible. Sam Wilson has returned from Hue-Danang and I believe every possible preparation has been made for the safety of the American community.
Saigon retail prices, according to the USAID index, were about 4 percent lower than for the preceding month. Piastre prices for dollars and military payment certificates fell while gold prices rose, continuing the trend begun last week. The Minister of Economy announced an increase in government buying prices for Delta rice—so as to attract more rice from the Delta by paying a higher price for rice sold to the government and by reducing the fears and hesitancy among the merchants who would otherwise be selling on the open market at higher than official prices.
The tempo of war increased during the week as allied large unit operations reached a peak and Viet Cong fired on Phan Thiet and Dalat airfields with mortars and carried out a daring raid on an American training center escaping with a tank.
Chieu Hoi.
The returnee figures for the month of March are running more than 10 percent higher than those in the record month of February. As of March 18, with 14 provinces yet to be heard from, the returnees figure stood at 1,401. This compares with total all-province figures of 817 and 1,402 for January 18 and February 18, respectively.
Reactions to Americans.

The newspaper Tieng Vang has this say about American misbehavior here and Senatorial behavior at home:

“Americans and Viet-Nam.

“The presence of the U.S. is necessary in Viet-Nam, but the U.S. authoritiesʼ carelessness has provoked regrettable misunderstanding.

“The U.S. authorities have overlooked the possible effects of the possible daily conflicts between foreign soldiers and the population of a country attached to its sovereignty.

“Luckily the U.S. authorities have awakened to the reality and the recent press conference held by the American captain, it seems, has succeeded in clearing most of the city populationʼs misunderstandings, which have not been wholly due to the soldiers in Viet-Nam.

“It must be recognized that the defeatist attitude of some U.S. officials showing disrespect for the sovereignty of Viet-Nam has made smaller discontentments caused by price escalation, house and transportation shortage become bigger.

“The Vietnamese people, already displeased with higher prices, traffic detours, snack bars mushrooming everywhere, cannot help being discontent with Mr. Bob Kennedyʼs advocating a coalition government.

“Coalition or no coalition the problem could not be settled by Mr. R. Kennedy. Recently Mr. R. Kennedy has even gone further into his violation of Viet-Namʼs sovereignty in negotiating with the VC exchanging the terrorist Nguyen Van Hai with a relative of his, Mr. Gustav Hertz.

“Such a queer attitude of Mr. Kennedy suffices to make the misunderstanding deeper from day to day, and even a daily press conference could not prevent the misunderstanding from deepening.”

  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 8:22 a.m. and passed to the White House.