108. Memorandum From Secretary of State Rusk to President Johnson1

SUBJECT

  • Political Situation in South Viet-Nam
1.
The April 2 reports2 further reinforce the picture that Hue and Da Nang are now virtually out of control and that the themes of the so-called “struggle” movement are spreading to other areas in a significant fashion. In addition to the Buddhist- backed “struggle” group, the important Cau Dai sect has now said that the present government is “illegal”. Catholic discontent is also evident and would probably become acute if the government made special concessions to the Buddhists. The only bright spots are that Saigon has remained under control and that Ky and the government apparently have considerable latent support in the southern part of South Viet-Nam and to some degree in the central areas.
2.
So far the government has been operating by trying to make minimum concessions on the political timetable for a constitution and elections, in an effort to separate the moderate groups from the more extreme Buddhists and students. A meeting with the moderate Buddhists on March 31 was supposed to produce an agreed communique that would solidify moderate sentiment. However, the resulting communique was extremely general and bland and seems most unlikely to have achieved this effect.
3.
Meanwhile, the government has held off in applying force to restore order, and the situation has reached the point, in Hue and Da Nang at least, where it is absolutely clear that local police and military forces would not take orders and the introduction of special marine forces from Saigon—which was the governmentʼs plan in the middle of the week—has become known to the “struggle” group and would now almost certainly produce drastic bloodshed if applied. The most recent reports from Hue and Da Nang indicate that the police, civil servants, [Page 315] and large elements of the local 1st Division are in total sympathy with the “struggle” group.3 Anti-American themes have been increasing, and local civilian employees of US installations in that area have started to leave.
4.
What can the government do? The following are at least headings for possible actions:
a.
A more explicit political program. We do not believe the government could or should promise immediate elections or give the Buddhists a predominant role in constitution-making that they are seeking. But there is one immediate move that would not involve such unwise concessions, namely the appointment in the next 2–3 days of a constitution-drafting body. Thieu and Ky have talked of doing this by April 10, and Lodge has already told them that they must make it much sooner. We last night cabled Saigon (outgoing 2939 attached)4 asking whether a Presidential or high-level message from here would be helpful.
b.
A deal with Thieu. However, now that the “struggle” group so clearly has the bit in its teeth, it seems most unlikely that even such a political move would in itself bring them to accept government control again. The “struggle” group seems to be imbued with ideas of “neutralization” and reducing the US role “though not asking us to get out as of now.” These ideas are plainly unacceptable and we could not support any government gestures in these directions. However, there remains the significant element of local “central Viet-Nam” sentiment which has for a long time felt that the Annam area (Hue and Da Nang) was inadequately represented in the government. Thi was the symbol of this local representation, and his dismissal added this major element to the broader political and corruption grievances on which Tri Quang and the “struggle” group are capitalizing. At this point, we know of no leaders from this area who could be brought into the government except for bringing back Thi himself. While Thi is probably playing for the top spot—which would set off its own train of opposition from other elements notably the Catholics—it is just possible that some deal could be made that would give him a major Saigon role and at least partially satisfy the need for representation from central Viet-Nam. This morningʼs report that Chieu, the governmentʼs emissary to Thi, has been allowed to return to Saigon may indicate that some deal is in the making. We should certainly lend our weight to doing it.
c.
A new I Corps Commander acceptable to the Buddhists. Plainly, the Directoryʼs first choice is not able to control the situation. A new man is needed with such prestige as to be acceptable to the Buddhists and yet at the same time with as little risk as possible of again making I Corps a separate warlord area. Such a man might be found in General Minh, the leader of the post-Diem government, who is now in Bangkok. It would be a tremendous gesture for the Directory to bring him back, and he might come in response to this need.
d.
Controlling other areas. So far, the “struggle” movement has made only moderate headway in a few other cities. This must be brought under control by judicious granting of lesser demands combined with clear capacity to use force. The government seems to be doing this reasonably well in Pleiku and Dalat. We need to impress this point on them.
e.
A face-lifting for the Directory. Both Thieu and Ky have lost tremendous prestige during the crisis, but Ky probably the most. The replacement of the Directory as a whole would be a tremendous loss in every respect, but some face-lifting might be possible in two directions. First, Ky might step down as Prime Minister and be replaced by someone such as Chieu, who is reasonably astute and has handled his visit to Hue well. Second, to meet the demand for a civilian role, one or more senior civilians might be brought into the Cabinet, and some defined relationship provided between the Directory and the Cabinet. This would both meet the Buddhist demand as far as it is now practicable to do so, and this would help the somewhat demoralized state of the civilian Ministers evident for some time and apparently virtually amounting to a complete loss of confidence as a result of the crisis.
5.
The above would be a prescription that we might now urge forcefully on the GVN, perhaps in the form of a Presidential message. We suggested this possibility in last nightʼs cable, but have as yet had no reply. However, it must be faced that the situation has deteriorated to the point where even this program, applied immediately, would have no assurance of success. The plain fact is that Thieu and Ky have been drastically weakened by their inability to cope with the crisis, and we must still be prepared for the worst, namely a complete change of government.

We have had no real exchange with Lodge on the subject of possible alternatives, and the only one that occurs to us as having any possibility of success would be the possible return of some such figure as General Minh, who is military but also commands a wide civilian following. From here, we do not see any civilian, nor do we believe that Thi could be installed without setting off drastic counteraction from other elements such as the Catholics. However, it is time we started exchanging views with Lodge on the “least bad” possible alternative.

Dean Rusk5
  1. Source: Department of State, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, WPB Chron. Secret; Exdis. The first page of the source text bears the notation, in Ruskʼs handwriting, “not used, except orally, DR. “An unsigned copy of the memorandum, without Ruskʼs notation but marked “WPB Chron,” is in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, vol. L.
  2. CIA analyses of the political situation in Vietnam at the beginning of April include a memorandum on “Struggle Groups in I Corps,” April 1, prepared by the Office of Current Intelligence, and a 14-page memorandum on “The Political Situation in South Vietnam: The Current Crisis, Possible Future Developments, U.S. Options,” April 2, prepared by George Carver. (Ibid.)
  3. A CIA field appraisal of the situation in Hue as of April 3 reported: “Governmental authority for keeping law and order in Hue collapsed this week. “Participants in local demonstrations included “virtually all police,” significantly increased numbers of Vietnamese military personnel, and about 1,000 of the 5,000 civil servants ([document number not declassified], April 4; Central Intelligence Agency, EA/DDO Files, 137–9–23, Job 85–00392R)
  4. Dated April 1; not attached. A copy is in Department of State, Central Files, POL 23–8 VIET S.
  5. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.