118. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Rostow) to Secretary of State Rusk and Secretary of Defense McNamara 1


  • Breaking Tri Quangʼs Momentum
We are a nation that cannot use force to shoot people apparently demanding a constitution and free elections; and we cannot support for long governments that do this.
But we can use force to suppress disorder designed to disrupt or pressure a Constituent Assembly, if it is decently representative; and we can support a government that is protecting such an Assembly.
It follows that it may be better to accept a constitutional gathering heavily weighted with provincial and municipal officials, as the Buddhists claim they want, than it is to try first to suppress the disorder in the streets. There is, in any case, no evidence that the present Directorate commands the unity, will, or force capable of achieving the latter result.
This means:
  • —substantial concessions to the Buddhist formula for a constitutional gathering;
  • —maintenance of the unity of the Directorate;
  • —probably—but not necessarily—the replacement of Ky, who has shown guts and some political sensitivity;
  • —then, at the right moment, a countrywide curfew, backed, if necessary, by U.S. forces, to permit the constitutional group to work.
Right now, with the latest Buddhist communique,2 we are faced with a classic revolutionary situation—like Paris in 1789 and St. Petersburg in 1917. What we desperately need is a pause in its violence and momentum. So long as a constitutional gathering is not in place, we can neither achieve that pause nor try, politically, to separate the sheep from the goats.
Tri Quangʼs tactics at the moment seem clear. He smells the indecision of the Directorate and its weakness. He sees the Directorate has managed to place in the hands of his organization the northern regional interests, idealistic students interested in democracy, even a part of the [Page 339] military itself. He is going for the jugular through the tactics of street agitation he knows best. Assuming he is not a VC himself, the VC obviously regard him as as a potential Kerensky.
I see no power capable of stopping, by force alone, the revolution he has organized; the Vietnamese military cannot; and we are immobilized by the nature of our deepest commitments. We are on a road to disaster unless we can get a pause and create a situation where we can bring counterforce and counter politics to bear.
It is evident that Tri Quang and his men—for example, the rector of Hue University (Saigonʼs 3846)3—have some ideas about the tactics they will use in a constitutional gathering. Both Lodge and we are under no illusion that we will be in the clear once the clan can be gathered—if it can be. But itʼs my hunch that Tri Quang will have less leverage and we will have more in those circumstances than either of us now imagine. And, as I say, the alternative is sleep-walking into disaster.
The gut of the issue is to get enough Buddhists into the convention to give the Directorate—and perhaps us—a credible basis for suppressing disorder. To that end, we should be prepared to make compromises that do not leave us without a Directorate. Some deal with Thi may be a critical element.
There is no major literate struggle leader—let alone the VC leadership—who is not now thinking in terms of the Russian revolution: a war-weary people; an unrepresentative government; the beginnings of disintegration in the armed forces; the issue of a constituent assembly; etc. If we are to prove Marxʼs dictum—that “history never repeats itself except as farce”—we have to bring into play the factor in the equation that was not present in Russia in 1917: the presence of U.S. force. (I believe Khoa is right in Saigonʼs 3842 from Thomsen,4 that the VC would have long since taken over Hue if the U.S. Marines were not there.) The problem is for Lodge and Ky to create the political setting in which this factor can be brought into play. The only way I can perceive this can be done is if we take considerable risks in assembling a constituent group and then unite with the Directorate in creating around it an environment of order.
If I rightly remember, the Russian Constituent Assembly gathered in June 1917; in July Leninʼs first coup aborted; in the face of defeat in the field and Kerenskyʼs weakness, Lenin took over in November. This is about what would happen in Saigon if we were not there; but we are there. And right now we have to try to find the ways to make that fact count.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, Warnke Papers, McNaughton Files, McNTN II. Secret. Copies were sent to Vance, U. Alexis Johnson, Helms, McNaughton, William Bundy, Moyers, and Valenti.
  2. Not further identified.
  3. Dated April 9. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, vol. LI)
  4. Dated April 9. (Ibid.)