119. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Consultant (Taylor) to President Johnson1


  • Current Situation in South Viet-Nam
Over the weekend, I reviewed the available information on the current situation in South Viet-Nam and developed the following thoughts which I am passing to you for what they are worth. I am always aware of the danger that an idea derived from cables may look well in Washington but be wide of the actual mark on the ground.

The pertinent facts as known here.

The factors which have dominated the situation from the outset remain the same: the Tri Quang-Tam Chau Buddhist Institute, the Center malcontents in Danang-Hue, General Thi and his friends, and the Viet Cong. These remain the sources of our troubles but we must not forget two other national elements of vast importance though presently quiescent, namely, the Armed Forces and the other minority groups which are watching with intent concern the Buddhist maneuvering.

At this stage, the most impressive fact is that Tri Quang and his associates have united all their resources to pull down the Ky Government and to replace it with one which they can control pending the creation of a constitutional successor equally subservient to Buddhist interests.2 They have formed their own political party for the first time and are in open revolt against Ky and the Directorate under the guise of supporting the “popular demand” for an immediate change to civilian government. With the support of General Thi and the Center malcontents, they are in de facto control of the I Corps area north of Danang and seem to have subverted at least a part of the 1st Division. Any attempt by force to restore government control of this region is likely to result in bloodshed (although there are lots of rabbits among the Vietnamese who will run from force).
Ky has had no success in placating or buying off his enemies. The Buddhists are out to win big and will not be placated by anything short of [Page 341] capitulation—at least, that seems to be their present mood. I do not find evidence in the cables that Ky has made any attempt to contact Thi directly and to find out what his price really is. On his recent visit to Danang last week, Ky talked only to General Chuan and apparently did not try to see Thi.
Ky has shown good judgment in refusing to be rushed into general elections as the Buddhists desire. He knows the risks the country would run in its present state of political unpreparedness and foresees the political turmoil which elections with their attendant factional struggles would generate in South Viet-Nam, probably to the detriment of the conduct of the war.
The Ky Government has not yet used any real force to restore order, hence, its ruggedness as well as that of its opponents remains untested. While Ky has won good marks for prudence, he has appeared vacillating on occasion and has certainly not yet shown himself capable of ordering the “whiff of grapeshot” which may be necessary some day if his government is to survive. He may be influenced (as General Khanh was when challenged by the Buddhists) by a recollection of the American reaction in 1963 to Diemʼs strong actions against these same Buddhists.
We know very little about the attitudes within the Armed Forces toward the current situation. We do not know the degree of unity within the Directorate—how do the Generals view the Buddhist revolt? What about the younger officers? There has always been considerable resentment among them toward the senior generals and present conditions with indiscipline in the air might favor a new “Young Turk” outbreak. (Ky presumably is now regarded as an “Old Turk.”) My point is that we can not take the solid support of the Armed Forces for granted in this resistance to the Tri Quang challenge. We need to take recurrent sensings of military attitudes, using the far-flung U.S. advisor net as a source of on-the-spot reports. I am not aware of use being presently made of this system.
In summary, the Ky Government is in real danger as are American interests. We can not work with anarchy or, in my judgment, with the kind of government which Tri Quang is likely to install. The problem is to restore order in South Viet-Nam under a cooperative government capable of an effective prosecution of the war, while progressing toward a constitutional, freely elected government. The ideal would be an indigenous Vietnamese solution without visible U.S. participation. This does not mean U.S. neutrality toward the issues involved—we have too much at stake. But we can do little in the open other than support the principle of an eventual constitutional government without incurring the charge of intervention and the blame for Vietnamese governmental failures.
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Possible Courses of Action

After considering the facts as known here, I conclude that, acting from the wings and using all available leverage, we must prevent Tri Quang from overthrowing the Directorate (with or without Ky who personally is expendable) and support a conservative, feasible schedule for a transition to constitutional government. In execution of such a program, the GVN (Ky, for the present) should be encouraged to use the necessary force to restore and maintain order, short of attempting to reimpose government rule by bayonets on Danang-Hue which, for the time being, should be merely contained and isolated.
More specifically, the following measures should be considered and those which appeal to you should be referred to Saigon for comment and, in appropriate cases, for subsequent implementation.
With regard to the Buddhists
The government should first make clear what attitude it intends to take toward further political demonstrations and toward the harboring of illegal demonstrators. I am not sure now what the law is but it should be strengthened as need be to meet the current situation, then be thoroughly publicized, and afterwards rigorously enforced. To get strict enforcement, Saigon will have to give clear, specific orders to police and military commanders (something rarely done in the past) and then punish ineffective performance by responsible officers.
If rioters and suspect characters continue to seek sanctuary in the pagodas, after due warning the police should raid them, looking not only for malefactors but also for evidence linking the Buddhists to the Viet Cong. I strongly suspect such evidence would be found.
If Tri Quang, Tam Chau et al. violate the law, they should be arrested and tried.
At home, we are allowing ourselves to be trapped by the unqualified use of the term, “the Buddhists.” Our spokesmen should reiterate that we are confronted by a power grab by a small group of political bonzes who constitute a sort of Tammany Hall which speaks for only a minority of one wing of the Buddhists.
With regard to the Center
If the Center leaders continue to resist, the dissident area should be isolated and brought to terms by withholding various kinds of government assistance. For example, the area of the I Corps could be reduced in size to those provinces north of Danang and all troops, except perhaps the 1st Division, withdrawn south into a special zone created out of the southern part of the I Corps. The command of this zone might be given to be 2nd Division commander who appears to be loyal. There would be Homeric justice in giving the reduced I Corps with its problems to General Thi or to General Nhuan of the 1st Division in order to fix [Page 343] responsibility on them for the security and welfare of the area which they have led into trouble. Then, by controlling troop reinforcements, air support and economic aid, the government could bring increasing pressures to bear on this area. Such a program should, of course, be accompanied by a public explanation of the reasons why the people in the Center are suffering for the misdeeds of their leaders. Meanwhile, in the procedures for setting up a new government, great pains should be taken to give evidence of sincere consideration for the legitimate interests of the Center.
Once the present crisis is settled, we should urge the GVN to change the practice of having military units in the Hue-Danang area composed of officers and men from that region. It is always going to be a center of political unrest and needs to be guarded by military forces without local ties.
With regard to General Thi
I would like to see a final effort made to placate Thi who may be retrievable (whereas Tri Quang is not). The government could also give some assurance to his friends with regard to jobs and physical security. If this effort fails, we might try the proposal contained in subparagraph b above of putting him in charge of the mess in the North.
With regard to the Armed Forces
I should think it very important to get an advisorsʼ report on the attitudes in the principal military units toward this situation. Such a report would probably suggest actions which should be taken with regard to the Armed Forces. I suspect it would show that the troop information provided has not been enough to keep the Armed Forces properly informed and hence properly oriented toward current events.
A few senior American officers should take a similar reading of attitudes within the Directorate.
With regard to the U.S. position
We know that the motives of the United States Government are being misstated and misinterpreted by many elements involved in this struggle. The question is whether we can or should try to say something useful, addressed both to the Vietnamese and to our own public. I would think it desirable to try a draft to see what might be said. Points for possible inclusion are such things as our attitude toward the establishment of constitutional government, our concern over current disorders, our feeling for the heavy responsibility devolving upon the Armed Forces and our confidence in their continued loyalty and devotion to duty. More difficult to decide would be the inclusion of words of warning about the impossibility of our assisting South Viet-Nam in conditions of political chaos and the futility of continuing to introduce additional means if these disorderly conditions continue.
As I said at the outset, the foregoing observations have the fault of being formulated far from the scene of action and without personal [Page 344] contact with the principal actors. The suggestions are moderate because I feel it in my bones that over-reaction at this time either in Washington or Saigon is more dangerous than a continuation of restraint. Hence, I would recommend a prudent use of force within the law against the Buddhists, and an effective isolation of the dissident part of the Center while trying to buy off Thi and urging the military to close ranks. In Washington, we should continue to reject the slogan “take over or get out” which, unfortunately, will gain in advocates if the political situation does not soon stabilize.
Meanwhile, I feel that we should pursue with increased vigor the military campaign on the ground in the south and in the air in the north. If we are suffering a reverse on the political front, we need to seek compensations on the military front.

Maxwell D. Taylor
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Box 260, Gen. Taylor. Secret. Copies were sent to Rusk and McNamara. Attached to the source text is a note indicating that the President told his secretary on April 13: “I want reactions right away. See what they are doing to carry out the suggestions made—as soon as possible.” Unger commented on Taylorʼs memorandum in a memorandum to Rostow, April 15. (Ibid.) Rostow jotted his own reactions on a copy of the memorandum located ibid., vol. LI.
  2. In a 12-page memorandum to Rostow, April 11, which was requested at a White House meeting on April 8, Carver analyzed what South Vietnamʼs Government might look like if the current cirsis ended with a complete Buddhist victory. (Ibid.)