23. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • General Nguyen Van Thieu, Chairman, National Leadership Council, Viet-Nam
  • Lt. General Pham Xuan Chieu, Secretary General, National Leadership Council
  • Tran Van Do, Foreign Minister
  • Secretary of State Dean Rusk
  • Ambassador Lodge
  • Ambassador Harriman
  • Philip C. Habib

The Secretary said that he brought the greetings of President Johnson to General Thieu. The President was pleased that the Secretary would have the opportunity to meet with General Thieu. Such a meeting provided a valuable opportunity for the President and his colleagues to get General Thieuʼs personal impression of the situation and problems in Viet-Nam. The Secretary asked for General Thieuʼs assessment of the situation and said he was prepared to express his own views.

General Thieu said he would be frank in his comments. He had been following the recent peace offensive closely. At this time he believes the communists have rejected the offer and he expected that they would continue to be stubborn. If the communists do not accept going to the conference table it is because they will never accept appearing guilty before the world. When one looks at their purpose it would appear that they would not like to negotiate at this time but might rather wait until after the rainy season so as to use at the conference table any gains that they make. They continue to infiltrate more and more troops even during truce periods—whether it is the Christmas truce which had just taken place or the Tet truce which will take place. Since the stopping of the bombing in the North, the enemy has benefited by reorganizing in the rear, moving in troops, and reinforcing troops already infiltrated. In Vietnamese opinion if we decide to bomb again, we will have to be more aggressive.

General Thieu said the Government is in difficulty with public opinion on peace moves or meetings with the communists. The Army and the general public have the feeling the GVN has not been kept informed of all [Page 66] measures the USG has taken in the peace offensive. This has made it difficult for the Government. Viet-Nam has the right to conduct war because it is opposing aggression. If they ask for help it is to give more strength to their struggle. If Vietnamese public opinion or VC propaganda look upon the war as one between the U.S. and the VC it would be bad. While welcoming the moves of the U.S., other allies and the Pope, the GVN calls for a common policy. At any time there are proposals for a truce or negotiations or decisions on bombing, the Vietnamese should be consulted.

Secretary Rusk said he would like to make a few general observations. To look at the matter in its most simple aspect, if Hanoi and Peiping continue to push into Southeast Asia we will have two choices: either get out of their way or meet them. We have decided to meet them. This is not simply amiability or philanthropy. It derives from U.S. national interest. We cannot see Southeast Asia seized by the communists. If one looks at the situation locally we have committed substantial forces, with more on the way. We do not know how much more will be required, but communist aggression will be met and will not succeed. Beyond purely local considerations is the world where one billion communists are opposed primarily by 190 million Americans. If the war in Viet-Nam moves into a larger war, it is the U.S. that will have to take it on. Viet-Namʼs resources are occupied in full. The U.S. has the problem of making it clear to one billion communists that they are on the wrong track and cannot succeed. We are interested in dividing the communist world; that is one of the main reasons for the recent move we have taken. While we have not seen the success of these moves there are some signs that the communist world is not solid and this is particularly important when you look at the overall situation. The communists have rejected negotiations. They are afraid that they will not succeed in getting at the table what they have not been able to succeed in getting militarily. They are afraid that they will not be able to get Viet-Nam by negotiations. They are the ones who are afraid to negotiate. We should not be. Unless they are prepared to give up their aggression, they will hesitate to negotiate. We will not negotiate in a way that will impair the independence of Viet-Nam.

The Secretary said that the last three weeks have made it clear the burden for peace lies on Hanoi and Peiping. Throughout the world there is understanding that if peace is to come, Hanoi must change. Neither Viet-Nam nor the United States stands in the way of peace. Even the communist world is subject to international opinion. In 1948 the Soviets brought the Berlin blockade to an end because world opinion went against them. In various crises since 1945, during which the U.S. had suffered 160,000 casualties, we have not given in to the communistsʼ objective to take over people by force. The Secretary cited the cases of Iran, Berlin, Korea and the Cuban Missile crisis. In the post war period, the [Page 67] U.S. has spent $800 billion on peace in aiding nations. The American people will do what is required if they understand that the alternatives have been exhausted. This is important to the President who secures his resources and his men from Congress. American support for the necessary effort is very strong. Viet-Nam need not be concerned about the determination of the U.S. to see it through.

The Secretary commented that there have been elements in the press which have called exaggerated attention to the U.S. effort here. We know the burden Vietnamese forces carry is great. But with U.S. troops here, the U.S. press tends to concentrate on the U.S. effort. This is not to distract from the Vietnamese effort. Ambassador Lodge noted that in President Johnsonʼs State of the Union Message, he made note of the fact that Vietnamese casualties in 1965 were 8 times those of the U.S.

The Secretary said that we will try to keep in close touch with the GVN as the situation develops. There have not been any significant signs from the communist capitals. He agreed with General Thieu that there was no change in the communist intention to pursue their objectives. If Hanoi continues along these lines, it will have to suffer the consequences. Hanoi must stop trying to impose its will on South Viet-Nam by force. That is the essence of the matter; all the rest is decoration on the Christmas tree. The U.S. and Viet-Nam have a common objective and we need to find out how best to get on with the job. The problem of peace is in Hanoi and Peiping; that has been clearly demonstrated to the world.

Governor Harriman said that it would be fair to say that until the peace offensive there had been a feeling that this is a civil war. Now in many countries they recognize the Presidentʼs sincerity and peace has become Hanoiʼs problem. Communist China may find it in its interest to keep the war going, hoping that we will tire and get out. One thing that is important is that there has been no sign that our peace offensive has been taken to be a sign of weakness. Secretary Rusk commented that rather than being taken to be a sign of weakness, the Communists have taken it as an ultimatum. Governor Harriman said we were driving a wedge in the communist world. Countries like Poland and Yugoslavia want peace and donʼt want to see Communist China expand its influence. This is an advantage to our worldwide objectives as well as to Viet-Nam. If Hanoi wants to stop it can; there is no doubt that Eastern Europe would like to see it stop. But Eastern Europeans do not control Hanoi, and Hanoi has given no sign of changing its way.

General Thieu said that all the members of the Leadership Council in the Government are confident of the U.S. determination to support Viet-Nam. He had read President Johnsonʼs State of the Union Message with great interest and this confirmed their understanding. Vietnamese are waiting for the world to condemn the aggression of Communist China and Hanoi. The Vietnamese believe that Hanoi doesnʼt want [Page 68] negotiations, not only because of military reasons but also because they fear their ability to maintain the morale of their people. If they go to the table, they feel they will not be able to maintain their regime in the North or the confidence of the communists in the South. General Thieu thought that when Hanoi finds it no longer has the ability to take over the South, the most logical way would be for them to just quietly stop. Secretary Rusk commented it was a possibility that they would not make peace at a table but would just stop. General Thieu said there were many points of view in South Viet-Nam. In order to maintain morale, the Government would not offer a soft position. When anyone talks about the four points of Hanoi or about the National Liberation Front, this has an effect on morale, and helps those who wish to weaken the Government or those who wish to offer an easier solution. The Vietnamese Government does not doubt the U.S. commitment but it is concerned with the psychological impact of what is going on.

Secretary Rusk said that in a way this is more a problem for us. Quite frankly the world position of South Viet-Nam is weakened when a sense of disunity is shown. We know that there are differences between various elements in Viet-Nam: Buddhists, Catholics, Montagnards and others. But we do know that there is unity in that they all do not want Hanoi. The more one can find fanatical unity in South Viet-Nam, the more will one get support. This sort of fanatical unity of people under attack is important, as has been demonstrated in such places as Berlin and Korea, and anything that can be done to promote it is for the better. General Thieu said that the Government has been trying for seven months to do its best in this regard. The Government is seeking to develop a democratic viewpoint and promote constitutional development in the future. But the basis of unity is a strong national policy. Offers of neutrality or other solutions arise but if the country stays strong it can fight. The position of the Government and the position of its friends must stay strong. Secretary Rusk replied that the Vietnamese people must know that we havenʼt put in 1/4 million troops to run away. The U.S. is not going to abandon Viet-Nam.

Secretary Rusk said he knew President Johnson would be most interested in General Thieuʼs remarks. The President spends an enormous amount of time day and night thinking about Viet-Nam. The Secretary noted that a Communist Foreign Minister at the UN recently told him that the single most important question in the world is to require Peiping to turn to peaceful coexistence. The U.S. has commitments all over Asia: Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Australia. Peace in the Pacific is vital to the U.S. and is in no way second to peace in the Atlantic. We need peace in both oceans. The persistent policy of militancy in Peiping will have to change or they would have to pay the price. They must pull back. Governor Harriman commented that in particular Tito had [Page 69] spoken to him of the danger to peace from Peiping, and the need for a buffer between Communist China and the rest of the world. Governor Harriman has asked Nasser if he wanted to turn over Southeast Asia to Communist China. Nasser has said “Oh, no.” They all want us to stay here to insure peace.

Secretary Rusk said a major disappointment has been that more nations have not helped. The issues have been confused, the nature of the war which involves movement by infiltration, rather than across the 17th parallel with divisions, has caused many people to believe that South Viet-Nam was not a problem. The issue was now more clear. It concerned Hanoiʼs willingness to live in peace with its neighbor.

General Thieu said Vietnamese recall the Geneva Accords of 1954 and 1962. They knew that the Communists would not respect them. The Communists have a war all over Indo China. They are now putting in more troops in Laos. One must think of a concept of defending the entire area. We must not only defend Viet-Nam, we must defend Laos and the whole area with a complete strategy. Secretary Rusk added we would have to include Thailand as well.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, ORG 7 S. Secret; Exdis; Pinta. Prepared by Habib. The meeting was held at the Gia Long Palace in Saigon. A memorandum of Secretary Ruskʼs conversation with Prime Minister Ky on the same day is ibid. On January 16 Rusk and Ky issued a joint communique, which is printed in Department of State Bulletin, January 31, 1966, pp. 155–156. Ruskʼs stopover in Saigon followed his visit to New Delhi January 12–13 to attend Prime Minister Shastriʼs funeral and his meeting in Bangkok on January 14 with senior Thai officials. Rusk met with President Marcos in Manila on January 16 and returned to Washington on January 19.