261. Memorandum of Conversation1



New York, September-October 1966


  • Vietnam Conflict


  • U.S.
    • The Secretary
    • William M. Owen
    • Republic of Vietnam
    • Bui Diem, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs
[Page 702]

Deputy Foreign Minister Diem said that Prime Minister Ky had instructed him to come to New York and to present his governmentʼs views to as many delegations as possible. The Secretary noted that it was important that this be done since Diem spoke as an Asian and his views would carry weight amongst the Afro-Asians. The communique issued at the ASPAC Meeting in Seoul2 had also been very helpful in this respect.

Diem said he had also been instructed by Prime Minister Ky to inquire as to the outcome of any discussions the United States had had with Russian and French representatives. The Secretary said that the talks with the French had been of no use whatsoever, since it was quite clear that France accepted no responsibility in Southeast Asia. De Gaulleʼs attitude was that he desired peace regardless of the consequences, which was not the U.S. view. The press had reported that Couve de Murville had tried to draw us out on an eventual peace settlement. The Secretary had told Couve that he would not negotiate this matter with him because Couve could not stop the fighting.3 We have had no indication from Hanoi directly or indirectly that they are interested in a serious approach to peace, so it looks as if the fighting will have to continue for a period of time.

As to the Russian attitude, the Secretary said that their basic view is that if they were acting alone they would be prepared to see the matter settled on the basis of the status quo ante at the 17th Parallel. The problem was that they were attacked by Peking, which accused them of conspiring with the U.S. The Soviet Union is impotent in the face of this bitter attitude from Peking. Russia does not like the fact that we are bombing a fellow socialist country in North Vietnam, but, when we ask the Russians what will happen when we stop bombing them, they have nothing to say on that point. They say they cannot negotiate on this matter because Hanoi has not asked them to do so. They are embarrassed. On the other hand, it would be of some interest to Diem to know that Gromyko did not interpose Vietnam as a barrier to discussion of other subjects with us. This was of some significance because it showed that Vietnam was not an overriding problem with them. Russia was very much concerned about Communist China, where none of us really knew very much about what was happening.

Diem said that he had met with Secretary General U Thant earlier in the day and pointed out to him that the South Vietnamese were more interested [Page 703] than anyone in peace. At the same time, Diem drew U Thantʼs attention to the fact that the Communists have not shown the same desire for peace, whether through the UN or any other channel, and said that fact should be taken into account.

After the discussion of another subject, the Secretary observed that he thought we were coming to a very interesting and critical period because Hanoi must now be coming to realize that they could not succeed by military force. They must therefore decide what consequences would derive from such a situation. Diem recalled the Secretaryʼs visit to Saigon last year and the speculation which it created in Hanoi.

The Secretary expressed the belief that the recent elections in South Vietnam have had a very important international result. If the Constituent Assembly succeeded in working out a constitution and could cooperate with the government on progressive measures, there would be a new chapter in the development of Vietnam because it would be made quite clear to Hanoi that they could not succeed politically in the south, which has been one of their hopes. The military side was also going quite well despite the problems of guerilla warfare. One of the difficult tasks was, of course, to bring as many as possible of the misguided people in the National Liberation Front back into the orbit of the Government of the Republic of Vietnam. Diem agreed, but noted that progress had been made only at a low level. The NLF has a very tight control. Whenever a member of the NLF moves from one area to another, he is very closely scrutinized. Many people have raised the idea of having a government of the NLF, but Hanoi has frankly refused because it is afraid of such a government.

Diem said he had told the African delegations here that it was crystal clear that the conflict was an international problem since North Vietnam was infiltrating personnel into the south and that they should go back north. When they did so, there would be no problem. It was clear from his talks that the various delegations had a common concern for peace. He also felt that there was now a better understanding of the Vietnamese position, although they were not going to say publicly that they understood it.

The Secretary estimated that there were 65–70 governments who very much hoped that the South Vietnamese, the U.S., and their allies would succeed although they did not emphasize the point publicly. About 25 governments, composed of the communist bloc, France, and some others hoped that we would not succeed, while another 15–25 did not want to hear or think about Vietnam. The Secretary did not believe that the situation with respect to these various governments would change very much, but we should not be timid about making them realize that the security of South Vietnam is of great significance to other small countries.

[Page 704]

In reply to Diemʼs query as to what we had heard of a draft resolution on Vietnam at the General Assembly, the Secretary said that there have been reports that a number of countries have been working not on a joint resolution but on a joint statement, but that it appears that only a limited number of countries are interested, including Cambodia, Algeria, Guinea, and two or three others. Apparently it would not be a bilateral but a unilateral initiative. They were not getting much response, but we would watch the matter closely. The Secretary suggested that Diem need not be concerned about the statement.

The Secretary stated that it sounded rather harsh to say so, but the fact was that international opinion was not going to make these decisions as far as the U.S. was concerned, because most of these countries bore no responsibility. He found it rather distressing that those who have treaty commitments are not as solid as they should be: these include France, the UK—which should be doing more than it was—and Pakistan. Otherwise, all SEATO members were taking an active part and bearing responsibilities. Diem stated he did not think the French position was going to change unless De Gaulle left the scene. The Secretary agreed.

The Secretary added a point of clarification which he thought was of some interest. He had pressed Couve very hard to tell him whether his reference to the use of foreign troops in Vietnam included the use of North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam. Couve responded ambiguously that he did not make that point publicly. If he did clarify that point, the Secretary observed, it would help somewhat.

Diem said that while his discussions with other delegations were helpful, he did not have the impression that the Secretary General was really willing to understand the problem. U Thant explains that he is trying to see the problem from a very humanitarian aspect. Diem was very frank with him and told him it was impossible to solve the problem from that viewpoint alone. The Secretary agreed and added that it would not be solved by being humanitarian and getting out of the way, thereby letting North Vietnam overrun South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese would then be able to liquidate the leadership of the non-communist elements in South Vietnam, which was the bulk of the leadership.

Diem said that many delegations had asked if South Vietnam had any concessions to make to the other side. He had told them that they had one shirt and nothing more. They had no territorial ambitions north of the 17th Parallel; they did not wish to destroy any regime; they simply wanted to be left alone. When queried about one of Kyʼs most publicized statements, he was able to explain that the Prime Minister had been speaking in purely defensive terms but that they had no choice but to fight if they were pushed against the wall. The Secretary said that we have no doubt in our own mind that all of the Asian countries outside Peking, Hanoi, and possibly North Korea hope that we succeed in our [Page 705] efforts, although some of them will not say so publicly; for example, India and Pakistan. Even Prince Sihanouk hopes for our success now that he has been made apprehensive by China.

Diem referred to the television statement by Deputy Prime Minister Razak of Malaysia4 in which he was quoted as saying that Malaysia would be sending troops to South Vietnam. The Secretary said that he had heard the program and thought that an ambiguous question and answer had been misrepresented by the press. The question seemed to ask for Malaysian views about sending troops to South Vietnam, which Razak apparently interpreted as referring to the troops which had already been sent there by other countries. He was thinking in general terms and was not thinking of sending Malaysian troops. The Secretary was quite sure that Razak had been misunderstood. Diem said that it was quite amazing because he had understood that the Malaysian position on the subject was still very vague. The Secretary noted, however, that Malaysia was prepared to give political support, as they did at the ASPAC Meeting in Seoul when they joined in the communique. Diem stated that he had been present, and understood that the Malaysians had had a problem with Indonesia and wished to stay on good terms with them until the non-confrontation agreement and withdrawal of troops had been fully implemented.

The Secretary said he thought it very important from the viewpoint of public opinion in the U.S. to let Asians speak for themselves on these matters. Diem said that he had tried to do so during his New York stay by giving the views of his government. Prime Minister Ky had directed that more initiative be taken in this respect, perhaps including the sending of more envoys abroad. If such measures were not taken, there would be an impression that they were only a tool of the big powers.

The Secretary expressed the hope that the Constituent Assembly would move along constructively and smoothly and would build political solidarity which would demonstrate especially to Hanoi that the country was on firm foundations. Diem agreed, saying it was very important that Hanoi realize they would have to negotiate or at least to cease their aggressive actions.

The Secretary inquired whether there was any doubt now amongst the South Vietnamese that the United States meant business, that we were determined to see the matter through. Diem replied that in the government there was no doubt as to U.S. intentions. There was also an understanding of the difficulties faced by the U.S. in the exercise of its world-wide responsibilities and commitments. Nevertheless, sometimes the man in the street in Vietnam was rather vague about the U.S. [Page 706] position, as were people in the provinces. An example could be found in Ambassador Goldbergʼs recent speech. “All of us” agreed with 99 percent of his statement but on one point in which he referred to the “obstacle as not being unsurmountable,”5 there was some misunderstanding even though the government understood it very well. The Secretary noted that the same statement had been made by President Johnson in July 1965.6 Diem said they understood, but some people thought it was really a change in United States policy. They had been told that it was not. Diem asserted that it was a problem of tactical approach.

The Secretary stated that there were two points which Diem might keep in mind if anyone raised this question with him: (1) the 300,000 Americans who were in South Vietnam were not there as tourists, but were fighting; (2) the democratic society of the U.S. was made up of people who wished to do what was necessary provided they understood that there was no honorable alternative. It was, therefore, necessary to tell them that there would be peace now if the other side would make peace. By tradition, if one scratched the skin of an American, one found an isolationist. The change of tradition which had developed in the past 20 years had called for an act of will on the part of the American people. They had suffered 180,000 casualties since World War II in resisting communist aggression around the world, most of the casualties being in Asia. If people looked at what we are doing, they should be persuaded. We have not abandoned anyone, but have kept our treaty commitments. We are not giving South Vietnam away. We have lost 5,000 killed to prevent his country from falling under Hanoiʼs control. The Secretary believed we should all concentrate on getting the job done. He did not know when and how the denouement would come. Diem said he hoped it would not be too far away. We had the initiative now. He hoped we could show the communists convincingly that they could not win. They would then accept the situation. It was a matter of pushing forward very hard, but it would take a certain period of time to do it. In South Vietnam they had suffered from various coups and changes of government which had stimulated the hopes of Hanoi. The Secretary said that if he might be very frank these problems have been our biggest concern in terms of U.S. public opinion. Americans keep asking, “whom have we to support?” Accordingly, if there was real solidarity in South Vietnam, there would be general encouragement and the American people would feel that progress was being made.

[Page 707]

The Secretary said he looked forward to seeing Diem again in Manila and asked him to convey his good wishes to Prime Minister Ky and other South Vietnamese leaders.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Confidential. Approved in S on October 12. The meeting was held at USUN.
  2. The communique was issued following the first Ministerial meeting of the Asian and Pacific Council, June 14–16. For text, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1966, pp. 618–619.
  3. Accounts of Ruskʼs conversations with Couve de Murville concerning Vietnam on October 3 and 4 were transmitted in telegrams 60476 and 62579 to Paris, October 5 and 8. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)
  4. Not further identified.
  5. Reference is to Goldbergʼs statement regarding the role of the National Liberation Front in peace negotiations in his September 22 speech to the U.N. General Assembly; see Document 244.
  6. For text of the Presidentʼs statement on July 28, 1965, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, Book II, p. 803.