323. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Roche) to President Johnson1

In going over my memos to you on Vietnam, I realize that they have a somewhat disjointed, ad hoc character. Each was addressed to some specific issue, and nowhere have I pulled together the main aspects of the problem as I see them.

Let me try to put the pieces together in coherent fashion. I trust you realize my bluntness implies no disrespect for you or for those involved, I am desperately concerned with the institutional dimension and to the extent that individuals are criticized, it arises from their failure—in my view—to fulfill their institutional obligations.

The heart of my critique involves the character of the American Mission. The Mission is a shambles. The Ambassador does not provide forceful leadership himself but at the same time makes it impossible for his subordinates to act forcefully.

—item: Deputy Ambassador Porter did not want Zorthian as Mission Coordinator for National Reconciliation. Porter is theoretically in charge of operations, but Zorthian was imposed upon him by the Ambassador. This is a bad beginning, particularly since the first man assigned as Coordinator (Double-Deputy Ambassador Koren) was hastily dumped shortly after he held his first briefing.

The Mission is thus stalled at dead-center and policy slippage is appalling: [Page 895]

  • —item: The National Reconciliation program, scheduled for announcement on November 1st, is not yet off the ground and the Vietnamese seem to be pushing it off still further: “General Tri said … he had found a good deal of sentiment for initiating reconciliation campaign at time of promulgation of constitution sometime in March.”—Saigon 11814.2
  • —item: local elections are being pushed off: “we doubt that GVN has any firm idea of election date … so date may come anywhere from March to June 1967.”—Saigon 11763.3
  • —In short, the GVN is welshing on the firm commitments they made to you at Manila. And while the State Department finds this “disturbing” (State 93272),4 nothing can really be done by cable.

Indeed, the Mission seems to think that we are lucky to be as well off as we are. When Tri said, in the best French tradition, that he, of course, supports the launching of the National Reconciliation before Tet, but cannot vouch for Ky and Thieu, the Mission noted soberly:

“We encouraged Tri to maintain this stand, but we should also be aware that any proclamation prior to January 1st would be difficult to obtain in view of these pressures for further postponement.” (Saigon 11814)

—This is the oldest form of political blackmail in the world: “I am on your side, but look at the pressure I am getting from the others.” I have no objection to the Vietnamese trying it out (I have used it myself on occasion), but I do get furious when they consistently get away with it.

Furthermore, the Mission loves to project itself as a few wise men beleaguered by mad utopians in Washington. The Evans columns reflect completely the localism that pervades the top echelons. If they could just be left alone (without constituent assemblies, elections, reconciliation programs, etc.) with their man Ky and a military blank check, everything would be fine.

At the same time, presumably to make the utopians happy, the Ambassador can cable the following sentiments (Saigon 12113)5— to which I have added a running commentary.


“Progress towards a constitutional democracy also makes for stability.”

Comment: This is simply untrue. The introduction of representative institutions into a military government is obviously destabilizing in short run terms.


“Anyone tempted to make a coup must now consider the reaction both here and abroad toward interference with the democratization process. The chances of a coup may be really lessened by the awareness that any frustration of the movement toward constitutional government would be extremely unpopular.”

Comment: The kind of men who make coups are seldom deterred by the knowledge that they will be chastised in the editorial pages of The New York Times, they are not competing in a popularity contest. The one sure deterrent is the knowledge that MACV will not permit a coup.


“Even if there were a coup, it seems actually likely that the coup makers would feel compelled to endorse the assembly and allow it to continue working on the constitution.”

Comment: “Even if there were a coup… “ What comment could be adequate?


At the moment we have a Mission in Saigon which is far closer in viewpoint to Ky than to Washington.
The Mission thus unconsciously (I am not for a second suggesting duplicity) sympathizes with the Ky government and uses Vietnamese “sovereignty” as an excuse for permitting sabotage of United States foreign policy, e.g., the silent death of Kyʼs Manila commitments.
The Mission is beyond control by cable. Implementation of presidential policy, in my judgment, thus requires a new chief of mission who appreciates the fact that the war in Vietnam is not being fought to make the countryside safe for Ky, but rather as part of a diplomatic, political and military confrontation with Communist power, a confrontation with worldwide implications and consequences.

Moreover, in immediate terms, there will be a dangerous gap even in what authority we do exercise over the GVN when Ambassador Lodge leaves for a month about December 12th. No one else in the Mission has been permitted to deal with the top levels of the GVN.

—A number of things will be coming to a head in the next few months. In particular, the GVN has so far refused to compromise with the Constituent Assembly (Saigon 11876)6 and does not seem interested in working out a viable reconciliation. In my opinion, the Assembly has proposed a very reasonable bargain; the Directorate (and the Mission) have simply not responded.

The Directorate could, for example, make the Constituent Assembly very happy by providing that between the time it finishes the Constitution and the establishment of the new constitutional government, the Assembly [Page 897] shall remain in session for “consultative” purposes. This ducks all the juridical issues, gets both sides off the hook, and increases civilian prestige without undermining the status of the Directorate.


At the risk of sounding slightly paranoic, I would even go so far as to suggest that Bill Bundy be left off by Secretary Rusk in Saigon for a month. We are playing for huge stakes in Vietnam and we need a wholesale reform of our civilian team.

Aside from myself, nobody in policy circles in Washington has recently spent any sustained period of time in Saigon. The experts at State suspect me of hysteria, but my guess is that if Bundy spent a month there he would make me sound calm and moderate.7

John P. Roche
  1. Source: Johnson Library, Office of the President File, John Roche. Secret.
  2. Document 316.
  3. Dated November 27. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 18–1 VIET S)
  4. Dated November 29. (Ibid.)
  5. Not found.
  6. Dated November 28. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 15–5 VIET S)
  7. Rocheʼs memorandum is attached to a note that indicates that, upon reading the memorandum on December 4, the President instructed his secretary to have the following message passed to Bill Moyers: “I like this last paragraph, and I donʼt think we can get in a problem with Lodge, and I donʼt want to get in a fight with him right now, but I sure do think it would be good if we could keep Bill Bundy there for a while.” The message was relayed to Moyers by telephone on December 5.