99. Intelligence Note From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to Secretary of State Rusk 1

No. 174


  • GVN-Buddhist Confrontation Hardening But Compromise Seems Possible

Latent Buddhist opposition in South Vietnam has quickly developed into an open confrontation with the Ky-Thieu leadership unprecedented since the Huong government crisis in late 1964. Both the government and the Buddhists remain inflexible and appear prepared to test their strength in a showdown.

Demonstrations Widening. The small rallies by Buddhists, students, and military personnel in Danang on March 11 prompted by General Thiʼs dismissal have widened to sizeable demonstrations in Hue and elsewhere, accompanied by strikes and school shutdowns. Public protests, though still orderly, have now spread to Saigon, the first in the capital area since those directed against the Huong government in January 1965. However, almost from the outset, the demonstrations have clearly focussed more on demands for national elections and return to civilian government than on Thiʼs fate.

Buddhist Leadership Firmly Committed. It is uncertain how involved Buddhist leaders were in the initial demonstrations. However, the official Buddhist communique,2 announced by Thich Tam Chau on March 12, placed the Buddhist hierarchy on record against the government in the current crisis. The communique demanded the restoration of civilian government, a National Assembly and representative political institutions, reinstatement of retired military officers, and implementation “without delay” of the revolution, “particularly the social revolution related to the life of the masses.” Subsequent developments, including Buddhist discussions with Premier Ky, now clearly indicate that the position of the Buddhist Hierarchy is firm and that it is prepared to test its strength against the government. The Buddhist leaders reportedly are planning further demonstrations and general strikes in Saigon and elsewhere and attempting to win support for their demands among members of the Military Directorate.

Buddhist Demands Longstanding. Buddhist demands reflect longstanding grievances against the Ky-Thieu leadership which is felt to [Page 293] have moved too slowly and grudgingly to legalize its status, hold national elections, and return the reins of government to elected officials—in general reversing rather than furthering the 1963 revolution. Although advanced particularly by Tri Quang and his Buddhist and student followers, these views appear to be widely shared among other Buddhists, students, intellectuals, and out-politicians. Many of these critics are almost certainly motivated by personal and political ambitions and by their basic antipathy to almost any conceivable government. But many others regard “the revolution”, however vague their understanding of even its broad outlines, as the only means of achieving any degree of political stability and national unity in the face of the Communist insurgency. Legalization of the government, therefore, has become an issue synonymous with stabilization among an increasingly large sector of the politically articulate elements of Vietnamese society. Apparent military procrastination, coupled with spiraling inflation, have served to strengthen the undercurrents of political opposition. In addition, the Buddhists, who regard themselves as the major political force in Vietnam, have been offended by Kyʼs apparent failure to consult them on the cabinet reorganization that followed the Honolulu conference where they fear Kyʼs convictions as to the correctness of his policies and his political indispensability were hardened.

GVN Appears Equally Rigid. Thus far, Ky and some of the other generals have held fast against any compromises and have indicated that their position is widely supported within the Military Directorate. Although the possibility of concessions to the Buddhists was discussed at the March 18 meeting of the Directorate, first reports indicate that the generals decided on a “hard line.” Nevertheless, some officers, including Generals Chieu and Chuan, new I Corps commander, are apparently inclined toward compromise or at least prefer cautious handling of the Buddhists. Most of what little information we have on the attitude of the generals is based on a few sources and Embassy Saigon regards these reports, whether indicating moderation or firmness, as probably over-stated. Thus, despite the alleged “hard line” adopted by the Directorate, an appreciable number of the generals are likely to have mixed feelings, at the very least.

Key Issue: Civilian Government. The central issue of GVN-Buddhist confrontation thus far appears to be the question of timing the return to civilian government. Suspicious of government intentions, the Buddhists contend that a National Assembly should be convoked within a month or so from among the elected representatives of the people—members of the provincial and municipal councils. Such an assembly would draft a constitution and elect a provisional chief of state and a prime minister. Later there would be national elections for an executive and a national legislature. No timetable is indicated for this process and [Page 294] it is not clear whether the drafting of a constitution or the election of a provisional executive has priority. The GVN position, on the other hand, reportedly reaffirmed by todayʼs Directorate meeting, calls for the appointment of an advisory council to draft a constitution. This would be followed by nationwide debate, a popular referendum on the constitution in November 1966, and national elections sometime in 1967. The government contends that such a procedure is orderly, would reduce friction and political in-fighting among political groups, ensure broader representation of their views, and pose fewer obstacles to political development.

Compromise Possible. A GVN plan already adopted but still unannounced for a second round of provincial and municipal council elections sometime this spring could offer some basis for a realistic compromise. The timing would appear to accord with the Buddhist timetable for concrete action by the government. The procedure might overcome two of Kyʼs principal objections to transforming the existing councils into an assembly; the claims that Catholics would have disproportionately low representation and that the councillors have no knowledge of national issues or constitution-making and were elected largely on local issues and interests. If the government were to announce that members of a constituent assembly would be selected from among councillors to be elected this spring, it would be incumbent upon the various political groups to put forward their most qualified candidates and attempt to ensure the election of as many of their representatives as possible. The realities of Vietnamese politics suggest that members of a constituent assembly selected on this basis, if no better than those selected by other means, are unlikely to be worse. Moreover, any such body is likely to call upon intellectuals, lawyers, and other political notables for suggestions and drafting assistance. Finally, if they win their point on the creation and powers of a provisional assembly, the Buddhists might be willing to drop or postpone their demand that the assembly should also elect a provisional executive.

Situation Volatile. Failure to reach a realistic compromise would raise serious dangers of increasingly widespread and possibly violent demonstrations in the days ahead. The Buddhist leadership, though lacking the religious issue which they have effectively exploited in the past, are expressing a widely held position and will probably be able to garner substantial active support among their own followers and possibly among non-Buddhists. Even if they do not seek to oppose the government in the streets, the Buddhists are likely to attempt to dissuade government nominees from joining the governmentʼs advisory council and to attack the drafting process throughout as unrepresentative. The opposition will have further opportunities to attack the government and its procedures during the period of public debate that is to follow the [Page 295] completion of the draft and during the revision process that will precede submission of the draft to a popular referendum. In short, rigid adherence by the government to its present plans seems unlikely to enhance the prospects that the long process of constitution drafting and approval will be an orderly and constructive one. On the other hand, while there is no assurance that some form of elected rather than appointive constituent body will do its work with a minimum of political infighting, a decision to elect rather than appoint would remove at least one potent weapon from the arsenal of the opposition.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, vol. XLIX. Secret; Controlled Dissem; No Foreign Dissem.
  2. See Document 94.