100. Memorandum From the President’s Special Consultant (Taylor) to President Johnson1

SUBJECT

  • A Constitutional Issue of Importance in Saigon
  • Ref. Saigon, 192092

In his latest weekly cable, Ambassador Lodge refers to the proposal by General Thieu that the Constituent Assembly write into the Constitution a provision for a High Council for National Defense and the Armed Forces which would advise the President on matters related to national defense and give the military a way to make their voices heard and to set forth their aspirations in the national councils.

Our people in Saigon do not seem to be averse to this proposal but, because of my past troubles with the generals during the Khanh period, I must say that I would view it with real concern.

Cabot quotes Tran Van Huong on the subject, who as Prime Minister shared my experience with the generals in 1965—indeed, he lost his job to their intervention in his struggle with the Tri Quang Buddhists. His view is that such a Council, if imbedded in the Constitution, may interfere in the government in a destructive way. I must say that he has ground for that fear because of the following background of experience.

In the fall of 1964, after the failure of his Vung Tau constitution, Khanh and his generals (including Thieu and Ky) determined to withdraw from active participation in the government and to let their civilian critics take on the problems which had baffled them. They did so and from the sidelines enjoyed the spectacle of the struggle and fall of the Huong and Quat governments before the attacks of the various minority groups—offering the civilian leaders no help and sometimes contributing to their plight.3 Khanh could have saved Huong from the Buddhists but, instead, deliberately pulled the rug from under him.

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During this time, I often appealed to the generals to show more responsibility, to get behind the government and to accept appropriate posts in the cabinet. Their answer was that the Armed Forces should be outside the government and in a sense parallel with it, reporting only to the Chief of State. I often felt that many officers had in mind the Japanese pre-war pattern whereby the Armed Forces reported directly to the Emperor through their ministers who were professional military officers nominated by the Army and Navy. Khanh and his associates seemed to be seeking some similar arrangement for by-passing the civilian Prime Minister and his cabinet.

This problem disappeared after the exile of Khanh and the installation of the Ky Government with the backing of the military Directorate.4 The rather surprising stability of the Ky Government has been due to the fact that it has been underwritten by the generals who have accepted open responsibility for it. Such support in quality if not in form is essential to the survival of any government growing out of the new constitution.

With these thoughts in mind, I am somewhat alarmed by the emergence of this proposal from Thieu for a High Council which suggests that the Directorate may wish to move from a position in direct support of the government to one along side it in the manner of the Khanh concept. It may have been this suspicion which led to the reaction of Tran Van Huong who has a vivid memory of the events which I have recounted.

My suggestion would be to call the Saigon Embassy’s attention to this past record and the implications which may lurk in the Thieu proposal and to urge our representatives to oppose this Council to the extent possible. If it cannot be shelved, it should at least be incorporated within the government—possibly by making it advisory concurrently to the Prime Minister, the National Security Council and the President in approximate analogy to the relationships of our JCS.

Having mentioned Tran Van Huong in the foregoing context, I might add a brief evaluation of the man since his name keeps turning up as a possible civilian candidate for President. I worked very closely with him during his troubled days as Prime Minister and developed a high regard for his character and integrity.

Having said that, I must quickly add that I do not think that he would make an adequate President if that official is to be a DeGaulle towering over a business manager-type Prime Minister on the Pompidou pattern. Huong has a record of a bad heart and as a consequence is physically weak and slow of movement. He looks and acts much [Page 233]older than his years—actually about 60, I believe. He would never be a vigorous executive. As a result, in part at least, of his tribulations in office, he is violently anti-Buddhist (of the Tri Quang-type), anti-northern and anti-military. I doubt that he is big enough to soften such prejudices in the national interest if he becomes President.

On the positive side, Huong is honest, courageous, patriotic and listens well to advice. As Prime Minister, the official closest to him was the present Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Nguyen Luu Vien, who complemented him very well.5

In summary, I would say that Huong, supported by a vigorous Prime Minister, could be an excellent representational Chief of State. He is not equipped to run the show in the manner of DeGaulle.

Maxwell D. Taylor
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Gen. Taylor (2 of 2). Confidential. In a covering note transmitting this memorandum to the President, Rostow wrote: “Herewith an interesting reaction of General Taylor’s that I am flagging for Sect. Rusk, Sect. McNamara and (via the back channel) for Ambassador Lodge.” The President wrote on this note: “This should go to Lodge earliest.” (Ibid.) This memorandum was sent to Lodge by Rostow, who requested that Lodge comment on it, via CIA channels, in telegram CAP 67118 at 12:35 a.m. on March 7. (Ibid., Taylor Report of Overseas Operations & Misc. Memos) For Lodge’s comments, see Document 102.
  2. Document 92.
  3. Huong’s government fell on January 27, 1965; Quat resigned as Prime Minister on June 11, 1965. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume II.
  4. This event occurred in June 1965; see ibid., vol. III, Document 9.
  5. On March 2 Taylor discussed this issue with Komer. In a March 3 letter to U. Alexis Johnson, Komer mentioned the following: “General Taylor said he knew Tran Van Huong quite well, and had a rather mixed opinion of him. Huong was brave and determined, but was in quite poor health and moved slowly at best about the government’s business. Taylor feared Huong would not make a dynamic, forceful President or Prime Minister. When I commented that the military might favor Nguyen Luu Vien as Prime Minister or Vice President, General Taylor gave Vien much higher marks than do our current interlocutors in Saigon. He recalled that Vien had done quite well as Huong’s Interior Minister, had always been at Huong’s side, and had been quite energetic. Admittedly, he has not seemed to show these qualities as Vice Premier in the current Ky regime, but this may be just because he lacks the power position.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Komer Files: Lot 69 D 303, Vietnam/Turkey) In a letter replying to Komer, March 10, Johnson rated Vien as superior to Huong in terms of ability. “If, as I gather, Thieu or Ky are likely to be President, I would think that from our standpoint a Huong as Vice President and a Vien as Prime Minister would be a good combination,” he noted. (Ibid.)