12. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

15287. 1. Lansdale visited Prime Minister Ky at Latter’s invitation morning of Jan 9. Highlights of conversation follow.

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2. Ky said Gen Co was becoming increasingly a problem and would have to be dealt with soon. General Vinh Loc had told Ky about a recent visit by Co to Pleiku where he made disparaging remarks about Ky and GVN to a number of ARVN officers he had assembled. This was merely latest of a long series of misbehaviors by Co. (Ky mentioned several, including Co’s rapid promotion of his aide, which Ky said angered many younger ARVN officers.) When Lansdale asked Ky what he was going to do about Co, Ky replied quickly that only thing to do was to try Co, with major count being Co’s corruption. Ky said Co has now made so much money that legal action would have to be taken to make him disgorge it. Ky said this would happen “very soon.”

3. Lansdale remarked that he had heard Ky was starting to meet with members of Constituent Assembly and that recognition of their fine progress with Constitution is well merited.2Ky said he plans to have each bloc join him for dinner, a different bloc each week. He has already met with most of drafting committee, the Hoa Hao and the Catholics. He had had long discussion with drafting committee about problems of electing province chiefs, pointing out that Viet-Nam probably could not afford this during wartime without much more preparation. CA members replied that, while Ky’s comments were realistic and true, it would be most difficult to resubmit provision for election of province and district chiefs to another vote in CA for its amendment. Drafting committee members said they would study way to add another provision to Constitution to effect that election of district and province chiefs is an accepted principle and charging elected President with task of holding these elections as soon as feasible.

4. Ky said that he had begun meeting CA members because Chief of State Thieu had not seemed to be too skillful in dealing with them. Lansdale remarked that he assumed Thieu and Ky were getting together more often since they now share the new place. Ky looked a little bemused at Lansdale’s remark and, after a pause, said yes, but that he wanted to discuss a most sensitive matter. He then discussed the Presidency. He explained that Thieu was a very clever person, maneuvering carefully to become President but keeping way open to return [Page 31] to army as its commander in case it becomes clear to him that he cannot be elected. A number of people, including CA members, religious leaders and military men, had told Ky that Thieu could not be elected, that Thieu’s reputation for being “clever” would be considerable political handicap at this point in Viet-Nam’s history. Ky added that even Catholics had told him this, despite Thieu’s being a Catholic. But Ky continued that it seems to be clearly indicated that a military man should become President. The war, the ravaged conditions in the country, and possibility of a negotiated peace, with 600,000 armed military suddenly facing civilian pursuits, all indicate that years just ahead in Viet-Nam are going to be very hard ones, requiring firmer leadership than possible from any civilian politicians known to him. Presidency will probably demand decisive actions, rather than skillful compromise along political lines, at least for next four years. For example, “democracy” or “freedom” will be empty words unless elected President also sees to it that GVN gives people social justice at same time, and this is revolutionary enough in Viet-Nam that it will be opposed by a number of groups that a politician usually needs. Thus, President should be a military man. The only two who are really eligible are Thieu and Ky. Thieu cannot be elected. That leaves Ky. Ky said that all corps and division commanders have asked him to run for Presidency. Many others have asked him to declare his intention to run so they can start organizing support for him. He said that 19 months as Prime Minister make him reluctant to accept political office, but if this is best way to serve Viet-Nam, he will become a candidate for President. Lansdale asked Ky for his assessment of southern support for him, since he is a northerner. Ky said a number of southern leaders had been urging him to run for President and had assured him of their support, as had leaders from the center. He felt being a northerner would not be too big an obstacle, particularly if he teamed up with a southerner as his Vice President. Ky stated that if he decides to run, most difficult immediate task will be so informing Thieu. Yet, Thieu probably would be able to return to army as its commander, and this might appeal to him. Ky said this matter would require considerable thought.

5. Other than as indicated above, Lansdale listened to Ky without comment.

6. We not informed whether Ambassador at present in Washington but assume Dept will bring this message to his attention. We are particularly disturbed at implication para 2 to effect that Ky talking about trying Co “very soon.” While latter may not be healthy influence in govt today, he is certainly not pushover for Ky. Nor have we confidence that Ky is in position to make necessary arrangements and alliances required to bring down this prominent southerner. We assume at this point there is sufficient time remaining for Ambassador to discuss subject with Ky on his return, and we are watching developments [Page 32] carefully. Problem with kind of statement he made to Lansdale is that it would enable Ky to say, after or during event, that he had informed us of his intentions.

7. Ky downgrading of Thieu Presidential possibilities, while upgrading his own, adds to unpleasant uncertainties which face us.

8. We would appreciate comments you may wish to provide at this juncture.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15–1 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Limdis. Received at 10:58 a.m. Repeated to CINCPAC for POLAD and passed to the White House, DOD, CIA, USIA, and NSA at 12:10 p.m.
  2. The Constituent Assembly drafted specific articles of the new Vietnamese Constitution during the period November 30–December 22, 1966, and currently was engaged in modifying the draft provisions. The major problems anticipated included the military government’s ability to unilaterally change any of the component parts of the Constitution and the desire of members of the Assembly to continue functioning on an interim basis after the Constitution was promulgated. (Memorandum from Bundy to Rusk, January 3; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. LXIII) In a January 10 memorandum to Rostow, Roche reviewed an advance copy of the Vietnamese constitution, drafted by the Constituent Assembly and obtained by the CIA, highlighted several structural flaws, including the lack of a required majority to elect a president, the emergency powers of the Assembly, election of provincial chiefs, and the stringent prohibition on the political activities of clergymen. (Ibid.)