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

22498. 1. During a talk with General Thieu April 8, I discussed the following matters related to elections and Presidential candidates.

A.

Security of Presidential and Other Candidates

2. I stressed to Thieu substantially what I had stressed to Ky concerning the importance of getting really adequate security protection to the Presidential candidates.2 If anything were to happen to one of them, I said, it could undo much of the work that had been accomplished in the last year. He seemed to think about it and finally agreed with me. I also stressed the Deputies and those who are running in local elections. I referred to the Deputies who are receiving candy boxes containing grenades painted red and asked who he thought was doing it. He said that literally anyone could do it, that these were normal Vietnamese tactics and it could come from a disaffected nationalist. One thing was sure: when this kind of thing went on, it threatened the prestige of the police.

B.

Presidential Campaign

3. I then sought to carry out the instruction in State 167136.3 I began by remarking that I had been out on the Enterprise the day after General Thieu and General Ky had been there, and that I had been advised of General Thieu’s statement, when asked, whether he would be a candidate for President, as follows: “Maybe yes, maybe no. I endorse [Page 313]General Ky.” Then, I said, apparently General Ky had said substantially the same thing.

4. I told General Thieu that I had told General Ky—and now wished to tell him—that we thought this was a broadminded attitude and that a friendly accommodation and decision on this matter was very important.

5. I then said that it was obvious that it would not be good for any Presidential candidate in Viet-Nam to be known as the “American candidate.” Neither, I said, would it be good for us. Obviously, the voters had to believe that a candidate could work with the Americans, but this is a very different thing from being an American puppet.

5. [sic] He agreed and said that any President who was elected as the “American candidate” would find his work extremely difficult thereafter. There was, however, he said, a strong belief to this effect—a “prejudice,” if you will, that American money and American organization always decide such questions.

6. I recalled that when I came here in 1963,4 we had helped President Diem in many ways, with the result that many Vietnamese were holding us responsible for the police state methods which were then being used. It was very hard to prove them wrong when they said that we had a considerable responsibility for this. For us to sponsor Presidential candidates had a colonial flavor, would put us in a false light, and would tend to retard the encouraging progress which was being made in Viet-Nam toward developing an attitude of self-confidence and of responsibility.

7. He said that it would indeed be desirable to “wipe out this prejudice,” but he thought that the only way it could be done would be by the passage of time, by facts, by the truth. As people watched the situation and saw day after day that none of these things happened which they said were going to happen they would be convinced.

8. Comment: We are thus on record with both Ky and Thieu of being “equidistant” and of not “getting between them or making a choice in one direction or another, or, for that matter, between military and civilian candidates,” to quote from 167136.5 The conversation did not develop in a way to make it possible to discuss what he would “do besides being President.”

C.

What Thieu Said Yesterday

9. Frank McCullough, the Time correspondent in Hong Kong, told me the following:

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10. Yesterday, Friday, he received word from Thieu’s press aide, Major Lam, that Thieu would like to see him. When he went to the Palace Friday afternoon, Lam said to be sure to ask Thieu about Big Minh.6 When McCullough went into Thieu’s office, Lam came along too.

11. The conversation began with Thieu saying that Ky was really unbeatable. He was very well known; he had the police on his side; he had General Thang in effect as “campaign manager with his whole revolutionary development organization behind him”; and he had access to money and resources which nobody else had. Comment: I believe this is unfair to Thang. End comment.

12. When McCullough asked whether Thieu was willing to serve as Prime Minister under Ky, Thieu said that, of course, he would, just as Ky would serve as Prime Minister under Thieu. He never gave any evidence of any bad feeling toward Ky.

13. McCullough told me he had forgotten the suggestion which Lam had made to him about Big Minh, and that Lam in effect prodded him by telling McCullough to ask Thieu about Big Minh. When McCullough did so, Thieu said that, under the new Constitution, there was absolutely no reason why Big Minh could not come back whenever he wanted to, that no charges were pending against him, and that he would undoubtedly be the most popular candidate who could be nominated. A strong ticket would be Big Minh for President with Huong for Vice President. He, Thieu, would be glad to serve as the Prime Minister in such a government. He in effect admitted that Big Minh would not be a strong President, but the inference was that with Thieu as Prime Minister, that would not matter. It also became clear from other things which Thieu said that Thieu was in touch with Big Minh, since Thieu knew that at the moment, Big Minh was in Paris for his sister’s funeral.

14. Thieu also said that it was impossible for anybody to be elected without the support of the Americans which contrasts with what he said to me this morning.

15. Comment: I believe it is true that Big Minh is the most popular figure in Viet-Nam and that an arrangement with Big Minh as President and Thieu as Prime Minister would be unobjectionable from our viewpoint. A ticket with Huong as Vice President would be strong and hard to defeat. Thieu is an extremely clever thinker and planner and he has undoubtedly figured out that this is his very best way to stay in a position of power. I believe that he is probably right that in a race [Page 315]between Ky and him, Ky would do much better. He has evidently decided that he would rather be Prime Minister under Big Minh than Prime Minister under Ky, I presume for the obvious reason that with Big Minh he could run the show whereas Ky is much smarter and stronger than Big Minh.

16. I recommend that this is one thing which they had better work out for themselves and that we should not get involved. We are in the lucky position that any of these combinations is perfectly satisfactory from our viewpoint.

17. Foregoing is at this stage only a report of Thieu’s statements and we cannot judge the degree of probability of such an arrangement being actually worked out. We will follow this closely, however, and report any info bearing on it.

18. As the Department remembers, it was Thieu who conceived and executed the plot in January 1964 whereby Big Minh and General Don, who went to bed one night with all the levers of the powers in their hands, were awakened in the middle of the night and found themselves out of office and under arrest. Yet it is true that Thieu got along very well with Big Minh in previous years and might get along very well with him again in the future.

15. If Big Minh returns, we will confront a totally new situation as regards the election of a President. Looking at it with the utmost objectivity, it will be better for the U.S. in such a situation to be represented by an Ambassador who does not know all the persons involved as intimately as I do. When Ambassador Bunker handles it in an objective way, there is a good chance that his objectivity will be accepted by everyone. I would, of course, be objective too, but I am a warm friend of Prime Minister Ky, a very good friend of Thieu, and a warm friend of Big Minh. Therefore, when the pressure began to mount, each might put out the idea that he had my goodwill and it would be much harder for me to make my objectivity believable than it would be for Ambassador Bunker.

20. McCullough says he is not filing anything, but has told New York about it and that he is “watching.”

Lodge
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S. Secret; Exdis.
  2. See Document 129.
  3. Document 125.
  4. Lodge’s initial appointment as Ambassador to Vietnam was on August 1, 1963.
  5. Document 125.
  6. Duong Van Minh, the former Vietnamese Chief of State who went into exile in late 1964, was barred from returning to Vietnam in May 1965.