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

23584. 1. Pursuant to your 178636,2 I called on Ky Thursday afternoon and cited the report which Lansdale had made to me about his conversation with Ky on Tuesday.3 I said I would like to know what [Page 331] actually had happened and said that, understandably, we in the U.S. Government would worry over even the slightest possibility that there would be any kind of an adversarial relationship between Ky and Thieu or between any two prominent Vietnamese military men.

2. Ky reflected for a fairly long moment and then said: “You don’t have to worry. I personally will make any sacrifice to avoid a clash or division between us.” I believe he means it.

3. He then gave me his account of the episode of Monday, April 17, as follows:

4. Members of the Directorate are worried: about military developments in I Corps and about preparations for the election. They see that Thieu is still—and Ky lapsed into French—“indecis.” Meaning undecided and vacillating. They have heard a rumor that Thieu says he is ready to support Big Minh or civilian. They see the time going by with only four months till election day and consider that this is none too much.

5. So the members of the Directorate were nervous and they came to Ky on Monday. They recalled that the day before the Constitution was adopted, Ky had asked Thieu whether he was going to run or not. And Thieu had never said.

6. In Ky’s own words: “The Generals said to me: You have more chance to win. You are more frank, and I (Ky) said to them: ‘What can you do?’ and so they said: ‘We will ask Thang to go to Thieu and to explain the situation.’”

7. Comment: In other words, according to Ky, there was not an endorsement of Ky as the favorite of the military. It was an informal meeting of some (not all) Generals who were worried and concerned, and who wanted to explain the situation to Thieu and get an explanation out of him. End comment.

8. I said I was glad to hear his explanation and to realize that this was not an “ill advised ploy” (to use the phrase in 178636) regarding Thieu. I stressed the fact that if there was not a broad consensus among the military leadership, all the political progress that had been made would be jeopardized. The importance of the Generals being together was something which President Johnson had stressed in a very moving and persuasive way at Guam. To this Ky agreed.

9. I then said that there were plenty of honors to go around, that when men rise as high in the field of government as Ky and Thieu that it isn’t a question of one being in and the other being out. If, for example, Thieu were to be President, then it would be quite understandable for Ky to have a very prominent Cabinet office—or whatever he wanted.

10. One thing was certain, I said, and that was that if there was a clash and if it became evident that individual political figures in Viet-Nam [Page 332] could not submerge their personal ambitions for the greater good of the nation, there would be some very long and very deep thoughts in Washington as to the capacity of Viet-Nam for self-government.

11. I then said I shared the concern of those who felt that this matter ought to be cleared up. I believed it had been dragging along to a point where further delay could be actually harmful. I told Ky that I planned to tell General Thieu that, while we obviously were not taking sides, the matter of who the military favored for President should be settled, that further temporizing was harmful and that to settle this question would clear the air. It seemed to me that one way to do it was in conversation between Thieu and Ky, either alone at first or with the other Generals all in the same room. It was a time to be frank and no one needed to lose face. (Comment: Ky had stressed to me how strongly he felt he did not want General Thieu to lose face. End comment.)

12. Ky then said he wanted to say something to me confidentially in the light of our close relationship, which was that when [garble—Ky?] on the day the Armed Forces Council met to ratify the Constitution, had said he would support Thieu if Thieu decided to accept, that at that time the Generals would have accepted Ky’s word and would have supported Thieu. But now, he said, Thieu’s hesitation has created a problem. They have lost confidence in him.

13. I asked what would they do if Thieu was the candidate and Ky was not. Would they support a civilian? Ky said he didn’t know.

14. Comment: I intend to see Thieu and tell him that we think the question of the “military candidate” should be settled.4

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Received at 7:53 a.m. and passed to the White House, DOD, and CIA at 8:07 a.m.
  2. In telegram 178636 to Saigon, April 19, the Department expressed continuing concern over Ky’s “ill-advised ploy vis-à-vis Thieu.” Because Thieu would not recognize a decision by those Generals already allied with Ky as a “military mandate” and refused to step aside for Ky, the Department instructed Lodge to emphasize with both men the “absolute necessity for their getting together to resolve this issue and to persuade their colleagues to abide by it.” (Ibid.) Although the possibility existed that Ky and Thieu had concluded that “it would be unwise to force this any more than they have now,” the Department believed that it might be necessary for the Ambassador in Saigon to intervene personally to pre-empt any trouble. (Telegram 177722 to Saigon, April 18; ibid.)
  3. On April 18 Ky told Lansdale that the Generals asked Thang to inform Thieu, then recuperating in the hospital from an appendectomy, of their consensus. (Telegram 23389 from Saigon, April 18; ibid.) In a discussion with Lansdale on April 19, Thang stated that he had refused to undertake such an action. In fact, no one had gone to the hospital on this “errand.” Lodge warned that the impact of a confrontation between Thieu and Ky could have “extremely dangerous” ramifications for the war effort. (Telegram 23488 from Saigon, April 20; ibid.)
  4. Lodge saw Thieu on April 21. During the meeting Lodge informed him that although the U.S. Government would not intervene to decide who should be the military candidate, it was “concerned by the unsettling effect of this prolonged uncertainty” over the issue. Thieu replied that he previously had told the members of the Directorate that he would “be available” as a candidate if they gave him their support on a personal basis. He expected to announce his candidacy by May 1. He also asked Lodge to inform Johnson that the Generals would not fight over the matter. “We now have absolutely categorical assurances from Thieu and Ky that they are not going to have clash,” Lodge reported. (Telegram 23667 from Saigon, April 21; ibid.) In an April 21 covering memorandum transmitting a copy of telegram 23667 to the President, Rostow observed that Thieu apparently had the “Presidential bug.” He believed, however, that Thieu and Ky would “work it out.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Nodis Vol. V (A)) The Department remained concerned, however, that a leadership struggle would erupt after Lodge’s departure and before Bunker’s arrival in Saigon as the new Ambassador. In telegram 180382 to Kathmandu, Saigon, and New Delhi, April 21 (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 17 US-VIET S) and in telegram 180656 to Kathmandu, April 22, the Department advised Bunker to report to Saigon immediately after Lodge’s departure. (Ibid., POL 15–1 VIET S) Bunker was in Nepal visiting his wife, Ambassador Carol Laise.