163. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State 1

24952. 1. There have been a number of highly important developments with respect to the military candidate for President and the future political role of the Vietnamese military which have occurred within the last 48 hours. Although the situation is not yet fully clear, certain facts have emerged from several accounts we have had.

2. There appears to have been another meeting among a number of top Generals on Friday, May 5, at which it was decided that General Thang should ask General Thieu to agree to withdraw from the Presidential race. Thang saw Thieu and the latter refused simply to withdraw and said he would make his final decision at some time closer to the deadline provided for the final selection of candidates, i.e. early July. There had been earlier reports from General Cao Van Vien that the candidacy question was not approaching resolution and that tensions were rising among the top military leaders which might lead to serious difficulties and destroy military unity beyond repair.

3. Following the Thieu-Thang meeting the latter flew to Da Nang on May 6 to join number of other Generals (presumably including those present on May 5) and to report on his talk. From our information at least the following Generals were present at the Da Nang meeting: Ky, Thang, Tri, Booh Viens (C/S and Security), Lam (I Corps) and Vinh Loc (II Corps). After lengthy discussion of the situation a decision was reached to announce that there would be no military candidate as such for the Presidency and the military would eschew participation in the Presidential and legislative elections as a unified bloc behind a candidate or candidates. Each military man would vote as he saw fit and the military command structure would not be employed for direct political purposes. C/S Vien was reportedly charged with formulating and announcing this decision.

4. At the same meeting, with this decision in hand and with knowledge of Thieu’s refusal to withdraw from the race Prime Minister [Page 390] Ky made known his intention to present himself as candidate for President and to announce his candidacy promptly.

5. At my request General Westmoreland had a lengthy conversation Sunday morning, May 7, with General Thieu. After some discussion of his trip to the US and of the important tasks that lay ahead, General Westmoreland said that he had been struck by the vital importance placed by American opinion in the continuation of the political progress already achieved and of the stability that Vietnam had experienced for almost two years. He added that a second vital need in the future, from both an American and Vietnamese viewpoint, was the training and direction of the ARVN to carry on the many major tasks that it must successfully execute in providing security and continuing progress in the revolutionary development field. Westmoreland said Vietnam needed its best military leader at the head of the ARVN for these purposes and added that in his opinion Thieu was the man. Thieu said he agreed.

6. Thieu then elaborated at some length on how he saw things during the critical months ahead. He considered national unity and common purpose as the primary requirements and he thought regional differences should be put into the background. He believed that to meet these purposes a civilian President probably was needed. He believed Tran Van Huong was the strongest candidate and the one who could best pull the country together, since he was a Southerner and a respected leader. Thieu did not discuss his own role specifically beyond his earlier agreement that he was the General best qualified to lead the armed forces.2

7. Comment: It is evident that the military leadership had been unable to find a way to break the impasse between Ky and Thieu except by trying to get Thieu to withdraw. They feared that failure to resolve the matter would lead to even more bitter rivalry and might rapidly undermine military unity and morale fatally. Faced with Thieu’s refusal to withdraw and Ky’s obvious intention to run, a decision that the military forces should not participate as a unified bloc in the political process ahead seemed the best way out. It provided a face-saving formula for Thieu not to have to take a public decision at this time and for Ky to announce his candidacy. On the part of certain of the Generals it no doubt represented a genuine desire to keep the army free from the political struggle and free to pursue its own important objectives.

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8. The actual effect of this papering-over process remains to be seen. It may only put off the day when the political rivalry between Thieu and Ky will have to be faced and when the unity of the armed forces may again be subjected to severe strain. For example, if Ky mounts an effective campaign, as he is already doing, and allies himself with some powerful civilian support, Thieu may then decide that he should align himself with a civilian candidate or even declare himself as a candidate. In either case the military will be faced with a choice and may be divided into competing factions once again.

9. On the other hand, if General Vien can effectively prevent the military command structure from becoming deeply engaged in the election process and if the province chief-district chief military hierarchy can be politically sterilized in the months ahead, then it might be possible to prevent the military from becoming directly engaged. Recent Vietnamese political history does not inspire much confidence that such a powerful political element as the armed forces can be made political at a time when the biggest prize is at stake. If this could be achieved without nullifying the important stabilizing role which the military has played and must continue to play, it would be a highly desirable goal. In any case, these most recent developments should give us some time to see how the picture is most likely to emerge and what role we should play in it.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 10:28 a.m. Rostow sent the telegram “Eyes Only” to the President at the LBJ Ranch as CAP 67407, May 7, where it was received at 3:02 p.m. A notation indicates that the President saw the telegram. Rostow prefaced the body of the cable with the following: “You will be interested in the following Nodis from Saigon which describes the latest on the political front. We will underline again the importance of the military staying together.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, NODIS Vol. VI)
  2. In telegram 24732 from Saigon, May 4, the Embassy reported that Thieu told Foreign Minister Do that he would step aside if the Americans wanted a civilian President. The Embassy believed that the remark was “another effort to smoke out American views regarding the Presidential election.”(National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S)