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

25260. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my second weekly telegram.

With the arrival of Bob Komer and General Abrams, the past week has been one of further consolidation of the Mission organization. General Westmoreland has informed me that he proposes to have General Abrams devote a major part of his time and energies to working with the Vietnamese armed forces. I think this is a wise decision and I am sure it will bear fruit. In my most recent talks with both Thieu and Ky, each has indicated certain dissatisfactions with the leadership and performance of ARVN and this in itself is a hopeful sign. Consequently, I think General Abrams can anticipate a cooperative attitude on the part of the GVN.
After thoroughgoing discussions with General Westmoreland and Bob Komer, I have come to the conclusion that we can most efficiently and effectively perform our role in support of pacification through a merging of the civil and military organizations under a single manager concept as embodied in NSAM 3622 which you have approved. With the responsibility for the program placed in COMUSMACV, and with Bob Komer as deputy for pacification, I think we should have a first rate team and should be able to achieve a maximum utilization of resources. I intend to announce these changes tomorrow and it will make it clear that I regard all official Americans in Viet-Nam as part of one team and not as part of competing civilian and military establishments; that the integrity of OCO will be maintained; and that I intend to see that the civilian part of the U.S. effort is not buried under the military. In many instances, soldiers will be working for civilians as well as the reverse; and that I intend to keep fully informed personally about all developments in this field and to hold frequent meetings with General Westmoreland and Ambassador Komer for the purpose of formulating policy (Saigon 25029).3
On the political scene tensions had continued to build up. Because of the developing strain in relations between Thieu and Ky, I felt that the time had come when we might have to move into the situation in a more definite way than simply by insisting on the absolute necessity for unity among the armed forces. In this connection, as a preliminary, I asked General Westmoreland to see Thieu last Sunday.4 He had a very good talk with Thieu (Saigon 24952)5 and in the meantime over the weekend leaders of the armed forces had moved into the situation themselves. As a result, the Minister of Defense, General Vien made an announcement to the press last Monday stating that the armed forces were not a political party and would have no Presidential candidate. In talks which I subsequently had with both Thieu and Ky, each expressed himself as highly pleased with the announcement (Saigon 25083 and 25233).6 Ky took the further step, apparently on General Vien’s advice, of talking to Thieu and telling him of his intention to become a candidate.7 These events have served to lower tensions and if the position stated by General Vien is adhered to and respected, hopefully could prove a constructive development. On the other hand, as I shall point out in more detail, it does not guarantee that we are out of the woods. The situation will have to be carefully watched and nursed.
As I have mentioned the past week saw a rapid crystalization of the question of a military candidate for President and the related problem of the future political role of the Vietnamese military. It had become apparent that the rivalry between Thieu and Ky was undermining the unity and stability of the armed forces and a group of leading Generals decided that the issue had to be rapidly settled. An attempt to get General Thieu to withdraw was not successful and the leading Generals, including Ky but not Thieu, decided that the ARVN should not put forward a military candidate as such, for the Presidency.
This decision was announced by General Vien, the Chief of the Joint General Staff, on May 8. In a conversation with me on May 9, General Thieu affirmed his support for General Vien’s statement. Later that day, General Ky described to me a long and frank talk that he had had the same morning with General Thieu which seems to have cleared the air somewhat. Thieu was obviously concerned about his position among “the Generals” but Ky said he reassured him of their loyalty should Thieu choose to return to a military career. Ky assured me once again that there would be no split among the military, and if the conversation [Page 408] with Thieu went as described, we can perhaps be more hopeful that this will not occur.
Ky made clear that he will be a candidate and that he will attempt a “social revolution” for Viet-Nam, which he considers vital to its future. He is obviously confident that he can win and thinks that it will be by a very respectable mandate. His comments about civilian candidates and the civilian role were not encouraging, however, since he made clear his already known skepticism regarding their motivation and capabilities. I reiterated the importance of having strong civilian representation in any slate in order to increase the votes, and provide a broader mandate particularly from the viewpoint of world opinion, and he said that he was giving this serious thought. Despite his obvious feeling about civilian candidates I am sure he got my point.
In trying to assess these fast-moving developments in a preliminary way, I think we can draw certain satisfaction from them. We must, however, recognize that there are many problems ahead and many potential pitfalls in the situation. The decision against having a “military” candidate represented a face-saving formula for Thieu and a means for Ky to announce his candidacy. It also without doubt represented a genuine desire on the part of some of the leading Generals to keep the army detached from the political struggle so that it can pursue its own extremely important and urgent goals. The whole sequence of events is still, to a degree, a papering-over process, however, and good will on the part of both Thieu and Ky, and their supporters, will be required to make it last. It is naturally my hope that Thieu will find satisfaction in a primarily military role in the future, but he has reserved his final position and it cannot be excluded that he may decide to team up with a civilian candidate.
I will be following this situation very closely and using my influence as needed to avoid serious splits either among the military or between the military and civilian elements. If we can, in fact, achieve a truly apolitical role for the armed forces during this critical period ahead, it will represent a major and positive achievement. But we must bear in mind that the biggest prize is at stake, and reason and moderation have not been the primary qualities of Vietnamese leaders in the recent past. I am always conscious of the vital importance you place on a satisfactory political outcome here and will of course continue to keep you closely informed as developments occur.8
In general terms political tension in Saigon rose during the past week, with the question of the military candidate threatening divisions in the armed forces and relations between the government and the Assembly strained by several key issues in the electoral law. The uncertainty of the political situation has been increased by efforts of the militant An Quang Buddhists to exploit the peace issue.
The fluidity of the political situation would be cause for grave concern if it were not that virtually all of the political activity is focused on one objective—the coming elections—and also that most if not quite all of the activity is taking place roughly within the bounds of the legal constitutional framework. The new institutions are fragile, but they are already working to the extent that they are giving direction and limits to current political activity.
Containing political conflict within a legal frame is a basic problem here. It was the absence of such a legal frame which caused much if not most of the political instability after the fall of Diem. His government was based on a complex system of personal relationships. When the top was cut off that governmental pyramid, the whole pyramid collapsed. In our situation, in case of a similar catastrophe, our governmental structure remains intact because it is based on solid and essentially impersonal institutions; here the whole government disappears until a new complex of personal relationships can be painfully constructed—and tested—over period of time. We have here now the beginning of a governmental structure that must be made capable of surviving such disasters as the death of a chief of state.

[Here follows discussion of electoral provisions, the press campaign, political groups, the military situation, revolutionary development, economic policies, casualties, and the Chieu Hoi program.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Nodis. Received at 12:37 a.m. and passed to the White House. The notation “L” on the covering note from Rostow transmitting a copy of the telegram to the President on May 11 indicates that he saw it. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, NODIS Vol. VI) This telegram is printed in full in Pike, The Bunker Papers, pp. 8–15.
  2. Document 167.
  3. Dated May 5. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S)
  4. May 7.
  5. Document 163.
  6. See footnote 4, Document 166.
  7. Ky officially announced his candidacy on May 12.
  8. In his third weekly report to the President, telegram 25937 from Saigon, May 17, Bunker noted that the political situation in Vietnam was continuing to deteriorate. “As you know, factionalism has long been the curse of Viet-Nam’s political life and a major reason for the strength of the Communists. While part of this present process is the natural fermentation involved in sorting out new political groupings and alliances in preparation for the coming Presidential contest, many experienced observers have the impression that Viet-Nam is at least for the moment farther from a national consensus than it was even a few months ago. I think that we must have patience and do what we can quietly to influence the principals on the stage and see that these maneuvers and discussions do not go too far or too deep.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S) This telegram is printed in full in Pike, The Bunker Papers, pp. 16–21.