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

202559. Ref: (a) Saigon’s 26460;2 (b) Saigon’s 26467.3

We very much appreciate analysis contained reftel (b) and efforts reported reftel (a) and in other communications to get as clear a picture as possible of private views and behind-the-scenes actions of principal actors, military and civilian, in the current pre-election maneuvers. Continue to keep us posted as closely as you can, including the role of all the significant military figures beyond Ky and Thieu.
Like you, we continue to fear the results of a split in the military and your efforts should therefore continue to be aimed at avoiding this. Surest way to avoid a split is through Ky-Thieu agreement that only one of them will run and prompt decision on which it will be. While our efforts to date have met with little success we agree you should nevertheless continue to press hard on this point, citing numerous expressions made directly to both of them from highest levels US Government and also pointing out consequences of rift, some of which are already beginning to become evident at least behind the scenes. Even Ky and Thieu themselves have begun to descend to exchanges of personal criticisms which could be forerunner of sharp split if they do not promptly resolve their differences.
We realize that what we are asking you to accomplish is much easier said than done. There is temptation to consider turning to what on the surface would appear to be relatively easy way out, namely for US to intervene to force decision by making a choice, which would presumably be for Ky. We continue to believe, however, that we are not obliged at this time to make a choice and we continue to regard it as unwise to do so. There would be no keeping secret the fact that the US had made a choice and in so doing we would thus have alienated temporarily at least some significant military leaders. The very act of making a choice would also be taken as clear evidence of the controlling role of the U.S. on domestic Vietnamese matters, would make it doubly difficult for any government associated with us to shake off the puppet label and would quite possibly precipitate the withdrawal from the coming elections of some or all of the civilian candidates. The victory [Page 447] of a military presidential candidate has advantages and disadvantages both within Viet-Nam and in the US and world opinion but such a victory if it takes place through a reasonably free and open contest is certainly one of the possible if not likely results of the election process, and an acceptable one. The victory of a military presidential candidate bearing a US stamp of approval and elected in such fashion as to raise serious question about whom he represents would undo much of last year’s progress on the political front and is a course which we are not now ready to adopt even if the alternatives were also unattractive.
A related consideration is that our making a choice now would rule out Thieu as a candidate (if in fact our intervention was successful, which is not by any means assured) and we would regret ruling out at this stage this and other alternative possibilities.
Under these circumstances our policy for the present should continue to be an even-handed one between Thieu and Ky, concentrating our efforts on having them decide which of them will be the military candidate. Meanwhile we will have to remain continuously alert so that we can reconsider our position if it appears that military unity seriously risks being jeopardized. Otherwise we will be hoping that events themselves may impose a choice on Thieu and Ky or may create a situation in which we could precipitate a choice without taking the onus for it.
Meanwhile it is important to keep before the military two other principles which they must support, namely the proper conduct of the elections and a commitment to accept their outcome if properly held and to support the resulting government.
Your comments are invited.4
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S. Secret; Exdis. Drafted and approved by Unger.
  2. Bunker reported on the efforts of Bui Diem to mediate between Thieu and Ky in telegrams 26460, May 23, and 26561, May 25. (Ibid.)
  3. Document 182.
  4. In telegram 26779, May 25, Diem told Bunker that Thieu had stated that “his personal prestige gave him no alternative but to stay in the race,” especially since his relations with the other Generals had soured his chances to become Chief of the Vietnamese Joint General Staff. Ky later told Diem that the Generals would apologize to Thieu if necessary in an effort to encourage him to not become a Presidential candidate and instead to assume the leadership of the military. Bunker praised Diem’s role and recommended that “we should continue to let the Vietnamese carry the ball in trying to resolve this problem.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S) On May 26 Bunker reported that based upon reassurances to him as well as to Bui Diem, Thieu “gave reason to hope that he will not seek to aggravate the feelings that have already been aroused.” (Telegram 26790 from Saigon, May 26; ibid.)