185. Telegram From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson in Texas1

CAP 67464. Herewith a lucid account from Bill Jorden of an interview with Ky.

Harry McPherson and I had long and very candid talk last night with PMKy. He was friendly and open. We made standard points on fair elections, civil-military cooperation, need for mandate, etc. Highlights of Ky’s position follow:

On politics—He will run; expects to win; guesses he will get between 35 and 40 percent of vote.

Thieu is puzzle. Ky doesn’t know what he wants. Suggested Thieu may want simply to cut into Ky’s support and make sure latter doesn’t win.

Or he may want increase his bargaining power for other post in new government. It not clear what job he wants.

Huong and Suu are too old; can’t cut it; too weak for real leadership. If Suu elected, there would almost certainly be military coup.

Only a military man can provide the leadership this country needs now to move forward—and he clearly meant himself.

All the candidates will probably come up with programs, but they will all sound alike. Question is: who can convert a program into action.

On problem of mandate, he expects good vote. In addition will offer major posts to all other candidates. “Then we will have one hundred percent of the vote represented in the government.”

He was utterly frank on problem of corruption. It is real; it is serious; it is major source of discontent. And many people in high places undoubtedly involved. He has moved against some—General Co, Quang, others. But it takes times to gather solid evidence. He will move against many others when (not if) he is elected.

Americans sometimes inconsistent on this question. They want Vietnamese to have democracy—and equal justice and no arbitrary police actions. But when they talk of corruption and graft, they want us to “move fast” and not worry about technicalities. We can’t do both.

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“If I have hard facts, I am prepared to move fast. But we can’t act only on rumors and suspicion.”

I told Ky of a judge in Long An who was allegedly releasing VC suspects for “lack of evidence”—after receiving extensive bribes from VC.

“If I have facts, I will remove him tomorrow.”

Ky displayed surprising flexibility on matter of negotiations and dealing with Liberation Front.

He said Vietnamese generally were nervous about dealing with the Front now. Army especially was concerned, and if a civilian tried to open contact, there would be fear of a “sellout”—especially among army men.

Only a military man could undertake this matter because his colleagues in the army would know he would not give up South Vietnam’s independence. Ky had openly said he was ready to talk with Ho. There would have been serious trouble—and real worry—if a civilian had said same thing.

With time, many things would be possible. In a year, Ky would be prepared to consider all kinds of things that not possible to work on now—talks with the Front, coalition, etc.

(Note: This first mention of possible coalition by any Vietnamese leader to my knowledge.)

There is concern that now Vietnamese politics not stable enough to let NLF function as political group. Also it is dominated by Communists.

Ky indicated his readiness to contact non-Communist Front elements and “bring them over.”

In answer to fairly blunt question, Ky said he would not consider serving as Vice President or PM under a civilian.

He noted that power of PM was weak. He could not get done the things he wanted to do unless he had power of the Presidency.

If civilian were elected, “I will go back to my air force.”

I got the impression that if he did return to air force, a civilian President had better sandbag the roof of the Presidential palace.

Ky gave strong assurances election would be fair and honest.

He was confident of wide support. He said problem would not be getting a large vote, but perhaps in trying to see that his vote didn’t get too high.

The voting would not be rigged, but if the vote was too one-sided many people would just assume it had been.

Ky spoke eloquently and with deep feeling about his role in Vietnam.

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“I could make a lot of money, but I haven’t. I could go off as Ambassador to Paris or Morocco and have a good life. I know how to enjoy things and how to spend money. I can make money when I leave this job. And I will.

“But now my work is here. This is my country; these are my people. And I want to help them. I want them to live well, to have the things they want. That is what is important to me.”

Harry and I felt positive he meant every word of it.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. LXXII. Secret. Received at the LBJ Ranch at 11:12 a.m. The notation “L” on the telegram indicates that the President saw it. The President was in Texas May 28–30. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) Jorden and McPherson were in Vietnam May 22–June 3 to assess field operations and RD activities. (Telegram DEPSECDEF 3536, May 15; ibid., National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. LXXI)