190. Memorandum From the Political Counselor of the Embassy in Vietnam (Calhoun) to the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker)1


  • Current Political Situation

One of the few advantages of being under the weather a few days in Saigon is that it gives one time to think. So I shall try to sort out a few thoughts as to where we are and where we might go. If they don’t contribute much, please blame it on the viral infection which was perhaps more deep-seated than I thought!

In looking at the electoral scene broadly, the Thieu-Ky factor fits in as only one aspect, although one of importance and perhaps of greater urgency than others. But it should be solved as a part of the broader goals we seek, rather than as a problem in isolation as it tends to appear now. Our goals in general are to unify the country politically so far as possible and to give a greater sense of participation in government to as wide a representation of Vietnamese as possible, consistent with the demands of security.

A serious split in the military, which we now have, is dangerous because it could threaten the entire process. It can be solved either by healing the split or by submerging it in the broader problem so that it may lose some of its poison. Our present efforts, and those of people such as Bui Diem and Nguyen Van Kieu, are directed at healing the split before it becomes unbridgeable. There is a real question whether it hasn’t already become so, but these efforts are worth pursuing until they either succeed or it becomes clear such a result is not attainable. Despite Bui Diem’s pleas for patience, I am increasingly doubtful that [Page 463] Thieu and Ky are going to be able to agree on a solution acceptable to them personally and to their adherents. The only feasible solution seems to be Ky as Presidential candidate and Thieu as a four or five-star head of the Armed Forces, with full authority over RVNAF except the final power of the President and with agreement between the two of them as to what the RVNAF’s tasks and powers should be. If Thieu and Ky are unable between themselves to agree on this solution, I doubt it can be achieved by other means, even with General Westmoreland’s strong support. And we are faced with a dilemma in deciding whether to engage Westmoreland’s considerable prestige for this purpose, since to be effective it must in effect be a demand and it could then only be interpreted by all political circles as the Americans opting for Ky as President. No matter how it is done, this is the way it will be interpreted by the military and civilians alike. If we choose this course and recommend it to Washington, we should point out this consequence clearly. I would be against it myself, since it closes out most of our other options now and makes Ky our man henceforth, win or lose. If Thieu and Ky can arrive at it by themselves, fine.

Assuming that they can not work it out themselves and that Thieu and Ky remain divided, we should try to guide all the principal candidates—civilian or military—into recognizing the need for a government of national union so long as the war continues. By recognition I mean public declarations of intent which are explicit and clear as to what type government will be formed by the candidate who wins. To achieve this, I believe we should work on the principal candidates—or perhaps initially on their closest associates or political managers—to make them understand the overriding need for a wartime coalition employing the best talents available to Vietnam in order to unify the many diverse elements in the country—regional, religious, minorities, military, civilian, etc. A common declaration of intent by all the serious candidates might temper the existing bitterness and division, even among the military, before it grows deeper with the election campaign. If successful, such a declaration might also bring some moral pressure to bear on the “incumbent” candidate(s) not to wage a political campaign based on unlimited use of their very considerable advantages.

The practicability of such an approach is hard to judge. The incumbent(s) are undoubtedly counting heavily on their built-in assets and probably also estimate that public and other criticism and pressure will not diminish them seriously. The civilians on their side are counting on their southern and civilian appeal to overcome their material disadvantages. To declare publicly that they will bring their military opponents into high office—including the Prime Ministership—will in their eyes undercut one of their principal appeals to the electorate. Thus, while we might be able to get Thieu or Ky to make some such declaration, it is more doubtful that Suu and Huong and [Page 464] Ha Thuc Ky would be prepared to do this in advance. If it can be combined with effective guarantees of truly free elections and really equal facilities available to all candidates, then it might be more acceptable to them. This argues further for strong pressure by us on Ky to assure that such are provided. In addition, we might consider the added pressure of suggesting that official observation teams be invited from one or more international organizations to observe during July and August. These teams should be assured of the right to make public demands for equalization of opportunity based on specific complaints brought to their attention or filed with the Central Election Campaign Committee. Only if these teams had full and immediate access to all news media could these demands have their effect in time. To set up such a complex and highly organized arrangement through existing international organs may not be feasible in the short time remaining but it should at least be considered. As you know, Do invited U Thant to send observers but he was non-committal and he did not send them in September 1966. My own experience in Korea with UNCURK2 hardly encourages me to believe that this procedure can be very effective, although there they had an autocratic and clever opponent in Syngman Rhee3 and here we have a world press much more focused on the problem.

With all its potential disadvantages, perhaps we should still quietly explore the feasibility of some such course of action, first with Washington and then with the principal competing groups. To be successful the result must be public agreement on all aspects by all parties, namely (1) free and fair elections, the results of which will be accepted by all parties; (2) equal facilities for all qualifying candidates; (3) an effective Central Election Campaign Committee able to speak and act freely and impartially; (4) international teams to observe and make public statements on the foregoing; (5) post-election cooperation by the principal candidates through offers to employ the talents available in opposing tickets to form a government of national union to prosecute the war and negotiate the peace.

Even if we decide not to pursue all of these points, I believe we should (1) continue to encourage quiet mediation between Thieu and Ky, (2) pursue “equal facilities” vigorously with Ky and let our position ultimately become known, (3) not let our options be closed out prematurely or by inadvertence, and (4) keep continuously in touch at various levels with all the principal candidates and their closest supporters.

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If nothing else, perhaps the foregoing could be a useful basis for discussion in a small group.

  1. Source: Center for Military History, Dep CORDS/MACV Files, GVN Elections (General): 1967. Secret. Copies were sent to Locke and Komer.
  2. UN Commission on Unification and Reconstruction of Korea.
  3. The Republic of Korea’s first President.