192. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

27781. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my sixth weekly telegram:

The papers which I mentioned in my message last week as having requested Ambassador Locke, General Westmoreland and Ambassador Komer to submit—i.e. on the optimum use of manpower by Ambassador Locke; on the reorientation of the Mission of the Vietnamese armed forces and their revitalization with emphasis on improvement and quality by General Westmoreland; and on an action program for stepping up revolutionary development by Ambassador Komer are in course of preparation.2 I hope to be able to report on the substance of these and our conclusions as to what ought to be done on these priority matters in the near future.
Both here and on field trips, Bob Komer has explained to our entire organization engaged in revolutionary development the new organizational setup and how we expect it to work. I am sure this has [Page 467] been effective in removing any lingering apprehension on the part of the civilian elements of the organization that they were being submerged in the military. I am satisfied that we shall have a better and harder-hitting organization for our advisory and supporting role in revolutionary development with this merging of the civilian-military elements and the consequent concentration of responsibility envisaged in the single management concept we have adopted.
In a series of splendidly executed offensive operations undertaken by General Westmoreland since late April in which a total of over 11,000 of the enemy have been killed in action, the enemy has been kept off balance and his time schedule been disrupted. Captured documents, reports by returnees and others indicate that the main effort of the enemy to achieve his summer campaign objectives has been postponed from May to June or July.
While the enemy’s offensive thrust has been blunted, it has not been eliminated. Enemy pressure (from two and possibly three divisions) continues along the DMZ. Infiltration through Laos also continues and during the past three weeks enemy activity in the central highlands has stepped up significantly. General Westmoreland’s strategy of anticipating enemy threats and of keeping him off balance has paid off handsomely, and is one which he intends to continue in view of what he foresees as an intensification of enemy attempts to achieve his summer campaign objectives.
An encouraging element of these recent operations has been evidence of the increased effectiveness of the Vietnamese armed forces. In a number of heavy engagements throughout the country ARVN units have responded well to the challenges placed upon them. They contributed materially to the success of the initial operations in the DMZ, killing 342 enemy with a loss of only 31 of their own forces. In a total of 14 other operations in the I Corps area during the past six weeks, ARVN units accounted for 1,400 enemy killed in action. On my trip to the II Corps area yesterday, General Larson told me that the ARVN units under General Vinh Loc’s command were giving a good account of themselves. I believe that where the ARVN is weakest, however, is in their pacification role where motivation and performance still leave much to be desired. Here, of course, the regional and popular forces are also important elements and all are getting increased attention.
The Thieu-Ky rivalry which I shall refer to later in more detail still continues, but efforts are being made by the Vietnamese, with our prodding, to try to work out the problem themselves. I reported on the talk I had had last Saturday3 with Ambassador Bui Diem (Saigon [Page 468] 27480)4 who has been actively pursuing the matter and who has been working with Thieu’s brother, Kieu, to prepare the ground for a meeting between Thieu and Ky. We are reporting today on our latest talks with Kieu (Saigon 27753).5 I also expect to see Bui Diem today or tomorrow and will report on any further developments. I think it is highly desirable that the two principals, with the help of their colleagues, should settle this problem themselves, if at all possible through a genuine and full understanding. I will, of course, continue to encourage them to do so, but am not especially sanguine. I am keeping a close watch on the problem to determine if and when more active intervention on my part is required.
Bui Diem and General Thieu’s brother, Nguyen Van Kieu, are continuing their efforts to bring Thieu and Ky together, and they are still hopeful that a mutually satisfactory compromise can be worked out between them if the ground is carefully prepared before they meet. They may succeed, and certainly that would be the best solution, but I have the growing feeling that time is running against this effort and that the political temperature is again going up rather than down. I mentioned that I had spoken with Bui Diem on June 3 about his efforts to work out a compromise between Ky and Thieu (Saigon 27481).6 He said that the effort to bring them together at a dinner on May 31 had failed because Thieu did not want to see Ky in the presence of the other Generals. However, Thieu let it be known that he would like to see Ky alone, and Ky agreed to this. Bui Diem understood from Kieu that Thieu might be willing to take the Presidency of the Senate or the top position in the armed forces under certain circumstances. Diem also thinks that the chief motive behind Thieu’s present actions is the feeling that he has not been treated fairly by the other Generals. If this is true, it might be possible to overcome Thieu’s bitterness and offer him a position that he can accept. However, Bui Diem has evidently not yet succeeded in bringing Ky and Thieu together. A conversation on June 6 with Thieu’s brother, Nguyen Van Kieu, while confirming generally Diem’s account, indicates that the differences in viewpoint between Thieu and Ky remain substantial.
The Assembly was drawn into the Thieu-Ky conflict last week and it is now involved in a bitter fight over the issue of the election dates. From recent remarks by both Thieu and Huong supporters, I judge that Thieu is considering throwing his weight behind Huong, a move which if taken prematurely would almost certainly preclude any amicable settlement between Thieu and Ky. I hope that a face-to-face talk between Thieu and Ky will be arranged before any public decisions of this sort are made, however.
The Thieu-Ky rivalry was reflected in the Assembly in the handling of the rather confused issue of the 30 “introductions” required of Presidential candidates. Thieu went on the public record on May 11 in opposition to the requirement, terming it “unconstitutional and undemocratic.” The Assembly ignored his opposition and voted the requirement into the electoral law. At Thieu’s behest, the Directorate on May 24 agreed to ask the Assembly to drop this provision in the electoral law.
Ky reportedly went along with the decision in the Directorate meeting. His supporters in the Assembly continued to press for the “introduction” clause, however, and Ky himself was quoted in Viet-Nam Press on June 1 as saying that the requirement “doesn’t matter for those who have the ability to run.” At the same time we had a number of reports that indicated Ky’s supporters were actively rounding up provincial councillors to “introduce” Ky. These tactics were apparently aimed at two objectives: to embarrass Thieu publicly by having the Assembly again reject his views; and to create the impression of a groundswell of support for Ky by having a large number of provincial councillors flock to “introduce” his candidacy.
On June 2 the Assembly voted 45 to 39 in favor of retaining the requirement for 30 “introductions.” This vote fell short of the majority which is required under Article 45 of the Constitution to override a “request for reconsideration” by the executive. It is not clear whether this article applies in this interim period, however.
The question of the 30 “introductions” has thus become a matter of interpretation of the Constitution. The Assembly avoided making any constitutional interpretation by simply reporting its vote to the Directorate. Thieu supporters are known to believe that the Directorate is now free to promulgate the law without the controversial “introduction” provision, but it is by no means certain that Ky and his supporters will go along with that interpretation.7
The confused issue of the 30 “introductions” has become further snarled and political tension somewhat heightened by the related issue of the dates of the elections. The Armed Forces Council decided when it accepted the Constitution in late March that the elections for the Presidency and the Senate should be held on September 1 and the elections for the lower house on October 1. General Thieu announced this decision in promulgating the Constitution on April 1. However, the Assembly subsequently voted to set the Presidential elections for September 3 (which is a Sunday, as required in the Constitution) and the Senate on December 17. The Assembly has so far set no date for the lower house elections. One motive for setting the Senate elections on December 17 may have been that to do so prolongs the life of the present Assembly. Another probably more important motive is the fact that moving the Senate election back to December would permit defeated Presidential candidates to file and run for the Senate.
In the same letter which requested that the Assembly reconsider the “introduction” provision, the Directorate asked the Assembly to change the election dates back to “early September” for the President and the Senate and “early October” for the lower house. The Assembly voted June 3 against the Directorate’s request on the election dates. The leader of the pro-government democratic alliance bloc, Le Phuoc Sang, proposed that a final vote not be taken for several days. When his proposal was voted down, he and about 35 of the bloc’s members walked out of the Assembly. The final vote against the Directorate request was taken after the walk-out.
Sang explained in the Assembly session of June 6 that the walk-out was to protest the way in which the voting had been conducted; he wanted a roll call vote, not a secret ballot. Sang is scheduled to hold a press conference today on the matter. He and about 35 of his bloc of approximately 55 Deputies are at least temporarily boycotting Assembly sessions, though he said yesterday that his bloc would return to the Assembly at a “favorable time,” and I understand from reports today that they will attend the next session. In a counter action, about 8 of Sang’s bloc announced their withdrawal from the bloc in protest against Sang’s moves.
While the question of the 30 “introductions” has become an issue between Thieu and Ky, and their rivalry has thus been projected into the Assembly, the question of the election dates appears to be primarily a matter of pro-government versus “opposition.” From the point of view of the military, the matter involves the question of “face” because the dates were set by the Armed Forces Council. We have had several reports that indicate the Directorate is both united and determined on the election dates issue. A letter from General Thieu was delivered to the Assembly June 6 in which he urges speedy dispatch of [Page 471] the Senate election law to the Directorate so that the Presidential and the Senate laws can be promulgated together. There would be no strong reason to promulgate them together unless the Presidential and Senate elections were held on the same day as proposed by the Directorate. The Thieu letter therefore probably reflects continued government determination to maintain the original dates for the elections. The walk-out of pro-government Deputies and Sang’s press conference today may be designed to justify the Directorate’s amending the electoral laws.
The Assembly voted final approval of the Senate law June 6, without the participation of about 35 of Sang’s democratic alliance bloc. Presumably the law will be sent at once to the Directorate. We understand from members of the Directorate staff that a meeting will be held soon to decide government action on the two laws. It could be a difficult session. Assembly reactions to any changes which the Directorate may make in the laws could also cause more friction between the government and “opposition” Deputies.
In addition to the maneuvers of Ky’s supporters in the Assembly, we have also noted that some of Thieu’s remarks have been censored from the local press. Even though Thieu’s remarks seemed quite unexceptional, an interview between Thieu and a Japanese correspondent on the question of the candidacies of Ky and Thieu and the effect on the unity of the armed forces was heavily cut from the weekend papers. Thieu will, of course, be aware of this censoring of his comments, and it will not be likely to improve the chances of his coming to some agreement with Ky. Ky has also stated publicly his intention to continue censorship during the campaign. He said in a June 4 interview with Viet-Nam Press that “all press articles and reports at home and news dispatches from foreign press concerning the Presidential election to be held in September will be censored if they sow dissent and confusion among the national ranks … The government cannot allow the press to publish articles which criticize the candidates personally … our country has been divided and we should not deepen this division.”
I should also report that Thieu told Harry McPherson on June 2 that he thought it would be very good for the country if Tran Van Huong were elected President. He said that the country is tired of military rule, and he added that if a civilian is elected President he will work, whatever his position, to assure the President the full support of the armed forces and to prevent coups. He again implied several times that he is not very hopeful of winning the Presidency himself. This, together with past remarks and some hints we have had from one of Huong’s supporters suggests to me that Thieu may be thinking his best bet is to back Huong. His hope in this case would be to eliminate Ky as his major power rival by engineering Ky’s defeat in the coming [Page 472] election, or to use this possibility as bargaining leverage to bring Ky around to a compromise.
Although I now fear that the chances of a Thieu-Ky agreement are not very encouraging, as I have said I think we must continue to press for such an agreement as the best possible solution. If in a week or so it becomes clear that there is little or no compromise, we should consider how we might act to resolve the conflict in such a way as to give the least possible jolt to the political health of the nation and the least damage to our freedom of action here.
I think, also, we should urge on all candidates the need for post-election cooperation and widest possible participation in the new government.

[Here follows discussion of the security situation in I and II Corps, economic matters, the Chieu Hoi program, casualties, Korean forces, and visiting Congressional delegations.]

  1. Source: National and Records Administration Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Nodis. Received at 9:42 a.m. In a June 7 covering memorandum transmitting this telegram to the President, Rostow noted that Bunker wanted to know whether President Johnson wanted any changes in the way in which the Ambassador reported in order to be “as helpful to you as he can.” No subsequent alteration was indicated. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 8B (1) [A] Bunker’s Weekly Report to the President) This telegram is printed in full in Pike, The Bunker Papers, pp. 37–44.
  2. In telegram 27204 from Saigon, May 31, Bunker informed the President of his plans to have a weekly meeting with Westmoreland, Locke, and Komer “in order to review progress, to formulate policy and plans, and to devise methods for pushing ahead with priority projects.” In addition to the three papers mentioned, Bunker assigned to himself a paper on “evolution toward a constitutional government and keeping the political process on track.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S) These papers have not been found.
  3. June 3.
  4. Bunker reported in on his meeting with Diem in telegram 27480 from Saigon, June 3. Bunker related his frustrations that despite Ky’s prior assurances to him that he would meet with Thieu “in order to endeavor to come to some arrangement with him,” he had not yet done so. Diem explained the delay by referring to the necessity “for careful preparation” before Ky and Thieu met. In addition, Diem told Bunker that if Thieu recognized that his chances for election were “not good” if he was to be pitted against Ky, he might consider alternatives to becoming President, including the leadership of the Senate or a return to the armed forces. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S)
  5. Dated June 7. (Ibid.)
  6. Dated June 3. (Ibid.)
  7. On June 10 Locke reported that the Directorate had decided the previous day to promulgate the Constitution without the provision requiring formal “introductions” of presidential candidates. (Telegram 27955 from Saigon; ibid.)