195. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Report on Ambassador Diem’s Visit to Saigon


  • H. E. Bui Diem—Vietnamese Ambassador
  • Mr. William P. Bundy—Assistant Secretary—EA
  • Mr. Philip C. HabibEA
Ambassador Diem had returned from three weeks in Saigon on the night of Monday, June 12. The Prime Minister had instructed him to come in and “report” to us on recent events in Saigon. The Prime Minister had asked him to get back to Saigon within a week or so. Diem was hoping to stay a little longer in Washington before returning.
Diem commented that the Middle East crisis appears to have ended up in a way which is beneficial to the Vietnamese problem. In his view Hanoi had been in a hurry to back the Arabs, not having expected the Israelis to move so quickly. There may be some inclination to put the blame on the Russians. Diem believed that the Middle Eastern crisis had opened the eyes of some of the international critics of American policy who would now have to think things over more carefully. During a stopover in Tokyo he had received the distinct impression from conversations with government officials and Parliamentarians that they now feel that while it is easy to criticize American policy it is not so easy to find a solution. This was related to Middle East developments and many people who are critical of American support for Viet-Nam urged US intervention in Israel. At any rate attention was focused on the Middle East and if the Vietnamese situation didn’t tense up this might provide time for the situation in Viet-Nam to improve. Diem clarified this remark by referring to the concentration of official and press criticism on the performance of the Vietnamese Army. Unfavorable remarks about the efficiency of the Vietnamese Army are a cause of concern to Prime Minister Ky, General Vien and others. Basically, the criticism has focused on the weaknesses of the 25th, 5th and 18th Divisions. The Prime Minister would like to solve the problem but it is becoming something of a cause celebre which makes it more difficult to move against particularly incompetent officers. Mr. Bundy asked whether the incompetence in these Divisions was at the command [Page 483] level or generally throughout the officer group. Diem replied that in the case of the 25th Division the problem was to replace General Chinh, whereas in the 5th Division there was a good deal of talk of corruption which was checked out and which turned out to be that the Commander was not so much to blame as were his underlings. The Prime Minister intended to take measures at the proper time. Diem had pointed out to the Prime Minister that the international press knows about the inefficiencies of these Divisions which furthers the impression that Vietnamese troops are no good while US troops are in the thick of the fighting. Fortunately press attention has moved away from this problem but it can be expected to return.
Diem said that in his observation the Prime Minister was not so preoccupied with politics as to forget about the need for improved efficiency in the Government and the furtherance of the pacification program. His desire to push these programs goes beyond, although it is related to, the need for showing improvement before the September elections. Mr. Bundy asked if there was a feeling of “attentisme” among the Vietnamese officials in light of the coming elections. Diem said this was unavoidable but the Prime Minister was trying to minimize it. He was well aware of the need to show progress along all fronts, both military and civilian.
Diem said that the problems of the National Assembly were occupying the Prime Minister. It was Ky’s firm intention to abide by the decisions of the Assembly and to work in full cooperation with it. At the present time the members of the Assembly are emotional in their attitudes and it is difficult to get a consensus but Ky was going to work with and through the Assembly. There were a number of issues involving strong feelings on the part of the Directorate and the Assembly. On the question of the requirement for a Presidential candidate to be presented by thirty elected representatives, this was no problem for Ky who could get thirty or more. The Directorate, however, opposed the measure as did the Catholics. Ky was trying to be neutral and Diem did not believe this would be a major problem.
A second issue between the Assembly and the Directorate involved the question of the Presidential candidates going through a run-off procedure unless a minimum percentage of the vote was secured. The Prime Minister understood the U.S. point of view on the desirability of a run-off and he was basically in agreement. However, he believed after careful analysis that if a run-off were to be provided for at this time it would produce maneuvering which would be detrimental to an honest election. At any rate the issue seemed to be resolved and there would be no run-off.
The date of the elections remained a bone of contention. The Directorate wished Presidential and Upper House elections to be held [Page 484] on the third of September whereas the law as passed by the Assembly provides for Upper House elections on the 17th of December. The Prime Minister has always wanted these elections to be held together and has made his position clear. There will be further examinations and further discussion between the Government and the Assembly.
Diem said that all of this debate was in an atmosphere which had generated strong emotional reaction against the Assembly among certain members of the Directorate and in particular he cited Thieu and Chieu. Some people in the Directorate wished to convene the Armed Forces Congress to over-ride the Assembly but Ky had said that this was impossible. The Constitution had been promulgated and the Armed Forces could not be convened for this purpose. He intends to stick by this opinion and abide by Assembly decisions. Diem believes that in the end all the Generals will agree and that the problems will be worked out. He thinks Ky is maintaining as strong a hand as necessary to assure continuing functioning of the Assembly. Election laws for the first round of elections will be ready before the filing date which is July 15. (Embassy Saigon reports filing date is June 30.)
Mr. Bundy asked how things were between Thieu and Ky. Diem said he would like to tell the whole story. He had had a long conversation with Thieu and many conversations with Ky and other Generals while in Saigon. He was sorry not to be able to bring back a concrete result. Diem said that when he got to Saigon a number of Generals came to tell him of Thieu’s intention to run. He had asked whether this had been by prior arrangement. After discussing the matter with Thieu, Bui Diem discovered that there was considerable misunderstanding between Thieu and the others. According to Thieu he believed that at the time of the promulgation of the Constitution on April 1, the question of his candidacy for the Presidency had been discussed within the Armed Forces Congress and in an “unofficial way” they were prepared to back Thieu. Thieu then went to the hospital where he had a minor operation and was working on his plans for the campaign. A few days later General Thang came to see Thieu and said that on the authority of the majority of the Generals and speaking on their behalf, mentioning them by name, he wanted to say that Ky had a better chance to win and Thieu would be better off not to run. This was a blow to Thieu who was flabbergasted listening to Thang. Thieu thought he had the backing of the officers and now he felt deceived and this was the beginning of the trouble. Diem had talked to the other Generals who claimed that it wasn’t true that they had told Thieu they would back him. They had just been polite about their attitude toward Thieu. It was not true that they had been deceitful; they just simply thought that Ky had a better chance. Thieu continued to feel deceived, an attitude which was furthered by ill-considered censorship of his statements by General Tri. Diem had gone to see Thieu to convey the feelings of the [Page 485] others. He told Thieu that it was not his impression that the Generals were against him but that they preferred to back one man who had the best chance and would do anything they could to get Thieu to change his mind. Thieu said it was a matter of prestige. Diem had asked what might be done to repair the situation and Thieu said he would think it over but he assured Diem that he would do nothing to harm the unity of the Army nor the stability of the country nor would he do anything to harm Ky. Thieu said he knew he would not have a chance to win but his candidacy was a matter of conscience. Diem then talked to Ky who agreed to see Thieu and beg him to withdraw for the sake of unity. It was Diem’s definite impression that Thieu had been hurt morally and was reacting out of bitterness.
Mr. Bundy asked if this bitterness could be reduced. Diem said yes, that Tri had been told to be more careful and that Thang and the others were asked to make some gestures toward Thieu for the sake of unity. Nevertheless before Diem had left Saigon he was told that Thieu would announce his candidacy by the 15th of June.2 This would not necessarily be a final and formal announcement but it would be firmer than hitherto. Thieu’s brother Kieu had been reassuring Bui Diem that even a formal announcement wouldn’t mean that there could be no change and a withdrawal later on. Diem felt that this was still possible even given Thieu’s bitterness.
Diem said that Ky had asked him to report these facts here and to report them even to the President if necessary. Ky felt that he had to run, that he had been urged by people inside and outside the Armed Forces to be a candidate. These people found Thieu indecisive which was the main reason almost all of them prefer Ky. Ky felt compelled to announce and before doing so he had talked to Thieu. He believed that he had Thieu’s tacit agreement. Thieu had told Ky to go ahead with his candidacy. Seeing that this was after Thang had seen Thieu he went ahead. Diem said that he was sorry that things had developed the way they had. The issues looked personal and petty but unfortunately human beings were involved. Mr. Bundy asked what the outlook was. Diem said that ideally Thieu should withdraw and Ky would be the only candidate. It was not possible for Ky to withdraw. The organization for his election was being set up and the other Generals would be “deceived” if he withdrew. The door is still open to Thieu’s withdrawal. It depends largely on Ky who has “not broken his bridges” to Thieu as had the other Generals. Ky would have to go to Thieu and the two of them make whatever arrangement is necessary to secure Thieu’s withdrawal. Diem said that if Thieu withdraws the tension will ease. However if Thieu goes ahead out of bitterness Diem [Page 486] thinks the situation is not as worrisome as we might expect. Of course the military vote will be split but he did not believe there would be any danger to the unity of the Army. Thieu had told Diem and asked him to say in Washington that Thieu will do anything for the sake of unity and will do nothing that could be construed as division. He would take no action by arms or words to weaken the unity of the Army and the stability of the country. So Diem has come to the conclusion that it would be unfortunate to have two military candidates but it will not cause unmanageable divisions within the Army.
Mr. Bundy asked how it could be kept from doing that. Diem replied that General Vien will keep the Army aside from the controversy and that Ky will agree to the Army being kept out of the machinery of politics. It is true that a candidate from an incumbent administration will find it difficult to keep that administration out of politics but the Prime Minister would be careful to operate “normally” and this would help ward off any divisions inside the Army and civil administration.
Diem said that in addition to the problem of military unity there was also a question of how to conduct fair, honest elections. The Prime Minister was well-intentioned but good intentions sometimes do not control men. There were also problems of censorship with the provision of equal facilities for civilian candidates. On censorship the Prime Minister had definite ideas. He did not believe that the campaign should concern itself with issues that should be avoided because they create dangerous dissension. In particular he spoke of religious and regional factors. In his opinion the candidates should reach a consensus on how to conduct the campaign and then abide by it. As far as censorship was concerned Ky was willing to have representatives of the various candidates on the censorship boards so that common approval could be secured. Diem felt that Ky was determined to conduct a fair election as he had just recently assured Congressman Dow and Senator Hart3 but of course intention and ability were different things when it came to controlling people down the line.
This led Diem to discuss the subject of General Loan with the parenthetical remark that this was an embarrassing subject but there was nothing to hide. Diem said that he had met with Loan in the presence of Ky and discussed the problem frankly. He cited the various rumors of Loan’s activities and the consensus. The Prime Minister had agreed with Diem and had asked Loan to re-examine his machinery with a view to controlling the men under him. Diem said that Loan was not a bad man but that he had too many hats and could not control [Page 487] all of his men. Ky wanted an honest election and recognizes the crucial importance of Viet-Nam in following a bad path or setting a bad example for the future. Everyone agrees in principle.
Mr. Bundy referred to the Thieu-Ky problem and asked if a real talk had yet taken place between them. Diem said no, that he had tried to pave the way but when they met they avoided talking about ugly things.4 There was some attempt at trying to reach a prior understanding but he had not succeeded. He had talked to Thieu about his returning to the Army or taking the presidency of the Upper House but had received no reaction. Diem said that Ambassador Bunker had asked if there were anything he could do. At the time Diem felt it was preferable to let the matter be worked out among the Vietnamese. He was wondering if that was still valid or whether or not it would be preferable for Ambassador Bunker to go further. Diem knows that Thieu had been hurt in his conversation with General Westmoreland which he understood as a US suggestion for withdrawal.5Diem believed that Ambassador Bunker should concentrate on Ky at this stage to get Ky to talk frankly with Thieu, making whatever offers were necessary for an amicable settlement. Once Ky had done this then the Ambassador might talk to Thieu.
Diem feels that Thieu is acting impulsively. He knows he can’t win but nevertheless he goes ahead. However, there was still room for maneuver even if the public announcement took place and the situation could clear up by the day candidacies had to be filed.
Diem then referred to a conversation that Ky had had with Tran Van Huong. The two men had mutual respect for each other and had spoken frankly. Huong had told Ky that they could not be running mates in either order but that both should run.6 They did not talk in specific terms but they came out with a general understanding that whoever wins would consider the other for the position of Prime Minister. Diem thought this would be a good combination but he cautioned against any optimism; that there would eventually be a lot of people around each of the men who would be opposed to this. Diem closed by repeating again that the Prime Minister had asked him to report [Page 488] faithfully in Washington and to give his assurances about the conduct of the campaign. Although the Vietnamese people are in a stage of political immaturity and have suffered from communist actions, it is difficult to have normal elections, but he could assure us that as far as the Prime Minister was concerned they will do their best to get the maximum honesty possible and the absence of blatant irregularities. Mr. Bundy pointed out that it wasn’t only in the interest of international acceptance of the elections but it was terribly important also from the standpoint of the Vietnamese people who are shrewd and who would know what was going on. Bui Diem said there was a question of equilibrium. If the Government was too liberal or if it was too crude there could be a great deal of difficulty. He hoped that Ky would handle it with his customary honesty and sincerity.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, EA/VN Files: Lot 71 D 88, Memcons of Amb. Diem, 1967. Drafted by Philip Habib.
  2. He did so on June 15.
  3. Representative John G. Dow (D–NY) and Senator Philip A. Hart (D–MI).
  4. Diem attempted to continue his mediation of the dispute. In telegram 27182 from Saigon, June 8, Bunker reported that he heard from Diem that Thieu and Ky at some point did talk “amicably but without a solution emerging.” They met each other only with other Generals present, and pledged to talk again. Thieu later told Diem that he would stand by his promise not to split the military. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S) In telegram 27982 from Saigon, June 11, Bunker reported that Diem stated before he left for Washington that the situation was “under control” and that “no untoward steps would be taken by the principals or those immediately around them.” (Ibid.)
  5. See Document 163.
  6. Huong announced his Presidential candidacy on May 26.