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

28170. 1. In one hour talk with Thieu last night after his return from I Corps I took up with him the matter of the unity of the armed forces and its relationship to the Presidential elections as I had with Ky earlier.2 I recalled to him the President’s very deep concern that the electoral process should not lead to a division within the military and the repeated assurances both he and PMKy had given me in the past that this will not be permitted to happen. I said that in recent days we have had reports from the press and from people that have talked with him that he was planning shortly to announce his candidacy for the Presidency. Since PMKy had long ago announced his candidacy it seemed to me that we will be faced with a situation to bring about a split in the armed forces. I realized that General Vien had announced that the military would not support any political candidates for President and I welcomed this statement of intention. I feared, however, that the reality was that the presentation of two candidates from the armed forces both of whom had close friends within the forces would inevitably result in a division of loyalty and support among the military.

2. I said that I hoped and had been led to believe that he and the Prime Minister would discuss this difficult question personally and privately in order to find an acceptable solution but I understood that they had not done so. Therefore I had to say to him very frankly that I thought it was urgent and essential for him and the Prime Minister to discuss this matter directly with a view to finding a solution that would assure that the armed forces and the country would not be divided. I informed Thieu that as I had been unable to see him earlier I had already talked to Prime Minister Ky and impressed upon him the vital necessity of discussing this matter frankly together and arriving at a solution.

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3. It was not our desire to take sides on the question of who should become President but rather to make sure that the constitutional electoral process strengthened the country and brought about true national unity rather than further dividing the nation. I felt sure that as a true patriot we could count upon him to recognize the importance of achieving these objectives and to do his best to bring them about.

4. Thieu replied at length and for him with considerable emotion. He said that he not only recognized the necessity for unity of the armed forces but could assure me that the military would remain united whether there were two or three or four candidates from the armed forces. They wanted to stay clear of politics and get on with the war. It was not the armed forces but what some people were doing which was tending to create disunity in the country and to make people doubt that the elections would be fair and honest. He then referred directly to some of Ky’s activities, the latter’s attempted use of some members of the armed forces such as General Tri and General Thang in support of his candidacy, the flagrant abuse of censorship, and General Loan’s activities. “How can you expect the public to believe that elections will be fair and honest when the remarks of the Chief of State are censored? What do you think the public reaction is when people see signs reading Prime Minister Ky’s government is the government of the poor. It is not Ky’s government, the Directorate is the government and I happen to be its chairman.”

5. Thieu went on to describe Loan’s activities in bringing pressure to bear on the provincial heads of the national police and on province chiefs to support Ky. He said that General Thang and the RD organization will be the next to feel the pressure. He added that all these activities of Ky and his associates were widely known to the press and the public generally and he said “You do not have to take my word for it. You have ample means of intelligence and you can find out for yourselves.”

6. Thieu then went on at some length to stress his view of the imperative need for fair and honest elections if the people were to have any confidence in the government. Otherwise he said there would be a return to the days of Diem and eventually there would be another coup.

7. I recalled to him the recent statements appearing in the press that he would become a candidate and said that in our last conversation he had indicated that he had not yet definitely made up his mind. I asked him if he had yet done so and he replied that he had intended to become a candidate and would have a civilian running mate. He repeated his previous statement to me that he had little money at his disposal, would not ask for the support of any members of the armed forces and had as yet no organization and therefore his chances of being [Page 514] elected were not good. Nevertheless, it was a matter of conscience with him to become a candidate and to do what he could to assure honest elections. As things stood now he could not guarantee honest elections yet as chief of state he would be held responsible. If he was not able to bring about a change he would prefer to resign rather than be blamed for something he was unable to control.

8. I said that we shared his conviction that elections should be fair, free and honest but we also felt that it was essential that unity of the armed forces should be maintained and the war prosecuted with the utmost vigor. I therefore felt it was urgent that he and PMKy should get together without delay and try to come to some understanding. Granting that both were well intentioned and sincerely believed that unity of the military could be maintained if there were more than one military candidate, I could not accept this to be a realistic view of the situation. It could not be expected that the US could continue the huge contribution it was making in men, money and resources unless the Vietnamese themselves avoided internal dissension and exerted their utmost efforts also. Thieu replied “Yes, that is true, your contribution is tremendous and people believe that your interest in the situation here is so great that if the elections are not honest you will share part of the blame.”

9. Comment: Thieu was non-committal about his willingness to talk with Ky. It is apparent that his resentment at Ky’s aggressiveness and activities runs very deep. While it is difficult to know what is really in the back of his mind his statement that he would be a candidate is the most categorical he has yet made to me. Whether this will be his final decision is difficult to say, this may depend on what other factors are brought into play. Nevertheless for the present we must assume that he will be a candidate and plan our next steps accordingly. These we are considering and will have further comments and recommendations.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Received at 9:39 a.m. and repeated to CINCPAC for POLAD and passed to the White House, where it was retyped for the President. Rostow sent it to the President under a covering note which read: “Herewith Bunker leans on Thieu. No clear answer yet—and pretty sticky.” The notation “L” on the covering note indicates that the President saw the telegram. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Memos to the President, Walt Rostow, 6/1–8/2/67, Vol. I)
  2. See Document 198.