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

16000. 1. I visited General Thieu, who told me about progress towards a Constitution, saying that working groups representing the GVN and the Constituent Assembly were working close together at the Independence Palace with a great deal of agreement and an excellent “tone” to the proceedings.2

2. He believed that after the Constitution had been promulgated the members of the Constituent Assembly would serve individually as a sort of an electoral commission to devise the procedures for holding the election for President.

3. There would be a provision in the Constitution [omission—establishing a National Security] Council to advise the President on military matters. This, he said, would be one way in which the military would be recognized in the new government. Another way, of course, would be for military men to take off their uniforms and be candidates.

4. When I asked him about Presidential candidates, he said that [Page 47] the persons whose names were heard mentioned were Suu, Dan, Don, Huong,3Thanh and then “the two military ones,” Thieu and Ky.4 He felt that Huong and Thanh had the least chance.

5. I asked him whether he thought these seven names would all be printed on the ballot, pointing out that if this happened it would be not only impossible for any one man to get a majority, but it would be very difficult to get a plurality of any significant size.

6. Without giving me a direct answer to my question, he made it clear that thought is being given as to how a multiplicity of candidacies can be whittled down. One method being discussed is that no candidate’s name could go on the ballot unless a certain number of deputies in the Constituent Assembly were to sign what in effect would be a nomination paper.

7. He then said that to get anything done in Viet-Nam, it was necessary to have: A) the support of the military; B) the support of the Vietnamese people; and C) the support of the Americans. There was much talk, he said, that the Americans were supporting Suu and Dan. I said that I thought I was in a position to know, and that the Americans, meaning the United States Government, is not supporting anyone.5

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8. I agreed with him that the promulgation of a Constitution and the election of a President were a beginning, and that it was important to have men in these high offices who could command the confidence of the people and move the country ahead.

9. On Article 21, he agreed with me that if the Constitution was a satisfactory document, as he believed it would be, this provision would be a dead letter.6

10. Altogether his report on Constitution-making was a report of progress.

11. As I was leaving, he brought up the matter of the revamping of the ARVN, and said that he was making a systematic tour of the country, speaking to the officers wherever he went and stressing the absolutely vital nature of this job which only the Vietnamese could do. He stressed the importance of working closely with the district and province chiefs and the importance of promoting officers on the basis of their work in pacification and not on the basis of how many Viet Cong they had killed or how many guns and Viet Cong weapons they had seized. He negated reports which I had heard of stubborn resistance to using the ARVN in this way. He did not find resistance, but found a lack of understanding. With understanding, he thought the program would really move.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Exdis. Received at 2:41 a.m. and passed to the White House, DOD, and CIA at 3:44 a.m.
  2. During the first part of 1967, the GVN wrestled with internal differences over the promulgation of a new Constitution. Not only did the ruling Directorate have points of disagreement with the newly-formed Constituent Assembly, but within the executive body itself Thieu and Ky were locked in a dispute over the procedures for Presidential candidacy. (Telegram 15193 from Saigon, January 9; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. LXIV, Memos (B))
  3. Phan Khac Suu, Phan Quang Dan, Tran Van Don, Tran Van Huong, and Au Truong Thanh were prominent South Vietnamese political figures.
  4. In a conversation with a U.S. Military Attaché, Prime Minister Ky expressed his desire to return to active military service, but since in his view no other potential Presidential candidate had a following comparable to his, Ky feared political instability if he left office. “There will be coups and counter-coups, the likes of which we have not seen before,” he predicted. (Telegram 15080 from Saigon, January 9; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. LXIV, Memos (B)) In a January 10 covering memorandum submitting this information to the President, Walt Rostow commented that Ky’s major dilemma was: “should he try to be George Washington or not?” (Ibid.)
  5. On February 1 EAP prepared an analysis of the alternative Presidential slates in the upcoming campaign in South Vietnam in response to a request by President Johnson. The analysis, drafted by Robert H. Miller of the Vietnam Working Group and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Leonard Unger, asserted that Thieu was the candidate with the most support from the military since Ky lacked Thieu’s broader base; Ky’s potential success would depend on who became his running mate. Others such as former government figureheads Phan Khac Suu and Tran Van Huong were considered either too old or too weak to be elected, and former Generals Duong Van Minh and Tran Van Don would disrupt the unity of the military. In various combinations, a potential Presidential slate could either emphasize the civilian character of the incoming government and broaden its appeal, or it could acquire a different nature and maximize military support for and cohesiveness in the new regime. Miller and Unger expressed concern as to whether the military would indeed turn over power to the civilians. The best option available to the U.S. Government was not to support any particular candidate but to ensure a fair election. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15–1 VIET S) The South Vietnamese apparently regarded the matter differently. In a conversation with a member of the MACV staff on February 21, JGS Chairman Cao Van Vien pointed out that “absolutely no positive guidance in this matter has been forthcoming from the U.S. side,” an omission that had a “counter-productive effect” upon the leadership of the GVN just at the critical stage when American advice was needed most. (Memorandum of conversation, February 21; U.S. Army Military History Institute, William C. Westmoreland Papers, History File, 2/2/Jan 67–28 Mar 67)
  6. Article 21 provided for the continuation of the Constituent Assembly as the legislative arm of the government until the first National Assembly was elected. In addition, the military-dominated government of South Vietnam sought to make other changes in the draft Constitution. The most important contention involved the perceived curtailment of Presidential powers in the document. In telegram 16456 from Saigon, January 25, Bunker wrote: “I agree with the government that the President should have the normal powers with respect to emergencies and foreign affairs. We are using our influence to help bring about the necessary changes to that end. I also favor some provision to insure that the President will be elected by at least a large plurality. With a large number of candidates, some thinning out device is indispensable to prevent the winner from having a very low percentage of the total vote.” National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)