213. Telegram From the Central Intelligence Agency to the Station in Saigon 1

CIA 0644. For Mr. Hart only. The Department of State has requested that the following cable be passed through our channels to Ambassador Bunker. Please give it to him personally and make no further distribution he does not specifically direct. We would appreciate cabled confirmation of his receipt of this message.

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We have weighed your message to the Secretary (CAS 8185)2 with the greatest care. Highest levels have approved this cable designed to give you our thoughts and to elicit your comments.

While we do not finally reject your proposal, our initial reaction is strongly negative. We particularly note your underlying judgment that Loan’s activities have reached the point where, even if he reforms and elections are conducted reasonably honestly, very few [Page 538] Vietnamese will have faith that this has been the case so long as he has remained in his present position. However, your proposed approach raises the most serious problems, as you are of course well aware, and we believe we should at least have an exchange on all the factors and explore whether there is some lesser step that might be attempted before we decide whether to hit Ky frontally on any form of proposal that involves the removal of Loan.
For your comment, here are some of the factors that worry us:
We could certainly place Loan in some military training course here, and this has the advantage of making his absence temporary. At the same time, given his high visibility and close identification with Ky, we simply do not see that any assignment for him—military training, an Ambassadorship, whatever—would be read in all politically conscious circles (as well as the military) as anything other than an admission of serious wrongdoing by Ky. Would not Ky regard it as a tremendous loss of face? Might not Loan himself react in some highly disruptive way, perhaps even to the point of organizing a group to get Ky to reverse his decision or even to attempt a seizure of power? And would it not break up and demoralize Ky’s whole inner group?
The effect on Thieu’s candidacy seems to us equally uncertain. In a sense, Ky’s loss of face would be Thieu’s gain, and Thieu would be in a position to say that his candidacy had been undertaken in order to prevent or limit the improper use of government influence in the election, and the Loan removal satisfied him that this would be the case. However, we have grave doubt that Thieu would accept any such reasoning. Might he not decide all the more firmly to run, feeling that he had Ky at a disadvantage with the clear admission of wrongdoing implied by the Loan removal? Might he not, alternatively, press to get rid of others in Ky’s entourage such as Tri and Khang, against whom he is equally bitter and who can with some plausibility be linked to the pattern of excessive government involvement? In short, do we really gain or lose with respect to the Thieu/Ky split and the serious chance of continued military division during the campaign?
Our assuming a covert supporting role with Ky may indeed be the only price that would get Ky to accept the removal of Loan, but it is a terribly stiff one. Almost certainly Loan himself would be aware of the deal, and we would be to a large extent at the mercy of both Ky and Loan in keeping our role truly covert. To a great many people who do not accept—as we do—your judgment that a Ky victory is the best outcome we can hope for, suspicion and attack would come naturally. Exposure would appear particularly likely if we injected financial support. Above all, we simply do not believe that, in the over-all atmosphere of Vietnamese politics, any extensive relationship could be kept from becoming public. The danger of exposure might be somewhat reduced [Page 539] to the degree that we were able to keep our relationship with Ky on at least the ostensible basis of advising with respect to conducting an honest election, but this is no real cover for an extensive program such as you envisage. If we were exposed, or even widely assumed to be supporting Ky covertly, the effect not only on the election but on the standing of a future Ky-led government could be almost fatal.
In any event, we would wish to examine any plan for covert action in real detail before agreeing to it. We have doubts not only about keeping it secret but about [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] capabilities to handle it effectively.
With these objections in mind, we have thought hard about any alternative ways of bringing about the removal of Loan. We can frankly think of no specific threat or inducement that would do this. A threat to support any of Ky’s opponents would surely be unwise (and in the case of Huong, impractical, since we suppose he would not accept covert support even if offered). We are almost driven to consider comments to Ky that would have the effect of threatening him with a change in our whole USG policy of support for South Vietnam if he allows Loan to stay and thus prejudices adequate and accepted integrity of the elections. We do not rule out threatening remarks in this direction—and indeed they would have substantial basis—but it is at best a last resort.
Hence, we wonder if, on balance, the removal of Loan is really of such primary importance as to be worth the risk and cost. In searching for alternatives, one appears to be a determined effort to persuade Ky to keep Loan and others on a really tight rein. We are prepared to admit that Loan’s actions to date will still have the contaminating effect you cite, and you are of course aware of pending stories, for example by Denis Warner, that will very soon hit us all hard on his conduct. If there is any way to reduce the impact of his staying, it obviously lies in the most dramatic pattern of conduct by Ky of extended reform that can be devised. Part of this might even be a reconsideration of our previous strongly negative attitude on having General Thang resign and become Ky’s campaign manager, coupled with an announcement that all officials remaining in the government would stick to their jobs, and that Thang would be responsible for seeing that this was done. We realize that this could have a serious effect on Thang’s future usefulness, and on the RD program during the election period. But unless there is somebody with an equal reputation for integrity to throw into the breach, this might be an essential part of this least worst proposal.
Along this line, the first move would be a direct approach to Ky. In the first instance, we believe this might be by your best [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] contact, who would have the advantage of not involving your personal credit to the same extent, and [Page 540] leaving the way open for more drastic representations by you if later required and approved. Accordingly, we would like your comment on a possible approach to Ky which might be along the following lines:
USG regards reports of activities of Ky’s leading supporters, notably Loan, as totally destructive of whole pattern of reasonably and visibly fair and honest elections that USG regards as essential. Here you would use as many specifics as possible.
From its wide contacts, USG is clear that these activities are widely known in SVN political circles and also to responsible US reporters. We expect that there will shortly be extremely damaging stories that will both affect US opinion and have bad playback in Vietnam.
Result of present trends can only be to sour entire atmosphere in SVN and produce a situation in which Ky may win, but without any prospect of getting wide civil-military support necessary for successful leadership of his country.
USG is not opposing Ky candidacy and indeed considers he has substantial potential for leadership. Nor does USG feel that Ky should refrain from using normal advantages of incumbent government. He should well know the difference between this sort of activity and the kind of excesses now reported to us as being committed. Recent Korean experience should show Ky the damage that can come to even a strongly-based leader such as Park by excessive and corrupt practices by subordinates.
USG had been prepared to consult with Ky covertly on ways to have election honest and also limits within which he could make proper use of his normal advantages as incumbent.
With all these factors in mind, USG urges Ky immediately to frame convincing correction program, discuss it with contact, and put it into effect. Essential element in any such program would be convincing measures to bring Loan under control and to have all officials confine themselves to their proper duties.
The next question is how to get Thieu to withdraw his candidacy. A further attempt to do this might be made if Ky responded to our approach by setting up a real correction program, and if Ky at the same time made a firm offer of chief of the army for Thieu. Alternatively, might Thieu now be finding the limits of his support, so that he could be persuaded by a hard and direct approach even before the correction program is undertaken? Clearly, on your analysis, part of Ky’s reason for unleashing Loan has been the Thieu candidacy, and we might have to work out the correction program and Thieu’s withdrawal simultaneously.
Next, whatever steps we take with Ky and Thieu, we believe that we must have close and continuing contact with principal civilian [Page 541] candidates in any event, and wonder whether there is more we might be doing in this respect. Such contact would be designed to keep them from taking any drastic action, and to keep close reading of their feelings. Moreover, in terms of the effect on Ky, we believe it should be overt and known to him, and mention of this might be included in our proposed approach by [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] contact.
Finally, we believe Bui Diem might be able to play a constructive role. He has told us that Ky wants him back very soon and we could urge him to return at once and give him clear picture of depth of our concern. We doubt whether we should go beyond message in para 5, A–D, with him, however, leaving the real bite of E–F to your [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] contact.
Throughout this effort we know that you will have clearly in mind that whatever course we follow we should keep as a primary objective the avoidance of any action which would add to the chances of military disunity. In particular we would like your judgment as to consequences that an action against Loan would have within the group of the military leadership supporting Ky and among the so-called “Baby Turks.”
Finally, we need your views on how McNamara/Katzenbach visit can best be fitted into any course of action. If you feel it wise to keep this matter wholly in the hands of yourself and members of the Mission, we will completely understand, but the visit may provide special opportunities, and it could be difficult in any event to avoid mention of these central subjects during the visit.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Intelligence File, Vietnamese (South) Elections 1967. Secret; Most Sensitive; Immediate. In a covering note to Katzenbach, Rostow, and Bundy, June 20, Carver wrote: “At Mr. Bundy’s request, the attached cable—the final text of which was confirmed to me telephonically by Mr. Rostow—was transmitted via Agency channels to Saigon at 2200 EDT, Tuesday, 20 June 1967. No distribution of this cable has been or will be made by this Agency save to the three recipients of this memorandum.”
  2. See Document 209.