237. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State 1

893. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my eleventh weekly telegram.

Secretary McNamara, Under Secretary Katzenbach, and their colleagues left yesterday afternoon after a five-day visit which included an intensive series of briefings and field trips. For me and my colleagues here, both civilian and military, this has proved to be an extremely useful exercise. It gave us an opportunity to review our objectives, to appraise what progress we may have made, where we have gone wrong, and to come up with definite proposals for future action and for accelerating the pace of progress here. It has been valuable to us also in providing a more intimate view of the Washington picture, and the problems you are facing there, for through contacts of this kind one can get a feel for the situation which telegraphic communications do not convey. Finally, meetings such as this help us to crystallize our thinking and force us to come to definite conclusions as to what new and definite steps we should undertake to get on with the job.
As a result of the meetings, I believe that Bob McNamara, Nick Katzenbach, and my senior colleagues and I have come to a meeting of the minds on how we ought to proceed in reinforcing the success we have already had here. They will be reporting to you, of course, in detail on the meetings and of our conclusions. I will therefore only summarize here what I believe are some of the more salient points:2
That we should provide General Westmoreland with the number of maneuver battalions available without calling up the Reserves. Bob McNamara has indicated that he could provide up to 21 battalions.
Maintain our bombing of North Viet-Nam through the remaining months of good weather. We can then decide whether to cut back to the 20th parallel and whether we then think a pause to test out [Page 594] Hanoi’s intentions would be advisable. The onset of unfavorable weather would provide the basis for a rationale for a decision on these points.
That we should intensify our efforts at interdiction of infiltration by the enemy in Laos through application of the measures envisaged in Illinois City and Compatriot. We should also allow brigade size ARVN raids into Laos. As I have mentioned in previous messages, I realize the political sensitivity of operations in Laos but I also feel that if necessary we should go beyond these proposed steps to choke off enemy infiltration, for I believe this is the crux of the military problem here. Since I have covered this in some detail in previous messages I will not repeat here the suggestion I have already made.
Continuing efforts to improve the ARVN/RF/PF. General Westmoreland has already an intensive program underway which I have previously reported in some detail. Considerable improvement in performance is already evident but much remains to be done, especially with the RF/PF forces; and also with ARVN’s role in pacification. Secretary McNamara brought up the matter in our talks with Chairman Thieu, Prime Minister Ky and General Vien yesterday. They recognized the need for improvement. Ky said that the RF/PF especially needed better leadership and better living conditions to improve morale. The military and the civil service have been the chief sufferers from inflation while laborers and farmers have to a degree benefitted from full employment, increased pay and prices for farm products.
The maximum use of manpower and its more effective utilization. We are agreed that after the elections mobilization will be necessary. As I have mentioned previously, Ambassador Locke has this whole problem under intensive study. Secretary McNamara made it clear in our talks yesterday with Thieu and Ky that maximum use of RVN manpower and its more effective utilization was a prerequisite to the deployment of greater U.S. or free world forces.
Speeding up of pacification. Bob Komer will be reporting to you in detail on what is being done here. Although progress to date may have seemed rather slow, I am frankly encouraged, not only by the progress already made, but by the improved prospects which our own reorganization of our advisory and supporting role promise. Through it I am confident that we shall be able to bring greater emphasis and leverage to bear on the Vietnamese role, for no matter how efficient the organization of our role may be, unless the Vietnamese carry the main burden, the program cannot succeed. As Ky said in our talks yesterday, pacification really means nation-building and this is a big job, especially in wartime. But he also expressed confidence that their part in it would become increasingly effective. In this connection, it is encouraging that he mentioned a fact on which Gene Locke, Bob Komer [Page 595] and I are all agreed, that the Province Chief is a vitally important element in the process. He expressed dissatisfaction with the present quality of incumbents and is planning on setting up a training center for Province Chiefs and replacement of those who are unsatisfactory. He also expressed the view that Province Chiefs should have control of the ARVN/RF/PF forces assigned to pacification and should also have direct access to the central government instead of having to go through the Division and Corps Commanders as at present. We here are all in agreement on this also. General Thieu expressed a differing view, feeling that the Division Commander should have more responsibility for pacification.
The necessity that elections should be fair and honest. Secretary McNamara expressed very clearly and explicitly the importance you attach to the holding of fair and honest elections. He emphasized strongly the fact that unless the elections were free and fair public opinion in the U.S. undoubtedly will be adversely affected and this in turn would affect the support which the Vietnamese are receiving from the U.S. and other free world countries. As you know, I also have repeatedly stressed these points to Thieu and Ky. I hope and believe that this repeated emphasis is having some effect, but as I mentioned in last week’s message3 the unfolding electoral process will have to have our close attention until the elections are concluded. One good sign is the general feeling that censorship, police harassment, and the pressures on the civil service to support the military candidate are greatly reduced. There is also general relief that the military have closed ranks and can now concentrate on fighting the Viet Cong instead of one another.
Economic stability and measures to restrain inflation. We are agreed on the need for a study of means for preventing an unacceptable degree of inflation while permitting an increase in military manpower and the initiation of other priority measures.
Some other points which came out of our meetings with Thieu, Ky and General Vien yesterday were:
On ARVN/RF/PF: Ky and General Vien advocated an increase in force levels of 65,000, lowering the draft age to 18 and extending the length of service. Discharges have been stopped. This will mean that 40,000 men who would have been otherwise eligible to discharge will be retained. This has been done administratively on the basis that additional forces will be needed to provide protection during the electoral process.
Ky and Vien believe that the Communists may try for one big victory before elections, that they will increase attacks on the pacification [Page 596] program, and attempt to disrupt the elections at the village and hamlet level.
They believe that the first three months of the new government will be a testing time for the new regime. During this period the Viet Cong/North Vietnamese Army will continue an intensified series of attacks but it will also be an opportunity to strengthen the government in South Vietnam by broadening its base, and an opportunity to convince the Viet Cong that a military victory is impossible.
On the question of negotiations, Ky emphasized the fact that the Government of Vietnam was willing to talk to Hanoi at any time but that an elected government would be in a stronger position to do so. This should be done at the “proper time” with adequate preparation. Ky mentioned the fact that two years ago the Government of Vietnam was “talking about going North,” a year ago about two Vietnams, and now could talk about how to end the war. Thieu asked whether Secretary McNamara had information as to whether the main military targets in North Vietnam had been destroyed and if therefore a cessation of bombing would be an inducement to negotiations. The Secretary pointed out that we did not yet have enough information on this score and that except for manpower the North Vietnamese war-making potential was really not located in North Vietnam, but came from outside sources. He mentioned the fact that one thing we would not want to do is to get into Korean-type negotiations which continued for two years during which hostilities also continued. He pointed out that our losses were heavier during the negotiating period than preceding it.
Ambassador Locke will have reported to you in very considerable detail on plans and programs underway and contemplated in the military, manpower, pacification, economic and political areas. I concur in his observations and recommendations. I may add that all of us here—Gene Locke, Westy, Bob Komer, and I, together with our senior advisors, General Abrams, Don MacDonald, Barry Zorthian, John Hart and Arch Calhoun—are all working very closely together, keep in the closest contact and are in general agreement on how we ought to proceed. I am really very pleased with the way in which the organization is functioning here.
After the rather frantic political activity leading up to the filing deadline for both presidential and senatorial candidates, we are now in a bit of a lull. The principal candidates, including Thieu and Ky, are quietly assessing the meaning of the Thieu-Ky merger and the Big Minh bid. They are also looking over the Senate lists, most of which were put together with such haste that the political implications and ramifications are only now beginning to emerge.
Thus at a luncheon I had for the Under Secretary, the principal civilian candidates were in a rather relaxed mood. I gathered from them and from a number of other reports that they are rather more optimistic as a result of the Thieu-Ky merger. Their reaction to Big Minh’s candidacy is cautious, but I believe they are for the most part hoping that the Assembly will decide to disqualify him.
There is considerable skepticism expressed by many of our contacts that Thieu and Ky will be able to work effectively in the future. Although some of these predictions are politically motivated and should be viewed as such, I feel, as I point out later, that we must recognize that the new arrangement places strains on their relationship which could cause us problems in the future.
The candidacy of Big Minh is the major unresolved political question at the moment. On July 6 General Cao Van Vien and all four of the Corps Commanders sent to the Assembly a joint complaint against Minh’s candidacy, referring to the decision of the Armed Forces Council against permitting Minh to return on grounds of national security.4
Also on July 6 a citizen filed a complaint against Minh’s running mate, Tran Ngoc Lieng, on the grounds that Lieng once held both French and Vietnamese citizenship. (The Constitution provides that candidates must have Vietnamese citizenship from birth, but says nothing about dual citizenship.) If Lieng is disqualified, Big Minh would automatically be eliminated from the race.5
The top military leaders appear to be united in their opposition to Big Minh’s candidacy; they are now on public record against it, and their prestige is thus engaged. In the past when the military leadership stood together on important issues, their influence on the Assembly was usually decisive. Assembly Chairman Phan Khac Suu has also told us that he is opposed to Big Minh’s candidacy.
The issue is now before the Central Election Council and we are inclined to believe that it will find against him. If it does, the decision will be reviewed by the Assembly. There is considerable reluctance to take responsibility for the decision, however, and if a plausible legal case can be made against either Big Minh or his running mate, the decision would likely be much easier for both the Council and the Assembly.
If the Council and the Assembly should decide to throw out the complaint against Minh, the military would probably still try to stick to their decision to keep him out of the country. Press reports from Bangkok quote Minh as saying he is determined to “appear” in Saigon soon, one way or another, and there have been hints that he would try to slip back into the country secretly if the military continue to bar his return. This would pose a hard problem for the present military leadership, and the results would be difficult to predict.
I continue to think that Minh’s candidacy could pose a serious threat to military unity. His bid for the presidency might also divide the nation in other ways. The Catholics are strongly opposed to his candidacy and would probably react vigorously if he continued to be a candidate. He has some Buddhist support, and while this strength is difficult to gauge, it could turn out to be enough to threaten a revival of religious tension and even open religious conflict such as that which erupted between Catholics and Buddhists in 1964. Thus, the Minh candidacy appears to me to pose a clear threat to the essential degree of political stability without which we cannot get further progress toward democratic government in this country.
The candidacy of Au Truong Thanh, the former Minister of Economy, is in quite another category.6 We judge that he has very little support. If he is barred from running, there will be no significant popular reaction. If he is allowed to run, he will get few votes. Tran Van Huong has said flatly that he thinks Thanh is working with the Viet Cong and Ha Thuc Ky has also made it clear that he has no use for Thanh. Ha Thuc Ky, in fact, alleges that Thanh filed for the presidency mainly in order to avoid arrest for his leftist connections. The Catholic press has vigorously attacked his “peace-at-any-price” statements.
The complaint against Thanh’s candidacy was filed by an Assembly Deputy, Diep Van Hung, on the grounds that Thanh has had Communist connections in the past. (The electoral law bars those who “have directly or indirectly worked for Communist or pro-Communist neutralism or worked in the interests of Communism.”) Hung claims that Thanh joined the Communist Party in 1952 and notes that he was arrested in 1954 and again in 1959 for activities which aided the Communists.
On July 7 the police held a press conference in connection with the arrest of some intellectuals charged with working with the Viet Cong. According to some press reports, Thanh was linked to those arrested and to the “intellectual proselytizing section of the Saigon Viet Cong organization.”
While we have no hard evidence that Thanh is or was a Communist or “pro-Communist neutralist,” he has certainly had many connections with the far left and near Communist factions in the past. Whatever his motives, he is now clearly trying to exploit the longing for peace in an irresponsible way. His campaign handout sheets (in themselves a violation of the electoral law) are without exception printed in both English and Vietnamese. This indicates to me that one of his targets—if not the main one—is the American press. Unfortunately, he has found a receptive audience in some correspondents.
I believe the precise terms of the Thieu-Ky alliance are still being defined and sorted out. This is likely to continue for some time. If they are elected, it will be a principal and crucial problem at the outset of the new government.
General Thang on July 6 told Lansdale that to the best of his knowledge there is only a vague understanding between Thieu and Ky on their future relationship. Thang said that when this subject came up during the final hours of deciding the Thieu-Ky coalition, Thieu indicated that Ky would have a large say in the Cabinet and Vietnamese armed forces appointments “because we are brothers in a family.” However, we have a CIA report, the source of which is Ky himself, that says that Ky’s future powers were spelled out in a July 6 written agreement between Thieu and Ky. According to this report, Ky must approve all important government decisions, in particular those dealing with major military matters and efforts to end the war. He is also to have the power to name the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. If this report is accurate, knowledge of the agreement is apparently limited to a very small group of officers. I shall be trying to run this down in the next few days. If not already done, I think it important that a definite understanding should be reached between Thieu and Ky on their respective roles, and that we should exert our influence to bring this about.
The Thieu-Ky merger has not pleased some of Ky’s supporters. General Loan is known to be quite unhappy about the arrangement. Some of Ky’s Catholic supporters in the Greater Solidarity Force are now reportedly hesitating to get behind the combined slate. CVT (trade unions) labor leader Tran Quoc Buu yesterday told an Embassy officer that the slate is now “too military,” and it is too early to decide whether or not the CVT should back Thieu-Ky. It is probably not at all surprising that the main civilian candidates should be saying that the Thieu-Ky ticket is weaker than the Ky-Loc slate, but they are saying it with a good deal of conviction.
While most of the major candidates are still organizing their campaigns, some of them have also sketched out some platform ideas. We know that Ky intended to run on the record of his government, with promises of further economic and political progress if elected. Probably this will also be the basic line of the Thieu-Ky platform.

[Here follows discussion of economic and military conditions.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Nodis. Received at 10:35 a.m. The notation “L” on a covering note from Rostow to the President, July 12, 7:45 p.m., indicates that the President saw the telegram. (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. 78–85.
  2. According to a notation on the telegram, paragraphs A and B were deleted from all copies except those sent to the White House, the Under Secretary, and the Secretary of Defense.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 232.
  4. In telegram 418 from Saigon, July 6, Bunker reported that the Generals’ complaint was based on reasons of “national security.” Minh had been barred from returning to Vietnam after his June 28 announcement in Thailand that he would campaign for the Presidency. Minh’s supporters requested that he be allowed to return by July 15. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S) In telegram 519 from Saigon, July 7, Bunker recommended against any overt American involvement in the Minh issue, since he foresaw “no reason to intervene and many reasons not to get involved.” (Ibid.) The Department demurred, however, arguing that the “denial of Minh’s candidacy in our view so deeply affects the election process that we believe we have a legitimate reason for entering into discussions about it with the [South Vietnamese] leaders.” (Telegram 3374 to Saigon, July 8; ibid.)
  5. Telegram 899 from Saigon, July 12, reported that according to a member of the election committee, the case against Minh “was supported by no documentation whatsoever” and that Lieng did in fact qualify as a Vietnamese citizen under the provisions of the Franco-Vietnamese convention of 1955. (Ibid.)
  6. Thanh ran on a peace platform calling for an end to military action and immediate negotiations. He was accused by the GVN of Viet Cong sympathies. In telegram 3372 to Saigon, July 8, the Department decried the effort to disqualify Thanh as “exceedingly dubious.” (Ibid.) In a July 11 memorandum to Rusk, Harriman recommended that Bunker “take a firm stand on this issue with Ky, Thieu and members of the National Assembly pointing out that our good name as well as that of the GVN is at stake.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Subject File, Bundy, William P. 1963–68)