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

2289. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my fourteenth weekly telegram:

At the end of last week I had talks with both Thieu and Ky on a variety of subjects but especially concerning various aspects of the forthcoming elections.2
Ky said that he felt preparations were going ahead well and was pleased that unanimous agreement had been reached among all the candidates regarding use of radio and television facilities, transportation, and joint meetings throughout the country in which all candidates would participate. He remarked that a few protests, with some threats to boycott the elections, had been made by some of the Cao Dai and militant Buddhists whose tickets had been rejected. He did not, however, envisage a situation which could not be satisfactorily handled, and observed that members of the Cao Dai as well as Buddhists were scattered through all the tickets. He expressed some concern about the ability of voters to choose among the great number of Senate candidates and confirmed his intention to tie in about six Senate lists to the Thieu-Ky slate so that the voters could identify them as allied with their ticket. He expressed the hope that other candidates might follow a similar course.
I raised with both Thieu and Ky a suggestion that they encourage a number of qualified Viet Cong ralliers to present themselves as candidates for the lower house elections noting the advantages that this might offer in promoting the GVN’s national solidarity program. Both agreed that this was a useful idea and could provide further incentive to both the Chieu Hoi and Doan Ket programs. Thieu observed that there might be a problem in finding qualified men since most of the ralliers were relatively uneducated, but said that he would nevertheless pursue the matter. He rather shared Ky’s doubts that disgruntled Cao Dai or the extreme Buddhists would be able to create trouble which could not be readily handled. He thought instead they would work “underground” advising people to vote against the military ticket and probably favoring Phan Khac Suu as being a benevolent figure more favorable to their interests, with the added prestige of age and white hair. Thieu gave an interesting description of the importance of age not only in terms of political support, but also in pacification, and indeed the whole realm of bringing the country, especially the villages, into the modern age of science and technology. He stressed the importance of taking into account the prestige and influence of elders on the attitudes of the villagers. The Communists in the beginning had failed to recognize this and as a result had had numerous failures. Thieu said the most effective way for the government to instill new ideas, for example with respect to pacification, was first to convince the elders who in turn would then be able to influence the younger elements to adopt them and put them into effect.
In response to my question about the platform and campaign plans for the Thieu-Ky ticket, he said they proposed to handle the campaign in a rather low key fashion. Their ticket had certain inherent advantages especially in meeting popular desires for stability, continuity, and security which the military element can best provide. At the same [Page 657]time, the armed forces would be considered among the strongest proponents of peace since they were the heaviest sufferers from war. He added that obviously a large measure of military support would accrue to the ticket also and they would not wish to appear to be exerting pressure on either the armed forces or provincial and district chiefs. He planned to state this clearly and publicly again.
In discussing the Senate lists, Thieu commented on the complexity of the problem for the average voter and confirmed Ky’s statement about affiliating six slates with their own ticket. He stressed the importance of the executive and legislative branches working together in wartime. I noted that there had been a number of protests about upper house lists which had been disqualified and observed that the U.S. press had been quite critical. Thieu said he recognized this and that he was reviewing these protests personally. He said that so far his conclusion was that the disqualifications were justified on the grounds given.

A matter which has been of considerable interest to us has been the status of the Statut Particulier drafted by a Congress of Montagnard representatives under the chairmanship of General Vinh Loc in order to meet some of the aspirations and concerns of the FULRO, most of whom are now in Cambodia, and other Montagnard tribes. Ky announced at the end of June that the Statut would be promulgated and the intention of the government to set up a Ministry for Montagnard Affairs, but no action has been taken. I brought up the matter with both Thieu and Ky. Thieu said he was presently examining the Statut, that he thought it was in order and conformed to the Constitution and proposed to promulgate it in August at a ceremony in Pleiku or Banmethuot. This should be helpful in stimulating the return of the approximately 2,000 to 3,000 FULRO now in Cambodia and giving the Montagnards generally a greater feeling of identity with the social structure of the country.3

[Here follows discussion of general and military matters.]

The formal campaign opens tomorrow. In the countryside as well as here in Saigon, there are many banners and signs urging the people to register and vote. One slogan reads: “Only with independence are there elections, only with elections is there independence.”
Thieu and Ky have kept in the public eye with a series of well publicized ceremonies and inspection visits to the provinces. Tran Van Huong has also managed to be quite visible, mostly by means of frequent press interviews. Phan Khac Suu has relied mostly on his role as Assembly chairman for pre-campaign public exposure, but he recently made a bid for more attention by calling on General Thieu to reduce the death sentence which a military court handed down on the youthful student slayer of a high school professor.
One interesting but not unexpected development is that Duong Van Minh (Big Minh) is throwing his support to Tran Van Huong. Huong and his people apparently arranged for Big Minh to be interviewed in Bangkok by an ABC correspondent, then got the story translated and circulated it to the local papers. The local press carried the story this morning, many with a picture of Mrs Minh calling on Huong before departing Saigon for Bangkok. Huong told an Embassy officer that he does not expect that Minh will be allowed to return before the election. Asked if he intends to use Minh in his government if he wins the election, Huong said that he fully understands the need for military-civilian cooperation but did not say whether Minh would be in his government.
The joint formal campaign schedule, as planned by the Central Election Campaign Committee (composed of representatives of all the candidates), includes a television appearance by all eleven Presidential slates tomorrow evening. Each slate will have five minutes. Four of the slates will also have ten minutes each on the radio tomorrow night, with the remaining seven getting radio time on the evenings of August 4 and 5. The Presidential slates will also have radio time on ten other evenings in the course of the campaign, each slate to have a total of 25 minutes. Each slate will have a total of three television appearances, for a total of 25 minutes each.
Personal appearances in the provinces begin August 6 with a visit to Quang Tri. The candidates will be able to visit 20 provinces, plus four joint appearances in the Saigon-Gia Dinh area. We understand that the major candidates, including General Thieu, will go on at least some of the joint trips to the provinces.
The upper house campaign arrangements are somewhat confused. The sheer number of the candidates—480 on 48 slates—makes joint public appearances in the provinces a logistic impossibility, or at least this is the view of the Central Election Campaign Committee. The committee has in fact ruled out any public meetings with voters, though press conferences are permitted. The eliminated Senate slates, particularly those of the militant An Quang Buddhists and the CVT labor union, are continuing to express their dissatisfaction. Thanks to the lifting of censorship, their indignation is getting full coverage in the local newspapers.
Although at least one of Tran Van Huong’s chief campaign managers continues to say that his workers in the provinces are being harassed by the police, the evidence now available to us suggests that the campaign will most likely be cleanly and fairly conducted. The absolute equality of radio and TV time for all slates in fact goes further than we do in the United States in giving all candidates an even break. It seems likely, however, that a large number of the province chiefs will let it be known that they favor the Thieu-Ky slate. This will be enough in many rural areas to insure a heavy vote for the government slate.
Many Vietnamese observers believe that the combined Thieu-Ky ticket is weaker than the old Ky-Loc ticket, in large part because of the disappointment of the Ky supporters. Important groups such as the Hoa Hao and the Catholic Greater Solidarity Force were all but fully committed to Ky; now they have not yet formally made up their minds to back the Thieu-Ky ticket. In part their hesitation stems from the suspicion that Thieu and Ky will not stick together. It also reflects anti-military feeling, which is increased by the Thieu-Ky merger.
Perhaps an equally important reason for the hesitation of many groups is their hope of striking a better political deal with the government slate. As I mentioned, the Thieu-Ky ticket intends to back six Senate slates. Most of the major political groups have one or more Senate slates, and they may be angling for government support of their Senate candidates in return for their support to the Thieu-Ky ticket. Despite the hesitation and divisions of some major groups over the question of whether to back Thieu-Ky, we continue to expect that Thieu-Ky will win by a respectable margin.
Communist reaction to the coming elections is now somewhat clearer. The Viet Cong’s governing body, the NLF Central Committee Presidium, has called for a boycott of the election. We do not believe that they have either the political or military strength to seriously disrupt the elections. They have the military forces to hit selected targets very hard, but when the target is millions of voters and thousands of polling stations, they do not have the resources to be effective.
We have some reports, including press stories, that indicate the military intend to exercise their influence in the new regime through a modified Armed Forces Council. This would be a group of the senior Generals, probably corresponding roughly to the present military membership of the Directorate. There is of course every reason to believe that the military do intend to continue to influence the government, and it is not surprising that they should want to form such a committee for the purpose. The Constitution in fact makes provision for an Armed Forces Council, the organization and regulation of which is to be prescribed by law.
The danger, of course, is that the military will seek to perpetuate government by a military junta and will not permit meaningful civilian participation in the new government. Ky recently added to the fears of those who suspect that the Generals merely intend to put a thin civilian facade on their present government by military committee. He was reported by the press, apparently accurately, as threatening a coup if the future government proved to be “unworthy,” corrupt or pro-Communist. I have already let Bui Diem and Ky know my strong views on any such possibility and I intend to reiterate them to Ky later today.
I have impression that both Thieu and Ky are well aware of the need to set and maintain legal institutions and procedures, and I hope that Ky’s remark was merely another unfortunate example of his penchant for off-the-cuff shockers which he really does not mean. I must say, however, that it appears certain that the military leaders were thinking very seriously of at least dissolving and probably arresting the Assembly on the morning of July 18. The absolute need for civilian support and participation in the government is thus a lesson which they seem to have learned only in part. Some of the corps commanders in particular have evidently not yet absorbed it.
It will require constant attention and some pressure from us to oblige the military to continue to expand the area of civilian participation and control in the government, and to give meaning and influence to the new constitutional bodies which make up the necessary checks and balances in the new government. This will have to be a gradual process, and it cannot be realistically expected that it will be accomplished at one stroke by the September elections. Fortunately most of the leading civilian politicians seem to understand this point, though they are not always willing to admit it.

[Here follows discussion of economic and military matters.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Nodis. Received at 3:45 p.m. Rostow sent a copy of the telegram to the President on August 3. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 8 B (1), Bunker’s Weekly Report to the President [1 of 2]) The notation “L” on the covering memorandum indicates that the President saw the telegram. This telegram is printed in full in Pike, The Bunker Papers, pp. 102–110.
  2. Bunker’s discussion with Thieu is reported in telegram 2082 from Saigon, July 30, and his discussion with Ky in telegram 2029 from Saigon, July 30. (Both in National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S)
  3. Following a period of protracted crisis, on May 2 the GVN concluded negotiations with the Montagnards on the implementation of an October 8, 1966, tentative agreement on granting increased political autonomy and greater civil rights to the tribesmen. Thieu signed the decree proclaiming the Statut Particulier on August 29. Documentation on U.S. efforts to involve exiled FULRO leader Y Bham Enuol in the resolution of the matter is ibid., POL 30 VIET S.