274. Memorandum From the Deputy for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Komer) to the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker)1

Our most urgent need is to cope with the abominable US press treatment of the election campaign. As we agreed on the phone, the press is managing to put the worst construction on everything. What is basically sheer inefficiency, endemic in Vietnam, they see as positive evil.2

Last year, to put the best face on the Constituent Assembly referendum, I formed a White House task group with Bill Moyers in the chair. My constant refrain was to emphasize one sensible theme about that referendum and to urge keying all of our press handling to it. We picked my theme that the size of the vote would be the best single indicator of success. We deliberately played down our own expectation of at least a 70 per cent turnout of registered voters (we even exceeded that). Instead, we opined that even a 50 per cent turnout would be regarded by us as a major demonstration of growing popular interest in the political process, and a defeat for the VC (who of course were attempting to disrupt the election). As it turned out, most of the press play was on the impressively large turnout. The result was a big plus.

Admittedly, it was easier to key the last election to the single theme of turnout than it is this election, where the candidates are predominantly politicians rather than mostly faceless men. But we must again pick a few basic points and keep hammering them home in every way in an attempt to provide the press a realistic appraisal of the election. I suggest the following:

Anything less than a 70-80 per cent vote for Thieu/Ky is a strong indicator of a reasonably fair election (if our hunches are correct, Thieu/Ky will probably win with less than a majority—thus we would lay the groundwork for a contention that they had hardly rigged an election in which they didn’t even get half the vote).
In focussing almost exclusively on the presidential race, we tend to ignore a potentially far more important development—the diffusion of power between the executive and a new legislature, which under the constitution will have even greater power than the US Congress. Whoever gets elected president will have to deal with a powerful and independent senate/assembly. If the friskiness shown by the Constituent Assembly is any guide, the man in Independence Palace will have at least as much trouble with his congress as our Presidents do with our Congress. By focussing the issue on the advent of a civilian-dominated National Assembly, we will help diffuse the impact of the military retaining executive power.
We seem to be applying standards higher than those in the US to a country with no experience of democracy, and one barely a dozen years old. Incumbent American administrations take every reasonable advantage of their position. Can we expect the GVN to do less?
Although this is a country where nothing seems to work very well, we ascribe every mistake (such as at Quang Tri)3 to positive evil intent instead of sheer inefficiency. Experienced US correspondents should know better.

Themes like the above, constantly played and embroidered upon, would go a long way toward putting the election campaign in perspective. Perhaps there are even better ones. But we are faced with a short-term emergency. We have about three weeks to get our points across. We’d better do so quickly.

R. W. Komer4
  1. Source: Center for Military History, Dep CORDS/MACV Files, Bunker Memos to RWK, 1967–68. Confidential. Copies were sent to Locke, Calhoun, and Zorthian.
  2. In telegram 2972 from Saigon, August 12, Bunker reiterated this theme of “unfair” press criticism of the GVN. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)
  3. According to Bunker’s 15th weekly report, telegram 2686 from Saigon, August 9, on August 6 a government-sponsored plane supposedly ferrying the 18 nonmilitary candidates for President and Vice President to the first joint campaign appearance at Quang Tri was instead diverted to a U.S. Marine Corps base at Dong Ha. (Ibid.) This telegram is printed in full in Pike, The Bunker Papers, pp. 111–117.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.