281. Editorial Note

When the Republic of Vietnam promulgated a new constitution and held nationwide elections during 1967, the U.S. Government initiated a program of covert action to ensure that the electoral process would appear to be free and fair, that there would be a loyal opposition, and that the elected civilian government that emerged would enjoy popular support. The top contenders for the presidency were Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, the head of South Vietnam’s military government, and General Nguyen Van Thieu, the nation’s chief of state. Initially, U.S. Government policy was neutral in the increasingly bitter scramble between these two individuals. However, with Ky using the power of the government bureaucracy to undermine Thieu, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker recommended in June 1967 that the U.S. Government offer covert support, consisting mostly of advice and a small amount of financial resources, to Ky’s campaign in exchange for his agreement to run a fair electoral race. This request was obviated by the resolution of the Ky-Thieu dispute at the end of June when Ky acceded to the pressure of South Vietnam’s military leadership to become the vice presidential running mate of the more senior Thieu. Still, the U.S. Government helped Ky establish a front organization, “the All-Vietnam Bloc,” to help ensure the election of this military-backed slate. Although no covert funds were provided to Ky, a channel of advice and encouragement was established through a high-ranking Vietnamese official.

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The U.S. Government continued to be involved in the general elections through late summer and fall, eventually providing more than $200,000 for political action programs. In August a representative of the principal civilian presidential candidate, Tran Van Huong, approached the U.S. Embassy in Saigon with a request for covert funding. To buttress the appearance of a fair election and in order to have some influence over the candidates, Bunker requested covert political and financial assistance for the Thieu-Ky campaign as well as for Huong’s candidacy. Washington rejected the request for financial support, but approved providing covert election advice and support.

The 303 Committee also approved another request from Bunker to provide covert support for selected South Vietnamese parliamentary candidates, both before and after their elections, in an effort to build U.S. influence in the National Assembly and facilitate the validation of the presidential electoral results. In October the 303 Committee authorized Bunker to disburse funds to aid candidates for the National Assembly who were supported by the nationalist Dai Viet party and the Vietnamese Confederation of Labor, and on December 1 the 303 Committee approved funds for other nascent political parties and elected individuals in South Vietnam.

After the elections, the U.S. Government, in an effort to bolster popular support for the new civilian government, provided covert support to South Vietnamese veterans, labor, and student organizations and the media. Part of this campaign involved efforts on the part of the U.S. Government to create a left-wing, anti-Communist political group in South Vietnam, which would underscore the new political openness in the country as well as win over nominal supporters of the Vietnamese Communists. This program received approval by the 303 Committee in August. The group, however, was short-lived and was soon amalgamated into a broad anti-Communist political front.

In conjunction with political development in South Vietnam, the U.S. Government sought to drive a wedge between the National Liberation Front (NLF) and its North Vietnamese sponsor by following up contacts with NLF representatives. This effort resulted in prisoner exchanges.