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

4452. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my eighteenth weekly telegram:


The campaign got up a full head of steam (or hot air) this past week.

[Here follows discussion of campaign atmospherics.]

In April of 1966 the military reluctantly agreed to hold elections for a Constituent Assembly. Acting under what appeared to be the imminent threat of a massive Buddhist upheaval, they thus set in motion a long chain of political events which comes to a new climax four days from now. It has been an instructive experience for all concerned, as well as a most hopeful beginning for a new political era in this country, and I think the record is worth scanning as we near election eve.
In April of 1966 the Vietnamese Government was an almost pure military junta with very little civilian participation or support. It was vulnerable to Communist charges of being illegal and not representative of the Vietnamese people. It was intolerant of dissent.
The decision to hold elections for a Constituent Assembly was in large measure forced on the military junta. Nevertheless I think that the military leadership must be credited with seeing, after the fact at least, the great value of that step. The immediate result was to deprive the Buddhist extremists of a meaningful political issue. In the long run, however, that decision turned out to be the start of an increasingly effective political offensive against the Communists. It is a truism that military means alone cannot win this war. The move toward democratic institutions has proved to be an effective political complement to our military offensive, and I think the military leaders have grasped that fact.
One reason for the effectiveness of the political offensive is that it has tended to change the nature of the political opposition. In the past about the only means for changing the government, or even effectively influencing its policies, were essentially violent. Demonstrations and coups were the natural thoughts of most “out” politicians. Those who became desperate turned to the Viet Cong, the ultimate source of violence in this country.
With the move toward constitutional government, it became possible to express opposition in non-violent ways. Political opposition was channeled into legal and constructive efforts: first, to win election to the Constituent Assembly, then to influence the writing of the Constitution and the electoral laws, now to compete in the current national elections.2
While it must be admitted that political stability here is by no means achieved and the past months have been a perilous journey, I believe that channeling the political opposition into legal and non-violent avenues has contributed heavily to the degree of stability which has existed. It has also begun a move toward more real and permanent political stability. This move now has some momentum behind it, and we have the hope that it will continue to gain momentum.
Another reason for the effectiveness of the political offensive against the Viet Cong is the educational effect it has on all Vietnamese, civilian as well as military. The hammering out of the Constitution was accompanied by many clashes of opinion and interest. At several points it seemed that the work of the Assembly might never be completed. Even after the Constitution was finished, the military leadership appeared to be so opposed to some features of the document that we feared they might radically amend it or even reject it out of hand. Good sense and political compromises prevailed, however. In the process, the military learned that they could, indeed must, work with the civilians. The civilian politicians, for their part, had a lesson in dealing with the military that will stand them in good stead in the future. I think that both military and civilian leaders now realize that it is possible to work together toward shared objectives while still disagreeing about many other things.
There were hazards, grave hazards, passed by the past year. One of these was the threat to military unity which the very process of democratization itself seemed to inspire. The merger of the Thieu-Ky Presidential slates has not entirely removed that threat, but it did [Page 737]demonstrate that the Vietnamese military are fully aware of the danger and will act to avoid it.
Another threat was the deliberate effort to exploit regional differences in last fall’s Cabinet crisis. I think it a sign of increased political maturity that regionalism has been muted and denied in the election campaign. All of the candidates are bidding for all the electorate, and none of them has made an effort to exploit purely regional prejudice.
The campaign itself has been perhaps the single greatest experience for the Vietnamese politicians and their people. An unprecedented freedom of expression, including a completely uncensored press, has shown all Vietnamese that even here and under wartime conditions it is possible to tolerate a great measure of dissent, a fact which has not in the past been much appreciated by Vietnamese leaders.
I have the impression that the campaign has also tended to instill a new respect for the limits of responsible criticism, indeed perhaps even a new respect for fact. In a society which has long been known for its addiction to wild rumors and extreme suspicion, this is important for future stability.
All of this is progress, but we are by no means home. If, as seems most likely, Thieu-Ky win the election, there is a possibility that certain of the defeated candidates may band together in an effort to invalidate or at least discredit the election. I am not persuaded that the civilian politicians—to say nothing of the military—yet have a full understanding of the role of a loyal opposition. Both the Viet Cong and the extremist Buddhists will be doing all they can to encourage the defeated candidates to adopt measures and postures which will make it hard for the elected leaders to form a broadly based government and an effective military-civilian partnership.
There is also the continuing problem of the relationship between Thieu and Ky. I think this is by no means fully sorted out, and we may be in for some difficult moments while they establish their future roles. I am essentially optimistic, however, that they have both realized the necessity to work together, no matter how painful it may be.

[Here follows discussion of additional political, economic, and military issues.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 11:58 a.m. and passed to the White House. In a covering note to the copy of the telegram sent to the President, August 31, Rostow wrote: “Herewith Ambassador Bunker looks backward and forward at the Vietnamese political process as we come down to the wire on the election.” (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. 138–146.
  2. As reported in INR Intelligence Note 720, September 6, on September 1 the NLF announced a pledge to hold free elections and create a democratically-oriented Constitution as a means of establishing a “national union democratic government.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)