302. Memorandum From the Ambassador’s Special Assistant (Lansdale) to the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker)1
- Talk with Thieu, September 2
As you know, Chief of State Nguyen van Thieu asked me to “come right over” to Independence Palace, the morning of September 2. I did so and had an hour-long talk with him privately. He had no urgent problems to discuss. I had the feeling that he was looking for a little reassurance, on the eve of the election. We talked mostly about the future of Viet Nam.
I did, however, alert him to the dangers of mishandling the detention of Colonel Pham van Lieu, with so huge a contingent of journalists in town seeking a news story, and suggested that Lieu be detained personally by someone such as General Vien or General Vy [Page 745] rather than at MSS headquarters, where journalists could speculate that he was being mistreated. Thieu said he knew very little about the case, other than charges that Lieu had been handing out leaflets supporting Presidential candidate Phan khac Suu at the NCO Academy in Nha Trang, which Lieu commands; the thought was to hold Lieu for five days in Saigon, away from his command, until the elections are over, as a “military disciplinary measure.” I commented that it could become a sensational incident and urged Thieu to act. He then spoke to his staff, presumably about the handling of Lieu.
Also, Thieu said that his brother Kieu had talked to him about candidates issuing a joint statement to the people on Election Eve. Thieu felt that such evidence of patriotic unity would be a good thing, but that the other candidates would suspect that Thieu had some trick up his sleeve and would refuse to sign it. Thus, Thieu was issuing his own statement today (presumably by radio) which would stress the need for honesty in the election, and would urge people to vote. I said that it would be wise in this statement to request specifically those in positions of power—Corps Commanders and Province and District Chiefs—to do their best to insure free and fair elections. Thieu nodded seemingly in agreement.
Here are highlights of other matters discussed:
- —The militant Buddhists of the An Quang Pagoda seemed to Thieu to be the major source of dissension in the immediate post-election period. I suggested that Thieu might use his brother Kieu and others to turn the energies and scheming wits of the An Quang leaders into more constructive channels, such as into social welfare projects; the GVN could help, as feasible; the An Quang leaders would be attracted by this as a means of building up their organization, and it would be wise for the GVN to introduce some more moderate elements into such an enterprise, influencing while cooperating. Thieu said that this was worth considering further, because the only moves he had thought of so far were to either jail them or let them become an open opposition.
- —Thieu described his concept of pacification, frankly admitting that he was thinking of how Ngo dinh Nhu had run it under President Diem. Thieu felt that it should be his own priority business, if he is elected President, with a Deputy to run the nuts-and-bolts daily business, probably as Vice Prime Minister. He sketched out a “chain of command” from the President directly to Province Chiefs, but with Corps Commanders holding regional responsibility. I commented that this seemed to be a fuzzy “chain of command” and that I had grave doubts about the ability of Corps Commanders to understand the role of the people in “people’s warfare,” which is a fundamental need in pacification. I pointed out that Nhu had become lost in theories, by not being in touch with the people—and the tragedy of this held a lesson for [Page 746] Thieu that was worth heeding. Thieu agreed that it was easy to be fooled by Province Chiefs, since some are not only able administrators but able liars as well. Thieu then said that he was thinking of having an Operations Room in the Palace. We talked about maps, types of data, communications, the Malayan Red Book experience, and similar details for a time.
- —Thieu said that he wanted General Nguyen duc Thang to take over responsibility for RF and PF forces, as one of the major elements in pacification. We discussed Thang at some length. I stressed how a President and Commander-in-Chief could best deal with a strong leader such as Thang, for the good of the country. I described how support would have to be given and mutual respect and trust earned. I gave him my personal evaluation of Thang as a developing leader who could make a Thieu Administration succeed in this decisive moment of Viet Nam’s history, if Thieu acted with the wise leadership he himself would be in position to exert.
- —This led into a discussion of his relations with Nguyen cao Ky. I commented that Thieu should be ready to discover that he himself had suddenly become a different man on the morning of September 4, if elected President. In the past, he had been too reserved, awaiting the moves of others. In the future, Thieu would have to take the first step towards working closely with others, such as Ky; if not, he would find himself increasingly surrounded by sycophantic “yes men” and schemers. We then talked for a time about how Thieu could develop better personal relations with Ky and others, to gain real teamwork in the future. I also suggested some ways he could become closer to the people, when he travelled in the countryside.
- —We then talked about the evolution of political parties, including the part played in this process by both the Senate and the Lower House. I stressed the attitude the new President would have to take, to encourage the emergence into public life of the present clandestine concept of political organizations in Viet Nam, and the growth of various groups into more unified national parties that had structures in villages and precincts.
- —I asked about the composition of his Administration, if he becomes President. Thieu laughed and said, “go ahead and give me a lecture about a ‘broadly based Government’.” He explained that “this is what Americans talk to me about.” I commented that they probably were thinking about some of the hard bumps and crises ahead. Thieu replied that he was thinking of them also. Then, Thieu’s aide came in and reminded Thieu that he was running far behind schedule. Thieu asked to be excused, shook hands with me rather emotionally (taking my hand in both of his tightly), and thanked me for the talk. I left, noting that there were people awaiting him in the anteroom and in the corridor.
- Source: Center for Military History, Dep CORDS/MACV Files, Lansdale (1967–1968). Secret. Copies were sent to Locke, Westmoreland, Komer, Calhoun, Hart, and Jacobson.↩