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

7619. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my twenty-third weekly telegram:

A. General

1.
The political pot which was simmering the week before boiled over last week with the approach of the Assembly vote on validation October 2. Political infighting, attempted extortion, and blackmail reached a high crescendo. Some of the groups, notably some members of the Democratic Alliance Bloc (DAB), formerly supporters of General Ky, carried their efforts right down to the wire. Factors in these maneuvers were the prospective loss of jobs and income on the part of Assembly members, disaffection among the forty-eight Assembly members who were defeated candidates for the Senate as well as three defeated Presidential candidates, also Assembly members, and claims of broken promises and lack of support during the campaign.
2.
On the afternoon of September 28, four members of the DAB, who were members of the Special Election Committee of the Assembly, and whose spokesmen were Le Phuoc Sang and Colonel Dam Van Quy, sent for a CAS contact and informed him that they wished me to transmit to General Thieu as a condition for voting for validation of the elections the following demands: (A) Ky to have the right to name the [Page 847]Prime Minister and three other Cabinet members (Sang and Quy indicating that they would expect Cabinet posts); (B) Ky to control the reorganization of the armed forces and the administrative organization; (C) Each member of the DAB to receive 300,000 piasters. They were considerate enough to add that they would wait until noon the next day for my answer. On Friday2 morning, through my liaison contact with Ky, I had the above information relayed to him saying that I thought he would want to be aware of this attempted blackmail to which, of course, I had no intention of responding and that I was sure he was aware what the repercussions would be should this become public knowledge.
3.
Bui Diem came to see me Friday evening to say that he and General Ky were very concerned about the situation. While Ky had talked to some of the DAB members, he thought it important that General Thieu should talk to them also. The DAB had expressed concern about Thieu’s feelings toward them and were apprehensive on two accounts: (A) that he might take some reprisals against them; and (B) that he might attempt to fill up the government with Dai Viet members. I recalled to Bui Diem that Ky had twice given me definite assurances, and as late as three days before, that the members of the DAB would vote for validation and that I need have no cause for concern. I was, therefore, relying on him. I told Bui Diem of the blackmail attempt on the part of Sang and Quy and their colleagues and asked him to inform Ky that if the members of the DAB persisted in their threat to vote against validation, I intended to make public this attempt at blackmail. I added that they were playing a dangerous game in carrying this right down to the wire and I wanted it understood that they could not play fast and loose with us. I said that if Ky thought Thieu should talk to members of the DAB, he should say so to Thieu himself, but that I would undertake to see Thieu Saturday morning and urge him to get together with Ky on the problem.
4.
I talked with Thieu the following morning3 and told him of Ky’s concern about the attitude of DAB members, that I thought it was of critical importance that certainly a large majority of the Bloc should be lined up in support of validation and urged him to get together with Ky and the Bloc members. He promised to get in touch with Ky and did so immediately after my leaving him, and that afternoon he and Ky together met with all the DAB members. Thieu talked exceedingly well and persuasively to them. I think this may have been the turning point in lining up a substantial number in support of validation.
5.
During a meeting which took place concurrently at Independence Palace, attended by Thieu, Ky, General Cao Van Vien, Chief of the JGS, and General Khang, III Corps Commander, Khang took Ky aside and told him privately that he did not know whether Ky had allowed the validation crisis to develop for his own political advantage, but if he had then he would have only himself to blame if the situation got out of hand, and he would lose the support of the armed forces. Ky angrily denied having engineered the crisis for his own political advantage. Khang said he believed Ky and he had no evidence to the contrary, but he felt that he should let Ky know that such rumors were circulating and the military would not condone such activity. Ky’s explanation to me was that he did not wish to talk with members of the DAB without Thieu’s permission since if, in spite of his efforts, things should go wrong, he would not want Thieu to feel that he had doublecrossed him. I am inclined to take Ky’s word and as I have previously reported, I think there is good evidence that he and Thieu are working together well.
6.
Thieu kept on talking with other members of the Assembly all through Saturday and into the early hours of Sunday. All through the day Sunday, he also got in touch with individual members. The vote was taken shortly before midnight Monday,4 when the Assembly validated the election by a vote of 58 for, 43 against, and 5 invalid ballots. The struggle for validation, and the efforts of students and Buddhists to influence the Assembly through demonstrations, I shall touch on in greater detail in the political section.
7.
Suffice it to say here that the chief result of the demonstrations was to snarl up the traffic. While the press displayed considerable interest in them, the general public attitude was manifested in distinct apathy and lack of interest. This was also true of the demonstrations in Hue and Danang. Both Thieu and Ky have expressed the view that Tri Quang and his militant Buddhists have lost a great deal of influence since the Struggle movement of 1966. Then they had the support of some elements of the armed forces, now the latter have kept completely aloof from the politics and the religious questions involved. In my view, there was nothing in any of the demonstrations to warrant what seems to me the exaggerated attention given to them by the American press, especially the UPI report that these represented the most serious disturbances in the last four years. This was certainly a fantastically exaggerated evaluation, unfortunately typical of a good deal of the reporting here.
8.
I reported last week5 that I had transmitted to Thieu suggestions for a government program which he might incorporate in a state [Page 849]of the union message at the time of the inauguration. The document is headed Democracy, Peace, and Social Justice. We have felt, however, that it is highly important that he should address the country before then with a shorter, more dynamic, hardhitting speech to arouse the enthusiasm of the people for their new government, calling for their support and outlining a program of specifics. Taking as a basis the longer document, Ambassador Locke has prepared an excellent short version.6 I have put this in General Thieu’s hands. He has said that it has come at an opportune moment, for he wants to make such a speech at the time of the installation of the new Senate, which has now been set for Oct 12.7
9.
While the struggle over validation of the elections has quite understandably engaged the energies and attention of Generals Thieu and Ky, they have not lost sight of the next step down the road, which is the appointment of a Prime Minister and designation of a Cabinet to work with the new National Assembly. On Sept 30, when I saw Thieu he told me that he and Ky have agreed that the Prime Minster will be Nguyen Van Loc, Chairman of the People’s Army Council, a lawyer, and essentially Ky’s nominee. Loc is rather colorless in personality, a considerable contrast with Ky. However, he has been active on the Board of the Bar Association, has a good reputation, and is well and favorably disposed to the United States. It was also announced officially on Oct 2 that General Nguyen Duc Thang, former Minister of Revolutionary Development, has been named Deputy Chief of Staff of the Joint General Staff, with responsibility for the regional VNND popular forces. General Nguyen Bao Tri, Minister of Information, will temporarily fill in for General Thang in the Ministry of Revolutionary Development until a permanent replacement is named.
10.
Thieu said this morning that he and General Ky have prepared a list of names of the most competent available people whom they hope to include in the Cabinet. He remarked that unfortunately competence is in short supply and it was not a very large list.
11.
I have reported previously that Thieu has three times offered the post of Prime Minister to Tran Van Huong, and that Huong each time has declined. He now proposes to offer Huong a post in the Inspectorate (the Consitution provides that one-third of the members be appointed by the executive and one-third each by the Senate and lower [Page 850]house). Thieu feels that Huong will be most prestigious member of the Inspectorate and as such it can be arranged that he be elected chairman. If Huong can be induced to accept this, I think it would be an excellent thing for the new government.
12.
I believe that there is a feeling of general relief on the part of the public that the problem of validation of the elections is out of the way and that there is a spirit of hopefulness that the new government will carry on more vigorous programs in all fields, military, economic, and social, and take decisive action to end the widespread corruption. Preparations are going ahead for election of the lower house on Oct 22. Thieu expressed to me the view that there would be considerable interest in the elections in the provinces where the candidates are well known to the local population, but he expects a falling off in interest in the more sophisticated centers, especially Saigon, where he believes many people have become punchdrunk with a plethora of elections.8
13.
In connection with our own relations with the new government, I believe that these may be more sensitive and perhaps in some ways more difficult than they have been with the present military government. During the past week, ten separate editorials dealt with the theme of American interference in Vietnamese affairs. For example, the military oriented Tien Tuyen newspaper replied to an article by Everett Martin appearing in the Sept 25 Newsweek, criticizing what it called his “brazen proposals.” I imagine that we shall have to be more alert to Vietnamese pride and sensitivities and apply pressure and leverage in more subtle ways. This may require greater patience on our part, but in the end I am sure will be more productive of results.
14.
In the midst of the alarms and excursions over the validation of the elections (and simultaneously with a Buddhist demonstration at the other end of the street), we dedicated our new Embassy Chancery the morning of Sept 29. It was a beautiful day with soft white clouds against a blue sky, and the brilliant sunshine that always sets the flag off so well. It is a most attractive and convenient building which has been commented on most favorably by many Vietnamese. As you intended it would be, it is a fitting symbol of our determination to stay the course in Vietnam. In my brief remarks at the ceremony, I renewed our dedication to the goals we share with the leaders and people of Vietnam: a permanent end to aggression, a just and durable peace, regional security, order, and expanding economic progress. I noted that this building stands as a symbol of our commitment to the Vietnamese people, but no less impressive are hundreds of smaller buildings, [Page 851]schools, hospitals, and other structures which we have built in time of war and dedicated to the cause of peace. In his remarks, General Thieu commented on the beauty of the building and the fair prospects in the longer range for international cooperation in Southeast Asia. However, he spoke also of more immediate problems, including the need to make clear to the Communists that they face a widely-respected, sovereign government in Vietnam which will play a major part in international discussions related to Vietnam. He also spoke of the need to increase the effort being made to gradually make South Vietnam economically self-sustained.
15.
General Thang Reassigned. Climaxing two months of jockeying over the vigorous General Thang’s future role, he on 2 Oct formally turned over the Revolutionary Development Ministry to General Tri as caretaker till the new government is formed. Thang is taking up a newly-created JGS slot and Deputy Chief of Staff, where he will be in charge of RF and PF as well as the RD teams.
16.
Bob Komer finds Thang genuinely excited about the possibilities of his new job.9 According to Thang, he will have much more influence than he would have had as Deputy Prime Minister. He will probably run the RF/PF (as a 300,000 man territorial security force), 30,000 RD cadre, the Political Warfare Directorate (to which all military province and district chiefs will be assigned), and the Military Security Service (which he intends to use to help clean up corruption in the provinces). I regard this as a very promising development, which will surely benefit the pacification effort by bringing the biggest local security forces under a vigorous and pacification-minded chief.
17.
General Westmoreland and I are pleased with the rapport between Komer and Thang. They agree on raising the 1968 RD hamlet goals from 1,100 to more like 2,000, on raising the RD budget from three billion piasters this year to five billion, and to assigning highest pacification priorities to IV and III Corps where the people are. Thang also intends to give personal attention to selecting good province and district chiefs and then giving them special training for these difficult jobs. Now that he controls them, Thang favors gradually drawing together RF/PF and RD teams into a much larger and better-trained pacification force.

[Here follows discussion of military and economic matters.]

Bunker
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 8:20 a.m. In the covering note to a copy of this telegram sent to the President, Rostow wrote: “The reputation of generals in history depends on one or two key decisions they make right or wrong amidst the fog of battle. So with Ambassadors. Ellsworth’s account of the situation he faced just before the validation vote and what he did (at the beginning of this report) indicates you picked the right man. The rest of the report will also interest you.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 8B(1)[B]) The notation “L” on the covering note indicates that the President saw the telegram. The telegram is printed in full in Pike, The Bunker Papers, pp. 185–195.
  2. September 29.
  3. Reported in telegram 7291 from Saigon, September 30. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15–1 VIET S)
  4. October 2.
  5. See Document 338.
  6. The longer text was sent to Washington in telegram 7153 from Saigon, October 2. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15–1 VIET S) The shorter version was sent in telegram 7588 from Saigon, October 4. The shorter text harked back to Vietnamese traditions by comparing the GVN’s program to the historical mission of earlier patriots in terms of furthering “the common objective of building a just government and social system and repelling the invader.” (Ibid.)
  7. The Senate inauguration was moved forward to October 11.
  8. Village elections began in April and balloting for chiefs continued into June; elections for the executive and the upper house of the National Assembly took place on September 3, and elections for the lower house on October 22.
  9. According to an October 2 memorandum for the record of a September 29 meeting between Komer and Thang, “General Thang was also pleased that at the JGS he would be closer to Ambassador Komer and they could get together more often.” (Memorandum for the record by Robert Montague (an aide to Komer), October 2; Center for Military History, DepCORDS/MACV Files, RD Liaison: 1967)