406. Telegram From the Deputy Ambassador to Vietnam (Locke) to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow), Secretary of State Rusk, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and Director of Central Intelligence Helms1

CAS 780. 1. In my meeting with President Thieu the afternoon of 20 November, I reviewed the general progress of the Buttercup case and made the following points:

That the GVN and USG are agreed on the general objectives to be pursued in this case and that actions taken thus far have been pointed toward that objective.
Described our theory that the NLF will not likely react favorably toward getting a dialogue going and a prisoner exchange started unless our side meets the basic requests contained in Buttercup/1’s last message to us, specifically the release of Sau Ha et al, better treatment for prisoners now held in GVN custody and guaranteeing Sau Ha’s security in his travel back to the NLF headquarters area. In fact, Buttercup/2 was told he would be considered a “spy” by Buttercup/1 if he were to return to the NLF without Sau Ha, and of course no further progress would be made.
Therefore, we felt it desirable to move ahead with the release of Sau Ha et al particularly since they are “not important” prisoners in any case.
I noted Vien’s and Loan’s concern over what would happen to GVN police morale if the prisoners were simply released without guarantee of NLF reciprocity, and suggested that Loan’s idea of turning the prisoners over to the CIO for a “counterintelligence operation” might solve the problem of Loan’s concern about police morale, etc.
Also mentioned Vietnamese concern over the United States dealing with the NLF, particularly if this were to become publicly known. Remarked that it is not a recognition of the NLF that is involved, but a simple prisoner exchange of benefit to both us and GVN, and that VC and GVN had previously released prisoners.

2. Thieu made the same points he has previously offered to the effect (A) that he agrees with the principle of prisoner exchange, (B) that he feels generally that there should be some guarantee of a reciprocal exchange of prisoners by the NLF, and (C) has authorized his representative Minister Vien to work out the procedural details.2 Thieu stated that it is widely known that Sau Ha is now in prison and if he and the others were to be released without a specific guarantee of prisoners being released in exchange by the NLF it would be difficult to explain to his critics who might choose to propagandize the situation. Thieu commented that a prisoner exchange is “understandable” but that a unilateral step by the GVN for the release of Sau Ha et al without guarantee from the NLF is a much more difficult action to explain. He also commented that the GVN has recently shown additional good faith in not having executed the three Viet Cong scheduled before the firing squad on 17 November.

3. I made the point that if he fails to pursue the Buttercup case along the lines suggested in Buttercup/1’s last message to us the NLF could still publicize its message to us, in which they speak of a prisoner exchange and discussions leading to broader matters, and claim that the U.S. Government has not responded to this message and that despite its statements about sincerely seeking peace in Vietnam has not taken the minor steps suggested by the NLF to get the ball rolling. The NLF could also claim that both the U.S. Government and the GVN are not even interested in working toward the release of their own prisoners now held by the NLF. I underlined the serious political repercussions this kind of a propaganda statement by the NLF could have in the United States where President Johnson is already having difficulties with the “peace” groups which would take maximum advantage of his having reportedly turned down such an offer from the NLF. I indicated that publicity of the negotiations with our lack of responsiveness now could be much more damaging and more difficult to explain than publicity after we had shown responsiveness.

4. I commented that if we do pursue the Buttercup case along the lines we are recommending and if there were to be a leak somewhere along the line or if the NLF should choose to propagandize it for their own purposes, we could claim correctly that the Buttercup case began [Page 1046]at NLF initiative in sending the first message to our side. We could also show that the U.S. Government and the GVN are in complete accord in working out a prisoner exchange with the GVN obviously cooperating to the point of releasing the prisoners now held by the Vietnamese police. I also recalled our proposal that the prisoners be released by the GVN under the amnesty for political prisoners which it had granted at the outset of the new government. I commented that the three American prisoners recently released in Phnom Penh could also be considered as a gesture of good faith on the part of the NLF to which we have responded by a similar gesture, which is in keeping with reciprocal gestures (prisoner exchange) in the past.3

5. The one point that clearly emerges from my conversation with Thieu is that he has never agreed to our specific proposal on the release of Sau Ha et al as the next step in the Buttercup case. He does agree and continues to agree “in principle” that an exchange of prisoners is a desirable objective and that we should work toward that end. It is not clear at this point who originated the hard line position expressed by Vien and Loan of a “guarantee” from the NLF in the form of a concrete act by the NLF to release prisoners from their side before we release Sau Ha. Neither is it clear how far Thieu may be willing to depart from this view as a result of our urging. Thieu plans to discuss the matter again with Minister Vien and to contact me for another discussion after he has done so.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–7 VIET S/BUTTERCUP. Secret; Immediate; Nodis; Buttercup; Exclusive; Via CAS Channels.
  2. According to telegram CAS 779 from Saigon, November 20, Thieu had already come to this conclusion by November 18. (Ibid.)
  3. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on November 11, the NLF released to the custody of antiwar activist Thomas Hayden three American prisoners, all of whom were U.S. Army sergeants. The group returned to the United States on November 13. Telegram 71461 to Saigon, November 18, contained a joint State/Defense message requesting that the Embassy attempt to get the GVN to release three VC prisoners as a reciprocal gesture. (Ibid., POL 27–7 VIET) The Embassy did manage to get the GVN to postpone a scheduled execution of three VC cadre held as prisoners. In telegram 71460 to Saigon, November 18, the Department directed that in light of the DRV’s threat to place on trial three American prisoners if such executions occurred, the Embassy needed to “confirm with GVN clear understanding that any executions of VC will be subject to full prior consultation with USG.” (Ibid., POL 27 VIET S)