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

CAS 095. In my meeting with Thieu today I expressed the desire to have a serious talk with him about the Buttercup case, especially in view of the events of recent days. I noted the great importance which President Johnson attached to this matter and said that the recent leaks in the press have raised a serious question about our ability to work together closely and confidentially on such matters in the future.

I expressed my appreciation to the President for the talks which he and Minister Vien and General Loan had held with our [less than 1 [Page 1099] line of source text not declassified] officer.2 These have been most useful in achieving better understanding on both sides. Now, however, the situation is confused and disrupted, perhaps the opportunity for moving ahead has been destroyed by the actions of General Loan who has obviously been talking to the press. The question which confronts us now is whether there is some way which we can follow through on this case and still achieve some useful aim.

Two points in particular were noted as being of serious importance. First is the matter of prisoner exchange which is a subject of intense interest to all Americans. The position of the American Government with its own citizens would be most difficult were we to fail to pursue every avenue that might result in the release of American prisoners of war, especially the sick and wounded. I recalled my talks with President Johnson on this subject. Further, the interests of neither of the two governments would be served by a disclosure on the part of the enemy that we were procrastinating or holding back in any way on exchange of prisoners of war. To appear to be holding back is running the risk of being embarrassed by Hanoi and the Viet Cong which would to them be a psychological victory.

Secondly, the situation with which we were presented offered what was really the first possibility of entering into a dialogue with members of the Front and determining whether there are any fissures in the Front which we might exploit. To discover whether such potential exists seems to us a matter of great importance both to the GVN and to ourselves. If subsequent developments should confirm such possibilities, it is evident we would both have much to gain.

While stressing the significance we attached to these matters, I emphasized that the U.S. Government has no intention of entering into talks with the NLF of which he, President Thieu, is not informed; that responses to political overtures would take place only after fullest consultation on both sides.

Our disappointment is the greater because this matter could have been quietly and discreetly handled without posing difficulties to either of our governments. On the American side, knowledge of this affair has been closely controlled and restricted to a very few officials. Now, as a result of these most unfortunate leaks and rumors, it is a question whether this avenue to prisoner exchange and possibly the establishment of some kind of dialogue is still open.

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Finally, I advised President Thieu that it was my intention always to deal with him frankly and openly and that I expected that he would deal with me in the same way. In this case a confidence has been violated by General Loan who by his actions had in effect taken GVN policy into his own hands and frustrated a matter of great sensitivity and importance to us all.

Thieu stated that he feared, in view of the unfortunate press revelations, it was not possible now to release all of those on whom action had been requested by Buttercup/1. This would be construed as action by the GVN under pressure from the Americans. Regretful therefore as this is, the action which the Mission requested him to take (as reported in CAS–021)3 is not possible at this time. President Thieu then asked me if I had any ideas on how we might now proceed.

I suggested that in spite of the difficulties which had been imposed, we still ought to do whatever is possible in an attempt to salvage this line of communication and to get on with the discussion of prisoner exchange. Because of the discussion in the press, there is no assurance at this point that we can persuade Buttercup/2 and Sau Ha to return to COSVN. The minimum we can do at this time is to release Sau Ha if he is willing to return and we propose that Mai Thi Vang, the wife of Buttercup/1, be released to accompany him. She is not well and of no real importance to anyone except her husband, and her release could be justified on humanitarian grounds. It is possible that her release along with Sau Ha just might enable us to keep open this line of communication. The President took note of my proposal and said that we would consider it carefully.

I said that in view of all the current publicity and speculation in the press, it probably would be advisable to let the matter rest for a few days until the public interest in it subsides; I would then wish to take up the matter again to see whether we could not move it ahead. Thieu agreed that this would be advisable.

We then discussed my suggestion that he issue a press statement clarifying misleading statements which have been reported in the local press. This matter will be covered in other channels.

  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. Received at 8:02 a.m.
  2. In meetings with Loan on November 27 and 28, reported in CAS telegrams 017 and 018, both December 2, and with Vien on November 29, reported in CAS telegram 020, December 2, [text not declassified] found them firmly insistent upon releasing only Sau Ha and Tong, but no other prisoners. (All ibid.)
  3. Dated December 2. (Ibid.)