438. 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 309. 1. Our next message to be carried by courier Tong to Buttercup/1 was cleared with the GVN on 13 December. Text follows:

“As we have sought to communicate to you by radio on a number of occasions, Mr. Tong returned safely and conveyed your message to us on 26 October. Since then events have occurred which seemed to endanger hopes for achieving a satisfactory basis for a prisoner exchange. Restraint shown in the face of these events, however, encourages us to believe these difficulties will be overcome, given continued goodwill on both sides.

“Senior officials on our side have deliberated carefully over the message conveyed to us by Mr. Tong and have arrived at a decision. This decision is to release and return to you, under Mr. Tong’s escort, Mr. Sau Ha, and provide improved treatment for other persons named by you. The question of the release of other prisoners was a major subject of our deliberations. The decision was to release Madame Mai Thi Vang, although you had not requested it, along with Sau Ha as a demonstration of our goodwill and interest in the matter of prisoner exchange. The viewpoint which prevailed during our deliberations is that other prisoners will be released when you have given a more substantial indication of your willingness to release some prisoners on your side than you have indicated in the message conveyed by Mr. Tong. This indication could be given most expeditiously through the radio link which has been established between us. Your mentioning the names of the prisoners you would release would be helpful. To obtain your reply, we will monitor this link on the scheduled dates and times. [Page 1115]We would then respond with a transmission notifying you of the dates we will release the other prisoners. Ensuing procedural steps for the transfer of prisoners could be arranged most efficiently through use of the radio link. As an alternate means of communication, you may of course continue to use Mr. Tong as your intermediary.

“We trust you will see in our above actions a convincing demonstration of our intent to achieve a satisfactory basis for a prisoner exchange. We hope that this contact with you will permit us to work out arrangements for a continuing exchange of prisoners, and also serve as a useful background to the examination of the broader political topics reviewed in your message.” End of text.

2. Colonel Huan told [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] on 13 December that Minister Vien “does not object” to our proposed message, but does not wish to be quoted as “agreeing to it” or “approving it.” Huan indicated that Vien’s feelings are that, as long as Americans observe GVN policy which opposes contact, direct or indirect, with the NLF in the text of messages sent to the NLF, the GVN “will not object to the messages.”

3. Huan stated that Vien feels our projected launch date of 16–17 December is “too soon,” and Vien needs more time to prepare the people involved in the release of Mai Thi Vang, specifically General Loan. When [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] pointed out, as in previous conversations with Huan, that, in the American view, to delay much beyond the end of this week will be to take the rather serious risk that the NLF will despair of our responding and elect to proceed with the propaganda exploitation of the Buttercup case, Huan suggested that the [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] “speak to Vien to accelerate the launch date and present all of the arguments in favor of moving ahead soon on the operation.” Huan feels that Vien will understandably procrastinate, but that [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] discussion with Vien may facilitate his coming to grips with problem sooner than he might otherwise and making the moves and decisions involved to get the operation launched. Huan suggested that it is most important for the Americans to be prepared to discuss specifically the American response to an NLF propaganda exploitation of the Buttercup case.2

  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. In a covering memorandum transmitting a copy of the telegram to the President, Rostow wrote: “The latest Buttercup report is as follows: 1. The attached message was cleared by the government of Vietnam (GVN) to be passed back to [less than 1 line of source text not declassified], the NLF official who originated the message to us. 2. The GVN agreed on 16 December as the date for launching Sau Ha, Mai Thi Vang, and Buttercup/2 (the bearer of [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]’s message). Sau Ha and Mai Thi Vang (Mrs. [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]) were to be handed over to American custody on December 15 (today). The latest message does not report the actual transfer. In short, if nothing goes wrong, the countermove will be initiated this week end.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Buttercup Vol. I (A))
  2. According to CAS telegram 325 from Saigon, Sau Ha, Tong, and Mai Thi Vang were remanded to officials of the CIA Station in Saigon on December 15. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–7 VIET S/BUTTERCUP) In CAS telegram 447 from Saigon, December 20, Bunker reported that officers of the U.S. Army’s 25th Division launched the group on its journey on December 19, although without Mai Thi Vang, who was too debilitated by the rigors of her captivity under the GVN to travel. (Ibid.)