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

17618. 1. I paid a “Tet call” on Thieu, having had hints that he wanted to see me to talk about the political future in Viet-Nam.

2. After wishing him a happy “Year of the Ram,” I found that the hint had been correct because he started in immediately on the political outlook here, saying that the present government, while not elected, had nonetheless been stable, and as efficacious as a Vietnamese government could be at this stage in the country’s development.

[Page 100]

3. For the future, he said, everyone expected the new government under the Constitution to be even better. To be sure, this would not automatically take place. A democratic government could be worse, but it could also mean improvement, efficiency, responsibility, freedom from corruption.

4. Many people were thinking about a formula for the future and there seemed to be general agreement that there should be a “marriage” between the civil and the military. Assuming, he said, there is a civilian President, it would nonetheless be necessary for the military to hold certain Ministries, notably Defense, Revolutionary Development, and Information. This was not for any symbolic reasons, but simply because it was indispensable that these three be done efficiently for the sake of the war, and this was the only way in Viet-Nam at the present time that it could be assured.

5. Also it would not be practicable to elect the province chiefs right away. That might come later, and if an effective civilian province chief could be found, he could always be appointed. Of course, all military could withdraw when the war was over.

6. I stressed the importance from the standpoint of American opinion to have really adequate civilian representation in whatever “ticket” emerged for the executive branch. He spared me the embarrassment of saying that for Thieu and Ky to emerge after the elections as President and Prime Minister would make a very bad impression. He said himself that this would make the whole constitutional effort look like a trumped up affair. He believed that there ought to be a “coupling” of civilian and military in some way or other, using the office of the President, Vice President, and Prime Minister. He also believed the army should pick a couple and back it.2

7. Comment: I went as far as I thought I should go and limited myself to two points: A) that there should be strong civilian representation in whatever “ticket” emerges and B) that the army should stay united, believe it is a mistake for us to back or oppose any of the candidates who appear to have even a remote chance of being considered. Thieu was obviously playing his cards close to his chest on his own political plans. To me, as to Vietnamese, he has not divulged any clear indication of his intentions. Tran Van Do believes Thieu will hold off [Page 101]on such a decision until after the Constitution is finished. End comment.3

8. Having said all this, which he obviously wanted to get off his chest, Thieu paused and I took up the matter which had been concerning me, which was the widespread worry here in Viet-Nam springing from all the published rumors that we were conducting peace activities without consulting them. I told him substantially what I had said to Ky yesterday morning (Saigon 17482).4

9. Thieu said Vietnamese opinion was extremely sensitive and touchy about these new stories, notably the part about recognizing the NLF as a separate entity. Indeed he said that if there was a civil government in Viet-Nam now, it would be constrained to make a public statement repudiating the American Senators who are talking in this way. One advantage of having a military government was that nobody questioned their anti-Communism, and that it was not necessary for them to repudiate the Senators.

10. But we should not be under any illusions, he added. There is great worry among many elements of Vietnamese opinion and the critics of the government, notably the Communists themselves, are constantly spreading rumors that the government is trying to bring about a coalition. Viet Cong propaganda everywhere was stressing the importance of Senator Fulbright as “a messenger of President Johnson,” and stressing the importance of Senator Kennedy as a leading member [Page 102]of the party in power, and while he, Thieu, understood the way our system worked, he absolutely despaired of making Vietnamese understand that a Senator who is Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and a member of the same party as the President, could say things totally independent of the President.

11. This made matters very difficult, he said, when it came to national reconciliation. In fact, when Prime Minister Ky recently spoke of members of the NLF becoming Ministers, he was at once subjected to a tremendous barrage of criticism—the violence of which was attributable to the impression made by Senator Fulbright.

12. Thieu was also disturbed about what would happen were a “cease-fire” to be offered. He recalled that at Geneva a cease-fire was proposed on the 1st of August to take effect in ten days, and during that ten days, 40 percent of the military personnel in Viet-Nam who had been fighting for nine years left. They could not wait the extra ten days. This could happen again with disastrous results, notably to the American troops. He believes that during the Year of the Ram, the North Vietnamese will do the minimum necessary to maintain themselves in the field militarily, but that their main effort would be to keep a peace offensive going, with “the help of such persons as the Pope and U Thant” and with the hope of diminishing President Johnson’s prestige, creating embarrassments for him, and then trying in 1968 to bring about President Johnson’s defeat. It will, he said, be an intricate and difficult thing to cope with.

13. Turning to the subject of reconciliation, he said that he had opened the door in his speech, and that tonight he would actually use the phrase. We should realize, however, that nothing big could be expected in the way of national reconciliation until people’s minds were really prepared for it. The ground needs a great deal of cultivation, and the Minister of Information must organize personnel and a program to do this. There is widespread suspicion of defectors, Chieu Hois, etc. This is why the Chieu Hoi rate is “intermittent.” You will always get a big Chieu Hoi figure just before them [Tet?] because people want to go home and eat well, but it will slump back right after. Extensive psychological preparations are needed.

14. I then brought up the question of Vietnamese civilian casualties and said that I worried about it. I realized that casualties which were deliberately inflicted on civilians by the Viet Cong were in a different category from casualties accidentally inflicted by the Americans, but I could not help take what the Americans were doing to heart, and asked him whether he had any advice.

15. Thieu said that every sensible person realized that in all wars civilians were accidentally killed. This was true in this war not only as regards the Americans; but the armed forces of the Republic of Viet-Nam [Page 103]themselves killed a certain number of civilians. It was unavoidable and everybody understood it. He seemed to think we were taking proper precautions. I asked him please to notify me if he thought there was something we could do that we were not doing.

16. He then said that on the question of placing U.S. troops at any given place in Viet-Nam, one must ask oneself: would they in fact do damage either as regards the economy, or morals, or deaths? It was for this reason that it had been decided to give the Americans the zones which were largely without population and to avoid the thickly settled areas. This was why the ARVN has been given the populated areas. People understood this. As far as immorality is concerned, this would not happen without the Vietnamese girls who don’t have to behave in this way if they do not want to.

17. When he hears criticism of Americans, he can’t help but “think of the difference between the tremendous amount of rape, rowdyism, arguments, drunkenness when 10,000 French were here, as compared with how little of this kind of thing there is with 400,000 Americans.” The French, he said, had a colonial mentality. They wanted to be here as masters. There was no activity of theirs bearing even the remotest resemblance to our “civic action.” The Americans come here well prepared psychologically, anxious to help and to do good and they do. (Comment: I believe our U.S. military have a right to be pleased by this very sincere, very real and wholly unsolicited compliment. End comment.)

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Exdis. Received at 4:21 a.m. and passed to the White House, DOD, and CIA at 5 a.m. In a covering note transmitting a retyped copy of this telegram to the President, Rostow wrote: “Once again the Vietnamese—this time Thieu—show themselves to be smart and level-headed. You will wish, I believe, to read every word of this. I have been talking for some time to Sec. Rusk about the need to treat Ky and Thieu with more confidence. We shall need that mutual confidence in the days ahead—quite as much as Wilson’s, for example.”(Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. XV, Memos (A))
  2. In telegram 133730 to Saigon, February 8, the Department foresaw a contest between a slate headed by Huong and backed by Ky against one led by Thieu as offering a fair choice to the public of South Vietnam. The Department’s major concern was whether such an occurrence would split military support for the new civilian government. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15–1 VIET S)
  3. In telegram 17704 from Saigon, February 9, Lodge suggested that the U.S. Government was overlooking a salient factor in Vietnamese political life by putting forward such a desire for “civilian” participation. “In speaking of the role of the military, we perhaps put too much emphasis on their military power and too little on the fact that the military is in many respects the most experienced, cohesive and reliable of the nation building forces in this country,” the Ambassador stressed. “There would be no ’Republic of Vietnam’ without it.” Therefore, he concluded, the military’s presence in electoral politics should not be reduced but rather channeled into a genuine power-sharing arrangement with the civilian politicians. (Ibid., POL 21–4 VIET S) In telegram 18354 from Saigon, February 18, Lodge added that there could be no movement toward a popular government in South Vietnam without a political stability that would derive in most part from military support. An election that pitted Ky and Thieu on opposing tickets “could be a disaster which would jeopardize much that we have labored to build.” Therefore, Ky’s idea of building a consensus for a government-sponsored slate would have more attraction. Huong was the only civilian candidate taken seriously, but Lodge doubted that Ky would in fact support Huong’s quest for the presidency. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. LXVI, Memos) However, Huong later told an Embassy official that he did not believe that Ky would take second place on a ticket headed by a civilian and doubted whether the military itself would truly give up power. (Telegram 19123 from Saigon, February 28; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S) Ky assured Lodge that he would support a popularly elected government. (Telegram 18936, February 25; ibid., POL 27 VIET S)
  4. Dated February 7. (Ibid.)