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

19209. For the President from Lodge. Herewith my weekly telegram:

Lilienthal Visit2
It was good to have David Lilienthal and his experts here. He traveled widely and spoke with businessmen, farmers, government officials and college students. In fact, he spent one evening with 36 students, getting their views on the economic development of their country. He made a very favorable impression on the Vietnamese as a man genuinely interested in their problems and in their hopes for their country.
He was impressed by the caliber of the Vietnamese with whom he will work and was encouraged by their enthusiasm and their earnest desire to work. He believes, as do I, that both the human and the natural resources are here.
We are thus off to a good start on this project of defining Viet-Nam’s economic path in the future. Mr. Lilienthal is already acting as a catalyst around which the Vietnamese can work and discuss what comes after the war. This could be nation-building in the best sense of the word.
Pressures on Hanoi
In Ky’s mind, and that of other leading Vietnamese, the idea is growing that evolution toward a constitutionally elected President is a great source of pressure on Hanoi. They believe it would make establishment of Communism in the future much more difficult here, notably because it would make the insertion of the so-called NLF as such into the Government of Viet-Nam almost impossible. To be sure, individuals could in theory get elected to Congress in an individual capacity, but this would be totally different.
In the Vietnamese view, to “put the NLF into the GVN” would confer a benediction on the worst criminal-terrorist elements; would mean defeat and consequent stultification of all who have made sacrifices [Page 212] here; would confirm the right of the Viet Cong to hold at least the 20 percent of the population which they now largely control; would be a signal to all GVN troops to stop fighting; and would give a hunting license to Viet Cong to start expansion of terrorism among the 80 percent presently not under Viet Cong domination. The current GVN would undoubtedly regard putting the NLF into the government of South Viet-Nam as an individual death sentence for many Vietnamese, specifically including themselves.
The conviction that the developments in para 5 above would be made much more difficult, if not impossible, under a constitutional government is responsible for Ky’s desire to hold the election as soon as it is humanly possible to do so after the Constitution has been promulgated. Considering the difficulties of setting up an election, with the printing of the ballots and all the rest, I estimate a period of anywhere between three to six months after promulgation of a Constitution before the election could be held.
Another result of Ky’s conviction that the move toward an elected constitutional president is so important was his statement to me on the day when I went to see him to tell him about your decision on increased military pressure. At that time, he said that even if a civilian was elected president whom he, Ky, did not like, he would support him so that Viet-Nam could speak and act internationally with one strong, authoritative and legitimate voice. He obviously would be supporting the process rather than indulging individual preferences—a wholesome and unusual attitude here. He also is much impressed with the question of legitimacy, and has been concerned by the feeling abroad that his government lacks legitimacy. He believes that an election would confer a legitimacy which nobody could question.
All this naturally raises the question of the U.S. view of the Presidential election. I have asked my American colleagues here to say two things in response to all questions: A) we have not and will not interfere in the internal affairs of Viet-Nam. The question of what individual they elect for President is their business and is an internal question. B) We expect to recognize whoever is duly elected.
Comment: This is a safe position for us to take since there is as yet no candidate who is dangerous for us—nor is there one in sight. I also prefer to use the word “recognize” rather than the word “support.” There is a vast difference between our “supporting” a certain group in power, and our “recognizing” that group as the due Government of Viet-Nam. I remember when the late Senator Taft criticized the administrators of the Marshall Plan for “supporting” the Labor government of England. The answer was that we were not “supporting” the Labor government and that in an election between them and the Conservatives, we would be impartial, but the Labor government was [Page 213] the duly constituted government, and we had to work through it if the Marshall Plan were to be carried out.
Every day brings an attempt by someone, usually very cleverly done, to involve us in some of these candidacies. And there are all too many Americans who regard it as their God-given right to say whom they favor for President of Viet-Nam. This led me to utter words of caution at the Mission Council meeting last Monday.
Last week the Assembly moved swiftly through both the executive and the judiciary sections of the draft Constitution. Still to be considered are sections on advisory councils, political parties and the opposition, amending the Constitution, and the transitional provisions.
The powers of the President were further increased, in accord with the wishes of the government, by reducing the importance of the Prime Minister. The President will determine national policy and the Prime Minister will execute it; the President will also preside over the Council of Ministers, thus diminishing the authority of the Prime Minister over the Cabinet.
Among the problems yet to come before the Assembly is the proposal by General Thieu that the Assembly write into the Constitution provision for a High Council for National Defense and the Armed Forces. The Council would advise the President on matters relating to national defense. In a February 22 letter to the Assembly, Thieu said that “The Council will be an institution through which the military can make its voice heard, contribute to national reconstruction, and legally set forth the aspirations of those who have sacrificed so much for their country.” Thieu also said that “Such a Council will keep military personnel from feeling that they are mere instruments of persons who are irresponsible or acting for their personal benefit.”
Thieu in effect would give the present Armed Forces Council a place in the basic law of the land. There is much to be said for thus constitutionally regularizing the rights and duties of the highest military authority in this country where it has an importance unknown in our country. Some civilian politicians fear that the body would not be content merely to advise the President. Presidential hopeful Tranh Van Huong, for example, told an Embassy officer that the Armed Forces Council is an “illegal body” and that if it is embedded in the Constitution it will “interfere” in the government in a destructive way. Best guess is that after a sharp debate, the Assembly will provide for such a body in the Constitution.
Other major issues yet to be decided include the proposal for election of province chiefs, the role of the current Assembly after the promulgation of the Constitution, and provisions covering the formation and activities of political parties.
In his February 22 letter to the Assembly, the second such official message from the government to the Deputies, Thieu also opposed election of province chiefs and urged that the Assembly reconsider its decision on “no confidence” votes. As the Constitution now stands, the legislature can force removal of the Prime Minister only by a 3/4 vote of the total membership of both houses. Although in practice such a vote would probably prove extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve, the Directorate is still dissatisfied with this provision. Thieu has asked that a vote of no confidence not be binding on the President under any circumstances.
Carrying out Manila pledges
The Vietnamese Government has been slow in carrying out some of the promises made at Manila,3 but there is now some progress. The effort to elect thousands of hamlet chiefs and village officials is going well. Ky kicked off the organization of the elections personally by appearing at the corps seminars being held for the provincial officials who will conduct the elections. In a speech at the III Corps seminar, Ky stressed the importance of building democracy at the lowest levels of society, and he emphasized the necessity for conducting completely honest elections. Although military personnel on active duty (including Regional Forces and Popular Forces) will not be permitted to run in the hamlet and village elections, Ky hit hard at those who may think that the military is not capable of playing a constructive role in the building of democracy. He asked for tolerance by the people of the military and vice versa. Also in Can Tho on February 28, Ky stressed the continuing role of the military in completing the social revolution. In III Corps, government preparations for the elections include planning for a training program after the elections for some 1,775 village officials.
During the past week, the land reform effort progressed with the distribution of land titles at two large ceremonies attended by Ky and other Cabinet officers.
General Thieu is clearly and thoroughly committed to the Manila pledge of a program of national reconciliation. In fact, he is enthusiastic about it, having called in Zorthian for a long discussion. Thieu said that he knew we felt the government had not moved quickly enough to carry out its Manila commitments because he had not issued a national reconciliation proclamation either on Tet or November 1. He explained that the government had not made the necessary preparations by either of those dates and he had decided the simple issuance of a proclamation without the necessary preparations would result in [Page 215] failure. He also pointed out that an offer of full civil and political rights for returnees would be less impressive without the existence of a Constitution.
Thieu told Zorthian that the occasion of the promulgation of the Constitution would be the best time for the announcement. He said this would provide enough time to undertake preparations for an increased influx of returnees and also give the Viet Cong enough time to come in and undergo screening and a reorientation process before participating in the Presidential elections in the late summer or early fall.
Thieu also said that he felt there were three essential preparatory steps that must be accomplished between now and the time of the national reconciliation proclamation, as follows:
The first would be an intensive educational effort among government officials down to the lowest ranks. He said he and other members of the government would undertake this effort through travels around the country.
Secondly, adequate resources must be available to handle returnees both at Chieu Hoi centers and at resettlement projects.
Third, preparations must be made and resources assured for a major psychological operations campaign. Throughout his lengthy presentation of his ideas on this subject, Thieu emphasized the importance of performance on the part of the GVN and the potential shortening of the war through draining off Viet Cong strength.

[Here follows discussion of defections, port congestion, and military matters.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Nodis. Received at 5:31 a.m.
  2. Lilienthal, who had led the Tennessee Valley Authority re-development project in the United States, headed a joint U.S.-South Vietnamese group concerned with developing long-range plans for postwar development in Vietnam. See footnote 1, Document 91.
  3. A reference to the commitments to extend the political base in South Vietnam made in the declaration following the October 1966 Manila conference. See Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966, Book II, pp. 1259–1265.