99. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam1

149111. Subject: Presidential Candidates.

We gather from our recent exchanges with you on this subject and from reports of informal conversations recently between Embassy officers and visitors from Washington agencies that current prospects are for a single military candidate, presumably opposed by one or more civilian candidates. We also understand that it is the Embassy’s strong feeling at present that the military candidate is almost certain to win the presidential election in a fair contest but with the realistic recognition that he has the sizeable resources of the military and civilian bureaucracy behind him. We also have the impression that you find an increasing acceptance among civilian political groups of at least the inevitability, if not the desirability, of a military president, and that in fact there is growing civilian political activity to get behind the inevitable military candidate.2
If our reading of this assessment is correct, we consider that primary U.S. objective in forthcoming presidential elections should continue to be a fair and open contest between a military candidate and, hopefully, no more than one or two civilian candidates. In discussions with any and all Vietnamese we should make clear that USG is supporting no candidate but rather a fair contest. In our own thinking, we should certainly keep our options open should a civilian candidate succeed in winning presidency.
As we see it now, presidential race may face following problems:
Agreement among military on single military candidate. Our interest lies in ensuring that there is only one military presidential candidate. We should seek to avoid a Thieu-Ky ticket on grounds that it would represent “no change”, and we gather in any event that neither Thieu or Ky is inclined to become a vice presidential candidate or to serve as prime minister under the other. While both Thieu and Ky have their advantages and disadvantages, U.S. should not attempt to intervene in favor of either candidacy but be prepared to accept either one.[Page 230]This of course assumes that emergence of either Thieu or Ky as military candidate will not create irreconcilable rifts within military establishment.
Civilian participation in military ticket. We believe it is important for military presidential candidate to include on his ticket a prominent, attractive civilian as his vice presidential candidate. We are also inclined to believe that military candidate, if successful, should name prominent civilian as prime minister. In selecting vice presidential candidate and a prime minister, military candidate would have to bear in mind importance of regional representation as well as selection of individuals with whom he can work as team.
Military participation in civilian ticket. Although civilian presidential candidate would probably select another civilian as his vice presidential running mate, it would be important for him to make clear his intentions of cooperating fully with military establishment and perhaps even of naming military man as prime minister. Should civilian candidate win election, problem would then be to ensure that military swung behind him with their full support.
Naming of prospective Prime Minister. While it might be normal for prime minister to be named only after elections, we wonder whether it would not be wiser if he were named beforehand, at same time candidates announce their platforms. In this way further scope is provided for balancing regional, religious and other interests and particularly for establishing civil-military balance. Believe this would have importance internally in South Viet-Nam and know it would be optically helpful on international scene.
We would welcome your comments on above.3
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Exdis. Drafted by Miller, cleared in S/S, and approved by Unger. Repeated to Manila for Bundy.
  2. While accepting the inevitability of the military ticket’s victory, the Department expressed the hope that the political base of South Vietnam could be expanded either at the legislature level or in the subsequent elections. (Telegram 152441 to Saigon, March 9; ibid.)
  3. In a reply to this message, Lodge offered his concurrence in these guidelines, especially since the success of the election lay in the maintenance of military unity and civilian participation, most likely at the prime ministerial position on the ticket (which would be named during the campaign in order to maximize the ticket’s appeal). (Telegram 20032 from Saigon, March 10; ibid.)