138. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
22386. 1. I took Ambassador Komer to report privately to President Thieu on his Washington visit, as part of our current effort to get the GVN moving faster. Thieu was very receptive, and we had a long, two-hour discussion.
2. I told Thieu that Bob Komer had given me such a disturbing appraisal of the great concern in Washington over the current situation and GVN performance that I wanted President Thieu to get the same candid appraisal firsthand. We carefully noted that this was not an official call on instructions, but rather an effort on my part and Komer’s to make sure that President Thieu understood the full magnitude of Washington concerns.
3. Komer dwelt heavily on the deep discouragement of the U.S. press and public, as well as the large segment of the U.S. Congress, at the success of the VC Tet offensive and the slowness of the GVN’s response. He pointed out that this had greatly strengthened anti-war sentiment among much influential U.S. opinion and had re-enforced the growing criticism of the administration for even considering further Viet-Nam force increases at a time when the GVN was not carrying its own share of the burden. The GVN was regarded as moving too slowly in reforming its machinery, in recovering the countryside, counter-attacking the enemy, and rebuilding the cities.[Page 404]
4. On the contrary, Komer stressed, he found the President and his chief advisors determined and unflappable. However, Komer felt compelled to say in all candor that he found the highest levels in Washington also deeply disappointed and concerned that the GVN was not moving faster on the civil and military fronts.
5. To re-enforce this point, Komer cited various criticisms which he found at high levels. He emphasized that the constant reappearance of Thieu/Ky dissent gave an impression of divided and uncertain management at just the wrong time. It was regarded as a critical impediment to dynamic and unified GVN leadership.2 The press and critics were using this theme to argue that even the top GVN leadership couldn’t hang together. The proliferation of efforts to organize “national fronts” was also cited as evidence of the inability of the Vietnamese to pull together.
6. Komer went on to say that he had been told repeatedly that the GVN did not seem to be moving fast enough in purging its own ranks, despite the plus from removal of two corps commanders and several province chiefs. Since Washington regarded the next few months as critical, it also had difficulty in understanding why ARVN could not conduct more of a full-scale counteroffensive to relieve the threat to the cities and recapture the countryside. Further, there was much criticism of the lack of solid action to date against corruption, and even of the weakness of Prime Minister Loc.
7. Komer summed up by expressing his own personal view that it would be difficult for the U.S. to justify yet further support for the GVN, or perhaps even sustain the present level of support, unless the GVN took more drastic steps to show it was rising both to the enemy threat and to the great opportunities which Hanoi’s all-out offensive was creating. He felt that the U.S. position would be critically dependent on what the GVN itself did over the next few months to convince the U.S. [Page 405] administration, Congress, and public that it merited such support. He apologized for having to present such a gloomy view, but repeated that he and I felt we owed it to Thieu because in the last analysis only Thieu as president could galvanize the GVN.
8. Thieu expressed appreciation, and recited some of his difficulties in getting the GVN to pull together. He mentioned jocularly that he even had to deal with rumored possibilities of a coup. I seized the opening to remind him again that Washington supported him and only him as the duly-elected President, and that a coup would most certainly risk withdrawal of U.S. support to Viet-Nam. We doubted whether our Viet-Nam policy would survive another coup.
9. Thieu then asked candidly, “Should I have a change of government?” When I asked him what he meant, he asked frankly whether he should change Loc and other Ministers. I replied that I recognized the difficulty of Loc’s position. He also struck me as a very intelligent man, but he did not seem to be a particularly good executive or manager who knew how to use his power to make decisions. Komer added that in his and General Forsythe’s almost daily meetings with the Central Recovery Committee over the past six weeks, they had both been struck by how the President or Ky would take decisions but how the CRC became more of a debating society when Loc was in the chair.
10. Thieu dissented from our view, saying that he thought Loc had the capability to make decisions but was caught in a very difficult position in the middle (between Thieu and Ky). Though Loc had been proposed by Ky, he was being hampered in taking many decisions because of fear of offending the Ky group. For example, Loc knew who was corrupt (Thieu cited the Customs Director, the Port Director, and some others whose names we did not catch), but these were Ky appointees whom Loc feared to remove. The President had told Loc that he would back Loc in any changes, but Loc was concerned over “cutting off Ky’s arms and legs.” Loc meant well but was hamstrung by being in the middle.
11. Komer suggested giving Loc a specified period—say two months—in which to perform on pain of dismissal. Thieu smiled but did not respond. Next Komer suggested strengthening the Prime Minister’s office by making Doan Ba Cang Deputy Prime Minister with power to pull the governmental machinery together on the recovery front. Cang was tough-minded and was performing brilliantly; however, he lacked the authority to compel Ministers to respond.
[Omitted here is discussion relating to the pacification program.]
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Repeated to CINCPAC for POLAD.↩
- In telegram 22205 from Saigon, March 15, Bunker reported on his meeting that day with Thieu during which they discussed his rivalry with Ky. Bunker described the conflict as “damaging to the image of the GVN both here and abroad” and stressed to Thieu the need to resolve this problem. Thieu placed considerable blame for the impasse on Ky and expressed anxiety about entrusting him with an important function such as the anti-corruption campaign, “since he was surrounded by corrupt people.” (Ibid.) In a meeting with Ky 5 days later, Komer warned against any “extra-constitutional moves” as “there was no doubt in his mind that U.S. would do everything in its power to prevent any power grab.” (Telegram 22549 from Saigon, March 20; ibid.) A March 20 memorandum prepared by the CIA Station in Saigon assessing the Thieu-Ky relationship concluded that “while Ky must be warned that coup talk is simply unacceptable and contrary to both GVN and U.S. interests, it would be best if Thieu rather than Ky could be induced to play the major role in the resolution of the ‘Thieu-Ky problem’ using Ky’s announced dissatisfaction to our advantage in encouraging Thieu to be more aggressive in this regard.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 1 EE (3), 3/16–31/68, Post-Tet Political Activity)↩