145. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
Saigon, March 20, 1968, 0833Z.
22548. No distribution outside the Department. Literally eyes only for the Secretary from Bunker. Reference: State 131732.2
- I appreciate the opportunity to comment at an early stage on the very important questions raised in reftel since, as you have indicated, actions on them clearly will have major effects here which should be taken into consideration before decisions are made. I recognize that considerations relating to the situation in the US may be overriding, but I am setting forth my very frank views on the problems which I believe may follow here if these courses of action are initiated in the near future. I will make some general comments first and then discuss the specific courses of action in the light of these more general comments.
- As you indicate in para 6 of reftel, we have reported the general attitudes here towards early negotiations or peace initiatives fully and they do not need to be repeated in detail. In addition to a continuing sense of uncertainty and some residual fear of further enemy attacks on the cities, which underlie the GVN sensitivity on new negotiation initiatives, there are one or two additional factors which lie under the surface. One is the latent feeling which I sense many Vietnamese have that there should have been some form of immediate retaliation against NVN after the savage Tet attacks. This has not been explicitly voiced by [Page 425] Vietnamese leaders but I suspect that it is there. The recent initiatives by Ky and Loan that some of their followers are urging a “march to the North” and a declaration of war against North Viet-Nam probably represent, inter alia, a reaction to this frustration.
- This factor has a bearing on the general question of Thieu’s position if he should agree to a proposal from us along the lines indicated. Thieu, as you know, has shown himself to be very responsive to our wishes and needs, even if he has not always moved with the speed and vigor we might hope. In doing so, he has made himself vulnerable to charges of being unduly influenced by the Americans, and this may be one of the motives that lie behind these nationalistic initiatives by Ky and others. Thieu could therefore find himself in a very delicate position if he should give his concurrence to our proposals unless Ky is equally committed in whatever is done.
- The timing of these moves will be critical to our success in getting GVN support, or at least understanding, for them, and I regard full consultation with GVN leaders as essential. From the viewpoint of putting Hanoi on the spot, I can see that an early initiative might have some advantage, but from a South Vietnamese viewpoint it could create problems that the GVN may not be able to cope with. At the present moment the mood of the people, especially in the countryside, is still fluid and a move by us to make a concession to Hanoi and the VC without a quid pro quo could be widely misinterpreted and could feed the latent anti-Americanism which the VC have been cleverly exploiting in recent weeks. It could revive the earlier rumor of US–VC collusion. It could also reverse the favorable trend of opinion in the urban areas where the new mood of unity and anti-Communism is still quite strong, as shown for example by the large number of young men volunteering for military service. We are also just at the point where the Vietnamese armed forces are taking the offensive against the enemy and are moving back out into the countryside. We do not want to take any action which might discourage this trend as we have been working hard to encourage it for the past few weeks. In short, a premature move towards negotiations could unsettle the favorable trend of Vietnamese opinion and action at a critical moment, encourage the fence-sitters, doubters and rumor mongers, and possibly discourage new ralliers from the other side.
- On the other hand, a few more months might make all the difference in reestablishing Vietnamese confidence in themselves (and in us) and in their ability to overcome the Tet attacks and to move ahead demonstrably on priority objectives. It would also afford time to judge more accurately the effect of the Tet offensive on the enemy’s capability and to demonstrate our own intentions regarding further military and other support for the GVN, including equipment for augmented [Page 426] Vietnamese forces. Time, in other words, should work to our advantage in terms of Vietnamese receptivity to further negotiations initiatives, whereas too early a move might have an extremely negative effect and undo much that we and the GVN have been trying to accomplish since the Tet attacks. As you know, Thieu, Ky, and Do have frequently said to me that a political settlement is needed and desired by the Vietnamese people who have been at war off and on for more than twenty years. They consider, however, that the timing of negotiations aimed at a settlement is critical and must be related to the strength of the GVN’s position. They all feel strongly that it is too early now to get engaged in such an effort.
- If I may look at this proposition also from Hanoi’s viewpoint, I imagine that the leadership there might regard an early move on our part without any reciprocity from their side as an indication of the success of their Tet offensive and of their diplomatic and propaganda campaign around the world. They might well conclude that the situation in South Viet-Nam has been shaken more than they probably now think and that in the US our resolve with respect to Viet-Nam has been weakened. I am inclined to agree with you that Hanoi would not take any real step toward peace, but their leaders would seek to give a world-wide impression that they were doing precisely this, and I believe we might find it difficult to resume bombing in these circumstances. The holding of their hand at Khe Sanh, which may be their intention in any case, and which we could never really be sure of, could leave us with the same major commitment of forces in northern I Corps that we have now. Moreover, it would be a situation without any real military advantage since we would have to remain prepared for any eventuality there. I also question whether the holding of their hand against further attacks on the cities would have real significance in military terms, since it seems increasingly likely that they no longer have the capability to undertake successfully wide-spread and destructive attacks on a scale comparable to Tet. Further harassment of the cities and of lines of communication seems more likely. Our military posture will be further improved in the meantime if Vietnamese forces are built up substantially and American forces are augmented to some degree. In sum, I find it difficult to believe that Hanoi’s response to these measures will bring us any advantage, either politically or militarily.
- With respect to the two specific proposals you outline, the first alternative (para 2 of reftel) would create the greatest difficulties for us here. I recommend strongly that we not pursue this course, since from a Vietnamese viewpoint it would bring out all the disadvantages I have mentioned and it would also mean giving up our principal card without obtaining anything in return.
- If your second proposal were adopted, it would be easier to obtain GVN concurrence. I believe, nonetheless, that it would still have most of the negative effects I have discussed above if initiated prematurely. The conditions spelled out in para 4 would be helpful in presenting the matter to the GVN leadership, although I suspect that they will still see major difficulties if this course is initiated in the near future and certainly if it is done before we have indicated publicly our intention to increase our forces in Viet-Nam. Generals Westmoreland and Momyer are currently studying the probable effects of confining the bombing of NVN to roughly the area you have in mind and it would be useful to have the results of this study in hand in order to determine its military effect.
- In conclusion, I should say that while I do not want to exaggerate the effects here of our initiating an action along the lines indicated, I believe that if it is done prematurely, it runs the very real risk of undermining much that we have accomplished here and of stimulating latent Vietnamese doubts about our intentions. As I have indicated, we must consult Thieu and Ky and we must give them time to consider the effects of such action on their situation. This might mean a few days or possibly a week. I expect, however, that it will disturb them deeply and that they will urge us to defer such actions for at least several months when they expect to be in a stronger position to bring other elements of Vietnamese opinion, military and civilian along with them in support of any new initiative by us.
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Priority; Nodis. Received at 7:32 a.m.↩
- Document 137.↩