170. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
23612. 1. For obvious reasons, I asked to see Thieu, immediately after listening to President’s speech,2 and saw him this afternoon for three quarters of an hour.
2. I opened by saying I was as surprised as he must have been by the President’s announcement with respect to his candidacy.
3. Thieu immediately asked what significance was to be attached to it? Has the President really closed the door? Was there no possibility of a draft at the convention?
4. I said I had no inkling whatsoever that this announcement was coming and I have so far had no instructions. I therefore have no special information to provide him on this decision. I could only give him my personal view: The President, by taking this step, has a free hand to pursue the new policies which he announced and which represent no departure from his stand on Vietnam; and he has cut the ground from under the critics of his Vietnam policy. He has lifted Vietnam out of domestic politics and is asking the country and his opposition to face up squarely to what must be done.
5. Thieu said he was making a speech tonight on the anniversary of the promulgation of the Constitution, and tomorrow at 1000 hours he will have his joint press conference with Ky.3 He had obviously to deal with the President’s speech and would welcome any advice. The rumors in Saigon were that this represents a change in U.S. policy, that the President abandoned his policy on Vietnam, that Kennedy will clearly win the nomination, and so on.
6. I suggested he ought probably avoid speculation and interpretation on these lines, and say these were domestic U.S. questions on [Page 497] which he did not think it appropriate to comment. He nodded vigorously, saying that was what he intended to do. As for the rest of the speech he found it unexceptional. It was flexible and very carefully constructed, and it would give him no difficulties. “President Johnson in this speech,” he said with a smile, “was more Asian than we Asians.”
7. He said he was sorry the President did not indicate that he had consulted with the GVN leaders on the substance of the speech, since he would be asked if this was the case. He intended to handle this by saying that contents of the speech, except for the last part about the President’s personal intentions, came as no surprise since it was discussed with him in advance. He intends to stress the many favorable features of speech, and make reference to GVN’s support for the need to search for a peaceful solution.
8. Thieu asked how long the restriction on bombing would apply and what we regard as a “significant response” from Hanoi. I said, as I told him at our previous meeting, we have no specific period in mind but thought it might run four weeks or so, or longer, and that we thought Hanoi’s reply would probably be negative.
9. Thieu said he thought Hanoi would deal with the new statement on two planes. Officially they would say it was not responsive to their demand for a complete cessation of all bombing. Privately Hanoi would circulate rumors that the speech shows that even President Johnson recognizes his hawkish policy has failed and that he has now abandoned it.
10. Comment: Thieu was unflappable during the conversation. He was constructive, did not appear to be alarmed by this most unexpected turn of events, and was more puzzled than worried. I think in the back of his mind is the feeling that the President has by a bold stroke removed Vietnam from domestic U.S. political controversy, confounded his critics, and won the first round in the political campaign.4
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Confidential; Immediate; Exdis. Repeated to CINCPAC for POLAD.↩
- See Document 169. The Department transmitted general guidance for discussion of the President’s decisions in circular telegram 139524, April 1. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)↩
- During this press conference, Thieu asserted: “I have said many times that if the allies cannot continue their assistance, we will fight on alone.” Both he and Ky assured their people that they would work together. (Telegram 23956 from Saigon, April 4; ibid.)↩
- Bunker also reported in his 46th weekly message to the President on the South Vietnamese reaction to the news of Johnson’s peace offer: “The general reaction to your speech was at first confused and fearful, but as the text became widely available and was studied carefully, reactions were generally favorable. While there remains some fear, particularly with the man on the street, that the decision to sharply reduce the bombing may be a sign of American wavering in the face of the enemy, most opinion makers here now see it as a necessary gesture toward American and world opinion.” (Ibid.) This telegram is printed in full in Pike, ed., The Bunker Papers, Vol. 2, pp. 403–410.↩