235. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
Saigon, May 16, 1968, 1220Z.
27497. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my fifty-first weekly message.
- A number of significant events occurred during the past week.
- The back of the enemy attack on Saigon has been broken and again he has suffered extremely heavy casualties. From the beginning of the attacks on the night of May 4–5 to midnight May 15, in the country as a whole the enemy lost 11,633 killed (more than half in the Saigon area) and well over 2,000 weapons. Friendly losses for the same period were 907 KIA, 169 missing, and something over 300 weapons. The enemy clearly suffered a heavy setback militarily. But I think it is also clear that he had objectives other than military. One was an attempt to bolster his position at Paris and impress American and world opinion with his ability to mount substantial campaigns against the cities and towns of South Vietnam. In shifting their strategy from the countryside to the cities, and especially Saigon, they are hoping by means of repeated attacks, raids, sabotage, shelling and the destruction of more and more parts of the city to undermine the fabric of government and to produce the uprising that would destroy it. One cannot ignore the fact that in creating another 125,000 refugees or evacuees in Saigon and Gia Dinh and in the severe damage or destruction of another 16,000 houses (probably a conservative estimate) the enemy has had a considerable measure of success. In the recent attacks, except for I Corps and Saigon, mostly by rocket and mortar fire, much of the enemy’s main force has been uncommitted and he is, therefore, in a position to continue his harassing attacks. That he will continue to be defeated and suffer heavy losses, I have no doubt. But if he continues to create refugees, to destroy and damage houses and industrial plants, the question is how long this can be endured without threatening all that has been achieved here.
- Hanoi, I think, is taking a calculated gamble, believing that our desire for peace and to deescalate the war is now so great that we cannot reverse this trend, that we will not dare to restore full bombing of the North or retaliate against Hanoi. It is for this reason that in my [Page 674] two messages this past week (Saigon 26928 and 27121)2 I urged that we not agree to cease our bombing of the North without specific commitments from Hanoi with respect to activity in the South. It seems to me we should make it clear that the attacks against Saigon and the cities, which are essentially attacks on civilians, are just as much “taking advantage” of the San Antonio formula as the doubling of the rate of infiltration which has occurred since August–September 1967 and the attacks on the demilitarized zone; and that these cannot be carried out with impunity and without fear of retribution.
- Thieu inaugurated a series of weekly radio and television speeches to the nation May 9. It was a good speech reviewing the impact of the recent attacks, noting the heavy casualties inflicted on the enemy, but also the damage and suffering caused by the Communists. He emphasized the fact that the enemy had increasingly resorted to sabotage, assassination, and indiscriminate shelling accompanied by considerable political activity. He congratulated the people and the armed forces for their performance during this new test of their courage and determination. He concluded his speech by expressing the hope that in his next address to the nation, probably this week, he would be able to speak to them on the subject of “reorganizing” the government.
- In my talk with him on May 14, Thieu said that he was in the final stages of deciding on the new structure of the cabinet and was examining with Tran Van Huong names for those to be replaced. He said that he had talked with Ky on the day before and had overcome his objections to Huong as Prime Minister. Thieu himself had canvassed the whole field and remarked that, “the fact is there is no one to appoint Prime Minister except Huong.” His decision not to make any change in the military commands is also reassuring. This presumably, for the present at least, will apply also to General Loan as Director-General of the National Police. In any case, it appears now doubtful that Loan will be able to resume his duties for some time. His leg wound is apparently serious enough to make it possible that some amputation may be necessary. Even if his leg is saved, he will lose some mobility and it seems unlikely that he can continue actively as police director. The circumstances under which this situation has developed are such as to avoid what might have been a source of friction between Thieu and Ky.
- Concern over the subject of negotiations seems to be a countrywide subject in South Vietnam at present, linked, as it is, to the future of every South Vietnamese in the most direct way. Reports from various sources in II, III, and IV Corps, I think, give some general indications of [Page 675] how the average person is thinking. An observer from Gia Dinh Province in III Corps feels that the peace initiative had produced three divergent positions: in the first group are GVN officials, the military, wealthy businessmen, some educators, Catholics and those who came South after 1954. This group strongly opposes peace moves at this time, for it feels that the GVN is in no position to emerge from talks with results that will be acceptable; that the result of talks would see the formation of a coalition government with eventual takeover by the Communists. In the second group are low to middle income urban workers who were initially pleased with the prospects of peace, but now seem concerned about their economic future in a peace-time situation without the U.S. presence. In the third group are the peasants and farmers in rural areas without any political views or ideological beliefs who would welcome an early end to the fighting on practically any terms.
- In II and IV Corps also, there seems to be evidence that the urban and rural poor want peace more than anything else and are not greatly concerned in the manner in which this might be achieved. There is on the other hand a growing body in the cities who have seen death and destruction all around them, who have been outraged by the terror tactics of the Viet Cong, and who are increasingly apprehensive of any arrangement which would threaten to bring the Communists to power. In the rural areas also, although there is much bending with the wind, there is growing resentment at the enemy tactics of forced heavy taxation, of abduction, and assassination and terror.
- A welcome development of this attitude has been the gathering momentum of the self-defense program throughout the country. In a radio and television speech on May 11, Vice President Ky outlined the objectives of the people’s self-defense organization: 1) to mobilize the entire population; 2) to create a force in the rear areas to release the army for combat; 3) to strengthen the will of the people for defense of the national cause; 4) to create a people’s force to strengthen the voice of the Republic of Vietnam at the conference table; 5) to permit the country to maintain a total war of an extended duration; and 6) to distribute the national potential rationally to permit it to fight and produce at the same time. The students seem to have taken hold with a good deal of enthusiasm and have already been pressed into service in Saigon. Professor Nguyen Van Truong, of the University of Saigon, remarked that he thought the students were enthusiastic in participating in the defense of the capital and that if the Communists attack them or attempt to kidnap them, they will meet with strong opposition.
- I have reported quite fully on our discussions with Thieu, Ky, and Dr. Tran Van Don on the subject of peace negotiations. They have been pleased with the two statements made by Ambassador Harriman. But at yesterday’s meeting, I sensed some sensitivity on their part that [Page 676] we might be getting into substantive talks without their presence. I note that Ambassador Bui Diem expressed some similar fears in Paris. This continues to be a highly sensitive matter here and could be politically explosive.
[Omitted here is discussion of political, military, and economic matters, pacification, and urban recovery.]
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 11:25 a.m. The telegram is printed in full in Pike, The Bunker Papers, Vol. 2, pp. 439–444.↩
- Telegram 26928 is Document 228. Telegram 27121 is not printed. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/CROCODILE)↩