245. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

28053. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my fifty-second weekly message.

The last week was noteworthy for a number of items:
On May 18th President Thieu announced the resignation of the Loc Cabinet, his decision to reorganize the government, his invitation to Tran Van Huong to serve as Prime Minister and Huong’s acceptance. In an excellent brief speech Thieu paid tribute to the accomplishments of the Loc government, sought to set at rest unfounded rumors which had been circulating about the attitude of the military, the Buddhists, the Southern separatists, and threatened discriminations against [Page 705] Northerners. He made it clear that he had no intentions of replacing the corps commanders, that he would not tolerate discrimination in any form and called attention to the fact that the Congress, representing the whole people, exercised supervision over the activities and effectiveness of the government. He called on people of all persuasions to extend comprehension and assistance to the new government in the common cause.
Tran Van Huong is now engaged in intensive consultations with a broad range of political figures, clearly hoping to establish as wide a base as possible for his new Cabinet. Thieu told me yesterday that he will be meeting again in the afternoon with Huong to go over the Cabinet list, that they have planned to talk with Vice President Ky today, and that he hoped to announce the new government by Friday or Saturday at the latest.2 It is planned to reduce the Cabinet from the 17 to 13 or 14 and to set up a smaller group, in the nature of a war cabinet, consisting of Thieu, Ky, the Prime Minister and two or three others who will meet daily to deal with urgent matters and see that decisions are implemented. Thieu indicated that most effective of the present Ministers would be retained, though not necessarily in the same positions: Lu-Y (Health), Sieu (Transport), Tri (Revolutionary Development), Vy (Defense), Tinh (Finance), and possibly others. Huong has been at some pains to make clear the fact that he wants to put together a balanced team in terms of regions and other interest groups.
Reaction to the Huong appointment continues to come in and is generally favorable, although there are some who prefer to reserve their views until the composition of the Cabinet is known. Huong has a reputation for personal integrity, honesty, toughness, and a fighter against [Page 706] corruption; he also has a reputation for stubbornness, of which Thieu is aware but which he believes will not prevent their working well together. Thieu told me a week ago that Huong’s concern was that he be given enough leeway to work to the end of more effective and honest government. Thieu is prepared to do this and said that he had gone through a long list and “the fact is there is no one to appoint Prime Minister except Huong.”
In addition to the generally favorable comment on Huong’s appointment it was encouraging that one of the leading extremist Buddhist figures, Thich Phap Tri, denied publicly that the An Quang group was opposed to Huong, and in fact expressed satisfaction at the appointment.
Unfortunately, as so often in the past, there has been irresponsible reporting on the appointment of the new Cabinet. The reports of a serious crisis or showdown between Thieu and Ky over the Huong appointment appears to be lacking in foundation. While Ky is unhappy over developments, because of Huong’s known independence, I know of no evidence that he will attempt to do anything to obstruct it.3 In fact it is reported that the conversation Huong had with Ky last Tuesday4 went very well, and that Huong handled it with tact and skill. The AP story of May 17 which predicted a Thieu-Ky showdown over the appointment of the new Cabinet was written by a new correspondent recently arrived in Viet-Nam after some years of service in Latin America who accepted at face value one of the countless rumors always circulating in Saigon.
That Hanoi’s current strategy is an all out effort, militarily and psychologically, to strengthen its hand in negotiations continues to be evident. While as I reported in my last message5 the enemy’s major attack on Saigon was broken off, he is covering his withdrawal with a series of rocket and mortar attacks on a variety of targets. This has [Page 707] included indiscriminate firing at Saigon in the early morning hours of May 19 and additional mortar and rocket attacks against the capitals of Ba Xuyen, Dinh Tuong, and Binh Thuan Provinces early on May 21.
The indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Saigon have had an impact in psychological terms as well as added to the list of dead, wounded, and homeless. Three Vietnamese police and three civilians are known dead; 32 civilians and one American soldier are reported wounded; and some 500 people have had their homes destroyed. The home of Nguyen Luu Vien, Deputy Prime Minister in Ky’s last Cabinet, was hit by a 122 mm. rocket just after he had gotten his family awake and downstairs. He and his family suffered scratches but were otherwise unhurt. He dismissed the attack as blind terror designed to impress world opinion as proving that the Communists are masters in South Viet-Nam. Nguyen Phu Duc, an advisor to President Thieu, had an experience very similar to Vien’s.
In our fifth joint discussion on problems of negotiations yesterday morning Thieu gave his estimate of Hanoi’s objectives and brought up a subject which is obviously of increasing concern to the GVN, i.e., how long the present situation of a partial bombing halt with no reciprocity can be allowed to go on.6
Thieu said that the VC/NVA is “testing our patience” and are in no hurry to engage in serious talks. They mean to exploit the partial bombing halt for as long as possible in order to increase infiltration and to mount new large scale attacks. He was concerned that the death and destruction which is daily visible in the cities would have a cumulative psychological impact on the people. Statistics of VC/NVA losses (which the enemy can still afford in any case) make little impression on most people, but the destruction of their homes is evident. Their faith in the government strength and capacity to protect them from these attacks will more and more be sapped. Thieu believed that within another month the enemy would probably launch another major attack, and would continue harassment of the cities in order to discredit the GVN and attempt to create an uprising against it.
Thieu felt that the talks so far in Paris have been favorable to our side and that we should use the time to attract international support, but should be careful not to allow our patience to be misread as weakness. He expressed the view that Hanoi would attempt to measure our patience and to exploit the us political situation; that they might attempt to await the development of our political campaign to form a judgment as to the desirability of moving toward a settlement or of [Page 708] awaiting installation of a new administration. He added that though this question was of great concern to him, he thought that we could “wait a while, but not too much longer,” before putting a time limit on Hanoi’s delaying tactics at Paris. Do observed that the enemy was clearly “taking advantage” already of the partial cessation.
Thieu, Ky and Do have all commented favorably on the performance of our delegation at Paris, and especially on Ambassador Harriman’s statements.
It is also increasingly apparent that Hanoi’s current strategy of all out effort to strengthen its hand for a political settlement is directed at the countryside as well as the cities. Documentary evidence shows that the enemy is placing new emphasis on destroying the local GVN administrative structure, and on setting up a VC administration in its place. His effort to strengthen his apparent political base in the cities by organizing front groups is being supplemented by a campaign to organize rural “liberation committees” at provincial, district, village, and hamlet levels. This effort, I think, is designed among other things to reinforce the NLF claim to such wide control over the people in the countryside as to justify a major role for it in a coalition government.
The other side of the coin, however, is the evidence disclosed by recent documents and interrogations of some of the senior Communist officers who have rallied recently. These have brought out a number of signs of growing Communist morale problems in the wake of their heavy losses and defeats during the Tet and May offensives. LTC Tran Van Dac, a political officer in the area north of Saigon, states that allied air and artillery strikes have caused severe mental tension among Communist troops and cadres. Problems of supply and the evident discrepancy between VC propaganda and the reality regarding both ARVN/allied fighting spirit and the extent of popular support for the VC have also had a depressing effect on morale. Another report indicates that most of the people living in VC controlled areas are weary and that the VC promises to bring an end to the war this year will have a disastrous effect on morale if this does not occur. A result of this attitude has been an increase in desertions out of fear of combat losses and an overwhelming desire for survival inspired by the recent peace negotiations. Against this background of declining morale a document captured in Binh Duong Province prepared by the chief of the political staff of an element subordinate to COSVN emphasizes that the purpose of the peace talks, as the Communists see it, is to confirm the defeat of the allies and a VC victory. It states that nothing can be expected from diplomatic debates unless a major military victory is achieved. Consequently VC personnel [Page 709] must not let themselves be lured by peace illusions but most support peace negotiations by fighting harder to achieve more decisive victories; a significant contrast between the mood at the top and in the lower ranks which speaks for itself.

[Omitted here is discussion of pacification, urban recovery, and additional political, economic, and military issues.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 9:03 a.m. and repeated to Paris for the Vietnam mission. This telegram is printed in full in Pike, ed., The Bunker Papers, Vol. 2, pp. 445–451.
  2. On Friday, May 25, Huong announced the formation of a new Cabinet comprising Phan Quang Dan for Chieu Hoi, Nguyen Van Vy for Defense and Veterans Affairs, Tran Thien Khiem for Interior, Tran Chanh Thanh for Foreign Affairs, Tran Lu-Y for Health and Social Welfare, Le Van Thu for Justice, An Ngoc Ho for Economy, Dam Si Hiem for Labor, Tran Luy for Public Works, Communications, and Transport, Nguyen Van Tho for Education and Youth, Truong Thai Ton for Agriculture and Land Reform, Ton That Thien for Information, Luong The Sieu for Public Works and Communications, and Paul Nhur for Ethnic Minority Affairs, with Dang, Mai Tho Truyen, and Vu Quoc Thuc as Ministers of State. In his 53d weekly message, telegram 28566 from Saigon, May 29, Bunker offered an expanded analysis of the Huong Cabinet, which he termed “a considerable move toward civilian government.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S) In a June 1 memorandum for the record reporting a May 31 conversation with Thieu, Komer reported Thieu’s explanation for Loc’s replacement: “Loc has been like a ‘daughter-in-law serving several mothers-in-law.’ Loc knew who was corrupt (Thieu mentioned the Customs Director, Port Director, police, and some others whose names I didn’t catch), but Loc was unwilling to act against them. This was the Prime Minister’s job, not the President’s.” (U.S. Army Center for Military History, Dep CORDS/MACV Papers, President Thieu: 1968)
  3. The Department expressed concern over Thieu’s reorganization of the government without full consultation with Ky and other generals. (Telegram 163374 to Saigon, May 14; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15 VIET S) In Intelligence Note No. 366 to Rusk, May 17, Hughes noted that many of the top generals opposed Thieu’s plans to move more civilians into the Cabinet because the GVN needed to remain unified under the military. (Ibid., POL 27 VIET S) In a conversation with Berger reported in telegram 28633 from Saigon, May 30, Ky noted extensive dissatisfaction among other generals and Cabinet members with Thieu’s installation of the new government and his direction of the country. “Some have approached me to make a coup, but I have told them that a coup is out of the question,” Ky noted. “I tell them they must be patient. They must wait. There are a thousand ways to destroy a leader without a coup, and so if you think we have unity here, I can tell you that we are now more divided than ever.” (Ibid., POL 15–1 VIET S)
  4. May 21.
  5. Document 235.
  6. A full report on the meeting is in telegram 27938 from Saigon, May 22. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/CROCODILE)