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

16850. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my thirty-sixth weekly message.

A. General

In this message, I should like to give a general assessment of some of the problems we shall be facing in 1968 and how we propose to cope with them. We will, of course, be dealing with them and reporting on them in a more specific manner as time goes on, but I thought it would be useful to give a rather general view of the situation ahead as we see it now.
I think one general observation is in order. As a result of a number of elections held since September 1966, and with our encouragement, the Vietnamese have adopted a democratic, constitutional form of government with the institutions which normally pertain to it, executive, legislative, and judicial. It marks the transition from a recent military form, and historically an authoritarian form of government to democratic institutions. It is a form of government with which the Vietnamese have had virtually no experience. A senator said to me last week: “We must make our new government work, but it will be difficult because while we have a history of 4,000 years, we have no tradition of democracy.” The fact that the basic structures have been built and representative institutions constructed out of near chaos and are beginning to function is in itself quite a remarkable achievement. But the question we have to look to in the coming year is how well and how rapidly they can be made to operate.
I believe we shall have to face the fact that in many instances action will be less rapid than under the previous government which could rule by decree. The views of the Assembly, which is beginning to assert its prerogatives, will have to be considered by the executive. Even in cases where regulations might be promulgated by the executive as, for example, in the raising of certain taxes, it may be reluctant to take the political risks involved without consulting the Assembly. The decree law on partial mobilization and the Assembly reaction to it is an example of what may occur. Consequently unless the Assembly is willing to relinquish some of its authority and grant to the executive fairly broad [Page 64] wartime powers, I believe we shall have to expect some disappointment in the rapidity with which actions are taken.
Another factor which will make for caution is the necessary process of the transformation of the character of the government from an essentially military one to a civilian regime. This will require some deft handling, especially on Thieu’s part. Some resistance by the military to give up prerogatives which they have long enjoyed can be expected. At the same time, the civilian elements of the government have to gain experience and get accustomed to their jobs. Thieu recognizes this problem and, being essentially cautious, will move, I believe progressively step by step rather than abruptly to bring about the change. I believe he is wise in this, for too precipitate actions might cause strains which would be difficult for the present governmental structure to sustain. A corollary to this is the Thieu-Ky relationship, which needs to be nurtured and cultivated on both sides. I think there are encouraging signs that this is developing satisfactorily and that their present relationships are now better than they have been for some time in the past. Both have very recently expressed a desire to work closely together.
Another thing we shall have to live with is sensitivity to US pressures, at least with a more articulate expression of it. A massive American presence is apt to stimulate a latent xenophobia and with a free press and open debate in the Assembly, I believe we can expect a certain amount of criticism of our actions here. If kept within reasonable bounds, I do not think we need to be apprehensive about this, for it represents a healthy spirit of developing nationalism and independence.
Another general problem is that of political organization, the creation of broadly representative national political parties. This is something which will take time. As both Thieu and Ky have said, the process must develop from a sound base. The effort to force the development too rapidly will result in artificiality and instability. On the other hand, it is something which we must steadily and progressively encourage and help to push, for the development of political organization on national lines is, I believe, the ultimate defense against the Viet Cong and perhaps the only permanent defense. The formation of groupings, or blocs as they call them, in the Assembly and the institution of local government at the village and hamlet level, which is proceeding steadily, may form the nuclei for the development which we seek. This is something which we shall want to keep steadily pushing.2
The question of peace, a political settlement and negotiations are matters which will be constantly before us here as well as at home. It is [Page 65] my view, shared by members of the Mission Council, that were we to enter into negotiations now, we would be faced with a most difficult situation. I do not believe that the present government has acquired sufficient strength, either militarily or politically, to be assured of survival on its own. Six months from now it should be in a somewhat stronger position, but Hanoi may be aware of this and consequently press for negotiations. It seems to me that if I were in their place, this is what I would be doing. I realize their estimate of the situation may be quite different, but I believe that we should be prepared for such an eventuality; and that therefore we ought to try to spell out in as precise terms as possible what would be acceptable terms of settlement to us. Since what may be acceptable to us may not be fully so to the GVN or some of our other allies, we may need to engage in some educational effort and I believe we ought to be in a position to begin this before too long.

[Omitted here is discussion of politics, pacification and development, economics, military actions, and public affairs.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 9:10 a.m. The telegram is printed in full in Pike, ed., The Bunker Papers, Vol. 2, pp. 302–315.
  2. Preliminary discussion of Vietnamese plans to form a political party are reviewed in telegram 17282 from Saigon, January 30. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 12 VIET S)