298. Telegram From the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker) to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) and Secretary of State Rusk1

CAS 5314. Pass following message “eyes only” from Amb Bunker to SecState and Mr. Walt Rostow. [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] please pass to Harriman, Vance and Habib. Subject: Thieu on political party formation and financing.

Berger and I had a long and very satisfactory talk with Thieu after dinner at the residence on July 13 on how he visualized the problems of building political support for his government and what his plans were. I introduced the subject by referring to our previous conversation on this some months ago.
He said he had worked from behind the scenes to encourage the foundation of Lien Minh (National Alliance for Social Revolution), an alliance of nationalist elements. After it was surfaced he had addressed it on July 4 at the headquarters of the CVT, and he was continuing to work quietly with its leaders.
Its three main components were the Free Democratic Forces, headed by Nguyn Van Huong; the Farmer-Worker Association (a CVT-Hoa Hao amalgam) led by Tran Quoc Buu, head of the CVT,2 and the National Salvation Front, under Senator (ex-General) Tran Van Don. The first two had cadres in Saigon and in the country running into some thousands, allegedly 30,000 in the case of the CVT. Senator Don had no real organization, but he had many friends, and his extraordinary personality and energy, his capacity for leadership and his political sense made him an important influence. The Front of All Religions had not joined, but were not unfriendly and were watching how the Lien Minh developed.
It was not a real political party or organization at the present time, but a loose alliance of groups and people, all of them saw the need to develop a political party, once peace was established, when it was essential that there be a united political party to compete against the Communists when the struggle was transferred to the political arena. It was impossible to form such a party now; there were too many suspicions, jealousies and divisions.3
How, he asked rhetorically, can such a loose alliance be converted into a political party with support in the cities and in the countryside? If it was built now as an organization in support of him, or even his government, it would fail—the people were deeply suspicious of personal or government parties. Lien Minh was conceived as a organization to help save the nation. He had therefore decided that the component elements should be encouraged to develop actual projects and programs of help to the people. It could be done by the component elements in the name of Lien Minh, and he and the government would financially assist these projects and programs. He had asked the Lien Minh leaders to supply him with such a program by the time he returns from Honolulu.
The Farmer-Worker Association already had programs and projects and could easily expand them, especially in the cities. In addition there were many idealistic and patriotic individuals and small groups in the country who were doing something already, and these could be financed if they would come in under the umbrella of Lien Minh. He mentioned a pharmacist who had organized a large group of students for work among the refugees, but who was running out of money, as a sample of the kind of element that he expected might come into Lien Minh if he could find the finances for them.
All of this will require money, and a good deal of it, and obviously he could not supply funds on the scale required. Thieu therefore conceived of solving this problem in two ways. He needed a comparatively small amount of confidential funds to supply Lien Minh and its component leaders to help them develop cadres for Lien Minh. These would be the future national and local leadership. The very much larger funds for the projects would be openly available, publicly accountable, and come out of Revolutionary Development funds. The [Page 860] Lien Minh projects would be performed on behalf of the Revolutionary Development program.4 He hoped we would be able to help in both ways.
I asked if he was getting any private funds from business men. He said a little, but not enough. If Lien Minh got off the ground and began to show itself as a success he could get more from that source, but never enough for the needs.
Berger asked how he intended to avoid the charge of favoring one leader over another in Lien Minh, in the distribution of confidential funds, adding there was already a suspicion that he regarded the Free Democratic Forces and Nguyen Van Huong as his preferred instrument for political action. He said this was a real problem—he called it “the problem of maintaining an equilibrium”—and it would require his personal attention and effort, and also would involve him personally in the division of the confidential funds.
Thieu said he did not intend to supply large funds at the outset—it would only risk the danger that the fund would be pocketed by too many people. He would dole it out for say, three months, and then see how much had been done and who was producing results. He thought it would take six to nine months before one could tell whether Lien Minh would prove a viable and vital organization. If it showed it was going to be a success, he expected that the “satellite” organizations—Hoa Hao, Cao Dai and others—would want to join in order to get help for the Revolutionary Development projects. The Buddhists and Catholics were divided but he expected some of them too would want to associate themselves with Lien Minh.
In response to a query he said he thought the upper and lower houses would fall in line in support of Lien Minh if it proved a success. Already he had good support in both houses and new and more unified blocs were being formed in both houses in support of the government. At some stage, he hoped Lien Minh would evolve as a political party, or more accurately a political coalition, but it would be in support of his government, not of him personally. He referred to the mistake of Diem, who built Can Lao as a personal political party, and said he did not intend to repeat Diem’s mistake.
Berger, who was as fascinated as I was by this exposition, asked where he learned his politics. “In the school of hard experience,” he said with a smile.
I told Thieu that, as I had earlier indicated, we were ready to help, and we could talk further after Honolulu when the program for Lien Minh was further developed. He expressed his appreciation.
Comments: Thieu’s conceptions and plans are, in many essential aspects, very close to our thinking. We had not thought of the concept of getting the component organizations of Lien Minh to work on proj-ects under the Revolutionary Development program, and I regard this as a very imaginative conception. He needs financial help, and we can supply it through confidential means, and/or arrange for it openly through the Revolutionary Development funds. He and I agreed that we must keep clear of Lien Minh and not suffocate it with our attention or caresses. There are obviously many problems. All we have at the moment is a conception and the mere skeleton of an organization. Thieu has a certain reserve about whether it will succeed. I regard that as healthy and agree that it is too early to have a solid judgment on its longer-run future, since this will depend on many factors that are largely unknown now.5
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, Walt Rostow, Vol. 88. Secret. In a covering note transmitting a copy of the telegram to the President, July 15, 5:35 p.m., Rostow wrote: “This back channel message from Bunker on how Thieu is building a big national political party will interest you. He’s learning; but the party has a long way to go.” The notation “ps” on the covering note indicates that the President saw the telegram. It was re-transmitted as telegram 32844 from Saigon, July 17. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 13 VIET S)
  2. In telegram 32032 from Saigon, July 8, Bunker reported a discussion he had with Thieu 2 days before, in which Thieu noted the support of Tran Quoc Buu’s CVT for the Lien Minh. (Ibid.)
  3. Cleavage between Thieu and Ky surfaced during the early part of the summer. In telegram 188955 to Saigon, June 22, the Department predicted: “If Thieu-Ky relationship continues in its present state, we foresee serious potential problems. Based on past experience with such crises, various elements within Vietnamese body politic will begin to choose sides and make open confrontation almost inevitable. Members of the National Assembly will probably react in this predictable way, as well as Buddhists and northern refugee Catholics. Situation could develop to the point where Thieu or Ky (or both) would have to go.” (Ibid., POL 15 VIET S)
  4. In a July 31 memorandum to Bunker, Komer noted that Thieu’s call to apply Lien Minh political influence to RD projects would also help that organization. “By funneling support to worthwhile projects requested by public assemblies, the government could build up Lien Minh as an influential group which brings home the bacon.” (U.S. Army Center for Military History, Dep CORDS/MACV Files, 104—RD Planning: 1967–1968)
  5. Bunker reported positive appraisals of Thieu’s establishment of the Lien Minh in his weekly messages transmitted in telegrams 31757 from Saigon, July 4, and 32385 from Saigon, July 11. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)