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

41044. Ref: Saigon 40987.2 Subject: Meeting with Thieu and Ky October 23; full account.

At the meeting summarized in reftel, I first went over the ground covered in my conversations with Thieu on October 20 (Saigon 40710)3 and with Thanh on October 21 (Saigon 40760),4 explaining why the “our side/your side” formula is the only one that will enable us to get down to serious talks. Ky, who had also been over most of these points in his talk with Berger October 22 (Saigon 40866),5 listened attentively. This was the only occasion I have witnessed so far when Ky and Thieu consulted [Page 319] each other repeatedly and at length before formulating their positions, and when Thieu acted as spokesman the latter repeatedly stated he agreed with the President.
Thieu said the GVN has a major problem and wishes to work with us in trying to solve it. From their point of view the bombing halt is not a very important matter. What is important is to convince the Vietnamese people that it would lead to an end to the war and that Hanoi will be obliged to talk with Saigon. His principal worry, Thieu said, is that the Vietnamese people would not understand if the GVN sits sown at the same table with the NLF. They would react with a wave of fear and despair which could result in mass desertions from the RF and PF, a precipitous drop in the Chieu Hoi program, and the stalling of the pacification offensive, and in the cities: panic sales, Communist propaganda, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations by Catholics and the Buddhists, and perhaps mutiny (not a coup) among some of the armed forces. At any rate, the morale of the people would suffer a grave blow.
I replied that perhaps I had misjudged the present Government of Vietnam. I had thought, and had so reported to Washington, that it has considerable strength and stability. If the President, the Vice President, and Prime Minister exerted leadership and went before the people and explained the Paris talks as something that had been forced upon Hanoi and as a move toward peace which the GVN is making from a position of strength, it seemed to me the people would understand. It should not be too difficult to explain that in effect Hanoi, having failed to win militarily, was now obliged to talk with the GVN after having said for years that the GVN does not represent the people of South Vietnam, etc. Berger added it must be extremely embarrassing for the NLF, which claims to be the sole representative of the South Vietnamese, to be in a position where Hanoi would have to talk to the GVN.
Thieu then developed the ideas that the US should obtain from the DRV some undertaking that Hanoi was “sincere” in wishing to talk with Saigon; that there must also be assurances that Hanoi would resort to no tricks or propaganda or jockeying to put the NLF in some special position; and, finally, that we must work out the procedural problems so that the other side would not be able to claim that we were conferring some improved status on the NLF. We replied that while we would work with the GVN on the procedural problems we could not guarantee that Hanoi wouldn’t try every trick in the book and pull out all stops in its propaganda. The point was, we said, that we had outfought the enemy in Vietnam, faced him down in Paris, and are in a strong position to beat him also in the negotiations. Remarked that so far we have carried [Page 320] the burden of propaganda alone in Paris and it’s high time for the GVN to have their own spokesman there. Since they have the better story they should not be afraid to compete with the Communists in propaganda.
Ky thereupon said the GVN was not unwilling to accept the risk of going into negotiations, all they were asking was some help in explaining to their own people that they were not being forced to negotiate with the NLF. I said, “It is your leadership, Mr. Vice President, that can swing your people.” Ky said the leadership is there but they were up against a problem of deep public suspicion. I referred to the joint statement on which we had agreed and which would show why we were stopping the bombing and sitting down with the other side. Ky then said it might be sufficient to reach an understanding that if the GVN said “We are going to Paris to talk with Hanoi,” the DRV would at least not contradict them and claim that the GVN was being forced to go to Paris to talk with the NLF.
Ky finally said the GVN was really asking us to help them “save face.” We said it is Hanoi and the NLF whose face needs saving, not the GVN which will be leading from strength. They will be able to say that Hanoi has been forced to come to the conference table. It will not matter if the DRV brings along their southern branch. There followed a long discussion in Vietnamese between Thieu and Ky, and finally the latter said: “We have to accept the risk, but we still need some insurance.” I said I could think of no better insurance than the military commitment and political support of the United States. Ky said the timing is bad, people will think we are giving in to the Communists because of the imminence of our elections. I explained that the elections had nothing to do with it, that for five months we had been trying to get the DRV to accept some de-escalation and to talk with the GVN, we had made no concession, it was the other side that was accepting our conditions.
Thieu recapitulated the three points (paragraph 4 above, and paragraph 2 reftel), adding “We have to be sure that we get those things before we can go into the conference.” I replied along the lines set forth in paragraph 3 reftel. Thieu said they needed agreement with Hanoi on the procedural matters before they could go into talks, but toward the end of the discussion he was less categorical about this than before. We agreed Berger would follow up on the procedural aspects with Thanh. In conclusion I said it now looked as if the DRV had met the conditions for talks put forward by President Johnson and it only remained to agree on dates for a bombing halt and substantive talks. I said we hoped they understood that if the other side gave us satisfaction in the matter of dates, we would have to move to stop the bombing. Thieu said, “We are not afraid of competing with the Communists, but we need help in [Page 321] persuading our people that we have not been forced to negotiate with the NLF”.6
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, A/IM Files: Lot 93 D 82, HARVAN-(Incoming)-October 1968. Secret; Immediate; Nodis/HARVAN Double Plus. Received at 1:23 a.m. Repeated to Paris for Harriman and Vance.
  2. In telegram 40987 from Saigon, October 23, the Embassy summarized the GVN’s position on NLF representation as set forth at the meeting and requested from the Department “affirmation of our understandings and of our support” on the issue. (Ibid.)
  3. See footnote 2, Document 94.
  4. Dated October 21. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, HARVAN/DOUBLE PLUS, Vol. II)
  5. Dated October 22. (Ibid., HARVAN/DOUBLE PLUS, Vol. III)
  6. Karamessines sent a memorandum to Rostow and Rusk, October 24, noting that a source close to the South Vietnamese leadership advised that “it is useless for the Americans to try to persuade Ky and Thieu on the basis for what is best for Vietnam and should argue rather for the need for the GVN to swallow a bad pill now in return for American assurances of firm future backing on the question of clear primacy over the NLF in Paris talks.” (Central Intelligence Agency, DDO Files, Job 79-207A, Folder 1)