17. Intelligence Report Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1


  • Discussion Between President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky to discuss coup rumors and the general Vietnamese situation
On 10 September 1968, Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky and President Nguyen Van Thieu had an hour-long private meeting, arranged at Ky’s request, to discuss the coup rumors of 8 September. The conversation evolved into a somewhat disjointed and speculative dialogue about possible American interest in promoting a coup to obtain a quick peace in Vietnam. The Vice President also used the occasion to stress the need for unity in the government, to propose again that the President delegate to him some special mission as a way of dramatizing their mutual confidence, and to attack what he called the divisive activities of Prime Minister Tran Van Huong, Interior Minister Tran Thien Khiem, III Corps Commander General Do Cao Tri, and Information Minister Ton That Thien. The President did not respond to these latter gambits of Ky’s but the two men appeared frank and forthcoming in discussing the matter of a coup.
Ky began the meeting by saying that coup rumors had been brought to his attention on 8 September by a phone call from Ambassador Berger and by the talk of his fellow officers on 9 September; he therefore wished to report these matters to Thieu and to review the situation with him. After protesting his own innocence of even any prior knowledge of coup talk against the President, Ky expressed the view that the Americans might resort to a coup to resolve the Vietnam issue before the election so that Vice President Humphrey might win.
Thieu responded that the same thought had occurred to him. He indicated that he had been concerned over two possible American solutions to the war (1) a coup, or (2) a sudden decision to stop the bombing, accept a cease-fire, and press for coalition government. He speculated [Page 44]that the Nixon camp might like to foment a coup to create disorder in Vietnam as a way of attacking the Johnson administration. He also mused that the Communists must help Humphrey in the elections, “even if they have to assassinate Nixon”.
Ky suggested that the Americans might be “preparing a solution through some third person—possibly Tran Van Huong or Duong Van (Big) Minh”. Thieu speculated that the U.S. could even be thinking in terms of Phan Quang Dan or Truong Dinh Dzu.
After further similar speculation, Thieu and Ky finally concluded that an American coup against the President would solve nothing since the nation’s anti-Communist forces would quickly mount a counter-coup and that to overthrow the entire Vietnamese Government, from top to bottom, would be a very difficult and hazardous undertaking for the Americans. Thieu said that he believed the likeliest dramatic gesture to insure a Humphrey victory would be an American move for a bombing halt and cease-fire. Ky agreed that the Americans had probably not decided on the course of a coup—"they only envisage it to make all their preparations”.
Twice during the conversation Ky referred to the need for unity within the government. He called Prime Minister Huong a “card of the Southerners” and a creator of factionalism and said he was afraid of the Prime Minister. He criticized the high turnover of civil, police, and military posts involving friends of Huong and Interior Minister Khiem. He expressed reservations about the positions of Khiem and III Corps Commander Tri in the event of a coup, saying “I am afraid of persons like Khiem and Tri, and Tri most of all—he is an avenger”. He also criticized the reference of Information Minister Thien, “that slave of the Americans", to Premier Huong as the Magsaysay of Vietnam. Thieu made no comment on these accusations nor did he respond to Ky’s suggestions that he be given “some task, a special mission” to prove and dramatize the unity and trust between them. The two men also discussed the return of exiled General Minh. Thieu indicated his unhappiness that so much discussion of Minh’s return had been conducted via the press medium, but neither Thieu nor Ky expressed opposition to Minh’s return.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Memos to the President, Vol. V. Secret; Sensitive. In an attached covering memorandum transmitting a copy of this report to the President, September 17, Rostow wrote: “Herewith the matter Dick Helms was going to raise at lunch, but held off at Sect. Rusk’s suggestion. It reveals what Ky’s—and in part, Thieu’s—frame of mind really is; and their deep anxiety about the U.S. This is absolutely firm intelligence and suggests our major problem with a bombing cessation. I believe I know how we can deal with it.” Notes of this luncheon meeting are printed as Document 22.