225. Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1


  • President Thieu’s Remarks on U.S./South Vietnamese Relations and His Justification for His Initial Negative Reaction to President Johnson’s Announcement
On 19 November 1968 President Nguyen Van Thieu said that the Government of Vietnam (GVN) is now prepared to participate in the Paris talks. Referring to the impasse between the GVN and the United States on the Paris talks issue, he noted that while there was an understanding between the two governments that talks with the Communists would take place, the people of Vietnam were not psychologically prepared to accept talks on 6 November 1968. They were also unprepared for the presence of the National Liberation Front (NLF) at the conference table.
Thieu stated that this popular unreadiness did not apply to a bombing halt. Recalling the ready acceptance by the GVN and the Vietnamese people of the partial bombing halt, he said the Vietnamese were prepared to accept a total halt in the bombing, and if President Johnson’s announcement had been confined to this issue there would have been immediate full support for his action by all Vietnamese. Thieu said that he had prepared the people and the GVN for a bombing halt and even for talks with Hanoi but he would have been faced with a complete breakdown of the government which, in turn, would have resulted in countrywide anarchy, if he had gone to the Paris talks without additional preparations. He admitted that communication between the government and the rural population is poor and observed that the Vietnamese would have been unable to comprehend a quick acceptance of the original formula.
Expanding on this latter point, Thieu said the Vietnamese military, divided into doves and hawks, were totally unprepared for talks with the NLF, as were the masses. An immediate acceptance of the 1 November (Saigon date) proposals would have inspired the hawks [Page 663] within the military to renew coup plotting and attempt an overthrow of the administration. The doves in the military would have concluded that the war was lost and would have deserted in droves. He reviewed the disintegration of the Army after the 1954 agreements and said he must prevent a repetition of this at all costs.
Turning to popular civilian reaction Thieu said militant Catholic groups also were totally unprepared and would have demonstrated violently against the GVN. The Buddhists, who are softer on the peace issue than the Catholics, would have demonstrated against the Catholics and the GVN. In Thieu’s view this would have produced serious political unrest throughout the country’s population centers, with clashes in the streets and a breakdown of law and order. The people in the countryside, reacting to the political instability in the cities and towns, would have concluded that a Communist victory was certain and would have tried to reach an accommodation with the Viet Cong. Thieu observed that the only people in Vietnam prepared for talks as suggested by President Johnson were those involved in the discussions with the Americans.
Thieu admitted to reaching various agreements with the Americans during the pre-bombing halt discussions. He attributed the differences between the U.S. and the GVN to poor timing by the U.S. and to poor diplomatic mechanics. With respect to the timing he asked, “Why 1 November?”, noting that 1 November is Vietnamese National Day. He asked if any reaction other than rejection could have been expected from an unprepared population being told on its National Day that its government would talk with an enemy whose political legitimacy is in question. Thieu also complained about “the offhand manner” in which President Johnson referred to GVN participation in the Paris talks and said that the President could have stated his views more diplomatically leaving the GVN some room to maneuver. He added that Johnson might have “invited” the Vietnamese to attend the talks rather than suggesting that their attendance was a matter of little concern. He said he appreciated Mr. Katzenbach’s remarks discounting Madame Binh’s claim of four-sided talks at Paris2 but in the same breath registered his anger at Secretary Clifford’s press conference.3
Referring to Secretary Clifford’s press conference, Thieu said he found it difficult to believe that Mr. Clifford did not reflect President Johnson’s views. He observed that the GVN Minister of Defense does [Page 664] not comment on matters of national policy without checking with the President. He stated he himself had not been aware in advance of the rebuttal to the Secretary’s remarks made by Minister of Information Ton That Thien, adding that he censured the Minister for this. He continued by saying that although he was angry he has concluded that there is nothing to be gained by more recriminations and has suggested to all that both sides get down to trying to resolve their difference through quiet talks.
Thieu now believes that as a result of his delays, speeches and comments the Vietnamese people are prepared to accept the “our side-your side” formula for talks with the enemy. He said he is fully aware that at the conference table the GVN delegation will be talking to the NLF but he said this is not a matter that needs to be admitted in public. He also observed that the NLF still insists that the talks will be four-sided and that he realizes that the U.S./GVN side does not have to agree to this position, despite enemy claims.
Thieu said that he had talked to the Foreign Minister earlier on the morning of 19 November and that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be delivering the GVN’s draft of a new communiqué to the American Embassy within a few hours.4 He said that he hopes to be able to confer on the Vietnamese draft with the principal involved on 20 November5 and in “two or three days” a joint statement might be agreed upon. Thieu did not go into the details on the differences between the GVN and the U.S. on the “our side-your side” formula, noting that these are already a matter of record.
Thieu’s manner during the interview was moderate, considerate, reflective and polite. He gave every indication of sincerely desiring a solution to the impasse, providing Vietnamese face and sensitivities are taken into account.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, HARVAN Misc. & Memos, Vol. VII. Secret; Sensitive. In an attached covering note transmitting a copy of the memorandum to the President, November 11, 7:15 p.m., Rostow wrote: “Herewith Thieu’s rationale for his position and frame of mind as of 19 November. He apparently envisaged at that time to confer with Bunker on November 20 and get out the joint statement within ‘2 or 3 days.’” The notation “ps” on the covering note indicates that the President saw the memorandum. (Ibid.)
  2. See footnote 5, Document 217.
  3. See Document 213.
  4. The text of this draft was transmitted in telegram 43016 from Saigon, November 19. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 84, S/AB Files: Lot 74 D 417, Files of Ellsworth Bunker, Vietnam Telegram Chronos) The Embassy’s analysis of it was transmitted in telegram 43017 from Saigon, November 19. (Ibid.)
  5. See Document 228.