228. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State 1
Saigon, November 21, 1968, 1050Z.
- I saw Pres Thieu this morning at 10 o’clock. (Bui Diem had just preceded me.) In handing Thieu our latest draft statement, I said we had now had several long sessions with the FonMin and Mr. Duc and this was the sixth of a succession of drafts and counter-drafts. The time had now come to move ahead, to get away from legalism and to make a decision. I reminded Thieu that he had told me several times that he wanted to help Pres Johnson to help him. I said this was the time to do it. Only a few points remained to clear up, and we should try to do so at this session.
- I then went through our draft (ref B) point by point, comparing it
with the last draft they had given us (ref C), dwelling at length on
the two principal outstanding points, our paragraph 11 (“immediate
and direct concern” and their erstwhile para 11 (“problems of
internal politics will not be considered”), putting forward our
arguments in accordance with instructions.
- With respect to our para 11, I told Thieu that we do not insist on the precise words “immediate and direct” but could not accept the statement, without any qualification, that the GVN would be the principal spokesman “on all matters of concern to South Vietnam.” I said we were pretty much agreed on how subjects would be divided [Page 675] between us according to who was primarily concerned, that it was most reasonable to be flexible and to leave it to our delegations to work out on the spot, and I offered as alternatives “all matters of concern primarily to South Vietnam” or “all matters of paramount concern to South Vietnam” or “all matters relating to the substance of political settlement in Vietnam.” Thieu did not argue in favor of the GVN draft and just noted down our suggestions.
- With respect to para 11 of their draft, I explained in great detail why it would be both tactically unwise for both of us and also inconsistent for the US to say that internal political matters couldn’t be discussed. I mentioned the many times when we had publicly stated that we would be ready to discuss any subject, quoting the President’s 1966 State of the Union message and other pronouncements which had been made without objection from the GVN. I said we simply could not make a statement that would be in contradiction to what we had said publicly so many times. I noted that the GVN could make such a declaration, but stressed that by doing so they would be incurring serious political liabilities and would, in fact, deprive themselves of important political advantages. I said the GVN should welcome the opportunity to contrast its free and increasingly prosperous society with the controlled Communist system in North Vietnam. They would be very unwise to foreclose themselves from carrying the propaganda battle to the enemy in the Paris discussions. Again, Thieu did not take issue.
- The President was in fact remarkably relaxed throughout our discussion. I believe that he had already made up his mind to take part in the talks but that he still needs one more go around at the statement before he can move to agreement and public announcement. He listened to the rest of my presentation, which also stressed that we regarded the final sentence of para 3 as important (because it really is introductory to the next six paragraphs describing how we will treat the other side), and then began to talk about tactics in Paris.
- He asked me what we (collectively) would do if Hanoi claims that the NLF is a separate delegation. I said of course they would claim this, but this was no reason to walk out of the meeting. In para 8 of our statement we were giving the GVN the key on how to handle this. We would be in a very strong position to work together to counter such propaganda, to make our case before Vietnamese opinion and international opinion. I said if we go ahead on the basis of our statement, with the full endorsement of our fighting allies as Thieu himself had proposed, we need not be afraid that the other side will put anything over on us. We would have a united front, and especially if the GVN is not reluctant to speak as a sovereign government in [Page 676] nailing enemy propaganda claims about the internal situation, we would have the strongest possible position. I added that at the same time we understood the GVN position that substantive talks on internal matters are better handled in side talks, and I remarked that if the GVN refuses to discuss a subject of this kind, obviously we could not do so on our own.
- I might add here parenthetically that I did not use the argumentation provided by the Dept in para 11 ref B to rebut the claim about the 1962 Geneva Conference because it is possible that we had misunderstood Thanh on this point. Perhaps the GVN position in this matter was really that they dreaded the precedent of that conference precisely because internal matters had been discussed, because this had resulted in establishment of a coalition government in Laos. I thought it best to lay stress on the positive elements of that paragraph of the instructions.
- Thieu remarked that he thought Hanoi was planning another offensive, not because they expected to achieve anything militarily but because they might be able to make fanciful claims about a “victory” and about the losses they were inflicting on us, to put pressure especially on American public opinion. I said this was entirely possible, but the facts would speak louder than Hanoi’s words. Thieu agreed and remarked “We are more practical.” I enumerated the factors of strength in the present position of the GVN as they had been reviewed with us the same morning by the PriMin (septel).5 Thieu also said he thought the other side was making a special effort with respect to attacks on the cities to convey the impression that the US had really obtained nothing in connection with the bombing halt; to prove that the US was giving a false impression to the people of SVN; and that it was too weak to protest. But he volunteered that our statement of Nov 136 had provided welcome, if belated, ammunition in countering such allegations.
- I then said we had now in successive drafts. [sic] It was very important when we could have his decision. Thieu said he would have another meeting of the NSC today and then we would talk again. He said, “We are very close now. We need only one more draft.” I asked if he thought seven would be the lucky number. He smiled and repeated, “We are very close” and said we would be hearing from FonMin Thanh. Since Thieu would be taking our new draft to the NSC meeting, I left with him a sanitized version of my talking paper, so [Page 677] that he would have the full array of our arguments in connection with the points that were still unagreed.
- In the course of our discussion Thieu also made some remarks which show, I believe, how he intends to proceed. I noted he had been to Vung Tau twice in the last few days and asked if this was in connection with the pacification counter-offensive. He said he had really been meeting with his psychological warfare people and with administrators from the provinces, and that he had called those meetings to make especially two points: (A) that it was absolutely untrue that the GVN was boycotting the Paris talks; and (B) that any expressions of anti-American feeling must be immediately countered, that we were working closely together and that that cooperation must and would continue. It was apparent from this remark that he is methodically laying the groundwork for public support when he announces that the GVN will participate in the Paris talks.
- The other remark that he made is especially important. He said that a number of people (he mentioned the Italian and New Zealand Ambassadors) were going around asking questions about the composition of the GVN delegation. They were for instance asking whether Sen Tran Van Lam would head the delegation, as if everything else were already arranged.7 He said this was bad because it created the impression of foreign pressure and intervention. I said I had had no knowledge of this activity. (Incidentally, just as I was leaving, the Italian Amb arrived to call on Thieu.)
- I think this is a time when we should be especially careful to avoid any leaks or speculations that would give the impression that everything is in the bag and that it is a foregone conclusion that the GVN will be sending a delegation to Paris. There have been some unfortunate stories of that kind recently, not only from here but especially with Paris and Washington datelines. Thieu mentioned that he had refused to talk to reporters at Vung Tau yesterday. If, as is apparent, Thieu is carefully laying the groundwork for his announcement hopefully sometime during the next few days, we should refrain from [Page 678] anything that would deprive him of the psychological effect that he needs to carry his country with him. That effect, after all, is the purpose of our draft statement. We should not dissipate it by anything said to the press at this time.8
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 84, S/AB Files: Lot 74 D 417, Files of Ellsworth Bunker, Vietnam Telegram Chronos. Secret; Immediate; Nodis/HARVAN Double Plus. Received at 7:41 a.m. Repeated to Paris for Harriman and Vance. On November 21 Clifford wrote to the President: “I note with concern in Ambassador Bunker’s report on his talk with President Thieu that Saigon continues to urge the two main points that have been the basis of the disagreement between our two countries. These involve the desire of Saigon to take the lead in the Paris talks, and their refusal to permit problems of internal politics to be considered.” He recommended that a telegram be sent to Bunker containing a strong message from the President in order to expedite the decision by the GVN to come to Paris. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country Files, Vietnam, Memos to the President/Bombing Halt Decision, Vol. VII)↩
- Telegram 43099 from Saigon, November 20, reported that Bui Diem told Bunker that he “would try to impress on the President [Thieu] the importance of proceeding rapidly now toward a conclusion.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 84, S/AB Files: Lot 74 D 417, Files of Ellsworth Bunker, Vietnam Telegram Chronos)↩
- Document 226.↩
- Telegram 43016 from Saigon, November 19, reported on the GVN suggested modifications. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 84, S/AB Files: Lot 74 D 417, Files of Ellsworth Bunker, Vietnam Telegram Chronos)↩
- Not found.↩
- See footnote 8, Document 217.↩
- In telegram 43018 from Saigon, November 19, Bunker reported that although Lam had not yet been appointed, private contacts had been developing in Saigon between Lam and NLF representatives. Bunker noted: “Lam, as a reputable older Southern politician who is persona grata in most quarters, also seems a fairly logical candidate for such an approach if NLF leaders feared that they might be left out of any US/DRV arrangements. (These soundings could have been a disciplined gambit by the DRV/NLF for their own tactical purposes.) There is presumably little more that Lam can do at the present time to further this matter, but it would seem a useful reason to include him in a future GVN delegation. He has already been tentatively mentioned to us as a logical choice by a number of would-be delegation makers.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 84, S/AB Files: Lot 74 D 417, Files of Ellsworth Bunker, Vietnam Telegram Chronos)↩
- The South Vietnamese NSC accepted the U.S. draft on November 23. (Telegram 43342 from Saigon, November 23; ibid.) In telegram 43417 from Saigon, November 25, the Embassy transmitted the text of a letter on tactics for the upcoming expanded conference, which Bunker sent to Thieu that day. (Ibid.)↩