26. Telegram From the Embassy in France to the Department of State1

3968. Ref: Deptel 4097.2 I saw Couve de Murville this afternoon at about 5:45 and raised with him the questions concerning French policy and intentions in regard to Southeast Asia with particular reference to South Vietnam. I said that since Alphand had already discussed Laos and Cambodia with Harriman3 (Couve said he had seen the report of this) I would concentrate my remarks primarily on South Vietnam. I then made the points raised in reftel in regard to ChiCom aims and policies in Southeast Asia; their attitude towards neutralization and its relation to their policy of communization, and fact that Hanoi had rejected any neutralization for Viet Minh. I then asked Couve if he would give me frankly his own personal views on situation.

Couve began by saying that he wished to assure me that there was no French plan whatsoever for Southeast Asia other than those in operation for Laos and the plans for Cambodia. He said he thought that the US was in full agreement with France in regard to the neutralization of Laos and also for that of Cambodia although he fully understood why we were not willing to join in a conference to achieve the latter. His remarks therefore would deal with Vietnam. He said he did not personally disagree with any remark that I had made in regard to Chinese attitude.

He said that he thought there was perhaps a great deal of misunderstanding between what he said was De Gaulle’s vague generalized remarks in regard to neutralization which he said at best would take many years to come into being, and what could be considered current French policy. He repeated that there was no French plan to deal with the Vietnamese situation. Looking at it however personally he said that he thought the situation was very difficult insofar as the US was concerned. In his personal view the trouble was not military but political; that with the disappearance of Diem4 who had at least set up a government which although highly unpopular had operated in a relatively [Page 43] effective manner for the conduct of military operations, there was no effective political force in South Vietnam and he personally did not see much prospect for setting one up. He therefore thought that the US had essentially two courses of action which it could follow: (1) To continue along the present lines it was at present, which he frankly felt would not be very successful, or (2) to increase military operations in South Vietnam appreciably, coupled possibly at a certain point in the future with a willingness to attempt some form of negotiation.

In reply to my statement that intensified military operations would only make sense if it involved a willingness to carry the war if necessary to Hanoi, Couve answered that he fully understood this and had it in mind when he spoke about the increased military involvement. He repeated that these were merely personal views but he felt that in order to have any prospect of any settlement we would have to confront the Communists with a more disagreeable alternative than negotiation. He said this was what in effect had been done in Laos and why the Communists had accepted it. I told him that this very much coincided with my view and understanding of how Communists reacted but I could not of course speak for my government as to whether large military operations would be feasible or not.

Couve said he was very glad to have this opportunity of discussing Vietnam with me and said he hoped it would be continued. I mentioned the discussion in NATO today to which he replied that it would have been quite impossible to have had a discussion such as ours in NAC. I inquired whether it might not be a good idea for Koren to stay over a day or so and discuss in more detail the matter at the Quai d’Orsay, to which Couve replied that he thought that was an excellent idea. Koren had planned to stay over one day in any event and I would judge after tomorrow whether or not it would be necessary for him to stay longer.

Comment: This was undoubtedly one of the more frank conversations I have had with Couve, particularly on Vietnam, but it should be emphasized that as he stated it was only his “personal” view and not an official French policy. I believe therefore that this conversation should be handled with discretion as representing only his view.

Department pass to other posts as desired.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, France, Vol. 1. Secret; Limdis.
  2. Telegram 4097 to Paris, February 14, requested Embassy officials to sound out the French Government regarding its aims in Southeast Asia. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL VIET S)
  3. Reported in telegram 4139 to Paris, February 18. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Public Service Files, Memcons A)
  4. Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Republic of South Vietnam, was killed in the aftermath of the military coup of November 1-2, 1963.