19. Backchannel Message From the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker) to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Johnson)1

3940. Following are Ambassador Bunker’s comments for Under Secretary Johnson as requested ref:2

Since its establishment in July 1968, National Alliance for Social Revolution (Lien Minh) has made gradual progress establishing itself as part of political landscape of Vietnam: It has set up headquarters and staffs; has acquired and trained cadre for operations in Saigon/Cholon; and achieved some success in social welfare projects in the capital. Thus far, however, has failed to command attention of public, let alone any widespread popular participation.
Prior creating Lien Minh, President Thieu outlined to me in series of conversations his ideas on how to achieve much needed unification of various political and social factions of South Vietnam. Defining his goal as political one, Thieu said he hoped draw leaders from most of significant elements of Vietnamese body politic into broadly based alliance capable of working with and for people to help them prepare for political struggle ahead. Cadres needed, Thieu said, to indoctrinate population concerning efforts which GVN must make to undermine and neutralize Communists’ infrastructure. Thieu thought most of existing South Vietnamese political parties and leaders had lost respect of people; Lien Minh could overcome this popular suspicion and through good works and sincere concern for welfare of people, win back their confidence. Thus he envisaged Lien Minh helping nation achieve national unity, while assisting people in achievement their proper aspirations. To accomplish this Thieu hoped utilize cadres of other parties and groups which retain their identities while working together in Lien Minh on programs of common interest. Thieu stressed Lien Minh’s mission be political one, and its good works programs would not compete with existing GVN activities such as revolutionary development. There was much in Thieu’s outline which paralleled or echoed our thinking here and in Washington. In view of overriding need for GVN moves towards political unity, and in absence of available alternatives, I reacted sympathetically and told Thieu we stood ready to furnish support he said required.
Lien Minh has no counterpart in United States. It is not political party, but rather alliance of political forces—a front of fronts. This alliance composed of two political groups, National Salvation Front and Free Democratic Forces, plus Vietnam’s largest labor federation, the CVT. National Salvation Front as Free Democratic Forces are without much political influence except what they derive respectively from their creators, Vice President Ky, and President Thieu. Third pillar, the CVT, is considerably stronger than other two—being mass organization with membership of some 300,000. Must be said, however, that while top leaders of CVT have contributed substantially to Lien Minh, mass membership of organization remains yet be involved. In addition these three groups, Lien Minh’s avowed goal has been and is to attract other political groups under its umbrella in large coalition which would serve as effective counterforce to VC in political confrontation that lies ahead.
Thus far we have subsidized Lien Minh in amount of [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. In early December, following complete Embassy reassessment of Lien Minh, I discussed organization with President Thieu, giving him our analysis of organization’s strengths and weaknesses and our conclusion that balance came out on positive side. I stressed, however, that Lien Minh needed greater expression of presidential interest if it to become powerful popular movement required to challenge NLF/VC apparatus in countryside. With due respect to Thieu’s judgement that he avoid over identification with Lien Minh, I felt need for discreet but unmistakable Presidential moves which would stimulate all echelons of GVN into lending appropriate encouragement to Lien Minh, and which would encourage as well further support from private sector. At that time Thieu agreed with my view and explained had moved slowly supporting Lien Minh only to permit it more natural and genuine growth.
In relatively brief life span, Lien Minh achieved some measure of success. Its program, consisting largely of community development self-help social projects, enjoying some measure success in Saigon/Cholon where now has active projects in virtually all districts. Operations in provinces behind schedule; but Lien Minh committees thus far established in twenty provinces. Training Lien Minh’s first batch of cadres for provinces turned out require more time than anticipated. As matters now stand, training of cadres from twenty provinces will begin late February at Can Tho, Vung Tau, Qui Nhon, and Danang.
Since writing Saigon 44649 (Exdis) on 11 December,3 have not been able take up Lien Minh with President Thieu. Expect to do so [Page 63] however within two or three days. At this meeting intend to review Lien Minh’s progress thus far and also offer recommendations regarding its future. Specifically plan to note on plus side some modest but apparently genuine popular participation achieved through self-help projects particularly financed by money raised in neighborhoods concerned. Among Lien Minh’s weaknesses and problems I intend to cite following:
Lien Minh’s political base weak and narrow. National Salvation Front has no mass following. Free democratic force has cadre in various provinces, but cannot be heavily weighted as political force in country, urban or rural. CVT has made available few key officials and training facilities; but CVT as such not been activated behalf of Lien Minh.
There is endless bickering among three major organizations comprising Lien Minh—bickering over allocation of funds, and channels of command. Both National Salvation Front and CVT constantly on the verge of withdrawing.
These weaknesses linked to Lien Minh command structure, and especially to role played by President Thieu’s Secretary-General, Nguyen Van Huong. Huong admittedly worked hard serve his President in this venture; but his efforts to run Lien Minh from behind scenes caused considerable friction, resulting in alienation many senior Lien Minh officials.
No political or religious leader joined or publicly endorsed Lien Minh since formation last July.
Lien Minh remains virtually unknown to public at large. Plans for aggressive publicity and intensive promotional campaign exist, but not yet executed.
Financing irregular and some December salaries still unpaid. Too many cadre on payroll and greater emphasis on volunteers appears necessary. Attempts solicit financial contributions from Vietnamese business community must be intensified.
Above all, uncertainty persists many quarters both in and outside GVN regarding Thieu’s support of Lien Minh.
Regarding above points, I consider crux of matter Thieu’s attitude toward Lien Minh: Does he truly endorse organization, and is he prepared give it personal leadership and attention? Or is he merely being polite in avowing support of Lien Minh because believes this is what we wish to hear? Consider therefore our first requirement be clarification of Thieu’s attitude. All subsequent issues subordinate. President must decide once and for all whether he believes Lien Minh capable of contributing substantially to political challenge posed by VC, or whether sees other more promising alternatives. If Thieu continues endorse Lien Minh as his chosen instrument for countering VC and [Page 64] organizing private political sector, he must exert personal and political leadership and pressure if it to have any hope of success.
If Thieu gives convincing evidence of intending put some presidential muscle behind this organization, I recommend continuation our financial support. However, feel time has come for President Thieu make contribution out of GVN funds, and intend to point out our subsidy, cannot be expected to cover total needs.
Recently Thieu has given some positive indications of increased interest by receiving on 28 January at palace some 40 Lien Minh provincial officials attending Lien Minh seminar in Saigon. This reception well publicized including TV coverage. While not completely identifying with Lien Minh, President spent hour with representatives and in his address consistently used word “we” talking about Lien Minh goals. I understand Thieu also contributed that day two million from own sources to Lien Minh to help tide it over present financial difficulties.
In view of above, until I meet with Thieu and have opportunity determine his attitude and intentions, am reluctant to arrive at final judgement and recommendation concerning our own posture. If results my talk clearly affirmative and Thieu’s actions demonstrate genuine presidential commitment, I favor continuation our support. If Thieu should react negatively, plan to advise him we intend discontinue our assistance. If he remains ambivalent or is positive but fails follow through, plan to advise by end of March we plan discontinue financial help to Lien Minh but to remain open minded concerning other initiatives to same ends which we together may consider more productive.4
  1. Source: Department of State, INR/IL Historical Files, 303/40 Committee Files, 303 Meetings, 2/16/68–1/20/70. Secret; Eyes Only. No time of transmission appears on the message.
  2. The reference is not identified.
  3. Telegram 44649 from Saigon, December 11, 1968 (Saigon time), contained an account of Bunker’s discussion that day with Thieu on the Lien Minh. (Department of State, INR/IL Historical Files, Subject Files, Vietnam, 1968)
  4. On February 11 the 303 Committee discussed this message and the program supporting the Lien Minh: “Mr. Nelson provided additional details in the course of the briefing. Mr. Packard expressed the view that this was a marginal activity with uncertain benefits to be derived therefrom and wondered if the risks of disclosure were worth it. Mr. Kissinger questioned if anyone in the United States really knows what a viable political structure in South Vietnam is. Messrs. Johnson and Helms had similar reservations but pointed out that development of a political structure is a long term process and that after two years or more of seeking for some kind of political structure in South Vietnam, President Thieu’s Lien Minh proposal seemed the best bet. There was general agreement with Ambassador Bunker’s analysis that President Thieu must actively support the Lien Minh in order for it to succeed.” The Committee agreed to review the issue again after Bunker discussed it further with Thieu and asked Bunker for an assessment of the risks of disclosure. At Kissinger’s request, the Committee also discussed covert harassment of large concentrations of North Vietnamese troops in their Cambodian sanctuaries along the border with South Vietnam. Nelson outlined long existing Operation Daniel Boone, but Helms noted that such a small scale operation would have little impact. Packard suggested that B–52 bombing would be the most effective means of attacking the concentration. Kissinger asked CIA to prepare a study of what could be done covertly. Nelson also briefed the Committee on the situation in Laos where U.S. supported paramilitary forces were about to face “traditional dry season communist offensive.” (Ibid., 303/40 Committee Meetings Files, 303 Meetings, 2/16/69–1/20/70)