77. Memorandum of a Joint Cabinet and National Security Council Meeting1
- Cabinet Meeting, June 3, 1969
This was a joint meeting of the Cabinet and the National Security Council called to hear Secretary of State William Rogers’ report on his around-the-world trip.2
The first point of interest naturally was Vietnam. Secretary Rogers said he had listened to the President’s address on Vietnam while at the American Embassy in Saigon. “Contrary to what you might have read in the papers,” the Secretary told other Cabinet Members, “there are no differences between the U.S. and South Vietnam about what the President said.” South Vietnam’s President Thieu went over the speech [Page 239] in advance, made some suggestions that were accepted, and approved the final draft, Rogers said.3 Here the President interjected, “As a matter of fact you were there when he made some changes.”
Rogers found Thieu to be mature and intelligent and the one man in the Saigon government who has potential for national leadership. The Secretary said that the South Vietnamese are ready to take over a major part of the burden of the war, although they are fearful that if their casualty rate increases substantially, they may be in difficulty. They fully realize the problems that the war is creating for the U.S., he said.
One thing that the South Vietnamese do not understand, said the Secretary, is freedom of the press. “They lock people up for printing something they don’t want printed and then later think perhaps they made a mistake.” This caused Postmaster General Blount to comment: “Maybe they’ve got a good idea there.”
The American press, said Rogers, was quite wrong in its speculation that the President’s trip was arranged in a hurry for a meeting demanded by Thieu. Rogers said the meeting was suggested by President Nixon and that he, Rogers, was the one who proposed the timing. Relations between the U.S. and South Vietnam are very good, the Secretary reported, although South Vietnamese leaders “had some questions” about the U.S. position on elections. They found it hard to understand that all the U.S. was suggesting was an election that would permit all of the people of South Vietnam to express their view. They agree that there should be such an election but are uncertain about how it should be conducted.
Rogers called U.S. Ambassador Bunker and Military Commander Abrams both superb men for their positions. In travelling through some combat areas with Abrams, he found that the General “knew all about the military and also had a lot of humanitarian instincts.”
The critical political problem in South Vietnam, said Rogers, is that there is no cohesiveness, no real national interest even in such things as national sports or national radio programs. He thought it would be a good idea to have a couple of men in the U.S. Embassy who are experienced [Page 240] in politics and who would help Thieu to build a national image. President Nixon asked whether “Thieu would accept political advice from us.” Rogers’ reply: “He would if we didn’t label the people involved as political advisors and if we could just attach them to the Embassy without publicity.”
The President commented that criticism of South Vietnam with regard to the condition of its democracy has become terribly distorted. Complaints that the South Vietnamese have defective elections and a partially controlled press are made without regard to the fact that North Vietnam has no elections and a completely controlled press. Two very basic questions involved in the South Vietnamese situation, the President continued, are whether a country like South Vietnam is really ready for a democratic system, and whether it is possible to have freedom of the press in a country at full-scale war. “Look back to our own society,” the President said. “Lincoln didn’t allow much freedom of the press in the Civil War. And in both World War I and World War II, we had a very tight press situation.”
Vice President Agnew raised the question whether statements in the U.S. attacking this country’s role in Vietnam—such as those made by Senator Edward Kennedy—have an effect on the South Vietnamese. Rogers said there was no doubt that all such statements were followed closely and studied for their possible effects on U.S. policy.
Moving on to other countries he visited, the Secretary of State said that at a meeting of the SEATO alliance partners he found that representatives of the countries which are contributing troops to the Vietnamese war thought the U.S. should reduce its forces there and all indicated that their countries would not reduce their own troop strength if the U.S. did so.
[Omitted here is material unrelated to Vietnam and Southeast Asia.]
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Box 1, Memos for the President’s File, 1969–1970, Beginning June 1, 1969. No classification marking. Drafted by Special Assistant to the President James Keogh. In attendance were members of the National Security Council, the Cabinet, and 26 sub-Cabinet and White House officials. The meeting lasted from 9:07 to 11:28 a.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)↩
- Rogers departed Washington on May 12 and arrived in Saigon on May 14 for a 4-day visit. Rogers met with Foreign Minister Tran Chanh Thanh on May 15 and they discussed the general situation in South Vietnam, the upcoming Seven Nation Troop Contributing and SEATO meetings, and Nixon’s speech of May 14. Memoranda of conversation of these discussions, treated as separate discussions, are ibid., NSC Files, Box 137, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, Vol. IV, 4/29/69–5/18/69. Telegraphic accounts of these meetings are in telegrams Secto 49 to 51/Bangkok 6494–6496, May 21; ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, ORG 7 S. Rogers also talked with Vietnamese Prime Minister Tran Van Huong. A brief account of their meeting is in telegram Secto 18/9444 from Saigon, May 15. (Ibid., POL 27–14 VIET) A fuller account of their discussion is in telegram Secto 44/6489 from Bangkok, May 21. (Ibid., ORG 7 S)↩
- Rogers met privately with President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky on May 16. Thieu told Rogers he would like to hold elections after the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam and after receiving guarantees from the Viet Cong about freedom of the electoral process. Thieu was prepared to accept establishment of a mixed electoral commission to run the elections and would amend the GVN constitution if necessary for an agreement. Thieu was confident he could use the military and civil servants to expand the Government’s political support and successfully contest the elections. Ky told Rogers that South Vietnam would be ready for elections by May 1970. (Telegram 9541 from Saigon, May 16; ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 7, President’s Daily Briefs) Rogers discussed other issues with Thieu on May 16, including land reform as reported in telegram Secto 63/6559 from Saigon, May 16. (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, ORG 7 S) Rogers also met with Thieu’s cabinet on May 16; an account of that discussion is in telegram 9723 from Saigon, May 19. (Ibid., POL 27 VIET S) Additional documentation on Rogers’ visit to Vietnam is ibid., Conference Files, 1966–1972, CF 356–364.↩