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88. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • Ambassador Bui Diem, Republic of Vietnam
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • William A.K. Lake

Ambassador Diem called on Mr. Kissinger at the former's request. The major subjects discussed included the substance of the forthcoming proposal by the GVN on a political settlement in South Vietnam,2 the timing of that proposal, our strategy for the period after the proposal is made, and the desire of the South Vietnamese for close consultation [Page 268]with us on those subjects. The effect of the Midway meeting and Diem's personal feelings about the future course of events in Vietnam were also mentioned.

GVN Proposal

Ambassador Diem noted the necessity for President Thieu's achieving the greatest degree of unity possible among Vietnamese nationalists in support of his proposal. Mr. Kissinger expressed his appreciation of this fact. Ambassador Diem then discussed a number of different ideas which President Thieu and the GVN are considering with regard to the substance of the proposal. Their premises in considering these ideas are that the proposal would have to challenge the other side to participate in the elections, that it would have to be demonstrably realistic and forthcoming, and yet that it must not prejudice the basic interests of the Vietnamese people.

The Ambassador said that after careful consideration, “the people at home” were inclined to judge that there are more cons than pros with regard to amending the constitution in order to remove the obstacles posed by Article 4.3 They therefore are studying ways of proposing elections that would get around this problem.

For example, a referendum might be held on the constitution (including Article 4) as a whole. Such a referendum would, however, pose real dangers, as some nationalists might vote against the constitution on grounds not directly concerned with the struggle against the Communists. DeGaulle's experience with his recent referendum provided a warning.4 Mr. Kissinger expressed personal doubt about the value of a referendum on the whole constitution, rather than on Article 4. Ambassador Diem agreed, stating that such a referendum would not be practical.

Of the many other alternatives being studied, Diem said, one of the boldest proposals is that general elections be held for the Presidency, the Vice Presidency, Senate and lower House. Any general elections proposal would have to include the Presidency, or it would appear that Thieu wanted others in the GVN to take more risks than he. Thieu would therefore be willing to run against the Communists. Mr. Kissinger agreed that this would be the most spectacular proposal, especially if Thieu resigned before the election. He suggested that this offer could be made conditional—Thieu would not resign unless the [Page 269]other side agreed to the elections. Ambassador Diem noted that a drawback of the idea of proposing general elections is that it could lead to a period of confusion. They were considering ways to avoid this problem.

Ambassador Diem noted that this was simply one of the ideas under consideration, and stated it should be part of a package including the withdrawal of non-South Vietnamese forces. Nor would it need include Thieu's resignation. Mr. Kissinger agreed that his resignation was not the key element.

Mr. Kissinger asked who would run these general elections. The Ambassador replied that the GVN could give all sorts of safeguards and agree to some sort of joint control over them.

In response to Mr. Kissinger's question, the Ambassador said he personally thought people in the countryside would vote for Thieu rather than NLF leader Tho. They would prefer the “grey” to the “black” choice.

Mr. Kissinger returned to the question of the withdrawal of non-South Vietnamese forces. Ambassador Dim said the presence of North Vietnamese troops in the south is the GVN's greatest concern. If the elections were held while they were still there, they could influence the voting and there would be a risk that they would never be withdrawn. Mr. Kissinger stated that we would still be there. Ambassador Diem said that if there were assurances of that, the possibility of elections while the North Vietnamese (and the U.S.) maintained forces in the country “could be debated.” Mr. Kissinger confirmed that the Ambassador was saying that if we were to assure the GVN that we would not withdraw our forces until the North Vietnamese had withdrawn theirs, the GVN might be willing to hold general elections. Mr. Kissinger said that he would have to take this up with the President. We might be able to give such an assurance.

The Ambassador and Mr. Kissinger agreed that all the ideas they had discussed should be very closely held, and that it should be clear that they were only ideas.

Timing of the Proposal

Ambassador Diem said that Ambassador Bunker had suggested July 1 as a target date for announcement of the GVN proposal. Mr. Kissinger agreed with the Ambassador's remark that there is no reason why there must be one specific date. The Ambassador said that Secretary Rogers and Deputy Assistant Secretary Sullivan had suggested a target of July 10 because of the Paris meeting at that time and the Apollo flight soon thereafter. The latter would take public attention away from the proposal if they took place concurrently. Mr. Kissinger agreed that these were important factors. The proposal would [Page 270]receive maximum publicity if it were announced before the 16th. If it were announced concurrently with the Apollo mission, it should be during the flight, rather than on the days of the take-off, moon landing, or splashdown. We would support the GVN's efforts to publicize it in every way possible. We would like then to make a catalog of concessions by the U.S. and the GVN, and use it in a publicity campaign calling on the other side to follow suit.

Mr. Kissinger stated that we would not wish, however, to give a deadline to the GVN. It would be better that they make a positive proposal that they had examined carefully and could believe in rather than something less meaningful. He asked what Ambassador Diem personally thought would be a realistic date. The Ambassador replied that, speaking personally, he wished there were more time to achieve a political regrouping—nationalist unity. This would take at least a month. How, the Ambassador asked, could they best line up political support for a proposal by July 10–16? The ideal would be to have gained the support of all nationalists. At the least, they should have prepared them for the proposal. They could then work on gaining their support after the proposal was made.

Mr. Kissinger asked if U.S. support for the proposal would help in this regard. Ambassador Diem said that he doubted it. Saigon politicians are not anti-American but they have lingering doubts about the U.S. which are difficult to define. They know that the U.S. will not withdraw completely. They recognize that 25,000 troops is a small withdrawal and they would accept even 75,000 to 100,000. However, there are rumors and a general feeling in Saigon that the U.S. has a fixed plan for maneuvering Thieu into a political settlement. Much could be done to dispel these rumors in the next three weeks.

Ambassador Diem had told Ambassador Bunker that the U.S. could help dispel these rumors if our people in Saigon could get in touch with the main political factions and discreetly spread the word that while the South Vietnamese should help themselves, they needn't worry about “black designs” by the U.S. Mr. Kissinger said that he would look into how we could offer such assistance discreetly, particularly if it were to lead to a next stage. We would have to consider how well such assistance might succeed.

Mr. Kissinger reiterated his statement that the announcement would have the best effect if it were made sooner rather than later, but that we understood their problems and were not putting pressure on them. It is a GVN decision.

Nor, Mr. Kissinger said, is it our intention to wreck the whole political system. President Nixon wants President Thieu to succeed. But we have to show U.S. public opinion that we are forthcoming.

Mr. Kissinger said that President Thieu had impressed President [Page 271] Nixon when he said that every GVN concession should not lead to a further concession by the U.S. In the abstract, Mr. Kissinger said, there will be some point at which the GVN can with justice say that it has made all the concessions possible. Mr. Kissinger's personal view was that if the GVN proposed general elections and a mixed commission, it could not be asked to go farther. He would check this point with the President. Ambassador Diem then noted that the idea of general elections is only a tentative plan.

Strategy for Period After the Proposal

Ambassador Diem said that President Thieu is concerned about what we should do after he had made his proposal, which could represent the maximum possible concession. The proposal would have a good effect on public opinion, and the other side would be on the defensive. They would probably refuse the proposal, however, at least for a few months. What would be the attitude of the U.S. in that case? The GVN did not have specific recommendations for the U.S., the Ambassador continued, or ask too much. The South Vietnamese would fight on for their own survival. They would assume more of a burden through the Vietnamization program. But they would still need American help, if at reduced levels and different in kind. These are the lines along which Thieu is working.

In reply, Mr. Kissinger recalled the President's statement of May 14 that he was determined not to allow an endless negotiation and not to lose the war. What exactly we would do needn't be discussed now. He noted that if the GVN were to make a forthcoming, unconditional proposal, it would show that we had made all the concessions possible. This would make it easier to reappraise the situation in three months.

Consultations

Ambassador Diem said that President Thieu had asked him to stress Thieu's desire for coordinating our strategy both with regard to his forthcoming proposal and for the following period. We need better communication between us. Mr. Kissinger agreed, and supported the idea of close consultation between Ambassador Diem and Deputy Assistant Secretary Sullivan. He would also always be available himself should Ambassador Diem wish to discuss sensitive problems or messages from President Thieu to President Nixon. If Ambassador Diem ever felt that things were getting out of hand, Mr. Kissinger would always do what he could to help. Ambassador Diem said that Mr. Kissinger was a special friend, and that he had been instructed by President Thieu to discuss all possibilities fully with Mr. Kissinger. President Thieu had been impressed with Mr. Kissinger at Midway as being a serious and systematic man.

[Page 272]

Effect of Midway Meeting

Mr. Kissinger asked for Ambassador Diem's personal appraisal of the effect of the Midway meeting. The Ambassador said that he frankly thought it was very useful, particularly as it helped Thieu to knock down rumors in Saigon about U.S. intentions. Mr. Kissinger recalled the President's statement at Midway that the GVN should believe only what the U.S. Government tells them, not what the press says. Ambassador Diem stated that the suspicions of Thieu himself were allayed by the Midway meeting. The Ambassador only regretted that the meeting was too short.

Ambassador Diem's Views on the Future

Speaking personally, the Ambassador expressed the opinion that international and U.S. public opinion might not allow enough time for the GVN to succeed in doing all it would have to do. He noted that the GVN had failed to accomplish some of the things that one might have hoped it would, but that it faced real problems also. He had realized the other day, standing on a beach at Nha Trang, how much would be lost if they failed to win the struggle. Without concurring in the Ambassador's implied pessimism, Mr. Kissinger emphasized his understanding for the problems the GVN faces, and his great sympathy for Ambassador Diem's emotions at Nha Trang. He regretted that the U.S. may sometimes unintentionally do things which might hurt the GVN. He had no patience with those Americans who proposed political actions by the GVN without regard for the complexities of the situation. We should not presume to tell the GVN what to do.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 268, Memoranda of Conversation, 1969 January–July. Secret; Sensitive; Nodis. The meeting was held in Kissinger's office. According to an attached July 2 memorandum, Kissinger sent this memorandum to Nixon for information. Also attached was a 2-page outline summary of the KissingerDiem discussion.
  2. On July 11 Thieu proposed that the NLF could take part in elections in South Vietnam to be held under international supervision. Thieu outlined the following principles: all political parties and groups could participate as long as they renounced violence and pledged to agree by the results of the elections; an electoral commission made up of all groups participating would conduct the elections and ensure that they were fair; there would be international supervision; the GVN would be willing to discuss the timetable and modalities for the election with the NLF; no reprisals or discrimination would follow the elections; and the GVN would abide by the results and it challenged “the other side” to declare the same. (Keesing's Contemporary Archives, 1969–1970, p. 23657)
  3. Article 4 of the GVN Constitution prohibited citizens from being Communists or promoting communism.
  4. In April 1969 the French people rejected President Charles de Gaulle's referendum on regional autonomy and he resigned.