100. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

307. Subject: American equities in the 1971 GVN Presidential and lower house elections.

The South Vietnamese legislature is now in the process of considering the election laws which will regulate the 1971 Presidential and lower house elections. The Presidential election will be held on 3 October 1971, and our current information indicates that the lower house elections will take place on 29 August 1971. The U.S. Mission has reported and will continue to report in detail on the preparations for these elections by the various political forces and groupings in South Viet-Nam, and on developments in the electoral campaigns as they progress. I believe it appropriate, therefore, and it is the purpose of this message, to take a broader look at what the U.S. role and objectives should be in these elections in order that we might focus on this vital matter in a timely manner.
President Thieu has clearly decided that he wishes to be reelected and is already actively working toward that goal. He believes [Page 251] that his principal support will come from military personnel and from civil servants in all levels of the GVN governmental structure—from province chiefs; members of provincial, village and hamlet councils; and from administrative cadres throughout the national and local governments. In addition, Thieu expects to receive support from other organized political forces like the Catholics, the Montagnards, the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Quoc Tu Buddhists and that segment of organized labor which is responsive to the Vietnamese Confederation of Labor. Thieu favors the development of political parties in SVN, but realistically in my opinion, does not believe any of the parties is strong enough to play a major role in 1971. Therefore, he will not place much of his reliance on political parties in next year’s campaign; he will devote most of his efforts (1) to strengthening his position in the military and civil apparatus of the government, and (2) to inducing that apparatus to work actively on his behalf among other elements of the population. At this point in time, and assuming that Thieu continues to follow the electoral strategy just outlined, he is the front runner in the Presidential election. But he is far from certain of victory, and much could happen over the next 10 months either to diminish or enhance his prospects.
In my opinion, it is basic to U.S. interests in South Viet-Nam that the 1971 elections should contribute to a lasting period of governmental stability which will allow the Vietnamization program to be successful. If Vietnamization is not successful, American policy in Viet-Nam will have failed. Without governmental stability for the next several years, it is likely that Vietnamization will fail.
While it may be incorrect to believe that only Thieu can provide the necessary degree of stability in SVN for the near future, it is apparent to me that neither of the other candidates who are presently significant contenders for the Presidency—General “Big” Minh or Vice President Ky—would serve U.S. interests as well as Thieu. Given Ky’s reputation in the U.S., his election would make it more difficult than it now is for the U.S. administration to continue an effective policy in Viet-Nam. There is, I believe, a good chance that Ky will not push his candidacy, for he has much less voter support than either Thieu or Minh and cannot hope to win. His role, if he runs, would essentially be a spoiling operation against Thieu. On balance we think he will prefer to see Thieu elected over Minh, and it is likely he will work out some arrangement with Thieu on the 1971 elections. General Minh, despite his alleged popularity in South Viet-Nam, has shown that he is a poor administrator and that he is unwilling to devote the time and effort to the job which is necessary for even reasonably efficient government. Minh sees himself as the peace candidate and as such thinks he will be able to arrive at a settlement with North Viet-Nam and the VC. Both Minh’s eagerness to win the election and to end the war by [Page 252] a negotiated settlement, and his naivete and his known weaknesses as an administrator and leader, are viewed with profound concern by a large segment of the military, the police and important civilian elements. If Minh were to win, excessive compromises with the Communists or weak and ineffective government would almost certainly set the stage for a military coup. Minh’s election, in short, holds out the promise of subsequent serious and dangerous instability.
I have, therefore, concluded that a principal objective of United States policy in Viet-Nam over the next 10 months should be the reelection of President Thieu, and the election to the lower house of deputies who would support both Thieu’s own election efforts and Thieu’s policies. I believe the measures which we should emply to accomplish this objective should be the following:
We should not publicly or officially intervene in the South Vietnamese electoral process in any way. We should scrupulously avoid providing open encouragement to any candidate over any other candidate.
We should devote maximum efforts to making all phases of the Vietnamization and pacification programs of the GVN more effective; to encouraging a more rapid implementation of the GVN’s land reform program; and to assuring that the GVN’s economy stays on an even keel during 1971. Efforts in these areas are worthy, necessary and in the U.S. interest in their own right. They can also contribute markedly to Thieu’s electoral chances.
We should covertly take certain actions which will strengthen the electoral prospects of Thieu and of lower house candidates who will support Thieu. The precise actions to be taken require further careful study, but we should be prepared to accept the fact that some covert actions in support of Thieu will be necessary. We should also consider whether there are any covert actions which should be undertaken to prepare for the contingency of a Thieu defeat. Such actions, taken now, might provide us greater influence than we would otherwise have over the initial actions of a successor government.
The information contained in this message should be confined to: Secretary Rogers, Dr. Henry Kissinger, Assistant Secretary Green and Ambassador William Sullivan.
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 14 VIET S. Secret; Nodis; Cherokee.