258. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • Ambassador Bunker’s Assessment of the Current Situation in Saigon

Ambassador Bunker has sent you his assessment of the current situation in Vietnam (Tab A).2

Bunker begins his message by reviewing political developments of the past summer. He believes all three principal players (Thieu, Minh and Ky) have behaved irresponsibly, but he holds Thieu most to account. He believes Thieu’s stock, which was very high four months ago, has now fallen. By creating problems where few existed he has precipitated domestic turmoil and has created difficulties between himself and many of those around him.

Looking to the period between now and October 3, Bunker concludes that the degree of turmoil in the streets will depend largely on the tactics of the An Quang buddhist faction since other groups are too weak by themselves to create any serious trouble. Present indications are that the official An Quang leadership will not adopt a policy of taking to the streets because the violence could get out of control and play into the hands of the Communists or of Vice President Ky. An Quang has, however, issued a communiqué stating it will neither take part in nor recognize the results of the Presidential election.

Bunker rules out any real danger of a coup.

Bunker believes Thieu will win the referendum by a large majority of the votes cast with a high turn-out in rural areas but a substantially reduced one in urban areas. He believes that with his mandate of limited credibility, Thieu can expect to face continuous criticism from [Page 930] an enlarged opposition in the National Assembly and from political and religious groups.

Bunker believes that if Thieu does not change his style of leadership he will have a stormy second term. In politics, Thieu does not consult with others, he does not enlist others as genuine advisers and does not even cultivate natural allies. Bunker thinks Thieu should start building a genuine political grouping of forces and a wider base of support soon after October 3.

If for some reason or another, Thieu should find it impossible to govern, Bunker expresses confidence that the Vietnamese will try to find a Constitutional solution; and should matters come down to a question of Thieu’s successor, Bunker believes Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem would certainly make a bid and is better qualified than either Ky or Minh.

Regarding the enemy’s political plans, Bunker does not believe they have sufficient cadre in Saigon to capitalize on a coup attempt or anti-government demonstrations. But, of course, they will exploit the situation as best they can encouraging demonstrations, urging an election boycott and attempting wherever they can to disrupt the election itself through military and terrorist action.

On the military side, Bunker judges that there is no area in South Vietnam, except possibly northern MR-1, where the enemy could launch a major big-unit offensive in the next two or three months. The effects of the Laos and Cambodia operations earlier this year are becoming increasingly apparent. The Communists’ limited capability therefore will be directed toward small unit operations, guerrilla tactics and terrorism and primary emphasis between now and the end of the year will be on the dry season logistical movement.

Bunker ends his message by saying that the Vietnamization program is on schedule and continues to progress reasonably well. The most serious deficiency is that maneuver battalions are way below strength. The Vietnamese Air Force is steadily taking over more of the air support role although it is not equipped or trained to conduct interdiction operations in high threat areas of Laos. Its night support capability is limited and it has no heavy bombers.

Bunker concludes, therefore, that U.S. air support will be required for an extended period.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 872, For the President’s Files, Lord, Vietnam Negotiations, Vietnam Elections. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. Sent for information. A stamped notation on the memorandum reads, “The President has seen.” The following is written on the first page: “19 September 71(?)”
  2. Attached but not printed is a retyped copy of backchannel message 198 from Bunker to Kissinger, September 18. (Ibid.) Kissinger wrote to Bunker in backchannel message WHS 1102 to Saigon, September 16, that Nixon wanted Bunker’s assessment prior to the September 20 NSC meeting. He also informed Bunker that Haig would travel to Saigon after the meeting to assess the military situation. (Ibid., Box 1013, Haig Special File, Haig Trip File, Haig SEA Trip–Mar 71 [1 of 2])