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


  • The Recent Flare-Up Between President Thieu and Vice President Ky

We do not believe that the recent public exchange between South Vietnamese President Thieu and Vice President Ky has led to the “irreparable” break suggested in a recent intelligence analysis, but it is clear that the tension between them is much higher than before.2

[Page 55]


The relationship between these two men has always been tense and uncertain, for the following reasons:

  • —They are completely different in their personal and political styles and habits. Ky is flamboyant, gregarious, out-spoken, and direct. Thieu is cautious, circumspect, somewhat devious, and generally careful with what he says.
  • —The only characteristic they share is that they are both ambitious, unfortunately for the same job.
  • —They also hold different political views. Ky is more ready to attack North Vietnam and to send South Vietnamese forces outside the country. Thieu appears genuinely to believe that the most important arena of struggle is South Vietnam itself. Ky appears quite ready to attack some elements in the generally conservative South Vietnamese power structure, at least verbally. Thieu believes that social development must be brought about gradually and with all parties aboard. He is not a revolutionary in any sense.
  • —The history of their relationship is one of ups and downs. Ky was for many years Thieu’s inferior in rank and reputation. He surged forward when his Air Force helped quell a Saigon coup attempt in late 1964 and when he became South Vietnamese Premier a year later. But in 1967 Thieu out-maneuvered Ky for the military presidential candidacy and he has been on top ever since. However, Ky still has enough support among the military to make him a constant threat to Thieu.

The Flare-Up

The recent exchange probably resulted from Ky’s feeling that Thieu had made a fool of him on Cambodia. After Sihanouk was overthrown Ky assumed charge of GVN policy toward Cambodia. He rushed into this task with excess energy and little sense for Southeast Asian or world political realities. He made it appear that South Vietnam was ready to assume full responsibility for the defense of Cambodia and that Saigon wanted an Indochinese military pact. Thieu undercut him by setting the record straight and relieving him of the Cambodian problem. Ky, who is very proud and sensitive, probably saw this as a real slap in the face.

On July 20, speaking to I Corps officers, Ky’s frustrations exploded in a number of criticisms of Thieu’s leadership. Ky said that Thieu’s advisers were corrupt, incompetent, or both. He also said that Thieu had failed to take his (Ky’s) advice on some key issues and thus had failed to solve some problems. This was the first time that Ky had spoken so openly against Thieu.

Three days later, speaking to Vietnamese newsmen, Thieu replied in kind. He said that he and Ky had been on the same ticket because [Page 56] of a “forced marriage.” To ease the sting, however, he said that Ky’s remarks must have been misreported.3

Since that time both men have restrained themselves. This has probably lowered the tension and has, as usual, left Thieu with the last word.


The personal and political tension between the two men runs sufficiently high that the danger of a rift is always present. It is particularly possible that they will come to a major parting of the ways next summer, when presidential candidates must again be chosen. There are reports that Ky will not run again with Thieu, and may even run against him. But the odds are that in the foreseeable future they will continue their cooperation, uneasy as it is, for the following reasons:

  • —The South Vietnamese army does not want an open rift between them. The circle of military officers who rule South Vietnam will probably exert great pressure on the two to compose their differences.
  • Ky knows that he cannot win an open power challenge.
  • —Confrontation is not in Thieu’s style. He prefers to operate by indirection.
  • —Although Thieu is superior in rank and strength he also needs Ky if he is to maintain internal stability. He is prepared to tolerate some of Ky’s peccadillos to keep him in the fold.4

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 148, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam 1 Aug 70. Top Secret. Sent for information. Holdridge forwarded this memorandum to Kissinger under an August 17 covering memorandum, recommending that he sign it. A stamped notation on the memorandum reads, “The President has seen.”
  2. According to an August 11 memorandum from Haig to Smyser, the President requested an analysis of CIA’s assessment on a break between Thieu and Ky. (Ibid.)
  3. The Embassy reported these incidents in telegram 11967 from Saigon, July 26, which Smyser forwarded to Kissinger under cover of a July 29 memorandum. (Ibid.)
  4. Dean sent a memorandum to Haldeman and Kissinger on September 23, noting that Ky intended to visit the United States and attend a high-profile, pro-GVN rally in October. He warned that Ky had become a lightening rod for anti-war activists because of his openly hawkish positions. (Ibid., Box 149, Viet 1 Sept 70) In a September 25 memorandum to Dean, Kissinger responded and explained that Bui Diem, Bunker, and Billy Graham had all attempted to dissuade Ky and that he planned on meeting with Ky in Paris on October 2. (Ibid.)