76. Memorandum for the President’s File1


  • The President
  • Mr. Henry A. Kissinger
  • Under Secretary of State John N. Irwin, II
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary William H. Sullivan
  • Mr. John H. Holdridge
  • Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, Republic of Vietnam
  • Ambassador Bui Diem, Republic of Vietnam


  • The President’s Discussion with Vice President Ky on Developments Related to Vietnam
[Page 189]

The President referred to the U.S. rescue operation directed against a North Vietnamese POW camp, and expressed regrets that this operation had failed. Vice President Ky agreed, and complimented the members of the U.S. team on their bravery. He noted the difficulty of locating a site such as the POW camp, especially at night, and suggested that Vietnamese who knew the country and the people might be able to help out in operations such as this. In fact, the location of the POW camp happened to be his own hometown. U.S.-GVN cooperation in rescue missions might help assure their success, and the Vice President offered to arrange for Vietnamese volunteers. The GVN had teams operating in North Vietnam, and if one of these teams were put into the vicinity of a POW camp shortly before an operation was planned it would be able to look over the area, make contacts with the people, and report back whether or not POWs were still there. The President expressed interest in Vice President Ky’s offer.

Ambassador Sullivan referred to the North Vietnamese reaction to the U.S. raids on North Vietnam as being rather mild. Although they had refused to attend the November 25 meeting, they had insisted that the next meeting on December 3 proceed as scheduled. The President said that this tended to confirm his impression that the North Vietnamese did not want to break off the Paris talks. They were playing a game with us in Paris, in that by simply agreeing to talk they had gotten us to halt our bombings. However, if they actually did break off the talks we would have the opportunity of reversing a move which had been instituted by the previous Administration.

The President mentioned in passing that we had failed on this one, but that we would go back again in a month or two and next time we would succeed.

Under Secretary Irwin referred to the depth of feeling about the POWs on the part of wives and next of kin, observing that a group of wives had called on him and had been very emotional. They were coming very close to accusing the Administration of not doing enough on behalf of the POWs. The President acknowledged this attitude, saying that all we had been really doing so far was to talk about the problem. The rescue operation was intended to go beyond mere talk.

The President, Vice President Ky, and Ambassador Sullivan all agreed that the North Vietnamese attitude toward POWs was quite different from that of our own. Ambassador Sullivan explained that a North Vietnamese who was captured was considered to have disgraced himself, and the North Vietnamese thus could not understand why we expressed such concern over our own POWs. He recalled, too, that after the fighting with the French, Vietnamese who had been released from French prison camps were given a year of indoctrination before being allowed to return to normal Vietnamese society. Vice President [Page 190] Ky wondered if the kind of air surveillance our side usually laid on prior to POW rescue missions might tip our hands to the North Vietnamese. It would take but a few minutes for them to remove prisoners from a camp which appeared scheduled to be hit.

Vice President Ky stated that he had discussed with President Thieu the possibility of the GVN’s offering to release all 30,000 Communist POWs it held in exchange for the 300 U.S. POWs held by North Vietnam.2 He did this in part because as an airman he felt a bond of brotherhood with the U.S. POWs, all of whom were airmen, and also because an offer of this sort would put the North Vietnamese on the spot. If they accepted it, the U.S. POWs would be freed and there would be no problem as he saw it in returning the Communist POWs. While in GVN prison camps they actually enjoyed a better life than did the average ARVN soldier. They would carry a good story with them when they returned to North Vietnam. (Ambassador Sullivan pointed out that there were about 9,000 North Vietnamese among the POWs held by the GVN, and Vice President Ky observed that the ratio of North Vietnamese to U.S. POWs was still a very good one.) According to Vice President Ky, there had been no decision reached by Thieu on this matter, and Thieu had asked that it be passed along while Vice President Ky was in Washington.

Turning to the military situation, the President said that we had the greatest of admiration for what the ARVN had accomplished lately, not only in its operations in Cambodia but in its general level of competence. The ARVN had come a long way. Vice President Ky agreed, noting that his military colleagues also felt that the ARVN performance had improved greatly. There were, however, still deficiencies in leadership and a shortage of cadres. Speaking very frankly, there were also morale problems arising from ARVN dissatisfaction over living standards. These living standards were lower than those of the rest of the South Vietnamese society, which made the members of the ARVN very unhappy. Vice President Ky was confident that the ARVN’s morale was strong enough to keep on fighting the Communists, but its unhappiness over living conditions would persist, and would need to be dealt with as an urgent matter.

The President asked Vice President Ky for an appraisal of what the Communists might do in the coming dry season. What was the significance of the heavy enemy infiltration which we had noticed [Page 191] recently? Vice President Ky expressed the opinion that the Communists would try to hit Cambodia hard, rather than attack in South Vietnam. They needed to reopen their supply lines to southern South Vietnam to get food and supplies to their men there, hence the infiltration. Access to South Vietnam remained their most important consideration. Vice President Ky doubted, though, that they would want to attack Phnom Penh directly or attempt to destroy the Cambodian Government. If they did try to do so, the ARVN had plans to help. He had discussed Cambodian-ARVN cooperation himself with Prime Minister Lon Nol. As Vice President Ky put it, the Cambodian-Vietnamese relationship was “like lips and teeth,” and they would work very closely together. If the ARVN did move in to help keep Cambodian LOCs open or to relieve the enemy pressure on the Cambodian forces, there might be an enemy diversionary attack in I Corps, but this could be handled. Cambodia had been a real turning point in the war. The President was gratified to hear this, and also to hear Vice President Ky’s optimistic appraisal of the Cambodian Government’s ability to hold out.

The President expressed the opinion that the Cambodian forces had improved remarkably since last May. Ambassador Sullivan commented that under the French, Cambodian units had been among the best in the French forces, and Vice President Ky agreed. He recalled that the first battalion of paratroopers which had been trained by the French in their colonial army had been composed mainly of Cambodians. He added that the Cambodian spirit was actually better than that of the Vietnamese forces. The President spoke of the extra difficulties which the North Vietnamese would encounter in Cambodia, where they would not enjoy the support of the people. Vice President Ky fully concurred.

The President asked about the timing of a possible enemy offensive—would it be soon, now that the rains had stopped? Ambassador Sullivan surmised that one would not probably be expected in the near future. Although the rains had stopped, the flood waters of the Mekong had yet to recede and the flow of the Tonle Sap also reversed about this time of the year. Some time would be required for the countryside to dry out. Ambassador Sullivan speculated that an attack might not come before January or perhaps around Tet. In the meantime, the enemy would try to bring down the needed supplies. The President declared that if this were the case, it might be necessary for the U.S. to hit North Vietnamese supply dumps again. Vice President Ky noted that if a North Vietnamese attack did occur, the terrain in the southern part of Cambodia favored the use of gunships. He explained that by this he did not mean only AC–47s, but AC–119s and helicopters.

The President asked Vice President Ky for his thoughts on the future of the Paris talks. Vice President Ky responded by saying that he had talked to Ambassador Bruce and Ambassador Habib in Paris and [Page 192] considered this matter himself very carefully. He was of the opinion that the Communists would not enter into real negotiations at this time. For example, they could not accept a cease-fire for the reason that most of their forces were now not in Vietnam but in Cambodia, and a cease-fire would leave them at a real disadvantage. The President recalled that when in earlier years the U.S. had been in a weak position with respect to the North Vietnamese, people had argued that Hanoi would not negotiate because it thought it could get what it wanted by force; on the other hand, now that we were in a strong position, the same people argued that Hanoi would not negotiate from a position of weakness. In fact, Hanoi was playing a game—it had obtained a bombing halt from us in return for entering into talks, but had no intention of reaching a political settlement. While we wanted negotiations, it wanted South Vietnam, and looked on the talks as a screen behind which it could carry on the war without being bombed. (Dr. Kissinger remarked that from Hanoi’s position this was a logical approach.) Accordingly, we needed to accept the fact that the value of the Paris talks was mainly in the public relations sense. We wanted peace and would continue to work for a genuine political settlement, but should not expect that Hanoi would cooperate.

The President asked Vice President Ky if he had been in contact with any representatives of the other side while in Paris. Ky acknowledged that he had held one meeting with a representative of the NLF, whom he did not name.3 He indicated that he had not followed this meeting up despite a request from the NLF for another session.

The President asked Vice President Ky for a run-down on the political and economic situation in South Vietnam as the Vice President saw it. Vice President Ky began by noting that he had engaged in long discussions with President Thieu on political and economic conditions before proceeding to Paris. On the economic side, he had told President Thieu that there was too much corruption in the country and too much of an imbalance between the small number of people in the very high income brackets and the very many people in the lower income brackets. The country was living beyond its means, and the economy was distorted due to inflation and the pressure of the war. What was needed was a “revolutionary” program of social reform to equalize incomes as much as possible and to end imbalances, and he had recommended this to President Thieu. He did not elaborate on his recommendation, and noted that Thieu had been rather cautious. Continuing, Vice President Ky said that speaking very frankly he saw the need for [Page 193] greater U.S.-GVN cooperation in the economic field. What we were doing now was too superficial. The economic reforms which had gone into effect a month or so ago would not, in his opinion, have a very lasting value. This related to what he had mentioned earlier concerning the need to improve the living standards of the ARVN. If one calculated that there were over a million ARVN soldiers and 3 million ARVN dependents, plus another 250,000 civil servants and a million dependents, some idea of the magnitude of the problem could be arrived at. Vice President Ky hoped for more detailed U.S.–GVN discussions in planning for U.S. assistance. The President remarked that the economic field usually turned out to be a tougher problem for developing nations than the immediate military struggle.

Turning to the political scene, Vice President Ky observed that there was insufficient political unity in South Vietnam. Some elements which were anti-GVN were also anti-Communist, but there were others which in their anti-GVN stance might be used by the Communists. Vice President Ky mentioned that he had also discussed the problem of unity with President Thieu, and had urged Thieu to try to bring political leaders such as General Big Minh and Tran Van Don closer to the Government. When asked by the President if Big Minh, for example, might be willing to get closer to the Government, Vice President Ky replied that he had been away from Saigon for nearly two months and didn’t know the situation now, but he had felt at the time of his departure that Big Minh would be willing to move closer to President Thieu.

Vice President Ky raised the question of a political settlement, which had been another of the subjects which he had discussed with President Thieu. He had proposed to Thieu that the GVN offer country-wide elections in South Vietnam for a Constituent Assembly, in which all political elements could participate including the Communists. This Constituent Assembly would then draft a new constitution under which elections for the President, Vice President, and the Upper and Lower Houses would be held. Meanwhile the present Government would continue to function as a caretaker. By making this offer, Thieu would be able to deal with the Communists’ rejection of the present constitution on the grounds that they had been given no opportunity to participate in its drafting. Moreover, the offer would make the South Vietnamese people believe that Thieu was sincere. At present there was some feeling that the Government was not sincere, since it was contradictory on what it said about participation in the political process in South Vietnam. While on the one hand the Government took the position that all political factions were able to take part, it also held that the Communists were excluded. There would also be a favorable reaction among world and U.S. opinion. Vice President Ky said he had been advised [Page 194] by Thieu to pass on the details of this proposal to the President for his reaction.4

The President expressed interest, but noted that the initiative on a political settlement should be worked out among the South Vietnamese themselves. He assumed that it would be done carefully, and explained the American system for making sure that an executive position has thorough agreement of all concerned. He said that a forthcoming proposal from the South Vietnamese would be useful, not only in South Vietnam but also internationally, and particularly with the American public. He believed that such a proposal should be (1) precise, (2) reasonable, and (3) that the South Vietnamese would have no illusions that the Communists would accept it.5

The President mentioned that the South Vietnamese Presidential elections were coming up in less than a year, and he wanted to address this matter with Vice President Ky as a man who understood politics very well. It was extremely important that political elements in South Vietnam comported themselves during this period in ways which would not discourage American support. Although the position of the Administration was to stand firmly beside the GVN, there was extremely heavy criticism of this policy in certain quarters in the U.S. Vice President Ky should know that we had tremendous problems domestically in maintaining our support for the GVN. We were not trying to take any stand on who in South Vietnam should run for President—the President assumed that Vice President Ky himself might be one of the candidates—and we were only concerned that enemies of Vietnam (by whom he meant U.S. critics who want us out of Vietnam altogether, not the North Vietnamese) would not be given anything [Page 195] which would help them in their efforts to undermine the Administration’s policy. What was needed was a continuing demonstration by the Vietnamese of political maturity and stability.

The President went on to recall the period in GVN history when there had been frequent coups d’etat. Everytime such a coup had taken place, big headlines had appeared in the U.S. press which in effect had called on us to wash our hands of the “mess in Vietnam.” The President stressed again the importance of not giving Senatorial critics an opportunity to block the Administration’s efforts to help Vietnam. The problem was now not so much on the military side but on the economic, since we had to go to the Hill to get appropriations. This was where the real fight lay.

Vice President Ky stated that the question as he saw it was not so much one of “fair competition” among the Vietnamese political elements, but rather the existence of “too much fair competition” stemming from what in his opinion were deficiencies in the present constitution. This was why he had spoken to President Thieu of the need for more political unity. As far as he himself was concerned, his only desire was to promote such unity, and he did not care if he was President, Vice President, or something else. He could assure the President that there would be no coup d’etat—coups were “obsolete” in Vietnam.

The President declared that we would stand firmly by South Vietnam. Our troop withdrawals would continue (although we would still keep logistical units in South Vietnam), but we would at the same time provide the South Vietnamese with the military and economic assistance which they needed to do the job for themselves. He was aware that Vice President Ky was in agreement on our troop withdrawal policy. He foresaw that, barring a political settlement in Paris, a time would come when the Communist threat in South Vietnam was reduced to attacks of terriorists which could be dealt with by the South Vietnamese Government. Meanwhile, he wanted Vice President Ky to know that on our side we were as concerned about South Vietnamese casualties as we were about our own. The fact that South Vietnamese casualties were on the order of three times our own was not regarded lightly by us. The President asked Vice President Ky to pass these remarks on to his comrades in the ranks.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, President’s Office Files, Memorandums for the President, Beginning 11/22/70. Top Secret; Sensitive. Sent for information. The meeting occurred in the White House and ran from 8:31 to 10:09 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary) Holdridge forwarded a copy of this memorandum to Kissinger under a November 25 covering memorandum, recommending that he approve it. Kissinger approved. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 150, Vietnam Country Files, Viet 1 Nov 70) Ky arrived in the United States on November 15 for a 17-day visit. (The New York Times, November 16, 1970, p. A10)
  2. Kissinger approved a plan by the Department of State, transmitted to him in a November 9 memorandum from Smyser, to instruct the Embassy in Saigon to begin exploring the possibility of having the South Vietnamese release a sizeable number of POWs before Christmas. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 150, Vietnam Country Files, Viet 1 Nov 70)
  3. Helms sent a report to Kissinger under a November 20 covering memorandum of a meeting between Ky and “an official of a pro-Communist Vietnamese front group in Paris.” (Ibid., Box 190, Paris Talks/Meetings, Paris Talks, 1 Oct 70–Dec 70)
  4. In a November 23 briefing memorandum to Nixon for this meeting, Kissinger noted that Ky would probably discuss his political proposals, which he believed were intended to do the following: make himself look acceptable to the Communists as a possible leader of a coalition government; win the Nixon administration’s support for his candidacy in the 1971 elections; and make himself appear essential to Thieu if Thieu won in 1971. Kissinger recommended that Nixon “listen politely, but above all noncommit-tally,” so as not to give Ky anything “he could exploit politically.” (Ibid., Box 150, Vietnam Country Files, Viet 1 Nov 70)
  5. According to a November 27 memorandum of a conversation among Ky, Kissinger, Bui Diem, and Holdridge, the participants engaged in a much more detailed discussion of Ky’s political proposals, particularly his idea of an election for an assembly to draft a new constitution and allowing the Communists to participate. Kissinger was concerned that if it were held so close to the Presidential elections the electorate would be confused. Ky responded that the elections for the assembly would not be that important and that his plan would allow the GVN to say that it was “ready to revise the system.” He also doubted that the Communists would participate. Kissinger asked him to delay any announcement of a proposal until early January, before any North Vietnamese dry-season offensive would likely begin. (Ibid.)