191. Backchannel Message From the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

300. Subject: GVN Attitudes toward Negotiations.


Since his October 23 meeting with Dr. Kissinger,2 Thieu publicly has taken an uncompromising posture concerning certain key aspects of the draft agreement. He has voiced four principal objections to the draft:

  • —To the three-segment composition and role of the NCRC.
  • —To the lack of recognition of the DMZ.
  • —To North Vietnamese troops remaining in South Viet-Nam.
  • —Lack of reference to four Indochina countries.

Thieu’s concerns were heightened by the discrepancies between the English and Vietnamese texts, especially with regard to the NCRC. Thieu believed that the Vietnamese language text indicated that Hanoi envisaged the NCRC as a governmental structure, in effect a coalition government by another name. His concerns in this respect he believed were confirmed by statements of the DRV Prime Minister and Madame Binh. The provision for establishment of committees at the province, district, and village levels heightened Thieu’s apprehension that the NCRC would attempt to play a governmental role. While it has been pointed out to him frequently that the wording of the draft agreement grants no governmental function to the NCRC and that in any event the GVN can exercise a veto power over its role, Thieu has continued to voice objections to it.

Thieu interprets the lack of reference to the DMZ in the draft agreement as an attempt by the DRV to establish the fact that Vietnam is one country and that, therefore, their forces have a right to be in any part of it.
Thieu has objected to NVA troops remaining in South Viet-Nam on several grounds. First, he has contended that free elections will be impossible as long as North Vietnamese troops remain in South Viet-Nam, “how can people vote freely with Communist guns at their backs?” More recently GVN objections have shifted to the question of the juridical principle involved on the ground that NVA troops in [Page 728] South Viet-Nam will establish the principle that Viet-Nam is one and therefore the NVA has the right to be anywhere in Vietnam. Thieu has of late also criticized the draft as permitting two governments to exist side by side, which he has termed inadmissible (failing to mention the establishment of one government through elections). Thieu has had to back away from the position that, with its overwhelming resources, military and political, the GVN could not handle the NVA/VC troops. The figure Thieu has used of 300,000 NVA troops in South Viet-Nam is greatly exaggerated, the actual number being in the neighborhood of 200,000 (JGS figures in November agreed closely with MACV but have been gradually increased to 300,000).
Thieu: influences, motivations, maneuvers.
He has been playing for time. Thieu’s preference would be to continue the fighting. He has privately expressed the view that it would be better for South Viet-Nam if the fighting continued even into 1975 in line with his frequently expressed opinion that the war would eventually fade away. The two months that he has so far gained have been important to him; although better use of the time could have been made, RVNAF has continued to inflict losses on the enemy and to regain territory.
Thieu believed, or initially persuaded himself, that Dr. Kissinger did not really represent the President’s views—“candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize”. Some harsh criticism of Dr. Kissinger was carried in the Viet-Nam press and on the radio but has been muted following our strong objections.
Thieu did not fully understand the American system, especially the role of Congress. He thought that in view of the President’s great electoral majority he could and would continue support for the GVN.
He believed that the President could not withdraw support without indicating that our sacrifices of lives and money had been in vain; that withdrawal of support would diminish U.S. influence in Asia and throughout the world and would call into question the reliability of our commitments under the Nixon Doctrine.
Thieu may have believed that he could repeat his performance of 1968 when he defied us and got away with it.
Thieu probably genuinely fears his ability to command widespread support in a political confrontation with the Communists despite the GVN’s overwhelming resources. This is due to his failure to give adequate attention to developing political support, especially to making overtures to the opposition. (I have been urging this on him during the five years he has been in office.) This is due in part to his distrust of politicians, in part to his suspicious nature. He has few close friends and confidantes, and plays his cards close to his chest. It is also due to the Mandarin structure of the society in which approaches must [Page 729] be made to the top man, not by him. Also as a military man, Thieu has put major emphasis on military and pacification programs and has neglected the development of political support. He may also realize that his image is impaired by the pervasive corruption which has spread to all levels of the society and to which he has paid little attention other than to issue decrees which have been rarely implemented.
There is finally the 10 foot tall syndrome. Many Vietnamese look upon the superior motivation of the Communists as something with which they cannot contend successfully. Rakudi!3
Thieu’s probable future course:
I believe Thieu will continue to play for time. He believes delaying in coming to an agreement will work in his favor and will, therefore, continue to request modifications, even on non-substantive points.
He will try to propose alternatives to the agreement, as in his National Assembly speech,4 which appear plausible, which he hopes would permit him to avoid signing the agreement, but assure continued U.S. support. He will agree to U.S. disengagement, to negotiate with the DRV and NLF on Vietnamese matters and undertake to fight on alone, but will take the position that the Nixon Doctrine obligates us to provide military and economic support.

There is evidence, however, that Thieu is beginning to come to grips with realities and to realize that he may have painted himself into a corner. The alternatives he proposes, such as U.S. disengagement and the proposal to settle other problems with Hanoi and the NLF, can be seen as efforts to extricate himself from this position.

In his briefing of the Cabinet and members of the Senate and Lower House after his December 12 speech, Thieu said that there were two alternatives available at present:

To sign the agreement as presently constituted, which would be deliberately willing death.
Not to sign the agreement and accept slow suffocation as a result of a cut-off of U.S. military and economic support. He indicated that the second alternative had been his choice and that he would not sign.

Evidence, however, is accumulating that Thieu, true to his nature, is playing one card at a time and close to his chest.
  • —His address to the National Assembly was a move to involve the Assembly in sharing responsibility in the decision to sign or not to sign.
  • —On December 13, Thieu told Vice President Huong that he is greatly concerned about the extent of a cut in U.S. military and economic aid by Congress should he not sign the cease-fire agreement. Thieu said that even if he does not agree to sign the GVN will abide by the conditions stipulated in the cease-fire agreement. The Vice President emphasized that Thieu is definitely aware of the disastrous effect on the GVN if U.S. aid is cut. The Vice President added, however, that Thieu is of the opinion that the U.S. will not risk the consequences that will result from immediate and complete disengagement and will not wish to see South Viet-Nam fall to the Communists as a result of its action in cutting off aid.
Thieu is continuing to make practical—military and political—preparations throughout the country for a cease-fire. He has also been busy building up support for his position through popular demonstrations (instigated by the GVN) and through various means preparing the people for a cease-fire and a political contest, thus indicating that he may believe both are inevitable. Thieu probably has more support now than at any time since 1968, in part because many people, including much of the opposition, do not see a satisfactory alternative.
On the other hand, there are many influential elements who believe Thieu has been following a dangerous course, who feel that the draft agreement reflects the realities of the situation existing and likely to continue to exist in South Viet-Nam, and should be accepted. These include Prime Minister Khiem, Minister of Economy Ngoc, Tran Quoc Buu, Head of the CVT and the Farmer Worker Party, leaders of the Progressive Nationalist Movement, the RDV, and a number of Senators and Representatives. Most Vietnamese interviewed by Embassy officers in recent weeks regard eventual acceptance by the GVN as inevitable. While there is uneasiness over lack of specific provisions for withdrawal of the NVA the consensus is that it is unlikely that Hanoi would agree to a formal commitment—and even if it did it could circumvent the agreement if it desired to.
Most Vietnamese accept the fact that U.S. support is essential and there are almost no indications that any influential Vietnamese feels that Thieu should push his opposition to the point that U.S. aid might be put in question. General Truong and many of the division commanders have expressed the view that after nine months of continuous fighting the troops are tired and need a cease-fire. Some general officers have expressed the view that if Thieu’s refusal to sign the agreement resulted in a cut-off of U.S. aid, the military would insist on his resignation; others have said he would not be so impractical as to do so. In fact there is danger that the troops would lose the will to fight were the war to go on without U.S. support. Tran Quoc Buu has said that the workers [Page 731] and peasants of Viet-Nam want peace and there is little question that this is true of the vast majority of the population.
Thieu’s alternatives: In view of the above developments, Thieu seems to be preparing for one of several alternatives:
To sign the agreement by insisting that the National Assembly share the responsibility.
To sign the agreement, adding a demurrer indicating that the GVN does not accept the principle that NVN troops have the right to remain in South Viet-Nam, that the NCRC has any governmental functions, or that Viet-Nam is one in the absence of agreement between the two sides.
To refuse to sign, but to agree to abide by the conditions stipulated in the agreement.
To refuse to sign, asserting that the GVN will fight on alone, but appealing for continued U.S. military and economic assistance.
To resign together with the Vice President permitting the President of the Senate to sign and leaving direction of the government to the Prime Minister. Thieu might plan to be a candidate in a new election.
My view is that Thieu will follow the course that will ensure continued U.S. support and will do whatever is necessary to secure it; in fact, I think that if it comes to a showdown, he will be forced to do so, for I do not believe that in the last analysis the armed forces will agree to a policy which would force a cut-off of aid. But I think it is essential that Thieu be made to understand clearly what our limits are. Otherwise, he will continue to procrastinate and temporize. He must be disabused of the idea that we fear that our cutting off aid would diminish our posture in the world or call into question the Nixon Doctrine; certainly the sacrifices of 50,000 lives and the expenditure of $125 billion is more than any country, no matter how powerful, could reasonably be expected to do in aiding another nation. He must be made to understand also, once and for all, that Dr. Kissinger represents the President’s views; that under our Constitution the President is responsible for the conduct of foreign policy and that Dr. Kissinger acts as the President’s agent and with his full support. He must be made to understand that with the huge addition of weapons and matériels we have supplied, we consider our obligations under Vietnamization to have been fulfilled and that we have given South Viet-Nam the means to protect itself; we cannot accept the argument that with the overwhelming resources at its disposal the South Vietnamese cannot handle a relatively small number of NVA troops in South Viet-Nam or that the great preponderance of nationalists cannot compete successfully in the political contest with the NLF provided they have the will. This only the Vietnamese can supply. The many safeguards written into the agreement, such as [Page 732] concurrent demobilization of forces, the withdrawal of foreign troops from Laos and Cambodia, the prohibition against their return, international supervision and guarantees, the veto and the principle of unanimity are adequate safeguards. Thieu has not explained these safeguards in either his speeches or briefings and it is therefore fair to say that there is not here a full understanding of the agreement.
In view of the uncompromising posture Thieu has assumed, I think he will need considerable assistance to make it possible for him to sign and still survive. Once he agrees privately with us to sign the agreement, the suggested visit of Vice President could be helpful as mentioned in Saigon 0294.5
Thieu will probably continue to play his old game of waiting until the last minute to decide which way to jump—but, as he has always done, he will opt for survival.
Warm regards.
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 413, Backchannel Messages, From Amb. Bunker, Saigon, Sept. thru Dec. 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only.
  2. See Document 59.
  3. Rakudi is the name of a head ornament worn by female performers in classical Indian dance.
  4. Of December 12; see Document 160.
  5. See footnote 4, Document 159.