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

702. 1. As I reported hurriedly on Friday,2 when I saw Thieu he was very unhappy about the personnel drawdown. I think I talked him out of it and even got him to agree to facilitate the waivers from the overall travel ban to permit expeditious handling of the Vietnamese dependents of the DAO Americans who were leaving. He said the drawdown was beginning to be noticed throughout the country and could contribute to a sense of hopelessness, and even of panic. I said that we had taken every precaution to avoid that. He agreed that this was so. I said, however, if I did not rapidly proceed to strip the Mission down to an essential number, pressure could build from relatives in the United States on the Congress that would be harmful to GVN interests. I hoped, therefore, that he would agree that the course I had decided upon was the wisest one to follow in the interests of both our countries, especially since I expected that we would be withdrawing our personnel from Phnom Penh any moment. He asked whether there would be any announcement. I said there would be none from here, and I hoped there would be none from Washington. He thinks the decision is mine, and in the protection of the President and you I let him think so. I do hope there will be no announcement in Washington despite the pressure of the Church and Mansfield comments.

2. I gave him a copy of the portion of the President’s address that related to Indochina. I noted the great courage of the President in endorsing every penny of the amount recommended by General Weyand. [Page 809] I said that I was certain that a total effort would be mounted to get the appropriation through, but it would be a very tough fight. He asked if you were going to testify for the bill. I said that you had promised me that you would and pointed to the eloquence of your remarks in the press conference at Palm Springs.3 He asked why the stress on evacuation in the President’s speech and the request for legislation permitting introduction of force. I said that I really did not know, since I thought no legislation was necessary to introduce force to protect evacuation of Americans. I thought it might perhaps be intended to slow down Communist pressure on Saigon to give GVN forces a breather to regroup and reform. He did not reply.

3. I also gave him a copy of the note we had delivered to the parties to the Paris Agreements.4 He noted that we had not called for a meeting of the signatories. I said we would not have done so without prior consultation with him, but wondered what he thought could be accomplished just now by having such a meeting when the GVN was at its weakest ebb ever. If he thought such a meeting useful, I would immediately report this to Washington. He said perhaps after the military situation stabilized a bit, it might be considered, but only after the US had sought and received firm commitments from the Soviets and Chinese about the outcome.

4. I asked what outcome he had in mind. I had heard many comments from many levels of Vietnam society that settling for a free Cochin China would be desirable, perhaps a line from Nha Trang to Tay Ninh would be desirable now and much more defensible. It was obvious, I said that no matter what he said for public consumption, there was no chance for him to take back all that had been lost in the past month. What would he realistically settle for? Thieu replied that if a line could be drawn through Nha Trang to Ban Me Thuot and then to Tay Ninh, it would be a defensible line and a viable country, economically. I said that it would be hard to find many who would now agree that taking back Ban Me Thuot in the near future was a very realistic proposal. He agreed but said that should be the goal of any negotiation. In the meantime, it was necessary to fight very hard to arrest the momentum, actual and psychological of the NVA advance. He thought the first crucial battle would come at Xuan Loc, where the enemy would make a vast effort to clear the way to Bien Hoa. Yes, he [Page 810] said, he thought General Toan would hold. Not only hold, but administer a crushing blow. Toan intended not only to defend but to use every effort to crush the forces attacking. Man-for-man, he said, the GVN was superior to the NVA forces, and if they could get them to attack en masse Toan would slaughter many of them. (As of tonight, this seems to be happening). They were all well aware, he said, that a considerable victory was necessary to prove to doubting Americans that the “will to fight” still existed unimpaired in the RVNAF. He very much wished that President Ford had not put such a short time fuse for congressional action. He hoped that if the necessary votes did not seem available by the 19th, some way be found to delay for another week the decisive vote. He also hoped that some way could be found, if Toan did as well as he thought he would, that his victories could receive some public attention in the United States. I said I was sure that Washington would help as much as it could to get the true story of what was happening before the American people and the Congress. Thieu said that more that 50,000 of the RVNAF complement had now made its way back to GVN lines and were being reformed as rapidly as possible. (Our latest estimate is that this figure is correct).

5. I asked Thieu how he assessed the morale in the armed forces. I said that, speaking quite frankly and honestly, I had heard much grumbling. Thieu said this was true, but he felt he had the loyalty of Toan, Nam (his III and IV Corps Commanders), General Vien and the most important of the senior officers. I said that, again if he would permit me to be as honest as I could be, that I did not think his support was all that monolithic. For example, I had heard complaint that the true chain of command ran not through him to Minister of Defense, the JGS, and then to the Corps Commanders, but directly from him through his assistant, General Quang, to the Corps Commanders. Thieu denied this. I said that whether it was true or not, the fact that it was believed to be true was unsettling. I reminded him that General Weyand had suggested that a clear delegation to General Vien, as Chairman of the JGS, to run the war would be helpful. I said that perhaps I might venture as a non-military man to make an additional suggestion, that it would be helpful that this be done in some way that might receive public notice. I said that the bombing attack on the Palace apparently was an isolated incident as claimed,5 but one could not be sure of that. I said that as he well knew I had meticulously refrained from any interference in internal affairs, but a coup attempt at this moment would be disastrous for Vietnam. I would be sorry for that but my main concern would be the danger to the Americans in my charge that would arise from the chaos that almost certainly would ensue. I assumed the delegation recommended [Page 811] by General Weyand made sound military sense, and I thought some way to make it public would make sound political sense. President Thieu said he had, in fact, made such a delegation and he would think about my suggestion about making it public.

6. I asked how Can was coming in trying to form a new Cabinet. Thieu said very well. Only a few decisions remained to be made. I asked whether he intended to give him a free hand in running the government. Thieu said he was. I asked whether, again, he intended to make this intention public, which might allay much of the criticism that he had never allowed General Khiem as Prime Minister to have a free hand. Thieu said Khiem had as much of a free hand as he had the courage to take, but he was always sending things over to him to decide. I said one way to cure that might be to send them back to him without decision but with firm instructions to decide himself, and soon. I said that if he did that with the new Prime Minister, he might get the idea that the President meant it.

7. I asked when the new government would be announced. The President said very soon. Normally, the Cabinet presented itself first and then several days later presented its program for the nation. This time, the Cabinet would present itself and its program for the nation at the same time. I said I hoped its program would strike as conciliatory a note as would be possible under the circumstances. I thought it would be vitally important for the program to enlist as broad a popular support as could possibly be achieved. I also hoped it could contain specific and quite clear indications of its willingness to negotiate with the other side. I said we both saw the same intelligence about their real intentions but it was imperative that the world have no doubt about the willingness of the new government to negotiate seriously. Perhaps then there would be a chance that public opinion and international diplomatic pressure could be brought to bear on the other side to lessen the momentum of their military attack, which was essential if for no other reason than to gain time. Actually, I thought the time had come to seriously consider a different set of negotiating objectives than those to which the GVN had previously adhered. Whatever was done, I said, should be done soon.

8. I asked Thieu when he was next going to speak to the nation. He said very soon, perhaps when the new government presented its program to him. I said I hoped very much that his speech could also be conciliatory, internally, to the other side, and perhaps even to the Americans. I said that in making the last suggestion I was in no way excusing what the Congress appeared to be on the verge of doing. My suggestion was based on my conviction that a slashing attack would only harden the positions of the opponents in the Congress. Words in sorrow but not in anger might stir a sense of shame and compassion. I said he might wish to say that President Ford spoke as one would expect the [Page 812] leader of a great nation to speak, that the Vietnamese people warmly welcome his understanding words about Vietnam, that the Vietnamese people deeply hope that the Congress will respond as the representatives of the people of a great nation should respond now that the naked aggression of Hanoi can no longer be concealed by the flood of propaganda and distortion that has so long obscured the actual realities of Vietnam and that they will give us the means we need and were promised for our self defense. If they do not, we will be in great danger. Either way, I call on the Vietnamese armed forces to fight for the defense of their country with renewed valor and courage. If the Americans help us, we are sure to preserve our freedom. If they do not, we have no choice but to continue to fight—taking our weapons from the generous supplies given our enemies by their more constant and faithful allies. If the Americans do not help us, we should not feel anger. We should remember their help in the past. We should feel sorrow because a great nation that breaks its promises will in the end pay a far greater price than we will be called on to pay. He might wish to say, I told him, that after so many years of war, the people of South Vietnam yearn for peace, that on last November 21 you said that the Republic of Vietnam was willing to discuss, and implement without delay, the political solution called for in the Paris Agreement—including the setting up of the National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord.6 The Republic of Vietnam has not changed its position. It still asks the other side to implement the political parts of the Paris Agreement. But so long as the North Vietnamese Army continues its naked agression against South Vietnam, there is no choice but to fight for survival. I suggested he might wish to emphasize an appeal to all South Vietnamese of all political groups and of all religions to set aside their individual differences in this time of supreme danger to the nation and unite behind the new Government of National Union being formed by Prime Minister Can. The President made notes. Whether he will be talked out of using these points by his speech writers remains to be seen.

9. I warned the President, as I had when I saw him on the occasion of General Weyand’s last call, that time was running out. While morale was better, and the state of shock was beginning to wear off, there was a need for a far greater degree of leadership in Saigon than we had had recently. Perhaps the new Can government might improve things, but even with the obvious willingness of many of the opposition to subdue their blind intransigence and the fact that many would join either the government or the Advisory Council in their realization of acute danger, [Page 813] they had to be met halfway. Above all, there had to be not only a willingness, but some obvious progress toward negotiation. He replied that he hoped the presentation of the Can Cabinet would provide the opportunity to set many of the things I had mentioned in motion.

10. I said I understood the French Ambassador wanted to see him. He said he had refused in his anger at Giscard’s intervention which was unforgivable.7 He had instructed him to be called in by acting Foreign Minister to receive GVN complaint. I said that, nevertheless, I thought he should receive Merillon. After all, he had expressed his displeasure by refusing to see him, sending him instead to Foreign Ministry. Now that he had been properly rebuked it would be quite proper to see him without loss of face. I left, expressing the hope that General Toan’s efforts would be every bit as successful as he hoped and that, if so, we would try to see what we could do in Washington to see that the true facts were made available to the Congress and the public.

11. I pressed Thieu to see Jean-Marie Merrilon, because it was obvious he is carrying some kind of negotiating offer from the other side which he will present only to Thieu. I don’t know what it is, and have had nothing from Washington or Paris about it. But whatever it is, good, bad, or indifferent, it might serve to get some movement, and any movement toward a negotiating track at this time seems to me to be useful. If we have anything going with anyone at all that would be useful to know also.

12. My pressure I put on Thieu for the “not with anger but with sorrow” approach to possibility of congressional rejection of additional military aid had obvious dual objective. First, it is true and just might influence some in Congress. Second, if he uses it, it just might lessen the anti-American antagonisms that might otherwise get sticky. If General Toan continues to be so successful at Xuan Loc, the NVA will smash somewhere else, but it will be a definite setback for them and I hope we can do everything we possibly can to get a recognition that the “will to fight” is still here. I still don’t think they will make a direct assault on Saigon, but I damn well want to be fully prepared for it.

13. Sorry to be late with this report, but Brent Scowcroft keeps delaying in sending me the day stretcher he promised. Guess he needs all he has to keep working with you. It’s two in the morning here. I’m going to bed.

14. Warm regards.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Backchannel Messages, Box 3, Martin Channel, Incoming, April 1975 (1). Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only; Immediate. Sent with the instruction: “Deliver immediately.”
  2. April 11.
  3. See footnote 6, Document 209.
  4. The United States sent a diplomatic note on the situation in Vietnam to U.S. posts in Hungary, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, France, Poland, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, and Iran and to USUN, to be delivered just prior to the President’s speech on April 10. The note asked the governments to join the United States in calling upon North Vietnam to halt the fighting and honor the Paris Agreement. (Telegram 82184, April 10; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files)
  5. See footnote 2, Document 212.
  6. Thieu’s November 21, 1974, address to the Asian People’s Anti-Communist League in Saigon called on the North Vietnamese to resume the negotiations called for in the Paris Agreement. (Telegram 14540 from Saigon, November 21, 1974; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files)
  7. The Embassy reported that it had learned that a French Foreign Ministry official had met separately with the DRV Ambassador in Paris and the PRG representative to urge them to negotiate with the South Vietnamese Government. Both indicated they would negotiate with anyone in Saigon but Thieu. (Telegram 4614 from Saigon, April 9; ibid.)