233. Backchannel Message From the Ambassador to Vietnam (Martin) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
705. 1. I reported to you Thieu’s comment that if it were absolutely clear that the request for military aid ($722 million supplemental) was to be defeated, it would be highly preferable to find some way to delay the final vote.2 Although he did not say so, it seems clear that he, as well as everyone else, is unsure of what comes next. So far, General Toan in MR III is doing a job all the experts thought absolutely impossible. He has inflicted well over 2000 casualties (KIA) in pushing back the elements of three NVA divisions from Xuan Loc. The total count now of the regular forces retrieved from MR I and MR II is climbing toward 60,000, over a quarter of the regular force, and they are either being fed into existing divisions or being reformed at a rate also deemed impossible by the experts. Many of the NVA troops killed and some captured are in their midteens, one yesterday said “he thought” he was 14. There is, therefore, a rough equivalancy in numbers, and the qualitative decrease in fighting efficiency of the RVN troops as they are being reformed is offset in part, at least, by the inexperience and youth on the other side. There are, of course, more NVA divisions on the way south. Toan, however, can now mass to hit the enemy, an ability he relishes and has rarely had before. Below Saigon the NVA 5th is also getting mauled at both ends. So the forces that were programmed for attack on Saigon are not in as good shape as they were when the ambitious plans now showing up in our intelligence were made.
2. I am deliberately leaning over backward to keep myself a dispassionate observer viewing Vietnam as from a seat on the moon. I do not for one moment underestimate the situation’s seriousness. If there is an adverse vote from Washington this weekend, I do not think that the RVNAF will necessarily fold. It will not be all that pleasant, however, to be an American in Saigon until the shock wears off. The juxtaposition of Eagle Pull to the crucial vote, the Gayler remarks about how perfect it was and how he could do it again in Saigon if necessary, the leaks in Washington, the remarks by Javits and Muskie on “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press” that the President has authority to use small number of marines to evacuate Americans, but would need congressional authority before “troops could evacuate 200,000 Vietnamese [Page 824] the administration fears would be punished by the Viet Cong for cooperating with the United States,” and Muskie’s echo that he “can see some difficulties with respect to evacuating South Vietnamese on any massive scale” are not precisely calculated to make my job of getting us out of here any easier. I am not sure that Javits’s remarks were not, in one way, a blessing in disguise. It may prevent us from ending up in a very ghastly way, with the Marines overwhelmed by an RVNAF so angered at our final desertion and the NVAF shooting down our transports. I hope, therefore, you keep clearly in mind, that the decision whether force would be finally required, is a very delicate one, and one which above all should not be made by the military.
3. There is one contingency, however, where I would want it. If there began to be a breakdown of internal order in Saigon before the bulk of the Americans were out, I will ask for it quickly. There are many reasons why this will be unlikely, not the least of which would be the desire of our pal Le Duc Tho to be invited into Saigon. If the Congress vote is negative in the end, there is still no need for immediate panic. In an Asian way, there will at last occur a situation which has not existed since my arrival, either the Generals or the Colonels will finally screw up enough cohesion and courage to point out to Thieu that the “mandate of heaven” has been removed. My remarks on this score in the recent issue of Time were carefully phrased. They have already been correctly interpreted here that our support has always been for the government, never the man, for legitimacy of transfer of power, rather than chaos if they are to have any hope of retaining enough internal cohesion to gain enough time for even a time-gaining negotiation with the other side. It is my sense that Thieu understands this also, and the attacks that will be made upon me in the American press as a devoted supporter of Thieu as the inevitable distortions occur in the press handling of the remarks will, in fact, ease his departure, since at the end we did not knife him in the back, which would have been equally resented by the Vietnamese who detest Thieu and other Asian leaders like our friend Lee Kwan Yew, whose remarks from Wellington give clear indication of the universal Asian reaction.
4. So, the press attacks will serve a useful purpose as I have often managed for them to do. The relatively few people about whose opinions I really care will not change their opinion of me. Even the sly, anonymous insertions of the perfumed icepick into the kidneys in the form of the quotes from my colleagues in the Department are only a peculiar form of acupuncture indigenous to Foggy Bottom against which I was immunized long ago. There are only two important considerations I keep in mind, the safety of the people under my charge and the integrity of U.S. policy.
5. Both these crucial objectives, especially the first, seem to me to demand that we not be diverted by any kind of pressure, press or congressional, [Page 825] from coolly pursuing a course best designed to achieve them. This brings me back to the realities of the present situation. If there is to be a negative vote, then a delay of at least a week would be beneficial. Indeed, my surmise was that you were telling me between the lines that it was the sense of the meeting of the President and the Foreign Relations Committee3 that the vote would be negative. I have always assumed it would be, since we are just not that well organized to do the individual buttonholing on the Hill which would be essential to reverse the weight of the conventional wisdom about Vietnam which has been allowed to accumulate without any effective counter from the Department. And too many of your senior colleagues are simply not with you on the policy and this is well known on the Hill. I say this not in anger but merely as the dispassionate recording of an observed fact which has to be taken into account.
6. If the vote is to be negative, a little more time would be useful. I do not concede that it has to be negative, but that without an all-out effort, it will be. A very good case can be made for the President’s program, but not unless the fight for it is an all-out one, and enough time elapses for it to be recognized that the “will to fight” is still there, and that, on the economic side, an extraordinarily persuasive case can be made that what is left of the former South Vietnam is more economically viable than before. Last night, the GVN Minister of Planning Hung came to see me with a message from the President again urging delay with assurance of a favorable vote. Hung then advanced an ingenious plan. Instead of the “three year-Vietnam-end of commitment program” consisting of six to six and one-half billion dollars of grant aid over a three year period, why not have an amendment offered as a substitute for the pending legislation authorizing a five billion loan—with a five or, preferably, ten year grace period, at three percent interest to be paid back over a 20–30 year period. If this were just an unworkable, unsound gimmick, I would not even report it, but Denny Ellerman, whom I stole from Brent Scowcroft as Economic Minister here, studied it today and concluded it was economically sound and perfectly feasible. The GVN could then buy its arms, make its own decisions as to how it divided between military and economic aid. With a ten year grace period, the repayments would be $350 million a year, perfectly manageable from rice exports alone, let alone the ocean of oil which is surely there offshore. Before it is nitpicked to death by State and AID, please have Chuck Cooper and Bill Sharpe go over it in Treasury since as a loan they would have primary responsibility for judging its economic soundness and since both know Vietnam intimately. Even if it doesn’t pass, it would help to buy the time we so sorely need just now. And I never give up hope that the Congress, when it has the whole truth before it, will make the sensible decision.[Page 826]
7. Politically, things have simmered down for a brief bit. The Ky flyer has taken a nosedive when it dawned on Lam and others that he could no more negotiate with the other side than Thieu and perhaps not as well. The great difficulty for the past two years has been that all those who talk so glibly about dumping Thieu have never been able to assemble enough power either on the political front or the military backing to provide a viable alternative. He has consistently outsmarted and out maneuvered his opposition. Now, however, his time has about run out. He cannot get away from the responsibility of the rout the withdrawal turned into. My guess is that he would welcome a graceful way out. I am certain he will not run again in September, even if things become stabilized. That, in fact, is the quickest way to get rid of him. If either the present bill is passed, or the loan was authorized, I believe he would step aside even earlier than the end of his term. If neither happens, and Vietnam is totally abandoned, then he will be replaced quickly, but with consequences no one can clearly forsee. Except for a few of the wild-eyed opposition like Senator Mau, I know of no responsible Vietnamese who feels very comfortable about bringing Thieu down by extra-constitutional means. They are simply afraid that chaos would ensue with a rapid Hanoi victory which no one wants and of which everyone is deathly afraid. So I expect no serious action to overthrow him until after the Congress acts, unless there is an, to me, unexpected breakthrough by NVA military forces.
8. Admiral Benton has completed initial Talon Vise4 planning update in USSAG today and will present plan to me tomorrow. He is confident that, if called on to do so, he could by combination of sea and airlift, remove more than 200,000 in one day. I feel deeply that we owe a debt to those who are now directly on our payroll and to their families to get out of here those who may wish to leave in fear of their lives. I will report to you again after he reports his conclusions to me tomorrow. Not long after I returned, our local employees were on the verge of panic which would have been decidedly unuseful. I promised them that we would take out those who desired to go and their immediate families and that I would not leave until they did. I mean to get all the Americans out if you can control the panic button in Washington, and I intend to discharge that obligation to our locals. It is not an act of particular bravery on my part. I will simply slip through the wall next door to the French Embassy and ask my colleague if I can use the bedroom of his wife, wishing all the while that she were there and not in Paris. Not to take them would be one last act of betrayal that would strip us of the last vestige of honor. If we can absorb so successfully [Page 827] all those Cubans, we can certainly absorb this hardworking group who would rapidly become self-sustaining and contribute to the strength of our country. I hope we can quickly confirm this simple and inevitable decision that as many of this group as desire to leave will be paroled into the US.5
9. Warm regards.
- Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Backchannel Messages, Box 3, Martin Channel, Incoming, April 1975 (1). Secret; Sensitive; Immediate.↩
- See Document 230.↩
- See Document 232.↩
- The plan for the evacuation of Saigon was codenamed Talon Vise. It was changed to Operation Frequent Wind when the name was compromised.↩
- In backchannel message WH50679 to Saigon, April 15, Kissinger replied to Martin: “With regard to this evacuation business, I know what you are going through and I agree with your philosophy on it. However, you also must appreciate what the problems are back here. The President met today with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was apparent from that meeting that their full concern is with evacuation of Americans and that the Senate wants to make sure that it’s the President who gets stuck in the event any American gets hurt or killed. In light of the situation we are facing here, I simply must have by close of business Washington time on Tuesday, a detailed plan for reduction in as expeditious manner as feasible to 1500. I appreciate the long report of your conversation with Thieu.” (Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Backchannel Messages, Box 3, Martin Channel, Outgoing, April 1975, 1)↩