239. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State 1

5271. Subject: Viet-Nam Evacuation. Ref: State 088999.2

We are glad to note that the interagency meeting yesterday was a sober one. It should have been, but it is necessary to avoid the tendency of always assuming the “worst case” which will lead to decisions which may endanger the situation here. We also assume the “worst case” and plan for it, but to make decision in Washington on automatic assumption of “worst case” can automatically bring it about.
With the lift available, we will reduce American community here to 2,000 by Tuesday.3 In doing so, we will cut some corners on procedures. There will be some cases where we will send out some [Page 842] undocumented aliens, some of whom have been requested by senior Washington principals, and others we deem it necessary to include in order to keep the flow of Americans going unimpeded. It would be useful not to have to take time to answer too many cables of explanation. Although the MSC ships are useful as a reserve, the use of airlift better suits our purposes, as long as it is available.
We have had good cooperation from the GVN in cutting the procedures for departure of Vietnamese dependents of Americans to absolute minimum. To ignore this wholly could trigger reaction which would impede and might stop the rate of flow we are now reaching. We are, however, sliding around the requirement for GVN documentation in many cases to speed up the departure flow.
We have noted the comments about “the President’s determination to fulfill his obligations for the safety of Americans as well for the protection of Vietnamese who have been associated with us.” As explained in para 3 in Saigon’s 51114 we do not believe it feasible to try to assume responsibility to lift all the Vietnamese to whom the President refers directly from Saigon. We will instruct our own local employees to make their way to designated spots on the coast where they may be evacuated. Many may not make it, but we do owe those who do the chance to escape. We have been told by our American press that their principals have been informed in Washington that “after the fall of South Viet-Nam, we will negotiate for the release and safe exit of Vietnamese nationals who have worked for the Americans.” This caused several hours of excruciating “damage control” operations this morning to keep this story from breaking. If it had, the local repercussions would have been worse than Danang. Since you had already assured media their local employees in Saigon would be evacuated, we have arranged for the very quiet exfiltration of some of the media local employees and can get them all out. Another mistake like this in Washington could be enormously costly to us here. Perhaps such questions should be referred to us here.
Regardless of the time Congress may take on whatever consultation is necessary for the admission of our own Vietnamese employees, we will continue to advise them to try to get to designated points on the coast, where they will be picked up. Therefore, it is suggested that it would be useful for Washington to cease being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and leave the planning to CINCPAC. Judging from the performance of Admiral Benton, there can be no question about the capacity of CINCPAC to do this. And there is no question of the Executive branch’s ability to arrange their quick absorption into the [Page 843] U.S. and other countries. John Thomas, present Director of ICEM in Geneva could, as he did as Director of Cuban Refugee Program, work out domestic arrangements in U.S. in very short time. If we fail to do this, the “racist” overtones of such a decision would enormously decrease what influence we might ever expect to have in Asia again.
With regard to your paragraph 4,5 I am assured the answer to both questions is affirmative. What is not so certain is how many of our local employees can get there. I again suggest we cease being paralyzed by the order-of-magnitude of the problem, leaving it in the most capable hands of CINCPAC to handle the evacuation of such of those Vietnamese to whom we are committed that are able to get there. I cannot recommend that we try to introduce enough American forces to permit their evacuation from Saigon.
There is nothing Thieu can do which would not be immediately known and thereby run the horrible risk of setting off the hysteria we must avoid at all costs for as long as possible. The questions you raise—identification, assembly, transport—are ones on which Washington consideration will be fruitless. The only questions we can really handle—in Washington or in Saigon—is that of identification and that we can handle here. When we get to that point all but a very few Americans will have left. Who must be gotten out first. Transport must be the problem of our locals to the coast. We will have secure area of embarkation and there we are confident CINCPAC can cope. General Smith has personally visited Vung Tau today at my request.
We have noted the statement that “we must face the true situation and begin to decide upon the choices available to us.” We have done that here, but we are not so sure about Washington. Part of facing the true situation is that there is nothing Thieu can do to help us in this particular problem. He cannot possibly broaden the categories of Vietnamese citizens excepted from the Vietnamese travel ban without triggering the panic we should be all striving to avoid. Even any attempt on his part to help us would prejudice the decisions of the Vietnamese who will actually effect this operation. I am not sure that any Vietnamese could be convinced just now “that we do not wish to proceed in a spirit of panic” as he reads the headlines out of Washington.
The one simple action that might be useful is to avoid a repetition of this morning’s action when instructions were attempted to be given by a Washington agency to the head of a Mission element from his agency. In this case, we were already doing under my authority part [Page 844] of what was suggested. And the other point was not practical at the moment. Fortunately, we are a close knit family here and these end-runs will not work. But constant attempts could cause chaos if they continue.
I know very well that witnesses before congressional committees cannot be protected from a member who wishes instant TV coverage, but I cannot emphasize too emphatically that constant comment on evacuation in Washington is most unhelpful here, as is the understandable temptation to delve into detail which can best be handled here. I hope you can influence your colleagues to keep both these points very much in mind over the next ten days when coolness will be absolutely essential.
I am well aware of both domestic and congressional concerns, and I will keep them very much in mind, but my overriding concern is the safety of the Americans for whom I have the responsibility to the President.
I have set a target of 1,700 Americans remaining here by COB Tuesday, April 22nd, Washington time. While there may be some slight slippage on that goal, we should be under the 2,000 figure set in your cable. I would hope to reduce that considerably further in the following days.
  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for East Asia and the Pacific, Box 21, Vietnam, State Department Telegrams, To SECSTATE, Nodis (4). Secret; Niact; Immediate; Nodis.
  2. In telegram 88999 to Saigon, April 18, Kissinger urged Martin to accelerate the evacuation of Americans from Vietnam. (Ibid., From SECSTATE, Nodis, 3) See also footnote 3, Document 238.
  3. April 22.
  4. Dated April 16; Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for East Asia and the Pacific, Box 21, Vietnam, State Department Telegrams, To SECSTATE, Nodis (4).
  5. In paragraph 4, telegram 88999 to Saigon, April 18, Kissinger wrote: “I would appreciate more details of what you have in mind for evacuation of Vietnamese. Is it realistic to believe that Vung Tau can be used for mass evacuation? Do you believe that certain South Vietnamese forces could be counted on to help secure evacuation zones for mass evacuations?”