1961-1963, Volume III, Vietnam, January-August 1963|
Released by the Office of the Historian
226. Memorandum of Conversation/1/
226. Memorandum of Conversation/1/
Saigon, July 17, 1963.
/1/Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, 7/1/ 63-7/20/63. Secret. Drafted by Wright. The source text bears the incorrect date June 17. Manning was sent to Vietnam by President Kennedy to investigate and report on the type of problems relating to American journalists which had led to the telegram sent to the President by a group of journalists on July 7, Document 211.
Mr. Manning expressed his appreciation for this chance to talk with Mr. Nhu and said he had wanted for some time to come to Southeast Asia, an area he had never visited. Mr. Manning said that he was responsible in the Department of State for dealing with matters bearing upon public and political opinion, and hoped to be able to return to Washington with more complete information and a better understanding of this area of US/Vietnamese relations.
Mr. Nhu said he was very glad to see Mr. Manning, particularly because the area of Mr. Manning's responsibility, public and political opinion, is the area in which the Government of Vietnam is weakest. Mr. Nhu said that Vietnam is a very underdeveloped country insofar as public relations are concerned and in its sensitivity to U.S. and world public opinion. Mr. Nhu said the two fields in which GVN development was most laggard were: 1) the collection and use of security intelligence; 2) dealing with public opinion and public relations.
Mr. Manning said that as a former journalist and a political appointee of the Kennedy Administration, he was deeply interested in the practical aspects of government public relations work. Sometimes the practical solution to Government public opinion problems lies in simplicity, rather than a massive and formal government public relations program.
Mr. Nhu agreed but said that there were certain principles which are traditional and which have not been respected and which must be observed.
Mr. Manning said that there are two kinds of principles, both very important. The first has to do with reporting itself, and is the justification for the resentment which the victims feel when they are subjected to unfair and unobjective reporting. Secondly, there is also the important operating principle for the United States in the kind of involvement in which it finds itself in Vietnam. The realities of American politics make it essential that there be some kind of scrutiny in reporting of U.S. involvement. The American political system is such that U.S. Government involvement in a situation such as obtains in Vietnam requires, as air requires oxygen, that U.S. correspondents be present to observe and to formulate and transmit reports back to the American people.
Mr. Nhu said that in theory he agreed with Mr. Manning and he thought it would all work well if we could cap our efforts with success, but, Mr. Nhu asked, is it possible to reach success if the U.S. correspondents do not stick to the principles of fair and objective reporting? Mr. Nhu said that the GVN feeling of irritability at the American correspondents was due not so much to unjustified as to unfair reporting. He understood how the American reporters had arrived at their views and even recognized that there is some justification for their point of view, for the following three reasons.
First, the many "bad rumors" both in the United States and in Vietnam, start with high GVN officials in authoritative positions close to the President. This is an old phenomenon, and there have been fewer bad rumors from Vietnamese Government officials in the past year. However, the U.S. press, Congressional figures, and even many U.S. executive officials, have received their "inside information" not from opposition sources but from GVN officials themselves. Mr. Nhu said he could not blame the Americans for attaching credence to antigovernment information received from such sources.
Mr. Nhu digressed to observe that he was speaking to Mr. Manning very frankly about this matter, for without candor there could be no useful results from their talk.
Mr. Manning expressed his appreciation and agreed that candor was needed.
Mr. Nhu said he was not simply imagining that GVN officials were the source of many of the bad rumors. He knew of many specific cases. For example, he knew who had given Senator Mansfield misleading and inaccurate information. How, Mr. Nhu asked, can you expect U.S. reporters not to believe these close friends of President Diem? However wrong, therefore, the views of the American correspondents, Mr. Nhu did not blame them and, in fact, understood them and their point of view.
Rhetorically, Mr. Nhu asked why the high-ranking GVN officials disseminated these untruths, and more importantly, the half truths? He said such behavior was characteristic of underdeveloped countries where information is imperfect and public relations policies were ineffective. The Government officials themselves know most imperfectly the true situation and in their own confusion and ignorance lead them to confuse and to pass on inaccurate impressions to newsmen on subjects in which they had no real competence. From his own experience, Mr. Nhu thought that the study system which the Government of Vietnam has been holding for the past year had obtained great results in giving to high GVN officials a more complete and more accurate understanding of the national situation and of the activities of the Vietnamese Government.
Mr. Nhu said it had been American friends who had advised of this system and that American money had been made available in some cases to help finance the activity. Mr. Nhu said that a wide range of people from university professors to village leaders have personally told him that these study sessions have afforded them their first real opportunity to make a proper assessment of the situation in Vietnam.
Mr. Nhu said that there had been a number of innovations since the creation of the Committee for Strategic Hamlets: 1) institutional reform; 2) study sessions and a more active public information program; 3) the Montagnard program; 4) (translated incomprehensively not understood in French). These innovations plus the Strategic Hamlet program, had created a sense of momentum as well as a better understanding among the people of Vietnam's just cause.
Mr. Nhu then said there were two other reasons why high government officials gave misleading and inaccurate information to correspondents, and both of these reasons were also related to the fact that Vietnam is an underdeveloped country. First, it is characteristic of officials in underdeveloped countries to think themselves capable of holding higher positions. Mr. Nhu emphasized he was speaking not of the opposition but of GVN officials. This dissatisfaction with their position led them sometimes into captious and critical remarks concerning government programs. Second, a lack of candor and honesty is a requisite among the subject peoples under a colonial government. People therefore learn never to speak with complete honesty and candor but to color their remarks according to their auditors. Many of the Vietnamese people and officials have yet to grow out of this colonial mentality. On every issue they have three or four attitudes to express, depending upon their interlocutor. It therefore becomes very difficult for Americans (both reporters and other Americans) to know what is objective and what is not.
Mr. Nhu said he had made a special study of this matter and had to confess that despite his study and despite the fact that he was a Vietnamese himself, he found it extremely difficult to know the real opinion of the Vietnamese who came to see him.
For the reasons stated above, Mr. Nhu said, Americans of all kinds (professors, intellectuals, government officials) cannot be blamed if their talks with Vietnamese leave the Americans confused as to where the truth stands. Mr. Nhu said he knew that his government's efforts could not succeed unless a favorable climate for the free discussion of all problems was created. However, a great effort had been made in this direction in the past year and there had been progress. The U.S. public opinion at the present time is founded on the total sum of the rumors built up over the last seven or eight years. It is this foundation which makes American public opinion so hostile to the Government of Vietnam. Mr. Nhu said he was trying to dissipate the rumors and untruths through frank talks with Americans, particularly American officials. He stated that he would continue to try to sit down and talk with Americans as brothers and comrades. Mr. Nhu said it was not his job to defend the present regime. Rather, it was his ambition to solve the very problem of underdevelopment and the effects of underdevelopment on public opinion.
Mr. Nhu said he recognized fully the importance of Mr. Manning's second principle. He understood that the United States cannot change its institutions to please the Vietnamese Government, but the situation is a very delicate one. He recognized that U.S. opinion is impatient with the fact that, despite the massive infusion of U.S. aid to Vietnam, the political, economic and social situation in Vietnam still does not correspond perfectly to the U.S. pattern.
Mr. Nhu stated he realized there was a kind of "bad U.S. conscience about this war, but one cannot win a war with a bad conscience." What is needed, Mr. Nhu said, is not perfection-but improvement.
The problem is not merely a Vietnamese problem but a worldwide one. The starting point here and in Thailand, and in all other underdeveloped countries, is the serious difficulty of trying to create a democracy in an underdeveloped land. The critical and almost insoluble problem is how to build democratic institutions upon an underdeveloped foundation. In Vietnam the Strategic Hamlet program aims at solving this contradiction between the state of development and yearnings for democracy.
Mr. Nhu observed wryly that he had now done his mea culpa and would like to speak about the American correspondents. Their attitude is a systematic refusal to listen to, to understand or to report the attitude of the Vietnamese Government. The American correspondents deliberately reflect in their reporting only one point of view and that is the point of view of those hostile to the GVN. This applies not only to Vietnamese officials but also to sympathetic American officials. For example, the American correspondents were not interested in Admiral Felt's ideas. They refused to attend a press conference of Admiral Felt's last week. In fact, they consistently refused even to approach anyone who had a view or a vision different than their own. This attitude does not accord with a true journalistic attitude. The U.S. public needs to be informed of the whole picture. Mr. Nhu said he did not ask that the American correspondents tell lies, but was offended by their refusal of invitations to see or to hear anything not in accord with their own views.
Mr. Nhu said that these young reporters want nothing less than to make a government. This was, indeed, an exalting ambition. It was a stimulating pastime indeed for three or four of them to get together on a concerted effort to overthrow and to create governments. They find in the United States an atmosphere receptive to their efforts because U.S. Congressional and executive officials have, for years, been influenced by GVN officials to adopt attitudes inimical to the Diem regime. Everything is set for a fundamental reassessment by the United States of the situation in Vietnam. All conditions are favorable for a complete U.S. change of policy in Vietnam. It is a great opportunity and it would be tremendous sacrifice for those hostile to the Diem regime to give up this opportunity.
Mr. Nhu said that these were the realities and it was necessary for a Vietnamese patriot to face them squarely. He said that a change of government now would be of benefit only to the Communists. Yet he realized how difficult it was for the Americans, and for this reason he had been thinking of a different kind of aid, a kind of aid which would not involve any moral commitment on the part of the United States to the Vietnamese Government, but would, nonetheless, continue to be effective in content.
Mr. Nhu said he was thinking along these lines because he realized that what is now going on in Vietnam, if presented in a certain way, cannot but affect the state of the Kennedy Administration. Mr. Nhu observed that President Kennedy is a Catholic and therefore is in a kind of minority. Mr. Nhu said that he, too, was a Catholic, but tended to mistrust other Catholics because he found that Catholics always have a guilt complex. Mr. Nhu said that if one is afflicted with a guilt complex there is a very great difficulty in following through on an effective program of action.
Mr. Nhu said that he was thinking of aid along the lines of the wartime Lend Lease program. Such a program would have the advantage of more flexibility and it would not commit the United States Government in the Vietnamese fight against communism. Mr. Nhu said he did not know very much about Lend Lease but believed that such a program presupposed the existence of a plan. In an underdeveloped country a perfect and complete plan was, by definition, impossible. Insisting upon one has only the effect of delaying the provision of aid.
Mr. Nhu said that he was attracted to the idea of changing the U.S. assistance to Vietnam to a Lend Lease type program because of the precedent of such a program in World War II. He said that American aid to Stalin in World War II obviously involved no moral commitment. The United States was fighting Hitler and was prepared to help anyone who was fighting Hitler. In that situation U.S. aid did not imply any approval of the aid recipient.
Mr. Nhu said that his idea on Lend Lease was a strictly personal thing. However, he observed, if we are to succeed in Vietnam-and if the United States' worldwide strategy against communism is to succeed-the U.S. aid policy must be revised.
Mr. Mecklin asked if, under the type program envisioned by Mr. Nhu, the United States would continue to have an advisory role in Vietnam. Mr. Nhu responded that he supposed it would work as it had in Russia where he understood there were a number of American advisors. In fact, said Mr. Nhu, Vietnam would doubtless ask for more. Vietnam had a great need for advisors, particularly editors. The Vietnamese can write nothing effective publicizing their own cause because they are too scrupulous. People ask why President Diem does not talk more often to the Vietnamese people, as do the American presidents. A major reason is simply the lack of ghost writers.
As an example of the inability of the Vietnamese Government to present its own case, Mr. Nhu cited the GVN White Paper on Communist violations of the Geneva Convention./2/ He said the United States had to send Mr. Jorden to Vietnam in order to get an effective job done.
/2/Reference is presumably to the letter from the Government of Vietnam to the International Control Commission, dated October 24, 1961, charging North Vietnam with a massive infiltration of agents into the south for the purpose of overthrowing the Government of Vietnam. Regarding the U.S. attitude toward the release of this letter by the Government of Vietnam, see Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. I, Document 262.
Mr. Nhu said the Vietnamese cannot understand Americans. Therefore they needed someone to help them interpret themselves for American consumption. Yet, when the GVN tried to hire an American Public Relations firm it was accused of trying to create a lobby. Mr Nhu said the GVN had neither the means nor the intention to create a lobby. He said the United States is new and strange and foreign to Vietnamese. He said that he himself had come to understand his American friends better in the last three weeks. It was this lack of understanding which led the GVN to try to use someone who would understand Americans and know how to convey to Americans the Vietnamese point of view. As of now, Mr. Nhu said, the American people do not know our point of view and cannot get to know it since the public has access only to the point of view of those opposed to the Vietnamese Government. Mr. Nhu said the GVN was the target of a campaign, whether deliberate or not, to convince the U.S. public that the GVN is not sincere. The United States now believes that. If Mr. Manning could somehow, during his short stay, reverse that belief it would be a large accomplishment indeed. That, of course, was too much to expect, Mr. Nhu said. However, he said he placed his trust in American fair play.
Mr. Manning said he would not attempt to speak to all of the points raised, but did wish to address himself to several matters. Mr. Nhu urged that Mr. Manning be frank and said that he considered himself a soldier fighting in a mortal war. Mr. Manning said that Mr. Nhu had expressed the belief that there was wide-spread disillusionment about the situation in Vietnam, both on the part of U.S. leaders and the U.S. public. Mr. Manning said that this belief was in no sense justified. The views of the United States Government and of the American public must be measured in terms of results. The results show that the American commitment to Vietnam, which was inherited by the Kennedy Administration from its predecessor, has been accepted and is being carried out by President Kennedy and by the American people. Moreover, contrary to the views expressed by Mr. Nhu, there is a conviction within the United States Government that we are involved in a winning program in Vietnam.
Mr. Manning said that the question of changing the nature of the American commitment will not be decided by journalists either in Vietnam or elsewhere. Such decisions will be made by the United States Government, and the position of the United States Government at the present time is clear as is the support of the American people for that commitment.
Mr. Manning said that his next point might appear to be contradictory, but that it was important that Mr. Nhu understand the point. Mr. Manning could understand the GVN's resentment of the criticism to which it had been subjected. In similar circumstances, Mr. Manning said, he would be furious. Certainly, it would be better if the criticism of the GVN in the American press were less intense. However, the very existence of this criticism is one of the things that makes the U.S. commitment to Vietnam and the U.S. effort in Vietnam possible. Mr. Manning said he was not attempting to be glib. No one likes to be subjected to criticism and Mr. Manning was not suggesting that the GVN should be happy about criticism of it appearing in the American press. But President Kennedy and the Secretary of State, both of whom are earnestly determined to carry out the American commitment to Vietnam, must have the tools to do their part of the job. President Kennedy is a political leader. He is carrying out a program which, as Mr. Nhu had observed, was bound to create concern and, as time goes on, impatience in the United States. Nonetheless, the President is determined to continue with the effort in Vietnam and to continue to generate the kind of leadership which will give that effort the necessary kind of support in the United States. At the present time, the program does have such support.
Next year is an election year in the United States and as the campaign heats up, it will become more and more necessary that the President have the necessary tools to insure a continuance of American public support for the effort in Vietnam. Just as in Vietnam, the opposition will look for weaknesses or for situations which can be interpreted as weaknesses, with which to criticize either the program of the Administration or its implementation.
Mr. Manning said he was not referring to the question of images or public relations in the normal sense, but to the fact that the existence in Vietnam of an American press corps free to observe and report on the American involvement was a tool which it was essential that the President have in dealing with public criticism of this policy. If an attempt were made to handcuff the press corps and prevent them from filling their traditional role of reporting to the American public, this would give the critics of the policy a tremendous advantage, and it would make it extremely difficult for the President to answer the critics and maintain public support of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Mr. Manning said he agreed that there had been much progress in Vietnam that had not completely come through to the American people. He said it was not necessary that the United States and Vietnamese Governments simply accept that situation. Instead, we should seek ways to get the news of the progress through to the American public.
But is necessary that Mr. Nhu understand that, in spite of the sometimes obnoxious reporting from Saigon, the state of United States public opinion on the Vietnamese program is not bad. The President r still has public support for his policy despite the criticisms that have been levied at those policies. Mr. Nhu said he was glad to hear that, and observed that because we are facing hell, all the forces of hell are leagued against us.
Mr. Manning said that he had, since his arrival in Saigon, met with the American correspondents. As Mr. Nhu would doubtless expect, the correspondents were passionate in their views. Mr. Manning said that he wished in all candor to tell Mr. Nhu what the correspondents are concerned about. The correspondents, and some of their superiors, with whom Mr. Manning had spoken before coming to Vietnam, are deeply fearful that the Government of Vietnam has, or is about to embark on, a campaign here of physical and technical harassment of the correspondents, or of expulsion.
Mr. Manning said that he had come to Vietnam mainly to listen rather than to talk. But in view of the concern of the correspondents he hoped strongly that he would be able to take back to Washington with him certain knowledge as to whether or not the fears of the correspondents were justified. Mr. Manning said he thought it possible that the correspondents, because of their passionate, emotional involvement, may be magnifying one incident out of proportion. But their concern, whether justified or not, was real, and was to some extent shared by their superiors elsewhere.
Mr. Nhu said that there was a need on both sides for wisdom. He said that it was his very firm impression that the Government of Vietnam was being oppressed by the U.S. press rather than the American correspondents being oppressed by the Vietnamese Government.
If, in fact, the American correspondents in Saigon think that the Government of Vietnam could oppress them, then the correspondents are unrealistic indeed. The Government of Vietnam is weak and in no position to oppress the American correspondents. The fears of the correspondents are based on passion, not on reality. Mr. Nhu said that an examination of the press despatches from Saigon for the past several years would show that the American correspondents have systematically and consistently been extremely critical of the Vietnamese Government. That is the permanent frame of mind of the American correspondents. As a result, the Government of Vietnam has not only to cope with its hot war, but also a continuing cold war with the American correspondents in Saigon. There is no use to go on with the fight. The American correspondents have succeeded in isolating the Government of Vietnam and then presenting us as monsters to the American people and to the world. Mr. Nhu asked "What do we want, to win the war or to lose the war?" Mr. Nhu said he had asked the American correspondents not to judge the situation in Vietnam only in its local context, but to view it as part of a world problem of underdeveloped countries engaged in the fight against communism. In Vietnam it is a hot war. The United States is involved in that war because it is in the interest of the United States to see that the war is won, not because it is in the interest of the family of President Diem. In World War II the United States had no intention of glorifying or stabilizing the Stalin regime. Yet the United States assisted the Stalin regime because it wanted to use all available tools in the fight against Hitler.
Mr. Nhu asked why the American correspondents never try to see him. He said that he would be happy to talk with them and try to convey to them a better understanding of the real situation. Mr. Mecklin asked if Mr. Nhu would consider holding a press conference. Mr. Nhu said he did not like press conferences but some of the correspondents could come together if they wished. Mr. Manning pointed out that such a meeting need not be a formal press conference on the record and Mr. Nhu agreed that a background conference would suit him better. Mr. Nhu said he was prepared to receive the correspondents and to talk with them upon any issue in complete candor and honesty. He said that all issues could be considered and that the correspondents could insult him if they wished. Mr. Nhu said he would not mind if he were insulted for he considered that the correspondents, although their attitude might be wrong, were actually comrades-in-arms in the struggle against communism. Mr. Nhu said that in dealing with the American correspondents it was good to remember the Biblical observation, " . . ./3/ in the House of the Lord there are many Houses".
/3/Ellipsis in the source text.
Mr. Nhu said he knew that the American correspondents carried a very bad opinion of him. He knew that the correspondents considered him basically anti-American, and that they thought that he was constantly seeking to deceive them. If this were so, asked Mr. Nhu, what would be "my reason for living?" Mr. Nhu said that one correspondent in a recent Newsweek issue said that Nhu spent all his time reading poetry, but in the same article charged him with controlling everything in Vietnam, the Government, the police, the army, everything./4/ Mr. Nhu said that neither charge was true. Mr. Nhu said that so far as poetry was concerned, he supposed that the idea stemmed from a conversation he had once with a reporter in which Mr. Nhu referred to Moses and to the lonely and solitary role he had had to fill in leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land. In this connection, Mr. Nhu had mentioned a French poem.
/4/Newsweek, July 15, 1963, p. 37.
Mr. Nhu said that Moses had not really been lonely because he had God with him. But, said Mr. Nhu, "I do not feel a divine presence in the American leadership". When the correspondent asked why, Mr. Nhu replied because he found the American press to be very inhuman in its treatment of him. Mr. Manning said that it was unnecessary for r Mr. Nhu to be concerned at the charge that he read poetry, for many Americans admired poetry. Mr. Nhu said he had only been joking.
Mr. Manning said that he agreed with Mr. Nhu on one important point. That point was that the present state of mind of the American correspondents is grounded on passion. This being so, the problem was not a technical one of press treatment, but a problem of tone. It was not a question of giving to the reporters access to more complete information, but of somehow affecting their treatment of the information already available to them. Mr. Nhu said that this was true, that the problems with the correspondents were all long-standing and old problems but that what had changed in recent times was the tone. Mr. Nhu then apologized for not speaking English and said it would be possible to establish greater intimacy if he spoke English.
Mr. Manning said that he was not proposing that either the Vietnamese Government or the American Government get into the business of holding the hands of the correspondents. They were, and should be, on their own. But perhaps some small things could be done to improve the present atmosphere. If anything could improve that atmosphere, Mr. Manning said that he thought it would be the readmission to Vietnam of Mr. Robinson, the NBC correspondent.
Mr. Manning asked if Mr. Nhu had yet seen the cable which Mr. Robinson recently sent to President Diem./5/ Mr. Nhu said he had just read the cable
Mr. Nhu said that he presently believed that the correspondents should be allowed to come freely to Vietnam, and in greater numbers than were now present. But Mr. Nhu asked that each reporter observe self-discipline. Without self-discipline on the part of the correspondents Mr. Nhu said, it was impossible to do anything constructive about the present situation. Mr. Nhu asked Mr. Manning to tell the American correspondents on his behalf that he asks of them nothing but objective, fair reporting. He did not ask them to tell lies favorable to the interest of the Government of Vietnam. Mr. Nhu said he would personally tell the correspondents that when he saw them.
Mr. Manning said that he wished he could offer some over-night solution to the problem created by the hostility between the correspondents and the Government of Vietnam. But he had no solution to offer. He thought that what was needed was time, and he believed that the solution to the present situation would be a slow process of evolution. However, Mr. Manning added he believed that in the end the facts of the situation as seen by both the Government of Vietnam and the American government would prevail and would provide American public opinion with a balanced and accurate picture of the Vietnamese situation.
Mr. Manning said that he was in a position to go back to the United States and to see a number of influential and fair minded editors and to discuss with them candidly the situation in Vietnam. He would convey to them the fact that it was necessary to view developments in Vietnam in the total world context. He would convey to them the need in the complex Vietnam situation for self-discipline on the part of the American correspondents. Mr. Manning said he did not know what the results of his efforts would be but that he thought it both necessary and wise to make the effort.
Mr. Nhu said that he thought the change might take place overnight. He said the Americans were capable of that. He said he did not think that it was really a political problem but was instead a kind of hysteria--a disease.
Mr. Manning said he did not think it was that bad. Certainly the American correspondents were motivated by passion but he thought their involvement still was somewhat short of hysteria.
Mr. Nhu said that he had an example which he thought would illustrate the present situation. When Ambassador Nolting returned (and Mr. Nhu said he admired Ambassador Nolting greatly in having the courage to return at all), the Ambassador had made a statement at the airport. At this point, Mr. Nhu digressed to say that he was not being critical of Mr. Trueheart for whom he had great sympathy in view of the way everything fell in on him during Ambassador Nolting's absence. Mr. Nhu then reverted to the Nolting statement and said that some of the Cabinet Ministers were not much pleased by it.
Some of his colleagues criticized the statement as not clear cut. However, Mr. Nhu said, he personally thought it was a very good statement because Ambassador Nolting had said exactly what he thought. Mr. Nhu had asked his colleagues whether they expected the Americans to say what they did not think. Mr. Nhu said the Vietnamese had no right to expect such a thing. He personally thought the statement was excellent because it was an honest statement of Ambassador Nolting's views.
Mr. Nhu said that we need only be sincere in order to win the war. He asked how a little country like Vietnam, underdeveloped and with a population of only 14,000,000, could hope to stand up to the world communist colossus. He asked if the Vietnamese people could assume this burden on their narrow shoulders. He said such an effort would be pure folly except with the assistance of sincere friends. For this reason, Mr. Nhu said, U.S. aid was extremely important to Vietnam. But, he asked, how many Vietnamese die and get crippled everyday? Mr. Nhu said that what the GVN wanted was understanding, that Vietnam was an underdeveloped and not an advanced country, and the actions of the government be judged in that context. Also, it should be understood that President Diem does not promise much and that his few promises are given slowly and only after long consideration. But once a promise is given, it is always honored completely.
Mr. Mecklin said that his office was under daily pressure from NBC to obtain the readmission of Mr. Robinson. He asked what word he could give to NBC.
Mr. Nhu said that he could not promise the result, but that he personally had no objection to the readmission of Mr. Robinson, and that he, Mr. Nhu, would try to obtain permission for Robinson to return to Vietnam, provided that Robinson would give the GVN too a chance to be heard in the world. That would be only fair play, he said. Mr. Mecklin said that it would be very good if Mr. Robinson could return in time for Mr. Nhu's meeting with the press.
Mr. Nhu said he was always prepared to meet with the correspondents provided they did not distort his remarks. He said he was not too keen about interviews on the record because it seemed to him that in such interviews it was always necessary to play a defensive role. Mr. Nhu said he preferred to talk with the correspondents on a background only basis because this would permit full and free discussions on all issues. Mr. Nhu said that he liked full and free discussions because he was sincere.
Mr. Nhu said he knew there had been mistakes made by the GVN. Still he was prepared to recognize these mistakes because only through correcting errors could progress be made. Vietnam must either progress or die. Vietnam could not stand still. Therefore, Mr. Nhu said, he was willing to do whatever must be done to make progress.
Mr. Manning said that despite the ofttimes unfavorable coverage by the American correspondents of the Vietnam situation, it is a fact that an understanding and sense of involvement in the Vietnam situation is deeply embedded in the American mind. At least in part this is so because of the casualties which Americans have suffered in Vietnam, as slight as those casualties are in comparison to the sufferings of the Vietnamese people. Although the American casualties in some way constitute a great political liability, they also have the result of getting the United States really committed to success in Vietnam just as we were committed in Korea. The United States Government is determined to carry out its commitment to the Vietnamese.
Mr. Nhu expressed his deep appreciation of this statement and said that he would relay it to the other Ministers in the GVN. Mr. Nhu said the other Ministers were, at the present time, very much "intoxicated" with the idea that the United States is slowly preparing for a withdrawal from Vietnam.
Mr. Nhu said that he once had a conversation with Admiral Felt in which the Admiral told him not to fear American imperialism but to be confident that the Americans would withdraw when their assistance was no longer needed. Mr. Nhu said that the Vietnamese fear was exactly the opposite of what Admiral Felt apparently thought. The Vietnamese did not fear that the Americans would implant themselves in Vietnam, but feared instead an American withdrawal before Vietnam could survive alone. But Mr. Nhu said, if Americans and Vietnamese are to live together in great numbers they must have a modus vivendi. Mr. Nhu said that before the GVN had given agreement to the introduction of 10,000 to 12,000 American troops, he had told General Taylor that the American soldiers would be bored to death without the amusements to which they were accustomed. He urged General Taylor to make full provision for regular rotation to Hong Kong and other places for relaxation. Mr. Nhu said his advice had not been heeded. He said there was still a great need for such a rotation program at short intervals and that it would be a very good and important psychological move if the United States were to institute such a program.
Mr. Nhu said that another psychological problem stemmed from the fact that the Americans in Vietnam did not feel that their losses and their sacrifices were understood by the American people. Mr. Nhu wondered if it would not be good to "magnify" the American casualties.
Mr. Manning said he understood the point but felt that if the casualties were "magnified" there would be a risk of making an even greater problem. Mr. Nhu said he recognized that danger and observed that his wife wrote to the families of all U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam.
Mr. Nhu referred to the ad which appeared in American newspapers recently calling for a US. withdrawal from the war in Vietnam./6/ He said that a certain group of American intellectuals look upon the Vietnam war as a dirty war. It was a dirty war, but it was dirty for the communists, not the GVN side. Mr. Nhu said it was astonishing to him that a group of American intellectuals could still believe that the American soldiers were involved in Vietnam in fighting a dirty war.
/6/Reference is to an advertisement which ran in the June 27 edition of The New York Times; see footnote 5, Document 193.
Mr. Nhu said the communists realized themselves that they are fighting a dirty war. He referred to a recent Viet Cong Battalion Commander who had defected and had informed the GVN that the communists keep the location of their units secret from all except Battalion Commanders, in order to prevent the troops from escaping.
Mr. Manning said that he appreciated this chance to discuss so many different subjects so candidly. He hoped that he would be able to return to the United States with some sense of assurance for the President that the press situation in Vietnam would settle down and not give an additional weapon to the critics of the President's Vietnam policy. Mr. Manning said he wanted to stress that if anything occurs to prevent American correspondents from covering the Vietnam situation, it would constitute an extreme danger to the continuity of the President's policy. Mr. Manning said that in the kind of operation upon which the United States was embarked in Vietnam, the reporting of the American correspondents played an essential role. The position of the correspondents was analogous to that of building inspectors. The American public expected that they would be there to observe and comment and criticize. Their recommendations are not always accepted nor always believed but the existence of the correspondents and their ability to report on the American involvement is a deeply important psychological and political fact both in Washington and for the American public in general.
227. Memorandum of Conversation/1/
Saigon, July 18, 1963.
/1/Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, 7/1/ 63-7/20/63. Secret. Drafted by Wright.
Mr. Manning said that he considered his trip an opportunity to learn about the situation in Vietnam. He hoped to learn enough to be able, upon his return to the United States, to convey to American editors and journalists both the complexity and the progress of the Vietnam situation. It was very difficult for people outside Vietnam to understand the complexity of the situation here, but Mr. Manning hoped that American journalists would recognize the necessity of viewing developments in Vietnam in their worldwide context. Mr. Manning said that much of the present press difficulty stems from the fact that the day-to-day events in Vietnam are judged narrowly and only in a local context. Mr. Manning said he would much appreciate having the President's views on how the press problem should be handled.
President Diem said Vietnam would always welcome journalists with hospitality and expected only that the journalists would meet their primary duty of reporting objectively. Mr. Manning said there were differing interpretations of objectivity, and this difference in interpretation was the core of the problem in Vietnam. Correspondents have a different function than Government officials and this fact often creates problems. Journalists are free agents and part of their function is to be critical of governments. For the United States it is a necessity that Government activities be submitted to press scrutiny.
Ambassador Nolting said that he thought there was agreement on the fundamental point, that the tone of the American press would change for the better as the evidence of military success became clearer. Ambassador Nolting said he understood Mr. Manning's remarks to mean that both the Vietnamese and United States Governments should relax about the press stories and live with the criticism gracefully until our success solves the problem.
Mr. Manning said that the existence of press scrutiny, even though the reporting was critical, was preferable to no press scrutiny at all. It was essential to President Kennedy's efforts to continue his support of the winning program in Vietnam, that American correspondents be free to scrutinize and criticize that program. The worst thing that could happen was not bad reporting but the possibility that the reporters could be made martyrs by being denied the right of scrutiny.
President Diem said he could not see how the correspondents could consider themselves martyrs. A country which for twenty years had been involved in a hot war should not also have to deal with a cold war waged against the Vietnamese Government and people by their friends. President Diem said the calibre of American reporters was low.
Mr. Manning said he agreed that the President had reason to complain of the coverage his Government was receiving but could not agree that the American correspondents were not competent journalists trying to do a good job. It was necessary to distinguish between being wrong and being evil. The correspondents may be wrong but they are not evil nor are they maliciously motivated. The Ambassador agreed. President Diem said that the American reporting has had a deplorable effect on Vietnamese public opinion, and in a general discussion, it was agreed that, in many ways, Vietnamese opinion was more influenced by the American press than by the local Vietnamese press.
President Diem said that some of the reporting was insulting to the Army and it had a bad effect on Army morale. Mr. Manning suggested that this effect would be overcome by the actual success of military operations, but the President replied that the American correspondents seemed unaware of any gains made in Vietnam. Mr. Thuan, upon the President's instructions, was always ready to arrange for correspondents to cover military campaigns but the correspondents were unwilling to accept the offer.
Mr. Manning suggested that some very high GVN official should, from time to time, have conferences with the correspondents to convey to them the general situation and the GVN version on matters of dispute. For instance, on the Buddhist problem, the correspondents could not get access to an authoritative GVN official to discuss the matter. Thus, they had the benefit only of the Buddhist version of events and the Buddhist interpretation of the problem.
The President said that if the Government tried, on a day-to-day basis, to deal with Buddhist complaints, this would simply prove Government insincerity for it took time to investigate the complaints and know where truth lies. The President stressed that all the Buddhist charges did not have validity but that each charge would get a serious reception and investigation.
Ambassador Nolting stated that sometimes the Vietnamese Government did respond quickly, and perhaps too quickly, with its version of events. He cited the demonstrations at the Giac Minh Pagoda yesterday. The Ambassador said that the GVN statement on this incident was absolutely contrary to the unanimous account given to the Ambassador by many eye-witnesses. According to the eye-witnesses, the police, without physical provocation, charged and badly mauled about 100 demonstrators including women and children. Yet the GVN statement issued several hours later said only that the demonstrators attacked and injured eight policemen. This kind of thing completely destroyed the credibility of statements by the GVN and its friends. President Diem then criticized the inaccurate nature of the reporters' dispatches and gave several examples. Ambassador Nolting repeated that the GVN statement was in complete conflict with eye-witness accounts and that the effect of such a statement was to destroy the credibility of the accurate reports made from time to time of genuine progress on the military side of the Vietnam war. President Diem again referred to the inaccuracy of the reporting of the American correspondents. There was a lengthy discussion in which the President indicated his conviction that the American reporters were consistently irresponsible and unfair in their criticism of the actions of the Vietnamese Government.
Mr. Manning then reverted to his previous suggestion that there was a great need for a high GVN official to give occasional background conferences to the reporters. Such a conference would have the effect of putting the correspondents under a kind of psychological obligation to the news source. Even though the same information might be available from a lower level official, it was good public relations policy that the Government attitude from time to time be conveyed to reporters from a really authoritative source. Otherwise a vacuum was created which was usually filled by forces hostile to the Government. The President said such conferences had been tried in the past but the Government was disappointed at the results.
Mr. Manning said that he had discussed one problem in detail with Counselor Nhu the previous day/2/ but wanted to make the same point to the President. The American correspondents feared that the GVN might inaugurate a policy of harassing and possibly expelling the correspondents. Mr. Manning had been assured by Counselor Nhu and others that this fear was a figment of the correspondents' imagination. Mr. Manning wanted to convey this to the correspondents before his departure from Vietnam. Mr. Manning asked if the President thought this would be a useful thing to do.
/2/See Document 226.
The President said "Yes, but the correspondents should not put themselves into a position where they would face expulsion." The President said he thought the correspondents' fears stemmed from their own guilty consciences about their own irresponsibility.
The President said again that the American reporting had had a deplorable effect on opinion in America, and particularly in Vietnam. The behavior of the correspondents was neither correct nor responsible considering that Vietnam was at war and that the Government had accomplished so much. The President said some people had told him that this kind of unfair criticism was the kind of thing which had to be put up with because Vietnam received foreign aid.
Mr. Manning said that whether or not the reporting was deplorable, it should be remembered that President Kennedy still had public support for his policy of helping Vietnam win its war. The reporting has not changed that. The reporting was not one-tenth as harmful in its effects on American public opinion as would be an attempt to expel or harass the reporters. Such a policy would make martyrs of the reporters and would deprive President Kennedy of the essential tool which he needs. The American involvement in the Vietnam war is a new type of experience for the American people and the United Sates Government has been both surprised and pleased with the mature way that the public has accepted the situation. Mr. Manning said that the present kind of reporting was something which we could live with.
President Diem responded that the erroneous reports must inevitably have a bad effect on American opinion. Mr. Manning agreed but said it was necessary to choose between bad effects. The harassment or expulsion of the reporters would have an immeasurably worse effect than would the mere continuation of the present critical reporting. There was then a general discussion concerning Ambassador Nolting's hope that President Diem would publicly take personal charge of the Buddhist crisis. The President did not commit himself.
There was a lengthy discussion of the progress being made by the Vietnamese Government in its various economic and social programs. The President said that the progress of these programs proved conclusively that the war was being won.
228. Editorial Note
On July 18, 1963, President Diem broadcast a message in which he informed the nation that, "at the proposal of the Interministerial Committee," he had issued the following instructions:
"1--Ministerial order N. 358, dated July 9, 1963 regulating the display of Buddhist flag[s], be amended to extend its provisions, formerly applicable to the General Association of Buddhist[s] of Viet-Nam, to all sects which on their own initiative adopt the same flag.
"2--The Interministerial Committee closely cooperate with the Buddhist delegation in order to consider, inquire into and settle together, either by using reports and records or by investigation on the spot, if necessary, all complaints related to the implementation of the Joint Communiqué.
"3--That all cadres of the public and private sectors at all levels, each in his own sphere, by word and deed, actively contribute to the implementation of the Joint Communiqué."
President Diem concluded his message by expressing his "hope that all of you, my compatriots, will take note of the utmost desire of conciliation of the government in settling the Buddhist problem." He asked his listeners to "judge the facts objectively and to adopt an attitude and a behaviour which will permit no one to impede the march forward of our people in its mission of crushing the Communists for the salvation of the nation." (American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1963, pages 860-861)
A translation of the message was transmitted to the Department in telegram 107 from Saigon, July 19. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 15-1 S VIET)
229. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State/1/
Saigon, July 19, 1963-5 p.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET Secret; Operational Immediate; Limit Distribution. Repeated to CINCPAC.
109. CINCPAC for POLAD. Reference: Embtel 107./2/ Urge that Dept. Spokesman make statement along following lines at noon press briefing:
/2/See Document 228.
"President Diem's broadcast of July 18 strikes us as forthright and statesmanlike. It reaffirms in unmistakeable terms the government's intention to carry out in letter and in spirit the agreement of June 16. And it provides a mechanism whereby any complaints about implementation can be amicably settled with the participation of the Buddhists themselves. It would seem to us that the way is clear for the settlement of all religious issues that have arisen in Viet-Nam."
In making statement, Dept. should be aware that--
a) Saigon pagodas still barricaded,
I am working urgently to get GVN open pagodas and release persons arrested. However, I do not think we should wait for GVN to do this before making statement above. Statement in my opinion is a fair characterization of Diem's broadcast. Moreover, it will help me to move GVN and to prevent any undercutting of Diem's broadcast. It may well also cause Buddhists to hesitate before making further demands.
230. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam/1/
Washington, July 19, 1963, 8:53 p.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET Secret; Operational Immediate. Drafted by Heavner and cleared by Kattenburg, Rice, and Rusk. Repeated to CINCPAC for POLAD.
103. Ref: Embtels 109,/2/ 112, and 111./3/ In view Buddhist reaction to Diem broadcast and your estimate (Embtel 95)/4/ that Buddhist agitation now controlled predominantly by activists aimed at overthrow of GVN, believe we must anticipate further Buddhist demonstrations and violence. In these circumstances and in light coup rumors, it clear we have to deal with most uncertain and volatile situation.
/3/Telegram 111 from Saigon, July 19, transmitted a translation of a letter reportedly sent to President Diem by the Intersect Committee for the Protection of Buddhism in response to Diem's July 18 radio broadcast. The letter welcomed Diem's statement but asked for concrete steps to implement the June 16 agreement, such as the release of all Buddhists arrested since May 8, punishment of those responsible for Buddhist deaths on May 8, and indemnification of the families of those injured. (Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET)
In telegram 112 from Saigon, July 19, 8 p.m., Ambassador Nolting reported on what he saw as positive developments: Diem had ordered the barricades removed from all pagodas, and bonzes were permitted to return to their pagodas, but could not congregate at Xa Loi Pagoda. Nolting noted that he had urged the government to go beyond those steps and release those jailed following the July 17 demonstration, offer compensation to those injured by police on July 17, and establish the practice of handling future demonstrations by non-forceful means if possible. South Vietnamese officials with whom Nolting had talked felt that President Diem was now moving in the right direction on the Buddhist issue, and Nolting recommended again that the statement which he had urged the Department to make in telegram 109 would foster this positive movement. (Ibid.)
It seems to us that outcome remains obscure: We do not know whether Diem really will do the things he must if his regime is to survive. We therefore inclined continue for present public posture of noninterference this internal affair, neither favoring Buddhists or Diem in public statements, but merely expressing approval all helpful steps and hope for peaceful settlement.
At same time we think it essential to continue press Diem resolve situation by actions and statements designed to meet squarely Buddhists' legitimate grievances. We much encouraged by progress you have registered to date and hope you can prevail on Diem to insure removal barricades around pagodas, release those arrested during Buddhist demonstrations, and pay compensation to those injured. These Buddhist demands seem reasonable even if motivated by political aims. Meeting them appears to be essential if moderates are to regain control Buddhist movement and if Diem is to rally sufficient support to reestablish stability.
For above reasons we made text of Diem broadcast available to newsmen today and commented on it only as follows:
"This broadcast reaffirms the Government's intent to carry out the June 16 agreement. It provides a procedure whereby differences over implementation of the agreement can be amicably settled between the Government and the Buddhists. We hope that with this new procedure and with good will among all concerned, that the issue can be resolved."
231. Letter From the Ambassador in India (Bowles) to the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)/1/
New Delhi, July 19, 1963.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Eyes Only; Personal.
Dear Mac: In addition to the more or less routine report of my impressions of East Asia which I have just sent through the regular channels,/2/ I feel that I must write to you directly about the situation in Vietnam. Here in brief is the way it appears to me:
/2/See Document 216.
1. The highly contradictory nature of reports from South Vietnam is largely the result of a paradox: while the military situation is steadily improving, the political situation is rapidly deteriorating. Thus those who concentrate on military developments are optimistic while those who focus on the political aspects are gloomy. This state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. If the political situation is not vastly improved, our ability to control the Viet Cong situation is almost certain to deteriorate.
2. Our mission in Saigon is on the edge of severe demoralization. The bitter conflict between the U.S. press and our mission is symptomatic. The morale of our military people, particularly the junior ones who are dealing with the military situation in the field, is high and they appear to be putting on an extraordinary performance. The same is true in the aid program. As you move further up the scale of authority, however, you encounter increasingly emotional differences and antagonisms.
3. We cannot achieve our objectives in Southeast Asia as long as Diem and his family run Vietnam. I met no one who was in a position to judge the attitudes of the Vietnamese people who did not stress this fact.
My own impression of Diem was that of a man quite remote from reality. For three hours and fifty-two minutes he gave me his version of what was happening in the country--a version which on key questions was inaccurate or distorted, and with respect to the U.S. not only misinformed but insulting.
In Diem and his family we have a set-up comparable to that presented by the Generalissimo in China in the 1940's. We failed in China largely because we failed to find an effective means of dealing with an inept ruling power that had lost touch with the people. We will fail in Southeast Asia, and perhaps even more decisively, if we repeat this mistake in Vietnam.
Although the risks in any political switchover are formidable, the risks of staying on dead center are, in my opinion, substantially greater. Nor am I impressed by the familiar argument that "there is no available successor". It is not too much to say that almost any articulate, courageous, anti-communist Vietnamese with a good reputation who puts himself at the head of a group to overthrow Diem, and who outlines a policy of continued vigorous anti-communism combined with anti-favoritism, better government administration and land reforms, would find himself a national hero in a matter of weeks.
Admittedly this would be merely the first stage; the ultimate test would be his capacity to carry out the promises which enabled him to take charge. However, it is defeatist in my opinion to assume that there is no anti-communist leadership other than Diem's ready to blossom in Vietnam.
4. I think it would be a mistake to assume that Cabot Lodge by some magic can change the fundamental situation which I have described. Lodge has strong convictions and bluntly expresses his views. But Diem, according to every observer with whom I talked, is impervious to argument or threat.
It would therefore appear likely that Lodge will either find himself in a head-on conflict with Diem or be forced into a position of relative impotence. If the government is to change in Vietnam, there is much to be said for having the change occur before his arrival.
5. Although a new deal in Saigon appears to me an essential first step, we still may fail to achieve stability unless we can find some means of coming to grips with the deteriorating situation in southern Laos. For the last two years it has been my belief that the only feasible solution is likely to be partition by a line running across Laos from the 17th parallel then moving north and west along the Mekong. In my opinion we now have very little time to lose in securing this crucial area. Although I hesitate from this distance to attempt to outline a specific program, my previous knowledge of the area and what I heard and saw on my recent visits leads me to suggest a procedure along the following lines.
a. Once we are convinced that the neutrality experiment is unworkable under present conditions, an indigenous government (preferably-that of Souvanna Phouma) might issue a statement that the Geneva agreements have been subverted by the Pathet Lao and that he is now calling on all loyal government troops to defend the southern Laos area.
b. With a minimum of fanfare introduce some U.S. special service troops and advisors into Laos to beef up and train the best Laotian troops. It is estimated by the military men with whom I talked that 2000 could do the job. At the same time persuade the Vietnamese or Thai Governments to provide modest contingents of troops with the Thais assigned perhaps to the defense of a few strategic points along the left bank of the Mekong including the capital.
There is considerable doubt as to whether the Thais would agree to move unless we introduce at least a battle group of U.S. troops. However, in this first stage at least I suggest that every effort should be made to avoid this direct commitment since it would almost certainly involve us in difficulties with Congress. Several military experts were of the opinion that we could get by with the 2000 special service troops with perhaps [less than 1 1ine not declassified] Thailand [less than 1 line not declassified] occupy the area between the western border and the right bank of the Mekong in what is now northwestern Laos. [1 sentence (2 lines) not declassified]
c. Simultaneously a strong effort should be made to keep Cambodia as quiet as possible. Although Sihanouk cannot be expected publicly to applaud the proposed action, I believe that in his heart he might welcome it. Nguyen Ngoc Tho, Vice-President of Vietnam, offered the same judgment. Although the Malayans are currently occupied with the problems of Malaysia and the demagogy of Sukarno, I found them deeply concerned by the Laotian situation, [1-1/2 lines not declassified].
All of this would take a great deal of doing. However, I believe that the long struggle to create a basis for stability in Southeast Asia on which we have spent several billion dollars since 1951 is now calling for a major decision. I recognize the risks in the suggestions I have outlined, yet our continuing support of Diem and our relative inaction in Laos may result in the entire situation getting wholly out of control within a matter of months.
On the other hand, a bold political program with modest U.S. military commitments plus a bit of luck may enable us to turn the tide our way and to lay the basis for a far more favorable situation in Southeast Asia than seemed possible a few months ago.
I am sending this to you on a Personal Eyes Only basis with no copies to anyone as I do not want these observations to rattle too loosely around the Department.
The situation here is sensitive and complex; the staff is riddled with departures and home leave. I am bogged down with protocol and it is hot. Otherwise I have no complaint.
/3/Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
232. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State/1/
Saigon, July 20, 1963, 7 p.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET. Secret; Operational Immediate; Limit Distribution. Repeated to CINCPAC. Received at 8:24 a.m.
117. CINCPAC for POLAD. Deptel 103./2/ I am very much disappointed in reftel. It gives us nothing to work with, on either side of equation. A wait-and-see attitude on our part at this juncture will lead only, in my judgment, to further undermining of stability here and to further jeopardizing U.S. vital interests. It will encourage more agitation and demand on part of Buddhists; it will discourage further conciliatory action on part of government; it will increase prospects of a coup.
For two years (and longer), the U.S. has had to make hard choices here. We have made them pretty forthrightly, and the more forthrightly we have made them, the better they have panned out. On these hard choices, clearly taken, we have helped build what is admittedly a much stronger defense against Communist takeover than was thought possible. This has been done despite inefficiencies and goofs on part GVN (and on our part too). Experience has shown that GVN can be counted on to be slow, sticky, and uncoordinated in adopting and implementing any policy. There are many cross-currents of opinion and many free-wheelers. Nevertheless, our best bet still lies in encouraging and prodding and helping them to accept and follow through on policies that look reasonably good, as was done successfully in military strategy and tactics, in clear-and-hold operations, in rural development, in Strategic Hamlet concept and execution, in financing, and in many other fields.
GVN has badly underestimated and mishandled Buddhist problem. It may--although I do not think so--have gotten out of hand, but at last Diem has come out with something that looks good (and has already taken certain concrete actions to back it up), publicly committing his government to a conciliatory course. We should by all available means encourage the GVN in this.
Diem's statement, and the response to it, may offer the last opportunity to surmount this difficulty and to get this effort back on the tracks. The Buddhist response depends in great degree on U.S. official and press reaction. (Their agitation and appeals are now directed apparently as much toward Americans as toward Vietnamese.) I think the government's offer is sincere and that we can help them carry it out successfully. The government's position promises satisfaction on religious grievances. It would be a pity if the scepticism reflected in reftel were to increase Buddhist scepticism and/or intransigence, and thus lose the opportunity to move this problem towards solution.
I again recommend statement along lines previously suggested, which certainly does not go overboard but would be effective, and possibly decisive here.
233. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam/1/
Washington, July 20, 1963, 2:58 p.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL S VIET-US. Secret; Operational Immediate. Drafted by Heavner and Kattenburg and cleared by Manell and by Rice. Repeated to CINCPAC for POLAD.
104. Ref: Embtel 117./2/ Reaction of press here to our statement made re Diem broadcast (Deptel 103)/3/ was that events (i.e. Buddhist reaction making acceptance conditional on series GVN actions and repositioning of barricades) had already overtaken our statement. As practical matter do not see how we can further comment without another news peg. If Diem releases those arrested in demonstrations, lifts barricades, meets with Buddhist leaders, or takes further constructive action in line with promising [promised?] approach his broadcast, we could again express satisfaction and hope. Until then do not feel. that further comment on Diem broadcast would result in anything here but hostile speculation.
We assume you will tell GVN we encouraged by Diem's broadcast and accompanying orders as constructive steps towards easing situation, and that we are hopefully waiting for more of same sort.
Reftel, well as whole situation, under careful study. We intend by septel send you for comment our estimate situation as it looks from here and avenues open to us./4/
/4/The source text bears no signature.
234. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam/1/
Washington, July 23, 1963, 6:51 p.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET Top Secret; Operational Immediate. Drafted by Heavner and Kattenburg and cleared by Hilsman.
112. For Nolting from Hilsman. As indicated Deptel 104,/2/ we have carefully considered present Buddhist problem against backdrop successful CI program. Current thinking here on stability Diem regime in general represented by SNIE 53-2-63 (July 10)/3/ sent you separate cover. We keenly aware of distance which separates us from fast moving situation, and most anxious have your comments on following estimate which represents our present thinking:
1. We inclined anticipate further Buddhist demonstrations and resulting unrest, and believe more protest suicides should be expected. This view based on: (1) Continuing GVN failure act promptly enough to meet legitimate Buddhist grievances and to show true spirit of conciliation; (2) Belief that Buddhist protest movement likely become increasingly militant. Buddhists probably more and more inclined regard overthrow of regime as only possible solution, thus attracting growing support (and conversely) from other major elements plotting regime's overthrow, particularly in armed forces.
2. We also expect that Buddhist unrest and demonstrations will increasingly agitate urban populace, and that this agitation, to degree, may be expected extend to countryside also, with resulting slowdown in war effort.
3. In these circumstances and in light growing crop of reports on coup plans, we judge odds favor attempted coup within next few months if not weeks.
4. Odds also seem to favor success of such coup, although we keenly aware of strong possibility the GVN might still successfully weather Buddhist storm by combination conciliation and repression and that consequently coup attempts may fail or abort.
5. In these circumstances, following courses seem open to us: (a) We can attempt actively influence events by public statements disassociating ourselves from GVN handling of Buddhist issue, with likely result being encouragement or even triggering of coup attempt. (b) We can go even further and seek directly to encourage certain military leaders seek "Constitutional solution" under Tho. (c) Conversely, we can seek actively discourage coup plots by both high-level public statements of support to GVN, and private statements to Buddhist-s and potential coup leaders although this, like the above might have unpredictable results. (d) Finally, we can hold to present posture of watchful waiting while continuing privately to press GVN to demonstrate proper spirit and to take all necessary measures to finally resolve issue.
6. On balance we continue be inclined favor last course for time being. More active role runs obvious risk of putting us in position of having backed loser, and even of prolonging crisis and increasing violence, with all bad effects on war effort that would flow from such error. We may well come to point where we would want to throw all our influence behind either Diem or an acceptable alternative leader or junta (preferably Constitutional successor supported by military) in order to stabilize situation as rapidly as possible. But in light info now available to us here, we do not believe situation has yet jelled to that point. At this moment, though alternatives to Diem seem to be emerging, it is not yet clear who and what they are.
235. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State/1/
Saigon, July 24, 1963, 7 p.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL S VIET. Secret; Limit Distribution. Repeated to CINCPAC.
130. CINCPAC for POLAD. Had a rather reassuring and encouraging session with Thuan today. Discussed many subjects bearing on political situation here, including attitudes of various GVN officials toward Buddhist problem, military attitudes bearing on possible coup d'etat, and Diem's own convictions and especially his control of government.
I found Thuan in more sanguine frame of mind than heretofore. He confirmed that Diem, having finally adopted conciliatory line toward Buddhist problem, was now confidently pursuing that course. I asked whether he was being undercut from any quarter, or whether Thuan expected such undercutting. Thuan replied that, at least for time being, all Cabinet ministers and Nhu were lined up together on line Diem had adopted. He said disciplinary action taken against Lt. Col. Chieu (who had organized yesterday's S.D.C. Veterans' demonstration against Buddhists) had been ordered by Diem with approval of Nhu, who wished it in first place. I asked whether this demonstration had been ordered by anyone above Lt. Col. Chieu. Thuan replied that insofar as he could discover it had not been, but was Chieu's own idea. He also said that at President's request he had just given orders to Ranger company which was planning pro-government demonstrations against Buddhists (in retaliation for alleged Buddhist manhandling of member of company distributing literature at Xa Loi Pagoda) to refrain from any such action.
Remarking that these signs looked good, I asked Thuan how we could help move this problem along. I referred to Washington's encouragement to date, to talks with a number of other Mission heads here, all of whom agree that Diem is now on right line. I urged specifically: (a) that explicit instructions be given to Minister of Interior and through him to police re tolerant and gentle handling any further Buddhist demonstrations; (b) that President continue to take every possible initiative to demonstrate good faith and increase perceptible trend in public opinion toward clarification this issue. Thuan remarked that he had noted from talks with several U.S. newsmen that they were becoming more balanced in reporting on this situation. (Perhaps it is more accurate to say they are becoming somewhat disenchanted with Buddhists.) He said he would speak to Diem along suggested lines this evening. Diem is now on trip in provinces-second trip this week.
I took occasion to leave with Thuan a piece of paper/2/ containing suggestions for another initiative on part of Diem-namely to invite Thinh Khiet to confer with him, and in such public invitation, to express President's own distress at loss of life in Hue, his determination to prevent repetition and to compensate insofar as possible for loss of innocent victims. I urged that would not involve government's assuming responsibility deaths, but would transcend this point, in manner which could only redound to President's credit. It might also well break deadlock with Buddhists. At least, such action would show government's intent to meet 100 percent religious grievances, leaving burden of proof on Buddhists if in fact their aims are to overthrow government. Thuan seemed very receptive to this idea, took the paper and promised to let me know if I could help sell it to Diem. He was appreciative of our continued support of line he had been advocating. He felt that government had at last put itself in stronger position, and had a good chance of weathering this storm. I believe he is sincere in this. Nevertheless, there are obviously a number of explosive possibilities which have not yet been defused-including further manifestations and resulting police actions, human sacrifices, counter-propaganda manifestations, etc.
I sounded Thuan out on his thoughts on possibility of military coup, factionalism and division in GVN itself, about President's leadership. On all these points he was reassuring. I do not believe he is ignorant of kind of reports reaching us (although I did not spell them out). He seemed rather to discount them as more of same old stuff. Specifically regarding Nhu, Thuan said that he had apparently had a change of heart and is now supporting Diem's conciliatory line. He said that this might be attributed to recent talks that we have had together. He also warned that it might not be permanent. On question regarding President's control of government, Thuan was quite forthright, saying he felt Diem, once he had reached a clear decision, was very much in control of government and able to have his decision carried out.
I do not attach too much significance to this conversation, as there are many obvious pitfalls ahead, but I do believe it represents the assessment of some one who is much less worried now than he has been in the recent past. My own estimate of the chances of survival of this government has risen accordingly.
236. Memorandum From the Director of the Vietnam Working Group (Kattenburg) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Hilsman)/1/
Washington, July 24, 1963.
/1/Source: Kennedy Library, Hilsman Papers, Country Series-Vietnam. Secret. After initialing the memorandum, Kattenburg added the following note: "Please call me in on this tonight-will be gone all day tomorrow."
1. The luncheon convinced me that Lansdale assesses the situation quite objectively. He is most cognizant of the steady deterioration in the Diem regime over a period of years. He alluded several times to the difficulties he found on his last trip in late 1961/2/ and which he felt to a large degree remained uncorrected.
/2/Reference is to the Taylor-Rostow mission to South Vietnam, of which Lansdale was a part, in October 1961. For documentation relating to the mission, see Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. I, Documents 169 ff.
2. He mentioned that his judgments must be based on what he sees in the reports, and not on what on what he feels since he has not been there for nearly two years. "There is nothing like talking to someone face to face in order to assess him."
3. He brought up himself the idea of a possible trip on his part to suggest to me that if we wanted him to he would be willing to go out for an assessment of the whole picture. I moved into this opening and asked him how he felt this would be received by various elements on the spot. He thought he could play out any problems on this score and that he could have contact with, and come up with an assessment of, both elements in and closest to the regime and those plotting its overthrow.
4. He definitely does not seem to me to be wedded to the regime. He has, I think, felt for a long time that it is moving to its own funeral but he is not sure whether the moment has yet arrived.
5. For these reasons and because of point 3 in the message to you/3/--i.e., "I think Lansdale would be helpful in discovering intents among the generals and relieving pressures; in event coup is attempted Lansdale would be most helpful in assessing prospects and in evaluating potential leadership. "--I continue to urge that you favor this move, subject to Lodge's approval. As far as I am concerned there are no "eyes and ears" at this time whose assessment I would rather have.
6. If you were to decide positively, and to discuss the matter with Lodge, I would suggest you waited until after Lodge's own talk with Lansdale, which is now scheduled for 0900 Thursday morning./4/ In such case, however, Lodge will not be available until some time late Friday morning.
/4/No record of a Lodge-Lansdale meeting: on July 25 has been found.
237. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State/1/
Saigon, July 25, 1963, 8 p.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET. Top Secret.
134. Hilsman from Nolting. Deptel 112./2/ delayed by servicing. I find myself more sanguine about prospects of GVN's settling Buddhist problem and avoiding coup d'etat than general tenor reftel and SNIE./3/ I would put question marks by all of first four numbered paragraphs reftel, which seem to me too gloomy--or at least too logical--for this situation. Without trying to spell out nuances of difference between our respective analyses, perhaps it is sufficient I feel that heat is slowly going out of this crisis and that this government is quite likely survive this crisis, as it has many others in past.
As you know, I also hold that, despite shortcomings of present GVN, it is government which stands best chance (as compared with realizable alternatives) of carrying to successful conclusion counterinsurgency effort here. Therefore, without putting all our eggs in one basket or alienating possible successor governments or leaders, we should, I think, help, by all means consistent with our own principles, to maximize this government's chances of survival.
Since transmission your message, atmosphere has perceptibly calmed, at least on surface. GVN has at last gotten itself into sound posture on religious issue and may be said to be "one up" on Buddhists. In effect, GVN has pledged and repledged itself to implementation June 16 agreement and has offered Buddhists joint investigation any complaints on this score by examination of records or on-the-spot investigations.
If GVN pursues its initiative and avoids actions inconsistent with its announced policy of conciliation, Buddhist leadership may well find it best to settle on basis June 16 agreements and more radical elements will then, I think, cease agitation.
Just how solution of Buddhist issue will affect coup plotting it is impossible to say, but this is a threat which is always with us.
Thus for present I would advocate a course somewhere between para 5 (d) and (c). Specifically, I think we should publicly welcome conciliatory steps as they are taken by GVN, and any constructive steps taken by Buddhists, with view to encouraging more of same and disabusing those Buddhist leaders whose aims appear to be open-ended./4/
/4/A marginal notation on the source text at this point, in an unknown hand, reads: "No."
Finally, I agree that situation has not reached point where we can sensibly think about throwing our support to any particular alternative to Diem regime/5/ (para 6 reftel).
/5/A marginal notation on the source text at this point, in the same hand, reads: "We didn't mean this and I don't think we said it."
238. Memorandum of Conversation/1/
Washington, July 26, 1963.
/1/Source: Department of State, Vietnam Working Group Files: Lot 67 D 54, PR-11 Press Relations. Confidential. Drafted by Kattenburg who is not listed among the participants. The meeting was held at the Department of State.
Mr. Manning, who had just returned from a trip to Saigon, thought that the essence of the press problems lay in getting more of the members of the press corps in that city in frequent and meaningful touch with the "horse's mouth", i.e. the Ambassador and other top U.S. officials. This was certainly not the best press corps in the world nor the worst. It was divided between those who remained permanently in Saigon and who tended to be somewhat in-bred and to suffer from localitis and those coming in on trips from the outside who were more seasoned and had better perspective. Key reporters among. the first group were Halberstam of the New York Times and the AP and UPI correspondents. In the second group the leading reporters were Keyes Beech, Pepper Martin of U.S. News and World Report, and Jim Robinson of NBC.
Mr. Manning thought the main aspect in removing the dissatisfaction of some of these correspondents was to take them into our confidence more, give them an "in" feeling, and invite them more often not only to ritualistic type functions but specifically to say small dinners given by the Ambassador for Vietnamese officials and leading personalities including perhaps one correspondent at a time.
Ambassador Lodge indicated he intended to do just that, that one of the first things he planned to do was to have lunch with several of the key correspondents. Mr. Manning said as a whole the correspondents approved the program we are pursuing in Viet-Nam and supported our effort there--though they were unanimous in despising the Diem regime and in their conviction that we could not win with it.
The impasse between the GVN and the American press corps was well nigh insoluble. Diem's and Nhu's recent offers to have back-grounders with the American press, laudable as this offer was on their part, would almost certainly not result in changing the conviction of the correspondents that the government is doomed. Yet Mr. Manning thought that we should continue encouraging Diem and Nhu in this direction and to seek as much contact with the correspondents as possible. Ambassador Lodge indicated that he was well aware of this whole problem and very concerned about it. He was also concerned at the feeling among American intellectuals regarding the Diem government and had been harassed by communications on their part advocating that we change our policy on the Diem regime. He thought it likely he would try to return here after some six months in Saigon to make several speeches to improve the domestic atmosphere.
Mr. Manning suggested that Ambassador Lodge may wish to keep the present USIS team and the press attache in Saigon who he thought were handling the situation well. Ambassador Lodge agreed and indicated he did not intend to make personnel changes in this area.
Mr. Manning referred to Director of Information Dang Duc Khoi who is under Civic Action Secretary Hieu and who he said was very savvy. There had been some discussion in Saigon of sending Khoi to New York to endeavor to correct editorial impressions there on Viet-Nam. Mr. Manning thought this suggestion had merit.
239. Report From the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs (Manning) to the President/1/
/1/Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, 7/21/ 63-7/31/63. Secret; Eyes Only. Sent to McGeorge Bundy on July 26 under a covering memorandum from Executive Secretary Benjamin H. Read. Read commended the report, and the attached memoranda of conversation between Manning and Nhu on July 17, and Manning and Diem on July 18 (Documents 226 and 227), as providing "a lengthy but fascinating window into the present state of mind of both Ngo Dinhs." Read noted that a copy of the report was also being sent to Presidential Press Secretary Salinger. A note on the covering memorandum indicates that the report was placed in the President's weekend reading file.
REPORT ON THE SAIGON PRESS SITUATION
The press problem in Viet-Nam is singular because of the singular nature of the United States involvement in that country. Our involvement is so extensive as to require public, i.e., press, scrutiny, and yet so hemmed by limitations as to make it difficult for the United States government to promote and assure that scrutiny. The problem is complicated by the long-standing desire of the United States government to see the American involvement in Viet-Nam minimized, even represented as something less than in reality it is. The early history of the handling of the situation is marked by attitudes, directives and actions in Washington and in the field that reflect this United States desire.
The effect of these generally restrictive practices had the short-term virtue of keeping the escalating American involvement in a low key in the world and United States press. But a long-term result has been serious deterioration in the credibility attached by American correspondents to the information and assessments given to them by United States military and political authorities in Viet-Nam, and to a certain extent in Washington. Additionally, it can be argued that, whatever the merit of those practices in earlier days of the involvement in Viet-Nam, the public attitude in the United States has been mature and unexcitable--so much so that earlier fears of reaction to American casualties and other aspects of the program may be said to have been exaggerated. This last point argues strongly for relaxation of some--but not all--of the strictures still imposed on American press coverage of the Vietnamese situation, and it argues for a more relaxed attitude on the part of US officials to the reports and assessments of the US press. This would do much to reduce the somewhat sullen Alice in Wonderland miasma that surrounds the Vietnamese press situation, and it would help to build a degree of mutual confidence and mutual credibility between American authorities and American correspondents covering Viet-Nam.
The absence of this confidence and credibility lies close to the core of the press problem as it appears on the conclusion of a four-day mission to Saigon. The situation is a troublesome one, and it is unlikely to evolve into a happy one. There are, however, possibilities of improvement. The basic problem will be removed as a critical factor in the US operations in Viet-Nam only by time and decisive GVN victory over the Viet-Cong. But it can be ameliorated.
First, a look at the parties involved:
1. The American Correspondents
The Saigon press corps consists of a dozen Americans, mostly staffers but some (Time, Newsweek) stringers. These are augmented by periodic visits by Far Eastern correspondents from the Tokyo, Hong Kong or New Delhi bureaus of AP, UP, the networks and major US publications. With two exceptions those we talked to at length were regularly stationed in Saigon. It became apparent that, save for a higher intensity on the part of the locals, the locals and the periodic visitors share generally similar views and assessments of the press situation. The local correspondents verge on unanimity also in their assessments of the Vietnamese government, the effectiveness of GVN-US military and political programs and the virtues or shortcomings of the American involvement and American officials. The periodic visitors may differ somewhat with many of the locals' assessments, but for practical purposes they differ chiefly in degree only.
At the time of the visit to Saigon, the correspondents were concerned with their own safety and ability to operate, almost to the exclusion of problems of access and other relations with the GVN and US officials. Several maintained in fact that they feel able to get all the information they need (a statement which many will probably qualify once their concern over the recent roughing-up by GVN police fades away)./2/ The main burden of their several hours' discussion was a desire for assurances that they could continue to work in Viet-Nam without threat of physical or technical harassment, or the threat of expulsions by the GVN. They were more scared than hurt by the fracas with police on July 7. Reporters covering the South have had rougher experiences. But the problem goes deeper than the matter of these fears.
/2/See Documents 210 and 211.
The correspondents reflect unanimous bitterness toward, and contempt for, the Diem government. They unanimously maintain that the Vietnamese program cannot succeed unless the Diem regime (cum family) is replaced; this conviction, though it does not always appear in their copy, underlies all the reports and analyses of the correspondents
The correspondents profess to have little faith in the information or guidance they are given by top officials of the US Embassy, and they treat with disdain what they believe to be the over-optimism of General Harkins and his top command. Where US officials maintain that the military program is making decided progress, and the strategic hamlet program is developing favorably, the correspondents maintain either the direct opposite--that the situation is retrogressing--or, that the situation is little better than a stalemate. Some correspondents go so far as to charge that they are systematically lied to by US officials. All of them maintain that to get what they consider to be "straight facts" on given operations, battles or situations (e.g., how well the Vietnamese fight), they have to go to lower echelons in the field. However justified these attitudes and allegations (I believe many are exaggerations), their very existence deserves to be recognized and attacked as a major obstacle to a healthy information situation in Saigon.
Beyond their own treatment at the hands of US officials, the newsmen generally feel that US officials have become so committed themselves to "winning with Diem" that their own official reporting is subject to serious question. This finds many of the correspondents convinced that their own assessments represent a more authoritative and more realistic picture than is being given to Washington by its own representatives. One need not agree with this view of correspondents in order to suggest that it must change before we can expect healthy press relations in Saigon.
Amid these many unpleasant facts about the correspondents' state of mind sits a most important and encouraging fact: They seem to agree to a man that the US involvement in Viet-Nam is a necessary free world policy and that the programs, military and political, are basically necessary and feasible. Without this, the situation would be discouraging to the extreme; with this belief on the correspondents' part, there is much to build on. Where they disagree is in questions of assessment of the progress and, more precisely to the point, the wisdom of continuing to rely for the program's execution on the Diem regime.
From all of this, it is obvious that the correspondents place much faith in their own abilities to report and assess a situation that is as complex and as tricky as any in the world today. Is such self-confidence, coupled as it is with considerable disdain for the official assessments, justified?
The local correspondents for the most part are young and of limited experience. There are some more seasoned correspondents among the periodic visitors and this, combined with their ability to get frequent relief from the confines of Viet-Nam, often produces more balanced reports of the fighting and the political situation. The locals seem for the most part to be given to quick-rising emotionalism, and they unquestionably are severely afflicted with "localitis," the disease which causes newsmen long assigned to the confines of one given situation to distort perspective by over-concentration on their own irritations, adventures and opinions.
This group contains no journalistic giants, though at least one is very promising and several are obviously bright men. And I would say that all are decent, patriotic Americans who are striving to do credit to themselves and their profession. The personal manners of some vis-a-vis the Viet-Nam officials leave something to be desired, and they suffer the common newspaper tendency to let the immediate dominate the long view.
As an overall assessment of the correspondents, I am inclined to accept the following opinion of John Mecklin, US Public Affairs Officer in Saigon:
"The American newsmen working here are as good or better than the average in such boondocks assignments. They are exceptionally hard-working; they manage to stay on top of the news despite extraordinary handicaps; they are unafraid to face frequent personal danger; and they must work under conditions of notable emotional stress. Their reporting has thrown light on the sordid, bitter depths of the situation here which would not otherwise be generally known, thus in effect forcing a healthy confrontation between the American people and the reality of this kind of big power responsibility. This has inevitably complicated US operations in Viet-Nam, but ironically it has also reinforced US efforts to persuade the GVN to take various unpalatable actions by providing the argument that US public opinion cannot be ignored.
"The newsmen have often been accused of 'irresponsibility.' In general, I don't think this is either accurate or fair, though there have been some damaging errors. There have been numerous occasions when the reporters have deliberately withheld information that would have damaged the US interest; e.g., a number of shabby incidents between American military personnel and Saigon police, and the case some months ago of a homosexual American civilian official who was attacked and seriously wounded by his Vietnamese partner. The newsmen have, however, insisted on reporting matters that they considered of true significance to the US position here, regardless of the resulting broken crockery, and thus in effect have forced a basic issue: that just as the US will not attempt to unseat a sovereign government, however tempting, so it cannot engage in a semi-covert struggle such as this except in the full glare of the free American press.
"This is a reality which had been widely overlooked in developing the US advisory role here. It will be equally important if and as the US is obliged to engage in similar efforts elsewhere. How to handle it hopefully, should be one of the major 'lessons learned' in Vietnam."
2. Vietnamese Officials
The bitterness and contempt displayed by American correspondents for President Diem and his top officials (especially for Counselor and Madame Nhu) is fervently reciprocated by Diem and company. Madame Nhu has repeatedly remarked that the American correspondents are "Communists" or "as bad as Communists." The government says (and, I believe, has become convinced) that the newsmen are chiefly concerned with bringing about the downfall of the Diem government. "These young reporters want nothing less than to make a new government," said Ngo Dinh Nhu bitterly in my talk with him. "This is an exalting ambition, a stimulating pastime for three or four of them to get together to overthrow a government and create another." (Please see attached memos of conversations with Nhu and President Diem.)
More perhaps than American officials on the scene, the Vietnamese see the American press in Saigon (and back home in the US) as an important political factor, one that can in fact play a large role in altering or even undermining the American commitment to Viet-Nam. Believing this, and believing that the correspondents are eager for Diem's overthrow, the GVN officials see the correspondents as deliberately cooperating with and encouraging any and all political opposition--such as the Buddhist protests--as a means of achieving said overthrow.
Extremely sensitive to personal criticism, Diem and his relatives take particular affront at the kind of personal references that enter (inevitably, in view of the autocratic family role) into much American reporting. While on the one hand reacting by expelling correspondents who displease them (both expulsions, of Francois Sully of Newsweek and James Robinson of NBC, were for stories dealing with family personalities), GVN officials talk of needing "public relations advice" to improve their image with the American public. They have plainly given up hope of achieving any of this improvement through an improvement in relations with the correspondents stationed in Viet-Nam, and talk somewhat wishfully of trying to reach over their heads to editors and editorial writers in the United States. They are insistent that the American correspondents willfully refuse to talk with officials or recognize facts that tell the favorable side of the Vietnamese story. (On the other hand, correspondents say that when they try to talk with a Vietnamese official they get either lies or lectures.)
In talks with Nhu and Diem, it was apparent that they are bitterly resigned to the conviction that the newsmen are incorrigible. For our part, we believe that the point was clearly made that the United States cannot guarantee its ability to maintain its full effort in Viet-Nam if the GVN, by expulsions or harassment of correspondents, turns the entire American press into enemies of the program. Interestingly, Nhu at one point conceded that much information unfavorable to the regime has been given to American correspondents, and visiting US officials and legislators, by officials of the Vietnamese government. Said Nhu with a wan sneer: "All conditions are favorable for a complete US change of policy in Viet-Nam. It is a great opportunity and it would be a tremendous sacrifice for those hostile to the (Diem) government to give up this opportunity."
3. US Officials
The senior American officials of the Embassy and MAC/V view the correspondents with a distaste that is difficult to conceal. They consider most of the correspondents young, immature and irresponsible. Some consider that the correspondents' criticism of and opposition to the American effort in Viet-Nam transgress the line between journalistic independence and patriotism. They consider the correspondents' behavior toward GVN and US officials to be sometimes rude, insulting, and insufferable. There is some justification for the above views, but the fact remains that the responsibility for the gulf between the correspondents and the senior American officials is something the two groups share.
To put it bluntly, the senior US officials have not been good enough in their handling of the press. Although they devote perhaps more time and effort than any post in the world to press problems, their contacts with the press often serve to make the situation worse. The major cause for this is the complete difference in the official and the correspondents' assessment of the situation, but another serious cause is the reluctance of the official family to treat the press with candor. Background information is, apparently, almost never given. A too determined effort is made to give a rosy picture, with the result that the correspondents consider themselves to have been lied to. In short, the correspondents are viewed as a nuisance and an inconvenience to be endured, not as a valuable tool.
The Embassy's instincts are to keep from the press all but the most transparently desirable stories. Thus the Embassy either refuses to talk about, or is disingenuously selective in its information, about even minor stories which might prove unhelpful to the GVN or to the US effort in Viet-Nam. Faced with a passionately hostile press corps, the Embassy is entitled to sympathy for its wariness in dealing with the correspondents. But the result of its efforts has been the complete destruction of the Embassy's credibility.
Senior US officials should not be condemned for the situation which exists. It was in part inherited and in part predestined by the unrealistic policy directives under which they were forced to deal with the press until recently. Finally, they are dealing with an almost unique public relations problem which grows out of the almost unique nature of the American involvement in Viet-Nam and the peculiar nature of the Vietnamese government. No one--until recently--has realized how essential a role the press would play in our policies in Viet-Nam.
Nonetheless, it has now become essential that the Embassy recognize the press as what it is-an independent and important separate force bearing upon both the political situation in Viet-Nam and the all-important matter of domestic support in the United States for the American involvement in Viet-Nam. Unless I am mistaken, one element in the present hostility between the press and the Embassy is wounded ego on the part of the correspondents who have a highly developed sense of importance. The Embassy certainly possesses the diplomatic skill and maturity to bring the correspondents at least partly into a deeper sense of participation. It requires only that the correspondents be viewed and treated as politically important individuals, rather than as a group of socially objectionable and professionally incompetent young cubs.
A word on the USIS installation in Saigon. Under John Mecklin, a long-time journalism pro, the public affairs activities are in especially talented and dedicated hands. He seems to have achieved the confidence of top officers and the fullest access to important Embassy, MAC/V and intelligence information. He, too, has been severely handicapped by the restrictive regulations imposed from Washington and by the tendency of his superiors to over-caution. It is likely that the Mecklin team is one of the best USIS combines in the world; certainly it is superior to most, seasoned in the tough complexities of the Vietnamese situation and convinced that the job is a compelling challenge. Relations between USIS and the military, both PIO's and top officers, appear to be excellent and Mecklin has taken great pains to familiarize himself with officials in the field. He also has obviously close and friendly contacts with many Vietnamese officials and has had considerable direct contact with Diem and Nhu.
It should be noted most correspondents, while satisfied to get most of their information from public information officials, and to a great extent dependent on it, still feel a strong need for steady and mutual confident relations with the major officials themselves.
4. The Buddhist Issue
The Buddhist controversy in Viet-Nam is pertinent to this report for two reasons. First, an incident growing out of the controversy inspired the visit to Saigon. Second, the controversy itself demonstrates the direct and potentially influential role that correspondents on the scene can play in the execution of a foreign policy. The Buddhist activities, however genuine their original religious motivation, have evolved into political activities aimed at the overthrow of the Diem government. The Buddhist activists, and whoever on the Viet-Nam scene is encouraging or supporting them, premise their potential effectiveness to a large extent on exploitation of the American correspondents. With a press agent's flair, Buddhist leaders take pains to notify newsmen in advance of processions or other activities. They count heavily on word and photo coverage to keep the issue alive, and to extend and illustrate the evident unwillingness of the American government to condone Diem's handling of the crisis, thus separating Diem and the US.
In view of the correspondents' hostility to the government and in view of their concentration on spot news, the anti-government activists sense that the newsmen are predisposed to give full play to the demonstrations, the Buddhist grievances and the government's countermeasures.
The GVN, on the other hand, knows full well that its life is at stake, and considers the American correspondents to be an essential and enthusiastic element in the attempt to bring down the Government. Despite the correspondents' complaints of Embassy indifference, there is little doubt that the GVN would have moved against the correspondents some time ago were it not for the cloak of sanctity which they wear because of their nationality and the representations made on their behalf by the Embassy.
The GVN is belatedly attempting to deal helpfully with Buddhist complaints. The GVN is attempting to stave off the religious issues and to do this in such a way as to make it clear to all that subsequent demonstrations are political. The success of this effort is problematical, among other reasons because the American correspondents are apt to be sympathetic and understanding to opposition efforts to keep the crisis alive.
The GVN policy implies (and Minister Hieu explicitly told my Special Assistant) that subsequent demonstrations will be put down "with brutality if necessary". At that point, Vietnamese and world opinion must either accept the Government's version of events, which is unlikely, or the crisis will continue to grow in intensity. The American correspondents may well be the prime determinants of opinion-and they are hostile to the Government.
It is unlikely that the crisis can be settled without considerable violence. It is still possible the GVN will decide that it cannot be settled unless some way is found to moderate press coverage of the situation. If the crisis is not settled, the Government will probably fall.
Ironically, this crisis comes at a time when US and GVN officials are convinced that we have turned the corner in our efforts to defeat Communist subversion. There is general agreement that the Strategic Hamlet program is the answer, and that progress, although still spotty, is real. According to the official assessment (with which the correspondents passionately disagree) we need only keep the political situation under control in order to reap significant and lasting successes from our present effort. Yet, all agree that the present crisis can easily undo the progress made thus far, and seriously reduce if not destroy the prospects for early success.
Thus, even though there can be no great improvement in relations between the GVN and the press, an improvement in relations between the US press and the Embassy-MAC/V has become an exigent requirement of American policy in Vietnam, both for reasons of domestic US public support and, if it is desired, for the immediate survival of the Diem government in Viet-Nam.
Usefulness and Accomplishments of the Mission
Despite some initial doubts, I am now convinced that the mission was timely, necessary, and useful. The accomplishments were as follows:
1. It was made completely clear to the three highest officials of the Vietnamese Government that continuing scrutiny and criticism by the American press of the American involvement in Viet-Nam constituted an absolute requirement of United States policy. Diem and his principal advisors were made to understand that free reporting from Viet-Nam (however unfavorable it might be) was infinitely preferable to the situation in which expulsion or physical harassment made martyrs of the pressmen. Criticism of the Viet-Nam program was the essential ingredient to a public debate on the merits of the program. Press scrutiny and criticism enable the President to defend his program on its merits and accomplishments. But such a defense would be effective and credible only so long as free press scrutiny and criticism were allowed.
I believe Diem and company understand this argument and its validity. They have no reason for failing to understand the importance attached by the U.S. Government to continuing free press scrutiny of the American involvement in Viet-Nam.
2. We received from Diem, Counselor Nhu, and Secretary of State Thuan a virtual pledge against harassment of correspondents. The value of this pledge is tempered by the fact that the correspondents are so passionately opposed to the Government, and could conceivably engage in activity so clearly upsetting or insulting as to leave the GVN little alternative but expulsion. Barring such activity on the part of the pressmen I think it unlikely that the GVN will undertake either harassment or expulsion of correspondents.
There remains, however, the possibility of inadvertent contact between police and U.S. correspondents in the event of further street violence with the Buddhists, and such a clash--even though accidental--could revive fears that correspondents are in danger. I would not predict calmness on the part of correspondents were this to happen.
3. We obtained the permission of the GVN for the readmission to Viet-Nam of NBC Correspondent Robinson. His actual re-entry took place prior to our departure from Viet-Nam. This action served not only to moderate the passion of the correspondents and to improve the tone of the moment, but also served to underline the fact that the U.S. Government has both the intention and some capability of protecting legitimate interests of the correspondents in Viet-Nam.
4. We reduced substantially the fear of the correspondents for their own physical safety. Although their concern was probably exaggerated, the correspondents genuinely feared, upon our arrival, that the GVN had embarked upon a deliberate campaign of harassment and intimidation which, some of them maintained, might well culminate in either the savage beating or actual death of one or more correspondents. The correspondents' reaction to their fear was embittered determination not to give in, and passionate resentment of what they considered the Embassy's inability or unwillingness to give them protection.
The correspondents now at least partly recognize that the atmosphere is changed and the physical harassment by the GVN is unlikely.
5. We received a pledge from Counselor Nhu to try background briefings with selected groups of the correspondents. Such meetings, if they go well, could contribute toward filling the vacuum which now exists in regard to authoritative GVN presentations of policy and interpretations to the American pressmen. With uncertain results, we pressed President Diem to hold similar meetings occasionally with individual American pressmen. The Times correspondent is now seeking a Presidential appointment.
6. During the visit, the GVN agreed to drop the charges against two correspondents of assaulting Vietnamese police. (Nolting had this in train before our arrival.) Similarly, we were able to get the American AP correspondent, Browne, to agree to drop his own charges against the Vietnamese police. This issue now seems dead.
7. Finally, and importantly, the visit gave the American correspondents a chance to blow off steam and to voice their own views to a receptive official American audience. How lasting the benefits may be of this psychological release will depend on an improved public relations program in Viet-Nam, but there is no question that there has been a temporary improvement in the atmosphere.
1. That the President direct that the occasional meetings on Viet-Nam between the President's Press Secretary and the principal information officers of State, Defense and USIA undertake on a regular basis to give centralized, professional and authoritative direction to the effort to improve U.S. public relations in connection with our involvement in Viet-Nam. The Group should, at an early date, formulate new and comprehensive guidance applicable to all elements of the U.S. involvement in Viet-Nam.
Justification: An improvement in relations between Embassy-MAC/V and the press corps in Saigon has become an exigent requirement of U.S. policy in Viet-Nam. The present relations are poisonous, and an improvement will require continuing leadership and momentum from Washington of the type that can only be given by an inter-Departmental authority.
Without such leadership, a substantial improvement is not likely. Professional diplomatic and military minds find it difficult to accept and even more difficult to deal with a situation in which public relations must take precedence over all but the gravest military and diplomatic requirements. Without centralized direction, the requirements of military security, the privacy of diplomatic negotiations, and protocol and procedural considerations will continue to dilute and frustrate the effort to improve relations between the press and the official family in Viet-Nam.
It is not intended that major substantive decisions should be shaped to meet the need of public relations. But it is imperative that the requirements of an improved public relations program no longer be subordinated to and thwarted by routine diplomatic and military procedures and considerations.
2. That Ambassador Lodge's arrival in Saigon be used to involve the correspondents as participants in a reassessment of the real situation in Viet-Nam.
Justification: At the present time there is an unbridgeable gap between the official and the correspondent's assessment of the Vietnamese situation. The officials believe that the war is showing great progress and that success is predictable if the political situation can be kept in hand. The correspondents believe that the program is stalled, that no progress is being made, and that no success is possible so long as the Diem Government is in power. In the present situation no dialogue is possible between the two parties for each dismisses with contempt the views of the other.
Ambassador Lodge's arrival presents an opportunity to get before the correspondents in credible form the evidence upon which the official views are based. It also affords an opportunity to bring the correspondents into the official family in a sense, by giving them a purposeful opportunity to present to senior American officials their own views and information.
The mechanics for doing this should be Ambassador Lodge's reassessment, for his own purposes, of the situation. He can tell the correspondents that he is aware that their assessment is in conflict with the official one, and intends to arrive at his own assessment through an examination of all the facts available including their own. He can seek their assistance, and thus possibly involve them in a reassessment of their own. The correspondents in Viet-Nam are sincere and deeply committed to the success of the U.S. effort to thwart Communist subversion. If they can be brought to consider the evidence of progress it is not credible that their views would not be influenced and moderated thereby. Moreover, the correspondents have sources and information of their own, more knowledge of which would doubtless be useful to the Embassy.
3. That a concerted effort be undertaken to obtain the publication in a broad range of U.S. periodicals of authoritative articles on the situation in Viet-Nam. These articles should stress the exciting end unique nature of the U.S. involvement in Viet-Nam and the appositeness of the effort to the Communist penchant for victory by subversion. Classified information should be made available as necessary to ensure that these articles reflect both the difficulties and the progress which characterize our effort.
4. No effort should be made to underplay or hide the magnitude of the U.S. involvement and casualties in Viet-Nam. In the first place, the effort will certainly fail in the end. In the second, as stated before, the reaction of American public thus far to news of U.S. casualties has been remarkably mature. Thirdly, there is even a chance that U.S. public support for the effort in Viet-Nam will be enhanced, not lessened, by the knowledge of American sacrifices made in this struggleÄ providing the unhealthy political situation in Saigon is cured. Finally, any attempt to disguise the American casualties or involvement in Viet-Nam will (as it has in the past) poison relations between Embassy-MAC/V and the correspondents and ensure the failure of efforts to create a more sympathetic and understanding press treatment of the U.S. effort in Viet-Nam. Similarly, we should be more honest and outgoing with the correspondents about our setbacks and our difficulties with the GVN. Our progress will become credible only when our failures (which the correspondents know about anyway) are admitted freely.
5. The American press, both here and in Viet-Nam, should be made aware that the U.S. Government considers continuing press scrutiny and free coverage of the U.S. involvement in Viet-Nam to be an absolute requirement of American policy in Viet-Nam. The press should be informed-on a background basis-that this has been vigorously conveyed to the highest levels of the Vietnamese Government, and that we have reason to believe that American correspondents will be free from harassment and expulsion.
The press should be informed of the attitude of the Vietnamese Government toward the American correspondents, and reminded that the unprecedented support which the correspondents are receiving from the U.S. Government makes it incumbent that their personal behavior toward the Vietnamese Government and its officials be proper and circumspect. The U.S. Government has used some of its currency with Diem in its effort to guarantee to the press the right to report freely and honestly. We can succeed in this effort only if the correspondents in Viet-Nam behave and report with responsibility and reasonable objectivity and fairness. No one can protect the press against retaliation for public and profane insults to GVN officials. No one can protect them against retaliation for participation in coup movements. No one can protect them against retaliation for contemptuous behavior toward the GVN (e.g. refusing to accept interviews with President Diem or Counselor Nhu).
6. A deliberate and calculated effort should be made to establish good personal relations between senior Embassy-MAC/V officers and individual correspondents. This effort should be pursued with the same tact and skill that is used in establishing personal relationships with GVN officials.
At the present, the correspondents are too in-bred. Conscious of the distaste and disapproval with which they seem to be viewed by senior Embassy and some military officials, they respond with a passionate and unanimous contempt of their own. They have formed a closed group, cemented together by a sense of maltreatment from the GVN and the Embassy. They have convinced themselves that they are the only ones who know or will recognize the truth about the situation in Viet-Nam. Any contrary views from Embassy-MAC/V officials are dismissed as untruthful and deceitful.
It is essential that a useful dialogue be re-established and this can be done if Embassy-MAC/V officers embark upon a concerted effort to woo individual reporters.
240. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State/1/
Saigon, July 27, 1963, 8 p.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, AID(US) S VIET. Secret.
143. For Lodge from Nolting.
1. When I was in Washington, I had some discussion on economic aid levels for FY 1964. These conversations neither very definitive nor conclusive largely for lack time to go deeply into matter. Since my return Saigon, have reviewed five-year military plan prepared by MAAG connection 1965 MAP submission and economic projections prepared by USOM. In my view, most difficult economic-financial-political problem looms ahead here during next few years. Elements of problem are: meeting security objectives in face increasing belligerence part ChiComs, getting GVN come forward with necessary increased levels financing necessary prosecute war, avoidance dangerous inflation, planned reductions U.S. economic aid.
2. Last year U.S. provided $95 million for commercial import program; there was additionally available about $30ÿ0935 million from prior years' funds (pipeline), making total $125 million approximately for licensing imports. Most recent messages from Washington indicate plans for $cS0 million or less this year with no prior years' funds to add. This figure should not be frozen, I think, until all elements of equation have had careful consideration by you.
3. In summer 1961, U.S. and GVN undertook joint study which resulted in what is now referred to as Staley-Thuc report/2/ in context of conditions as they existed that time. From this study resulted mutual understanding and/or governmental agreement on force levels, exchange rates, appropriate levels of GVN exchange reserves, deficit financing of war expenditures, and need for other economic reforms on part GVN. Though their performance uneven with respect such matters as in deal [sic] tax collections, reduction unessential imports, etc., GVN have followed through on important parts undertakings including deficit financing for war activities, and exchange rate revisions. Furthermore, they have drawn down exchange reserves substantially below figure set in report. It is perhaps unfortunate that level of reserves only item quantified giving VN strong talking point whereas other measures connected austerity which do not have such benchmarks have not been pursued to our satisfaction.
/2/See Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. I, Documents 72 ff.
4. We now facing changed set of conditions from those confronting us in 1961 when primary emphasis on war build-up. We now (in terms military planning) looking to termination active insurgency by end 1965, involving changes force levels thereafter with its own set political problems, peak military expenditures 1964, 1965 and high plateau continuing expenditures for economic development, expanded police, and essential military needs thereafter. We encountering increasing difficulty obtaining large-scale appropriations for mutual security in light our domestic budgetary deficits and balance payments problems. GVN image in U.S. has not improved-quite the contrary in recent months. Lack of forcefulness their part in imposing austerity, by decreasing unessential imports and increasing tax collections (there has been increase in tax collections, but not enough) and their lack of drive in promoting exports make case for more economic aid difficult. Nevertheless, even if they take all possible measures, the facts would argue for amounts substantially greater than those now being proposed.
5. I therefore come to conclusion it in our interest to undertake a new study, preferably by same people (Staley and Thuc), in light of new conditions both here and in U.S. Otherwise we face series partial negotiations, some dealing with force levels and military expenditures, some with austerity and self-help measures, others with aid levels and local currency financing of war. And yet these all inter-related in fact and, equally as important, inter-related in a political and psychological sense. When Staley Mission first proposed in 1961, many skeptical as to this approach as substitute for normal bilateral negotiations. When completed, we all convinced results good especially since GVN recognized study as sincere joint effort get at facts and reach conclusions on basis those facts rather than as exercise in negotiation from preconceived position. This both tribute to Staley's and Thuc's handling of study and sine qua non for confidence and performance on part GVN. I would hope that a new study would lead not only to understandings on a broad front in specific and quantified terms but also agreement on specific measures to be taken during next few years.
6. In light foregoing, I would suggest that before your departure, you might wish fully explore all aspects this thorny problem with Washington offices concerned, with view to--
(a) Obtaining Department approval to proposal for new study and determine if and when Staley available three-four week study.
(b) Urging DOD reach early decision on military plan submitted by CINCPAC to JCS. This important element in any study to be made.
(c) Urging AID/W hold open question economic aid levels 1964 and be prepared accept major changes to 1965 submission which just going forward.
We believe GVN would welcome broad-scale review this type at this time./3/
/3/On August 13, the Department of State and AID responded to Ambassador Nolting's proposal that a decision regarding a "Staley-type mission" should be deferred "until after Ambassador Lodge has had time formulate his own evaluation." (Telegram 191 to Saigon; Department of State, Central Files, AID(US) S VIET)
241. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State/1/
Saigon, July 28, 1963, 4 p.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET. Secret; Limit Distribution. Repeated to CINCPAC.
144. Some encouraging news and symptoms over past several days re Buddhist problem-but also several perplexing developments.
Was assured yesterday by Bui Van Luong (Interior Minister) that government would use no repressive measures against further Buddhist demonstrations, having concluded that most people bored with Buddhist agitation and becoming convinced that GVN proposals just and sincere attempt settle religious problem. Thus he thought no real risk in letting up on security measures. This checks with info received independently from Diem's doctor, who told me that in his presence Diem had called Interior Minister, Colonel Y (secret police chief), and Saigon Police Chief to instruct them not to use force or arrests against Buddhist agitators or demonstrators. This may be overly optimistic reading, but nevertheless instructions are along lines we have been advocating. May be crucial in connection with big demonstration planned by Buddhists for Tuesday, July 30, which is seventh and final weekly memorial of Quang Duc's death. There has been much publicity about this, with Buddhist appeals to shopkeepers and civil servants and others to quit work and demonstrate. Self-sacrifice of Buu Hoi's mother also forecast by her for this date. (Buu Hoi has not yet returned to Saigon as expected and requested by government, and this is disturbing.)
Meanwhile, Vice President Tho tells me that Buddhist leaders have semi-agreed to meet with government commission on provisional basis (i.e., with no terms of reference set and free to leave if they don't like set-up) on July 31. Tho said that in telephone talks his contact, a moderate Buddhist leader, said in effect that they (Buddhist leaders) wanted to try one more wingding before agreeing to sit down in joint sessions. Tho worried re outcome Tuesday's events, but unable persuade Buddhists to meet beforehand.
Thuan tells me that Diem couldn't bring himself to invite directly and publicly Tich Tinh Kiet to come to see him, but did send word through Tho that he would see him if requested. (This of course misses main point my recommendation, but may nevertheless help some.)
Talked to Mau about getting Buu Hoi back here quick, and he agreed to send him another SOS. Said Buu Hoi had heart condition which made it dangerous for him to travel (somebody else said bad liver). I said I reckoned he'd have worse than that if he didn't come back soon.
Several members of government have assured me that, for present, nobody seems to be trying to undercut policy of conciliation. However, one report to contrary is that Nhu did order veterans demonstration, which he later repudiated (cannot vouch for accuracy).
Finally, I have had serious word from Vice President, Thuan, and Mau that GVN continues to receive reports (with some details) that several official Americans are encouraging Buddhists to continue agitation until Lodge arrives and U.S. pulls rug on Diem. Disavowing again such nonsense (which my informants also discounted), I am nevertheless taking measures to cut to essential minimum contacts of American officials with Buddhists in pagodas (especially Xa Loi), and investigating certain apparently unauthorized contacts, which may have given rise to suspicions among many gullible people. One good reason for doing so is possibility that Saigon police, already overstrained, may come to put credence in such rumors, which would be bad. I shall lay out facts fully to Diem and Tho when I get them.
Atmosphere calm over weekend.
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