Vietnam War: The Documents - 18

Instructions for Ambassador Lodge on Dealing With Diem Regime Repression

American policy in Vietnam had to face not only the challenge of a Communist insurgency directed and controlled from North Vietnam, but of a government in the South that was repressive, apparently unpopular, and apparently unable to properly prosecute the war against the Communists.

The following telegram, written by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and read and approved by President Kennedy, instructs American Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge on how to bring pressure to bear on President Diem. Repressive actions on the part of the South Vietnamese government would have provided a perfect cover for U.S. withdrawal, had Kennedy wanted to withdraw. Instead he pressured Diem to reform, and noted that the U.S. "will support Vietnamese effort to change government."

All this is consistent with the statement that "our primary objective remains winning the war."


Aug 31 10:48PM '63

ACTION: Amembassy SAIGON Emergency 294
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Re your 391, agree your conclusion favoring direct effort on GVN. US cannot abandon Viet-nam and while it will support Vietnamese effort to change government that has good prospects success US should not and would not mount and operate one. To use your metaphor, when the spaghetti was pushed, it curled; now we must try pulling.

In the meantime, our primary objective remains winning the war and we concur your suggestion that we should now reopen communications with Diem. Decision on exact course awaits your recommendations and consideration by highest authority. What follows is thinking of interdepartmental meeting chaired by Secretary today.

As to general posture, it seems desirable to maintain both publically and in our private talks with GVN the leverage of US discontent with repression which has eroded war effort within Viet-nam as well as support of Congress, US public, and world. Impression should be, both privately and publically, that US is engaged in candid and critical discussion to improve government not overthrow it. Decision on changing government is Vietnamese.

In your talk with Diem, our thought is you should first stress common interest in defeating Viet Cong. Then in frank but tough line point out that daily juxtaposition of continuing American casualties and massive US aid with repressive measures contrary deepest American convictions will make it difficult for Executive and Congress to continue support. But time is rather short. President Kennedy may well be obliged at next press conference to express US disapproval of repressive measures. Should we find it impossible to reach an agreement with GVN on a program to undo the damage caused by recent GVN actions, then suspension of aid might soon be forced upon us.

Specific policies and actions should be designed to develop political support within Viet-nam necessary to win the war and also to restore damaged image abroad. Our feeling is that your list of specifics should begin with blunt warning, if required, not to arrest Generals who are so badly needed in war effort, and with strong demand Madame Nhu leave country on extended holiday. (Question of future role of Nhu could be left to later discussions.)

In the intermediate discussion the most important is relations with the Buddhists. Our feeling is that you should frankly say that negotiations with puppet bonzes will not accomplish purpose. We recognize that the other side of this coin is that we must assure Diem that we will make every effort to persuade the Buddhist leaders to throw themselves fully into the common effort for the independence and security of Viet-nam.

Other points might be:

1. Repeal of Decree 10 by immediate executive action or by special session of the National Assembly.

2. Restoration of damaged pagodas.

3. Release of students and reopening of closed universities.

4. Removal of press censorship.

At some stage, you will wish to talk about future relationships between American advisers et al and free scope to them in helping to carry on the war effort at all appropriate governmental levels. (In this respect we fully agree with Harkin's decision to refrain from giving assurances in light of statements made to him. He and all military advisers should now concentrate on reestablishing normal relationships at all levels GVN to get on with the war.)

Also would you think it useful if we tried to get Vatican to summon Archbishop Thuc to Rome for lengthy consultations?

If initial discussions go well, at some stage you may want to urge some form of reorganization of the government introducing the Generals and perhaps other civilian leaders into ministerial posts.

It may be important at a fairly early stage to raise the subject of the GVN improving its relations with its neighbors and especially to avoid interfering with Cambodian traffic on the Mekong.

The above is not an instruction but intended only for your comments.

We will appreciate your views on it and on any additional actions we should require of the GVN in order to get on with the task.

President has reviewed this message and approves it in general. He suggests you should also plan your response to probable Diem claim that all this trouble comes from irresponsible press. He thinks you should say we hold no brief for press but Diem has been playing into their hands. Fact is that actions of GVN have now created a situation which is very difficult indeed for USG. For example, large cut in aid program in House largely due to sense of disillusionment in whole effort in Viet-nam. There are reports that still further cuts may be pressed on same ground, and in such a case USG simply would not have resources to sustain massive present level of support. So we need very quick and substantial response to your demarche. You should add that President will be commenting on situation in SVN in TV interview to be taped Monday a.n. at Hyannis and broadcast Monday evening. While in this interview he will be as restrained as possible, if asked it will be impossible to avoid some expression of concern. This expression, however, will be mild in comparison to what may have to be said soon unless there is major improvement.




[Document has handwritten notation "President read"]

SOURCE: John F. Kennedy Library Presidential Papers: National Security Files: Country File: Vietnam 1961-1963, State Department Cables, August 24-31, 1963 (Box 198-199).
Thanks to David Fuhrmann for supplying this document.
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