Elizabeth Pond
Elizabeth Pond

Fellowship Title:

Vietnamese Politics: Short-Term

Elizabeth Pond
September 23, 1969

Fellowship Year


Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – maybe.

Thus the new South Vietnamese Cabinet is hardly the American dream of President Thieu’s broadening his political base and surging into semi-popularity. In easing out Prime Minister Tran Van Huong and replacing him with a four-star general – and in increasing the role of military officers, old Diemists, and hard-line Catholics in the Cabinet – Nguyen Van Thieu has chosen exactly the opposite course. He has narrowed and, at least in the short run, strengthened his base. And he has executed the consolidation with his usual skill in leaving his opponents dispersed and impotent.

This political conservatism might just form the foundation for policy daring, however. It all depends on what Thieu does next.

The Chronology


In retrospect, the pattern of this last political shakedown is much more obvious than it seemed during the summer’s five-week quasi Cabinet crisis. In brief, Thieu began to erode the power of his strongest rival, Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, in Spring of 1968, by ousting Ky’s Prime Minister and appointing in his stead the independent-minded Tran Van Huong. Aided by the American fiat that there would be no more coups (and also by some stray American rockets that killed several pro-Ky officers), Thieu had by Spring of this year maneuvered Ky into a clearly subordinate role that left the Vice President plenty of evenings free for mah jongg.

At this point Huong’s value to Thieu as a balance to Ky came to be outweighed by the annoyance to Thieu of Huong’s very independence and stubbornness.

True to form, however, Thieu avoided any frontal showdown with Huong, but maneuvered behind the scenes to persuade the old Prime Minister to resign.

The opening gambit of the dump-Huong operation began in early July when 92 members of the Chamber of Deputies called for Huong’s resignation over the issue of the perequation tax. At U.S. insistence, muscled by a delay in release of aid dollars, the South Vietnamese government had just hiked taxes, choosing the roundabout “perequation tax” that had originally been a true price-equalization measure rather than a tax. The increase in the perequation tax on imported goods, including abundant stocks in being, was clearly levied by executive decree for purposes of revenue, however. It was this usurpation of the legislative tax-raising prerogative that the Lower House objected to.

The Lower House, which on a bad day can be an uproar of gentlemen deputies drawing pistols on each other and lady deputies bashing colleagues with high-heeled shoes, took to the fight with gusto, also for good measure blaming Huong for inflation, inaction on corruption, press suspensions, and arrest of innocent civilians in the Phoenix program to “neutralize” members of the Viet Cong infrastructure.

The Lower House was quite capable of going off on this tangent of its own volition, and at first there were only slight suspicions roused by the prominent role in the anti-Huong charges of deputies from what was supposedly the pro-Thieu bloc in the House. After a National Assembly press conference at which Southern deputies heatedly charged the Northerners who had presented the anti-Huong petition with falsely claiming signatures from two earlier and different petitions, however, this particular bit of agitation was laid at the door of Thieu’s legislative contact, Nguyen Cao Thang. It was said that Thang, a wealthy pharmaceutical dealer and reportedly a major source of political funds, would have to pay several million additional piasters of tax under the new perequation levy on his imported drugs.

For a time, therefore, in the murky world of maneuvers and countermaneuvers, where no one knew for sure who was doing how much of Thieu’s bidding, it appeared that Thang might just be freelancing in hopes of getting his taxes reduced.

In the furor over the authenticity of the anti-Huong petition Thang offered his resignation to Thieu, while steadfastly denying that he was responsible for the petition. Thieu did not act one way or the other on Thang’s resignation, and Thang continued in his usual capacity, if with reduced visibility.

Within a few days of the Lower House squabble on July 11 the political scene was further confused by Thieu’s long-awaited election offer to the National Liberation Front, and its train of denials and explanations. Among those qualifying Thieu’s rather vague proposal was Vice President Ky, who broke a public silence of several months to tell the National Defense College and reporters that South Vietnam should now quit the Paris talks because the Communists had rejected Saigon’s “maximum goodwill” offer. He went on to observe darkly that Saigon had been making too many concessions.

The morning-after consensus was that this was no agreed division of labor between the President and the Vice President, but a solo venture by the impetuous Ky, at least in tone and timing. Speculation abounded about a possible Ky resurgence, especially after Ky invited himself to a luncheon of retired generals that included several rightwing officers, but also Duong Van Minh (“Big Minh”) and Senator Tran Van Don. Don especially is noted for his chronic attempts to turn the dormant veterans’ organization into a political force a la Indonesia, and for his ambition to become Prime Minister. Some months earlier the nimble Don had courted peace-minded Buddhists by proposing an election offer similar to the one Thieu finally came up with. In the wake of Thieu’s new proposal, however, Don turned to court uneasy army officers by, if not quite attacking Thieu’s offer directly, at least attacking Thieu for being inconsistent and unpredictable.

If Ky could join forces with Don – and maybe even with the fairly popular Big Minh – for a coalition of Buddhists and military officers, however illogical and short-lived such a coalition must prove, the Vice President might still climb to challenge Thieu again.

The National Assembly too joined the negotiations fray with its own hard-line potshots at Thieu’s election proposal – and this further obscured any under-the-table collusion between Thieu and Lower House deputies on the earlier anti-Huong petition.

One final red herring appeared in the political mainstream in late July – the Trong affair. Presidential aide Huynh Van Trong and government employees and close to 100 others were suddenly arrested as Communist spies. Saigonese, who tend to look for involute political machinations behind every surface event in any case, were titillated by several aspects of the affair.

First the information presented against the suspects was largely old and already well-known to Diem intelligence organs in the late 1950’s. Second, the size and composition of the alleged spy ring ran counter to all Communist tenets of secretive compartmentalized cell organization. And many of the named members had known or suspected dealings with the Communists in the past; it seems unlikely that the NLF would trust important assignments to people with old intelligence files.

The question therefore arose: Who had surfaced the Trong activities and for what reason?

Some contended the revelation and its timing were part of a well-orchestrated American effort to compel Thieu to broaden his government, to break the South Vietnamese President’s isolation shell formed by his narrowly drawn coterie. Proponents of this view maintained that the CIA had, through the proper channels, presented the relevant dossiers to Thieu and forced his hand. A variation of the CIA theory said that Thieu had been using Trong and the others to negotiate with the NLF for his personal survival, and that the CIA was warning Thieu not to go too far.

A second school held that this was a French neutralist ring that was being broken by the South Vietnamese.

A third school argued that it was probably old Diemists who were trying to embarrass Thieu in pressing the Trong charges. They had known the information for a long time and were getting their revenge for the government’s interrogation of Diemists in the coup scare of last Fall.

It was clear that exposure of the ring did embarrass Thieu – both because of the ring’s high level of government penetration and because of its reflection on Thieu’s judgment in originally appointing a man with a record like Trong’s.

Back in 1949, Trong had been in the Bao Dai (anti-Viet Minh) government, then had joined the Binh Xuyen gangster sect as a petty official. After Ngo Dinh Diem came to power, Trong is said to have worked for the French Deuxieme Bureau. Though he was never arrested, his name figured in a French spy case in the late 1950s. His family had been Catholic for several generations, and at this juncture the Catholics helped him flee to Cambodia in 1960 or 1961. In Cambodia he appears to have taken part in intrigue involving the French, Vietnamese Communists, and Cambodians; he may have served as a contact between the French and the NLF.

After the anti-Diem coup of 1963 Trong returned to South Vietnam and led a quiet life until March of 1968, when he was suddenly named Special Assistant to President Thieu. He remained in this post until his arrest this past July.

The political origins of the Trong affair were never clarified. But the political effects were clear enough. Apart from causing general embarrassment at the Presidential palace, the Trong arrest neutralized at least one of Thieu’s top political aides – Nguyen Van Huong (no relation to the former Prime Minister). In the pre-Thang days an important source of political funds, Huong is the President’s Secretary-General and concurrently head of the National Alliance for Social Revolution, one of the first amalgam parties set up after Tet of 1968 to try to unite non-Communist nationalists. The alliance’s major component consists of workers led by South Vietnam’s chief trade unionist, Tran Quoc Buu.

Huong was in charge of the early organizational stages of the National Social Democratic Front, the bloc of six parties (including Huong’s NASR) that Thieu formed this past spring under American prodding. Huong is widely mistrusted by other party leaders, however, who regard him as one of several political cronies that Thieu has kept around primarily because he considers their dependence useful. In the end Thieu had to step in himself to complete the formation of the NSDF. Huong, however, still had hopes of being tapped for higher office in the future.

Unfortunately for his aspirations, Huong had been acting chief of government security clearance at the time Trong was appointed Presidential Assistant in 1968. Huong himself was never implicated in the Trong charges, but they did raise some old questions about him. He too had worked for the Deuxieme Bureau and in that capacity had been arrested by the Viet Minh in what is now North Vietnam. He was better treated than a fellow agent apprehended at the same time, however, and was released in 1954. In some quarters this aroused suspicion that Huong had made a deal with the Communists or at least that the Communists had some piece of blackmail against him that they could use later.

One of Huong’s lieutenants was arrested along with Trong, an official in the Free and Democratic Forces party. Even this need not have tarred Huong especially, for the two were not close. The arrested aide had, in fact, been plotting to seize control from Huong of the NASR as soon as the NSDF had shaken down organizationally. But the political damage had been done to Huong. Rumors still listed him as a possible Prime Minister, but the real indicator was the quick freeze in relations between Thieu and Huong following Trong’s arrest.

Another of Thieu’s political assistants who might have gotten temporarily sidelined in the wake of the Trong arrest is Nguyn Cao Thang of lower house liaison fame. Like Nguyen Van Huong, Thang has not been implicated in the Trong case at all. He was with the Viet Minh in the First Indochina War, however, and he came to his post at the Presidential palace at the same time as Trong. He received his pharmacy degree while he was in the jungle with the Viet Minh, and it took the personal intercession of a high Vietnamese functionary under the French to get Thang’s degree honored by the Diem regime. Over the past three months Thang has, if anything, strengthened his position, and he continues to be a major liaison agent for Thieu despite his proffered resignation.

The arrest of one Presidential Aide and numerous government employees as Communist spies and the fading of the President’s Secretary General might have been expected to immobilize Thieu politically, at least for a time. Thieu’s political style is nothing if not flexible, however. In his suspicion of those around him he works through a multiplicity of channels. Even while two of his aides were being sidelined and a third forced to operate more discreetly, even during the quick storm following his election offer, even under the contrary American pressure for a visibly expanded political base for the Saigon government, Thieu was advancing toward his basic goal of realigning the government completely in his favor.

What the Americans were urging concretely was formation of a new advisory council of notables, leading Buddhists, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai, and respected figures from other groups currently unrepresented in the government. U.S. advocacy of such a council was somewhat ironic, not only in contrast to Thieu’s intentions, but also in contrast to U.S. Embassy championing of the Constitution as the source of all political legitimacy and power in South Vietnam. Either such an extra-Constitutional council would carry no weight, in which case any potential members would in their view simply be selling out to Thieu. Or else – and this appeared to be the Embassy’s operating premise – such a council would wield real policy powers, which it could acquire only extra-legally. But such were the exigencies of domestic American politics. The public image of a broadened democracy was the new coonskin to be tacked on the wall.

Even more specifically, the U.S. was pushing Thieu to invite to council membership – and even the chairmanship – Big Minh, the affable general who wasn’t in power long enough after the 1963 coup to lose his popularity.

If the council couldn’t be worked out, then the Americans would welcome expanded Cabinet participation by diverse groups, though they put less store in this. The desideratum was a “political” rather than a “technical” Cabinet. The more groups involved the better. The NSDF should be represented; so should the official opposition National Progressive Movement, and as many other parties as possible; and so should significant legislative blocs. And if the Cabinet took on more of a peace coloration, that would be all to the good. The Embassy wanted Tran Van Huong to stay on as Prime Minister despite the difficulties of working with him for lack of any Southern Civilian of equal stature to replace him.

The American nudging for changes appears to have coincided roughly with a decision by Thieu that the time might be ripe to dispense with Tran Van Huong. The President began the final phase of the Cabinet shift in what at first appeared to be an uncharacteristic fashion just because it was – on the surface – so open-ended and liable to confrontations and public bruises. He simply let it be known that there would be government changes and thus unleashed a free-for-all competition for the posts.

On approaching Huong himself, Thieu was more familiarly oblique. It was rather like the President’s sometime habit on public occasions of deliberately walking too fast for the white-haired Prime Minister with the cane.

Lower House deputies, apparently under Thieu’s indirect encouragement, had asked for Huong’s resignation. The NSDF, at Thieu’s quiet bidding, demanded the same. Even Vice President Ky, in one morning meeting that included Huong, Thieu, and Khiem, told Huong his time was finished, and then excused himself to go home to lunch in some impatience over Huong’s obdurateness.

But, so far as can be learned, Thieu himself never faced Huon directly on the issue. In turn, Huong pretended ignorance of Thieu’s wishes and let it be known that he would resign only if he were instructed to do so by Thieu.

While this duel of silence was going on, Thieu made some gestures in the direction of American wishes. He extended enough feelers to party figures, and he split up enough ministries – the total Cabinet would reach 31 persons, the highest number in South Vietnam’s brief history – to make it appear that he was going after an omnibus Cabinet. He made a visit to Big Minh for the first time since the homesick Minh had been allowed to return from his Thai exile in 1968. On this occasion, of course, he did arrive half an hour late without telephoning Minh that he would be delayed. And, sources close to Minh report, he never broached the question of an advisory council at all in the conversation. Also, hints of an advisory council and Minh’s participation in it were leaked to the press so that Minh was maneuvered into public denial of the reports. This was interpreted by Saigonese as making it that much harder for Minh to retract his denials and accept anything of the sort in the future.

Nonetheless, having talked to Minh, Thieu was in a position to protest to the Americans that he had tried.

Somewhere in the midst of all this the originally announced Cabinet shifts of four ministers escalated to the whole Cabinet and finally to the Prime Minister himself. In the end Thieu forced Huong’s hand by issuing a statement that carefully skirted any mention of resignation or dismissal but said that the President and the Prime Minister had agreed that the latter would help the former in selecting a new government. Huong went along without public protest, even agreeing to become a titular government adviser. General Tran Thien Khiem, the only subordinate of Thieu’s that the President appears to trust thoroughly, and already the second most powerful man in the country in his joint post as Deputy Prime Minister for pacification and Minister of the Interior, was immediately named as the new Prime Minister. The remaining pro-Huong Cabinet members were dropped, and all new Cabinet members were hand-picked by Thieu, with due deference to American wishes on the economics and finance ministers.

The Khiem appointment had been given the final stamp of approval about ten days before the public announcement, at a meeting of Thieu, Ky, and Khiem in Dalat. Just a day or two prior to the Dalat rendezvous, Thieu had secured the reluctant agreement of the Americans to drop Huong and thus narrow the regime. Thieu’s argument was that he could not successfully “Vietnamize the war and hold political open-house at the same time. So the Americans consented to a tactical consolidating of the Cabinet against some future strategic broadening through an advisory council. To Thieu this meant consolidate now, democratize later, with the now real and the later open to maneuver. In the end, for acceleration of the Vietnamization, Thieu won from the Americans Huong’s dismissal, a lesser U.S. troop withdrawal than the Americans had hoped for by December, and a moratorium on further peace-talk concessions until the end of the year.

The idea of the advisory council is not dead, just sleeping now. The U.S. Embassy will undoubtedly revive it next year as they push Thieu to pay up on the “democratize later” half of the deal. In the meantime, Thieu has adopted the name but not the substance in appointing a weak interim council consisting of Tran Van Huong, former Foreign Minister Tran Van Do, and other powerless figures.

One final fillip. At the Dalat meeting the triumvirate, for reasons that remain obscure, carefully divided the pie. Khiem was to handle internal affairs, police, and administration. Thieu would run politics, peace negotiations, and major policies (land reform, pacification). Ky was to get economic and defense affairs; the Defense Minister, whom everyone approved of, would stay on, but Ky would get to nominate his candidates for the ministries of economics and finance.

All went as planned. Khiem was duly appointed Prime Minister. But when it came to the economics and finance portfolios, Thieu informed Ky that these ministers must be acceptable to the Americans and that Ky would therefore not get to nominate them. Ky flew off to Nhatrang in a huff.

The Aftermath


Given the free-for-all of those five weeks of Cabinet sparring, Thieu has ruffled surprisingly few feathers in his consolidation. Other politicians grumble about Thieu’s deviousness, but at heart they admire his skill at manipulation, as long as he succeeds. Everyone tries to use everyone else, after all, and Thieu is just better at it than most. At least for the traditional politicians there seems to be a pragmatic acceptance that Thieu is the leader at the present time and there is no immediate alternative.

Nationwide, it is worth mentioning that Thieu has engendered nothing of the civilian-military split or Buddhist-Catholic hostility of 1964 or the North-South bitterness of 1966. He has reinstated former Diemists without arousing a Buddhist outcry. A turtle-like bureaucracy appears to have plodded on during the five-week crisis without bogging down critically. The legislature complained, but in the end meekly passed Thieu’s budget in special summer session. At this writing it even looked as if the Senate would restore Thieu’s original land-reform bill after the lower house had emasculated it.

In short, there has been scarcely a discernible ripple outside the corridors of power.

The prime cause of this smoothness is clearly Thieu’s adeptness at scattering the opposition. Diffuse and rule might be his motto.

Thieu’s handling of Huong himself is a case in point. By not dismissing Huong outright, Thieu avoided making a martyr out of him and thus uniting the divided Southern factions in defense of their one-time champion. Huong was especially ticklish, for he represented not only the Southern educated class and popular civilian rule he had won Saigon’s plurality in the 1967 presidential election but also personal integrity and respectability.

Thieu was helped somewhat in that Huong was no politician. Partly because he partook of the old school of his aloof mandarin rule, partly because he considered it a point of his schoolmaster’s honor not to undermine the President who had appointed him, partly because he was too rigid for the jostling and compromise of politics, partly because he was ill and aging, Tran Van Huong never used his position to build a political organization either for himself or for the Southerners who viewed him as their leader. The dedicated team that had rallied to his cause in the Presidential campaign of 1967 gradually dispersed for lack of appointments or even encouragement by the Prime Minister and for Huong’s inability to curb corruption or provide any real civilian check on military rule. Also, Huong came to rely more and more on Nguyen Van Dao, the Secretary of State at the Prime Minister’s Office and something of a schemer – so much so that friends and ministers alike came to complain that they could never get to Huong without going through Dao. Politically active Southerners grew disenchanted with Huong and broke up into disparate groups.

By this summer, then, Huong had become little more than a sentimental symbol. But he was a symbol, and if Thieu had not moved gingerly he could have stirred up a hornets’ nest, as the original Lower House imbroglio showed.

Thieu’s treatment of Big Minh was more cavalier, of course, but for all the talk about him, Minh has no organization or organizational segments behind him, at least not now. And Thieu’s aversion to face-downs does not extend to tact for tact’s sake.

Thieu’s treatment of his own NSDF was rather back-of-the-hand too. He consulted assiduously with party leaders in the early stages of Cabinet negotiations, pushed them into Cabinet politicking after he had warned them repeatedly not to consider themselves a government party and before they were ready to take this plunge, then dropped them like hotcakes when he finally appointed Khiem Prime Minister. He used the parties shamelessly against Huong without, it appears, any intention of rewarding them with significant ministerial posts.

Here it must be said as a qualifier, however, that the parties had their own reasons for jumping to demand Huong’s resignation. Huong may not have built his own political organization in the ministries during his tenure, but he did favor Southerners in appointments, and he did stubbornly prevent others from building their own bureaucratic empires. He was, in the words of one Vietnamese, “too authoritarian and honest.” At stake was not so much direct embezzlement, but traffic in licenses, visas, and the like, a useful tool in political building.

The one NSDF party leader who did emerge with the feeling that he had been had was Trinh Quoc Khanh, the mild-mannered Saigon head of the Hoa Hao party faction called the Dan Xa. Thieu extended to Khanh – tentatively, as it turned out, seriously as Khanh thought – the penultimate offer of the post of Prime Minister. Khanh began planning his Cabinet even while Saigon political circles were generally skeptical of Khanh’s lack of experience and personal force and wondered what Thieu was really up to. In the end, when Thieu’s tactical need for the NSDF was finished and Khiem was finally appointed, Thieu cut Khanh off without a word of explanation. Or rather, Thieu gave Khanh a belated explanation that this new Cabinet would not last long and that Khanh could look forward to a prominent government role in the near future. This might have mollified Khanh, had not Thieu been telling Khiem at exactly the same time that this was his (Thieu’s) personal Cabinet that he expected to stay in power for a long time.

Again, this was a case where Khanh wasn’t powerful enough for Thieu to treat with any politesse. With impeccably anti-French and anti-Diem credentials – he had rallied to the French only twice in the First Indochina War, and then only long enough to take back arms to his fellow maquisards – Khanh had been Thieu’s original Vice Presidential running mate in the 1967 election. Then the Americans had forced Thieu and Ky onto the same ticket so as to strengthen the military slate. Khanh ceded his place to Ky and thereafter remained generally aloof from Saigon politics and government, thereby keeping his reputation for honesty.

The lack of political clout of any of the Hoa Hao leaders in Saigon was shown in the 1967 Presidential vote, in which the Hoa Hao regions went to peace candidate Truong Dinh Dzu, despite the promises of the Saigon leaders to Thieu and Ky. The reason, it appeared, was that Dzu went quietly over the heads of the Hoa Hao chiefs in Saigon and made deals directly with local Hoa Hao factions.

In consequence, by 1969 Thieu considered the Dan Xa party small enough to be dallied with impunity.

Apart from Khanh, the political leaders that Thieu invited into his Cabinet on terms of diluted authority that they were not prepared to accept seem to be philosophical about the flirtation and ready to wait for another day. This is true for Ha Thuc Ky, the leader of the Revolutionary Dai Viets (one of the NSDF six); Tran Van Tuyen, one of the leaders of the VNQDD (also one of the six); and Professor Nguyen Van Bong, head of the National Institute of Administration and one of the leaders of the official opposition National Progressive Movement. All turned down unattractive Cabinet offers.

When it comes to the NSDF bloc as a whole, Thieu has made no effort to strengthen it through the Cabinet changeover. Quite the opposite. The several ancient regime Cabinet members Thieu picked from the Nhan Xa party, for example, were tapped as individuals with allegiance owed directly to Thieu, not filtered through the Nhan Xa and certainly not through the NSDF!

But this creates no particular political difficulties for Thieu. The NSDF remains little more than the confederation it began as. It has no corporate sense of identity that would make it take collective offense at Thieu’s disregard of it. The NSDF depends on Thieu, and not vice versa.

As for the An Quang Buddhists, they are no more alienated than usual from the Saigon government following the Cabinet shift. The loss of the Southern civilian voice of Tran Van Huong in high government councils means little to them, for there has been no love lost between the two since Huong in his first term as Prime Minister in 1964 excluded the Buddhists from the government.

President Thieu, in sum, has consolidated without tears.

Policy Implications


The three top jobs in South Vietnam are now occupied by generals – civilianized generals, but generals still. The new Cabinet leans to military officers, hard-line Catholics (some of them revived Diemists), and old French functionaries. Does this presage a tough prosecution of the war by Thieu? Or is the South Vietnamese President getting the right wing committed to him in order to muzzle the protests as he marches toward peace?

Before attempting to answer this, the caveat must first be issued that there is less coherence between politics and policy in Vietnam than Americans are accustomed to in their own government. In the U.S. the public might be softened up for shifts in policy by leaks, trial balloons, or ostentatious pressure by interest groups. Not so Vietnam. What in the U.S. might be straws in the wind are in this Byzantine world more frequently decoys to mask some quite different covert move. Thieu’s surface method of “preparation” for peace-talk shifts In the past has been quite simply to stall on any one step as long as possible in hopes that time and events would muffle the shock of change.

More fundamentally, his method of preparation, if it can be called that, has been to atomize the opposition whenever possible on general principle. So far Thieu has shown himself to be more motivated tactically and strategically by this bedrock political goal than by any considerations of policy building. If Thieu has ever put politics in the deliberate service of any long-term policy, this is the best-kept secret in Saigon. (Land reform may still prove to be the one exception to this rule.)

Nor does an analysis of the Cabinet that Thieu has selected give many reliable clues to future policy. The 43 year old Prime Minister Khiem, for example, though he is one of South Vietnam’s two four star generals active in public life, is more flexible personally – and probably on war issues – than his hawkish civilian predecessor. And he has won the rare trust of the ever-suspicious Thieu just by eschewing any independent action or political aggrandizement for himself.

Just why the loner Thieu has come to place his confidence in Khiem is an intriguing question and is worth a slight digression. To be sure, they have known each other a long time, and their wives got on well. But at first blush Khiem does not seem to be the sort of person that Thieu, who gives and takes loyalty much less freely than Ky, for instance, would warm to. Khiem’s history of balanced loyalties shows him to have been in succession a Diemist, an anti-Diem coup plotter, an anti-junta coup plotter and strongman, an “out” exiled as ambassador to the U.S. and then Taiwan, and – probably uniquely in Vietnamese politics – a comeback to the number two position in the country. Back in their active military days, Thieu was Khiem’s subordinate, and it was Khiem who promoted him to general. As far as religion goes, Khiem is the Vietnamese form of ancestor worshipper, though he was reportedly scheduled to be baptized Catholic on the day of the anti-Diem coup in 1963. There is some dispute over whether he really intended to convert or if he agreed to the scheduling so as to help create an atmosphere of normality as zero hour for the coup approached.

In any case, Khiem has in the past clearly demonstrated the kind of ambition that Thieu most mistrusts. Yet from the time he became President, Thieu has reportedly wanted to make Khiem Prime Minister. He could not do so originally, as he had promised Vice President Ky the right to name the Prime Minister. Then after the 1968 Tet offensive, when the post opened again, the necessity for a national union brought in the prestigious civilian Huong. Thieu did bring Khiem back from Taiwan as soon as he could,, however, and in 1968 he gave him effective power second only to his own as head of pacification and the police.

One school holds that Thieu feels comfortable with Khiem because of the latter’s indecisiveness. Khiem was cautious about committing himself in the earlier stages of coup plotting against Diem. After the coup he did not manage to protect his particular group of plotters. Later, despite his initial leading role in the next anti-junta coup he let Gen. Nguyen Khanh take over the tactical direction and the glory from him. Furthermore, Thieu might have reasoned Khiem would come back to Vietnam from his exile with no troops or power and would owe everything to Thieu. Khiem did have a preference for being the behind-the-scene kingmaker to being king in any case, and if this relationship could be maintained, he would certainly make an ideal deputy. Discipline and hard work are his fortes, and these were certainly needed to administer the giant pacification program.

Whatever Thieu’s reasons for choosing Khiem as his ally, his expectations have certainly been borne out. In his year-plus in office as Deputy Prime Minister he has conducted himself apolitically and has won the admiration of both Vietnamese and Americans for his administration of the pacification program.

All of which is to say that the new government will follow Thieu’s bidding. Here are no prima donna Prime Minister and no hard-line Cabinet appointed because it is hard-line. Here instead is a team of Thieu’s men appointed because they will follow Thieu. Forthcoming policy hangs completely on the President’s intentions. And those nobody else – except maybe Khiem – knows. Nguyen Van Thieu is even more skilled than Richard Nixon at hedging his options.

At this point it is relevant to inquire just what the spectrum of domestic options is, not as a determinant of policy, but as a definer of the outer possibilities of policy.

Unfortunately for prognostication, this exercise narrows the field very little. The political context of negotiations in South Vietnam has changed considerably in the year since Thieu refused to go to the Paris peace talks. What was unthinkable last November is discussed almost openly now. Negotiations have not plunged South Vietnamese morale into the depths and toppled the regime, nor has the prospect of participation by the National Liberation Front in open political life, nor has the American troop reduction as practiced so far. Rich South Vietnamese are prudently buying boats and transferring surplus funds out of the country in the transactions, but the floating politicians, even the Northerns, are adjusting. Thieu has told an American citizens’ committee that the allies could even propose a ceasefire without causing a dangerous drop in morale. (Not all of the President’s staff agreed with him on this).

Thieu himself must be credited with this change in political climate. He seems to have been acting out of political reflex to the American de-escalation of commitment rather than out of long-range vision. But whatever the process, the shift is his doing. The mind boggles at the thought of what this past year would have been like if the President had been the hawkish Ky, with his willingness, figuratively speaking, to blackmail the U.S. with threats of joint suicide.

Thieu’s method of expanding the political tolerance he had to work in was the usual, and very effective one – scattering the opposition, in this case the generals and the Northern Catholic refugees.

Thieu became the military’s Presidential candidate in 1967 on the understanding that he would abide by the instructions of the military committee of the time. (Ky, the chairman of the committee, is said to have a signed copy of this agreement still). But Thieu gradually used the Americans and the American penchant for legality to renege on the deal. In the urgent aftermath of Tet of 1968 he replaced three of the four corps commanders who had been virtual warlords in their regions (and were members of the military committee). This was at about the same time that Thieu replaced Ky’s choice of Prime Minister with Tran Van Huong. Some of the military council pressed Ky to object and hold Thieu to the original agreement. But Ky, once more in the limelight organizing the People’s Self-Defense forces, the students of Saigon, and post-Tet recovery, chose to bide his time rather than press the issue. Within a few months Gen. Nguyen Ngoe Loan, Ky’s sidekick and the powerful chief of police, was seriously wounded in street fighting in Saigon, and several Ky officers were killed by accident by the Americans. Ky was on the skids, both as a politician and as a ready-made focus for hard-line army protests and organization.

While he was diminishing Ky, Thieu was also quietly diminishing the corps commanders. At the same time that he appointed three new corps commanders who would owe their promotions to him, he arrogated their power to appoint province and district chiefs. He never instituted a real shakedown in the army command – some observers expect him to make changes in the next few months – but he did keep as generals of the three “coup divisions” near Saigon men who were more noted for political docility than for military brilliance. And he never (apart from appointment of province and district chiefs) cut into the generals’ prerogative of corruption. On this tender issue he might have stirred up more determined resistance than on matters of war and peace. As it was, Thieu proved to be a shrewd estimator of the threshold of threat at which the generals would rebel, and he never exceeded that threshold.

There could be a swift coalescence of hard-line generals (and probably colonels) should Thieu lose control of his finely tuned political balance. But at the moment the hard-line generals are too uncoordinated to be politically effective.

As for the Northern Catholics, their tough anti-Communist influence has likewise decreased. The famed marches on Saigon from Ho Nai district – whether to protest concessions to the Communists or omission of reference to God in the Constitution – are a thing of the past. There are several reasons for this. Ky and Gen. Loan are no longer slipping funds to the Ho Nai refugees to mount street demonstrations of hard-line public opinion for the benefit of the Americans. The new III Corps commander, a scion of one of the leading notable families of the region, has shown less sympathy for the many demands of the Northern interlopers than his predecessor, and has given them less encouragement. The Saigon Senator who has been their champion, Nguyen Gia Hien of the Greater Solidarity Force (one of the six in the NSDF), has not kept his political fences mended and his local promises fulfilled, and has therefore lost his ability to galvanize the local parishes. And Hien’s party has been losing members to the more pragmatic Nhan Xa, the second Catholic party in the NSDF and the recrudescence, basically, of Ngo Dinh Nhu’s old Can Lao party.

Furthermore, the Catholics who came to the South in 1954 are now 15 years older, and their militancy more middle-aged. Their children do not remember the Communist-Catholic hostility of the north. And a certain embourgeoisement has taken place that has also sapped militancy. The villagers of Ho Nai in particular have developed a thriving black market entrepot trade and have learned the wisdom of tax accommodations with the Viet Cong.

Another hawkish hotbed – the National Assembly elected in the war pitch of 1967 – has proved to have less effective power than American institution builders had originally projected. If this is a disappointment to constitutionalists it is a relief to diplomats engaged in trying to extricate the U.S. from the war. Whenever Thieu goes tough on the war – as in his refusal to go to Paris at first, or on his pre-Midway trip to South Korea and Taiwan this year – the legislators cheer. Whenever he makes a new negotiating offer, they boo. But their only sanction is financial, and with the U.S. pouring money into the country Thieu is hardly the legislature’s captive. The National Assembly complains bitterly, and it holds up Thieu’s budgets for months, but it finally delivers. And on war issues some deputies and Senators shout loudly, but, pope-like, they have no divisions.

This is not to say that there are no hard-line political pressures on Thieu. The pressures exist and must be handled with finesse. But they are no longer the axiomatic bugaboo of the past. Thieu has more room for maneuver than he had a year ago.

It is clear that Thieu is not going to do anything with this increased space in the next three months. But the possibility remains that he might make new peace moves next year.

Apart from war and peace issues, the major policy choices that face the new government concern treatment of non-Communist nationalists, village building, and land reform. These will be discussed at greater length in the next newsletter. Here it is sufficient to comment only briefly. On land reform, Thieu has shown vigor in pursuing the first radical program in South Vietnam’s history, though final judgment on his commitment to it must depend on how hard he fights for his original bill when the Senate takes up the issue this month.

On village building, Thieu has accepted this concept in principle. The 1969 pacification program is a good one. Khiem has been pushing its implementation effectively, and his first major address to the nation as Prime Minister stressed it. But just how much priority Thieu will give the village revolution is not yet clear. And while the attempt may fail in any case, it will certainly fail if it is only half-hearted.

As for the issue of democratizing, or galvanizing the political participation of non-Communist nationalists, the outlook is negative. Thieu’s selection of his Prime Minister and Cabinet members and his arguments to the U.S. Embassy about the need for consolidation indicate a drawing back from any grand attempt at national union to counter the NLF. Since dropping Huong, Thieu has made nothing more than a formal gesture in the direction of the Southern majority of South Vietnam’s population. Khiem is a Southerner, but is far more representative of military thinking than of Southern civilian thinking. The highest ranking civilian in the government, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Luu Vien, is a Southerner also, but he is one of the old faces from the Khanh and Ky governments of the past. Furthermore, he is not considered by Southerners to be a defender of Southern interests, as he was studiedly neutral during the North-South clash in the Ky government in 1966.

Nor is Thieu making any real attempt to conciliate the An Quang Buddhists. There were rumors that the government would release the imprisoned Thich Thien Minh on the Buddhist All Souls’ Day. But All Souls’ Day passed recently, and Thich Thien Minh was not among the fifty-four prisoners freed for the occasion. There are not even rumors that the government will amend its granting of the Buddhist charter to the rump pro-Ky Thich Tam Chau pagoda. And present government talk of reaching out a hand to the An Quang Buddhists bears all the generosity of the overdog.

Thieu’s new government is his and will obey his commands. It all comes down now to what Thieu wants. And that remains an enigma.

Received in New York on September 23, 1969.

©1969 Elizabeth Pond

Miss Pond is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from the Christian Science Monitor. This article may be published with credit to Miss Pond, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Alicia Patterson Fund