October 19, 2017

1967. President Johnson Freshly Optimistic on Settling Southeast Asia Crisis

Johnson to Meet South Vietnamese Leaders in Guam
South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, US President Lyndon Johnson, and South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Cao Kỳ saluting as their respective national anthems are played during welcoming ceremonies at Guam International Airport, March 20, 1967 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

March 19, 1967

An overworked news reporter leaning against the bar at the National Press Club the other day was heard to remark sadly that: "Trying to keep up with events in this town is a little like the sultan who tried to run a harem with only one eunuch. It's just too much for a man to do."

As this week in Washington ended, there seemed to be a lot of truth to that observation.

The US Senate completed its hearings on the strange case of Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, while the House of Representatives hired a lawyer to defend it against a court suit that the House had acted illegally in ousting New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.

Another Senate committee started an investigation into the administration's War on Poverty. And in New Orleans, a three-man panel of judges refused to accept the federal government's Warren Report as evidence in a hearing involving the assassination of the late President Kennedy—a fact that startled the Justice Department here.

Overseas, elections in India and France cast a shadow over the political futures of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and France's stately President Charles de Gaulle. The China watchers here in Washington and in Hong Kong agreed that Mao Tse-tung's "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" seemed to have accomplished its purge of the Chinese party deviationists, and that now Mao was calling on the army to get the people back to work.

The United States Senate moved this week to endorse the so-called "coexistence" policies of the Soviet Union, as well as the indirect backing of Moscow in the bitter Russian struggle against the aggressive Communism of the Peking Red regime.

By a three-vote margin, the Senate approved the consular treaty with the Soviet Union—a small step toward what President Johnson calls "building bridges" with the East.

The narrow two-thirds vote was not only a victory for the White House, but also for the Republican leadership of the Senate. Republican floor leader Everett Dirksen switched his earlier opposition to the consular agreement, and Kentucky's GOP Senator Thurston Morton, a former Republican National Committee chairman, was instrumental in persuading his GOP colleagues to take the long view of the treaty.

The Johnson policy prevailed, but it would have failed without Republicans Morton and Dirksen, who judged that domestic coexistence on this issue was more vital to the interests of the country as a whole than throwing a GOP monkey wrench into Russo-American relations.

President Johnson expressed his gratitude. This bipartisan agreement seemed to be reflected in a new executive buoyancy, not only in the White House but also in the Departments of State and Defense.

In a speech before the Tennessee state legislature in Nashville last Wednesday, Mr. Johnson revealed that he was putting in a new diplomatic team to represent the United States in Saigon.

Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, who long has had his resignation on the president's desk, would be replaced by one of the State Department's most experienced diplomats, 72-year-old Ellsworth Bunker.

The tall, white-haired Bunker has long been a diplomatic troubleshooter and was the US member of the OAS diplomatic team that finally worked out a settlement of the bloody uprising in the Dominican Republic.

Backing up the Bunker mission would be the present ambassador to Pakistan, Eugene Locke, and Robert Komer, a special assistant in the White House in charge of America's civil affairs in South Vietnam—otherwise known as the pacification program.

Before President Johnson took off for the two-day conference on the US island of Guam, his exuberance dominated an extraordinary White House conclave of governors from all fifty states. In two previous such meetings Johnson had requested, and then received, a bipartisan agreement from the state governors supporting his policies for meeting the crisis in Southeast Asia.

This year it was different. Mr. Johnson gave the governors a lecture pleading for greater state and federal cooperation, and by implication at least, demanding a slowdown in the perennial argument over states' rights. The separate United States already are getting some $15 million a year in federal funds, and in the coming years these federal grants—for things such as the national highway program and education—would probably triple to $45 billion or more.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara then briefed the fifty governors on the military situation in Vietnam and the continuing diplomatic search for a settlement of that crisis. And although the White House did not seek a formal resolution of support, the state executives gave it in the form of a standing ovation to the president and his cabinet.

This ovation seemed to symbolize a subtle change in the atmosphere in official Washington, a change from the depressing fog of disappointment and frustration that followed another year-end diplomatic effort to get the Vietnam government to the conference table.

Again the United States envoys around the world—in Washington, London, Warsaw, Prague, and Moscow; in Cairo, Pakistan, Tokyo, and Mexico City—American diplomats everywhere searched for some sign that the Hanoi Communists were willing to negotiate a settlement.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations used his most secret channels of contact—but U Thant was able to confirm only that the Hanoi government had dropped its earlier demands that all foreign troops withdraw from the South before negotiating. It was a meaningless concession, although Thant and some of Washington's "doves" seemed to think it was enough for the White House to order a permanent ban on bombing of North Vietnam, the strategy which forced Hanoi to modify its stance in the first place.

President Johnson demanded instead that Ho Chi Minh curtail his shipment of men and supplies southward. Then, Mr. Johnson pledged, the United States would take appropriate action restricting the bombing.

But the president declared he would not endanger the lives of American fighting men in Vietnam by allowing free passage of Communist men and supplies to the GIs' enemies.

To prove Hanoi's determination to continue the war, Secretary McNamara showed the governors a startling series of reconnaissance photographs taken during the Buddhist New Year's ceasefire last month, pictures which showed scores of boats, thousands of trucks, and tens of thousands of laborers and Communist military personnel loading military supplies for the guerrilla forces in the South, using the four-day ceasefire to beef up the badly battered Viet Cong.

The new spirit of determination and energy which the president is taking with him to the Guam conference also has its roots in an important series of events which now is taking place inside South Vietnam.

To measure the significance of these events, one has to go back to see what was happening to the Saigon government exactly a year ago in March of 1966. Then, the South Vietnamese Buddhists were in open revolt against General Kỳ and his military junta. Their protest was touched off when the Saigon generals fired the commander of the I Corps area which abuts the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam.

The ousted general was Nguyễn Chánh Thi, an able and ambitious leader of the Republic's army in the I Corps which fought alongside the US Marines there. General Thi's differences with the Saigon regime were complicated by the fact that he was a Buddhist, while the military premier in the South was a Christian.

The Buddhists staged demonstrations in Saigon, in Da Nang, and in the ancient city of Huế. General Thi's I Corps troops, in effect, went on strike, as did all the Vietnamese dockworkers in the port of Da Nang.

For a while during those critical March days of 1966 it appeared that the Vietnamese struggle against the Viet Cong—that the war against Communist aggression would be left to the Americans while the opposing factions in the Republic's military forces took time out to fight themselves a civil war. American civilians were evacuated from Huế and Da Nang city to the safety of the Da Nang airbase.

The matter was settled and a bloody showdown averted when Premier Kỳ sent some four thousand government marines to the Allied airbase outside Da Nang, and in the tradition of Oriental politics, worked out a deal with the deposed general and his successor.

That was just a year ago. There were 230,000 US ground troops in the country. Today there are 430,000.

Since that time, the Saigon regime was able to so stabilize the situation that the government was able to hold a nationwide election in September, an election which saw a remarkable turnout of some 80 percent of registered voters. They selected 117 delegates to a constitutional convention, which has been sitting for the past five months. And as this week ended, this convention produced the document designed to give South Vietnam its first democratically-elected, civilian government in the nation's history.

It's a compromise constitution. It was born out of much long and bitter debate, and some of its provisions will sound strange to Western ears.

But the remarkable thing about the new constitution was that it could be drawn up at all. And perhaps even more significant, Premier Kỳ, the chief of the military junta in Saigon, made a point of getting preliminary agreement from his fellow generals to take the new document with him to this week's meeting with President Johnson in Guam.

Whatever the premier's motives in this gesture, the fact remains that General Kỳ is carrying the instrument of his own political destruction—ending government by warlord, a system evolved from ancient times, fostered by the parade of colonialists and by the Communists, who would only substitute commissars for generals.

Furthermore, within the next three months there will be another series of local elections throughout South Vietnam in the villages and the hamlets. And in September or before, there will be national elections to choose the National Assembly of the Republic of Vietnam—the nation's first, popularly-elected congress.

Appearing on the ABC News program Issues and Answers today, Vice President Hubert Humphrey described the presidential meeting in Guam as "a conference of tomorrow." In other words, US and Allied military power has assured that a free South Vietnam now will exist in the future—therefore there must be intensive planning for that future, even while the war is being fought.

Washington officials warn that the coming six months will be the most critical of the entire Southeast Asian crisis. The reason: the Viet Cong guerrillas and the Hanoi Communists must react in some way to a freely-elected civilian government in the South.

The main target of the Viet Cong guerrillas and the National Liberation Front has been the so-called "warlord" system which has put the Vietnamese people at the mercy of the generals. But under the new constitution, the generals lose their power.

One of the main propaganda appeals of the Ho Chi Minh Communists has been for "free elections for a people's government to unify both North and South Vietnam." Come September, the South will hold its free, national elections, which will underline the fact that the Hanoi regime never has gotten around to taking such a risk.

Thus there is speculation here in Washington that the North Vietnamese may try to disrupt the democratic process in the South through terrorism and violence. Or that Hanoi may try to forestall them by a series of so-called peace maneuvers, even agreeing to go to the negotiating table in order to call for their own long-promised national elections.

Here in Washington, it seems clear that the president has made up his mind on one thing—that no outsider will be allowed to sidetrack South Vietnam's march toward a viable, popularly-elected civilian government.

Also that Hanoi's refusal to talk peace is going to increase the price of aggression in the South, particularly while preparations to install a representative government in Saigon are underway.

And although the United States will make every effort to keep out of Vietnamese politics, Premier Kỳ and his generals seem to have got the message that their days are numbered.

US troops and planes will assure that the newly-elected government is not murdered by aggression.

Ambassador Bunker's team of political experts, economists, sociologists, technicians, medical specialists, and engineers will be on hand to see that the infant government doesn't smother its own problems at birth.

And eventually, who knows, the Vietnamese nation may be allowed to develop to its full capability as the showplace of Southeast Asia. Or as Rudyard Kipling might put it, the Pearl of the Orient.

This is Bill Downs for ABC News in Washington.