6. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State
January 6, 1965, 11 a.m.
For the President--Section I of V Sections. (2)
Ref A. CAP-64375. (3)
In replying to your CAP-64375, rather than to compose a single
cable which would be overly cumbersome by its length, it has appeared
preferable to prepare a basic cable presenting a coherent report
of our views on the overriding issues in CAP-64375 and to supplement
it additionally by four supporting sections each addressed to
one of the four specific suggestions contained in para 7, reference
A. This is the basic cable which undertakes to evaluate the present
situation in SVN, to analyze the causes of our troubles and to
indicate what we can and cannot do to eliminate or attenuate these
causes and closes with our recommendations. We have not repeated
herein our views contained in the related cable, Embtel 2010.
A description of the present situation needs little amplification
beyond the content of Emb cables filed since the military coup
de force (the current phrase here) of December 20, read against
the background of the report which I made to you and senior officials
in Washington in early December. We are faced here with a seriously
deteriorating situation characterized by continued political turmoil,
irresponsibility and division within the armed forces, lethargy
in the pacification program, some anti-US feeling which could
grow, signs of mounting terrorism by VC directly at US personnel
and deepening discouragement and loss of morale throughout SVN.
Unless these conditions are somehow changed and trends reversed,
we are likely soon to face a number of unpleasant developments
ranging from anti-American demonstrations, further civil disorders,
and even political assassinations to the ultimate installation
of a hostile govt which will ask us to leave while it seeks accommodation
with the National Liberation Front and Hanoi. How soon these developments
may occur is hard to estimate. Some might take place tomorrow--anything
like a coalition govt is unlikely for several months. In all,
however, there is a comparatively short time fuse on this situation.
When one looks for the causes of this unhappy state of affairs,
they fall generally under three heads: lack of a stable govt,
inadequate security against the VC and nation-wide war-weariness.
All three are interdependent and react upon one another.
Until the fall of Diem and the experience gained from the events
of the following months, I doubt that anyone appreciated the magnitude
of the centrifugal political forces which had been kept under
control by his iron rule. The successive political upheavals and
the accompanying turmoil which have followed Diem's demise upset
all prior US calculations as to the duration and outcome of the
counterinsurgency in SVN and the future remains uncertain today.
There is no adequate replacement for Diem in sight.
At least we know now what are the basic factors responsible for
this turmoil--chronic factionalism, civilian-military suspicion
and distrust, absence of national spirit and motivation, lack
of cohesion in the social structure, lack of experience in the
conduct of govt. These are historical factors growing out of national
characteristics and traditions, susceptible to change only over
the long run. Perhaps other Americans might marginally influence
them more effectively but generally speaking we Americans are
not going to change them in any fundamental way in any measurable
time. We can only recognize their existence and adjust our plans
and expectations accordingly.
The lack of security for the population is the result of the continued
success of the VC subversive insurgency for which the foundation
was laid in 1954-55 and which has since grown to present proportions
of an estimated 34,000 main guerrilla force supported by some
60-80,000 local guerrillas. Not only is this a large and well-trained
force but it enjoys the priceless asset of a protected logistic
sanctuary in the DRV and in Laos. I do not recall in history a
successful anti-guerrilla campaign with less than a 10 to 1 numerical
superiority over the guerrillas and without the elimination of
assistance from outside the country.
Obviously neither condition obtains in SVN. With regard to relative
manpower, the GVN military-paramilitary-police forces during the
last two years have enjoyed only a little over a 5 to 1 advantage
in spite of gaining in strength some 165,000 in the same period.
Thus, if there is any validity in the 10-1 superiority requirement,
in spite of high losses VC strength and a maximum effort to increase
GVN forces, there is no likelihood of reaching a satisfactory
strength relationship now or at any time we can foresee under
current procedures. Nor does it seem reasonable or feasible to
look to US or third country sources to fill the manpower gap.
(See Section V.)
The ability of the VC to regenerate their strength and to maintain
their morale is to an important degree the result of infiltration
from the logistical sanctuaries outside the country and from the
sense of support and confidence this gives them. You have doubtless
seen the recent study of infiltration (7) which
estimates a total infiltration of 34,000 since February, 1960,
and points to the possibility of 10,000 infiltrators in 1964.
While there is much chance for error in such figures, infiltration
is an important source of VC recuperative powers.
Apart from inadequate forces and frontiers open to infiltration,
the inability to give SVN adequate security is a by-product of
the weakness of govt already discussed. Effective pacification
calls for an intricate blending of military, economic, social
and psychological resources which, thus far, has exceeded the
capability of the changing Saigon govts. The Hop Tac experiment
(8) is producing some encouraging results but
the country-wide pacification program as a whole has a long time
to go--years in fact--before we can hope to bring security to
SVN by present methods and at current rates of progress.
The third cause of the present situation, war-weariness, is easy
to understand. It grows out of 20 years of uninterrupted conflict
with the Japanese, the French, the religious sects and the VC.
It has increased as the result of disappointed hopes following
the overthrow of Diem and the failure of the heralded new revolution.
It exists more in the cities and among the intellectuals than
in the provinces among the peasants and soldiers. The only cause
for surprise is that morale is not worse than it is. There is
a toughness in the countryside which is a very encouraging phenomenon.
One cannot escape the feeling that there is nothing in the psychological
situation here which a few victories, military or political, could
not turn around.
If these are the causes--unstable govt, lack of security and war-weariness--the
next question is what we can do to eliminate or modify these factors
and thus change the situation for the better, bearing in mind
that we have limited time. Some things we clearly cannot do--change
national characteristics, create leadership where it does not
exist, raise large additional GVN forces or seal porous frontiers
to infiltration. If one accepts such limitations, then it is equally
clear that in the time available we cannot expect anything better
than marginal govt and marginal pacification progress with continued
decline of national morale--unless something new is added to make
up for those things we cannot control.
Thus, we are faced with considering what we can do. We can probably
compromise the current governmental crisis in a way which will
salvage Huong but will leave him pretty much under military domination.
If Huong goes, he will probably be followed by some kind of military
government. If it is controlled by Khanh, we will have to do hard
soul-searching to decide whether to try to get along with him
again after previous failures or to refuse to support him and
take the consequences--which might entail ultimate withdrawal.
If we can mislay Khanh and get a military chief of state like
Co or Dong, we have a fresh option worth trying. But whether a
jerry-built civilian government under military domination or a
brand new military government, it will not get far unless a new
factor is added which will contribute to coalescing the political
factions around and within the government and thus bolster its
To speed pacification, we could consider increasing the U.S. support
by increasing the advisory effort or by adding combat units. With
regard to the first possibility, during the last year we have
already increased our advisory effort by 42 percent. The increase
has taken place at several echelons and has involved not only
the military but USOM and USIS representation as well. In the
military sphere, the positioning of advisory teams at district
(county) level and the augmentation of battalion teams account
for most of the increase. Americans are now advising all elements
of the regular forces down to battalion and a very large part
of the paramilitary forces. Americans are also flying all manner
of fixed and rotary wing aircraft, and are operating an extensive
communications system. By February 1 there will be 23,700 officers
and men in country; and, in addition, approximately 750 civilian
advisors. We believe that our capability to stiffen further, by
advisory means, is very limited; indeed, we have probably reached
about the saturation point.
The introduction of U.S. ground units to help fight the Viet-Cong
is still another question. To take this decision would in effect
change the basis of our conduct of the war. This is in itself
no argument against such a change, but for the reasons discussed
in Section V, we are still of the opinion that we should not get
into this guerrilla conflict with our ground units.
In the search for some course of action which will help pull the
government together, stimulate pacification and raise the morale,
I can find only one which offers any chance of the needed success
in the available time. This is the program of graduated air attacks
directed against the will of the DRV, referred to in reference
B as Phase II. (9) The purpose of such attacks
would be fourfold: (1) convey to Hanoi the message that it will
become increasingly costly to support the VC; (2) eventually create
a situation favorable to talking with Hanoi; (3) turn SVN attention
from internal feuding to attacking the external source of their
troubles; (4) restore U.S./GVN camaraderie through a joint military
I know that this is an old recipe with little attractiveness but
no matter how we reexamine the facts, or what appear to be the
facts, we can find no other answer which offers any chance of
success. The other choices are to continue as we are, making marginal
improvements and hoping for the best, to open negotiations with
enemy, or to withdraw. Nobody on the spot here believes that any
one of these will result in ought but loss of SVN and eventually
of SEA. It is true that our recommended course of action offers
no certainty of success and carries some risks. We are presently
on a losing track and must risk a change. How long it will take
to arrive at a denouement if we do not change I cannot say but
to take no positive action now is to accept defeat in the fairly
near future. Furthermore, the action required goes beyond any
mere improvement, necessarily limited, in what we have been doing
up to now. The game needs to be opened up and new opportunities
offered for new breaks which hopefully may be in our favor. The
new breaks may also be unfavorable but scarcely more so than those
we have been getting thus far.
I have shared your feeling that a stable government in Saigon
should be a prerequisite to our undertaking offensive action against
DRV. As stated in reference C, the minimum criteria of performance
which should be met include the ability of the government to speak
for and to its people, to maintain law and order in its principal
cities, to make plans for the conduct of operations and assure
their effective execution by military and police forces completely
responsive to its authority. The present Huong government does
not reach this standard primarily because of the uncertain responsiveness
of the armed forces to its commands. We will make every effort
in adjusting the present governmental crisis to encourage legitimate
participation by the armed forces in the government and an acceptance
of a degree of responsibility for it. We have some leverage on
the generals in the form of the increased aid which I was authorized
to discuss with the government upon my return from Washington
last month. The most important single item in the package is the
matter of joint planning in contemplation of Phase II operations.
My present authority permits me now to initiate planning for Phase
II with GVN with the understanding that the USG does not commit
itself to any form of execution of such plans. Actually, because
of the recent climate of our relations, we have not initiated
this planning and should not until we are surer of our future
course of action. It would be of great assistance in reaching
a compromise of the present crisis if I were authorized to state
explicitly to GVN leaders that we are prepared to initiate Phase
II operations in case the new government meets or shows reasonable
promise of meeting your criteria. What I am suggesting is undertaking
a conditional commitment that if, in the U.S. judgment, the GVN
reaches a certain level of performance, the USG will join in an
escalating campaign against the DRV. Hopefully, by such action,
we could improve the government, unify the armed forces to some
degree, and thereupon move into the Phase II program without which
we see little chance of breaking out of the present downward spiral.
With regard to your feeling that this guerrilla war cannot be
won from the air, I am in entire agreement, if we are thinking
in terms of the physical destruction of the enemy. As I conceive
it, the Phase II program is not a resort to use bombing to win
on the Douhet theory (10) (which I have spent
considerable past effort in exposing) but is the use of the most
flexible weapon in our arsenal of military superiority to bring
pressure on the will of the chiefs of the DRV. As practical men,
they cannot wish to see the fruits of ten years of labor destroyed
by slowly escalating air attacks (which they cannot prevent) without
trying to find some accommodation which will exorcise the threat.
It would be to our interest to regulate our attacks not for the
purpose of doing maximum physical destruction but for producing
maximum stresses in Hanoi minds.
Thus far I have not specifically discussed reprisal bombing in
response to some major VC atrocity such as the Bien Hoa attack
or the Brink bombing. (11) I gather that the
decision not to react to the Brink affair resulted from a combination
of considerations such as the political turmoil in Saigon at the
time, the initial uncertainty as to the authorship of the job,
the feeling that the local security had left something to be desired
and that, when all considerations had been taken into account,
too much time had elapsed to warrant making a reprisal. Without
undertaking to discuss each one of these points, I would say that
the problem looks quite different here than from Washington. If
we are so unfortunate as to have another atrocity warranting consideration
of reprisal bombing (and I feel sure that we will), we think this
event should be viewed as an opportunity to strike DRV appropriately
which should be welcomed. It would not only signal Hanoi but would
give the local morale a much needed shot in the arm and should
dampen VC enthusiasm for terrorism especially against Americans
and thus aid in protecting our people. If, as is usual, the investigation
to ascertain the facts takes some days, that delay should be no
bar to retaliation. Our intent will be perfectly clear when we
act and the advantages derived therefore will be unaffected. We
think here that our policy should be to retaliate promptly after
receiving Presidential approval for each case. To justify a reprisal,
the stability of the GVN (or lack thereof) at the time appears
to us to have much less importance than in the case of the deliberate
initiation of Phase II bombing.
The matter of the evacuation of dependents is closely linked to
the foregoing considerations. Because of its importance and your
personal interest in it, I have given it separate treatment in
Section II which follows. In brief, the study concludes that the
flow of dependents should be stopped now. Numbers presently here
should be reduced by administrative measures but the order to
evacuate all dependents, because of its political impact, should
await a decision to execute a retaliatory strike against the DRV
or to initiate the Phase II program.
If the foregoing reasoning is generally accepted, then we should
look for an occasion to begin air operations just as soon as we
have satisfactorily compromised the current political situation
in Saigon and set up a minimal govt in accordance with the procedure
of para 17. At the proper time, we can set the stage for action
by exposing to the public our case against infiltration, and by
initiating aggressive DeSoto patrols. We can be ready with prompt
reprisal bombing in response to further VC terrorism. As an earnest
of our intent, we can open joint planning with the GVN against
the North and stop the flow of our dependents. When decided to
act, we can justify that decision on the basis of infiltration,
of VC terrorism, of attacks on DeSoto patrols or any combination
of the three.
In conclusion, I would request authority to act in accordance
with para 17 in order to establish as soon as possible a govt
meeting the minimum criteria for justifying the extension of air
strikes against the DRV in accordance with the Phase II concept.
In the meantime, I would hope that, regardless of GVN performance
in respect to the criteria, the USG would be ready at any time
to approve reprisal strikes to respond as appropriate to major
Johnson and Gen Westmoreland concur in this cable.
Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top
Secret; Priority; Nodis. Received in the Department of State at
Sections I, II, IV, and V are Documents 9, 10, 12, and 13.
For text, see Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, vol. I, Document 477.
For text of the study of infiltration dated October 31, 1964,
see ibid., pp. 864-872; regarding a report on Aggression From
the North, released on February 27, 1965, see Document 171.
Hop Tac (Working Together) was a campaign begun in mid-1964 by
the South Vietnamese Government, at the urging of MACV, to pacify
the area around Saigon.
Phase II operations referred generally to graduated military actions
against infiltration routes in Laos and eventually North Vietnam.
Giulio Douhet (1869-1930) was an Italian military theorist and
proponent of strategic air power and strategic bombing.
On October 31, 1964, the Viet Cong attacked Bien Hoa airfield
with mortars, killing 4 U.S. servicemen and wounding 30. On December
24, 1964, a bomb exploded at the Brink Hotel in Saigon, killing
2 and injuring 50 people.