Document 34. Letter From Director of Central Intelligence Raborn to President Johnson (1)

Washington, June 12, 1965.

Dear Mr. President:

The attached was prepared to assist me in pulling together some of my thoughts on the situation in Vietnam. It was also designed to serve me as a resume of intelligence community views which have been set forth in the recent National Intelligence Estimates. Because every effort was made to keep the present document to minimum length, departures from the full texts--as agreed--were unavoidable. Even though there are numerous estimates on the subject, they do not cover all of the major points presently under discussion. Accordingly, my staff has supplemented community findings with judgments very generally agreed to within the Central Intelligence Agency.

I myself have found the document useful and forward it to you for your information, emphasizing again that you should consider it a special-purpose briefing note and in no sense an agreed pronouncement of the United States Intelligence Board.

Respectfully yours,

W Raborn

Attachment (2)

Briefing Paper Prepared by the Office of National Estimates

Washington, June 11, 1965.

NIE's and SNIE's on South Vietnam

Since June 1964 there have been 12 NIE's or SNIE's on South Vietnamese problems. Only one of these, issued 4 February 1965, "Short-Term Prospects in South Vietnam," (3) was in any sense a general assessment of the situation. Eight were on "Communist Reactions to Certain Possible Courses of US Action"--these US courses of action were specifically given to us by policy-makers requesting the respective Estimates.

Accordingly there are no agreed USIB documents which are currently valid and which provide a general view of the situation in all its aspects, or which deal with all contingencies which might arise.

In Part I, following, we attempt to present estimative judgments on the most immediate issues. Column 1 poses the questions, or puts the propositions. Column 2 contains what NIE's or SNIE's have said on the matter. You will realize that this presentation omits supporting arguments and most qualifications. It may serve as a basis for briefing.

Part II is a list of USIB-approved Estimates specifically related to the Vietnam situation, issued during the past 12 months.(4) It includes a very brief note on each Estimates.


Principal Issues in the Short Term

I. The Communists think they are winning the war in South Vietnam, because:

(a) It is a guerrilla war, of small-scale operations, in jungle and difficult terrain, where advanced weapons, air power, and large-unit formations are not of decisive importance;

The main judgments here are found most recently in SNIE 10-6-65 of 2 June 1965 (5) (para. 3 for the DRV, para. 7 for the Chinese).

(b) it is a "war of national liberation"--a political and social struggle--the kind of struggle which they believe they will inevitably win;

Virtually all the Estimates stress Communist confidence in ultimate victory.

(c) they think the US does not understand how to fight such a war;

(d) they perceive the weaknesses of the South Vietnamese government;

(e) they remember that they defeated the French;

(f) finally, they think they are winning because in fact they are winning. (See General Westmoreland's recent cable.) (6)

No NIE would declare that the Communists are winning the war, and none does.


II. As long as the Communists think they are winning in South Vietnam, bombing of North Vietnam is unlikely to lead them to make conciliatory gestures.

This proposition is most recently in SNIE 10-6-65, 2 June 1965, applying, however, only to bombing as in (a) and (b).

Bombing of North Vietnam could be:

(a) limited to targets and areas approximately as at present;

Since February 1965, SNIE's have stated that this degree of bombing would not lead Hanoi to make conciliatory gestures.

(b) extended to airfields and SAM sites near Hanoi (and done with SAC aircraft);

SNIE 10-6-65 (2 June 1965) says odds are against this leading Hanoi to conciliatory gestures. (Air Force dissents)

(c) extended (gradually) to North Vietnamese industrial and economic targets (not population centers as such);

SNIE 10-3/1-65, 18 February, (7) said (with State dissenting) that "if the US vigorously continued in its attacks and damaged some important economic or military assets the DRV...might decide to intensify the struggle, seems to us somewhat more likely that they would decide to make some effort to secure a respite from US attack. ..."

The 2 June SNIE, however, in effect though not specifically, reversed this judgment.

(d) indiscriminate and complete. This has not been considered in any USIB paper.


III. As long as the Communists think they are winning in South Vietnam it is unlikely that Chinese Communists or Soviets will intervene with substantial military forces of their own, in combat.

The message of all recent SNIE's is in agreement with this proposition, for three main reasons:

1. Such intervention would not be necessary.

2. It would involve China and Russia in undesired risk of larger war with the US.

3. The North Vietnamese do not want a massive Chinese Communist presence in their country, at least not until their regime is facing severe defeat.

Note however that continuance of the flow of military supplies, equipment, and probably small numbers of technical and training personnel from China and the USSR to North Vietnam is virtually certain.


The chances of large-scale DRV invasion, of attacks on US aircraft carriers or bases, or of large-scale Chinese Communist military intervention call for further consideration, as follows:


I. Large-scale, overt, DRV invasion of South Vietnam--on the "Korean" model.

(a) Appears to us to be militarily imprudent. The only north-south road is the coast road, open to US air and naval bombardment.

Estimated in 10-6-65, 2 June, as unlikely in response to SAC bombings of North Vietnamese airfields and SAM sites, because of the risks to the DRV in such an invasion.

(b) Caution. This does not rule out accelerated and substantial infiltration of regular DRV forces along trails west of the coastal plain. This is occurring and probably will continue.

But SNIE 10-5-65, 28 April,8 says that if the US bombed China in sustained fashion "the DRV armed forces, with Chinese support, would probably open an offensive against South Vietnam." (This may not mean a "Korean style" offensive, however, but a greatly intensified insurgency effort within South Vietnam.)

All Estimates on the matter allow for the possibility of such an invasion. State consistently has judged it more likely, in certain contingencies, than have the other Agencies.

II. Attacks on US carriers or on US air bases in South Vietnam.

Attacks on carriers are barely possible with Chinese Communist submarines, possible with Soviet submarines, possible but almost suicidal with IL-28's.

The possibility of such attacks is recognized in SNIE's, but (except for sabotage or sneak attacks on US airfields) they are deemed unlikely.

Attacks on airfields in South Vietnam are possible but very dangerous with IL-28's from North Vietnam; are highly likely by sabotage teams.

III. Substantial Chinese Communist Military Intervention in Vietnam, in Combat, with

(a) Chinese Communist aircraft and pilots, based in North Vietnam.

Considered likely, in response to US bombing of North Vietnam, as far back as SNIE 10-3-65, 11 February 1965. Limited, however, by capability of North Vietnamese airfields, especially if these airfields were under US attack.

(b) Chinese Communist aircraft from bases in China.

State considered this likely if US bombing extended to northern North Vietnam. All other agencies considered it unlikely. SNIE 10-3-65, 11 February. (9) Also SNIE 10-6-65, 2 June.

(c) Chinese Communist attack on the offshore islands, Taiwan, or South Korea.

Considered unlikely in SNIE 10-5-65, 28 April, even if the US bombed South China with sustained air strikes.

(d) Large numbers of Chinese Communist "volunteers"--in the Korean style.

See next page. (10)


Question: When would the Chinese Communists intervene militarily with ground forces in a substantial fashion (so as to change the character of the war)?

(a) If the US/GVN were winning the war in South Vietnam? Probably not.

Not estimated by USIB.

(b) If US air attacks began to damage the industrial and military sector of North Vietnam? Probably not.

Judged unlikely in SNIE 10-3-65, 11 February 1965 (with partial State dissent). This Estimate almost certainly still holds.

(c) If the US bombed fighter bases in South China? Probably yes, if the bombings continued over some time.

SNIE 10-5-65, 28 April 1965, says that the Chinese under these circumstances would probably move forces "into North Vietnam" and Northern Laos, and would threaten Thailand.

(d) If US ground forces invaded North Vietnam in such strength as to control most of the country? Probably yes; almost certainly yes if US forces approached the Chinese frontier.

This is a judgment agreed in USIB a long time ago. There has been no occasion to repeat it in the past year.

Question: What about Soviet military intervention in combat.

Such intervention is judged to be extremely unlikely.

(a) Vietnam is too far away for the Soviets to support a useful military operation, especially in view of their unfriendly relations with Communist China.

SNIE's generally estimate Soviet reactions to be confined to propaganda, diplomatic maneuver, and supply of weapons and equipment to North Vietnam.

(b) The Soviets wish to avoid a military confrontation with the US.

Some Political Factors

I. The Chinese Communists are violent, unyielding, offering no avenue to settlement acceptable to the US.

II. The DRV is almost, though not quite, as obdurate as the Chinese, and have apparently grown more so in recent weeks.

III. The Soviets would probably like to get the problem settled, but they cannot force the DRV to a settlement, and there is no reason to suppose that they feel either the necessity or the desire to work towards a settlement on US terms. Their attitude has hardened in recent weeks. It is worth noting that Brezhnev and Kosygin have reversed Khrushchev's policy of disengagement from the Vietnam problem.

All this is in accord with SNIE's and NIE's.

IV. The Sino-Soviet quarrel is a factor of first importance. Much simplified:

(a) The Chinese maintain their extreme revolutionary posture, expecting that a successful outcome in Vietnam (from their point of view) will enhance their position in the Communist world and among underdeveloped nations. They wish to maximize their influence in North Vietnam, at Soviet expense.

(b) The Soviets cannot afford (even if they wish) to appear backward in their support of a "revolutionary struggle." But they are challenging Chinese influence in North Vietnam by supplying things (SAM's, IL-28's) which the Chinese cannot produce.

(c) The DRV appears eager to balance the overwhelming Chinese presence (owing to size and proximity) in their affairs with a growing Soviet involvement.

Generally in accord with various USIB pronouncements.

V. The fragility of the governmental structure in South Vietnam is also an important factor in Communist calculations.

VI. Free World Attitudes

There is widespread disapproval of US actions in Vietnam in the Free World generally, including the US itself.

Not covered in NIE's.

We believe that the Communists rely heavily on this feeling to restrain the US from (1) anything approaching unrestricted bombing of North Vietnam and (2) widening the area and scope of the war.

Emphasized in all SNIE's.

Communist diplomacy and propaganda are vigorous in encouraging the disapproval of US policy. It is an extremely important element in their general line of policy.

Emphasized in all SNIE's.


One Estimate--that on reactions to US bombing of China--deals in its final section with a situation of general war in the Far East--perhaps in the world. We note that except for this, all the Estimates deal with situations of moderate or limited escalation (or no escalation). The general proposition is that the Communists will try to restrain further expansion of military conflict--if only because they are doing well in conflict on the present scale.

[end document]


(1) Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. XXXV. Top Secret. Copies were sent to Ball, Vance, McGeorge Bundy, William Bundy, Carroll, Carter, Allan Evans, Major General Jack E. Thomas, Rear Admiral Rufus L. Taylor, and Brigadier General C.J. Denholm. The covering note indicates that Moyers sent the letter and attachment to President Johnson on June 15 and that the President saw them.

(2) Top Secret; Sensitive.

(3) Document 69.

(4) Attached, but not printed.

(5) See Document 318.

(6) Document 337.

(7) Document 139.

(8) Not printed. (Department of State, INR/EAP Files: Lot 90 D 99)

(9) Document 111.

(10) Reference is to the following question.

Copyright Digital History 2018