38: MEMORANDUM FOR THE PRESIDENT
in Vietnam, 1954, and the U.S. in Vietnam, 1965 -- A Useful Analogy?
It has been
suggested is some quarter that the United States today finds itself
in a position in Vietnam similar to that of the French in 1954.
One implication is that we must expect an outcome to our present
policy similar to that which befell the French in the their defeat
and withdrawal of that year. The actual content and applicability
of this analogy are discussed in the paragraphs that follow:
A. The Political
fact of French involvement in Vietnam was the persistent seven-year
effort re-establish French colonial rule. French forces were pitted
against a communist-led revolution for national independence;
at no point did France offer Vietnam the alternatives of non-Communist
independence. The former Emperor Bao Dai served as the political
facade for France's effort to maintain control through a Mandarin
elite. Saigon cabinets came and went, while vested interests among
Vietnamese and Frenchmen jockeyed for power; but little progress
was made toward forming a government capable of rallying Vietnamese
B. The Military
By early 1953,
Viet Minh forces comprised seven regular infantry divisions, with
independent regiments equal in strength to two additional divisions
-- a total of nine divisions. In numbers, the Viet Minh had about
125,000 regulars, 75,000 full-time regional and provincial troops,
and 150,000 part-time guerillas -- a total of 350,000 men.
these forces, the French has committed 175,000 regulars (54,000
of whom were native Frenchmen, the rest Legionnaires, Africans,
etc.) and 55,000 auxiliaries, plus a naval contingent of 5,000,
an Air Force contingent of 10,000 and 225,000 local forces of
three Indo-China states -- a total of 470,000 men.
By 1952, eight
percent of France's national budget was annually allocated to
the Indochina war; in 1952-53 nearly 6,000 French and Legionnaires
troops were killed, as well as 7,730 of their Vietnamese allies.
statistics imply heavy conventional engagements. In early 1950
the Viet Minh had shifted from guerilla to conventional warfare,
and for the next four years large-scale assaults -- ranging upward
to 14-battalion strikes -- were not uncommon. In 1952 a three-division
assault in one province forced the withdrawal of over 20,000 French
By 1953 the
French were generally engaged in a holding action; the brunt of
their forces were tied to defensive duties, and the prospects
for a military victory were nil. The had largely retreated to
the Red River Delta in the North, some key towns in the Center,
and the region around Saigon in the South. Only the equivalent
of three divisions were actually available for offensive operations.
By 1954 the
war's unpopularity at home had brought mounting pressure for negotiation.
The Geneva Conference was already under way by the time of France's
spectacular tactical defeat at Dien Bien Phu May 7, 1954.
Vietnam in 1965
The Political Scene
two central facts of the South Vietnam situation today are the
Viet Cong/Viet Minh struggle for the control and the process of
non-Communist social and political revolution. U.S. forces are
present in rapidly growing numbers to help resist the Communists
at the request of successive Saigon governments.
Diem's fall, power in the urban South has been passing from the
predominantly Catholic and French-educated elite to a more "Vietnamese"
militantly nationalistic and potentially xenophobic group of which
the political bronzes, students, and certain young generals are
prime examples. While the Communists are seeking to exploit this
revolutionary ferment, it remains something quite apart from the
Viet Cong insurgency. Those who aspire to lead the revolution
claim that unless it is successful, the Viet Cong insurgency cannot
shift in the alignment of fundamental forces is responsible for
much of the political turbulence of the urban scene. It is a process
that involves the striking of new power balance in the midst of
a war and in the absence of parliamentary traditions or institutions
for the channeling of political conflict. Despite their deep antagonisms,
neither the Buddhists nor Catholics have acquired political dominance,
with the result that each can check but not cancel the power of
the other. The same is true of the myriad of other political factions
pressing their own interests.
frequent changes in governments have had a debilitating effect
on political and administrative stability, as well as on government
efforts to create a national consciousness for support of the
war effort, there remains an impressive resiliency among the Vietnamese
people and their traditional way of life which is little affected
by the cabinet changes in Saigon.
the most significant element of stability and strength, insofar
as the struggle against Communist insurgency is concerned, remains
the external factor of U.S. military economic and political support.
Without it, the country would quickly succumb to Communist domination.
The Military Scene
Viet Cong probably controls somewhat more than 3 million Vietnamese
in half the total rural area of the country. The GVN continues
to control rural areas inhabited by an estimated 4.4 million.
The remaining rural inhabitants, some 5.4 million, are subject
to various stages of governmental pacification, or else not controlled
by either side.
Cong regulars, now estimated at 64,600 , are full-time, professional
soldiers organized in identified units of up to regimental strength.
They are for the most part well trained and equipped. The regulars
are distinct from an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 irregular Viet
Cong who operate as guerillas and self-defense militia troops.
Another 30,000 armed political personnel staff the Viet Cong's
party and administrative apparatus. The military activist figure
may therefore be as high as 194,000.
Viet Cong regular force has the capability of mounting large-scale
actions well above present levels of activity. Such actions could
theoretically involve as many as nine simultaneous attacks in
regimental strength; even a series of coordinated, widespread
attacks of lesser magnitude could seriously tax South Vietnamese
ability to respond with the limited general reserve battalions
the Viet Cong regular battalions vary widely in their combat effectiveness.
Some are battle-tested veterans,while others are known to include
relatively poor trained young recruits or recently infiltrated
North Vietnamese Draftees with minimal training and little or
no combat experience.
is not clear whether the Viet Cong will sustain their currently
stepped-up pace, whether present activity is the forerunner of
a major offensive, or whether Viet Cong plans have been set back
by increased U. S. activity and troop support. The concentration
of Viet Cong forces in northern South Vietnam suggests Kontum,
Pleiku, or their GVN interior strongholds as their likely targets
for a major victory, possibly accompanied by an attempt to drive
to the coast from their own inland strongholds, thereby cutting
South Vietnam in two.
against the Viet Cong is the South Vietnamese Army, numbering
approximately 220,000 out of the total armed forces of roughly
250,000 men. The ARVN is capable of maintaining internal security
in the major population centers, in some outlying areas, and along
selected lines of communications. While its combat capabilities
are affected by frequent command changes at top echelons, insufficient
numbers of aggressive leaders and poor but improving logistics,
the ARVN is well supplied with U. S. arms and equipment and has
become gradually more effective in guerrilla operations. The ARVN,
with continuing U. S. military support, has the capacity to prevent
a Viet Cong military victory.
alliance with the ARVN are the U. S. forces in Vietnam which now
approach 70,000 -- a combined US/GVN total of 320,000.
in the background throughout the present conflict is the seasoned
regular army of North Vietnam, numbering over 300,000 men.
France in 1954
key aspects of France's relation to the Indochina war in 1954
were the war's acute unpopularity and French political instability.
was never united or consistent in her prosecution of the war in
Indochina. The war was not popular in France itself, was actively
opposed as many on the left, and was cynically used by others
for domestic political ends.
Viet Minh paid care attention to, drew considerable comfort and
encouragement from, not infrequently made good use of the French
domestic political factors. (Ho Chi Min's political and negotiating
tactics during the 1945-46 period, in fact, were heavily influenced
by his belief that the communists would soon come to power in
a long time, Paris tried to pretend that the war was not a war
but a "police action." Not until July 1952 was the legal
status of "veteran" given to Frenchmen who had served
in Indochina, and the National Assembly never did permit conscripts
to be posted to the Indochina theater.
ambiguous legal status of the conflict enabled French Communists
to carry their opposition to the point of sabotage without incurring
the legal charge of treason. Successive French governments had
to contend concerted and organized domestic opposition; resolutions
favoring negotiating and early withdrawal were frequently proposed
and occasionally passed by non-Communist parties. Leak and counter
leak was an accepted domestic political tactic, and, as a result,
even highly classified reports or orders pertaining to the war
were often published verbatim in the pages of political journals.
for negotiation and settlement mounted steadily in 1953, with
a number of prominent politicians -- especially Pierre Mendes-France
-- pushing such themes with vigor. The January 1954 Berlin conference
gave new impetus to this pressure, and by February 18 it was decided
that a conference should be held in Geneva in April to consider
both Korea and Indochina.
Bien Phu fell on the day before the opening of the Indochina phase
of the Geneva Conference. Had parties had the will to continue
the fight, replacements for the battle's losses could have been
sent from France, and the Indochina war might have continued for
months if not years.
lacked the will, however, and the defeat at Dien Bien Phu made
the French Government anxious to disengage as soon as possible.
The fall of the Laniel cabinet on June 12 and the advent of Mendes-France
as Premier on June 18 hastened the conclusion of a settlement.
The United States in 1965
central themes of U. S. opinion regarding Vietnam appear to be
considerable concern (over U. S. casualties, U. S. involvement,
Saigon's political and instability, the risks of general war,
the use of air strikes and napalm, etc.) but general support for
general, the public appears unenthusiastic but reconciled to our
role in this conflict. While there is widespread questioning and
uneasiness about the way in which we may be playing that role,
the public as a whole seems to realize that the role must be played.
Furthermore, open skepticism as to our tactics subsides at times
of sharp crisis in the situation.
most articulate critics of our present policy in Vietnam have
been elements within the academic community and church organizations.
Although usually a minority within their own groups, they have
stimulated extensive worry and inquiry in the nation as a whole.
With the end of the academic year, this protest movement has temporarily
the Government's negotiatory posture since April 7th and the apparent
intransigence of the Communists, has made it more difficult to
advocate persuasive alternatives to Washington's current track.
Criticism continues to be focused on the air strikes, however,
and on the U. S. Government's apparent refusal to consider negotiations
latest Harris Poll (June 28) shows that 62% of the public expresses
overall approval of the President's handling of the Vietnam crisis.
Well over 70% of the people believe that Southeast Asia will go
Communist if we do not stand firm in Vietnam, and they approve
the President's call for unconditional negotiations. Twenty-three
percent are not sure about bombings in the North or the sending
of more troops during the monsoon season. However, of those with
almost 80 percent approve of the bombing and over 60 percent believe
we should send more troops. Skepticism as to the future of the
conflict and our rights to be involved in it are expressed by
the fact that 35 percent of the people believe that China has
the right to ask us out of an area so close to her borders and
32 percent believe we might be involved in a land war we can't
latest Gallup Poll (June 9) showed that the percentage of people
who believed that we should continue our present course of action
climbed from 13 to 20 percent in the last month. Those who believe
that we should increase military action dropped from 23 to 21
percent and those who believed we should stop military action
stayed virtually the same with only one point rise to 26 percent.
The number of those expressing no opinion dropped from 35 to 28
some exceptions, most editorials and columnists support the President
in his determination to keep Vietnam independent. This support
for the broad objective is tempered by a noticeable strain of
criticism over a "lack of frankness" on the part of
the Administration is discussing the depth of our commitment.
Such criticism was most discernible after the seeming contradiction
between the Department of State and the White House over the combat
role of U. S. troops and after the Government's handling of the
who oppose the Government in the press also seem to be presently
concentrating on the demand that the U. S. negotiate directly
with the Viet Cong and, to a lesser extent, that the bombing should
be stopped again. In general, however, most newspapers appear
convinced that the Administration is sincere in its desire to
settle this conflict by negotiations and that the intransigence
in on the Communists' side.
most vocal current comment on the Vietnam situation is coming
from the Congress. Senators Morse and Gruening remain convinced
the we must pull out. There is another group, somewhat larger,
which could be termed "reluctant realists" whose viscera
says get out but whose heads tell them the present policy is unavoidable.
Senators Mansfield, Church and Fulbright seem to fall in this
category. Once again, the problem is one of offering a plausible
alternative that would assure the
existence of a non-Communist South Vietnam.
most recent Congressional development is the attack spearheaded
by Representative Melvin Laird who states that unless we go for
total victory we shouldn't commit U. S. ground troops. He threatens
withdrawal of Republican support in the House. It is too early
to judge the appeal of this maneuver.
obvious Congressional disquiet, Congressional support has been
demonstrated in the 512 -2 vote last August on the Southeast Asia
Resolution and in the votes approving the President's request
for a supplemental Vietnam appropriation (408-7 and 88-3)
would seem clear from the foregoing analysis that despite superficial
similarities, the situation faced by France in Vietnam in 1954
in not fundamentally analogous to that faced by the U. S. in Vietnam
in 1954 was a colonial power seeking to reimpose its overseas
rule, out of tune with Vietnamese nationalism, deeply divided
in terms of French domestic opinion, politically unstable at home,
the victim of seven years of warfare -- the last four of them
marked by military engagements on a scale far greater than anything
yet encountered by the U. S. and the GVN.
U. S. in 1965 is responding to the call of a people under Communist
assault, a people undergoing a non-Communist national revolution;
neither our power nor that of our adversaries has been fully engaged
as yet. At home we remain politically strong and, in general,
politically united. Options, both military and political, remain
to us that were no longer available to the French.