102. Memorandum From the Secretary of Defense’s Deputy Assistant for Special Operations (Lansdale) to the Deputy Secretary of Defense (Douglas)1


  • Security of Vietnam

Here are some thoughts you might find useful for discussion with appropriate U.S. officials.

Recent reports from Vietnam indicate an increase in Communist activity which has the stated objective of overthrowing Vietnam’s government by subversion and paramilitary force. The situation is said to have been caused by a strengthening of Communist guerrilla cadres and by weaknesses in Vietnam’s security forces. I have given General Bonesteel2 some constructive suggestions on this.

The security of Vietnam may appear to be a military problem, but actually it is much more than this. It seems to me that the U.S. should take a hard look at this problem while it still permits solution within our present scale of effort. We should take adequate steps towards helping Vietnam meet this threat.

The fundamental of the Vietnamese situation is a political one. Without a sound political basis for operations, military actions can only provide a temporary solution. The United States advised and helped Vietnam create its present political organization just as it did the military organization, from the birth of this new nation. Our past actions have given us responsibility for the political as well as the military health of Vietnam. If we are to help Vietnam meet this current threat, our help must include a review of the political aspects required for solving the problem. It would be useful to bring this to State’s attention, and then work as a Defense-State team toward achieving the NSC objectives for this new nation.

Our goal is “a strong, stable and constitutional government” for Vietnam which will enable Vietnam “to assert an increasingly attractive contrast to conditions in the present Communist zone.”3 Thus, the objective has been stated by the NSC. The way leading to it has not. Shouldn’t we give thought to this?

Admittedly, the political problem is not simple. It requires wisdom and sure skill to handle. Vietnam has a strong leader in Ngo Dinh Diem and much of the stability of this new nation came about [Page 280] only through his strong leadership. It would not be wisdom now, at a time of threat, to harass him with ill-conceived political innovations, with demanding compliance under the duress of withdrawing aid, or of derogatory criticism from the sidelines. It is a time for sound guidance, given with understanding and friendship.

Communism breeds on discontent. In Vietnam, the Communists have found some discontent with political institutions supporting Diem and are enlarging upon this discontent among the people. In so doing, they are creating a popular base to support their Communist subversive and paramilitary forces and to hide them when necessary. This will increasingly pit the military against the people, unless corrected.

The political institutions supporting Diem have a basic hard core which operates clandestinely. This is perhaps the crux of the matter. U.S. officials often have addressed themselves to the unfortunate results of this system while ignoring the cause. It seems logical that we should examine the cause before more time has passed. If we find it unacceptable to us, then the U.S. officials in Vietnam most concerned with this might well start the “sound guidance” noted above by dealing directly with this cause. Constructive changes at the crux would then have wide beneficial effects.

Personal observation, at first hand, of Vietnamese political parties in 1953 and 1954 when this new republic was being born, led to the conclusion that the significant political parties were largely clandestine in organization and activity. They had to be, to stay alive. Their objective was to free Vietnam from the French and to achieve an independent nation. During long years of this activity, the French sought to curb it. Political prisoners were sent to Puolo Condore, where the death rate was sufficiently high to make political activity a deadly risk for the Vietnamese. All of Vietnam’s political leaders got their early political education in revolutionary atmosphere of underground activity, with cellular organization for security, and with a deceptive appearance on the surface. In this respect, they were not too different from the Viet Minh Communists, nor too different from Americans in the Colonies just before our own Revolution.

What is needed for a revolution is hardly what is needed to run an established government. In Vietnam, it was my deep conviction then and remains now that the political health of Vietnam requires that the dynamic political organizations be out in the open. This visibility creates polarity of political thought with the constructive participation of the citizens who stake their futures on political issues. This is certainly inherent in our own most cherished political beliefs. Yet, in Vietnam, it was largely by a combination of U.S. encouragement and acceptance that clandestine political organization has continued as a way of Vietnamese political life. We will be untrue to [Page 281] ourselves until we make it U.S. policy to discourage this. As a caveat, if we are clumsy in discouraging this, we could cause serious disunity at a fateful time.

What is needed then can be summarized as follows:

A clear U.S. appreciation and definition of the way to reach the political objective the U.S. desires for Vietnam, to provide firm direction for U.S. assistance to Vietnamese political development.
Place the responsibility for bringing this about in Vietnam on U.S. officials selected and well-briefed to undertake this political action.
Undertake the action, in an atmosphere of trust and understanding, so that the present leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem can become even more effective.
Make certain that the U.S. military position in Vietnam is used wisely in support of the desired political action.
Decide upon and undertake interim measures to meet the current threat, in harmony with the way towards U.S. objectives. These can be ad hoc measures. For example, Diem could be encouraged to temporarily transfer Vice President Tho from economic planning back to serving as political advisor in military operations against Communist guerrillas in the south: Tho was entrusted with this task by Diem in the past, and was highly effective. Another example might be the attitude taken by U.S. officials when listening to Vietnamese political leaders describe their clandestine organizations; silence by the U.S. official can be interpreted as approval.

Recommendations: It is recommended that you discuss this with John Irwin, with a view towards taking it up with Livy Merchant and Jeff Parsons at State.

  1. Source: Center of Military History, Williams Papers, Lansdale 1960 (136). Top Secret. Attached to the letter cited in footnote 3, Document 113.
  2. Major General Charles H. Bonesteel, III, Secretary of the General Staff (Army).
  3. The language quoted is from the Vietnam section of NSC 5809, April 2, 1958. See Document 13.