38. Despatch From the Chargé in Vietnam (Elting) to the Department of State1

No. 162


  • Increased GVN Pressure for More Modern Military Equipment

In the past two months Secretary of the Army Brucker, Admiral Felt, Deputy Director Saccio of ICA/W, Secretary of Defense McElroy, Congressman George P. Miller (Armed Services Committee) and Army Chief of Staff Taylor2 have had long visits with President Diem. All these officials except for Mr. Saccio are directly connected with US military matters. It is worthwhile reporting that the principal theme Diem has expounded in all these interviews is the lack of [Page 94] effective and modern military equipment in Viet-Nam. Diem has made a strong oral plea to each and gave Secretary Brucker and Admiral Felt detailed memoranda, outlining what he describes as the deplorable condition of a large amount of military equipment now in the hands of the ARVN and asked each to assist in rectifying this “serious” situation.

Apart from the fact that a considerable amount of equipment now being used by the ARVN, particularly communication and transport, is outmoded and worn, I received the distinct impression that among the reasons that have impelled Diem to make these strong pleas are (1) press reports of the large amount of modern equipment being given to the Chinese Nationalists because of the Taiwan Strait problem and also reports on equipment being given to the Philippines, (2) the Taiwan Straits developments which have deeply concerned Diem. (He obviously has been fearful that we might try to induce Chiang Kai-shek to give up the offshore islands which in turn might encourage the Chinese Communists to back up the Viet Cong forces in an attack on South Viet-Nam.)

In most of these conversations Diem pointed out that Thailand has much more modern equipment, including jets, than we have furnished to Viet-Nam and he underlined the fact that the Korean Army, as a result of the recent war, is equipped with the most modern weapons. Diem also pointed out to his visitors that there are US combat forces stationed in Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines but in Viet-Nam are no such forces and in case of war or emergency Viet-Nam must be defended primarily by its own forces.

Since these pleas have grown in intensity, it is quite clear that a fundamental decision must be made in the near future whether we will accede to all of these requests or whether we will have to turn him down on a considerable portion of them. For this reason it may be helpful to the Department and other agencies to have the following rather detailed outline of the arguments used by Diem.

Diem explains in considerable detail that when the French Expeditionary Force was pulled out, it took with it a large proportion of the best equipment we had furnished to it during the Indochinese war. He points out that some of the remaining equipment was sabotaged by French individuals who sold various vital parts of equipment to Chinese merchants so that a lot of the equipment which was entered on the books at that time was never usable. He states that it is unfortunate that the facts and figures available to the Pentagon in Washington regarding the amount of equipment left in Viet-Nam is apparently on a tonnage basis and that no consideration is given to the fact that a lot of it is unusable or so badly worn that it is hardly serviceable. He states, for instance, that the ARVN communications equipment is not only outmoded but had been extensively used [Page 95] before it was turned over to Viet-Nam and therefore did not work effectively and was continually breaking down. He points out that although we have trained many ARVN technicians to maintain this equipment, the breakdowns are so numerous that only about 50 percent can be kept useable at any one time. He states that trying to maintain this equipment is like trying to make a good soldier out of a man sixty years of age whose health is always breaking down. In the course of these conversations he emphasizes the very fine work done by MAAG in training the Vietnamese armed forces but adds that all this training will be to no avail if they do not have proper material and equipment. He insists that it is false economy to train large numbers of Vietnamese in the armed services and not permit them to have modern useable equipment with which to defend their country.

Diem argues that there are only two military forces in Southeast Asia which could be called upon in case of war—those of Thailand and Viet-Nam, each with a force of approximately 150,000. He then argues that while Thailand has 150,000 men under arms, about half are highly trained and equipped police forces which are not as effective as regular army troops. Furthermore, Diem claims that a great part of the Thai army is composed of regional forces which remain in their regions and therefore are immobilized. Moreover, instead of stationing their troops in various strategic parts of the country, for instance in the Northwest and Northeast of Thailand, the Thai army is stationed primarily in the Bangkok area. On the other hand, the Vietnamese armed forces are stationed at strategic places around the country in areas where they can be effective in case of war, whereas there are no strategic regional forces in Thailand. For these reasons, in case of war the Thai army would have difficulty even in defending Thailand and could not be of any assistance to Viet-Nam. On the contrary, Thailand would probably hope that Viet-Nam could assist in defending Thailand. This also is true in regard to Laos and, to a certain extent, Cambodia. Both these countries have very small ineffective armies and in Laos particularly they count upon the ARVN to help them in case of war or an emergency. For these reasons, he insists that it is in the fundamental interest of the Free World that Viet-Nam receive more modern equipment.

Diem outlines in some detail the stepped-up Communist subversion and guerrilla activities as another reason for needing modern equipment. He strongly emphasizes the fact that in Korea the military forces only have to defend the 38th parallel as they are protected on both sides by the sea. On the contrary in Viet-Nam, particularly since Cambodia recognizes Communist China, the GVN must not only protect the 17th parallel but its long frontier with Laos and Cambodia where there are no natural defense lines. Diem, of course, [Page 96] always makes a point of emphasizing that Viet-Nam is a divided country with the Communist North having, according to Diem, at least three times as many military personnel as Viet-Nam.

Since we have not yet advised him of the amount of our contribution to the GVN military budget, he emphasizes that the cuts in our contribution of last year have made it difficult, if not impossible, to continue to build up the strength of Vietnamese military forces. He claims that the budget is now at rock bottom, if not below that level.

Department please pass to Defense and ICA/W.

  • H. Elting, Jr.
  • Howard Elting, Jr.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751G.5–MSP/10–3158. Secret. Drafted by Durbrow.
  2. See supra. In telegram MAGCH–CH 1217 from Saigon, October 30, Taylor reported on his discussions with MAAG in Vietnam, endorsing the need for replacement of F–8F aircraft and stressing the unsuitability of T–28s as replacements. (JCS Records, CCS 092 Asia (6–25–48) (2))