274. Memorandum From the President’s Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Rostow) to the President 1

Herewith a comment on Ken Galbraith’s letter on VietNam.2

On his major point I have no objection; namely, that if Diem does not perform we be prepared to indicate in the proper way to the proper people that we would prefer a successor. The management of that crisis will take great skill to avoid exploitation by the Communists; but I think it not impossible. Contingency planning might quietly begin.

The letter does not grip the problem of infiltration. In 1959 there were 2,000 guerrillas; by a pre-announced and purposeful policy they have been built up to 16,000 (aside from the Communist civil guards) while taking heavy casualties. We know from one transit station, on one route that the infiltration rate was over 400 per month for over six months early in 1961. Virtually the whole of the threat in the plateau is the consequence of recent infiltration; and the build up of the cadres in the south in the last year has been an infiltration job. The proportions have been as we described in our report: about 70% locally recruited; 25% South Vietnamese trained in the north and re-infiltrated; 5% North Vietnamese regulars. But the opening of the second front on the plateau via Laos has probably increased the proportion of infiltrators. The infiltrators have all been trained political cadres and soldiers, the hard core of the Viet Cong effort.

The proportion of guerrillas to regular troops in the war in South Viet-Nam is not abnormal by the experience of previous guerrilla wars. Moreover, none of the recent guerrilla wars has been won with an open frontier; the Greek war was won when the Stalin-Tito fight closed the Yugoslav frontier and fractured the Greek [Page 662]Communist Party; there was no Communist frontier in Malaya or in the Philippines.

In short, I cannot help conclude that in order to heighten his political argument Ken has grossly underestimated the military significance of the infiltration process; he has ignored Diem’s record down to 1959; and he has misinterpreted the brutal basic arithmetic of guerrilla war. (I should like to remind Ken that Desai told Alex J. and me that there is an Indian province on the Burma frontier where they require 35,000 policemen to control 2,500 guerrillas.)3

As for Diem. While by the normal standards of an underdeveloped area, his weaknesses would be tolerable-and he did well down to 1959-he has four major weaknesses in terms of the crisis he confronts. First, he cannot protect his peasants. Second, the intellectuals are affronted by his dictatorial political style. Third, the army, the civil servants, and even his ministers are frustrated by his administrative style. Fourth, he lacks the ability to communicate and to identify with the mass of the people-a gift which even Sarit and Sihanouk command. Right now the critical problem from our point of view is his administrative weakness. If this can be conquered by a combination of U.S. partnership and pressure, we shall get a lift of confidence which would, among other things, make it more safe to help induce a coup. If he will not perform, I think it proper that we conceive of an alternative.

With respect to American troops, I know of no one who has recommended that American troops take part in sweeps through Vietnamese territory. There are, nevertheless, concrete functions for U.S. forces which might be envisaged if the battle goes badly or if we feel, for other reasons, American troops are necessary: to provide a plate-glass presence at the 17th parallel and to relieve Vietnamese forces for combat; to take over the protection of towns in the open country (either in the plateau or along the coast), and to relieve Vietnamese troops for combat; to provide assistance in road building and in other engineering and logistic tasks; to help cope with the Viet Cong if they move from their present hit-and-run tactics to open and sustained battle.

The Viet-Nam situation confronts us with the question of whether we shall or shall not accept the mounting of a guerrilla war across a frontier as legitimate. I wish it were not so; but the New Frontier will be measured in history in part on how that challenge was met. No amount of political jiu-jitsu is going to get us off that hook; but-certainly-our stance in dealing with that issue will be [Page 663]affected significantly by the administrative and political effectiveness of the government in Saigon.4

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Viet-Nam Country Series. Top Secret. The source text is neither signed nor initialed by Rostow and bears no indication that the President saw the memorandum. Under cover of a brief letter of November 25, Rostow sent to Galbraith a copy of his memorandum to the President and of a memorandum from McGhee to McGeorge Bundy on “Counter-Guerrilla Campaigns in Greece, Malaya and the Philippines.” (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Departments and Agencies Series, Department of Defense) In the letter to Galbraith, Rostow wrote: “Whatever we achieve or fail to achieve with respect to Vietnamese administration and politics, we should not kid ourselves that we are up against a serious and major offensive mounted from Hanoi; and it will take hard and purposeful labor on many fronts, both inside and outside South VietNam, to save that area without a war.” (Ibid., Meetings and Memos Series, Staff Memos-Rostow-Guerrilla and Unconventional Warfare)
  2. See Document 267.
  3. This conversation has not been further identified.
  4. Written at the end of this sentence, apparently in Rostow’s hand, is the following: “An issue on which the Taylor Report was by no means silent.”