317. Telegram From the Department of State to the Delegation to the NATO Ministerial Meeting, at Paris1

Tosec 32. Following is draft of suggested reply to Secretary McNamara’s letter to you of December 72 on command relationships in VietNam. Draft has been discussed with Bundy in Defense and General Taylor, and has approval of Department. If you concur, suggest it be transmitted to McNamara prior to his departure for Honolulu. (Assume McNamara has available there copy of his 7 December letter to you.)

“Following are my comments on your proposed concept for elevating the status of the senior US military man in Viet-Nam as outlined in your letter of December 7.

“I completely agree with you that we must take full advantage of the new undertakings by the Government of South Viet-Nam in order to produce a return consonant with the effort we are making there. In doing this, we must carefully avoid any appearance of ‘taking over’ or stressing the ‘big partner’ relationship with the [Page 729]Government of VietNam. We should also exhibit scrupulous regard for Vietnamese national pride and avoid, insofar as possible, giving the Communists any grounds for casting the United States in the role of VietNam’s former French masters, or of picturing the GVN as a puppet regime of the United States.

“Finally, I believe we must keep in mind the special nature of the effort to suppress the Viet Cong. While the threat continues to grow, it essentially retains the features of a guerrilla war. Viet-Nam may be a combat theater, but it is not yet such a theater in the conventional sense of the term. As you know, there are no present plans to send US combat troops to VietNam.

“The immediate object of both sides is the loyalty of the populace. The role of the RVNAF is to seek out and destroy the Communist partisans, but, without the support of the people and the resources of the hinterland, the RVNAF would have little chance of accomplishing its mission. Also, if the GVN were to fail to marshal its resources effectively, no amount of American aid alone could save the day. Clearly, in this all-embracing conflict, virtually every activity of the GVN and the Country Team is related to the counter-insurgency effort.’

“Accordingly, I believe we should design a command arrangement which recognizes a predominantly advisory and supporting role of the American military to the RVNAF-a role which acknowledges the dual politico-military nature of the counter-insurgency effort, which accommodates Vietnamese nationalist sensibilities and which clearly continues to lodge local authority and responsibility for basic US policy with the Ambassador.

“I also believe that the situation in Viet-Nam differs not only from that of the normal and usual MAAG contemplated in the President’s basic letter of May 29, 1961,3 but also from that of an ‘area military commander’ who exercises command authority with respect to an ‘area’ extending beyond the borders of a single country.

“At the same time, American military assistance to the RVNAF is a separable element of the over-all American program of assistance to the GVN in suppressing the Communist guerrillas. On the military level and in conformity with basic policy, the senior American military officer should be free to make appropriate arrangements for lateral contacts with RVNAF, to plan military operations and to make decisions. This system proved its validity in Greece and I believe we would be well advised to adhere to it now. I agree with you that, regardless of the care exercised by the senior American [Page 730]officials, the GVN would seek to exploit a system of divided authority. We should present the GVN with no such temptation.

“Although the senior US military officer in South Viet-Nam will have certain US forces under his operational command, at this stage of the conflict his major role would be that of a staff officer, of [a] RVNAF military adviser and planner. Should the character of the conflict change and should the US assume responsibility for the conduct of the campaign, as in Korea, his function could be changed very quickly.

“I suggest that it may be possible best to reflect the foregoing situation by converting the MAAG into a ‘military assistance command’ with a joint staff and Service components, the commander’s title to be ‘Commander, US Military Assistance Command, VietNam’. Another alternative might be to retain the title of Chief of MAAG for the senior military representative in Viet-Nam by giving him the concurrent title of ‘Commander, US Forces, VietNam’. In any event, I consider it important to retain the concept of ‘military assistance’ and avoid any implication that the US is assuming full responsibility for and direction of all of the military effort in VietNam.

“I agree with you that, whatever title and command arrangement is eventually adopted, Ambassador Nolting should retain responsibility for political and basic over-all policy matters. While the senior US military representative should have responsibility for the conduct of military operations, training, and other clearly military matters, with, of course, direct communication to CINCPAC on such matters and economic aid related thereto, in view of the dual nature of the conflict, I believe it important that he receive guidance from the Ambassador on all other matters. In cases of differences of view, both representatives would, of course, be free to communicate such differences to Washington for decision in accordance with already existing procedures. I would expect that, in accordance with arrangements worked out with the Ambassador, the senior US military representative would directly furnish advice to the GVN, including President Diem, on all matters relative to security and maintaining internal security in South Viet-Nam and to the organization and employment of the RVNAF, keeping the Ambassador appropriately informed of his actions.

“I will look forward to discussing this question further with you in the light of the results of your visit to CINCPAC with the view of promptly recommending to the President decisions that will enable us more effectively and vigorously to pursue our objectives with respect to VietNam”.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.00/12-1261. Top Secret. Drafted by U. Alexis Johnson, cleared with Cottrell, Wallace C. Magathan, and Harriman, and initialed by Johnson for Acting Secretary Ball.
  2. Document 312.
  3. See footnote 5. Document 271.