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


  • Meeting Saturday Morning, January 28, in the President’s Office, on Viet-Nam
This memorandum is designed for Mr. Bundy only. It aims to give more detail than should go into a memorandum for the record.
The President thanked General Lansdale for his memorandum2 and stated it, for the first time, gave him a sense of the danger and urgency of the problem in Viet-Nam.
Mr. Parsons opened by describing the problems which had emerged out of joint work between Washington and the field for a plan to reverse the course of events in Viet-Nam.3 Its elements are these:
An increase in the force levels from 150,000 to 170,000, involving additional cost to the U.S. of $28.4 million.

The proposal to improve, over two years, the quality of the civil guard, involving additional cost to the U.S. of $12.7 million.

It is hoped that these two measures, along with the measures set out below, would permit Viet-Nam to move from the defense to the offense.

It is proposed that there be an improved integration of civil and military resources in the Viet-Nam government, from the top to the village level, including a reduction (from the present level of 43) in the number of people reporting personally to Diem and an improvement in the executive quality of those below Diem.
The creation of a national planning system for the economy.
Increased centralization of governmental institutions.
An improved border and coastal patrol system.
Improved domestic communications.
It is believed the local costs of this program, aside from those suggested above, for the armed forces and the civil guard can be met by the Viet-Nam government without inflation. There is a twenty-page foreword to this plan, and we might wish to get hold of it.
The President then asked whether this order of magnitude of increase in the armed forces of Viet-Nam would really permit a shift from the defense to the offense. He asked whether the situation was not basically one of politics and morale.
It was explained that a very high proportion of total Viet-Nam forces was now pinned on the front facing a Viet Minh force of 300,000.
The President asked whether guerrilla forces could be mounted in the Viet Minh area. It was explained that Diem had shown thus far little taste for such operations. Mr. Dulles said that four teams of eight men each had been organized for harassment; that the CIA had other notions about offensive operations; but thus far these teams had been allocated to working on a series of guerrilla pockets in the south of the country, which had moved in over the Laos border. General Lansdale said that he was familiar with the plan, as was Diem. He said that any plan that could work would require that the Vietnamese themselves become fully engaged. Diem’s view was that some parts of the American plan made sense, others would be very difficult. For example, he has been able to find only three men who could bear serious executive responsibility beneath him; only three men who could make tough decisions and not simply buck them upward to himself. He also said that he believed an increment of 20,000 men to the armed forces could significantly affect the margin in the field available for counter-guerrilla operations. The Communists had just begun serious political work in the field. Their objective was to organize some kind of political front capable of bringing Diem down, which they could dominate.
The President asked what his estimate of the prospects was. Lansdale replied that the Communists regard 1961 as their big year. He believed that a maximum American effort could frustrate a definitive effort in 1961 and move over into the offensive in 1962. The essentials were three: first, the Americans in Viet-Nam must themselves be infused with high morale and a will to win, and they must get close to the Vietnamese; secondly, the Vietnamese must, in this setting, be moved to act with vigor and confidence; third, Diem must be persuaded to let the opposition coalesce in some legitimate form rather than concentrate on the task of killing him. It was Diem’s view that there are Americans in the Foreign Service who are very close to those who tried to kill him on November 11. Lansdale found it impossible to dissuade him that this was a fact. Diem felt confidence in the Americans in the CIA and the MAAG. He had [Page 18] tried to persuade Diem to appoint his brother to an executive position out in the open; but Diem apparently needed the confidence of his brother’s advice, given at night and in the early morning; Diem did not believe his brother had executive competence; and the loss of his brother—perhaps in an ambassadorship—would be a traumatic experience for Diem.
Lansdale said that if Laos goes to the Communists, we might not have time to organize the turn-around required in American and Viet-Nam morale and action.
Mr. Dulles described the recent increase in the number of transmission stations used by the Communists to instruct the guerrillas in Viet-Nam, an increase from 11 to 29. He advocated a quick beef-up of counter-guerrilla forces before the 20,000 increment was organized. He advocated a review within our government of training of foreign guerrillas, a program for which there was no clear-cut line of authority. He said the MAAG organization was excellent but had no adequate provision for pare-military forces. There was no clear authority in Washington; the funding problem was not clear; and the CIA was properly confined to the training of the FBI-type men to seek out and identify dangerous Communists.
The President again stated he wants guerrillas to operate in the north and asked what the situation there was. Mr. Dulles replied the people were unhappy and that the government was strong. The military forces consisted of over a quarter of a million men. Moscow had its men in the government bureaus; but the Chinese Communists were more widely spread about in Viet Minh territory.
Mr. Rusk explained that the diplomats in Viet-Nam face an extremely frustrating task. They were caught between pressing Diem to do things he did not wish to do and the need to convey to him American support. It was a difficult balance to strike; and Diem was extremely sensitive to criticism.
The President asked whether he should write to Diem. Mr. Rusk said this would be a good idea, as part of a new approach by the new Ambassador. It was agreed there would be an early Presidential statement backing the effort in Viet-Nam. The President asked how do we change morale; how do we get operations in the north; how do we get moving? It was replied that the funding problem would be difficult. The emergency fund was low. We already had $41,000,000 committed to Viet-Nam and $30,000,000 committed to Laos. The President expressed in the meeting, as he expressed to me personally, his desire to be fully informed with respect to the emergency fund. He wishes a Viet-Nam task force set up like the Cuba task force. The question of whether General Lansdale or Mr. Kenneth Young should go to Viet-Nam as the new ambassador, was considered.
The President said that he wanted Mr. Bundy to make sure to get prompt action on the question of personal responsibility in Washington for the four crises areas: Viet-Nam; Congo: Laos; and Cuba. The President said we must change our course in these areas and we must be better off in three months than we are now.
In a conversation after the meeting with Mr. McNamara, Mr. Rusk and myself, Mr. Rusk expressed some anxiety that the development of these task forces might obtrude on the normal workings of the government. Mr. McNamara said he understood this; but for crisis situations such measures would have to be accepted.
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series. Top Secret. Initialed by Rostow, who attended the January 28 meeting, although not listed as a participant in Parsons’ memorandum, Document 3.
  2. See Document 2. Although paragraph 2 suggests that the President had seen Lansdale’s report, Rostow has stated that he gave it to him on February 2 at 3:40 p.m. When the President had read it, according to Rostow, he looked up and said: “This is the worst one we’ve got, isn’t it? You know, Eisenhower never uttered the word Vietnam.” (National Defense University, Taylor Papers, T-15-71, MS of Rostow book, Chapter 34, p. 531) Similar accounts of this meeting are also in Kennedy Library, Oral History Program, Walt W. Rostow, p. 44, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days, p. 320.
  3. Document 1.