47. Telegram From the Chairman (Lemnitzer) to the Joint Chiefs of Staff1

UK 70272. Subject is Vietnam.

During my recent conference with the Country Team in Saigon and after hearing McGarr’s report on last week’s events in Washington with respect to Secretary Gilpatric’s Task Force report,2 I believe that we are facing a repetition of the unhappy sequence of events in Laos since 9 August 603 which can only lead to the loss of Vietnam. While my information on events and conclusions in Washington may not be completely up-to-date, the situation in Vietnam, as I understand it, as about as follows:
One of the many urgent actions required to save Viet-Nam is the 20,000 increase in Vietnam’s military strength which U.S. has generally approved. This additional strength is to be used to defeat the Viet Cong in Vietnam.
There are differing views within the Embassy as well as the U.S. Govt at the Washington level as to whether the U.S. or Viet-Nam will pay for this added authorized strength. The arguments as I understand them, are that one segment of the U.S. Govt (and Embassy staff) considers that Viet-Nam has the necessary means to finance this additional effort and should do so. The Vietnamese Govt, on the other hand, considers that for a variety of reasons they are unable to do so.
For the foregoing reasons the result is an impasse with little or no real action taken to implement the increase in authorized strength. When I was in Saigon, only 4 to 6,000 of the increase had been raised and the entire effort was grinding to a dead halt with critical loss of time in initiating the long training period required.
I do not know all the political, economic and other nonmilitary issues involved but I do have a fairly clear picture of how fundamental is the extremely serious enemy military threat in Viet-Nam today and the current ability of the Vietnamese Armed Forces to deal with it.
The problem of Vietnam, from the U.S. point of view, is very simple and very clear. I believe it can be stated in these words: Does the U.S. want Viet-Nam to follow the path of Laos (with all the effect that would have on the rest of SE Asia) or does the U.S. really want to maintain Viet-Nam as an independent non-Communist state closely [Page 127] aligned with the West? Stated another way, does the U.S. intend to take the necessary military action now to defeat the Viet Cong threat or do we intend to quibble for weeks and months over details of general policy, finances, Vietnamese Govt organization, etc., while Viet-Nam slowly but surely goes down the drain of Communism as North Viet-Nam and a large portion of Laos have gone to date?
I have been informed by McGarr that as a direct result of my strong recommendations to President Diem in Ambassador Harriman’s presence, the President has now issued edicts designating a field command as the directional headquarters in conducting the fight against the Viet Cong and establishing a central intelligence agency. Both actions were felt by Ambassador Durbrow to be key actions in the counterinsurgency plan and indicates that President Diem recognizes the urgent requirement for drastic action to meet the threat and has taken actions that were not easy for him to take in that coup-prone country.4
If I correctly understood the expressed views of top government officials before I left Washington, I gathered that we do intend to take whatever action is required to save Vietnam. Yet weeks have passed by without any indication of positive action. Here is a nation, an important nation in SE Asia, that desperately needs more military help. Notwithstanding the importance and urgency of the situation:
The U.S. Embassy in Saigon opposes any increases in MAAG strength which is needed to meet the increased military requirements.
We are operating on programs under MAP which were designed to provide mere status quo maintenance of existing forces under normal conditions. This notwithstanding the fact that Viet-Nam is facing an internal security situation that threatens its very existence.
We are arguing, and wasting time by so doing, as to who, if anyone, will support the cost of the relatively modest increase of a 20,000 man strength in the Vietnamese Armed Forces to deal with the dangerous internal security threat. Each day lost can never be regained.
In view of the very real enemy threat in Viet-Nam and the fact that in the eyes of the world, and particularly in the Far East, the international prestige of the U.S. is literally at stake, I feel that we must avoid the marginal and piecemeal efforts that too often have typified the nest and build into our program sufficient support in [Page 128] men, material and money to definitely assure that we do not lose Vietnam.
Request copies of this message be passed to Secretary McNamara, Secretary Gilpatric, General Wheeler and General Bonesteel for their information.
  1. Source: National Defense University, Lemnitzer Papers, 1-210-71. Top Secret; Priority. Repeated to CINCPAC for Felt. Also sent to McGarr as telegram K-244, May 8. Lemnitzer was in Seoul as part of his tour of East Asia; see Document 41.
  2. Document 42.
  3. On August 9, 1960, a revolt headed by neutralist Army Officer Kong Le overthrew the Laotian Government of Prince Tiao Somsanith.
  4. McGarr commented on May 7 that both these edicts were signed on May 5 immediately after Durbrow’s departure as a sign of Vietnamese displeasure at the Ambassador’s tactics of pressing for political reform at the expense of military necessities. (S-157 from Saigon; National Defense University, Lemnitzer Papers, Folder 19)