114. Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hilsman) to the Presidentʼs Military Representative (Taylor)1

SUBJECT

  • (1) Report on Meeting with General Harkins, Directed by Higher Authority2
  • (2) Doubts on Operation Sunrise

As directed by higher authority, I met with General Harkins in Saigon on 17 March 1962. After about an hourʼs conversation, we were joined by Ambassador Nolting.

General Harkins gave me a rundown on the inspection tours that he has been conducting since arriving in Saigon. On the whole he feels encouraged. He finds the troops are well-trained, energetic, and vigorous fighters.

He reported particularly on some newly organized strategic villages in central South Viet-Nam.3 The Viet Cong had attacked one of these villages just the night before, and the Self-Defense Corps had successfully repelled them. The next morning reinforcements were brought up and the Viet Cong suffered heavy casualties.

In discussing our general approach in South Viet-Nam, I stressed to both General Harkins and Ambassador Nolting that the paper entitled [Page 245]A Strategic Concept for South Viet-Nam4 was written hastily after only a very short time on the ground; that no one felt that it was the last word on the subject; and that any comments, criticisms, or suggestions that they would have would be most welcome. General Harkins said that for his part he felt that the general approach was sound and that his impression was that the South Vietnamese Government and the people in the American Missions were in substantial agreement with this approach. On the specific recommendations for assigning U.S. personnel to civic action teams and other tasks at the village level, Ambassador Nolting with General Harkins’ concurrence suggested that we should not approach President Diem with a formal proposal. Rather, we should recommend the assignment of individual Americans to civic action teams and other tasks at the village level only as specific needs arose. For my part I said that I thought that this was by far the best approach. Both Ambassador Nolting and General Harkins went on to say, though, the assignment of American personnel to civic action teams and village level tasks was necessary and desirable and that the numbers needed were very close to those estimated in the report.

At the time of our meeting, President Diem had not yet signed the strategic village plan prepared by Mr. Thompson.5 The delay was apparently occasioned not by any reluctance concerning the plan itself but by doubts as to who among the Vietnamese would be in charge of it.

The Deputy Chief of Mission was concerned that Brother Nhu, who is enthusiastic about the strategic village approach, might attempt to apply it simultaneously all over the country rather than systematically by phases. Ambassador Nolting, however, has talked with Brother Nhu about this specific question and has gotten some assurances that Nhu is aware of the danger of a blanket approach. Ambassador Nolting feels that it would be most unwise to raise with President Diem any question about Brother Nhu at this time.

Operation Sunrise

I asked about Operation Sunrise, which calls for building a belt of strategic villages in Binh Duong Province along the road through Ben Cat.6 This province is flanked by areas of very heavy concentrations of regular Viet Cong units, in Zone D on the one side and Tay Ninh on the other, and is a major route for Viet Cong supplies and troop movements. I said that the strategic village concept called for building [Page 246]zones of such villages beginning with the less dangerous areas and then fanning outwards, and that my fear was that the Viet Cong would try to make an example of these villages and so discredit the Strategic Village concept throughout South Viet-Nam.

General Harkins said that he, too, was very disturbed about Operation Sunrise. He feared that the troops guarding these very exposed villages would be called away to meet some other threat, giving the Viet Cong precisely the opportunity they seek. Both General Harkins and Ambassador Nolting were pressing Diem to cancel this operation, but they were handicapped by the fact that it was the MAAG that originally urged it and especially since the MAAG had previously urged the Zone D operation and then abandoned it. General Harkins said he could only hope that these villages could in fact be protected until the phased plan had begun to work.

Roger Hilsman7
  1. Source: Department of State, INR Files: Lot 75 D 378, SV-236, 12 Delta Plan. Secret.
  2. “Higher Authority” refers to President Kennedy.
  3. The value of the strategic village approach is also illustrated by two recent cables. The first is an intelligence report indicating that the arming of a very few villages in the Montagnard District along the infiltration routes has forced the infiltrating Viet Cong to change their routes drastically. The second illustrates the particular importance of village radios. A team distributing radios bumped into a Viet Cong unit, which withdrew towards a village equipped with a radio just 24 hours earlier. Alerted by their newly acquired radio, the village Self Defense Corps intercepted the Viet Cong in a highly successful ambush. [Footnote in the source text.]
  4. Document 42.
  5. President Diem signed the plan ( Document 113) on March 16, although U.S. representatives did not learn of the signing until March 19.
  6. See Document 103.
  7. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.