13. Memorandum for the Record1

SUBJECT

  • Meeting—President Diem and General McGarr, 11 January 1962

The meeting, which took place in the Presidentʼs office, was marked throughout by the Presidentʼs unusually attentive and receptive mood.

General McGarr opened the discussion by telling the President that he was leaving the following day to attend a meeting in Hawaii which would be attended by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Ambassador Nolting, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Bundy—a special advisor to President Kennedy, and by CINCPAC and members of his staff. He explained to the President that there were some matters which would probably come up which could be discussed profitably by the two of them before his departure, with a view to getting the Presidentʼs ideas before the conference.

One of these items was the need for a concrete military plan to defeat the insurgency in Vietnam as a prerequisite to the consideration and authorization of support for an augmentation in Vietnamese forces beyond the presently agreed 200,000. That a concrete, phased [Page 24]plan would be evidence that the best possible employment was being made of all forces now in being. General McGarr recalled the plan to the President—describing it as the geographically phased plan which had been developed here prior to General Taylorʼs visit and which was used as a basis for the “Campaign Plan.” That the initial plan had been submitted to Mr. Thuan for consideration at that time. In answer to the Presidentʼs question about the “Campaign Plan,” General McGarr said it had been submitted to the JGS about two weeks ago and that Mr. Thuan had a copy. General McGarr then reminded the President that a joint RVNAF and MAAG study had indicated that there would probably be a need for 15 divisions—amounting to some 278,000 men by the end of 1963. Although he did not want to press President Diem, the General suggested that the Presidentʼs ideas or an approval of the plan would be most welcome. The President agreed to discuss the plan with Secretary Thuan who would inform General McGarr of his decision before his departure on the following day.

Brief mention was made of the overall Counter Insurgency Plan2 which had been given to the President by the Ambassador last February and which, of course, was more encompassing than the purely military “Campaign Plan.”

General McGarr next mentioned Admiral Feltʼs sense of urgency, which he shared, over the increasing VC build up and the need to contain the threat as rapidly as possible. That in this connection, he felt one of the most urgent tasks was the proper training of military and paramilitary forces. Admittedly, the most serious obstacle to adequate training was operational commitments. The General suggested that if the armed forces were asked to follow the Presidentʼs example of dedication and the work days were increased to nine hours—six days per week—much valuable time could be gained for training. Also, that the Presidentʼs declaration of a State of National Emergency constituted a good preparatory move for such an action. The President stated that he thought an increase in work hours to be desirable and promised to consider it.

Another item which General McGarr felt would be discussed at the meeting in Hawaii was the carrying out of a major military operation in Zone “D.” He told President Diem that, during the previous meeting at CINCPAC Headquarters,3 he had briefed the Secretary of Defense on the preliminary plans for this action. That the current status of General Minhʼs Plan would therefore be requested due to U.S. interest in a significant military victory as an indication of concerted military action and as a psychological stimulus to the Vietnamese people. It was agreed that Binh Duong Province and Zone [Page 25]“D” operations were of primary interest because of their importance with regard to the safety of Saigon. When General McGarr referred to a briefing on these operations which he believed had been given by General Minh to Secretary Thuan and possibly to the President himself, President Diem said that General Minh had talked to Secretary Thuan but that nothing really concrete had been discussed. He added that he would always agree to any plan which would help to achieve a permanent victory but that he felt the Zone “D” operation would still require a great deal of technical analysis and careful consideration by the “technicians” if meaningful long range success were to be ensured. The President stated that failure in such an important engagement could destroy the confidence of his people in the ability of the government to achieve victory, even with increased American assistance and also harm American prestige as well.

General McGarr agreed that the Zone “D” operation was a difficult undertaking, but he pointed out that timing was important. Not only would the actual operation take time but the preparation for it must be considered, including a short period of special training for the troops to be committed. To meet the needs of preparation, coordination and execution, at least two or three months would be required. General McGarr then briefly reviewed the plan for the President. Initially, in accordance with the Presidentʼs own idea, a blocking force (6 battalions taken from the 5th Division) would isolate Zone “D” from the Province of Tay Ninh by military action in Binh Duang. General McGarr expressed the opinion that Zone “D” was militarily feasible but required immediate action to release the first increment of three battalions and four Ranger companies for two weeks of special preparatory training in unconventional warfare prior to starting the attack. This initial increment would be employed to clear the first designated entrapment area. Subsequent phases requiring additional troops would complete the encirclement of the Zone “D” area on three sides. This would result in a sack being drawn around the area except in the Northwest corner. The phased action in Binh Duong Province would also assist by forcing the VC from the periphery into the center of Zone “D.” In the final phase of the military action, the 23d Division and three or four Airborne battalions would drive Southwest into the pocket to annihilate the enemy. To capitalize on mobility, helicopters would be used to move troops in each phase, to include the movement into position of the 23d Division. Two special helicopter-borne companies and airborne units would stand by to assist wherever needed and to deny access or exit to the entrapment area by the encircled VC. River Forces would assist in a blocking role along the Song Be. In the final phase of the military operation, air bombardment would be carried [Page 26]out by AD-6ʼs on air alert, directed to the target by radar or by the newly acquired TAC System. The ability to vector planes into the target by radar would give them an all weather capability.

In connection with the Zone “D” operation, General McGarr told the President that with final approval, defoliant would be used in the operation. When the President said that he had given Ambassador Nolting his approval for the use of defoliant several weeks before, General McGarr explained that originally, approval from higher American authorities to conduct a test only had been received.4 That this test defoliation along Highway 15 from Bien Hoa to Vung Tau could be started as soon as the necessary material, maps and aerial photos were received (about the 12th to 15th January). If approved as part of the Zone “D” operation, it was intended to spray along roads where needed and along the banks of the Song Be. Since the results of killing vegetation requires two weeks, and in some cases, may have to be repeated, it was essential to start as soon as possible. The President agreed.

The next major point raised by General McGarr was the preparation of a plan for the clearing of Viet Cong from a “Test Province.” This had been suggested by Secretary of Defense McNamara at the December meeting in Hawaii, at which time, the General had understood that the plan could be implemented in any province acceptable to the Vietnamese Government and for which resources could be made available. U. S. authorization for increased Civil Guard and Self Defense Forces strength above presently agreed ceilings would be approved for selected province. After a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of carrying out the “test” clearance in Binh Duang rather than in some other province, the President said that he would interpose no objection, but pointed out that this would be a lengthy operation and would have to be closely supervised over a long period of time. Binh Duong is a heavily infested province with only ten of the forty-eight villages under government control. In his view, initial action of establishing an infrastructure in “defended” villages, already underway, together with a forced resettlement of the people to strategic or more densely populated areas was an act of surgery which would, at first, require a sizeable military force. This resettlement was necessary to ensure that the people would not return to the “bush.” President Diem said the final success of this operation would depend on the provision of sufficient bulldozers to permit the clearance of land on which to produce crops by September. This entire action would require about 8-12 months.

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Further, the President expressed the thought that Binh Duong could not be considered an isolated operation but must be thought of as part of an overall plan to free the entire crescent formed by the Provinces of Phaoc Thanh, Binh Duong, Tay Ninh, Long An and extending into the Plaine des Joncs in Kien Tuong and Dinh Tuong Provinces. He said that otherwise the province of Binh Duong would not be permanently tenable. General McGarr agreed that to clear and hold Binh Duong Province would require effective, dedicated action by the military, much time and all available national resources. Because of the likelihood that it would be some time before Civil Guard and Self Defense Forces could safely be recruited from the local population, there would be a requirement to station either regular military forces there or that paramilitary forces be taken from other provinces and stationed in Binh Duong. This would violate the basic “local area—home guard” principle of the Civil Guard and the Self Defense Corps. The President said this operation would only be worthwhile if part of a larger clearing action and if backed by necessary construction and road building equipment to carry out the required resettlement plans.

President Diem next told General McGarr that his people in Kien Hoa had killed the secret secretary of the Communist Executive Central Committee for South Vietnam and had seized a considerable amount of Viet Cong records. From the seized minutes of a Communist meeting, it was learned that instructions had been issued to increase guerrilla strength in all villages—up to company strength where necessary. The President stated that the documents were being closely examined by a newly created Joint Committee consisting of three members of what he called his CIA and three members of the RVNAF J-2. The new procedure which the President had ordered following his reorganization of the Sureté a week before, was that all seized documents would be screened by the capturing force for information of immediate value and then turned over to the joint committee for careful study. General McGarr commented that this implementation of the proposed Central Intelligence Organization concept was a valuable step forward. Commenting on the information that orders had been issued to the Viet Cong to increase its strength at village level, the General said that this was further evidence that the Communists had to be separated from the people at the lowest level. The President agreed and then went on to say that the seized documents also revealed VC plans to establish a series of fortified villages in the I and II Corps, particularly in the foothills of the mountains along the coast and that their plan appeared to be to leapfrog these strong points closer and closer to the vital coastal plain. Additional information obtained from the “Kien Hoa” papers was that the VC were having serious trouble because of desertions. Their forces were complaining about their physical fatigue, the fact that their families were living in [Page 28]poverty and neglect, and the idea that they were rarely permitted to visit larger villages to find amusement and relaxation. Further, there was an increasing fear on their part to regroup into larger units because of their vulnerability to artillery and air attack. The overall result was low morale.

The President next commented that, in war, one should not expect an unbroken chain of continuous victories. General McGarr agreed that sound planning must always consider that there will be ups and downs before final victory is achieved. The President then continued by saying that the most immediate action required in Vietnam is in the villages. He spoke of his desire to implement a plan which he admitted to be dangerous but which he considered essential—the establishment of strong posts in the provinces of the Center and in the foothills—patterned after the one at Mamg Buk. These would require helicopter support for supply and relief of personnel, but they would permit ARVN forces to radiate and control surrounding areas. This was the original concept of the frontier posts which were too small and inadequately supported—now the President felt that the strategic concept should be adapted to the establishment of 5 or 6 such posts in the Center where the Viet Cong were concentrating their diversionary efforts. General McGarr reminded the President that this was the principle of the deep penetration battalions previously agreed upon and the Mobile Forest Forces which MAAG had proposed. As for the West, the President stated the need for more and better trained Civil Guard and Self Defense Forces—and the establishment of an adequate infrastructure in the villages. That this would free the Army which would, however, still be needed to fight the VC and to clear bases in isolated areas such as the Plaine des Joncs and Cau Mau where the lack of population made the “defended village-Strategic Hamlet” concept absolutely inapplicable. At this point, the President repeated his thought that overall planning should not be restricted to the idea of small augmentations. There should be a mass increase to meet immediate needs. It is easier to demobilize than to recruit and train piecemeal. For this purpose, there was need of an increase in instructors who could train Vietnamese instructors, who, in turn would then train additional cadres. A major problem was the relief of men held too long in combat or in isolated areas. In Malaya the President added, the British had well trained professional soldiers and leaders from outside—and they still had to be relieved periodically. A French Admiral had once told the President that troops, even when fighting a withdrawal action, must be provided with echeloned rest areas or physical fatigue would result in lowered morale and loss of combat effectiveness. General McGarr commented that the MAAG recommended establishment of the three infantry training regiments [Page 29]under the 20,000 increase was to meet this specific requirement. He also told President Diem he sincerely hoped they would be trained and used in their intended role of a “rotational training base.”

Reverting to the need for leadership, the President commented on what he described as inadequate leadership in some military operations. The cause of this was that commanders had not had enough troop experience and had been advanced too rapidly. In the opinion of the President, the training of company grade officers—to the point where they can clearly understand the capabilities of their men was of utmost importance. Of equal importance was the need for quality as well as quantity in cadres for the Civil Guard and Self Defense Corps.

In a somewhat bitter tone, the President next made the statement that his detractors, when they indicated his lack of plans, never mentioned the fact that, for years, he had asked for increased army strength, the establishment of an adequately trained and armed Civil Guard and bulldozers sorely needed in his strategic road building and village infrastructure projects. General McGarr reminded him that working together, they had succeeded in overcoming objections and obstacles in securing these needed resources, but agreed fully that much valuable time had been lost. The President remarked that we were now paying the penalty for the lost time and stated emphatically that there should be no more delays. He said that contrary to his detractors, he did want a plan. That he would agree to any plan which would lead to victory. He insisted strongly, however, that any plan of action had to be realistic and sustained rather than fast and spectacular.

The President next repeated some of the information which had been gleaned from the papers seized in Kien Hoa, adding that the Communists are concentrating on mine warfare. Materials are brought in from North Vietnam and the mines are manufactured locally.

Once again, reverting to the subject of plans, the President stated that his problem was not the lack of plans, but the lack of men and means to implement them fully and properly. Another serious handicap was that RVNAF leadership is not mature. General McGarr assured him that the “Campaign Plan” for which he had suggested approval was a good guide—to which the President responded that ultimate victory depended primarily on assuring the good will of the people. When General McGarr repeated that his authorities would like a formal plan in broad terms showing the coordination of effort by all available GVN forces, the President replied that he would examine it immediately and that he was sure that he could accept it, in principle, since General McGarr was present in Vietnam during the most critical periods and understood what the problems were.

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The next subject raised was that of the implementation of the Border Control Plan which had been agreed during General Taylorʼs visit. The President said that there simply was not enough military strength to meet all requirements and that he could not see how a 5000 man force could be made available at this time, but he did agree that a start should be made along the border between Vietnam and Laos. For this purpose, he agreed to release to General Dinh six Ranger companies now in training and to make an additional four companies available to him. The total Ranger strength in that area would then be 20 companies, 10 of which, as is now the case, formed into Ranger battalions, the other 10 companies to be used as a border force. (General Khanh feels it will be most difficult to release additional Ranger companies to Dinh at this time because of the battle for “rice” in the Delta.)

In conclusion, the President again expressed his ideas on plans and reminded General McGarr that he had been following one for five years. He was convinced that prime importance should be attributed to the establishment of a suitable infrastructure in the villages, since it was at this level that the VC mobilized by terror to separate the people from the government. Before any success could be achieved, it was first necessary to restore confidence by taking care of the problems at the lowest level. Toward this end, he had recently increased the salary of the village notables. In order to establish a workable infrastructure, it was necessary to resettle the people. Following this, energetic action could be taken, but it must be realistic and part of a long range operation.

As the meeting ended, the President told General McGarr that he could assume that approval would be given to the “Campaign Plan,” official concurrence and any possible reservations would be made known to the General by Secretary Thuan, the next morning.

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 84, Saigon Embassy Files: FRC 67 A 677, 350 GVN. Secret. Transmitted to Ambassador Nolting under a memorandum of January 19 from McGarr; also attached was a talking paper of January 15 for McGarrʼs use at the Secretary of Defenseʼs Conference at Honolulu, January 15, based in part on this conversation. McGarr stated in the transmittal memorandum that Nolting might want to review the papers before his meeting with Thuan on January 20. No record of the January 20 meeting has been found.
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. I, Document 1.
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. I, Document 324.
  4. See Document 1.