297. Paper Prepared in the Department of State1
- Developments in Viet-Nam Between General Taylorʼs Visits—October 1961-October 1962
Then and Now
The Viet Cong were winning the war in October of last year. From January to October, 1961, VC regular forces grew from less than 10,000 to about 16,500. From July to October, their strength accelerated dramatically, jumping up by more than 1,000 per month. In September, the guerrillas struck several times in battalion strength. Less than 50 miles north of Saigon they attacked the capital of Phuoc Long province with a force of 1,500 and held it overnight. They seemed to have the capability of “liberating” an area on the high plateau. They choked off the flow of food to Saigon, and the GVN was forced to import rice and restrict the sale of pork. Most important, morale had ebbed away much more rapidly than real GVN strength was eroded. There was an air of near panic in Saigon.
Now a year later, the Viet Cong are not winning the war. As in 1862 and 1942, no one clearly has the initiative. However, VC are clearly further from their objective than they were in October, 1961. The most dramatic change is in morale. The GVN and its military forces are confident and anxious to get on with the job. There are signs that the people as a whole now believe the GVN will win: the army is getting more and better intelligence from villagers, volunteers for officer training are at an all-time high, rice is coming to market normally [Page 680] and for the first time in 15 years the price is dropping between harvests-a sign of confidence that security is returning because it means Ace hoards are being sold.
The political climate has changed. The GVN is gaining more popular support for the war effort, particularly where it counts the most—in the rural areas. By means of its strategic hamlet program, the GVN is making a major effort to provide the peasant with more social services and to introduce democracy at the hamlet level. Hamlet councils are being elected by secret ballot. Schools and medical facilities are going to the provinces. The military design calls for the defense of all of the people, not just military posts, communication arteries, and the towns and cities. And the people are being successfully involved in their own hamlets. With a stake in the local status quo, they have been giving a good account of themselves.
The implementation of GVN rural programs is uneven; it suffers greatly from a chronic shortage of skilled personnel. The GVN remains basically paternalistic; a nation at war, divided, underdeveloped and with 2,000 years of authoritarian traditions does not quickly or easily become a modern democracy. But real political progress has been registered in one short year.
Military progress is also encouraging. The basic need and wish of the Vietnamese people is security. They are beginning to get it through the application of a strategy based on defense of the whole population, by the whole population. U.S. logistic, technical and advisory assistance has resulted in sharply increased mobility, better communications, better intelligence, and better performance generally by both the regular and the paramilitary forces.
VC strength is now set at 20,000 regulars. But casualties are high, nearly 600 a week and going up. The guerrillas are troubled by shortages of food and medicine. Morale among replacements is reported low.
Most importantly the VC have not been able to escalate through regiment- and division-sized operations towards a new Dien Bien Phu. Their largest attack was in September, 1961, when they used 1,500 men. They have not “liberated” any area on which they could establish a government. In short, the momentum of the VC attack has been lost. Or, to put it in Vietnamese context, they no longer have the “mandate of heaven.”
Last Yearʼs Problems
To arrest the Viet Cong advance and turn the tide, a two-fold problem had to be solved. First, an effective strategy had to be devised. The body of anti-guerrilla doctrine was meager, and much of what we knew was not applicable to Viet-Nam. We had to learn how to apply our strength and how to hold an area once the military had [Page 681] cleared it. We had to discover how to involve the people in their own defense, and we had to find ways to separate the guerrillas from the people.
Second, we had to overcome obvious weaknesses in the Vietnamese military and civil establishments. We had to provide the military with better intelligence, a much greater degree of mobility, and we had to wean them away from static defense. We had to train and arm the paramilitary who take the brunt of the attack and who can relieve the regulars from static defense missions. The military and the civilian government had to work together as a team at all levels. The government had to streamline its operations and really put top priority on the war effort. Some means had to be found to cause the people to identify their interests with the defeat of the Viet Cong. And we had to achieve more effective cooperation between the Vietnamese and ourselves.
The Viet Cong strategy was simple to describe, hard to combat. They sought to isolate the government, both from its friends abroad and from its own people at home, and then to destroy it. The VC tried to paralyze the government at the rice roots by assassinating and threatening village and provincial officials. They sought to win the peopleʼs support, or at least their passive tolerance, through a combination of propaganda and threats. They threatened the families of potential draftees, trying to force the young men into their own ranks instead of into the government forces. They told the peasant that under the VC he need not pay rent to the landlord, they told the squatter that the land was his. They exploited grievances and floated rumors of government corruption. They kidnapped or killed the recalcitrant. Teachers and village health workers were special targets because they linked the people to the government and presented a benevolent image of the national authorities. More than 250 school teachers had been kidnapped; of these 100 are still missing and 30 are known dead. In the first eight months of this year 3,300 persons have been kidnapped; some return, many do not.
A Yearʼs Progress Toward a Solution
Devising and Implementing a Strategy. The VC aim to isolate the government from the people. We aim to tie government and people together, and to isolate the VC from the people. Applying the lessons learned in Malaya and in the GVNʼs own agroville program, the “strategic hamlet” program has been devised. This program seeks to give the people both the means and the will to defend themselves. The means: local inhabitants are armed and trained, a perimeter is set up around the hamlet, and communications with reserves forces are provided. If necessary—and usually it is not—the houses are regrouped from scattered homesteads into more defensible clusters. The will: the [Page 682] government provides the hamlet people with a stake in their own status quo, i.e., the hamlet gets a school, a maternity clinic, cheap agricultural credit. And the people elect their own hamlet officials by secret ballot.
The strategic hamlet concept is the child of the British Advisory Mission, our own military advisors, and the Vietnamese government. It is still being refined and defined, in practice. There are more than 3,000 strategic hamlets which have been constructed during 1962, and more than 2,600 under construction. Some are well defended and the people well motivated. Some are poorly done, and only half-heartedly defended.
We have devised a “hamlet kit”, including such items as barbed wire, weapons, and medicines, and we are planning to supply nearly 4,000 of these kits by the end of FY 63. But the majority of the hamlets are providing most of their own resources. Our military advisory machine has a special section working on the strategic hamlets. The GVN has an Inter-Ministerial Strategic Hamlet Committee chaired by the Presidentʼs brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. The GVN has also set up a Strategic Hamlet regional committee under each of the Division Commanders.
The GVN is well aware that the strategic hamlet program cannot succeed unless most of the people are willing to go along with it. Presidential advisor Ngo Dinh Nhu stresses the political aspects of the program, bills it as a democratic revolution in the countryside, insists on election of hamlet officials by secret ballot and high calibre training for high calibre cadre charged with carrying out the program. As in all underdeveloped countries, there is an acute shortage of trained people, and the program is unevenly implemented. The GVN has recognized this by publicly calling for complaints from its citizens about corrupt or abusive behavior on the part of officials carrying out the program.
Built around the strategic hamlet program, which is nation-wide, are area clear-and-hold operations. These are coordinated military, economic and social drives designed to permanently clear given areas of VC strength and influence. Four are now in progress: Binh Minh or Sunrise in Binh Duong Province, Hai Yen or Sea Swallow in Phu Yen Province, and two just getting under way in Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh Provinces.
These operations are supported in depth by U.S. economic, psychological, and military aid and advice. Plans are approved by our Inter-Agency Province Rehabilitation Committee and money disbursed through project agreements with Province Chiefs and local committees on which U.S. officials sit.
While the strategic hamlets are being built everywhere and available resources are concentrated on clearing specific key areas, we must still prevent the VC from consolidating their strength and expanding [Page 683] their control. Hence the GVN armed forces must not only seek to protect the new strategic hamlets and expand GVN control by supporting clear-and-hold operations, they must mount constant spoiling attacks against VC strongholds. The recent, highly successful operations in the Ca Mau peninsula are examples of this kind of spoiling attack.
Strengthening the Military Machine. The GVN forces have been increased numerically, the regular army to 200,000 and the paramilitary to about 154,000. More important, their performance has been greatly improved by the application of U.S. technical and advisory assistance. Our helicopters and our M-113 personnel carriers have given the GVN forces much greater mobility, forcing the VC out of many areas simply because they know the GVNʼs reaction time is now too fast for them. The helicopters have added the vital element of surprise, frequently allowing the GVN to catch the guerrillas unaware at their bases. Although much remains to be done, both the regulars and the paramilitary are better trained to deal with guerrillas. They patrol more at night, stay in the field longer, lay more ambushes of their own. Perhaps most important, morale is up. They believe they are going to win.
As the strategic hamlet program and the clear-and-hold operations have progressed, military and civilian cooperation has greatly improved. The problem of Province Chief and military chain-of-command is still with us, but so eased by the meshing of military and civilian programs, changes in personnel, and government structural adjustments to the war effort that it is no longer a serious obstacle. American advisors at all levels, particularly in the provinces, have played a vital role in overcoming this problem.
U.S. military personnel in Viet Nam now number over 10,700. The great majority are directly engaged in advising Vietnamese officers and units. They are doing an excellent job, both in technically improving the effectiveness of the RVNAF and in building close bonds of real understanding at all levels of the Vietnamese military and government. The VC have made them a special target. From January, 1961 to September 1, 1962, the VC killed 11 and wounded 32 American military personnel.
The increase in U.S. military assistance is across the board, including such diverse items as radar to detect Communist overflights for intelligence or air supply of guerrilla forces, sentry dogs, defoliants to clear dense underbrush on road shoulders in order to reduce ambushes, helicopters and basic communications equipment. U.S. military equipment and personnel have given the ARVN forces a far greater measure of mobility. About 150 U.S. manned helicopters are now engaged in moving ARVN forces rapidly to whatever point they are needed. A joint Junk Patrol has been organized with the [Page 684] Vietnamese Navy and elements of the Seventh Fleet to cut infiltration from north Viet Nam by sea. Construction is underway to develop a Junk Force of 28 Divisions (20 junks per Division) for this task and for inland waterway patrols. Four Junk Force Divisions are operational and three Junk Force training centers are in operation. For inland waterway and coastal patrols, and to provide greater mobility in delta areas, the U.S. has provided the GVN with a total of 351 craft, including 125 river boats and 177 LCVP (landing craft vehicle personnel).
Intelligence assistance includes the assignment of intelligence advisors throughout the country at the province level, over 200 in all. Eleven Special Forces teams are training Vietnamese special forces. Advice and assistance on civic action has included medical and sanitary training as well as help on troop education and psychological warfare. A Joint combat test and development center has been set up to bring modern military technology to bear on the special problems of the war in Viet Nam.
Particularly important is the training program for the paramilitary which are bearing the brunt of the Viet Cong attack. Since January, the number of trained Civil Guard companies has increased from 33 to 255, companies in training from 13 to 64, and training centers from 4 to 5. In the same period the number of trained Self-Defense Corps platoons has increased from zero to 966, platoons in training from 53 to 220, and training centers from 15 to 31.
Strengthening the Government and Gearing It for War. The GVN has made some important structural changes, notably the creation of the Inter-Ministerial Strategic Hamlet Committee, which is in reality a war cabinet, and the division level Strategic Hamlet Committees on which the Province Chiefs sit under the chairmanship of the Division Commanders. But the most important alteration is in attitude. The war effort is now clearly top priority.
Signs of this changed governmental attitude are Nhuʼs almost fanatic devotion to the strategic hamlet program, the GVNʼs willingness to undertake whatever deficit financing is required, general willingness to allow American advisors to work at all levels, and a new energy and drive that has significantly reduced red tape and bureaucratic delays. Perhaps most significant is the clear recognition that the people must be won over at the rice roots.
Although still not adequate, the GVN intelligence machine has been overhauled and improved on our advice. A Central Intelligence Organization has been set up, … training programs are now in progress, and a national interrogation center recently began operations. Military and civilian intelligence operations are effectively linked.[Page 685]
Similarly, the psychological effort has been stepped up. The country is covered with a radio net; emphasis is on programming for the rural areas, and our advisors are working to improve quality. Nearly all provinces have a daily or weekly newssheet. The clear-and-hold operations have special newspapers produced with our help and advice. A general amnesty plan is being hammered out, and Nhu believes that by the first of the year the trend toward a GVN victory will make the launching of such a plan a sign of strength rather than of weakness.
Training programs for provincial officials are under way. Every province now has a training plan, a training officer at the Deputy Province Chief level, and a training center. In Saigon a special program is operating to train strategic hamlet cadres. The emphasis in the training is on winning the support of the people against the VC.
In January, as a result of the Staley recommendations, the GVN undertook fiscal reforms which included a successful devaluation (which means that the aid dollar now generates 25% more piasters), and an overhaul of the tax system. Tax collection is better this year than last, but more can and should be done in this area.
Improved Cooperation with the U.S. The Taylor recommendation that de facto administrative changes be accomplished by persuasion at high levels, by cooperation with Diemʼs aides who want improved administration, and by a U.S. operating presence, has been largely effected. The job is not done, but it is being done rather well. Our people have shown remarkable ability to deal with the Vietnamese, to advise and assist effectively at every level from the hamlet to the Presidency, to meet and defeat the Viet Cong on their own ground and on their own terms.
Specifically, the GVN is cooperating effectively with us on counterinsurgency planning: our Committee for Province Rehabilitation and the GVN Inter-Ministerial Strategic Hamlet Committee are working together closely. They jointly review and approve (or send back to the drawing boards) plans for clear-and-hold operations.
Counterinsurgency project agreements are signed directly with Province Chiefs, and disbursement of funds is approved by joint committees on the ground. Priorities on the strategic hamlet program have been worked out jointly—a major objective of recent U.S. negotiating efforts. We have military advisers working with every province chief now; Diem has expressed great satisfaction with their relationship with his people and with the results. Our military participate in the planning of virtually all operations, and we have set up a joint U.S.-GVN operations center in Saigon.
On the fiscal side, we have the GVNʼs agreement to take part in the vital and sensitive business of drawing up their national budget for 1963. This is a concession we have long sought. On the information [Page 686] front, the GVN has agreed to the establishment of USIS field support posts in the provinces. Eleven have been set up and a total of 18 are planned.
Some Specific Results. Perhaps the most dramatic recent success in Viet-Nam is the mass exodus of nearly one-sixth of the Montagnard tribal population out of VC controlled areas. The Montagnards are seeking protection from VC exactions in some cases, simply fleeing a battlefield in others. But a significant proportion are willing and anxious to be trained, armed, and sent back into the hills. These trained and armed Montagnards are increasingly valuable in supplying intelligence on VC movements on Viet Namʼs long and exposed frontier.
The VC tried to increase their attacks under cover of the waning rainy season, but did not succeed. The dry season, which lasts until the end of May, will increase the effectiveness of the air monopoly which we enjoy in Viet-Nam.
Since July, GVN control over the rural population has increased by an estimated 2 per cent. The GVN now controls 49 per cent of the rural population, the VC about 9 per cent. Communications arteries have been reopened. Roads which formerly required an armed escort are now traveled freely. Night train service has been resumed.
As a result of US-supported rat and insect eradication programs, a bumper harvest was anticipated in the Central Provinces. Unfortunately, a typhoon wiped out much of the crop. But unlike last year, Viet-Nam now has adequate reserves of rice to meet this emergency. The program for rural health is moving ahead significantly. Twenty-five provincial surgical suites will be completed by the end of the year. One American surgical team is already in Can Tho, three others will soon be provided. New Zealand will send a team, Australia and the U.K. may also contribute. We have placed 1,300 radios in the villages and others are being rapidly provided for the remaining villages and hamlets; they have already proved very effective in summoning help when the Communists attack.
Third country support is substantial. Eleven other countries have contributed about 108 million dollars in aid. An international coordination group has been set up in Saigon to stimulate more third country aid and coordinate it. The Australians have sent military trainers, the U.K. an advisory mission. The June 2 report of the ICC on DRV aggression and subversion in SVN had an important effect on international opinion.
The Present Problem
Viet Cong armed attacks are down, but they still average 110 per week for this year. Government forces have suffered over 3,000 dead since January. Betrayals of strategic hamlets and paramilitary posts are still frequent. VC intelligence is probably still better than GVN intelligence. [Page 687] The VC have probably made progress in convincing some of the Vietnamese people and some of the uncommitted nations that Viet-Nam should be neutralized on the Laos pattern. Pressures for a conference on Viet-Nam, while not yet serious, may be expected to increase, particularly if the Viet-Cong continue to suffer military reverses.
The possibility remains that the DRV will decide to escalate the war by a dramatic increase in the quantity and quality of infiltration. The ICC presence discourages this, but does not obviate the possibility. Perhaps the greatest deterrent is the knowledge that escalation to the kind of near conventional war the Viet Minh fought against the French in the later stages of that struggle would make the VC forces more vulnerable to reactions from our conventional arms.
Probably the most important problem is simply keeping up the momentum of our joint efforts. This promises to be a long struggle. A shortage of piaster resources coupled with the U.S. gold problem is already troublesome. Continued sacrifice by the Vietnamese people and armed forces may produce war weariness. American casualties can be expected to increase. Our aid input must go on for a long time.
We shall intensify pressures for increased contributions from the Vietnamese and from other countries. But the best way to save American money will be the achievement of peace in Viet-Nam. We do not intend to achieve this by surrendering Viet-Namʼs independence at a Conference. The war in Viet-Nam is costing us about one per cent of our military budget. By next spring we may be able to predict whether the peak of these expenditures has been passed.
The Viet-Nam war is important. For Americans it has proved among other things that our people can live in the provinces and villages with Asian peasants and help them hold off the Communists and improve their lot. On a larger scale, a Communist victory would have a strong impact on all of our allies by tending to devalue our commitments to them. It would provide the DRV with the rice surplus it so badly needs, add 14 million vigorous people to the Communist Bloc, and give the Bloc a strategic salient into the heart of Free Asia. A victory for us would prove that our people can live in the villages with Asians and help them, that underdeveloped nations can defeat “wars of liberation” with our help, strike a telling blow to the mystique of the “wave of the future”, and save the tough and hard fighting Vietnamese people from the Communist regime they manifestly do not want.
- Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series. Confidential. Drafted by Heavner and Wood on October 5. The source text was attached to a memorandum to McGeorge Bundy, dated October 8, which stated that it had been prepared in response to a request by the President.↩