123. Letter From the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Harkins) to President Diem1

Dear Mr. President: As you well know, for over a year the Government of the United States has been backing an intensified program for aid and assistance to the Government of the Republic of Vietnam. You are conversant with our many and varied programs, particularly those in the military, economic, social, and psychological fields. Last week Ambassador Nolting and I, with selected personnel from our staffs, met in Hawaii with Secretary of Defense McNamara and representatives of other Washington offices to review the status of these U.S. programs. In my short conversations with you during the past few days, I have mentioned certain aspects of this meeting and the various U.S. programs. However, I think it timely to present for your consideration a review of the progress made in certain areas to date, therefore this letter. In this review I will confine my remarks only to the military programs.

Our combined, intensified effort really began in late 1961 and early 1962 and has continued to the present, at which time I can report practically all military programs have been completed or are well on the way to completion.

What has been accomplished? The results are indicated below:

Intelligence: A significant effort to improve the intelligence advisory capabilities was initiated in January 1962. The new U.S. Intelligence advisors were all in place by May 1962. These advisors working side-by-side with their Vietnamese counterparts have made a commendable improvement in reporting and editing intelligence data. The improvement has been apparent in the success of the Vietnamese [Page 297] actions in the field. On the U.S. side, and because of the one-year assignment of most personnel, practically all of the original advisors now have been replaced. The new group have been hand-picked, given special schooling in both intelligence matters and language training and, all-in-all, should further improve our joint intelligence efforts.

Communications: A year ago a reliable military communications system did not exist. Since September 1962, there has been a tremendous improvement in communications throughout the country and within the tactical units of the Vietnamese Armed Forces. The tropospheric scatter system, recently completed in the northern part of the RVN, is now being extended into the Delta region. All divisions and major units are now connected by telephone switchboards and other improvements are being made daily.

Mobility: There are now seven U.S. Army helicopter companies and one U.S. Marine helicopter squadron in the country to provide troop transport and escort capability for ARVN. These units plus the two VNAF squadrons provide a formidable mobile force for rapid reaction against the Viet Cong.

With improved intelligence, widespread and rapid communications, and a constantly available mobile force, actions of the RVNAF have improved tremendously and should improve even more in the future. While I believe that these are the primary improvements, much more has been accomplished.

New Divisions: The Ninth and Twenty-Fifth Divisions have been added to the “Front Line” combat troops in the past year. Both have given outstanding accounts of themselves in recent actions.

Paratroops: The training of the Parachute Brigade has been completed and the ARVN now has six battalions, all combat tested and proven in battle. They are very fine soldiers and create a fine impression wherever they go.

Marines: The four Marine battalions, like the paratroopers, are outstanding soldiers. They, too, have been combat tested and also give an outstanding performance when they confront the enemy.

Rangers: 86 Ranger Companies have been processed through the training schools. Many have seen combat and are used in small-scale operations constantly. I think greater and more effective use should be gained from them in the future.

Civil Guards: As you know, last year over 375 Civil Guard companies were trained. The Civil Guard Program continues to increase in strength, and this year’s program calls for training and equipping new companies while retraining some of the old companies where necessary.

Self-Defense Corps: Last year over 1,700 SDC platoons were trained in some 35 camps. Like the Civil Guard, the Self-Defense Corps is being increased, equipped, trained, and retrained in 1963. I [Page 298] am sure you know as well as I that the Civil Guard and the Self-Defense Corps share a tremendous burden in the complex war against the Viet Cong.

Civilian Irregular Defense Groups: U.S. and RVN Special Forces have trained approximately 40,000 members of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. These are the mountain scouts, the commandos, the strike force, and the village militias. The program continues and becomes even more important as RVN control moves into those areas where the Viet Cong have controlled the population for many years in the past,

M-113’s: One-hundred forty-seven of the M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers are now used extensively in combat. These have proven invaluable and have operated faithfully under extremely difficult conditions in the war against the Viet Cong. I think these vehicles will be used to greater advantage as the unit commanders and soldiers gain experience in the use and capabilities of these very fine fighting machines.

M-114: This is a new armored vehicle, not yet fully tested in combat. However, the four companies organized with the 95 vehicles now in the country are trained and should be in action before the end of this month.

Caribou, C-123’s, Otters: There is one Caribou company in the country partially serving the most remote of the outlying bases, and also two C-123 squadrons which carry the brunt of the load in the air transportation of men and supplies. There is also one Otter company, a small passenger vehicle with limited military cargo capability, operating in the corps and division forward areas. The performance of these aircraft has been outstanding.

Air Force: The sortie rate for the Air Force rose from 150 sorties a month in January 1962, to over 1,500 in April 1963. The pilots are becoming more experienced, and many of the night operations are now performed by the VNAF. The Air Force is being dispersed in small tactical units throughout the country so that their reaction time will be even more rapid than it is today. This should greatly increase the damage it can do to the Viet Cong.

Navy: The Junk Fleet of 644 junks now has 28 divisions patrolling the coast. The Sea Force has taken over patrol along the 17th Parallel and in the Gulf of Siam, while the River Force is supporting operations in the Delta area.

Strategic Hamlet Program: As you are aware, there are over 6,000 strategic hamlets now completed in the country, with practically 8,000,000 people securely tucked away behind their fences. I believe this program, more than any other, has served to isolate the Viet Cong from the people. As it nears its completion in the coming months, it should prove one of the turning points in the war. Many of the combat [Page 299] units are involved in “clearing and holding” operations in support of the strategic hamlets. While I think this is vital, I believe that at the same time we must continue to have other operations which search and clear the Viet Cong bases that can be located.

With all of these accomplishments, the major prospective courses should be to: organize, train, and develop the new units-re-organize, refine, and retrain the old units. Besides continuing to carry the war to the enemy, training in all branches of the service and all its various aspects continues to be one of the most vital features of any future program.

The RVNAF operations continue to increase and improve in scope and effectiveness; however, there are still areas for refinement. I feel many military plans are too grandiose, employing too many large units. Although these are necessary in some instances such as the operation in the Do Xa area, I think they should be the exception. A review of the records will show that the smaller operations, of battalion-size or less, contributed more than 70% in the Viet Cong casualties. Small unit actions must be continually stressed. I am also concerned that too often once contact with the enemy has been established it is lost too quickly, the enemy fades away, and the operation is called to a halt. Nothing will hurt the Viet Cong more than relentless pursuit. The units must stay out longer, and once contact is gained, continue to retain it until the Viet Cong are eliminated.

Although I have said the intelligence has improved, there is still room for further improvement. Too many operations are still based on faulty or incomplete intelligence and end with no real contact being established—as though we were fighting ghosts.

The Viet Cong are still with us, but for the most part are not so bothersome. His logistics support (principally food and medicine) has been severely disrupted by the RVNAF operations, and his own operations have been cut in half. However, he is still a wily enemy and apparently is dedicated to his cause because he continues to put up a very stiff fight under pressure. As the RVNAF presses him harder, I am sure we will continue to find him an even more stubborn enemy because he is gradually getting to be like a rat caught in a trap with no place to go and being constantly annoyed. He is becoming a “foreign legion” in a foreign country without support from the local population.

All in all, the past year has been one of remarkable effort and remarkable progress. All the programs listed above have been carried to a successful conclusion on the one hand while fighting the war continues on the other. Few people realize this, but to me it makes the accomplishment of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam even more impressive. The Army, Air Force, and Navy of the Republic of [Page 300] Vietnam have come into their own by carrying the fight to the enemy. Daily they gain more and more confidence, and many units have won their spurs. We might call 1962 the year of the “building the base”. I am confident that 1963 shall be called the year of victory. From the military point of view I know that this can be true if we continue to maintain constant pressure on the enemy, even more so than we have in the past six months. The equipment is on hand, the units are trained, the morale is high, and from all I can ascertain, the determination and the will are present.

Though I note your brother, Counselor Nhu, in a recent interview with the press2 said we are not ready to go on the offensive, I disagree. The RVNAF is ready-over two-thirds of the people are in strategic hamlets. I say the time for an all-out offensive is at hand, before the armed forces get stale.

I will close by saying that at the staff conference last week in Hawaii, Secretary McNamara reiterated the U.S. policy of support for your country, and that we would leave no stone unturned to achieve victory in Vietnam. My staff and I, and further, all of the U.S. advisory and support agencies in Vietnam are ready and willing to do their part in continuing the pressure against the Viet Cong to see that victory is within our grasp in 1963.

Very respectfully yours,

Paul D. Harkins3
General, United States Army
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 334, MAC/V Files:FRC 69 A 702, 204-58 Command Reporting (1963). Secret.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 122.
  3. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.