19. Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hilsman) and Michael V. Forrestal of the National Security Council Staff to the President 1
A REPORT ON SOUTH VIETNAM
The war in South Vietnam is clearly going better than it was a year ago. The government claims to have built more than 4,000 Strategic Hamlets, and although many of these are nothing more than a bamboo fence, a certain proportion have enough weapons to keep out at least small Viet Cong patrols and the rudiments of the kind of social and political program needed to enlist the villagers’ support.
The program to arm and train the Montagnards, which should go far toward choking off the infiltration routes, has also made progress. There are 29 U.S. Special Forces teams training Montagnards (as well as certain minority groups in the Delta), with eleven more teams on the way. By mid-autumn training camps had been set up in all the provinces bordering Laos, and a system of regular patrolling started [Page 50] that hopefully will one day cover the entire network of trails in the mountain regions. Under this program over 35,000 Montagnards have been trained, armed, and assisted in setting up their village defenses, the eventual goal being one hundred thousand.
In both the mountain regions and the heavily populated lowlands, the areas through which one can travel without escort have been enlarged. In contested areas, the government is beginning to probe out, gradually repairing the roads and bridges cut by the Viet Cong as they go. In some of the moderately populated areas fringing the Delta and the coastal plain, as for example Binh Duong province, isolated villages have been bodily moved to positions along the roads where they can be more easily defended.
As of December 1, the Vietnamese government controlled 951 villages containing about 51% of the rural population—a gain of 92 villages and 500,000 people in six months. The Viet Cong control 445 villages with 8% of the rural population-a loss of 9 villages and 231,000 people in six months.
The impact of previously authorized U.S. aid programs is also beginning to be felt. On the military side, U.S. advisors, helicopters, air support, and arms have given the Vietnamese military new confidence which they are showing by increased aggressiveness. For the first time since the war began in 1959, for example, the government forces began in September to capture more weapons than they lost. From January to August, government forces captured 2,728 weapons but lost 3,661. But in September and October, they captured 908 weapons and lost only 765.
On the Strategic Hamlet and civilian programs. U.S. aid is just coming in. Strategic Hamlet “kits” are now arriving, a U.S. military advisor has been stationed with each province chief, and twenty of the forty-one provinces will soon have a U.S. Rural Development advisor as well. Finally there is considerably more optimism among Vietnamese officials than there was a year ago, although it is probably based more on the visible flow of U.S. aid than on an objective analysis of actual progress.
The Viet Cong, in sum, are being hurt—they have somewhat less freedom of movement than they had a year ago, they apparently suffer acutely from lack of medicines, and in some very isolated areas they seem to be having trouble getting food.
Even so, the negative side of the ledger is still awesome. The Viet Cong continue to be aggressive and are extremely effective. In the last few weeks, for example, they fought stubbornly and with telling results at Ap Bac, near My Tho. They completely escaped an elaborate trap in Tay Ninh province. They fought their way inside the perimeter [Page 51] of a U.S. Special Forces training camp at Plei Mrong, killing 39 of the trainee defenders and capturing 114 weapons. And they completely overran a strategic hamlet in Phu Yen province that was defended by a civil guard company in addition to the village militia, killing 24 of the defenders and capturing 35 weapons.
Probably even more significant are the figures on Viet Cong strength. Intelligence estimates credit the Viet Cong with actually increasing their regular forces from 18,000 to 23,000 over this past year in spite of having suffered what the government claims were losses of 20,000 killed in action and 4,000 wounded. Part of this increase may result from nothing more than better intelligence, but even so it is ominous that in the face of greatly increased government pressure and U.S. support the Viet Cong can still field 23,000 regular forces and 100,000 militia, supported by unknown thousands of sympathizers.
What these figures suggest is that the Viet Cong are still able to obtain an adequate supply of recruits and the large quantities of food and other supplies they need from the villagers of South Vietnam itself. Infiltration by sea has been effectively blocked since early in 1962. As for infiltration by land, captured documents, POW interrogation, evidence gathered by patrolling, and other intelligence indicates that 3,000 to 4,000 Viet Cong at the most have come over the so-called Ho Chi Minh trails since January, 1962. As to supplies, there seems to be no doubt that the trails have so far been used only for specialized equipment, such as radios; for medicines; and perhaps for a few automatic weapons, although no weapons have yet been captured which could be proved to have been brought in after 1954. Thus the conclusion seems inescapable that the Viet Cong could continue the war effort at the present level, or perhaps increase it, even if the infiltration routes were completely closed.
The question that this conclusion raises—and the basic question of the whole war—is again the attitude of the villagers. It is difficult, if not impossible, to assess how the villagers really feel and the only straws in the wind point in different directions. The village defenders in many of the strategic hamlets that have been attacked have resisted bravely. But in an unknown, but probably large number of strategic hamlets, the villagers have merely let the Viet Cong in or supplied what they wanted without reporting the incident to the authorities. There is apparently some resentment against the Viet Cong about the “taxes” they collect and suspicion based on the stories the villagers hear about what is going on in the North. But there may be just as much resentment and suspicion directed towards the government. No one really knows, for example, how many of the 20,000 “Viet Cong” killed last year were only innocent, or at least persuadable villagers, [Page 52] whether the Strategic Hamlet program is providing enough government services to counteract the sacrifices it requires, or how the mute mass of villagers react to the charges against Diem of dictatorship and nepotism. At the very least, the figures on Viet Cong strength imply a continuing flow of recruits and supplies from these same villages and indicate that a substantial proportion of the population is still cooperating with the enemy, although it is impossible to tell how much of this cooperation stems from fear and how much from conviction. Thus on the vital question of villagers’ attitudes, the net impression is one of some encouragement at the progress in building strategic hamlets and the number that resist when attacked, but encouragement overlaid by a shadow of uneasiness.
Our overall judgment, in sum, is that we are probably winning, but certainly more slowly than we had hoped. At the rate it is now going the war will last longer than we would like, cost more in terms of both lives and money than we anticipated, and prolong the period, in which a sudden and dramatic event would upset the gains already made.
The question is where improvements can be made-whether in our basic approach to fighting a guerrilla war, or in the implementation of that approach.
The Strategic Concept
We feel that the basic strategic concept developed last year is still valid. As mentioned above, the Viet Cong have gotten trained cadre and specialized equipment from the North, but the vast bulk of both recruits and supplies come from inside South Vietnam itself. Thus the strategic objectives of the war in South Vietnam, as in most guerrilla wars, are basically political—not simply to kill Viet Cong, but to win the people. Although the strategic concept has never been spelled out in any one document, the consensus seems to be that it consists of the following objectives: (1) to create the incentive for resistance in the basic population by providing for a flow upward of information on villagers’ needs and a flow downward of government services, and by knitting them into the fabric of community decision-making; (2) to provide the basic population with the means and training for resistance; and (3) to cut the guerrillas’ access to the villagers, their true line of communications, by essentially police-type measures for controlling the movement of goods and people. In this context, the military objectives are also threefold: (1) to protect installations vital to the economy and government; (2) to provide rapid reinforcement for villages under [Page 53] heavy attack; and (3) to keep the regular guerrilla units off balance and prevent them from concentrating by aggressive but highly discriminating and selective offensive military operations.
This combination of civilian and military measures is designed to reduce the guerrillas to their die-hard nucleus and isolate them in areas remote from the basic population. Only when this is done does the task finally become one of killing Viet Cong, of simple elimination.
As we say, this concept seems sound. For, even though it is difficult to assess the attitudes of the villager, two assumptions seem reasonable. The first is that the villagers will be prudently cooperative with the Viet Cong if they are not given physical security, both in the military sense of security from attacks on their village and in the police sense of security from the individual acts of terror and retaliation. The second is that if the villagers are in fact politically apathetic, as they seem to be, they are likely to remain so or even become pro-Communist if the government does not show concern for their welfare in the way it conducts the war and in the effort it makes to provide at least simple government services. It may be that these measures will not be enough to create popular support for the government and the incentive to resist, but it seems obvious that support could neither be created nor long maintained without them.
Implementing the Concept
Thus it is in the implementation of the strategic concept that there seems to be the greatest room for improvement. Success requires, first, full understanding of the strategy at all levels of the government and armed forces, and, second, the skills and organization for effective coordination of military activities with civilian activities. Some parts of the Vietnamese government do understand the strategy, but in other parts the understanding is imperfect at best. The same is true of the necessary skills and organization. Specific areas in particular need of improvement are listed in the paragraphs below, which discuss both programs and continuing issues and conclude with a proposal as to how the United States might increase its leverage on the Vietnamese government so as to bring the improvements about.
Lack of an Overall Plan
The most serious lack in South Vietnam is that of an overall plan, keyed to the strategic concept described above, through which priorities can be set and the coordination of military and civilian activities accomplished. In spite of U.S. urgings there is still no single countrywide plan worthy of the name but only a variety of regional and provincial plans, some good and some not so good. There are, for example, a number of special plans—the Delta Plan, Operation Sunrise, [Page 54] Operation Sea Swallow, Waves of Love—; several plans developed by the commanders of the Corps and Divisional areas; and an unknown number of plans developed by each of the forty-one province chiefs. Regional and provincial plans are, of course necessary, but they should be elements of a country-wide plan rather than a substitute for it. As it is, the impression is strong that many of these plans are both inconsistent and competitive.
One result of the lack of an overall plan is the proliferation of strategic hamlets that are inadequately equipped and defended, or that are built prematurely in exposed areas.
Gaps: The Police Program
The second result is that essential aspects of the strategy are neglected. The police program is an example. An effective police system is vital to guard against Communists remaining inside strategic hamlets, and to man the checkpoints and patrols that are essential in, controlling the movements of goods and people. The present police’ system is clearly inadequate, and although the Public Safety Division of U.S. AID has put forward a proposal for expansion, no action has yet been taken.
A third result is what appears to be an extremely uneconomic use of manpower. There is in South Vietnam a confusing multiplicity of separate armies. In addition to the regular forces (the ARVN), there are under arms the Civil Guard, the Self Defense Corps, the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG), the Hamlet Militia, the Montagnard Commandoes, the Force Populaire, the Republican Youth, the Catholic Youth, several independent groups under parish priests, such as Father Hoa’s Sea Swallows, and even one small army trained, armed, and commanded by a private businessman to protect his properties in Cap St. Jacques. All these forces add up to almost half a million men under arms, a number which if so organized would come to the astounding total of 51 divisions.
This multiplicity of separate armies results not only in an uneconomic use of manpower, but also difficulties in coordination and confusion as to function. One also suspects that it is a misallocation of manpower as well, with too much emphasis on military activities and not enough on civilian such as government services to the villages and police work. So many armed men with different loyalties will also create problems in the transition to a peace-time economy if victory is in fact won, as well as the obvious danger that one or another chief [Page 55] will use the forces under his command for political purposes. South Vietnam does not need any more armed men, but it does need to reorganize what it has.
Coordination of Military and Civilian Activities
Still another result of the lack of an overall plan are the difficulties in coordinating military and civilian activities. One example is the proportion of “clear and hold” as opposed to “hit and withdraw” operations. There are no statistics available, but a number of American military advisors feel that the proportion of “clear and hold” operations, in which troops clear an area and then remain to protect the civic action teams and villagers while they build strategic hamlets, is too low in proportion to the “hit and withdraw” operations designed to destroy regular Viet Cong units. The latter type of operation is essential to keep the Viet Cong off balance and to prevent their concentrating for large-scale attacks, but it should be subordinate to the systematic expansion of secure areas.
A final result of the lack of an overall plan, or perhaps of imperfect understanding of an effective counter-guerrilla strategy, is the Vietnamese reluctance to embark on a meaningful amnesty program. After much U.S. urging, the Vietnamese have finally developed a plan, but it is far from satisfactory. The basic trouble is revealed by the Vietnamese insistence that what they want is not an “amnesty” policy but a “surrender” policy.
The inadequacies in the police program, the tendency to build strategic hamlets in exposed places with inadequate arms and equipment, and the reluctance to develop a meaningful amnesty program have already been discussed. Other inadequacies in civilian programs are discussed below.
One continuing problem is the failure of the Vietnamese government to organize its economy on an emergency basis. A resistance to deficit spending and stricter controls has permitted too large a part of the country’s internal and external resources to go to nonessential purposes, especially in the Saigon area.
There should be more planning for what the Vietnamese economy will be like after the shooting has ended. There is almost none of this kind of planning now, and some of the things being done today might make sensible planning in the future very difficult. An obvious example is the rise of consumption levels, especially in non-essential [Page 56] imports which Vietnam could not buy without U.S. aid. At some point, and probably soon, the U.S. should undertake a long-range economic study of the country’s future development.
Military Operations with Political Aspects
The opinion of some American military advisors that the proportion of “clear and hold” offensive operations is too low in relation to “hit and withdraw” operations designed to keep the Viet Cong off balance has already been mentioned. Another aspect of military operations that may have political consequences is the tactics used in the offensive operations needed to keep the Viet Cong off balance. Some American military advisors feel that the Vietnamese have a bias toward elaborate, set-piece operations. These large-scale operations provide insurance against defeat, but they are expensive, cumbersome, and difficult to keep secret. From the political point of view they have the additional disadvantages for the Vietnamese of maximizing the chances of killing civilians and from the American point of view of requiring a very heavy use of helicopters.
An alternative, and apparently effective way of keeping the regular Viet Cong off balance is long-range patrolling by small units, such as Ranger companies. In this tactic, the patrols, resupplied by air, stay out in the field for extended periods of time, never sleeping two nights in the same place, ambushing, and in general using guerrilla tactics to fight the guerrilla. The remaining forces are kept in reserve for rapid reinforcement and sealing off an area when the patrol encounters resistance. Although American military advisors in South Vietnam have worked hard to overcome Vietnamese reluctance to operate for extended periods in the field and at night, which would permit greater use of this tactic, they have had only partial success. (Paradoxically, President Diem spent a substantial part of his four and a half hour lecture to us praising a province chief who has used the long-range patrol tactic to very good effect recently in Zone D).3
Use of Air Power
On use of air power, and the danger of adverse political effects, our impression is that the controls over air strikes and the procedures for checking intelligence against all possible sources are excellent. In spite of this, however, it is difficult to be sure that air power is being used in a way that minimizes the adverse political effects. U.S. Air Force advisors tell us that the demand for air strikes from the South Vietnamese has gone up enormously. There are now 1,000 strikes per month, and there would be considerably more if the air power were available. During November, thirty-two per cent of these 1,000 strikes [Page 57] were so-called “interdiction”—that is, attacks on installations located in air photos and identified as Viet Cong by intelligence. Fifty-three per cent of the air strikes during November were in direct support that is, bombing and strafing in advance of an attack on a location intelligence indicated as being occupied by Viet Cong or in response to a request by a ground unit in contact with the enemy. Fifteen per cent were other kinds of mission, such as reconnaissance. There is no doubt that the Viet Cong fear air attacks and that some interdiction is necessary and useful. On the other hand, it is impossible to assess how much resentment among persuadable villagers is engendered by the inevitable accidents. In general, the final judgment probably lies in the answer to the questions raised above about the relative emphasis on “clear and hold” and long-range patrolling versus “hit and withdraw” of the more elaborate type. If the proportion is correct between extending control and the necessary offensive operations to keep the Viet Cong off balance, then the killing of civilians is probably at an unavoidable minimum. If the proportion of “hit and withdraw” is too high in relation to “clear and hold”, on the other hand, then air power, too, is probably being overused in ways that have adverse political consequences.
Reinforcement of Strategic Hamlets
One final point on the political aspects of military operations concerns quicker reinforcement for strategic hamlets under attack. Some American military advisors feel that more attention should be paid to ways of providing quicker reinforcement for the hamlets, including air support, although in the case of air support there are formidable problems of communications and in providing airfields close enough to threatened villages.
In its complete concentration on the civil war and on the means and ideology for winning it, the government of South Vietnam has a naivete in foreign affairs which is dangerous for both Vietnam and for the U.S. There has been massive resistance to U.S. suggestions on policies for cooperation in other problems in the area, i.e. Laos and Cambodia. To some extent this is unavoidable in view of Diem’s rather simple view of the Communist threat, but U.S. interests are so heavily involved in the country that our voice should carry more weight.
Vietnamese Domestic Politics
The Diem government is frequently criticized for being a dictatorship. This is true, but we doubt that the lack of parliamentary democracy bothers the villagers of Vietnam or much affects their attitudes [Page 58] toward the war. The real question is whether the concentration of power in the hands of Diem and his family, especially Brother Nhu and his wife, and Diem’s reluctance to delegate is alienating the middle and higher level officials on whom the government must depend to carry out its policies. Our judgment is that the United States does not really have as much information on this subject as it should. All that can be said at the moment is that it is the feeling of Americans in contact with these officials that they are encouraged by U.S. aid and apparently getting on with the job. Both the American and British missions, for example, feel that Brother Nhu’s energetic support for the Strategic Hamlet program has given it an important push. The only evidence to contradict these judgments that we found was in a conversation with Buu, the head of the Vietnamese labor movement and, paradoxically, one of the co-founders with Diem and Nhu of Diem’s political party.
Diem’s Press Relations
The American press in South Vietnam now has good relations with the Embassy and MACV and generally are grateful for the help that they have received. But their attitude toward Diem and the government of South Vietnam is the complete opposite, and with much justice. Diem wants only adulation and is completely insensitive to the desires of the foreign press for factual information. He is equally insensitive to his own image, the political consequences of the activities of Madame Nhu and the other members of his family, and his own tendencies of arbitrariness, failure to delegate, and general pettiness. After much effort, Ambassador Nolting persuaded Diem to let the Defense Ministry give regular military briefings. True to form, however, the content of the briefings is deplorable. One of these briefings, for example, the transcript of which we examined, contained little more than a saccharine eulogy of President Diem.
It would be nice if we could say that Diem’s image in the foreign press was only his affair, but [it] seriously affects the U.S. and its ability to help South Vietnam. The American press representatives are bitter and will seize on anything that goes wrong and blow it up as much as possible. The My Tho operation, for example, contained some mistakes, but it was not nearly the botched up disaster that the press made it appear to be.
Action for the United States
By way of summary, then, we feel that the United States should push the Diem government harder on the need for an overall plan, on a reduction in the number of different military organizations, on foreign policy questions in which the United States has an interest, on an [Page 59] effective police program, for a greater emphasis on military operations in extending and securing government control as opposed to large-scale offensives and air interdiction, on a meaningful amnesty program, on planning for the post-war economy, and on a realistic effort to get a more favorable press.
On many of these issues, of course, the United States has already been pressing. Thus in one sense the question is how to increase our leverage in the face of Diem’s biases and general resistance to advice.
Actually, the United States is in a much better position to see that its advice is taken than it was a year ago. At that time Diem and officials at the national level were practically the only point of contact the U.S. had with either civil or military programs. Today, however, the U.S. has military advisors not only at the lower levels of the Army but with each province chief and steps are being taken to put U.S. AID advisors in at least 20 of the 41 provinces. It therefore is becoming possible to accomplish much of what we want at the local level without going through the vastly inefficient national bureaucracy. An example is the work of the special forces teams. They work at the village level, and at a number of places have done wonders not only in training and supervising the erection of village defenses but also in medical aid, school construction, and even in agriculture and marketing.
In general, it is our judgment that an effort should be made to increase this influence at the local level even more by putting additional U.S.AID people with province chiefs and, where it is indicated, even at selected places further down in the civilian hierarchy.
In addition, having gotten past the first year of increased U.S. support and demonstrated our sincerity, the time has probably come when we can press our views on Diem more vigorously and occasionally even publicly.
One final recommendation for U.S. action concerns our dealings with the press here in Washington. In our judgment a systematic campaign to get more of the facts into the press and T.V. should be mounted. Although our report, for example, is not rosily optimistic, it certainly contains the factual basis (e.g., the first few paragraphs) for a much more hopeful view than the pessimistic (and factually inaccurate) picture conveyed in the press.[Page 60]
- Source: Kennedy Library, Hilsman Papers, Country Series-Vietnam. Secret. This report and the attached annex are summarized in Hilsman, To Move a Nation, pp. 463-466. The report, without the annex, is also printed in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, Vol. 11, pp. 717-725.↩
- The memorandum, as prepared for submission to the President, was undated. The date given here was handwritten on the source text.↩
- For a summary of this conversation, see Document 6.↩
- According to Hilsman’s memoirs, Eyes Only in this instance meant Eyes Only for the President. (Hilsman, To Move a Nation, p. 465)↩
- Printed from a copy that bears these typed signatures.↩