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

Dear Mr. President: This is a report on progress as I see it in our common drive to put down the Communist Insurgency in the Republic of Vietnam. I feel that this report is particularly timely as we implement the National Campaign Plan.

I am convinced that we have taken the military, psychological, economic and political initiative from the enemy. We have kept steadily mounting pressure on him in all phases of the war to return the loyalty and control of the people to the Government of Vietnam. The next four to eight weeks will tell us all whether or not my conviction is true.

As you know, the Communists’ capabilities confronting the Government and people of the Republic of South Vietnam remain very formidable indeed. Capturing the initiative and winning a decisive victory are two very different objectives. Victory is not attainable, if we do not exploit our hard-won initiative. Victory can be delayed indefinitely or never won if we do not act decisively, while applying ever increasing pressure on the enemy in all areas of the conflict.

The VC are still everywhere. They still have much of their relatively secure strategic base structure. If the pressure which we have gradually developed everywhere is allowed to level off or decrease, we will lose the initiative. We have the means to increase this pressure on all fronts beginning now.

I believe we seized the initiative in September or October, though we may not have realized it at that time. Analysis of progress, militarily, politically, economically and psychologically leaves no doubt in my mind. Here are some indicators as we see them—results achieved by not only the RVNAF, but all elements of your government. Results achieved since October 1962 are compared with those during the prior 18 months for which records are available to me.

[Page 119]

Prior to October there were 3,089 Strategic Hamlets, protecting 4,096,391 people in varying degrees. On 14 February 1963 6,988,826 people were living in 5049 Strategic Hamlets. If we count the citizens of Vietnam living in the metropolitan areas of Saigon, Dalat, Qui Nhon, Quang Ngai, Danang and Hue, who are not in strategic wards, an additional 823,827 people are living and working in secure conditions. The number of people enjoying the security of Strategic Hamlets will steadily increase as each day passes.

Prior to October, there were many different ideas in the RVNAF and the Provinces on how the VC threat should be defeated. Through your leadership, these differences in methods and strategy have been dramatically reduced. Our advisors report for the first six weeks of 1963 that 80% of the RVNAF effort has been applied to Clear and Hold operations, directly supporting and protecting the Province Rehabilitation and Strategic Hamlet programs.

Militarily, the average number of VC initiated incidents per week prior to October 1962 was 347. Since October it has been 271 with the trend continuing downward.

Prior to October, the VC initiated 98 armed attacks per week, now the average is 80, again the trend downward. Part of the explanation is that the VC has had to increase the size of attacking forces if they hope to be successful. This is good because the VC cannot now be in as many places simultaneously. Militarily, this is good because the VC is exposed to more decisive defeats by the RVNAF.

Another reliable military index is weapons captured. Prior to October the monthly averages were 474 GVN weapons lost and 304 VC weapons captured. Since October the ratio is increasingly in favor of the GVN, 401 GVN weapons lost each month to 506 VC weapons captured.

Rapidly improving communications permit reporting of many smaller scale incidents and engagements which never have come to the attention of Saigon authorities before. I believe the figures we now have are the most reliable possible.

Several primary reasons have made these gains possible. There is ever increasingly effective intelligence on the enemy, military and political. The population is seeing physical evidence of its government’s interest and ability to protect and assist them. The VC more and more must rely on force and brutality to supply themselves and recruit personnel at the cost of both the political and psychological support of increasing numbers of the people.

These vital improvements in the RVN position could not have occurred without a steadily improving military situation. The 9th Division has been trained and equipped; their record in full field operations is one of which we all should be proud. The 25th Division will complete its training and be fully equipped for field operations in April. The M-113 units are equipped, trained and operating. The state of training and equipment of the other elements of the RVNAF, combined with steadily improving leadership, have made our gains possible.

There remain several important elements of the RVNAF which are not being used to full advantage. Some of the artillery is not being effectively used. I have directed a study which will develop solid recommendations for improvement. The ARVN reorganization has not [Page 120]proceeded the way we would hope, especially the organization and functions of the ARVN headquarters, as they pertain to logistical operational functions. Control of these functions has been retained at JGS level, whereas in original joint planning it was agreed that they could best be accomplished by ARVN headquarters by delegation of authority and appropriate transfer of personnel. Division TOC’s are not yet capable of giving Division Commanders the ability to monitor and control operations that they must have if they are to be effective. The JOC already provides the JGS with much current information. However, operational control must be decentralized to the Corps and Division Commanders who have the responsibility, the means and the tactical knowledge to do the best job possible. As we gain more experience in the new organization of the ARVN, I am confident that these conditions will be corrected.

As you know, the strategic hamlet program—the real core of our effort here in the Republic of Vietnam—is proceeding at a rapid pace. The military clear and hold operations, the construction of defenses and the training and arming of defenders are moving along in a well-planned and coordinated effort. However, I am sure that you will agree with me that the military effort is just half the battle. Along with the military programs there must be other governmental programs such as public health, education, agricultural assistance, psychological warfare, etc., etc., etc. All these are necessary to win the hearts and minds of the people, to inform them of what the government is trying to do, and to assure them that the government is doing everything in its power to suppress the common enemy and restore peace and freedom in the Republic of Vietnam. Therefore I would suggest that all agencies of the government be urged to intensify their efforts within their particular fields so that the National Campaign Plan will not be solely a military effort, but in fact a true national effort. I am not sure at this time that all agencies are completely familiar with the details and objectives of the National Campaign Plan.

What of the enemy? The VC know they have an adversary who, for the first time, is capable of defeating him. They have become the hunted instead of the hunter. Captured documents and personnel, plus other intelligence, reveal VC dismay and concern. However, he is a long way from defeat. He may have more military capability today than he did a year ago. But, he is being driven from the base of his support, the people.

The ever-increasing rate of VC defectors, including hard core people, attest to the enemy’s concern. However, the VC can recapture the initiative if the GVN pressure on him is lessened or allowed to level off. In certain areas, notably the Camau peninsula, he is as strong or [Page 121]stronger than ever. In the northern provinces he has the people, organization and forces to turn the tide in his favor if we should allow him to do so.

What of time? Time is on our side if we use the ever-increasing RVN capabilities to steadily increase the pressure on the VC in every way, militarily, politically, economically and psychologically. Time is on the VC’s side if this pressure is relaxed, or we rest on our laurels.

Time and weather are either for us or against us. In the high plateau, and in southern Vietnam, half of the dry season has already passed. When the wet season arrives, we will no longer be able to apply all the mobility and firepower we have developed. Between now and then, the VC must not be allowed to regroup or rest. We must attack and destroy them. We must hurt them so badly, that they will be forced to apply all their remaining resources merely to survive. If we don’t, the VC may neutralize much of the gain we have won at great cost and effort. In the meantime, we must apply ever increasing pressure on the VC in the north and central coastal areas to make new gains, protect and consolidate those we have won, and prepare for increased operations with the coming of good weather.

Time is on our side, if we use it properly. All plans must guarantee that the VC get no relief from the steadily increasing pressure of our efforts to win the population and put down the Communist insurgency.

The National Campaign Plan which you have recently approved places high priority on eliminating the enemy ability to infiltrate into the Republic of Vietnam and to move about the country. We must succeed in this task.

I conclude that the Republic of Vietnam is defeating the VC. I conclude that to relent now, in optimism over the favorable results and achievements of the past few months could be ruinous or fatal to the RVN counterinsurgency. Your senior military and political leaders in the field sense that victory for the first time is in their grasp. Your armed forces rank and file are as fine soldiers as exist in the world today. They are young and ready to carry on with the fight. Their leaders, tired as they are of a generation of fighting for their country and very existence, have the skill and determination to lead them to victory. The means and morale needed for RVN victory over the insurgents are evident everywhere.

As for me and my advisors, I now see the way clear to achieve decisive military results in the next six months which will permit the ultimate complete defeat of the Communists in the Republic of Vietnam. There will be bitter fighting for much longer but the military result should not be in doubt. The tremendous task of transforming a colonial empire into a prosperous, proud and democratic Republic, a model for all of Asia, will take even longer. The means of military [Page 122]victory are now in hand. The foundations of liberty and prosperity are in process. Time is the key to our success or failure. I urge that we use time to our advantage-give the enemy no rest. Attack on all fronts until the Communist insurgency is put down and they are driven from the country, physically and spiritually.2

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 Files (1963). Secret.
  2. In telegram 132315Z from CINCPAC to DIA, Admiral Felt quoted extensively from this letter, and noted that he concurred “wholeheartedly” in it. (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, 2/63-3/63)
  3. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.