72. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Hilsman) to the Secretary of State1


  • South Viet-Nam

In my judgment, the strategic concept that was developed for South Viet-Nam remains basically sound. If we can ever manage to have it implemented fully and with vigor, the result will be victory.

The concept is based on the assumption that villagers in Southeast Asia are turned inward on themselves and have little or no sense of identification with either the national government or Communist [Page 190] ideology—that the villagers are isolated physically, politically and psychologically. In such circumstances, it is not at all difficult to develop a guerrilla movement. In Burma during World War II, about 150 Americans created a guerrilla force of 30,000 and did it with white faces. It is hardly surprising that the Viet Cong could do equally well or better in South Viet-Nam.

A corollary to this assumption is that the villager’s greatest desire is security and that, if the villagers are given security, some simple progress towards a better life, and—most important of all—a sense that the government cares about them and their future, they will respond with loyalty.

The recent USIA survey of Long An3 gives some evidence of the validity of this assumption. 1,250 families were interviewed in Long An, which is among the worst of the Delta provinces. The results were as follows: In insecure villages, 75 percent of the people expressed an attitude towards the Viet Cong and the government that was essentially “a plague on both their houses”, and 25 percent of the people were silent. In relatively secure villages—those which could be penetrated by large Viet Cong groups but not by small patrols—50 percent of the people took a “plague on both their houses” point of view, and 50 percent were mildly pro-government. In very secure villages, which had also received some benefits, such as a school or a well, the people were 100 percent pro-government and expressed a determination to fight the Viet Cong.

On the basis of such an apparently valid assumption, the strategic concept calls for primary emphasis on giving security to the villages. The tactics are the so-called oil-blot approach, starting with a secure areas and extending it slowly, making sure no Viet Cong pockets are left behind, and using police units to winkle out the Viet Cong agents in each particular village.

This calls for the use of military forces in a different way from that of orthodox, conventional war. Rather than chasing Viet Cong, the military must put primary emphasis on clear-and-hold operations and on rapid reinforcement of villages under attack. It is also important, of course, to keep the Viet Cong regular units off balance by conventional offensive operations, but these should be secondary to the major task of extending security.

All this requires careful coordination of military operations, police efforts and rural development towards the primary objectives: the extension of security over the heavily-populated regions of the Delta, the cutting off of Viet Cong sources of supplies and especially recruits, [Page 191] and their dispersion into the jungles and mountains where they can be worn down by attrition, starvation and more conventional military means.

At the heart of the strategic concept are two basic principles:

The first is that of the oil blot. In the past, the GVN sought to blanket the whole country with so-called strategic hamlets which in many cases involved nothing more than wire-enclosed villages doused with political propaganda, with the Viet Cong agents left in place. The result was to blanket the Delta with little Dienbienphus—indefensible, inadequately armed hamlets far from reinforcements, that lacked both government benefits and police facilities to winkle out Communist sympathizers, with Viet Cong pockets left behind. In effect these were storage places of arms for the Viet Cong which could be seized at any time. After November 1st, the military began to demobilize some of these vulnerable villages and outposts, and a race developed between the government and the Viet Cong. The race may have ended in a tie, but the result is that the Viet Cong now have much better weapons and greater stocks of ammunition than they ever had before.

The second basic principle is that the way to fight a guerrilla is to adopt the tactics of the guerrilla—night ambushes, small patrols, and so on. In spite of all our pressures, this has never been done in Viet-Nam. Instead, the emphasis has been on large operations, artillery and air bombardments, and the use of cumbersome battalion-sized units which telegraph their movements to the Viet Cong.

As to the question of operations against North Viet-Nam, I would suggest that such operations may at a certain stage be a useful supplement to an effective counterinsurgency program, but they would not be an effective substitute for such a program.

My own preference would be to continue the covert, or at least deniable, operations along the general lines we have been following for some months with the objective, since these are only pinpricks, not of forcing North Viet-Nam to its knees but of keeping the threat of eventual destruction alive in Hanoi’s mind. Then, after we had made sufficient progress in the Delta so that all concerned began to realize that the Viet Cong were losing the support of the population, and that their ability to continue the war depended solely on North Vietnamese support, I think we should indicate as much privately to the North Vietnamese and follow this by selected attacks on their infiltration bases and training camps.

In my judgment, significant action against North Viet-Nam that is taken before we have demonstrated success in our counter-insurgency program will be interpreted by the Communists as an act of desperation, and will, therefore, not be effective in persuading the North Vietnamese to cease and desist. What is worse, I think that premature [Page 192] action will so alarm our friends and allies and a significant segment of domestic opinion that the pressures for neutralization will become formidable.

In sum, I believe that we can win in Viet-Nam with a number of provisos.

The first proviso is that we do not over-militarize the war-that we concentrate not on killing Viet Cong and other conventional means of warfare, but on an effective program for extending the areas of security gradually, systematically, and thoroughly. This will require better teamwork in Saigon than we have had in the past and considerably more emphasis on clear-and-hold operations and on police work than we ourselves have given to the Vietnamese.

The problem of getting effective teamwork is troublesome. Ideally, what we need is what the British had in Malaya-a Gerald Templar who has absolute authority to hire and fire anyone in any agency or department and through whom all reporting and all orders are transmitted.

My second proviso is that there be political stability in Saigon. The talk of neutralization is clearly very dangerous. It tends to be in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy-talk about neutralization disheartens those who must fully and vigorously implement the strategic concept and encourages those who are plotting for a neutralist coup.

I think we can counter such dangers most effectively by the proposals in my letter to you of March 144 dealing with the whole of Southeast Asia; if necessary, however, we might also station a Marine battalion in Saigon. Publicly, we could explain this as a move to protect American dependents; privately, we could pass the word in Viet-Nam that we wanted no more coupe.

To reiterate, I think that we have made the necessary and fundamental policy decision on the over-all strategic concept. What remains is to implement this concept vigorously and with effective coordination.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, Hilsman Papers, Vietnam Country Series, Hilsman Trip 12/62-1/63, Related Documents. Secret. Also sent to McNamara, McCone, Harriman, McGeorge Bundy, William Bundy, and Forrestal.
  2. The source text is undated, but it appears to have been drafted shortly after Hilsman assumed the duties of Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs in April.
  3. Not found.
  4. Not found.