79. Letter From the Director of the Vietnam Working Group (Wood) to the Ambassador in Vietnam (Nolting)1

Dear Fritz: Thank you for your letter of March 252 on Dave Nuttle’s proposals. The letter has just arrived. Your comments seem wise and practical. After I have given myself the pleasure of studying them more carefully I will pass them on to those directly concerned. I think Dave Nuttle’s paper and your comments taken together could be very usefully synthesized for use in, say, similar minority problems in other underdeveloped countries.

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Under the same general head, the British Embassy here tells me, as you probably already know, that their team on aborigines is being formed and that some of the members have, I understand, already arrived in Saigon.

On another British front the Embassy tells me that their plans and funds for a medical team are in hand and that the present problem is the completion of recruiting six properly qualified people.

The most helpful British development has been Bob Thompson’s visit, just completed. Before dictating the necessary memoranda of conversations, I thought I would give you the highlights. He saw the President this morning and when queried about Diem, he said the question was not whether we could win with Diem but that without Diem we would very probably lose within six months. He emphasized that the quality of the opposition was very poor. As to the war, he underlined the military statistics which are moving in our favor (especially defections-up to 148 for the week ending March 25). He played down the importance of infiltration. When asked why the French had not been able to win he replied that they had had no hope of getting the population on their side, but that more importantly the strategic hamlet program had gone very much better than we had expected. He praised the quality of the American military observers and advisers. As to defoliants, he felt that even when the foliage was dead it was still possible for the Viet Cong to hide under the branches. He also cited as a negative factor the automatic Asian aversion to unknown chemicals. He was not opposed to crop destruction, provided it was carefully planned so that it really hurt the Viet Cong. He emphasized the improving morale of Vietnamese military and civilian officials, particularly the province chiefs.

Queried on helicopters he said they were fine to prevent large scale concentrations and to surprise the Viet Cong, but that we must expect no large scale victories from them. The war, he emphasized, would be won slowly by brains and feet. He warned that as things turned more definitely against the Viet Cong they must be expected to use more terror, particularly in the form of hand grenades in Saigon.

He felt that tactical air was a key factor in preventing Viet Cong concentrations and in helping villagers and armed forces engaged on the ground. He was dead against strafing and bombing occupied villages since this left an irremediable legacy of bitterness. He thought that the present restrictions reduced the dangers of such activities. Tactical air, he said was carefully controlled and the pilots understood that when in doubt about bombing and strafing, they should not do it.

Throughout, he made it clear that we are winning, that we are on the right track and that we should not be drawn off or man the panic station if there are further incidents like Ap Bac or if press reports continue to be unsavory.

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He believed it possible that a real white area could be achieved between June and August, and that if we continue to gain the upper hand it would be wise for the United States to decide unilaterally and without prior announcement to reduce the MAAG by a substantial amount, say 1,000, at the end of calendar 1963. This, he emphasized, would show our confidence that we are winning, would take the steam out of the main Viet Cong propaganda line (that the Vietnamese are a satellite of the Americans), and would reaffirm the honesty of American intentions.

The President warmly congratulated Bob on his presentation and on his very fine work in Viet-Nam.

I enclose a very incomplete agenda3 showing some of the other persons he met during his visit here.

I might comment that his meeting with the Governor was extremely cordial, lasting an hour and 15 minutes-during which time the Governor kept his hearing aid in with the volume up. This is, I believe, a record for undivided gubernatorial attention. To the Governor, Thompson stressed the need for patience and confidence.

Speaking of the attitude of the Vietnamese peasants, the Secretary supposed that the average Vietnamese peasant did not arise and beat his breast and inquire what he could do for Ngo Dinh Diem that day. He recalled that as a boy on a farm in Georgia they had a phone which was connected to about 30 others in the neighborhood, that three rings on the phone signaled everyone to pick up the instrument, and that such a signal could only mean fire, mad dog, or Federal Revenue Agent.

Thompson also made his point to Mr. McNamara about reducing the size of MAAG at the end of the year if things continue to go well.

He made a speech at Fort Bragg.

He was also the dinner guest of the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Hilsman, where he had a long conversation with Warren Unna. In fact, he did so much for us these last ten days in Washington that he would deserve two months home leave even if he had not spent the previous ten months in Viet-Nam.

During all of these conversations the question of the U.S. press was, of course, a recurring topic. I forgot to mention that he gave a brief backgrounder at the British Embassy and under strictly British auspices which was attended by approximately 15-20 correspondents. The British felt it had gone very well. Roger Hilsman was pleased with the talk that Bob had with Warren Unna. I was happy to receive your [Page 206] letter of March 264 saying that you have asked Lyall Breckon to travel to the delta with Warren if he would like to do it.

I had a fine skiing vacation.

[1 paragraph (1-1/2 lines) not declassified]

I hope to see you soon and I hope that you will let me know if there is anything that we can possibly do for you for your family before your arrival.

With all best wishes.

Yours very sincerely,

Chalmers B. Wood5
  1. Source: Department of State, Vietnam Working Group Files: Lot 67 D 54, ORG-1 Gen Pol (Off & Inf Lets). Secret.
  2. In his letter to Wood, Nolting assessed a proposal forwarded from the State Department, which called for the establishment of three-man ethnic specialist teams to prepare long-term field studies of tribal minority areas in Vietnam. Nolting praised the idea, but suggested that the techniques proposed should be considered for application in other countries “which are vulnerable to Communist blandishments but which have not yet been swept up in a Viet-Nam style liberation war.” In Vietnam, Nolting felt that “programs relating to the Montagnards have now gone far beyond the point where such teams would be of much help.” (Ibid.)
  3. Not found attached.
  4. Not printed. (Department of State, Vietnam Working Group Files: Lot 67 D 54, Pol 7 Visits and Mtgs)
  5. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.