183. Memorandum by the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs’ Special Assistant (Sullivan)1


  • Divergent Attitudes in U.S. Official Community

Secretary McNamara has asked me to examine the nature and the cause of differing opinions and attitudes in the official US community in Vietnam. Specifically, he is concerned with the divergent evaluations of the success which we are having in “winning the war against the Viet Cong.”

I have talked with various members of the official community and have, in general, covered the same ground with each element of the Country Team. My first observation is that there are divergencies but that they do not divide cleanly and sharply along Service and Department lines. Within each of the elements of the Team, there are individuals who hold views more or less at variance with the majority of others in their element. However, insofar as any general watershed of opinion can be detected, it finds the civilian components of the Country Team on one hand and the military components on the other.

In approaching the views of these two general communities or the basic question of “winning the war”, I soon became aware that, in their answers, they were addressing themselves fundamentally to two different questions. The military directed themselves primarily to the more active, physical task of counterinsurgency, i.e., conducting clear and hold operations, building strategic hamlets, isolating the population from the Viet Cong, organizing protection for the cleared areas, and prodding the ARVN into search and destroy actions against Viet Cong strongholds.

The civilians, on the other hand, directed themselves more to the psychological aspects of the problem. They were concerned less with the physical task of eliminating Viet Cong operations and more with the job of eliminating those mental attitudes among the population which made the people receptive and susceptible to the subversive and propaganda activities of the Viet Cong.

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Moreover, the military are oriented towards a specific mission which they are undertaking. They feel a justifiable sense of accomplishment in the results they have achieved to date. They can measure the indices of their progress and have a “can-do”, “gung-ho” sense of confidence in their ability to complete their mission.

The civilians, on the other hand (with the exception of USOM), are oriented towards a more passive and more frustrating task of attempting to dissuade an oriental regime from its method of governing and to persuade it to use other methods which involve more empathy towards the popular mind. They constantly watch the Government, despite their urgings, throw away opportunities to gain greater popular acceptance. They feel that each of these occasions gives new advantages to the Viet Cong and that each constitutes a step backward in the psychological battle. They do not, in general, discount the physical progress that has been made in the counterinsurgency effort, but they are inclined to question the quality of its efforts in the light of the Government’s political ineptness.

Hence, the military and the civilian components of the Country Team approach the same set of data from different perspectives. They fall almost inevitably into the classic postures of the two men who look at the same glass of water—one sees it half full, the other sees it half empty. This difference in perspective is then magnified by the imprecision of the data examined. All honest US observers admit that there are great margins of tolerance and doubt in the statistics on which they base their conclusions. Therefore, there is an opportunity for a great deal of subjective interpretation in deriving a conclusion from a given set of “facts”.

Moreover, and compounding this essential occasion for divergence, there enters into the picture a considerable emotional element. On the military side, this takes the form of professional or service pride. Any suggestion that success is not being attained is considered a personal affront, a reflection impugning the achievements of the US armed forces. On the civilian side, any effort by the military to reach essentially political or intelligence conclusions is considered an incursion into or even the pre-emption of a field of activity which should be properly civilian.

Finally, and as the ultimate fillings to the emotional charge, is the simple problem of the pecking order. When I came here a year ago with General Taylor, it was my observation that the “top banana” in the US official community was General Harkins. This was understandable, not only was he a senior officer in the Army, but he was a man with a considerable reputation and experience. He disposed of infinitely more resources than the Ambassador and he had a far more impressive establishment responsive to his direct command. Moreover, he and his command represented the new and the current thrust [Page 382] of highest level US policy interest in Vietnam. He was the executor of the main US drive of the day in which there was invested a great measure of US prestige.

Fritz Nolting, on the other hand, was a fairly junior US Foreign Service Officer of no particular international reputation and prestige. He was undertaking his first assignment as an Ambassador in a part of the world in which he had no depth of experience. He had very limited resources at his direct disposal and a relatively small staff. He knew and understood the direction and the design of top-level US policy. With good common sense and discretion, Fritz “got on the team” and made no contest to assume a prerogative of control. This does not suggest that he was a doormat; it merely means that he chose what he quite sensibly considered to be the most effective way to exercise his talents and to utilize his resources.

This arrangement caused some grumbling in the civilian side of the Country Team. As disciplined professionals, they buckled down and did their part in contributing to the US operational effort. However, they had a number of nagging doubts about the qualitative effect of the effort in which they were engaged. A number of them expressed these doubts to me privately when I was here. When I suggested that they report them officially through regular channels, I was later advised that most of their critical analysis was moderated before being sent or else was not finally sent on to Washington.

As a result of this situation, a certain head of emotional pressure built up in the Embassy which finally erupted into the open after Fritz went on home leave and while Trueheart was in charge. Once again, this was brought in check upon Fritz’s return to duty here.

Finally, when Ambassador Lodge arrived on the scene, two things happened. First, he was a man of international political stature, considerable experience as an Ambassador and the bearer of Presidential assurances that he was, and should act as US “top banana” in Vietnam. This change of style was immediately apparent to everyone in the official US community and has had the usual intangible effects which go with such changeovers. Second, he has come to the conclusion that the “doubting Thomases” in the civilian component, those who hold the “we cannot win with Diem” attitude are correct. This, in turn, has had its predictable and largely intangible consequences in the emotional quotient of the problem.

Finally, however, I believe a word of evaluation is necessary with respect to current attitudes among the diverging components. With very rare exceptions, there is no bitterness. The period of operational harmony built up in the Nolting period has resulted in some very close friendships and good working relations across the board. The dedication of all sequents [segments?] of the Team to make the program succeed is great enough and the men involved are mature enough to [Page 383] be submerged in hard work. On operational problems, there is no impairment of effectiveness discernible as yet. All officers I have talked to show a genuine concern that this situation will continue without change no matter what the more introspective differences may bring in the way of divergencies.

W.H. Sullivan2
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, Memos and Miscellaneous. Secret. A note on the source text indicates that this memorandum was taken from the President’s weekend reading of October 6, and that its approximate date was October 5. Sullivan was a member of the Taylor-McNamara Mission to Vietnam, September 24-October 1, and he labeled this a “Mission Memorandum.”
  2. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.