306. Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hilsman) to the Secretary of State 1


  • JCS Comments on Department of State Research Memorandum RFE-902

We appreciate receiving the detailed comment by the Joint Chiefs of Staff relevant to INR’s Research Memorandum RFE-90, Statistics on the War Effort in South Vietnam Show Unfavorable Trends, October 22, 1963 (Attachments A and B3 respectively). We concur fully with Secretary McNamara’s view that we should not issue military appraisals without seeking the views of the Department of Defense, nor have we done so in this instance.

You may be assured that our working level officers maintain close contact with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and with General Krulak’s office. As noted in the first page of the Research Memorandum, all statistics used in this report were compiled by DIA and by General Krulak’s office. Recognizing limitations in these statistics, we have explained at some length, in the first two pages of our report, how the statistics are incomplete, sometimes unreliable, and omit other factors that are important but cannot be quantified. However, the statistics selected are among those regularly highlighted by the Military Assistance Command (MAC) and DIA in its weekly briefings [Page 583] of State’s Vietnam Working Group. We recall that Generals Krulak and Wheeler, during last spring’s discussions at CIA on the South Vietnam National Intelligence Estimate,4 declared that these statistics, then running in favor of the Vietnam Government, were not given sufficient emphasis in the estimate.

While it is true that the data in our report cover largely a period of only seven weeks (actually, three sets of figures extend over nineteen weeks), it should be noted that MACV and joint US mission reports from Saigon on trends and developments in the counterinsurgency program, including statistical compilations, often examine much shorter periods.

We naturally agree that military assessments are basically the responsibility of the Department of Defense. However, the unique and varied political factors involved in the insurgency in South Vietnam and the continuing political crisis since May led us to investigate the possibility that the counterinsurgency effort may have been adversely affected during this period. Indeed, over the past few years we have similarly made intermittent political-military assessments of progress and problems in South Vietnam.

We would like to comment briefly on two assertions in the Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum. It claims as a favorable indicator “the rise of confidence and fighting efficiency of the Vietnamese military forces.” (Page 2) We agree that these qualities have improved generally over the past few years but we believe that morale nonetheless has been adversely affected in recent months. The US Military Attache in Saigon reported last month that the Vietnamese Deputy Commander of Corps III feared mass desertions among his troops, possibly as high as 80%.

The JCS memorandum also claims that the armed strength of the Viet Cong has decreased. While it is true that the present estimate (October 1963) of Viet Cong strength, as reported by MACV, is lower than the previous estimate of last March, it should be noted that MACV has changed the criteria for determining the Viet Cong order of battle. In its October report, MACV states:

“In previous editions of the MACV Viet Cong OB, an arbitrary figure of 100 personnel per company and 30 per platoon was assigned in those cases where hard evidence was lacking upon which to base a strength computation. Commencing with this edition, all strength estimates have been based on evidence obtained from prisoner-of-war estimates or from captured documents.”

Thus there is no basis for comparing the most recent estimate with those of six months and one year ago.

[Page 584]

In conclusion, we note that a very recent CIA report,5 prepared independently of our analysis, concurred with our findings using essentially the same statistical indicators and the same time period.

Tab A



  • Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research Estimate of Military Situation in South Vietnam
The Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research has published and distributed a memorandum (Tab B) which concludes that, as of 22 October, the military situation in Vietnam may have reverted to the condition of six months to one year previous. This conclusion respecting the military aspect of the Vietnam war is derived from an evaluation of four statistical factors: casualties, weapons losses, defectors and Viet Cong incidents covering an eleven-week period from 1 July to 18 September 1963. In short, the paper makes a broad military judgement of a complex combat situation, derived from a survey of a limited number of factors in a limited period of time.
In confining itself to the four indices mentioned, the memorandum does not take into account fundamental military considerations which should weigh heavily in any appraisal of the progress of the campaign. These include such factors as:
Growth in the character and intensity of the Vietnamese offensive effort—air, sea and ground—over the past year.
Degree of pacification achieved in the plateau and coastal prams.
Strategic and tactical implications of the shift in Vietnamese offensive effort to the Viet Cong stronghold in the Delta.
Nature of the Viet Cong tactical reaction as they are compressed into a progressively smaller area.
The conclusion that a major military retrogression has occurred ignores various substantial indices of military progress which include:
The rise in confidence and fighting efficiency of the Vietnamese military forces.
Increases in freedom of movement and increased use of the roads and rail lines, particularly in the north and central regions. (The memorandum would lead one to believe that the freedom of movement had decreased.)
The number of people resettled in strategic hamlets (population now in hamlets—9.7 million; 6 months ago-about 6 million; 12 months ago-less than 2 million).
The number of strategic hamlets organized, built and equipped (number of completed hamlets now—over 8,300; 6 months ago—6,000; 12 months ago—3,000).
Number of village and hamlet radios installed and in use, bringing a new level of security to rural regions (5,200 radios now installed; six months ago—2,500; 12 months ago—1,300).
The steady diminution in the strength of Viet Cong forces (present estimate-about 93,000; estimate six months ago—114,000; estimate 12 months ago—123,000).
The numbers of paramilitary forces trained and equipped (total to date—188,000; six months ago—151,000; 12 months ago—53,000).
Apart from the above omissions, the following points in the memorandum also warrant attention:
The paper projects unfavorable end-1963 values for three of the four statistical factors, based upon an extrapolation of the selected eleven-week period to the end of the year. Extrapolation of a limited sample must be heavily discounted, since graphic representation of those military factors considered in the paper plot irregularly over any short period of time. Trends, and trends only, may be detected—through the general upward or downward direction of the over-all trace—while extension of any rising or descending period can produce deceptive results. Indeed, in the 6 weeks following the cut-off date of the State evaluation, the number of Viet Cong attacks, for example, decreased by about 40%. Using the same extrapolative method of estimate employed in the State paper would result in the unlikely conclusion that, by end—1963, there would be no Viet Cong attacks whatsoever.
The paper points out that the “Chieu Hoi” Amnesty Program rates have decreased from 3,200 per month to about 1,600 per month, and uses this as part of the basis for its conclusions regarding a military retrogression. The paper fails, however, to take note of the more important fact that twelve months ago there was no Chieu Hoi Program at all, and that surrenders were rare. To date the program has already collected about 14,000 persons. When the effort was initiated in the Spring of 1963 a large wave of persons came over to the Vietnamese side. The monthly rate has since decreased from the high initial figure, but is continuing to bring in substantial numbers daily. The reservoir of potential returnees, of course, is also diminishing, since 9-1/2 million of the 12 million rural residents are already in strategic hamlets.
It is the judgment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, based on an appraisal of all of the relevant factors up to 1 November, that the military situation should be appraised as follows—As of that date the GVN offensive effort has not achieved the optimum levels envisaged in the National Campaign Plan, but is on the way thereto. Meanwhile, the Viet Cong have been reacting sharply to the intensification of [Page 586] operations in the Delta area. Coup plotting in Saigon, as well as genuine doubt regarding US intentions deriving from our economic sanctions against the GVN, have operated against a more vigorous prosecution of the campaign. Overall, the military campaign is still progressing favorably and clearly has not been “set back to the point it occupied six months ago.”
About 40 copies of the State Department document have already been distributed to the White House, to various offices of USIA, AID, CIA and the Departments of State and Defense, and a request has already been received, at the action officer level, for Joint Chiefs of Staff concurrence in release of the document to Senator Hickenlooper and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While the study has little importance in itself, the diffusion of its inaccurate military conclusions could have unfavorable effects, since it contradicts publicly announced Department of Defense estimates on these military matters.
Accordingly, it is recommended that the matter be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State, either orally or in the form of a memorandum, as attached hereto.
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, Hilsman Papers, Country Series-Vietnam, JCS Comments on RFE-90. Secret; No Foreign Dissem. Initialed by Rusk. Attached was a copy of a letter from Rusk to McNamara, November 8, which reads as follows:

    “Confirming our telephone conversation about INR’s research memorandum RFE-90 of October 22, 1963, it is not the policy of the State Department to issue military appraisals without seeking the views of the Defense Department. I have requested that any memorandum given interdepartmental circulation which includes military appraisals be coordinated with your Department.”

  2. See Document 205.
  3. Tab B contained the substance of Tab A in the form of a draft letter from McNamara to Rusk.
  4. See vol. III, p. 232.
  5. Not further identified.