349. Memorandum From the Chairman of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Working Group on Vietnam (Cooper) to the Director of Central Intelligence (McCone)1


  • South Vietnam—Where We Stand


1. The change of government in Saigon has provided an opportunity to generate greater popular support and momentum for the war effort against the Viet Cong. The government, however, is already running into snags in organizing itself for this task. Even in the best of circumstances, a satisfactory reduction of the Communist insurgency will be a long and arduous process given the tenacity and strong position of the Viet Cong in many areas.

The New Government

2. With the exception of Diem’s assassination, the generals who have seized power in Saigon have created an initially favorable impression by their prompt release of political prisoners of the old regime, their removal of restrictions on individual rights and on the press, and by their promise to return power eventually to civilian control.

3. They have moved quickly to try to win support from significant groups and individuals estranged from the Diem regime. Talks have been opened with leaders of the politico-religious Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects—which together have up to 2 million adherents, including several thousand in loosely organized armed bands. Support from the sects could lead to improved security in some critical provinces of the delta and adjacent to Cambodia where the sects have wide popular allegiance.

4. Various prominent exiles abroad have been welcomed back and encouraged, along with persons in South Vietnam who had been jailed or otherwise barred from political life under Diem, to organize and express their ideas openly.

5. The generals have voiced their determination to pursue the fight against the Viet Cong, and appear to view realistically the serious problems involved.

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6. Despite encouraging elements in the picture, there are danger signs. The most serious is the absence of firm direction and of a well-defined program of action. There is a real danger that the situation may be allowed to drift indefinitely.

7. The possible ambitions of some of the generals are a source of concern to the others. Concern extends particularly to generals occupying positions in security, police, intelligence and psychological warfare functions where efforts to develop independent power bases of political power could weaken vital areas of the war effort.

8. Many of Diem’s former officials and associates are under arrest or investigation, and the generals are under pressure from elements of the public as well as within their own ranks to purge remnants of the Diem regime. There is danger that a vendetta, or the impression of a vendetta, may be created.

9. Not all appointments among the extensive personnel shifts underway in the administration and armed forces promise improvement. We lack the capability to assess the impact of personnel changes at lower echelons, particularly among district chiefs who play vital roles in rural counterinsurgency.

10. The selection of Nguyen Ngoc Tho, Diem’s vice president, as premier is resented by many Vietnamese who claim he is weak, without firm principles, and regional in his outlook. Civilian members of Tho’s cabinet, who are predominantly native southerners, are technically competent but lack the political and administrative skills to shape policies or influence the military.

11. Disagreements have emerged over the composition and role of the Council of Notables which is to serve as a vehicle for harnessing civilian talents. Prominent politicians, who feel it may be used to forge them into an artificial two-party system, are still “fence-sitting” as in the past.

12. Although there is no evidence of anti-government motivation in three post-coup self-immolations in Saigon, the suicides may reflect continued public unrest, stemming from unfulfilled, if undefined, expectations. Such an atmosphere would increase pressure on the government to produce some tangible or dramatic sign of progress.

Military Situation

13. The prolonged political crisis in Saigon has tended to obscure a gradual intensification of Viet Cong guerrilla activity since mid-1963 reaching record peaks since the coup. After a period of readjustment of their political and military effort to meet the challenge of stepped-up US-Vietnamese counter-insurgency programs, the Communist drive by the time of the coup had regained momentum and was approaching levels of activity sustained prior to the increased US intervention.

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14. This renewed activity appears to be somewhat more effective than previously. The Communists have been inflicting increased casualties and weapons losses on government forces at no apparent increase in cost to themselves. They have accomplished this by changing their tactics and reducing their vulnerability to government countermeasures. They have concentrated their attacks on “soft” targets-strategic hamlets and outposts manned by paramilitary elements. They have also improved their defensive capabilities against government ground and air attack.

15. Although the Viet Cong continue to suffer heavy combat losses, they appear to have access to sufficient manpower to more than replace these losses. Their armed strength is now conservatively estimated at 80,000 to 100,000 men, including at least 21,000 to 23,000 well-trained regulars.

16. At the same time, the Communists have continued to develop larger and better-equipped tactical units, including some regimental organizations. These growing capabilities have been made possible by support from Hanoi in the form of cadre personnel and weapons. The infiltration of about 800 cadre personnel this year has been more or less confirmed, but there are indications that this figure is only a fraction of the actual total, which may equal or even exceed the 3,000 or so estimated to have arrived from North Vietnam last year.

17. Increasing numbers of Bloc-manufactured weapons are being captured in South Vietnam. Some of these are brought in through Laos and others through Cambodia. The Viet Cong, however, continue to rely primarily on captured weapons. Their net gain of 2,700 captured weapons since May is sufficient to arm about seven new regular battalions, up to 30 district companies, or more than 100 local guerrilla platoons.

18. The renewed Viet Cong effort developed even as the government’s vigorous counterinsurgency programs began to have effect last year. The strength of the government’s armed forces has been increased to some 500,000 men. These include more than 215,000 in the regular armed forces, 83,000 in the Civil Guard, and over 200,000 in other paramilitary elements such as Self-Defense Corps, Hamlet Militia, and Citizen’s Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG). The government has a significant advantage in the quality and mobility of weapons, and a monopoly on air support.

19. By stepping up the tempo of its tactical operations, the government has probably retarded the development of the guerrilla forces and deprived them of the initiative in some areas. The government has followed through on other measures to improve its military posture, notably in expanding and training the paramilitary forces. New tactics, emphasizing ambushes and night patrols, have been instituted. Psychological operations have been increased, with emphasis on the [Page 683] Chieu Hoi “returnee” program aimed at winning over Viet Cong adherents. The government has revised its territorial command structure, deploying the 9th Division from central Vietnam to the guerrilla-infested Mekong delta.

20. The strategic hamlet program, cornerstone of the Diem regime’s counterinsurgency effort, is now alleged by government officials to cover 77 percent of the rural population. The Viet Cong have refocused their effort to counter the strategic hamlet program, which in some areas is overextended. Some hamlets are not secure against either attack or infiltration, and offer their inhabitants few benefits. Some hamlet defenders have fought well but about one-third of the hamlet militia has not been armed because of suspicions concerning their loyalties.

21. The strategic hamlet program has been most successful in the northern coastal provinces, where minimal resettlement was necessary and its establishment was integrated with military clear-and-hold operations. Even here, however, field evaluations indicate that only about half the hamlets are fully effective.

22. In the highlands area, the strategic hamlets have been complemented by the CIDG program. These paramilitary units have been relatively effective in patrolling their areas, restricting Viet Cong movements and reducing their access to the tribal minority people (montagnard) for food and other supplies. The success of this effort apparently has been heavily dependent on direct US participation, and setbacks have occurred in some cases after the withdrawal of US special forces teams. Similar problems have been encountered with the montagnard resettlement program, and seem to arise from an overly paternalistic approach by US advisers, coupled with a lack of understanding and sympathy for the montagnards among Vietnamese functionaries.

23. The situation remains most critical in the Mekong delta provinces south of Saigon—the most densely populated area in South Vietnam—and in the provinces just north of Saigon. Here the Communists have base areas of long standing, which government forces seldom penetrate. Food is not a problem, and the nearby border with Cambodia affords safe havens. The strategic hamlet program has been least successful in this region, where traditional population patterns necessitate a great deal of relocation, and where effective coordination of military operations with hamlet construction has been lacking. Hundreds of strategic hamlets have been attacked and harassed by the Viet Cong in this region, and the program is being revised to stress consolidation rather than expansion.

24. The particularly intensified Viet Cong activity since the coup appears designed as much for psychological impact and for testing the new regime as for military advantage. It has been characterized by [Page 684] widespread, small-scale actions against hamlets and outposts, punctuated occasionally by larger-scale attacks against more substantial posts or military training camps. The Communists apparently hope to encourage internal strains in the new regime until its leadership bogs down and the war-weary South Vietnamese and US public become receptive to a negotiated solution. Both the Viet Cong’s Liberation Front and Hanoi have, since the coup, revived proposals for a “neutralized” South Vietnam.

25. Although the new government moved relatively quickly from execution of the coup in Saigon to sustain the military operations against the Viet Cong, there have been at least some dislocations in rural counterinsurgency programs as a result of the coup itself and the subsequent personnel changes.

Chester L. Cooper2
  1. Source: Department of State, Vietnam Working Group Files: Lot 67 D 54, POL 1, General Political. Secret/Sensitive; Eyes Only.
  2. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature and an indication that the original was signed.