368. Central Intelligence Agency Information Report1
- Situation Appraisal as of 14 December 1963
- This is a field appraisal of the current situation. It is not an official judgment by this Agency or any component thereof. It represents the observations and interpretations of a staff officer based on information available to him at the time of its preparation. Prepared for internal use as a guide to the operation environment, this commentary is disseminated in the belief that it may be useful to other agencies in assessing the situation for their own purposes.
- The situation in South Vietnam from 8-14 December 1963 continued to be marked by a lack of forward motion on the part of the country's new rulers in getting on with the many-sided struggle against the Viet Cong (VC). The Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) continues to shuffle province chiefs and district chiefs around; in some provinces a succession of chiefs has been appointed since the 1-2 November coup. However commendable is this reflection of the junta's desire to get the best possible team into the field, in the short term it has contributed materially to the disturbing degree of paralysis that now afflicts provincial administration. Another cause of this slowdown includes the continuing non-articulation of the new regime's pacification policies and confusion over the chains of military and civil command and their interrelationships.
- Much of the current confusion and paralysis is unavoidable. The MRC rightly calls the 1-2 November action a revolution, in the sense that it swept away the whole elaborate fabric of the Diem regime's controls. However burdensome and oppressive these controls seemed to many, local officials at least had some idea of what was expected of them and had the organizational resources for implementing national policy in the countryside even though imperfectly and oppressively. The VC have been quick to move into this vacuum of authority and initiative. Opinions vary as to the extent of Communist gains since the coup, but most observers agree that the VC have made definite progress and that in some areas, the situation has deteriorated [Page 712]to a disturbing extent. Particularly hard hit in certain provinces has been the Strategic Hamlet Program. It is difficult at this time to judge whether this slippage in the program can be attributed to inherent defects, which are only now coming to light under the country's new management, or whether it is the result of the current lack of firm leadership at the local and national levels. Both factors are undoubtedly involved, although their relative importance is hard to gauge. In any event, the time is short in which the new regime can get itself organized and challenge the Communists' initiative without risking setbacks of possibly long-term significance.
- One action, taken on 12 December, which may help break the log jam in the MRC's efforts to put itself on a better war footing was the exchange of commanders in I and II Corps. Major General Do Cao Tri has taken over II Corps, and Major General Nguyen Khanh has moved to I Corps. Tri had for some time been slated for II Corps, but Khanh's new assignment had been the subject of conflicting reports and possibly the cause of contention within the MRC.
- As is often the case, heightened concern over the situation in the countryside comes at a time when VC attacks and harassment activities have in fact entered a period of relative decline, following the Communists' record effort in November. Judging from the experience of past years, the outlook is for a continuation of this trend for the next week or so, to be followed by a brief flareup of enemy activity in observance of the third anniversary of the founding of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NFLSVN) and a more sustained offensive after the first of the year, extending to the period of Tet, which will be observed in mid-February. It should be noted that the activity indicators provide no measure of the erosion of the Strategic Hamlet Program, which is probably continuing, even though the level of VC guerrilla activity is temporarily down.
- The honeymoon period between the new regime and the press appears to be drawing to a close. MRC Chief Major General Duong Van Minh, flanked by leading members of the MRC Executive Committee, on 9 December held what appeared to be a suddenly-called press conference at which he reaffirmed his confidence in Premier Nguyen Ngoc Tho and mildly admonished the press to remember its responsibilities in a country at war, warning it against promoting neutralist sentiment, among other things. Much more incendiary was Tho's own self-defense at a press conference held on the succeeding day. Tho sought to clarify, not too successfully, his role in the capture and subsequent execution some years ago of Hoa Hao extremist leader Ba Cut. He also defended his part in the Buddhist affair last summer, correctly stating that he had counseled moderation to Diem. Exchanges between Tho and the attending journalists are reported to have been quite heated, suggesting that the none too popular Tho may [Page 713]be an easy mark for the press and confirming previous indications that he will increasingly be a center of controversy and a political liability for General Minh. Minh's and Tho's warnings to the press were quickly followed by the suspension of three vernacular newspapers.
- The new regime's sensitivity to the subject of neutralism was heightened during the week by the suggestion of The New York Times that a negotiated settlement with the north should perhaps be explored and by Sihanouk's gratuitous and unwelcome offer to “federate” with South Vietnam, if only the latter would stop fighting the Viet Cong and espouse a neutral foreign policy. In conversations with Ambassador Lodge and other American officials, junta leaders have shown great concern over the possibility that the question of the neutralization of South Vietnam might come up at any international conference held at Sihanouk's request to discuss Cambodian neutrality. This specter, given some substance by Sihanouk's federation proposal, would appear virtually to preclude South Vietnamese participation in a conference, which in other ways would have been distasteful enough to Vietnam's new rulers even if restricted to the subject of guarantees for Cambodia.
- The Generals continued, by personnel shifts and arrests, their efforts to break up coup groups which had been in existence prior to 1 November and which had been in competition with them. Among recent actions to this effect were the arrest of Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen's top lieutenant Nguyen Duy Bach; the arrest of Huynh Van Lang, a former director of the Exchange Office and a Saigon University professor; and the consignment of Lt. Col. Pham Ngoc Thao to the limbo of a five month course at Fort Leavenworth. Other field grade and junior officers judged to have trouble-making potential are reported to have been transferred out of Saigon or are slated for military attache posts abroad.
- Field dissem. State (Ambassador Lodge) USMACV (General Harkins) CINCPAC PACAF ARPAC PACFLT.
Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Memos. Secret, Routine No Foreign Dissem/No Dissem Abroad/Controlled Dissem Background Use Only. A note on the source text indicates this information was acquired in Saigon December 8-14. Forrestal sent this report to Bundy under cover of a memorandum, December 17 which reads as follows:
“The attached is as good a wrap-up on the Vietnam situation as I have seen in the last few days. The President might be interested.” Also published in Declassified Documents, 1975, 57B.↩