372. Report by the Joint Chiefs of Staff's Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (Krulak)1
REPORT ON THE VISIT OF THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE TO SOUTH VIETNAM
19-20 December 1963
Since October, when the Secretary of Defense and General Taylor visited Vietnam, there have been great changes; some have been good, some bad, most have been forseeable. In some cases the changes resulted from the coup, others result from the circumstances which created the coup. Together they unite to portray a serious—but by no means irretrievable—situation.
Operations of the governmental mechanism—at the top and at the bottom—have decelerated greatly. The military Junta, comprising the best Vietnamese combatant leadership, is preoccupied with politics, for which they are not well qualified, and is largely diverted from the practical task of prosecuting the war. The civilian element of the government is of marginal quality, generally lacking in the breadth required to make the complex administrative mechanism move. Provincial officials are unsure—of their authority, of their obligations and of their tenure. The same is true of the several layers of military command. In a very real sense there has been an authoritarian revolution in Vietnam.
Moreover, it is not finished. There are still continuing vibrations in both authority and responsibility. Administrative functions are not efficient, orders are often ignored or given lip service. Little evidence of improvement is yet visible and, until stability does emerge, essential things will not get done. This is the first and greatest problem.
By and large our leadership is pressing the GVN to do the right things; trying to show them the way, and the Vietnamese are receptive to our advice. However, receptive is not synonymous with responsive. Orders are issued, but they are often not carried out-because the chain of authority is still preoccupied with its own political and economic survival, and the supervision is just not there. In many cases the orders are unrealistic, where the task assigned exceeds both the means and the time allotted.[Page 722]
The unfavorable condition now obtaining in the Vietnamese political and military systems has been exploited aggressively by the communists. The Viet Cong, immediately following the coup d'etat, intensified their guerrilla efforts across the whole of the country. From an average of 400 violent incidents per week they moved quickly to over 1,000 in the week following the coup. The Vietnamese, who were suffering from a combination of indecision and post-coup euphoria, were quite unprepared for the widespread and vigorous guerrilla attacks. This violent activity met with little success in the northern and central parts of the country. However, in the Delta, where there had already been deterioration during the pre-coup period, isolated watchtowers, indefensible guard posts and poorly defined hamlets-most of which should never have been built in the first place-fell to the Viet Cong efforts.
Although the increased tempo of activity has been costly to the Viet Cong in casualties, and though they have been unable to sustain the intense level of operations, they have still given unmistakable evidence of strength and a respectable exhibition of skill as well. In the area South of Saigon, where the situation has never been good and where the people are more interested in tranquility than in political alignment, the Viet Cong have had success in recent weeks. In this area the government's position is much weaker now than two or six months ago, and it is likely that this success has encouraged the Viet Cong to intensify their efforts still further.
In the view of the Vietnamese leadership, the deterioration process in the most critical Delta regions has stopped, and they insist that a painstaking rebuilding effort is afoot. This appears excessively sanguine, there being little evidence that the provincial administrations have yet crystallized on their immediate affairs.
While time is probably running in favor of the government in the area North of Saigon, just the reverse applies in the Delta. Here, it would seem, they must either stem the deterioration and start upward during the coming dry season January-May) or face an almost unmanageable problem when the next wet season comes on. The men at the top perceive the urgency of the situation, but do not seem to grasp the importance of the time factor in the equation.
This suggests two basic actions on our part. First, to inspire the Vietnamese leadership truly to lead, to make everything secondary to fighting the war, closing promptly and vigorously with their critical problems in the Delta; and second, to give the Viet Cong and their supporters early and unmistakable signals that their success is a transitory thing, that it does not warrant an escalation in material support, that the new Vietnamese regime is strong and that it and the United States are both resolute in their determination to reverse the post-coup Viet Cong success.[Page 723]
In connection with the first action-crystallizing the leadership to do the right things and do them powerfully, we prepared for a meeting with the military junta by reviewing carefully the situation in the critical provinces, the worst of which are near to Saigon. We heard from those U.S. military and civilian functionaries who have on-the-spot responsibility, as to what the situation actually is, and what their plans are for setting it right. An example is Long An Province, of which you have read. It is in bad condition. In the summer, the hamlet program, which had been going forward satisfactorily, began to outstrip the military pacification campaign. Indefensible hamlets began to succumb to the Viet Cong depredations. Then the coup preoccupied the province administration completely and the Viet Cong seized the initiative, almost without hindrance. Grave though the situation now is, it is still repairable, and our representatives have a reasonable plan for bringing the change about. Their plan, however, cannot be made effective until Vietnamese deploy more forces to the area, and until we increase the depth of our own supervisory and advisory talent. Accordingly, a decision was taken to press the Vietnamese to double the troop density—adding three battalions to the forces now in the province, while we immediately move to increase our own civil and military representation there from 9 to 23 people.
A similar appraisal of the situation in the other critical provinces of the Mekong Delta resulted in conclusions of the same general magnitude. All told it will involve deployment of 13 Vietnamese battalions into the Delta and an increase of about 360 U.S. personnel in the area.
The general tactical formula will be to consolidate firmly the areas which are now under government control, using regular forces to give the residents an unquestioned measure of security, while paramilitary forces are trained or retrained. Meanwhile the visible social and economic foundations which will contribute to the lasting strength of the region will be rapidly rebuilt. This process will be gradually extended, increasing steadily the secure and tranquil areas.
Meaningful evidence of progress—or its absence—in pursuit of the program will be available to us through the reports of our own increased representation on the spot. There is no reason why these provinces cannot be out of the crisis condition in less than a year, and reasonably tranquil in two.
Coupled with specific treatment of the critical provinces, and in contemplation of a conference with the Junta, we discussed ways to enhance the effectiveness of the military and paramilitary forces. The Self Defense Corps—heart of the rural local defense, suffering [suffers] heavy casualties but enjoys little in the way of recompense. We decided-and commenced the action—to provide them with uniforms, [Page 724]which they eagerly want, as a morale factor. We decided also to meet a need for more artillery in the Delta area by adding 42 artillery pieces to the existing organization. In regard to the matter of exhibiting the strength and resolution of the Vietnamese to their northern counterparts the conference discussed several methods of rendering the North Vietnamese participation in the war more costly, and thus less attractive.
An excellent military-CIA study [which] had been made in response to our request prior to arrival of the party, covered direct pressures which might be focused upon North Vietnam, in terms of actions of escalating intensity, ranging from minor propaganda moves to destruction of major resources by raid or bombing. The study was based on the premise that by covert means the North Vietnamese would be warned that their support of the Viet Cong insurgents was about to bring down direct punishment and, after an interval, to proceed with selected elements of the escalative program, making clear always that it would stop when the assistance to the Viet Cong stopped.
The great bulk of the resources for such a program are already in country, and selected steps could be undertaken promptly. After a further discussion with the appropriate agencies in Washington a recommendation will be submitted regarding specific tasks which should be undertaken. Central to the Washington appraisal will have to be matters such as increased over-flight of Laos, use of bases in Laos and Thailand and a comprehensive estimate of international and North Vietnamese reactions to these steps. Meanwhile, and in advance of any detailed approvals, it was decided to commence assembly, in country, of all resources required for any part of the program.
As another deterrent to aid from North Vietnam, the meeting discussed the matter of operations in a narrow strip of Laos (50 kilometers deep) by regular Vietnamese forces, supported by air supply, aerial photography and air attack, if required. The primary purpose of the actions would be to acquire intelligence on Viet Cong infiltration from the North and, where hard targets appeared, to attack them.
Here, as in the case of North Vietnam, the political problems in the context of the value of what we expect to find, associated with violation of Laotian territory, need study before a specific recommendation can be made.
The group was briefed on the slowly developing CIA covert program in Eastern Laos, where Meo and Kha tribesmen are being trained for intelligence gathering. The program has developed satisfactorily, and could be expanded to seek intelligence in the same general area as it is contemplated that the South Vietnamese would investigate. Due to the hostile nature of the area, it would be necessary for the tribesmen to move in larger groups, armed and prepared to fight for [Page 725]their information, if required. This currently exceeds policy authority, which restricts them to operating clandestinely in small teams. Anticipating the possibility that the Washington evaluation may result in authorization for broadening the scope of their actions, a decision was made to commence training tribesmen in the necessary weapons operation and related tactics.
Finally, the meeting studied the problem of increasing the task of the Viet Cong by intensifying surveillance to all the means of ingress in South Vietnam-the Laos and Cambodian borders, the Mekong river and related waterways and the seacoast.
While we know all too little of just how much material and how many men are being infiltrated into the battle, there is evidence that it is considerable. Bloc arms are appearing in greater numbers and greater variety and conservative intelligence analysis of documents and prisoner of war interrogation fix the number of hard core infiltrators at well over 1,000 for this calendar year.
The meeting concluded that surveillance of the Laos and north Cambodian borders can never be highly rewarding, but that it can be improved by better use of resources already in country. The Advisory Command has developed a program which marshals the means available in a more effective manner, and has already begun to press its adoption on the Vietnamese.
The maritime infiltration problem is even more difficult, but is susceptible of more effective action. The U.S. Advisory Command has developed a plan for intensified surveillance of the seaborne approaches to the Delta as well as a system of barriers, check points, curfew and mobile patrols to impose restraints upon Viet Cong movement over the 4700 miles of inland waterway in the area. At the best, these measures will be little more than deterrents, nor would the situation be greatly altered by a great increase in resources. The solution will ultimately be found in the sum of all the counterinsurgency efforts, whose totality will cause the Viet Cong to lose ground, resources, support and heart faster than they gain them.
Following the plenary meeting, the Secretary of Defense, the Ambassador, Mr. McCone and General Harkins conferred with members of the Military Revolutionary Committee and Prime Minister Tho. Matters discussed were as follows:
- A strong case was made to persuade the Vietnamese group that the war is suffering from the fact that key people are attempting to fulfill two major obligations (Gen Dinh as Minister of Interior and III Corps Commander; Gen Don as Minister of Defense and Chief of the Joint General Staff). Their reaction, initially defensive, became favorable at least in the case of Dinh, in that they stated—with some indefiniteness—that the problem would be corrected in January or February.
- The Committee was made aware of our conviction that there is now a serious troop imbalance in the country; that a far greater troop density is required in the Delta at the expense of other, more tranquil areas. Following some face-saving discussion it was agreed that the Joint General Staff will work with General Harkins on the problem.
- Our concern with the committee character of the executive branch of their government was discussed, which elicited a qualified disclaimer by General Minh, who asserted that he does, in fact, make the decisions. Withal, the Vietnamese position was not convincing and the U.S. conferees were left in some doubt as to the actual manner in which executive decisions are taken.
- General Minh, as the most promising political figure of the group, was enjoined to make himself more accessible to the people, to speak publicly and to convey directly the programs of the government. He asserted that it is planned that he shall do this, commencing this month.
- The value to the government of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects was discussed, with a report by General Minh that on December 27th the Cao Dai will declare their allegiance to the new government. Minh stressed that their allegiance will contribute substantially to improvement of the security of the Cambodian border.
- With respect to Cambodia the U.S. position respecting neutralism was presented to the Committee, in terms of our estimate that Sihanouk's current attitude is conditioned by his own belief that the Communists are winning in Vietnam. It was emphasized that we would consider it disastrous if this attitude were permitted to grow, and that it is up to the Vietnamese to thwart it-primarily by victories. For their part, the Vietnamese conferees deplored the neutralist writing in the U.S. press, and adverted specifically to our failure categorically to repudiate the New York Times.
- The meeting terminated on a note of cordiality, coupled with resolution and optimism on the Vietnamese side.
- The Ambassador maintained notes, from which a check-off list will be developed.
The following required actions flow from the meeting:
- Follow-up on decisions made regarding additional artillery, Self Defense Corps uniforms, increase of GVN forces in the Delta, increase in density of U.S. representation in the Delta area, and procurement of material to support a possible increase in offensive activity against North Vietnam. All of these follow-up actions rest within the Defense Department.
- Present for study by the Special Group (5412), the following
matters: [Page 727]
- Whether, or to what extent, there shall be cross border operations from South Vietnam into Laos, to include ground reconnaissance patrols, ground combat patrols, air resupply, tactical air support and air photography—either singly or in combination. The Defense Department should prepare the presentation.
- Whether, or to what extent, there should be an intensification of pressures on North Vietnam through covert and military means. The Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency should prepare the presentation.
- In connection with (2) above, what shall be the authorities for overflight of Laos and the transit use of Laotian territory. The Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency should prepare the presentation.
The physical resources—men, equipment and supplies—required to win the Vietnam war are all present, with minor exceptions. The plans to bring victory about are basically sound, subject to some refinement. The Vietnamese are willing to follow our advice, albeit belatedly in many cases, and the advice is good.
These are essential factors in the formula for victory. But there are two others. One is Vietnamese leadership. This is latent but not now being exercised, for reasons treated earlier. The other is administrative and combatant experience. This the Vietnamese simply do not have.
The first shortcoming can be eliminated by the Vietnamese themselves, if they will set aside their less formidable problems of executive power distribution and face up to the need for unity and vigor in pursuing the war. On this we can do little more than advise and urge.
The second shortcoming can only be met by the passage of time, where the Vietnamese are concerned. However, our advisory mechanism is moving more every day to fill the time gap, taking a greater part in the direction of affairs. This, hopefully, will supply the final and essential ingredient precedent to victory.
- Source: Kennedy Library, Hilsman Papers, Countries Series-Vietnam. Secret. Hilsman wrote the following note on a cover sheet: “This is Brute Krulak's report, probably TS.”↩