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373. Memorandum for the Record by the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs' Special Assistant (Sullivan)1


  • Report of McNamara Visit to Saigon, December 19-20, 1963

Because of a late arrival in Saigon, Secretary McNamara spent a greater proportion of his time with the United States officials and a lesser proportion with Vietnamese than he had expected. The discussions with U.S. officials lasted from his 3 p.m. arrival until 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 19 and from 7:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. on Dec. 20. They were resumed at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 20 and continued until 6:30 p.m. The talks with Vietnamese officials were confined to the period from 1 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. on Dec. 20.

After a private talk with Ambassador Lodge, the Secretary's first discussion was with Ambassador Unger, and concerned the problem of infiltration into Vietnam through Laos. Unger and the Vientiane CAS station chief explained Operation Hardnose, discussed the political consequences of proposed cross-border operations from Vietnam into Laos, and reported on the intelligence estimate of Ho Chi-minh Trail activity. Also present were Ambassador Lodge, Mr. McCone, Mr. Bundy and myself.

Critical Provinces

The first group discussion with MACV, Embassy, USOM, USIS, and CAS personnel focused on the problem of the 6 critical provinces in the vicinity of Saigon and astride the Mekong-Bassac River complex. Both military and USOM province advisors reported personally on the situations they found in their various provinces. Their reports were uniformly discouraging and indicated a considerable falsification of data by the previous Vietnamese regime.

As a result of these discussions, it was decided to recommend to the Vietnamese that a total of 13 additional battalions be assigned to these provinces, that they be given priority attention, and that clear and bold plans be executed as soon as possible. It was also decided to assign an additional 340 U.S. military personnel to the 13 critical [Page 729]provinces. Additionally, USOM would augment its employees, largely by hiring third country nationals, with a preference expressed for Filipinos.

North Vietnam Operations

The second agenda item (on the morning of Dec. 20) was the plan for operations in North Vietnam. A summary of this plan is attached (Tab A).2 It is, in substance, a catalogue of actions which could be taken, either singly or in sequence, if and when political direction is given to execute such actions. As a result of this discussion, it was decided to take the necessary steps immediately to acquire and inventory whatever equipment would be needed for the proposed actions. Personnel would be recruited and trained, and all aspects of the plan would be readied so that they could be executed when directed. The plan will be studied by an interdepartmental group to be designated in Washington, and selected elements will be submitted to Special Group (5412).

Cross-border Operations into Laos

A plan for cross-border operations was tabled and subjected to considerable examination and criticism. Although the plan is being returned to Washington for study, it did not receive any encouragement from Secretary McNamara. The plan as conceived (summary attached as Tab B)3 would amount to a Vietnamese invasion of all Southern Laos over to the region controlled by the FAR. The invasion would be accompanied by U.S. personnel and would also envisage air strikes. I think it fair to say that this plan was a non-starter. The arguments which I presented against it were not rebutted, and indeed were in considerable measure reinforced by Mr. McNamara and Mr. McCone. Mr. McNamara later said he considered the plan “unacceptable”.

Attention, instead, was turned to Hardnose operations inside Laos, and it will be proposed that the acceleration of this and the Kha plan be considered by appropriate Washington agencies. Particular interest was expressed in the stationing of Kha observation teams East of the Mekong River in the Laos Cordillera.

Photo Reconnaissance of Laos and Cambodian Frontiers

The case for low-level photo reconnaissance of the border areas inside Laos and Cambodia was not made convincingly. Mr. McNamara, therefore, proposed that it not be forwarded to Washington. He [Page 730]and Mr. McCone did, however, agree that nondetectable U-2 serial mapping of the region would be desirable and they will so propose to Special Group (5412).

Delta Waterways Control

The presentation which was given on the control of waterborne traffic in the Delta was most discouraging. It is clear that the Mekong-Bassac River system and the ancillary canals are not only the prime avenues of Viet Cong movements in the critical areas but also a huge funnel for military and subsistence supplies flowing into the hard core of the principal Viet Cong base areas. Vietnamese Government control and interception of this traffic is nominal to non-existent.

The MACV plan presented for control of waterborne traffic was not very useful. First of all, it was directed to a whole series of canal and river checkpoints for population and traffic controls, envisaged a tight curfew and a considerable interruption of economic life in the Delta. Most importantly, however, it did not address itself except in the most cursory way to the problem of intercepting and controlling waterborne contraband infiltrating down the rivers from Cambodia.

I consider this a major shortcoming which we should not leave uncorrected and I have so informed Mr. McNamara. I recommend that the Department follow up on this problem and prod Defense and MACV for satisfactory action on this critical problem. I did so with Admiral Felt while transitting Hawaii and feel he will respond actively.

Discussions with Vietnamese Officials

Secretary McNamara's formal meetings with Vietnamese officials consisted of one briefing of better than 2 hours' duration at 1 p.m. on Dec. 20 and one more private session of nearly an hour immediately thereafter. In the first session he was accompanied by Ambassador Lodge, General Harkins, Mr. McCone, Mr. Bundy, Mr. Kaysen, Mr. Brent and myself. There were about twenty Vietnamese, mostly military, headed by Generals Minh, Don, Kim, Little Minh, Kiem, et al, as well as Prime Minister Tho, Foreign Minister Lam, the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Minister of Economic Affairs.

It was not a very satisfactory briefing. We were told frankly how bad the situation really was in the critical areas, why the previous regime had let it get that way, and how it could be retrieved. We were not, however, given much indication of the manner in which the new government expected to go about its job.

In the private meeting, during the period from 3:30 to 4:15, Mr. McNamara was accompanied only by the Ambassador and Mr. McCone. The Vietnamese present were Generals Minh, Don and Kim, [Page 731]plus Prime Minister Tho. This conversation has been reported by cable from Saigon. (Tab C)4

Additional to these formal meetings, I met informally with Prime Minister Tho, Foreign Minister Lam, General Kim (who is Foreign Affairs member of the Junta) and with Ambassador Do Van Ly. All our discussions were on Cambodia, the French proposals for neutrality of Vietnam and the problems involved in a Cambodian Conference. I found them all well-informed, unemotional and realistic. They were uniformly concerned about the New York Times editorial on neutrality for Vietnam and about a Walter Lippmann column on the same subject. The general line I took with them was that Sihanouk was behaving as he did because his evaluation indicated that Vietnam was losing its war against the Viet Cong; and that therefore Sihanouk was attempting to hedge Cambodia's future by some sort of internationalized sanitation. I also said that our prime interest in Cambodia was to avoid having it become a completely communist controlled base for operations against Vietnam.


The visit was a sobering one and Secretary McNamara typically took an honest, candid evaluation of it. I was particularly satisfied that he centered his primary attention on those problems which we in State have considered paramount (i.e., the six critical provinces, the redressing of troop balance, and the refurbishing of the strategic hamlet program) and did not get seriously diverted either in time or attention to the various red herrings of cross-border operations, aerial reconnaissance, etc. I feel confident his report to the President will be one in which the Department can concur.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, Hilsman Papers, Countries Series-Vietnam. Top Secret. A note on the source text indicates this was Hilsman's personal copy.
  2. Not found.
  3. Not found.
  4. See footnote 1, Document 370.