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382. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs' Special Assistant (Sullivan) to the Under Secretary (Harriman)1


  • Viet Nam

You suggested that I record a few thoughts concerning my two most recent trips to Viet Nam. I am attaching three memoranda. The first was a paper I did for Mr. McNamara in September concerning the political picture as I saw it in Viet Nam at that time. (Tab A)2 The second is a memorandum to Roger Hilsman which I wrote on October 3 summing up my conclusions from that visit. (Tab B)3 The third is a memorandum which I dictated yesterday indicating what strikes me as the crux of the problem now facing us in Viet Nam. (Tab C)4



Memorandum for the Record by the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs' Special Assistant (Sullivan)5


  • Observations on Viet Nam

There is a People's Republic of the Viet Cong existing within the territorial limits of South Viet Nam. It sits astride the Mekong and Bassac Rivers and extends from the Cambodian border to the China Sea. In other words, it occupies most but not all of the territory known as the Delta Region of Viet Nam beginning only a few miles south of Saigon.

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This Viet Cong stronghold has its own governing apparatus, runs its own military establishment, collects taxes, controls the waterways, and in general operates all of this territory with the exception of a few population centers and a few communication highways. It's fastened like an incubus on the peasantry, which in general is passive, but from which it is able to recruit young men who staff its militia and who serve its purposes.

During the regime of Diem and Nhu, no serious effort was made by the Republic of Viet Nam to challenge this Viet Cong state on its own territory. A number of reasons can be advanced for this situation

Diem and Nhu advanced the theory that it was necessary to clean up the easier portions of the Viet Cong threat and establish a firm base before moving on to the more difficult areas. Hence, they concentrated on Northern and Central sections of the Country.
Diem and Nhu advanced the theory that the Viet Cong strategy was to gather strength in the Kontum-Pleiku highland area and then drive toward the coastal plains north of Saigon to be cutting the Country in two.
Diem and Nhu and most of their senior colleagues in their regime came from the North and Central portions of the Country and therefore, concentrated the bulk of their military strength in the protection of their own home land rather than moving on toward the South.
Diem and Nhu recognized the strength and ability of the Viet Cong in their stronghold and hesitated to challenge them directly for fear of encountering a catastrophe which would collapse both domestic and international confidence in their regime.
Nhu eventually came to believe that the strategic hamlet concept was the panacea for all problems of subversion and that the application of this concept in the Delta would permit a victory over the Viet Cong in that area without the necessity of a military confrontation.

The consequence is, after the overthrow of Diem and Nhu, that the Generals find themselves faced with a military problem of vast dimensions which they have not yet begun to tackle. It is not clear from discussions with them whether they feel confident that they can handle the military dimensions of this problem or whether that they hesitate to risk a catastrophe. They say that they expect to begin their campaign in the Southern provinces of the third corps area sometime after the middle of January. We will presumably have to wait until that time to see just what degree of conviction this intention actually entails.

At the current moment the situation in these several provinces has gone from bad to worse. Not only have the Viet Cong materially increased the strength of their forces in this area during the immunity allowed them during the Diem/Nhu regime, but they have also profited [Page 751]from certain mistakes made by that regime. Foremost among these mistakes has been the misapplication of the strategic hamlet program in these provinces.

Rather than constructing a hamlet program in connection with a clear and hold military concept, Nhu directed the rapid elaboration of hamlets in this area in a sort of rapid sweep technique. Because of the nature of the terrain there was a great deal of relocation among families who lived independently near their rice fields. These families were swept up by a rapid military policing movement, concentrated into villages and required to construct the basic rudiments of a fortified strategic hamlet. They were then placed under the “protection” of Republican Youth Groups usually recruited from the central areas of the Country loyal to Diem and Nhu and were given to believe that they had achieved security by central government action. In actual fact they were disgruntled because they had been removed from their land, which they had to travel great distances to till, and were more than a little annoyed because the authority of their village elders and family seniors was usurped by young Republican Youth officials for whom they had no respect.

In great many instances, therefore, the strategic hamlets were destroyed not by action of the Viet Cong but by the inhabitants themselves. They tore down and burned the villages in which they had been relocated, scattered the Republican Youth and then returned to their land holdings. These disgruntled people have in many instances become assets to the Viet Cong. In any event, they are serious liabilities insofar as any new central government's policy is concerned.

Therefore, the Generals face the task not only of undertaking a serious military campaign for the first time in this Viet Cong stronghold but, moreover, of attempting to build Government confidence among a peasantry in which that confidence has been severely and bitterly shaken.

Compounding immeasurably the complications which the Generals face in the Delta region is the problem of the waterways. It seems clear from all the evidence which was presented in Saigon that the waterways served as a very significant measure of assistance to the Viet Cong. Not only is there considerable evidence of seaborne smuggling into the Mangrove areas at the mouth of the Delta, but also there is evidence of waterborne contraband traffic drifting down from Cambodia into the Viet Cong weapon caches in these provinces. Much of this contraband probably travels legitimately up the Mekong River from the sea in the bottoms of sea-going vessels which have the international right to use this waterway without submission to Vietnamese Government control. Then, however, it is off-loaded (again legitimately) in Phnom Penh from which it is scattered into [Page 752]country boats which then move down the major waterways (illegally this time) bringing the contraband back into Viet Nam without adequate surveillance or control.

Moreover, the waterways seem to serve as the traffic arteries for movements of the Viet Cong formations in the paddy country. In many areas, particularly in the Plain of Reeds, the waterways are well overgrown and afford considerable camouflage for protection either from the air or from the lowlands. Again, through control of the waterways, the Viet Cong are able to exact taxes upon the movement of such commodities as rice, fish and charcoal. Vietnamese Government officials themselves ascertain that the Viet Cong extracts as much taxes on these three commodities in that area as does the Vietnamese Government on the same commodities.

Therefore, this People's Republic of Viet Cong is a well-established subsisting entity which probably pays its own way, even with regard to the war material which it imports from the outside world. Overlay maps showing the areas which the Viet Cong control in these provinces bear out the statement repeatedly made by General Don, Commander-in-Chief of the GVN forces, when he said that “We are like an expeditionary force in a hostile territory, holding only a few strong points and maintaining only a few main roads of communication”.

This is the challenge which the Generals face in the new year and it is the problem upon which the prestige of the US will stand or fall not only in Viet Nam but in all Southeast Asia. I am convinced that Sihanouk's basic activation in his current frenetic phase derives from his conviction that the Viet Cong are winning in South Viet Nam. I am equally convinced that the Thai, the Burmese, the Indonesians, and others who are nervously awaiting the outcome of the forthcoming military action between the Government of Viet Nam and the People's Republic of Viet Cong will shape much of their future policy on the basis of this battle's outcome. I think we should in no way divert ourselves from the central significance of this one area and this one problem as the key to the entire future of the US position in Southeast Asia.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Harriman Papers, Vietnam-Policy. Secret. William A. Harbin, Harriman's Staff Assistant, wrote the following note on the source text for Sullivan: “Gov thinks this very good, asks if we should do anything about it now, or just file it?” Sullivan indicated that it should be filed.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Document 173.
  4. Printed below.
  5. Secret. Drafted on December 30.