178. Memorandum From Michael V. Forrestal of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)1


Here in brief are the major impressions I developed during my two-week stay with Ambassador Lodge in Saigon.

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Progress of the War

I cannot answer the question of whether we are winning or losing. The situation varies from place to place. If I were forced to sum it up, I would say that there has been a slight improvement overall in the last month, but that the trend has definitely not yet fumed in our favor. Politically, the most damaging aspect of the military situation is the fact that Saigon is still in the center of a doughnut of Viet Cong controlled territory. Little or no progress has been made in clearing and holding these critical provinces surrounding Saigon. The impact of this on the psychology of everyone living in the capital (including the U.S. press) is very depressing.

Efforts of the Government of Vietnam

On the debit side of the ledger, General Khanh has not been able to attract the loyalty of the politicians in Saigon. Without a dramatic change in the military situation (either a success or something like an action against the North) he may never be able to. The war has gone on so long without a decisive turn one way or the other that people in Saigon have adjusted to it as a way of life. Consequently, political bickering among factions in the French fashion continues. The longer this continues, the weaker the central government becomes.

There is a definite possibility of a religious war between Catholics and Buddhists. It is going to take all the pressure we can bring to bear on both sides to keep it from crippling the war effort. Lodge is doing his most effective work on this problem and may be able to squeak through the next few critical weeks without a religious crisis.

Vietnamese bureaucracy is still having the greatest difficulty in cranking itself up to fighting the war in the countryside; this is partly because of the shortage of trained people and partly because there just isn’t the necessary sense of urgency.

On the credit side of the ledger, Khanh has gotten the services of as good a group of civilian ministers and sub-ministers as Vietnam has ever had. This is particularly true in budget, economics and finance. Most of them are younger people who have been trained in the West. They are by no means perfect, but they are head and shoulders above the average.

The psychological boost of the President’s message to Congress requesting a supplemental appropriation was great. We were able to follow it up quickly with negotiations on assistance for fiscal ’65. As a result there is now a feeling in some of the ministries in Saigon to get out and spend whatever amount of money is necessary to get goods and services out to the provinces. It will take a much greater U.S. effort, however, to make the civil service outside of Saigon function with any effect at the grass roots.

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U.S. Efforts in Vietnam

Our own team in Saigon is badly coordinated, and some parts of it are in a shambles. The Embassy is functioning well in dealing with immediate political problems, such as the religious crisis, and damping down of coup plots and rumors. However, Ambassador Lodge has not yet developed an instrument for managing the total U.S. effort. He is not particularly interested in performing this function himself, and he has nobody on his staff who seems to be able to do it.

The military command (MACV) has been vastly improved by the recent reorganization; and such coordination between U.S. agencies as there is takes place because of the efforts of General Westmoreland. He accomplishes this by taking the Deputy AID Director and the USIS Chief with him on his trips to the provinces and using these occasions to discuss and coordinate specific actions under the pacification program. I doubt that General Westmoreland can keep this up for very long in view of his other responsibilities; and in any event it tends to leave the Embassy out of the picture and increase the danger of having another split in our own ranks.

The AID Mission is in a very bad state. There is no leadership, morale is low, and consequently there is bickering between Mission personnel. I would give first priority to effecting the changes in AID personnel in Saigon which have already been agreed here in Washington.


I have brought back two very strong personal opinions:

  • First, the United States must take a fairly dramatic step soon against the North, not only to respond to Hanoi’s actions in Laos and increased Viet Cong activity in Vietnam, but also to develop a sense of urgency in GVN civil and military personnel. A bit of a shock is needed. There is a risk that the structure in Saigon is already so weak that it might not be able to withstand a strong reaction from Hanoi; but I am convinced that the structure will get weaker, rather than stronger, if we do nothing.
  • The second area in which we must act very quickly is the strengthening of our own organization in Vietnam and getting it much more deeply into the battle in the provinces than it now is.

We must find a civilian U.S. official who can compensate for Ambassador Lodge’s lack of managerial talent. He has got to be a man whom the Ambassador trusts and of sufficient stature to be able to work easily with General Westmoreland, CIA, and the AID Director.

We must speed up the additions to and changes in the personnel of the AID Mission, which we have already agreed to here in Washington.

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Finally, I think we have to increase significantly our penetration of the Vietnamese civil and military bureaucracy at the corps and province levels, despite the political risks involved. It doesn’t make much difference whether we do so formally or not; but the effect must be that Americans interpose themselves much more directly in the chain of command between Saigon and the villages. Eventually this may mean an increase both in the American military and civilian presence in the countryside; but the first priority is to get those men that we already have in the field more intimately involved with the pacification program. There are many devices for doing this, such as the joint provincial committees, which are already being used. Both the Americans and the Vietnamese I talked to in Saigon seemed to agree that there will be less opposition to this kind of encadrement than one might expect. Putting our people into the ministries in Saigon is a more difficult and politically more touchy problem and may not be as necessary. It would probably be more effective to stimulate our own officials to be more energetic in following up actions with their Vietnamese counterparts.

We have to get the Vietnamese to concentrate more on the war and less on their individual political ambitions. This could be done, I think, by being far more vigorous than we have been in following up specific questions with them. It would also be a great help if we engaged them in a real effort against the North.

Michael V. Forrestal3




Ambassador Lodge has devoted most of his attention and efforts to maintaining an uneasy balance among the constantly shifting political factions in Saigon. His acute sense of politics has served him well in this respect, and he has achieved a useful kind of standing with the Vietnamese. They are a little frightened of him. His somewhat distant attitude has enabled him to avoid getting embroiled in local maneuverings and has added considerably to the weight of the advice he gives.

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Unfortunately, the Ambassador has had neither the interest nor the time to concentrate on getting his own American community organized. This is partly because management is not one of his talents and partly because he has not found anyone on his own staff to whom he will delegate his fundamental authority to lead the American effort. I think he would give a rather free hand in this respect to a clearly competent official who made a real effort to gain his confidence.

Although Ambassador Lodge has virtually no effective communication with General Harkins, he is developing confidence in General Westmoreland despite the unfortunate episode of Nixon and the helicopters.4 General Westmoreland has gone out of his way to emphasize the essentially political nature of the war and has convinced Ambassador Lodge that he is receptive to political guidance.

Lodge is acutely aware of and quite frank about his strange political position as Ambassador. He senses a tendency towards record-making in his correspondence with Washington. He volunteered that he would under no circumstances make a public issue of any differences with the Administration on policy in Vietnam. While he felt that the President had a right to his advice, he also felt that the President had the right not to take it without fear of creating a political issue. The vehemence and sincerity with which Lodge discussed this subject has led me to conclude he would not kick over the traces under any circumstances we can now foresee.

Although I tried to sound him out on his personal plans, both before and after Oregon, I could not get a clear picture of his intentions. He said that he wanted to serve the U.S. in the most useful way he could, but he did not intend to spend the rest of his life in Saigon. On several occasions he made it clear he wanted to continue to serve the Government in some capacity, either in Washington or abroad.

I would hazard a guess that Lodge will stay in Saigon for the immediate future, unless he concludes that his presence in the United States in July might make the difference between Goldwater’s succeeding or failing in capturing the nomination. He seems convinced that a Goldwater victory would destroy the Republican Party. I do not think, however, that he has any real hopes of getting the nomination himself or that he would make the effort to do so.

Michael V. Forrestal5
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, Thomson Papers, Southeast Asia-Vietnam, 1964 General, 3/64–5/64. Top Secret. A covering note from Forrestal to Bundy reads as follows: “Herewith the main thoughts I brought back. I’ve not sent this to anyone and will rely on your judgment as to who should see it.” Forrestal also sent Harriman a copy of this memorandum and appendix on June 1. McGeorge Bundy apparently sent this memorandum to the President under cover of a memorandum of May 27. Bundy wrote: “Here is an important memorandum from Mike Forrestal which may help you as you think about the basic problem in Southeast Asia.” Johnson Library, National Security File, Aides File, McGeorge Bundy—Memos to the President, Vol. 4) A signed copy of Forrestal’s memorandum, but not the appendix, which Forrestal sent to McNamara, Ball, McNaughton, William Bundy, and Sullivan is in Department of State, Bundy Files, Special Papers.
  2. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
  3. Former Vice President Nixon stopped in Vietnam in April during his 24-day trip to the Far East. Westmoreland escorted Nixon to the village of Phu My near Saigon, apparently by unauthorized use of helicopters.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.