306. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
377. For the President. For the Secretary of State. This is a US Mission report. The following situation report based on a combination of June and July data is submitted in compliance with Deptels 108 and 270.2 Because of the disruptive effect of the two coups on the operations of the GVN and the invalidation of much of the database used to measure progress in the earlier months (e.g., the status of fortified hamlet program), it is virtually impossible to measure the present situation against that existing far enough in the past to provide a meaningful comparison. It is hoped that the present report will serve as a baseline from which to measure progress in future months.
This is the first situation report in which estimates of such factors as army and public morale, combat effectiveness of military units, US advisor-GVN counterpart relationships, and effectiveness of GVN officials have been based largely on a country-wide canvass of the views of the responsible US advisors and observers. By repeating this procedure [Page 657] on a monthly schedule, we hope to develop a more reliable basis for reporting on these important factors which in the past have had no yardstick for measurement.
In this first sampling of advisor opinion, we have been surprised by its optimism which, generally speaking, has exceeded that of most senior US officials in Saigon. It will require some time to determine where the right lies—it may be only another illustration that the front line morale is usually better than that of the command post.
Where possible, we have indicated where we hope to be in our programs at year end. There is little scientific in these projections which merely indicate goals which, if vigorously pursued in a reasonably stable political environment, appear feasible of attainment.
The Communist strategy in the their continuing effort to take over South Vietnam has been clearly defined by North Vietnamese leaders both in the Hanoi regime and in the puppet National Liberation Front. It is not their purpose to attempt to defeat the superior Republic of Vietnam military forces in the field or to seize and conquer territory by military means. Instead, it is their announced intention to harass, erode and terrorize the population and its leadership into a state of such demoralization that a political settlement favorable to the Communists will ensue. They propose to achieve this political objective by stages, passing first through “neutralism”, using the liberation front machinery, and the technique of a coalition government. It is against this goal that we should measure US–GVN progress.
Faced with this kind of challenge, the Khanh government is called upon to execute an extremely complex body of programs involving not only military actions, but also social, economic, psychological and, above all, administrative measures of a highly sophisticated nature. The ability of the GVN to rise to this level of performance is the prime determinant of the unfolding situation in South Vietnam. For this reason, and in spite of the difficulty in discussing the situation in neat categories, we present our evaluation in the following order: political-economic, military, overall.
As indicated above, the most important and most intractable internal problem of South Vietnam in meeting the Viet Cong threat is the political structure at the national level. The best thing that can be said about the present Khanh government is that it has lasted six months and has about a 50–50 chance of lasting out the year although probably not without some changed faces in the Cabinet. Although opposed by Minh and resisted less openly by Dai Viet sympathizers among the military, Prime Minister Khanh seems for the time being to have the necessary military support to remain in power. However, it is an ineffective government beset by inexperienced ministers who are [Page 658] also jealous and suspicious of each other. Khanh does not have confidence or trust in most of them and has not been able to weld them into a group with a common loyalty and purpose. However, there is no one in sight who could do better than Khanh in the face of the many difficulties which would face any head of government.
On the side of positive achievement, Khanh seems to have allayed the friction between Buddhists and Catholics at least for the moment, has won the cooperation of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai, and has responded to our suggestions for improved relations between the GVN and US Mission.
The attitude of the people toward the Khanh government, mostly confused and apathetic since its inception, is only slightly more favorable than a few months ago. Despite considerable efforts, Khanh has not succeeded in building any substantial body of active popular support in Saigon. In the countryside, US Embassy provincial reporters indicate that support exists for the GVN in direct proportion to the degree of security established by government forces. There are grounds to conclude that no sophisticated psychological approach is required at this stage to attract the country people to the Khanh government—the assurance of a reasonably secure life is about all that is necessary.
The intriguing inside his government and the absence of dramatic military or political successes react upon Khanh who is inclined to be moody and occasionally subject to fits of despondency. Seeing the slow course of the counterinsurgency campaign and frustrated by the weakness of his government, Khanh has turned to the “march North” theme to unify the home front and to offset the war-weariness which he asserts is oppressing his people and his armed forces. US observers, in assessing the symptoms of war-weariness and of the bad military morale which Khanh reports, are inclined to feel that the symptoms of defeatism are more in the minds of the inexperienced and untried leadership than in the people and the army.
Khanh’s state of mind will be an important factor in the future conduct of the war and in his relations with the representatives of US policy. He and many of his colleagues are finding it very difficult to face up to the long hrs of slow, hard slugging which is all they see ahead under the present rule of operational conduct. While they received a dramatic lift from our August 5 action against North Vietnam, its very success may whet their desire for positive action against the North particularly if the situation tends to subside again into the doldrums of continued Viet Cong incidents and indecisive bloodshed. In the coming months, we may expect to face mounting pressures from the GVN to win the war by direct attack on Hanoi which, if resisted, [Page 659] will create frictions and irritations which could lead local politicians to serious consideration of a negotiated solution or local soldiers to a military adventure without US consent.
The economic problems of SVN have thus far appeared to be of second order importance. Prices are stable and inflation is under control. Industrial investment continues to be insignificant although there has been some recent rise. Industrial production, though small, has risen steadily from 140 percent of the 1962 level on April 1 to 143 percent on July 31 and is projected at 150 percent at the end of the year, a 30 percent rise over 1963. Exports are off this year so that any rise in capital goods imports would, if not covered by US assistance, lead to a major balance-of-payments problem. For a variety of factors, one of which is uncertainty as to the government’s attitude toward the Chinese community, the black market rate of the plaster has dropped to 135–40 to the dollar (legal rate: 72 plasters). A more penetrating scrutiny, however, may indicate certain basic weaknesses in the economic policy and operation of the GVN. The tax structure, import policy and the present multiple exchange rate system may be acting as drags both on the competence and effectiveness of governmental administration and the proper use of total resources in the prosecution of the war against Communist aggression. USOM is examining these problems in depth and will submit its findings for Mission Council consideration.
Both political and economic factors play an important part in the counter VC pacification program. As the armed forces clear the identified VC forces from an area, it is essential to follow up quickly with representatives of the civilian ministries of the government representing police, education, public works, interior, information, rural affairs, health and finance. It is the task of the United States Operations Mission (USOM) and the United States Information Service (USIS) to energize these forces of government and to mesh their contribution in the provinces with the military pacification effort. This task is proving to be a most difficult one primarily because of the inefficiency of the ministries, their ineptitude in planning and their general lack of spirit of team play. To step up the job, USOM has strengthened its provincial representation from 45 in March to 64 in July but the number of Americans is still insufficient. A year end objective has been established of two Americans in all provinces, often reinforced with a third public safety officer. USIS has 16 American personnel in the field and expects to remain at about that strength.
On the government side, provincial and district administration is in the hands of inexperienced junior officers operating under the policy and fiscal supervision of remote, poorly-staffed civilian ministries in Saigon. In spite of this unpromising background, US observers reported in July that in about three-fourths of the provinces the GVN [Page 660] provincial and district officials were performing effectively; also that in general they were working well with their US counterparts. This situation is indicative of progress since the governmental upheavals at the time of the coup, but there is still much to be done to bring the civil capabilities of the government abreast of its military.
As a major vehicle for achieving the improvements which we seek, the US Mission, working jointly with the GVN, has developed a significant pacification plan (which has been given the name Hoptac) building outward from the “oilspot” urban center of Saigon-Cholon. Not only is this area of paramount strategic importance both politically and militarily, but, in its broadest extension, it contains 40 percent of the nation’s population, almost all of its limited industry, and its centers of social and political power. In grappling with tangible problems of this plan, we hope to induce the Vietnamese (a) to work together better as a functioning government, (b) to build both their urban areas and the outlying rural areas towards a sounder administrative, social and economic reality, and (c) finally to achieve some pragmatic military successes which will bolster their morale, engage the energies of their best qualified people, and drive the Viet Cong effectively away from the nation’s heartland.
The US Mission has recognized in its information and psychological programs the need to present the Khanh government in its most favorable light at home and abroad, particularly in the United States. We are obtaining a more balanced and wider media coverage by improving facilities for the press by inviting foreign media representatives to Vietnam and by helping the Khanh government to improve its press relations. Our own effectiveness both in the press and psychological fields has been increased by placing coordination responsibility for all US assets in the Director, USIS.
We are always impressed with the need to improve our intelligence on the enemy. The level of competence among Vietnamese personnel, both military and civilian, leaves much to be desired. In both categories, we have underway extensive programs for improvement particularly in the area of war interrogation where we expect to triple the Vietnamese capability by the end of the year.
The military aspects of the counterinsurgency campaign in SVN are showing signs of slow improvement since the period of deterioration which followed the two coups in November 1963 and January 1964. The personnel strength of the armed forces of SVN as well as of the paramilitary forces (regional forces and popular forces) is slowly rising and by January 1965 should reach about 98 percent of the target year and [end?] strength of 446,000. The desertion rate of the army has currently dropped to about 5.72 percent or half of the rate of last [Page 661] March. In spite of unofficial reports of bad morale, only one unit in the Army, an infantry regiment on a static security mission, is considered by the responsible US advisors to have unsatisfactory morale.
The reequipping of the VNAF with the A1H aircraft is on schedule so that three squadrons will be combat ready by 30 September 1964 and a fourth by 1 December 1964. The pilot training program directed at attaining a two-pilot-to-one-aircraft ratio should reach that goal by year end.
In the view of US advisors, more than 90 percent of the battalions of the army are at least marginally effective. Two out of thirty regiments, one out of 101 battalions (infantry, marine, airborne), three out of twenty Ranger battalions and one out of 20 engineer battalions are rated as not combat effective. The principal defects throughout the army are low present-for-duty strengths and weak leadership at the level of junior officers and NCO’s.
In general, it is believed that the weaknesses in the military forces have been identified and are receiving corrective treatment. The recently authorized increase in US advisor strength should assure increased progress throughout the rest of the year in improving the performance of the military forces of all categories.
Against this improvement on the side of the GVN, one must take into account the accepted estimate in main and local force VC strength of at between 28–34,000, in contrast with 23–27,000 estimated accepted prior to July 1964. In terms of equipment and training, the VC are better armed and led today than ever in the past. Infiltration continues both from Laos and Cambodia and there is no indication that the VC are having difficulty in replacing their losses in men and equipment. However, there is no reason to believe that in the coming months they will wish to risk their past gains in an overt military confrontation with GVN forces although they keep a sizable unused force in the Central Highlands with considerable offensive capability. Finally, they have unused dirty tricks in their bag such as the mining of the Saigon River, sabotage of POL stocks and terrorist attacks on civilian communities and US dependents.
In early July, the percentages of the rural and combined rural and urban populations under governmental control, VC control and contested were as follows:
|Rural||Rural and Urban|
|GVN control||33 percent||40 percent|
|VC control||20 percent||18 percent|
|Contested||47 percent||42 percent|
By year end, assuming no further political upheavals, the following percentages should be attainable:
|Rural||Rural and Urban|
|GVN control||40 percent||47 percent|
|VC control||16 percent||14 percent|
|Contested||44 percent||39 percent|
This change in percentages, if achieved, will represent modest progress toward stabilizing the in-country situation. It will not represent a dramatic advance toward cutting down the VC to size, stopping infiltration or justifying a forecast of final success. It is not likely to be enough to induce General Khanh to give up his campaign in favor of attacking NVN or to convince Hanoi to give up the contest in South Vietnam.
In the light of the foregoing considerations, it is felt that the US efforts should focus on the following actions during the coming months:
- Do everything possible to bolster the Khanh government.
- Improve the in-country pacification campaign against the VC by concentrating efforts on strategically important areas such as the provinces around Saigon (the Hoptac plan).
- Undertake “show-window” social and economic projects in secure urban and rural areas.
- Be prepared to implement contingency plans against North Vietnam with optimum readiness by January 1, 1965.
- Keep the US public informed of what we are doing and why.
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Exdis. Received at 10:07 a.m. and passed to the White House, the Department of Defense, and CIA later that day. A summary of the telegram is printed in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol. III, pp. 530–533.↩
- Neither printed.↩