52. Letter From the Deputy Chief of Mission in Vietnam (Nes) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Hilsman)1

Dear Roger: I am sending along to you for what it is worth my personal views on Where We Stand in Viet-Nam conveyed to Ambassador Lodge in the enclosed Memorandum. They vary in several important respects from those held by many high ranking American officials far more experienced with the Vietnamese scene than I. In defense of the judgments I have reached, I can only say that I approached VietNam with little previous knowledge but with an open mind and no vested interest in past counterinsurgency policies or operations.

My most disillusioning experience has been with the MACV-MAAG operation which seems to be tailored largely toward providing the U.S. military establishment, within the framework of World War II Conventional Doctrine, organization and weapons, a fertile field for the utilization and promotion of its senior officers rather than as an instrument to deal with guerrilla war. I have an idea [Page 90]that were you and I, with our Burma experience, to take over from the nineteen General officers we have out here, we might put some realism into the military side of our operations against the VC.

I will have a great deal more to say about our Vietnamese adventure as time goes on but you may rest assured that I will say it only through channels, i.e., to you and to Ambassador Lodge.

Sincerely yours,

David

[Enclosure]

Memorandum From the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy (Nes) to the Ambassador in Vietnam (Lodge)2

SUBJECT

  • Where We Stand in Viet-Nam

The following are my personal views and with particular reference to the French assessment of the SEA situation as conveyed in Deptel 1232, Paris Embtel 3907 to Dept., and as seen by the British, Paris Embtel 3873 to Dept.3

1.
Although I have only been directly associated with this area for some two months, my reading of developments over the past year and recent experiences here lead me to fear that General De Gaulle may be right in his belief that we are faced with the choice between accepting the possible collapse of our counter-insurgency efforts here or the escalation of the conflict toward a direct military confrontation of the DRV and China by the U.S.
2.
Nothing that I have seen or heard thus far in Saigon leads me to believe that against the background of recent Vietnamese history our counter-insurgency efforts can win through so long as the Viet Cong is backed politically and psychologically and to a lesser extent militarily by Hanoi and Peking.
3.
The peasants who form the mass of the South Vietnamese population are exhausted and sick of 20 years of civil conflict. During this entire period they have never and are not now receiving either [Page 91]political leadership or orderly and just administration from the central authorities of the GVN. They have enjoyed little if any social or economic betterment.
4.
On the other hand, the Viet Cong represents a grass roots movement which is disciplined, ideologically dedicated, easily identifiable with the desires of the peasantry and of course ruthless. The fact that the VC has the full backing of China is perhaps its most powerful asset in presenting itself as the inevitable winner.
5.

I do not see in the present military regime or any conceivable successor much hope in providing the real political and social leadership or the just and effective country-wide administration so essential to the success of our counter-insurgency program.

I think we would be naive in the extreme to believe that any number or quality of American advisors can succeed in changing within a reasonable period of time the attitudes and patterns of thinking of senior Vietnamese military and political officialdom.

6.
In developing a large conventional World War II Vietnamese military establishment organized into four Corps and 9–10 divisions with other equally sizable supporting units, we may, in fact, have a Frankenstein on our hands which on the one hand serves little purpose in dealing effectively with the Viet Cong and on the other provides a perfect framework for spawning successive coups and so perpetuating the current political malaise.
7.
Against this pessimistic appraisal, I do believe that were the VC to be totally deprived of all outside support, both material and psychological, we would be graced with the most important factor of all in a counter-insurgency effort-namely time. I would estimate very roughly that so deprived, and assuring continued and massive U.S. support for any and all anti-communist regimes which might emerge in Saigon, we might see the VC movement wither away in 5–10 years time.
8.
At the same time, if General De Gaulle could be persuaded to change his view re our willingness to escalate our conflict with the Communists throughout SEA, I think his sponsorship of neutralization of South Viet-Nam might also be modified.
9.
Finally, should our readiness and willingness to escalate toward a direct confrontation of Hanoi and Peking become obvious by our overt actions throughout the area, I think the tendencies toward neutralism here would rapidly disappear also.
10.
In brief, it seems to me that De Gaulle has correctly analyzed the SEA situation if his assumption is correct that we will do no more than continue our present counter-insurgency efforts in South VietNam—these being concentrated on a large team of American military and civilian advisers working through whatever anti-communist regime exists in Saigon and in massive economic and military aid programs [Page 92]extended through such a regime. After two years of the most strenuous efforts by the U.S. along these lines, De Gaulle quite correctly feels that we have achieved little more than a precarious stalemate which in the next weeks, should further coups occur, could disintegrate very rapidly. This is also the conclusion of SNIE 50–64.4
11.
Should this in fact happen, we will be faced either with turning the SEA ball game over to De Gaulle in the hope that his policy can salvage something from the wreckage or of rapidly escalating our efforts toward a final military showdown with China.

Recommendations:

1.
That we seize every opportunity to warn Washington that escalation may be the only alternative to inevitable neutralization, i.e., the loss of the U.S. political and military position in SEA.
2.
That we recommend that De Gaulle be informed in the frankest terms that we will not leave SEA and that we are ready to face a conflict with China to preserve our position here.
3.
That we urge the acceleration and expansion of OPS Plan 34A–64.5

  1. Source: Department of State, William Bundy Files, WPB Special Papers. Secret; Official-Informal. Hilsman sent a copy of this letter to Forrestal for his information with the following handwritten note: “Another old Burma hand you have to deal with!! R.H.” On March 5, Green sent this copy to the newly-designated Assistant Secretary of State for Ear Eastern Affairs, William Bundy, stating that the letter with its enclosure “presents views you will be interested in.”
  2. Secret.
  3. These telegrams, February 13, 13, and 14, respectively, described the rationale of the French for their campaign for neutralism of Vietnam and Southeast Asia. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 16 CHICOM, POL 16 CHICOM, and POL VIET S, respectively)
  4. See Document 42.
  5. See footnote 2, Document 4.