90. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to the President1

Attached are two parting memoranda from Roger Hilsman to Dean Rusk which are worth your attention when you have a chance to read them. With exceptions, I think they are a good and clear assessment of the basic view of the matter which this Government has had right along. Roger is a better analyst than administrator, and this is the sort of thing he has done best. His specific proposal that we put some [Page 176] troops in Thailand is more attractive to State Department and White House staff than to the Pentagon, because its object is political and not military. I think you may hear more of this proposal in coming weeks.

McG. B.


Letter From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Hilsman) to the Secretary of State2

Dear Mr. Secretary: As I leave Government service and the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, I thought it might be useful for me to set down my thoughts on the persistent and stubborn problem of Southeast Asia, which has plagued us for the past decade.

Although our ability to control the course of events in Southeast Asia is inherently limited, I think the root of our present troubles there—in South Viet-Nam, Laos, Cambodia, and even Thailand—lies primarily in the gnawing doubts of both the Southeast Asians and the Communists as to our ultimate intentions in the region.

Since the fall of Dienbienphu, all Asians have wondered about our determination to fight in Southeast Asia, should fighting become necessary. Given the facts of life in a nuclear world, they are not impressed with the totality of our power even though the strategic balance tips heavily in our favor. Both free and Communist Asians scrutinize our actions and words for signs of U.S. determination to use appropriate force, tailored to the essentially limited political objectives we seek in this part of the world-that is, free and independent nations rather than bastions of anti-Communism. But of such determination they seem to feel they have seen few signs. The alacrity with which the Communists fell into line after we introduced troops into Thailand following the fall of Nam Tha illustrates the effectiveness of such moves as well as the fact that the Communists continue to worry that we might well fight if they push us too hard.

It seems to me that these doubts about our ultimate intentions are fundamental and recurrent wherever you look in Southeast Asia. We all say that Sihanouk is misbehaving because he feels that we are losing in South Viet-Nam. But even Sihanouk understands the extent of American power, and what he means by his statement that Communism [Page 177] is the wave of the future is most probably that he feels the United States is not prepared to do what is necessary to preserve Southeast Asia as a whole. Generosity, maturity, and restraint have not worked with Sihanouk. But so far it must seem to him that we are acting from weakness, and he might respond quite differently if he thought we were acting from strength.

In Laos, the Communists have pursued a two-track policy. They scratch away at the neutralist and conservative positions with one hand, pausing on each occasion to assess our reaction. With the other hand, they continue to toy with talks about a Government of National Union and implementation of the Geneva Accords. Quite clearly, they are keeping both lines open-ready to go ahead with implementing the Geneva Accords if and when they finally become convinced that we are both able and determined to permit them no other honorable alternative, and ready to nibble our position away completely if we appear indecisive.

The Thais, with infinite patience, are merely waiting. Although their indecision shows occasionally in reminiscences about their past successes in balancing off the rivalries of Great Powers, most Thais are prepared to be stubborn: they will match what they think is vigor with vigor and what they think is indecisiveness with indecisiveness.

The South Vietnamese are equally concerned. DeGaulle, Lippmann, and Mansfield have set the neutralist hares running with self-fulfilling prophecies that dishearten those who wish to fight and encourage coup-plotting among both the true neutralists and the simple opportunists. But what gives these lofty, unrealistic thoughts of a peaceful neutralist Asia their credibility is, again, fundamental doubts about our ultimate intentions.

A corollary to the preceding analysis is that we have so far failed as a Government to mesh fully the many different instrumentalities of foreign policy and thus to obtain full benefit from mutually reinforcing actions. This is true throughout Southeast Asia, but especially in South Viet-Nam. It applies to all instrumentalities of foreign policy equally, but it can best be summed up by Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics pursued by other means. We must learn better how to tailor our military might, aid, etc., to political purposes and, most important, to orchestrate military power more neatly with diplomacy and politics.

If we can successfully convince our friends and allies as well as the Communists and those, such as De Gaulle and Sihanouk, who tend to serve the Communists’ purposes, that we are determined to take whatever measures are necessary in Southeast Asia to protect those who oppose the Communists and to maintain our power and influence in the area, we will have established an atmosphere in which our problems in Laos, Viet-Nam and Cambodia may be amenable to solution. In such an atmosphere, the Communist side must inevitably be [Page 178] more cautious as it contemplates the possibility that we might escalate hostility to a level unacceptable to them. It is not necessary that they be certain of what we will do; but we must give them reason to assume that we are prepared to go as far as necessary to defeat their plans and achieve our objectives.

I believe, therefore, that we must urgently begin to strengthen our overall military posture in Southeast Asia in ways which will make it clear that we are single-mindedly improving our capability to take whatever military steps may be necessary to halt Communist aggression in the area. Because Thailand, a loyal friend and ally, is the keystone of our position in Southeast Asia, we should begin by introducing substantial U.S. ground and air forces into that country in order (1) to imply clearly that we are prepared to introduce U.S. ground forces into Laos if necessary, and (2) to guarantee that, whatever else happens, Thailand itself will not be left to the mercy of Communist aggression. This step, in which some of our SEATO allies should be willing to join, must be accompanied by a diplomatic offensive designed (1) to reassure our friends as to our determination, and (2) to warn the Communist side that they are indeed playing a “deeply dangerous game.”

I scarcely need add that I do not envisage this U.S. buildup of a military presence in Thailand as susceptible to dismantlement in the short term. No matter what we do, our problems in Southeast Asia are not going to vanish overnight and we must be prepared to maintain a strong military posture in the area quite indefinitely. (I believe the Thais will gratefully accept and fully cooperate with such a determined U.S. approach to the mutual threat; as I say, all that really bothers them is doubt as to our intention to remain in the area.)

At the same time, we should keep clear in our own minds an important distinction between means and objectives in Southeast Asia. A strong military posture in Thailand is an instrument, not an objective. Its purpose will be served once Thailand and its neighbors have the wherewithal to maintain their own freedom and independence whether through new collective security arrangements or a gradual receding of the Communist threat.

Meanwhile, the strengthening of our position in Thailand, together with our flat assertions of determination to take whatever steps the situation in the area requires and our clear commitment to a victory in the guerrilla war in South Viet-Nam, would, in my view, make all of the problems we face in the area more susceptible to effective treatment.

By way of conclusion, I would say that we have not yet lost the struggle for Southeast Asia, and I see no reason for despair. But I believe we must focus on the essentials of the problems confronting us and pursue an integrated and coordinated policy toward the area as a [Page 179] whole if we are to come out on top. We must take action that will make it clear to friend and foe alike that we mean to fulfill our responsibilities in Southeast Asia.

I am attaching a separate summary of my views on the situation we face in South Viet-Nam.


Roger Hilsman


Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Hilsman) to the Secretary of State3


  • South Viet-Nam

In my judgment, the strategic concept that was developed for South Viet-Nam remains basically sound. If we can ever manage to have it implemented fully and with vigor, the result will be victory.

The concept is based on the assumption that villagers in Southeast Asia are fumed inward on themselves and have little or no sense of identification with either the national government or Communist ideology—that the villagers are isolated physically, politically and psychologically. In such circumstances, it is not at all difficult to develop a guerrilla movement. In Burma during World War II, about 150 Americans created a guerrilla force of 30,000, and did it with white faces. It is hardly surprising that the Viet Cong could do equally well or better in South Viet-Nam.

A corollary to this assumption is that the villagers’ greatest desire is security and that, if the villagers are given security, some simple progress towards a better life, and—most important of all—a sense that the government cares about them and their future, they will respond with loyalty.

The recent USIA survey of Long An4 gives some evidence of the validity of this assumption. 1,250 families were interviewed in Long An, which is among the worst of the Delta provinces. The results were as follows: In insecure villages, 75 percent of the people expressed an attitude towards the Viet Cong and the government that was essentially “a plague on both their houses”, and 25 percent of the people were silent. In relatively secure villages—those which could be penetrated [Page 180] by large Viet Cong groups but not by small patrols—50 percent of the people took a “plague on both their houses” point of view, and 50 percent were mildly pro-government. In very secure villages, which had also received some benefits, such as a school or a well, the people were 100 percent pro-government and expressed a determination to fight the Viet Cong.

On the basis of such an apparently valid assumption, the strategic concept calls for primary emphasis on giving security to the villagers. The tactics are the so-called oil-blot approach, starting with a secure area and extending it slowly, making sure no Viet Cong pockets are left behind, and using police units to winkle out the Viet Cong agents in each particular village.

This calls for the use of military forces in a different way from that of orthodox, conventional war. Rather than chasing Viet Cong, the military must put primary emphasis on clear-and-hold operations and on rapid reinforcement of villages under attack. It is also important, of course, to keep the Viet Cong regular units off balance by conventional offensive operations, but these should be secondary to the major task of extending security.

All this requires careful coordination of military operations, police efforts and rural development towards the primary objectives: the extension of security over the heavily-populated regions of the Delta, the cutting off of Viet Cong sources of supplies and especially recruits, and their dispersion into the jungles and mountains where they can be worn down by attrition, starvation and more conventional military means.

At the heart of the strategic concept are two basic principles:

The first is that of the oil blot. In the past, the GVN sought to blanket the whole country with so-called strategic hamlets which in many cases involved nothing more than wire-enclosed villages doused with political propaganda, with the Viet Cong agents left in place. The result was to blanket the Delta with little Dienbienphus—indefensible, inadequately armed hamlets far from reinforcements, that lacked both government benefits and police facilities to winkle out Communist sympathizers, with Viet Cong pockets left behind. In effect these were storage places of arms for the Viet Cong which could be seized at any time. After November 1st, the military began to demobilize some of these vulnerable villages and outposts, and a race developed between the government and the Viet Cong. The race may have ended in a tie, but the result is that the Viet Cong now have much better weapons and greater stocks of ammunition than they ever had before.

The second basic principle is that the way to fight a guerrilla is to adopt the tactics of the guerrilla—night ambushes, small patrols, and so on. In spite of all our pressures, this has never been done in Viet-Nam. [Page 181] Instead, the emphasis has been on large operations, artillery and air bombardments, and the use of cumbersome battalion-sized units which telegraph their movements to the Viet Cong.

As to the question of operations against North Viet-Nam, I would suggest that such operations may at a certain stage be a useful supplement to an effective counterinsurgency program, but that they would not be an effective substitute for such a program.

My own preference would be to continue the covert, or at least deniable, operations along the general lines we have been following for some months with the objective, since these are only pinpricks, not of forcing North Viet-Nam to its knees but of keeping the threat of eventual destruction alive in Hanoi’s mind. Then after we had made sufficient progress in the Delta so that all concerned began to realize that the Viet Cong were losing the support of the population, and that their ability to continue the war depended solely on North Vietnamese support, I think we should indicate as much privately to the North Vietnamese and follow this by selected attacks on their infiltration bases and training camps.

In my judgment, significant action against North Viet-Nam that is taken before we have demonstrated success in our counterinsurgency program will be interpreted by the Communists as an act of desperation, and will, therefore, not be effective in persuading the North Vietnamese to cease and desist. What is worse, I think that premature action will so alarm our friends and allies and a significant segment of domestic opinion that the pressures for neutralization will become formidable.

In sum, I believe that we can win in Viet-Nam with a number of provisos.

The first proviso is that we do not over-militarize the war—that we concentrate not on killing Viet Cong and the conventional means of warfare, but on an effective program for extending the areas of security gradually, systematically, and thoroughly. This will require better teamwork in Saigon than we have had in the past and considerably more emphasis on clear-and-hold operations and on police work than we ourselves have given to the Vietnamese.

The problems of getting effective teamwork is troublesome. Ideally, what we need is what the British had in Malaya—a Gerald Templer5 who has absolute authority to hire and fire anyone in any agency or department and through whom all reporting and all orders are transmitted.

[Page 182]

My second proviso is that there be political stability in Saigon. The talk of neutralization is clearly very dangerous. It tends to be in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy-talk about neutralization disheartens those who must fully and vigorously implement the strategic concept and encourages those who are plotting for a neutralist coup.

I think we can counter such dangers most effectively by the proposals in my letter to you of March 14 dealing with the whole of Southeast Asia; if necessary, however, we might also station a Marine battalion in Saigon. Publicly, we could explain this as a move to protect American dependents; privately, we could pass the word in Viet-Nam that we wanted no more coups.6

To reiterate, I think that we have made the necessary and fundamental policy decisions on the over-all strategic concept. What remains is to implement this concept vigorously and with effective coordination.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. V. No classification marking.
  2. Secret. The letter was not attached to the covering memorandum from Bundy to the President. Hilsman sent copies of this letter and the attached memorandum to McNamara, McCone, Harriman, William and McGeorge Bundy, and Forrestal.
  3. Secret.
  4. Not further identified.
  5. General Sir Gerald W.R. Templer, British Commander in Chief, Eastern Command, 1950–1951, and High Commissioner for the Federation of Malaya, 1952–1954.
  6. McGeorge Bundy wrote the following marginal note: “No one in Saigon agrees.”