121. Memorandum From the Chairman of the Policy Planning Council (Rostow) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Bundy)1


  • Some Thoughts on Southeast Asia

As you suggested after we talked on the phone Saturday,2 here are my three points in writing.

The military weight of infiltration. In addition to documenting the fact of infiltration and its illegality in terms of the commitments of 1954 and 1962, it is important to put into perspective its straight military significance. All guerrilla wars are marked by a vast disproportion between the number of guerrillas and the number of government troops required to control or defeat them. This disproportion stems from the fact that the guerrillas’ job is to harass and to destroy; the government’s job is to defend a living society. Although the figures vary, the average proportion is ten to one (derived from data on Algeria, Naga, the Irish Rebellion, the French war in Indochina, the present war in South Viet Nam, Malaysia, and the Philippines). This means that by infiltrating (say) 500 to 1,000 men a month the North Vietnamese are throwing into battle the equivalent of 5–10,000 per month so far as the SVN government is concerned. This is an [Page 276] extremely heavy weight to bear for the South Vietnamese. The VC are, in effect, crossing the border each month with a division. In fact, none of the postwar guerrilla conflicts has been won with an open frontier. The frontiers were closed, or virtually closed, in the Philippines and in Malaya. The Greek civil war was won only after Tito closed the Yugoslav frontiers when he split with Stalin. (This whole point is elaborated in more detail, including the critical morale role of an open frontier in my June 6, 1954,3 memo which is available to you.)
The Politics of South Viet Nam. In the face of this almost insupportable military burden, the political and military performance of the South Vietnamese has been remarkable. Militarily, despite very heavy casualties, the regular army has maintained its unity. There has been no going over to the enemy of substantial units with their officers, as was the case in the guerrilla war in China; although this is the critical index to watch, and the defection of lesser units is worrying. The civil guard and self-defense corps have borne very heavy casualties, continue to fight and inflict heavy casualties. Politically we must remember that South Viet Nam has had little time to develop a modern national political life. It was a colony living in an environment of war since 1940. It was not permitted in colonial times, nor has it had the possibility in the past decade, to learn how to develop responsible democratic politics. Neither under Diem nor since his departure has there been an organized political forum in which men could debate, compromise, and come to majority consensus in ways which give minorities a sense of confidence that their view can continue to be heard and there are orderly methods for enlarging their influence and powers. Much of the turbulence we have seen in Viet Nam in recent months reflects a desire of new, younger groups in the society to participate in the political process. It will take time for them to find how to do this while preserving their independence and fighting a tough war. Nevertheless, the fact is that none of the major political elements in the equation of Vietnamese politics wishes to turn the country over to Hanoi (the army, the Buddhists, the Catholics, the Cao Dai, etc.).
Neither military nor politically, therefore, have we reason for despair. The decisive element is infiltration and direction of the war from the north. There is every reason to believe that, if these people come to feel that the weight of the northern element is lifted from them, they will see it through within their country, as did the government forces in Greece, Malaya, and the Philippines. Moreover, there is reason to believe that the political imperatives of fighting and winning a guerrilla war can prove to be a constructive process in developing an effective modern government that links urban and rural life. The old Malayan war room, built to map rural insurrection, now maps village development programs. It is easy to forget that, at the time the Truman Doctrine was promulgated, [Page 277] there was widespread protest in the United States against our supporting a dictatorial reactionary Greek government. It is easy to forget that there was an endless sequence of weak Greek governments during the prosecution of the guerrilla war, with the military alone a relatively solid element. It is easy to forget that at critical periods in Greece, Malaya, and the Philippines, it was unsafe to venture outside the capital cities; and there were obvious Communist assets operating within the capital cities. If our military and diplomatic weight can be applied in such a way as to eliminate the heavy and illegal northern element in the war, we can look forward with confidence to the emergence, despite many vicissitudes, of a viable, modernizing nation in South Viet Nam.
Ground Forces on Both Sides and Negotiation. Hanoi has not been behaving as we might think it should behave. We have given it grounds to believe that, if they proceed quietly with infiltration, we would, de facto, accept that condition for the war, aside from some minor harassment in Laos itself. The Tonkin Gulf incident was not linked to infiltration but to our freedom of the seas. Why have they chosen to affront us directly? Why are they pressing so hard when it seems wholly possible for them, via infiltration, to shift the military proportions in such a way as to confront the ARVN with attrition beyond its capacity for replacement? Why do they appear to be forcing our hand when the chances, from our perspective, look good for so discouraging the South Vietnamese about their prospects that the political leadership (including the army) might prefer some negotiation, from a weak position, to the endless pursuit of a stalemated war?

I do not know the answers; but it may be that there are pressures working on them to make the best deal they can in a negotiation fairly soon. These could arise because they are hurting more than we think; because our relative position looks stronger to them than it does to us; because there is a split in Hanoi related to the Sino-Soviet split; or to something else. In any case, if they are driving towards the most advantageous position in a negotiation fairly soon, they will be strongly tempted to play their asset (ground forces strength) just as we are led to bring into negotiating play our asset (naval and air power).

I conclude, therefore, that we must be extremly alert to a land grab, perhaps in the Laos corridor, from which they would negotiate from a position of increased relative strength; and I would commend to us consideration of a preemptive ground force move in that area and on the soil of South Viet Nam, which would also enhance our strength in a negotiating situation. A ground force can sit quietly during a conference until it is negotiated out for something substantive. It will be extremely difficult for us, during a negotiation, to make effective use of our air and naval [Page 278] power because (except sea blockade of Haiphong) it is sanguinary; although we may have to have the nerve and will to use air and naval strikes to make them accept terms minimally compatible with our interests.

  1. Source: Department of State, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, WPB Chron, February 1965. Secret.
  2. February 13.
  3. Not found.