194. Memorandum From Chester L. Cooper of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)1


  • Vietnam Revisited

A few quiet hours over the weekend and Ambassador Taylor’s 2879, which came in on Sunday,2 stimulated me to put down my own conception of what we are trying to do in Vietnam, and how we might best do it. I had planned to pass this on to you early yesterday morning, but decided to wait until after the session with McNaughton. I have made a few modifications as a result of this session, and I share these private thoughts with you for whatever they are worth.

What are we trying to do?

Our short-term objective in Vietnam is to restore sufficient security and stability there (whether by “victory” on the ground or by a favorable political outcome) so that we can withdraw the major part of U.S. forces in the confidence that South Vietnam can handle the problem pretty much on its own. At least as important is the need to demonstrate U.S. determination and capacity to assist a hard-pressed ally meet the threat of Communist subversion.

To accomplish these objectives, we are embarked on a three-pronged policy: (1) To assist the GVN by political, economic and military means to [Page 433]pacify the country; (2) To engage in a series of graduated strikes against North Vietnam to force it to stop its support and direction of the insurgency and/or to provide us with greater leverage in any future international negotiations; (3) To discourage any moves toward premature negotiations but, at the same time, keeping open diplomatic channels for satisfactorily resolving the Vietnamese problem.

Several assumptions underlie our present course. Among the most important are:

The regime in Hanoi, hopefully at some point short of massive bombing raids on industrial and population targets, will agree to halt their direction and support of the VC and/or will agree to reasonable negotiating terms. (Possible, but unlikely)
The effectiveness of the VC, when denied the support of Hanoi, will decrease to the point where the insurgency will become “manageable” for the U.S. and the GVN and, in time, by the GVN alone. (Probable)
During the course of our efforts, both against the North and in the South, we will manage to avoid direct confrontation with either Peiping or Soviet forces. (Almost certainly in the South, possibly in the North)

What are our prospects?

So far so good: our objectives are fairly realistic; our policy, given the situation, is probably the best that can be devised; and our underlying assumptions have some validity. But Ambassador Taylor has raised some fundamental questions at his recent meeting with the Washington visitors (Saigon 2879 Limdis). Taylor pointed out that “the basic unresolved problem is provision of adequate security for the population…. Given security and reasonable time, all of our other problems will fall into place…. Failure to provide security results from three primary causes…. (1) Lack of satisfactory progress in destroying VC insurgents in the countryside, (2) continuing capability of the VC to replace losses and increase in strength, and (3) our inability to establish and maintain an effective government.”

Ambassador Taylor’s presentation points up the basic dilemma we face in Vietnam:

By putting the emphasis on “destroying the VC” and by thinking in terms of a “10–20 to 1” ratio of counterinsurgency forces to insurgents, we virtually eliminate the prospects of a solution. The fact is that we have killed 100,000 VC over the past few years. And the fact is that we are most unlikely to achieve the desired 10–20 ratio. Clearly our success will depend on something in addition to military factors.
We cannot count on eliminating the ability of the VC to replenish its manpower and supplies. We might slow down this support, we might [Page 434]make it more costly, but if we establish its elimination as a criterion for progress, we had better resign ourselves to defeat.
If, as a third criterion, we are going to insist on an “effective government”, we also are in deep trouble. I don’t see anything ahead that is better than we have now—and, indeed, we may have something worse.

What comes out of all of this? I have a queasy feeling that, whatever must be done, must be done in spite of the unlikelihood of our getting a favorable manpower ratio, our eliminating the support of Hanoi, our establishing and maintaining an effective government. These must not be regarded as conditions necessary for success, unless we are now ready to accept failure. This is not to say that we avoid recognizing impending disaster, if that is what we face; it is to say, if that is what we confront, we should get cracking to minimize its implications.

Some thoughts after Brooding.

This has been simple to write thus far. Now I must be wise, and this is a great deal more difficult. Here are a few ideas—some new (I think), some variants. In no particular order:

I would continue the bombing against the North, but I would hug the 19th parallel and I would concentrate on military, VC-associated targets. A critical point I would keep in mind is the maintenance of maximum flexibility; by pressing north too hard, too fast, we can quickly exhaust our options, we make it more difficult to turn the program off or slow it down, we make it more difficult for the Chinese and the Russians not to become engaged. We must avoid a situation in which the scale and weight of our attacks have vastly complicated our problem (i.e., “widened the war”) and/or have raised the pressure for negotiations to an intolerable level (in the U.S. as well as abroad) before we have had time to improve our position in the South. And, finally, I am convinced that, short of pulverizing North Vietnam, Hanoi is not likely to call “uncle”.
I would continue using U.S. air power against VC targets, but be constantly aware that this cannot substitute for ARVN ground action or for the much more difficult, but much more essential, matter of pacification.
I would introduce U.S. ground forces on the DMZ (1 Division), and seriously explore the usefulness of 2 Divisions emplaced from the Laos Border south of the 17th parallel cutting across Routes 9 and 12.3
I would forthwith decentralize our pacification efforts so that their success or failure does not depend on how effective the government happens to be in Saigon. This obviously does not mean that we can cope with [Page 435]constantly changing province chiefs. But it is to say that we will be more free than we have been from the chaos and fecklessness of Saigon.
I would take an area like the Hop Tac (depending on the Johnson & Co. report on progress there) and create an Ad Hoc Hop Tac Task Force (AHHTTF), comprising elements of all the appropriate agencies under a Mr. Big who, in turn, would be responsible to a Mr. Pacification in Saigon. I would give Mr. Big a considerable amount of authority and latitude to move the programs necessary to secure and develop the area. (Incidentally, I’ve been talking to a bright American businessman who has been building homes for private ownership, for as little as $100 apiece, in all sorts of strange places. Maybe the Hop Tac area is worth a pilot project?)
I would re-examine our own (i.e., the GVN and the U.S.) ability to wage guerrilla warfare in the areas under tight VC control. Why can’t we be the insurgents? Why can’t we put the VC in a position, in the many parts of the country they control, of having to mount a “10–20 to 1” ratio?
I would take some initiative on negotiations, or at least be less negative. In this connection, I’d make a big production of Thich Quang Lien’s proposal, made a day or two ago (attached).4 We could live with this, and it would have the advantage of avoiding a big international conference. While there are some compliance problems, and while Hanoi would almost certainly refuse, I’d put the onus on the North for refusing to acknowledge “the just aspirations of the Vietnamese people”. (This needs more thought and is getting it.)5
I would begin planning on how we can get the GVN to continue to fight during a period of long drawn-out negotiations.
I would reactivate the Washington PsyWar Committee on a full-time basis to deal almost exclusively with the Vietnam situation (I’m in contact with State now on this.). (It’s now moving.)6
I would, shortly after the return of William Bundy and General Johnson, work up a crash pacification program. It might not be as good a program as we could get by continuing our studies, but a “B-” program that could get moving immediately is better than an “A” program that would take a few months to start.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol XXX. Top Secret.
  2. Document 186, received in the Department of State on March 7.
  3. Since writing this, I have learned that the JCS and State take a negative view toward making this kind of disposition. [Footnote in the source text.]
  4. Not attached.
  5. Cooper added the sentence in the parentheses by hand.
  6. Cooper added the last sentence in parentheses by hand.