206. Memorandum for the Record1
- Discussion with Secretary McNamara—18 March 1965
Secretary McNamara and I exchanged views on several matters of mutual interest as follows: [Page 459]
- South Vietnam: We agreed that the internal political situation was very fragile and neither of us could express much hope or enthusiasm for either the military or political leadership in SVN. I expressed particular concern over Gen. Thi in which McNamara concurred.
- We both agreed that the military situation had degraded considerably since November-December, with the Viet Cong demonstrating an increasing capability and the South Vietnam military weakening by comparison.
McNamara stated that so far he felt the strikes in the north had had little effect. I said that results had been exactly as we had estimated, i.e., considerable propaganda and noise out of Hanoi, Peiping and Moscow (but really less than we expected) and some step-up in VC activities, but no overt moves by either Hanoi or Peiping and no attempt to topple the SVN government.
With respect to more intensified strikes, I said that when they reached the point of threatening the industrial base and hence the total economy of North Vietnam, the NVN would probably tamp down their guerrilla operations in SVN and wait for a sunny day, making some pretense at negotiations. This, I felt, was the most probable course of action by the NVN but there was a possibility that they might put on a “burst operation” in South Vietnam in an effort to defeat the SVN, topple the government, and force the removal of Americans. I pointed out that State leaned in the direction of the latter possibility; the balance of the intelligence community felt the former more probable.
I made reference to the March 17th CIA-DIA-State reappraisal of VC strength2 and, in response to McNamara’s question, stated that we felt there was a strong possibility that the VC had 50,000 regulars and 100,000 irregulars and that this level had been reached because VC strength was under-estimated 18 months or 2 years ago and the amount of augmentation in recent months had been also under-estimated. This combination of circumstances led us to the opinion that VC strength may be 50% greater than reported. I pointed to the conservatism of MACV’s estimates and the fact that information concerning new units did not get through the combined SVN-MACV bureaucracy and therefore show in the official estimates for almost 13 months after a prisoner or a document was captured.
McNamara expressed surprise at the figures and said if these were true, we were “simply outmanned.” He expressed concern over the effectiveness of bombing, distress over the fact that many women and children would be killed, and the guerrilla wars could not be won from the air.
- McNamara stated that he felt that the internal situation would continue to degrade and that it would not be long until we ran out of worthwhile targets in the north. Hence our position would become increasingly difficult.
- With respect to the 21 suggested proposals of General Johnson,3 McNamara stated they were all being approved. A few of them are being coordinated with State because of AID’s participation. These did not involve approval of Johnson’s proposals in B. and C., which involve the deployment of divisions. McNamara seemed to feel we should make some moves indicating an intention for more dramatic action such as the movement of forces, possibility of call-up of reserves, etc. He thought these actions were useful in the Berlin crisis even though none of the forces were used or even deployed.
- On other subjects, McNamara thought his budget talks were going along very well; expressed great concern over the military pay bill, which he felt was divisive, and seemed highly critical of the Congressmen who are introducing it.