22. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
- We have drawn much satisfaction from your message (Ref. A). With its indication of general agreement with our thesis that the deteriorating situation here requires prompt action to pull the government together, to stimulate pacification and to raise the public morale. Also, I hope I am correct in assuming agreement that the action required includes a prompt passage into Phase II operations against the DRV as soon as possible and the adoption of a policy of prompt and clear reprisals for what has variously been termed “an unusual hostile act” (Ref. B) of the VC or any major or spectacular VC action in SVN whether against U.S. personnel and installations or not (Ref. C). However, it is clear from your message that final approval of either of these courses of action, Phase II operations or reprisal bombing, is subject to certain conditions.
- It is these conditions which I should like to discuss because,
frankly, some of them seem to work against the broad thesis that it
is to our interest to act rapidly along the two lines indicated
above. I think that I can best set forth the issues by discussing
the following problems which arise from analyzing Ref. A.
- How to establish the firmness of a reprisal policy by
public announcement so that the evacuation of our dependents
will not appear to be running.
- The problem here is how we could get our dependents out before taking any retaliatory action without creating panic in SVN and creating misunderstanding of our motives in the U.S., in North Vietnam and in other interested foreign countries. Within SVN, there are the reactions of three groups which we shall have to consider, the government, the Vietnamese armed forces and the Vietnamese general public. The suggestion in Deptel 1419 is that we get across our intentions and motives by “inconspicuous background briefings rather than by formal public announcement”. [Page 45]We are very doubtful here that any public statement without action will carry conviction to any of the audiences mentioned above. We are sure that background briefings are not an adequate vehicle for this kind of communication. While background briefings are a well understood and much [used] technique in the U.S., they are by no means as useful with the Vietnamese officialdom or public. The latter are so accustomed to ignoring, discounting or, according to their mood, being alarmed by rumors and half-truths published in the scores of little sheets which pass for their press, that we cannot expect to communicate an authentic, credible message by this technique to the Vietnamese whom we wish to reach. A formal public statement would be somewhat more effective but it runs counter to our conviction which is also strongly shared by Souvanna Phouma in Vientiane and by various Thai leaders in Bangkok that in dealing with the North we should act first, and, if necessary to talk at all, talk later.
There are also certain dangers in making any advance statement on the subject of reprisals even if such a statement had a high order of credibility. We are not sure how the DRV would react to such a statement. But they might undertake to present us with a series of fuzzy and ambiguous provocations to which we would not wish to respond but to which we would be pressed to respond by public opinion aroused by our brave statement of intention. In particular, I am sure that we would be under constant pressure from the GVN to take actions in cases where we would not feel reprisal warranted. In short, I do not believe that a statement of reprisal policy in advance of initiation is the best way to cover the withdrawal of our dependents.
There is no good way to do so which will avoid creating serious difficulties but, if the decision is made to withdraw dependents, I personally would prefer to base our action upon the need to reduce the number of non-essential U.S. personnel to exposure to terrorist actions and on the need to clear the decks for the accelerated military activities which are expected to follow the termination of the recent political crisis.
- I am sorry if we seem to be belaboring the point of the timing and manner of the withdrawal of our dependents. We will, of course, cheerfully abide by whatever decision is made, but all of us here deeply feel that in the present situation this action, for whatever expressed reason taken, is fraught with serious adverse consequences. Even if prior withdrawal of our dependents had only a marginal effect on the totality of the situation here; our margins are already too thin to warrant paring them further. None of us feel that the program set forth in Embtel 2055 subjects our dependents to undue hazards and in the light of the practical difficulties of making an adequate explanation in advance of a reprisal, we feel that our former recommendation (Embtel 2055) remains the preferred course of action.
- How to make a reprisal within 24-hours after the
- I doubt very much that this requirement can be met, although certain actions can be taken to reduce the required time between the provocation and the retaliatory strike. We can submit to you and Prime Minister Huong a number of possible targets associated with infiltration and located within the Southern DRV. Six such targets have already been identified and plans have been made to expedite their attack. With prior Presidential agreement before the fact to these plans for the strikes, we would then require only the final authorization for execution of one or several of these approved plans.
- General Westmoreland is of the opinion that he could assure execution within 24 hours of receipt of your authorization to strike but that it would be unwise to count on a shorter time. The Vietnamese aircraft which would participate in such a strike are normally involved in operations in areas often remote from the bases from which the reprisal strikes would be launched. Also, one must always take into account the need for crew rest and thorough briefing. Likewise, varying conditions depending on the time of day at which the order to execute may be received and the uncertain conditions of weather at the time make it unrealistic to be overly precise in fixing a mandatory time of reaction.
- While we recognize that generally speaking the faster we get off a retaliatory strike the better, it seems to us that there are strong arguments to avoid fixing a time of reaction which might become a self-imposed and unnecessary straight-jacket on our freedom of decision. A lapse of even several days will not prevent establishing a clear linkage between the VC action and our reprisal and under certain circumstances may be desirable to permit us to take action under the most favorable conditions. Let us not hurry ourselves if it is not necessary.
- How to initiate Phase II actions as rapidly as possible
and under as favorable conditions as possible.
- With regard to Phase II operations, you will recall that, based upon the authorizations contained in references B and C. I have already broached the matter of joint planning for Phase II with the GVN senior authorities in early December. At that time, General Westmoreland and General Khanh designated chief planners to represent each side and reached agreement on the general purpose of the planning. However, because of the subsequent political events, they agreed to defer further action. Khanh has tried recently to reopen the matter with General Westmoreland and has asked him whether he was now ready to proceed. At my instructions, General Westmoreland indicated that he could not give a final answer until the termination of the political crisis.
- In Embtel 2052, I asked for authority to go somewhat farther than my December instructions and, upon resumption of joint planning, to tell our Vietnamese counterparts that we definitely intended to initiate [Page 47]Phase II operations provided the new government reached the criteria which were communicated to them following my return from Washington. As I read Deptel 1419, I am not entirely sure whether the effect (paragraph 3 and paragraph 5) is to extend my authority in the way requested or, on the contrary, to increase the conditions precedent to initiation of Phase II. I would like to assume that I can [garble—indicate our?] intention to the GVN with regard to initiating Phase II but with the understanding that there is no present commitment as to timing and or as to scale. At the same time, I would like to interpret the language of paragraph 5 as adding nothing to the requirements previously transmitted to the GVN in December.
- In view of the nature of the recent political truce, in applying the criteria for governmental performance, I am sure we will have to use much common sense and great leniency if we are ever going to take action. The weakened civil government which has resulted from the political compromise with the generals is not going to make in the coming months much measurable progress toward real political stability and strength. If we are ever to get into Phase II and, as you know, we consider it essential do so, we may have to be satisfied with little more than the continued existence of a government in whose name we can act and to whose request for assistance we can respond. If, after giving about another month’s run to our efforts in Laos, the Huong government is still in business, my feeling is that we should be ready to embark on Phase II operations, if only for the pulmotor effect upon the internal situation in SVN.
- How to improve joint efforts to achieve victories within
- General Westmoreland would say that he feels that we have gone about as far forward in influencing the planning and execution of operations as the advisory concept will permit. Inherent in that concept is the fact that Vietnamese commanders make the final decisions and assume the ultimate responsibilities. It is estimated that a good advisor can influence his counterpart with respect to a decision about 80 percent of the time. Less effective advisors will, of course, have a lower batting average. A few Vietnamese officers are not disposed to take any advice—these we usually manage to have removed, but it takes time.
- The proof of the effectiveness of the system is the evidence of its results. A summary of actions and results in 1964 indicates that some 7,000 members of the armed forces of Viet-Nam were killed in action as against about 17,000 Viet-Cong. Out of some 2,400 large unit actions (those most influenced by U.S. advisors), about 60 percent made contact with the Viet-Cong. During the last four months (the period of keeping records in this form) 1,539 large and small actions which made contact were observed and rated by U.S. observers. Out of these engagements, [Page 48]the U.S. observers considered 1,377 or approximately 90 percent to have been successful.
- The Binh Gia battle has made recent headlines as I mentioned in my last week’s report to you.6 This unsuccessful action was not the fault of American advisors, but rather the result of their difficulty in getting to the senior commanders who were preoccupied with political matters. Unfortunately, commanders here will not delegate authority to their subordinates so that in their physical absence it is very difficult to get any decision. This was the case at Binh Gia where Khanh did not really get into the action until the battle was virtually over.
- Now that there is a political truce, we will make every effort to get these commanders back to their primary business of fighting the war. I think most of them are pretty sick of political involvements and can be expected to turn in an improved military performance, at least for a while.
The foregoing represents the principal problems which we see arising from Deptel 1419 and our comments thereon. We are very glad to know that you are asking the concerned Departments and agencies to examine the situation with respect to the assignment and rotation of our personnel in the light of the prospective withdrawal of dependents.
Seen from here, we feel that our supporting agencies in Washington have done extremely well by us in terms of the quality of Americans sent here. There will, of course, have to be changes made in the rules of assignment and rotation if dependents are withdrawn.
- As a summary to the discussion presented in the foregoing
paragraphs, I would like to recommend for your approval the
following policy statements to serve as guidance to all interested
agencies of USG:
- In case of any major or spectacular Viet-Cong action in SVN (Tab E, Ref. C) whether against U.S. personnel and installations or not, the GVN/U.S. forces will execute a reprisal air attack as quickly as possible against an appropriate DRV target upon approval of the U.S. President and GVN chief executive. Starting now, the number of U.S. dependents will be reduced by administrative measures as described in Reference D. The remainder will be withdrawn in an orderly manner following the first reprisal attack.
- It is the intention of the USG to initiate Phase II operations as soon as the GVN meets or shows reasonable promise of meeting the criteria [of] being able to speak for and to its people; to maintain law and order in principal cities; and to make plans for the conduct of operations and to assure effective execution of such plans by military and police forces of SVN.
- Phase II operations will be initiated and each specific strike thereunder executed by joint agreement of the President and the GVN chief executive. U.S. dependents will have been evacuated prior to initiation of Phase II operations.
- The U.S. Ambassador is authorized to seek agreement of the GVN as necessary for those actions in subparagraphs A, B and C and to communicate to appropriate GVN officials U.S. intentions and reservations.
- The U.S. Ambassador is authorized to communicate to appropriate GVN officials such information on the situation and our actions in Laos as may be helpful.7
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Nodis; LOR. No time of transmission is given on the source text, but the telegram was received in the Department of State at 10:55 a.m.↩
- Document 19.↩
Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. I, Document 434.↩
- See ibid., Document 433.↩
- Document 10.↩
- Document 14.↩
- The following telephone conversation took place between McGeorge Bundy and Rusk at 6:44 p.m. on January 11”:B asked if Sec had looked at the long message from Max; B’s feeling was that it is a kind of oblique incomplete answer; he thought we might do well to get some staff thinking on it before pressing the President and B felt we would be within our rights if B were to let Cooper work on it, Sec give it to Bill, and Bob to Jack McNaughton. Sec agreed.” (Department of State, Rusk Files: Lot 72 D 192, Telephone Conversations)↩