120. Telegram From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Komer) to President Johnson1
CAP 66187. Herewith my preliminary Vietnam views,2 to be taken with grain of salt as coming from a one-week expert. Even so, the insights from a full speed week on the ground were invaluable. To do the job you want done there is no substitute for periodic base touching in Saigon. McNamara told me so before I left, and Porter redoubled in spades.
To report first on my primary mission—backing up pacification/rural construction—have established close working relationship with Lodge/Porter/Westmoreland and return confident can build effective non-military effort to complement military push. Porter doing outstanding job in starting to pull together loose, uncoordinated civil programs in way simply not done before.[Page 345]
As Vance reported,3 “the civil reconstruction program is lagging [behind] the military effort.” A key reason is that military effort got underway last summer and fall, and got top priority, while a coordinated civil program really dates from Honolulu. So I quite agree with him that it must now be given priority, especially in the competition for ever tighter manpower. Westy is naturally less eager (though agreed in principle), but I think it can be demonstrated that PATs can largely replace popular forces (local defense) which are the last remaining big manpower pool. We need to help GVN rationalize its manpower structure in manner which will meet essential civil as well as military needs.
Other major area of civil/military competition is for clogged port space. Since US military port operations more efficient than AID/GVN, Lodge thinks draconian solution of former taking over whole Saigon port might be necessary as crucial anti-inflation measure. But civil port operations are improving and this may not be necessary.
Basic reason why Vance, Porter and I are convinced that key elements of civil program must have priority is that without a coordinated pacification effort to secure and energize the rural areas which the military sweep, either the military will get bogged down holding terrain or the VC will come back in again once the military move out. Thus military and civil efforts must be closely coordinated and move in tandem—better coordination of forward planning may be needed here.
Next problem—and perhaps the greatest bottleneck of all—is the sheer weakness of the GVN. It can do only so much at one time. In sharp contrast to our largely self-contained military effort, civil program necessarily must be operated through GVN. We must try to build up a stable progressive GVN—not take it over, and this imposes severe restraints. Instead of overloading the circuit, we need to focus it as well as ourselves on first things first and plan rationally for doing other desirable things only after the essential base has been laid.
Indeed my key conclusion is that we may be trying to do too many things on civil side and not yet doing anything well. One gut problem is that we have a scattergun rather than a rifle approach. Porter and I see the answer as a system of priorities designed to put first things first. If we donʼt pacify the countryside and control inflation all our other grand enterprises will go for naught. So certain basic programs—cadres, police, and anti-inflation—need to be promptly and sharply stepped up. Others may need to be postponed until there is more of base on which to build.[Page 346]
Porter and I will submit—after checking out with Lodge and Cabinet level—a directive aimed at giving effect to the above principles.4 We also have detailed recommendations on new program emphases. This job can be done—if we have a halfway decent GVN to work with.
- On the military side, our effort is magnificent. It is like trying to kill mosquitoes with an elephant gun, but the thing is that weʼre doing it. The trend is still clearly upward. However, I would gently caution against undue optimism about the quality of the ARVN or about how much of the countryside is really cleared of VC. Statistics—especially GVN statistics—can be notoriously unreliable. So we have established a new province reporting system—direct to Porter—which will give us a better line.
On the third factor critical to our success in Vietnam—a GVN which functions at least quasi-efficiently and generates enough popular commitment to be regarded as preferable to the VC—the outlook is naturally less encouraging. Lodge and the Mission believe the present regime—perhaps with some reshuffling—is far more effective militarily and is administering the country better than any likely successor. They are deeply pessimistic about being able to work with the Buddhists, whom they mistrust from direct experience.
Lodge asked me to tell you personally that he foresees a period of painful jockeying, leading probably to “elections” and a weak civilian government, but then doubtless culminating in another military coup ( if it does not happen earlier). But Lodge also says that we can—and must—live through this cycle and can still achieve our aims if we stick it. He insists he is of good heart (but Porter worries about this—Iʼll report orally).
We cannot just take over from the Vietnamese—the growing US presence is already creating its own problems. Yet with 230,000 Americans in Vietnam and more coming, nor can we afford to sit by and let the Vietnamese foul their own nest without a greater effort to keep them on the right track. Thus—despite the risks—there is a growing case for discreet exertion of greater leverage on the GVN, perhaps using the power of the purse more boldly.
Personnel. Over half the top people on the civil side are due to come home over the next few months. This talent drain would be a real setback. Some of them might be prevailed on to stay. I am looking into the matter.[Page 347]
Finally, I claim at least one accomplishment—getting into and out of Saigon with almost no press notice, as proof that I can operate quietly.
Though this report is eyes only at your request, may I send copies to Rusk, McNamara and Bell?
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Komer Files, Memos to the President, March-June 1966. Secret; Eyes Only. Komer dated his message April 12, but it was not sent to the President at the LBJ Ranch in Texas until April 13.↩
- Komer sent the President his full report on his Saigon trip, together with a Special Annex, on April 19. (Ibid.)↩
- Document 117.↩
- A draft of the directive on Civil Reconstruction in Vietnam was sent in Porterʼs back channel telegram to Komer, 1944 from Saigon, April 19. Komer wrote “ʼDraft NSAM” on the telegram, but no such NSAM was issued. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Komer Files, Memos to the President, March-June 1966)↩