181. Memorandum From Director of Central Intelligence Helms to the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Komer)1


  • Report to the President on Your Recent Trip to Vietnam, 1 July 1986

You very kindly invited my reaction to your report to the President on your latest trip to Vietnam.2 I find myself in accord with your general conclusions as to the situation in the area and the long road ahead. As you know, I also fully agree with your view as to the importance of increasing the emphasis on our pacification and civilian operations, as without this even successful military operations will not produce a lasting result.

With respect to how to accomplish this greater emphasis, you lay a great deal of emphasis on better organizational approaches to the job, both on the Vietnamese and American side. Because of the weakness of the Vietnamese which you note as one of our problems, you quite properly emphasize the need to step up the American effort to compensate. To provide additional manpower, you suggest a greater engagement of MACV in the civilian aspects of pacification, at both central staff and district levels. This appears on the surface a quite reasonable judgment and one can only support the idea of increasing the contribution of our military resources to the overall pacification problem. I do suggest, however, that these steps may have to be watched very carefully in order that they not inadvertently alter the essentials of our pacification effort, which to date has given great weight to irregularity, local characteristics and individuality of leadership.

While we refer to the “civilian” aspects of pacification, I believe that the greatest element of the program is its political content. The various civilian institutions, police structures, administrative programs, etc. are in truth merely supporting additives to the key political heart of a successful pacification program. Engagement of the population in a pacification effort, to secure its collaboration in expunging the Communist fish from the popular sea, must come as a result of a motivated population, not merely an administered one. Too much emphasis on our side on the administrative aspects can result in the major effort being put in this field with only lip service given to the importance of political motivation. This is particularly possible, of course, when our pressure upon the population [Page 506] is aimed at eliminating the enemy from its ranks rather than primarily to stimulate the community to better itself, and incidentally to purge itself of elements hostile to this process. A particular fondness of Vietnamese officialdom for eyewash pleasing to superiors has frequently led to such mistake in emphasis, i.e., counting barbed wire stretched, piglets distributed, or mass public pledges of loyalty.

I am sure you have no basic disagreement with these thoughts, but I do believe that as we review the organizational aspects of the pacification job, we should be very sure that all Americans engaged in the program start from its basic principle of motivating the population as its guiding doctrine, rather than its statistical successes in terms of VC KIA or otherwise. This would be particularly important for MACV district teams asked to “keep an eye” on the RDC teams, as the standards they use and their command levels impose will clearly dictate their measurement of their effectiveness. With this approach, the various steps you propose seem unexceptionable; without it, I would have concern over some of the suggestions you make. There is a great difference between arousing local partisans and organizing a national soldiery.

Aside from these general remarks, I should like to offer comments on some of your specific points:

Study of Roles and Missions. This is a highly appropriate effort. Strengthening of the civilian or political command structure vis-à-vis the military in the pacification program would be a highly appropriate result of such a study. Of greatest importance is the strengthening of the local structure of pacification, of course, and improvement up the line, rather than from the top down.
Province Team Chief. If these should be revived for more efficient coordination of the Americans in a province, they are critical figures to whom the general thoughts I expressed above must be put across. Our experience has been one of considerable success in working locally with other agencies on a cooperative basis and some problems under a formal team chief. Some of these stemmed from the nature of our intelligence or operational work; some stemmed from the degree of emphasis given by the chief in question to the political heart of the pacification program.
RD Cadre Program. The problem of supervision of the RD Cadre teams is one on which I believe our Station is making considerable progress at this time, although I cannot contest your statement that we cannot match the MACV presence throughout the districts. Against the apparent desirability of this greater engagement of local Americans with the teams however, I do suggest that some thought be given to the impact of this attention on the mission and political content of the work of the teams. It may well be that a search for perfection in management through close American review of the work of the teams may create very substantial problems with the teams themselves, their political mission and their reception as “revolutionary” Vietnamese.
Vung Tau. We have fully supported General Thangʼs assignment of Col. Chau to take charge of Vung Tau. Since Major Mai was so clearly the originator and most effective exponent of the motivational aspects of the training there, however, we are frankly concerned whether this change may have adverse effects on this all important heart of the program. We are examining this carefully.
Area Priorities. I fully concur with your comments on areas for pacification work. Pacification is so heavily dependent on the exploitation of popular attitudes that I fully agree that we should exploit areas of movement and not batter remorselessly against targets fixed by selection from the map. This is another area in which the importance of flexibility may be greater than the apparent virtues of firm planning.

This memorandum has addressed itself to your trip report. You are aware separately of my concern over CIAʼs responsibilities and role with respect to the Revolutionary Development Cadre program. I have sent Mr. Colby to Saigon to secure a clear statement of the Missionʼs recommendations on these points per the message he showed Ambassador Leonhart last week, a copy of which is attached.3 The above comments on your trip report should be read in the light of this message as well.

Richard Helms 4
  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, DCI Executive Registry, Job 80–B01676R, V–1, 1966 (May-Dec.), Vietnam. Secret.
  2. Document 171.
  3. Attached but not printed.
  4. Printed from a copy that indicates Helms signed the original.