239. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1


  • Status of Civilian Morale in North Vietnam

This wrap-up is based on the full text of the comprehensive CIA report from all sources, which Sect. McNamara initiated.2

When bombing of the North first began, it generated a high degree of patriotic response. It was not unlike the initial reaction of the British when the Germans hit their homeland in 1940. But it seems clear that the initial level of patriotic fervor has not been maintained.

As a result of the bombing, every segment of the population has been forced to make sacrifices in living standards. Hardest hit are those living in southern North Vietnam—about 15% of the population. Letters to relatives and friends (e.g., in Thailand) mention personal hardships and anxieties more than do letters from other parts of the country.

The NVN Ministry of Labor released data early this year on absenteeism among construction workers. It was worst among the people in the southern provinces—averaging more than 16 days per worker—or 5% of total working days scheduled. Shortages of food are reported.

Main sources of complaint elsewhere are: hardships caused by evacuation from urban centers; splitting of families; lower quality of consumer goods; longer work hours without added pay; loss of income resulting from transfers from normal jobs to defense-related tasks.

The regime has talked publicly of the need for tighter discipline among both Party members and the general population. A high government official called a few months ago for revision of the legal code dealing with counter-revolutionary activities, protection of state property, [Page 648] and the rights and duties of citizens “in order to satisfy the demands of wartime.”

As the bombing has continued, economic and political problems have intensified. Patriotic fervor appears to have diminished.

Official publications have complained of difficulties in using people already mobilized. There have been complaints about lack of experience and discipline among Party cadres. Prejudice and discrimination against the young and against women are reported.

Managerial inefficiency is reported; for example, a recent message reported 1,600 workers being sent to a highway repair site, with no supervisory personnel present or available.

Captured North Vietnamese soldiers in the South have told us that people in the North are aware of the hardships, sickness and injuries suffered by infiltrated troops. As morale of NVN troops in the South drops, there is every reason to believe it will have an effect on the folks at home.


Civilian morale is likely to continue to drop in the North over the next year. Trouble on the farms—resulting largely from labor mobilization—has already affected the current harvest. Food prices have started to rise on the free market. Beyond food shortages, other strains are likely to increase.

There is no agreement in the intelligence community as to when morale may reach the breaking point. The intelligence community doubts that weakening morale will deprive the Hanoi leadership in the coming year of the freedom to pursue the conflict in any manner it chooses. My feeling is that the pressures on the regime may be greater than most of us realize.

I make this point not because I believe they are hurting enough to force them to negotiate now—or at any particular early date; but because debate about bombing in this town between crusaders and detractors has sometimes failed to make clear the important middle ground: that we are imposing a day-to-day cost on Hanoi; this cost is considerable, if not decisive; it is rising; and we shouldnʼt let them off the hook until the very day they make parallel de-escalatory moves.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, vol. LIX. Top Secret; Sensitive.
  2. Reference is to “The Vietnamese Communistsʼ Will To Persist,” August 26. See Document 219 for the principal findings of the report.