262. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Komer) to President Johnson1

Manila—and Vietnam in General. Now that Iʼve been on Vietnam six months (the only full time senior official in Washington), I feel that Iʼve learned something about Vietnam.


The REAL OBJECTIVE. To me, it is achieving a satisfactory outcome by the end of 1967, or at the minimum achieving such momentum that it will be clear to all—including the US public—that it is only a matter of time. To me, this is quite feasible if we take the right steps beginning now.

We canʼt predict such imponderables as ChiCom intervention; but we can devise a policy which reduces their likelihood. For example, I believe we can develop a “win” strategy without further major escalation against the North, or sizable US deployments beyond what youʼve already approved.

Weʼre doing better than we think. Weʼve actually gotten up more momentum in Vietnam than weʼre willing to admit as yet. Most of the indicators are running favorably—indeed all except pacification and continued infiltration from the North.

On the latter score, Westy has hit on a winning strategy against the NVA/VC main force. So far this year the NVA/VC have mounted on the average only 1.3 battalion or multi-battalion-sized attacks a week. So most of the 170-odd enemy battalions our order of battle carries must be busy defending themselves or hiding from our air, artillery, and search and destroy operations, or foraging to support themselves. Westy keeps prudently estimating that they will yet catch us off-guard somewhere, but they havenʼt won a major battle in over a year so far. Meanwhile, Westyʼs strength continues to grow; he can go anywhere in the country and does. Our air power is up to more than 30,000 sorties a month. Weʼre inflicting heavier casualties than ever before.

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In fact, where is all that enemy strength? Iʼd agree with Joe Alsop that enemy effectives, especially VC, may be lower than our conservative O/B indicates. Certainly the enemy is hurting more if PW and defector reports, the generally declining incident rate, the total NVA/VC inability to win victories mean anything at all. Nor were the enemy able to exploit effectively the major dissidence in I Corps last spring or the 11 September elections, though we know they tried. Add our success in controlling inflation and in promoting the start of a healthy political evolution, and we have at the end of September 1966 achieved some real momentum in Vietnam.

HOW DO WE ACHIEVE EVEN GREATER MOMENTUM IN 1967? To me, there is no one decisive element! Rather it is a matter of properly orchestrating and pushing on at least seven different major fronts in 1967. If we do so, I think we can achieve sufficient cumulative impact either to force the enemy to negotiate or cripple his ability to sustain the war.

Step up Westyʼs campaign against the NVA/VC main force. This is essential to contain the NVA infiltrators and keep the organized enemy large units off our backs while we step up pacification. When I see what 80 or so US/FW maneuver battalions plus our air and artillery have already accomplished, Iʼm confident that with 10–15 more battalions by end 1966, weʼll do even better. Westy prudently predicts new NVA/VC offensives, but if they couldnʼt mount one up to now the odds are he can keep them even more off balance from here on. The prognosis here is for even greater success, perhaps without much increase in US forces beyond our presently scheduled buildup.

But neither Westyʼs spoiling campaigns nor our graduated air offensive against the North seem likely by themselves to force the enemy to cry uncle. Our best estimate is that he could sustain this punishment and keep infiltrating for quite a time. I also doubt that Hanoi will accept that itʼs lost this war until we start steadily pacifying the countryside. This would also deny it the option of reverting to guerrilla war. So we need yet other strings to our bow to increase the pressure on Hanoi, deny it the guerrilla option, and erode its base in the south.

The trick is to focus increasingly on the most vulnerable enemy element—the VC. Even present intelligence suggests that their strength has already peaked, their morale is declining, and they face increasingly difficulty in finding food, medicine, and recruits. The more we can erode their strength and peel off the VC from the NVA, the more we can isolate the latter, sharply decrease their effectiveness, and demonstrate to everyone that the only real problem is invasion from the North. We can achieve this via the following programs, if we really back them up.
Step up Pacification in the Countryside. As Iʼve repeatedly warned privately, weʼre not yet going anywhere fast. Nor will we, in my judgment, [Page 709] so long as we fail to recognize that pacification is first and foremost a military task—providing continuous local security. Thereʼs no point in blaming the civilians when the critical first phase of pacification is primarily a military job—and one which only the US and RVNAF military have the resources to do. This is why I back McNamaraʼs proposal as an important first step.
Reviving the GVN Armed Forces. But unless we want to send a lot more US forces, and keep them there a lot longer than our political posture calls for, we must get the Vietnamese to do most of the pacification job. This makes sense, because they certainly arenʼt pulling their weight now. Weʼve got to get them back into the war more effectively, so it wonʼt be so much a US war. I think this is the biggest single thing we could do toward getting quick results in Vietnam—and it wonʼt cost the US much at all because weʼre already paying and supporting all 700,000 GVN armed forces. To markedly increase their efficiency would be a major breakthrough at little cost. But it means guiding them more effectively—mostly into pacification, ensuring better leadership, improving their attitudes toward the peasant, and perhaps getting them under Westyʼs actual command (see below).
Mounting a massive national reconciliation campaign. Harriman is already effectively pushing this, and deserves top backing. We need to step up sharply all defector programs—high level and low. As we increase the pressure on the southern VC, it will increase the effectiveness of appeals to them to rally to the new South Vietnam. As the GVN acquires more confidence, plus a broader popular base, I believe that it will be less fearful of extending a hand to the VC.
We must avoid a retrogression to military government in Saigon. The success of the above strategy, and the credibility of our political purpose, depends on forestalling new military coups. Iʼm all for the military continuing to play a major political role in VN (we canʼt prevent it, and need their help). But weʼve passed the point of no return with the 11 September election. There are already worrisome signs of military wire-pulling in Saigon, and we canʼt afford to let it happen.
We must have a tough stabilization program to keep inflation under control. I wonʼt rehearse the arguments, because I think weʼre all agreed. Iʼm also confident that McNamara can keep the really big spenders—the US and ARVN military—in line. Iʼve even got Lodge on board in favor of a tough spending limit. Weʼll have to keep constantly after this matter, but note that my program does not require big US outlays. In fact, if it works we could cut back in certain respects.
Step up the “other war”—not just pacification but other positive measures. We have plans for this, and should gain enough momentum in agriculture, health, education, port clearance, etc. during 1967 to help considerably.
If the above seven programs go at all well, weʼll have another factor working for us—increasing confidence that our side has it made. This intangible psychological factor may be the most important of all. Lodge, who has a shrewd ear for such things, already senses a new mood of confidence in Saigon. We must build on this to get a real bandwagon psychology rolling—which will greatly reinforce all other elements of our strategy in 1967. By our own postwar programs we can add to this bandwagon effect.
We badly need a carefully orchestrated strategic plan and program in order to accomplish all the above in 1967. It wonʼt just happen. To get optimum results will require pulling all the strands together in a comprehensive program for 1967, getting all US elements on board, selling it to the GVN, and last but not least establishing the machinery to make sure itʼs carried out. In all honesty, I must report that I donʼt think weʼre properly organized in Saigon or Washington to serve you most effectively on Vietnam. We need:
A comprehensive strategic plan for 1967. Youʼve seen the Komer/Rostow paper2 which was a first crack at one. So far State is too busy with Manila preparations to be able to flesh it out.
An effective sub-cabinet level mechanism in Washington to monitor performance. We badly need to organize more systematically to (1) keep you properly informed on key programs; (2) do the staff work necessary to present you with coordinated recommendations; and (3) follow through on your decisions. Youʼve seen my proposal for a small “war cabinet” chaired by Nick Katzenbach.3
A Joint Command which gives Westy more control over ARVN—an essential in my view if we are to get proper use out of this asset. With 400,000 US troops soon to be in Vietnam, and with six of seven countries at Manila already accepting US command, why couldnʼt you sign Ky on too? The Koreans have proposed this for the agenda, which gives a great opening.
Give Pacification Management to Westy. Youʼve heard my voice on this. Iʼll just say again that we wonʼt get up real momentum in pacifying hamlets until you give it to the only people who can do most of the job. Lack of progress so far is not the fault of the civilians—it is basically because the US and ARVN military havenʼt provided the one essential ingredient—local security.4
RECOMMENDATIONS: If what I say makes sense we can take a big step toward it during the upcoming trips to Saigon and Manila. In [Page 711] fact, what you can get moving privately there could be just as important as the public posture we create.
A real coup at Manila would be for you to sign Ky on to (1) continued political evolution—and no more coups; (2) a big push on pacification; (3) a tough anti-inflationary agreement; (4) a national reconciliation program.
But this will take a lot of prior spadework in Saigon. Lodge alone canʼt do it, but McNamara, Katzenbach, and I could help a lot if charged to do so.
So I urge that the above be the agenda for a meeting Saturday morning5 at which you tell us:
You want us to press Ky/Thieu to stand up and say the right things at Manila.
You want an across-the-board strategic plan and program for 1967 before Manila—one which will produce irresistible momentum before the end of 1967.
You want an overhaul of our machinery both in Washington and Saigon so that this program can really be made to work (no need to saw off specifically on pacification management yet).

Postscripts. I may be way off base, but I think that a program like the one I describe offers the best chance of a satisfactory outcome in Vietnam:

  • First, it doesnʼt call for a lot more troops or escalated strikes against the North (Iʼve omitted barriers, where Iʼm with McNamara). Instead, it calls for better management, better orchestration, and better use of the assets we already have.
  • Second, I donʼt think it will cost a lot more money beyond what we already plan to spend. It seeks to avoid greater inflationary pressures by making better use of whatʼs already going for us.
  • Third, it is just as well designed to bring Hanoi to the conference table as it is to “win” the war. Few things would maximize the pressure on Hanoi more than our cutting down or defecting the southern VC—which leaves the NVA increasingly isolated.

Finally, if it works, and we do get up visibly growing momentum in the South, it opens the option of cutting back (I donʼt say stopping) at least the marginal increment of our bombing in the North—which seems to me awfully expensive in proportion to return.

R.W. Komer6
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Komer Files, Memos to the President, July-Dec. 1966. Secret. Komer sent a copy of the memorandum to Katzenbach on November 29 under a covering memorandum stating that he believed it had “had considerable impact.” (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)
  2. Document 241.
  3. See footnote 4, Document 250.
  4. In a telephone conversation with McNamara that began at 7:48 a.m. on October 5, the President said regarding pacification: “I feel very strongly that it ought to go to the military.” (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of a Telephone Conversation between Johnson and McNamara, Tape 66.27, Side B, PNO 2)
  5. On Friday, October 7, the President flew to the LBJ Ranch for the weekend, returning to Washington on October 10. He did not meet with Komer in Texas. However, from 7:35 to 8 p.m. on October 7, prior to his departure for Texas, he met privately with Komer, McNamara, and Katzenbach on board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base. No record of their discussion has been found. (Ibid., Presidentʼs Daily Diary)
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.