294. Letter From the Ambassador to Vietnam (Lodge) to President Johnson1

Dear Mr. President:

At the meetings which I had with you in Manila, the urgency of bringing about a quick decision in the Viet-Nam war was touched on, but there was no opportunity to pursue the subject thoroughly.

I, therefore, submit for prompt and searching analysis a program (the result of much study) to hasten the end of the war to the greatest degree possible, as follows:

The heart of the matter in the war in Viet-Nam is to destroy the terrorist organization and network—what Ho Chi Minh calls the “guerrilla [Page 806] infrastructure”—so that terrorists can no longer assassinate, kidnap, torture, sabotage, cut roads, blow bridges, engage in sudden and surreptitious mortaring and shell fire (as they did last Tuesday2 in Saigon), and, above all, so that they can no longer impress young males into the service of the Viet Cong, as they are still capable of doing, at a rate of four battalions a month.

All concerned agree that this is indeed the crux, and MACV specifically states that what it calls “offensive operations” are conducted so as to create the opportunity to destroy terrorism, that is “pacification”.

But the phrase “offensive operations” is defined as meaning to “seek out and destroy”. This is how the Germans were beaten in World War II.

I believe that the Vietnamese war will certainly never be won in this way; that the phrase “offensive operations” should be defined as “split up the Viet Cong and keep him off balance”; and that U.S. participation in pacification operations should be stepped up.3

This new definition of the phrase “offensive operations” will require fewer U.S. soldiers and will (according to reports made to me) mean fewer U.S. casualties.

It will also mean that more U.S. troops will be available to help out in pacification (an even more fundamentally “offensive” operation)—to be catalysts; to lead by example; and to work with the Vietnamese on the “buddy” system. They would be the 10% of the total force of men under arms (90% of whom would be Vietnamese) which would get the whole thing moving.

From experiments already made in doing precisely this, it is clear that U.S. casualties would be few. Yet the result would be durable—an unusual thing in Viet-Nam where much of the land is to the Army what the ocean is to the Navy—something you move around on, but most of which you donʼt want to hold. What counts in this war is people.

The gains under such a program, while not flashy, would be solid. While it would take time, it would be absolutely clear at home that time was working for us, and the light at the end of the tunnel would get steadily brighter.

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What I propose has been done on a small scale by elements of the U.S. Marines, the 1st and 25th U.S. Infantry Divisions, and the Koreans. We know that it works.

It means that the Vietnamese will ferret out and execute (or send into dependable exile) the hard-core terrorists—the human monsters who cut out menʼs livers and inflict other nameless tortures. They are the keystone of the Viet Cong terrorist organization. Their elimination would mean that the night no longer belongs to the Viet Cong and that the impressment of young men would stop. These key terrorists would be the real, the ultimate coonskin.

While the Vietnamese must do the ferreting out and the executing, we can help through our police advisers and our CIA counter-terrorist intelligence. This would be in addition to our military help. I am calling a meeting of these men to stimulate action.

This program will also hasten the revamping of the ARVN, which is now due to have been completed by normal Vietnamese bureaucratic methods by July 1967. (I believe this is an optimistic date.) My proposal would, in effect, revamp the ARVN by “on-the-job-training”. It is the only way I can think of to accelerate the present pace. This would at last correct an error made ten years ago when the U.S. decided that Viet-Nam should have a World War II type Army rather than a constabulary.

To do this is constructive; it means building a nation; our men like it. In fact, a number have signed on for another tour so as to do it.

None of the above, of course, applies to overt aggression—that is conventional invasions such as that in the DMZ and which must always be defeated.

As regards public opinion at home, I think it most unlikely that a clean-cut news event can be brought about within an acceptable period of time which will cause the press to say that the “war is over” or that an “armistice has been signed”—or any sharp focus news stories such as we had in World War I, World War II, and Korea, and to which public opinion in the West is conditioned.

The Communists will not make such an agreement, and if they did, their word is no good. Any peace proposal they make will probably be to make us stop winning while they keep on fighting.

But I believe a condition can be brought about in which in effect our troops simply keep the enemy off the backs of the South Vietnamese so that they can go ahead on the job of permanently wiping out terrorists.

An illustration of such an allocation of tasks is provided by the experience on Election Day, September 11, when

We, in effect, kept the main force and NVN units off the backs of the South Vietnamese;
with the result that South Vietnamese under arms—military and police—were enabled to provide order for the voter;
with the result that more than 80% of the qualified voters voted; and that
for that day anyway, 65%, rather than the commonly accepted 54%, of the population were secure.

Had this condition continued, much ferreting out of terrorists could have ensued—durable progress.

While the above does not produce a “war is over” type of headline, it would mean that the war had entered a new phase—a phase of which American public opinion would be clearly aware, in which our battle casualties would be very low, and in which time was plainly and obviously on our side. When Hanoi faded out, there would be no clean-cut headline, but everyone would know it.

The above raises very large questions on the whole conduct of the war—questions which are far more than purely military. I propose that this should be thoroughly analyzed and decided on the broadest possible basis.

With respectful regard,

Faithfully yours,

Cabot L.

P.S. All my best wishes for your good health.4

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, vol. LXI. Secret.
  2. November 2.
  3. Lodge made the same argument he makes in this letter—that offensive operations should be defined as “split up and keep off balance” rather than “seek out and destroy”—in at least three other communications: 1) a memorandum he read to McNamara during their private conversation in Saigon on October 10 (Massachusetts Historical Society, Lodge Papers, Vietnam Papers; printed in Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, Part IV, pp. 451–452); 2) a memorandum to Rostow, October 24, which Rostow forwarded to the President the same day, noting in his covering memorandum that it raised a “first-class issue” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, vol. LX); 3) and telegram 10204 from Saigon, November 6 (see footnote 2, Document 290).
  4. Lodge added the postscript by hand.