Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume IV, Vietnam, 1966
318. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Komer) to Secretary of Defense McNamara1
Hereʼs the personal prognosis of events in Vietnam 1967–1968 which you requested. Sorry to be late, but I hope youʼll find it worth the delay.
On re-reading, I see it as less my view of what will happen than of what reasonably can and should happen—other things being equal—if we play our cards right.
My prognosis seems to me quite consistent with the proposals in your October memorandum to the President,2 even though it makes a rather more hopeful estimate.
Whether or not it is over-optimistic, however, it does suggest the sort of orchestrated strategic program we ought to pursue in 1967 to optimize our prospects. This wonʼt just happen, so I for one strongly favor drafting such a program (perhaps initially in the Katzenbach “non-group”) for submission to the President. In my view, it should include not only policy and program guidelines for 1967, but the necessary management corollaries to give them life.
Iʼd greatly appreciate your reactions.
VIETNAM PROGNOSIS FOR 1967–68
WHERE WE ARE TODAY. Any prognosis for 1967 must start with oneʼs premises about end-1966, which I daresay are quite “optimistic.” But let me make my case:
- Westyʼs spoiling strategy (accelerating search-and-destroy operations) has already succeeded in throwing Hanoiʼs phase III strategy way off balance. Thus we are well past the first turning point where we stopped losing the war.
- My guess, though I canʼt prove it, is that we have also passed a second major turning point. I suspect that we have reached the point where we are killing, defecting, or otherwise attriting more VC/NVA strength than the enemy can build up. Iʼd support this by citing kill ratios, weapons loss ratios, the decline in enemy-initiated attacks, and the fact that even J–2 MACVʼs current O/B estimates now indicate a slight decrease in total enemy strength. Iʼm also impressed with the increasing evidence of VC recruiting difficulties, food shortages, and sickness. There is also enough inconsistency between our estimates of VC/NVA strength and what the VC/NVA have been able to do over the last several months as to justify the inference that either they do not have as many troops as we estimate, or they are a lot less effective than weʼve estimated. Our O/B estimates, especially of VC main force and infrastructure strength, are so flabby that my guess may be as good as anyoneʼs—and consistent with actual VC/NVA performance. Granted that the enemy may be increasing NVA infiltration, but he may well have passed the peak on VC southerner strength.
- We may also have passed a critical psychological turning point, in that the bulk of SVNʼs population increasingly believe that weʼre winning the war. This to me was the chief significance of the 80% voter turnout on 11 September. Even if one regards it as an exercise in competitive coercion, the fact is that 80% of those who could vote (in daylight) listened to the GVN rather than the VC. The ever-increasing weight of the US commitment, now felt literally everywhere in SVN, contributes greatly to this growing attitude.
In sum—slow, painful, and incredibly expensive though it may be—weʼre beginning to “win” the war in Vietnam. This is a far cry from saying, however, that weʼre going to win it—in any meaningful sense.
- WHAT ARE THE CHIEF IMPONDERABLES FOR 1967–68? To me these make
prognosis very difficult: [Page 869]
- Will Hanoi materially increase its infiltration rate? I gather this is feasible (though will the barrier make a major difference?).
- Will the enemy escalate? Aside from increasing infiltration, I see little more Hanoi itself could do. Or Moscow. Peking could intervene in Vietnam or widen the area of hostilities in SEA, but this seems quite unlikely.
- Will the enemy revert to a guerrilla strategy? This could be a serious complication before we get a major pacification effort underway. But the evidence suggests that the VC are still attempting to organize regiments and divisions. Iʼd also agree with Doug Pikeʼs conclusion in his new book “Viet Cong”4 that such de-escalation would shatter VC morale.
- Will Hanoi play the negotiating card, and how? If Iʼm right about the trend line, Hanoi would find it wiser to negotiate. The only other options are escalation, growing attrition, or fading away. If Hanoi decides to talk sometime in 1967, a whole new calculus intervenes, involving questions of cease-fire, standstill, bombing pauses, etc. In this case weʼll have to do a new prognosis.
- Will the GVN fall apart politically? While it was a risk worth taking, weʼve opened Pandoraʼs box by promoting a political evolution to representative government. A series of coups or political crises in Cochin China or Annam could so undermine GVN cohesiveness as to cause a major setback or popular revulsion in the US. I expect plenty of political trouble, but would hazard that a crisis of such magnitude can be avoided in 1967 if we work hard at it.
- Will our new pacification program work? This too is a major imponderable. But weʼve nowhere to go but up. Weʼre at long last planning a major new resource input plus the necessary focus on improving US management and redirecting ARVN assets. So to me the chief variable is how much progress we can make how soon. Will it be enough to make a significant difference in 1967 or even 1968?
- Last but not least, will the US appear to settle down for a long pull if necessary? This is hardest to predict, yet crucial from the standpoint of SVN and NVN reactions.
- THE MOST LIKELY COURSE OF EVENTS IN 1967. Netting out the
imponderables, I see the odds as better than even for a gradual
acceleration of present trends in 1967—with gains outweighing
setbacks enough to show major progress in achieving our aims by
the end of the year. But this prognosis is based on the
assumption that the US will make a maximum effort to influence
these trends in the desired direction—as a matter of systematic,
orchestrated US policy and the more active use of leverage on
the GVN. [Page 870]
- Trends by Mid-1967. Even so, I
doubt that within the next seven months we could
demonstrate such progress as to force Hanoi to negotiate
or to convince most observers that weʼre “winning” the
war. But we could lay enough groundwork to offer
reasonable confidence of such demonstrable results by
- We can expect continued success in spoiling the VC/NVA main force effort. What we had achieved by October 1966 with 80-odd maneuver battalions, we should do much better in 1967 with the added flexibility 120-odd will give. Despite possible increase in NVA infiltration, I believe it will be increasingly offset by an increasing enemy loss rate, a decline in VC recruiting and an upswing in returnees (Iʼll guess at least 15,000 in January-June 1967). Once the barrier is in, it should also help. As a result we should be in a position to increase our control of critical communications routes (Routes 15 and 20 should be early targets).
- But pacification will not show a substantial upturn so early. Both ARVN and US forces will still be on a learning curve. The critical element will be the speed and effectiveness of ARVN retraining. Even so, we should begin to get rolling—if only because weʼll deploy more resources while VC guerrilla and infrastructure strength will probably decline (as the VC raid it for main force replacements). The civil side will become marginally better, as cleared and held territory increases, but it will still be small potatoes.
- With luck (and hard pushing) we should get at least some of the Manila program through. Despite a lot of political jockeying, weʼve a better than even chance of getting village-hamlet elections started, a national reconciliation program begun, some land reform, a renewed, if low-level, anti-corruption drive, and a start on postwar planning. The new Constitution should be promulgated, and some workable division of power has begun to emerge between military and civilians, and between northerners and southerners. These last are most important—and most questionable.
- We should at least hold our own economically. Despite some price rises, I think we can prevent the kind of runaway inflation in January-June 1967 that characterized January-June 1966. Easing port congestion will help. But the key will be the enforcement of a tough across-the-board stabilization program. Its outlines are now in hand: a GVN budget held to P–75 billion, US spending to P–58 billion, an import program of $725 million annually and port throughput of four million tons of non-military cargo.
- We will continue bombing the North (perhaps at a reduced level) to impose a cost on NVN.
- If the above prognosis is reasonably accurate weʼll also get some upswing in SVN morale. This intangible is most important, as emergence of a bandwagon psychology would help erode VC strength and give new confidence to the GVN. I doubt that weʼll see a real surge of confidence as early as mid-1967 (enough things will go wrong to fuzz the issue), but the people in the cities already see the tide turning.
- If the above trends occur, they will register in Hanoi too, and may just lead to negotiating feelers before June 1967. Iʼd see no more than a 1 in 3 chance of this, and if it comes it may be an attempt to throw us off balance rather than to strike a bargain. But Hanoi will start reassessing its strategy of waiting us out if it sees the US settling down for the long pull, increasing US forces by another 35% and building a barrier, VC southerner [Page 871] strength eroding, NVN losses mounting, the GVN building at least a partial base of legitimacy, and pacification at last beginning to be undertaken seriously.
- Trends by End-1967. By this
time, if not before, I see a better than even chance
that the trends described above will have shown results
demonstrable to all. At this point the key issue will
become one of whether the US appears prepared to stick
it out as long as necessary or to be tiring of the war.
- If Westy canʼt clobber the large units with 470,000-odd Americans, plus ROKs, plus barriers, plus bombing, plus an even better logistic base, something unforeseeable will have happened. Indeed, my hunch is that heʼll have enough left over for 20–30% of his maneuver battalions to help ARVN in pacification if needed. By then we should have small US combat forces in the Delta too, which I think would start making a difference. Since weʼre asked to be bold, Iʼll estimate enemy end-1967 strength at not over 220–250,000 despite NVA infiltration. This is consistent with the thrust of CIAʼs 22 August 1966 study on The Vietnamese Communistsʼ Will to Persist.
- Pacification ought to show quite visible progress by end-1967, even if only the corridors between many of the towns plus some of the countryside is secure. (I donʼt equate security with total absence of incidents.) Many key roads should be reasonably secure for unescorted traffic (at least Route 4 to Can Tho, Route 15 to Vung Tau, Route 20 to Dalat) and the Saigon environs largely cleared. VC capability to recruit, tax, and collect rice in the south should decline significantly. Returnee totals should approach 45,000 for the year, and special operations should have turned up some higher quality defectors. The contrast between living conditions in GVN and VC areas should work increasingly to our advantage.
- There is a 50/50 chance of a representative GVN emerging with a presidential system, an elected assembly, and reasonable checks and balances between the military and civilians. It wonʼt be a strong government (perhaps even weaker or more erratic than the present one), but its very existence will be a major political plus. Iʼd also hope to see further progress on land reform, local elections leading to a better administration in the countryside, etc. In fact, if the erosion of southern VC strength has gone far enough by mid-year, Iʼd consider asking the GVN to let the NLF run in the elections (a gesture of confidence which most experts think the NLF would refuse—to its cost). This ploy would also help split the NLF from Hanoi—if this is at all possible.
- If the above trends occur, Iʼd predict a growing shift to a bandwagon psychology on the part of SVNʼs people. I believe that it will be stronger than war-weariness at this point.
- Logically, Hanoi would start negotiating or withdrawing somewhere along this curve—if only to (a) preserve southern assets by slowing down the attrition; (b) prevent consolidation of GVN authority; and (c) secure a bombing halt. But Iʼd put the odds at only 50/50, the other real options being (a) to revert to a guerrilla strategy (forced on them) and still wait us out; or (b) to fade away for the time being. If Iʼm right about a growing erosion of southern VC strength, those NVA battalions will look a bit naked by end-1967.
PROGNOSIS FOR 1968. The farther ahead one tries to predict, the greater the role of the imponderables. So, other things being equal, Iʼd [Page 872] foresee more of the same for 1968—with enough declining VC southerner strength and improved ARVN performance that we might even be able to begin redeploying some forces.
But to be realistic, Iʼd prudently allow for six monthsʼ slippage in my end-1967 projection. Even if we reached that point only by mid-1968, it would still be apparent to everybody—including Hanoi—that we were indisputably “winning.” Again, the critical variable will probably be less what Hanoi (or Peking, or Moscow) does than the US popular and Hill reaction and their impact on Administration policy. And, finally, though the above might seem grossly optimistic, even I am not prognosticating that by end-1968 (or 1969 for that matter) we will have “won” the war. If the enemy retains the will to persist despite the trends I see as likely, Vietnam could still be with us for some years.
- THE LESS LIKELY CASES IN 1967–68. I wonʼt spell these out in detail, because they would simply be a different weighting, and/or time-phasing, of the trends and imponderables outlined above. Pacification could go more slowly or more rapidly, for example. We might have another military coup. We might get into serious negotiation, which could change the name of the game.
- LESSONS TO BE DRAWN. My prognosis of what is more likely than
not to happen in Vietnam is reasonable only if
we and the GVN mount a
maximum effort in 1967–68 to make it so. The key is
better orchestration and management of our Vietnam effort—both
in Washington and Saigon. To me, the most important ingredient
of such an outcome is less another 200,000 troops, or stepped-up
bombing, or a $2 billion civil aid program—than it is more
effective use of the assets we already have.
- The war will be “won” (if we can use that term) in the South. Now that we are successfully countering NVA infiltration and the enemyʼs semi-conventional strategy, what needs to be added is increasing erosion of southern VC strength (it has probably already peaked out).
- Assuming the above is broadly valid, the key to success in the South is an effective pacification program, plus a stepped-up defection program and successful evolution toward a more dynamic, representative and thus more attractive GVN. These efforts will reinforce each other in convincing the Southern VC and Hanoi that they are losing.
- Our most important under-utilized asset is the RVNAF. Getting greater efficiency out of the 700,00 men weʼre already supporting and financing is the cheapest and soundest way to get results in pacification.
- By themselves, none of our Vietnam programs offer high confidence of a successful outcome (forcing the enemy either to fade away or to negotiate). Cumulatively, however, they can produce enough of a bandwagon psychology among the southerners to lead to such results by end-1967 or sometime in 1968. At any rate do we have a better option?
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Komer Files, McNamara-Vance-McNaughton. Secret; Eyes Only. Komer forwarded a copy of the attachment to this letter to Rostow the same day, noting in his covering memorandum that “while it gives less weight to bombing NVN than does your paper [attachment to Document 319], and more weight to creating a bandwagon psychology in SVN, we are basically on the same track. We both see 1967 as crucial, and the key to success in 1967 as developing, then effectively managing, a multi-faceted strategic plan.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Rostow Files, Vietnam Strategy)↩
- Document 268.↩
- Printed from a copy that indicates Komer signed the original.↩
- Douglas Pike, Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, Cambridge, Mass. and London: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1966.↩