321. Memorandum From Richard Holbrooke of the White House Staff to the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Komer)1


  • Vietnam Trip Report: October 26–November 18, 1966

Returning to Vietnam after an absence of five months, I was first struck by how little things have changed. Sitting in on discussions within the Mission and hearing the same tired old arguments, visiting the Delta and listening to the same recital of difficulties and shortcomings, getting a constant refrain from each part of the Vietnam mosaic produced as if by rote—all emphasized the glacial pace at which real events happen in Vietnam, as opposed to the wild fluctuations in mood that grip the U.S. Government.


The most encouraging developments were unquestionably political. The September elections were important primarily because they took place. The first hesitant steps of the Constituent Assembly, while they give no clear picture of the future course, hint at the encouraging possibility of a new and younger leadership emerging for Vietnam—not tied to the old French ways, and less reliant on the dangerous covert and conspiratorial methods of politics which are a Vietnamese tradition. While I was in Saigon the C.A. chose its “blocs,” and the delegates began tentative groupings. The most observant members of the Political Section were impressed with the process.

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But the dangers in the political situation are still very near the surface. Both regionalism and the growing civilian-military split are issues now out in the open. If they ever reinforce each other through some unfortunate combination, then the delicate balances that now exist could tumble. It is still not unfair to say that there is no real government in Vietnam, in the sense of a functioning administrative and political structure which can pass the word out, and get the job done. This is not merely because the GVN lacks good leaders; it is also the result of a political structure still so fragmented and weak that division commanders can choose those orders they intend to obey, and Ministries can follow their own paths regardless of the desires of the Prime Minister. With such fragmentation as a backdrop it is difficult to get the GVN to swing its entire weight behind a single program (Revolutionary Development, Hop Tac, and the efforts to break the port bottleneck are recent examples). When all the factions agree on something, they can do it, as demonstrated September 11. A final danger to an evolving political process is the American presence, which can be both a beneficial catalyst and an oppressive burden. While we often play a vitally constructive role—as we did in encouraging the elections—or an essential preventive role—in stopping coup attempts—our massive presence creates some dangerous vulnerabilities (see last section).

The US Mission

In the almost four years I have worked on Vietnam, and served in the Mission, I have never seen the Americans in such disarray. This is the result of a rapid buildup, great pressure from higher headquarters, rapid personnel turnover, poor results in the effort against the VC and great personal frustration, poor leadership, fatigue, the absence of families and the resulting abnormal social life. MACV and the civilian mission have been steadily drifting apart. The Ambassador has tended to allow this to happen, showing little inclination for the difficult job of welding together the entire mission.2 In this atmosphere, with the Vietnamese getting further away every day from a mission turning steadily inward, a reorganization along the lines of your paper of August 73 could only serve to strengthen and streamline the Mission, and provide the tools with which to exert greater influence over the GVN. Such a reorganization is now taking place, along lines virtually identical to Alternative Two of the August paper. (Most significant difference: Westmoreland has so far rejected a Deputy Commander for Pacification/RD.)

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I think the reorganization plans look good. They will put every American civilian in the provinces into a single operational chain of command, reporting directly to the Deputy Ambassador. USAID, JUSPAO, and CAS will no longer have their own men in the provinces; rather, they will assume a staff relationship to Ambassador Porter and the field, and all communications to the provinces will go through a new Office of Operations, to be headed by Wade Lathram, who will be a member of the Mission Council. His headquarters staff will consist of the combined staffs now called USAID/Field Operations, USAID/Refugees, USAID/Public Safety, JUSPAO/Field Services, and OSA/Cadre Operations. Porter intends to regroup these offices, now spread out across the city of Saigon, into a single building, USAID #2 (the building next to the Xa Loi pagoda on Ngo Thoi Nghiem street), and he will locate himself there.

In each Region/Corps, Porter will select a Senior Civilian Representative, who will command all US civilian operations in the area. His staff will be the merged staffs of the existing agencies. At the province level, a senior civilian representative will be chosen, who will also command the US civilians in the province. The Senior Civilian Province Representative, who will be chosen by Porter on the basis of merit regardless of parent agency, will write the efficiency reports of all the American civilians in the province, and will be the sole US civilian advisor to the Province Chief—the equivalent of the MACV Sector Advisor. The present system of multiple advisors, often giving conflicting advice, will cease.

Porter gives every indication of digging in and taking charge. He is definitely looking forward to the new organization. Its importance is substantial. For the first time since the buildup, American civilians in the field will look to one office in Saigon for guidance. At the same time, the job remaining to the agency chiefs—MacDonald, Hart, and Zorthian—is substantial. MacDonald will retain control of the technical divisions of USAID, and be responsible for programs operating through the technical ministries such as Agriculture, Health, and Public Works. He retains primary responsibility, along with Wehrle, for the economic stabilization program. He must administer the huge CIP program. Zorthian is still responsible for elements of advice to the Ministry of Information, although his Field Services Division and the advice for VIS and Chieu Hoi both pass to the new organization. He remains the channel for technical assistance and advice. He still handles directly for the Ambassador the delicate problem of the U.S. correspondents in Vietnam. Hart remains in control of the covert operations of his agency. Special arrangements are now being worked out to safeguard covert and unilateral activity, particularly those of the Special Branch. All this is quite hopeful. Within the next ninety days, it is unlikely that measurable results will be available showing that this new structure is going to enable us to win the war any [Page 888] faster. But within ninety days we will be able to see whether or not this new organization holds promise of more effective management of the US Mission. I believe it does, and that it could have been accomplished months ago. But at least the Mission has finally made a start; now it needs support in Washington. This will include support for a better and more responsive personnel recruiting system here, drawing far more from the Foreign Service, finding better people from AID.

Ambassador Porter expressed particular concern over the difficulty of finding good people for the senior positions in the new Office of Operations, including the jobs of Senior Regional Representative. He wants you to give him any suggestions you can think of.


The problem of personnel is going to get more serious in the next six to eight months, and it is not too early to start thinking about it. Many of the better “old hands” have served as long as they are going to serve without their families. They simply cannot extend their tours again, except at the risk of a broken family. It is not generally realized that so many people of quality will leave but it is true. Only now are the tours of the first post-evacuation group of people beginning to come to an end, and it will prove impossible to keep any of them if they cannot have their wives with them. Examples are easy to find: Phil Habib, Roy Wehrle (the exception which proves the rule: only the special arrangements that were made kept him on), George Jacobson, Len Maynard, Bob Oakley, Ev Baumgardner. There is a saying now in Saigon that you canʼt be a good counterinsurgent unless you have wrecked your marriage. There is a grim truth to it. The situation forces people to choose between their commitment to our effort in Vietnam and their families. Most men can only choose Vietnam for a limited period of time. If our commitment in Vietnam is indeed a serious long-range one, we are going to need a cadre of superior officers who are willing and interested to serve extended tours out there, and see the war through. We cannot build such a cadre from unmarried and divorced men alone. The visitation program is no solution; trips every month to Bangkok or every six months to the States create a difficult situation, and frequent gaps in the staffing pattern. This is a growing problem, and deserves high-level attention. My recommendation is similar to one once made by Ambassador Lodge: Permit people who have served 18 months and who are needed for another tour bring their wives—no children—with them for the second tour. I think this is reasonable, does not cause unsurmountable housing problems (this is a minor issue), and does not cause undue security problems.

US Relations With the Vietnamese

The reaction of various elements of Vietnamese society to the continuing U.S. military and civilian buildup is baffling and contradictory. On [Page 889] one hand there are vague and elusive signs of growing annoyance on the part of many Vietnamese with American behavior. This can manifest itself in many ways. There are the continual complaints of General Nguyen Duc Thang, who feels that the U.S. simply does not understand Vietnam. (Despite these complaints, there is no question now of Thangʼs continued pro-American attitude.) There is the growing chorus of urban Vietnamese who see their cities being changed by the American presence. Ironically many of those who complain are also profiting from the buildup. There are the surprisingly strong neutralist statements of many student leaders in Saigon, who despite their family positions do not seem to feel any sense of commitment to the anti-VC effort, and blame the U.S. for every problem in their own country. Only a few of these anti-American sentiments are of value to the VC at this time; the great majority of the people are still not ready to turn grumblings of discontent into open action that would precipitate an anti-American crisis. But there is enough latent feeling about the Americans so that if the war continues for too long without victory in sight, war-weariness could merge with anti-American feelings to produce a reaction among the population. A clear-cut issue does not now exist, nor has a leader yet emerged to articulate and intensify these feelings. But the danger exists, and it may eventually create a strange sort of time limit for us, so that we must either win the war fast for the GVN or else face a reaction from the very Vietnamese whose original shortcomings caused us to increase our involvement.

On the other hand, there are many other Vietnamese who are consciously deciding to cast their lot with the Americans, and become “our Vietnamese.” For the Vietnamese, if they understand anything, understand the colonial relationship, and no matter how hard we try to avoid it, as the buildup proceeds, more and more Vietnamese will assume that we are indeed becoming the new masters of Indochina. This does not mean that we behave like the French did; but in a situation in which many people do not take the GVN seriously and in which most Vietnamese think that we (i.e., the CIA) control events, many Vietnamese are going to see quick profits and possible power if they can become popular with the Americans. By our very presence, we are therefore creating a group of people—some totally sincere, some wholly devious—who are making a commitment to the American Marines, or the Army, or the “Embassy.” Despite the theories VIPs get in briefings, this commitment cannot be transferred from the Americans to the GVN.

People who make this commitment and cast their lot with the Americans—be they village chiefs or farmers in the Da Nang TAOR, or government officials, or covert agents or VC defectors—are choosing Americans, not the GVN. We have given such people something to hope for, either security or a chance for quick profits. Whatever the reasons for their choice, the majority of those making this choice have decided that [Page 890] we are going to be in Vietnam for a long time no matter what we say publicly. People in this category—including 2 VC defectors and a village leader—told me that the VC would win in a matter of weeks if the U.S. even thought of withdrawal. They based this feeling not only on the military power of the enemy, but on his political sub-structure.

So if the war drags on, we may find ourselves cast increasingly in the role of the only governing force in a given area, more and more embroiled in the business of running that area. This may sometimes be unavoidable, but we should minimize the area in which it happens. We are not trained or equipped to do what must be done in rebuilding government in the villages; moreover, it is an open-ended commitment in terms of both time and men, and could well lure us unwillingly and unwittingly into a strange sort of “revolutionary colonialism”—our ends are “revolutionary,” our means quasi-colonial. As this happens, we can be caught in the trap of trying to get the least revolutionary Vietnamese—“our Vietnamese”—to carry out programs with which they are in basic disagreement. (National Reconciliation and Land Reform are recent examples.)

Thus, our very presence may prevent the emergence of a new leadership which would be willing to carry out the revolutionary programs which we are advocating and which are vital to our success—unless we exercise a rare combination of self-restraint and gentle covert encouragement to selected younger civilian leaders.

Richard Holbrooke
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, McNamara Vietnam Files: FRC 77–0075, Vietnam—1966. Secret. Also sent to Leonhart. On December 1 Komer sent copies to Rusk, McNamara, Gaud, Vance, Katzenbach, McNaughton, and William Bundy. (Ibid.) The source text is marked “Sec Def has seen.”
  2. In a November 9 letter to Rufus Phillips, Lansdale stated: “Thereʼs such a dirty power-struggle going on behind-the-scenes among Americans that itʼs time that someone talked plain turkey to them about the war and Viet Nam. Incidentally, the civilian vs. military aspects are getting ludicrous—in Mission Council meetings, Porterʼs bi-weekly meetings, etc.” (Hoover Institution, Lansdale Papers, Correspondence, Phillips, Rufus)
  3. Not further identified.