353. Memorandum From William Leonhart of the White House Staff to President Johnson1


  • Visit to Vietnam—December, 1966
  • Report and Recommendations

Most of this visit—my third in 1966—was spent outside Saigon in working sessions with US field teams at the four regional/corps headquarters and at a province in each region—Thua Thien, Pleiku, Binh Duong, Vinh Long. I also had useful talks with Porter and Westmoreland and their staffs, but my impressions and recommendations in this memorandum are largely views from the field not Saigon.

My main purposes were (1) to consult with our field staffs on the non-military projects on which Bob Komer and I have been working (2) to see what effect the civil side reorganization has had on field operations (3) to find out more about what is being done to speed up pacification, [Page 975] including redirection of ARVN assets to the hard tasks of local security which underlie Revolutionary Development.

1. Non-Military Programs

The main lines of our policies are moving ahead in all but one area—pacification. We have had a minimum of strains in the massive and necessary build-up of US forces and economic assistance. We have checked ruinous inflation, installed a basic set of stabilization controls, have a better understanding of the Vietnamese market. We have made some improvement in the management and coordination of our civil operations. We have helped launch a promising constitutional process which thus far the Vietnamese have managed competently. There are stirrings toward a modern party system which, if fostered skillfully, should reduce the religious-sectarian rivalries, North-South tensions, and civil-military suspicions that have riddled Vietnam.

But the GVN, as matters now stand, is likely to be an increasingly uncertain instrument in the first half of 1967. On the tough policies which support our main lines, the GVN seems both less effective and more reluctant to act.

At Saigon, despite continuing exhortation, the Mission has been unable to bring the GVN to decisions on the stabilization agreement, port clearance, rice policy. Land reform, national reconciliation, anti-corruption, new revenue measures remain on dead center. Little has been done to give content to the GVNʼs Manila Declarations.2 The Mission says that it is now holding 21 matters of importance which Washington has instructed it to take up with the GVN and on which it has not been able to obtain meaningful action.

In the field, the situation may be worse. Our people complain of increasing GVN inertia or resistance even within agreed policies. They say that, more than before, there are unnecessary delays and unexplained evasions, lost files, inconclusive discussions, buck-passing of problems to Saigon—with few results. They speak of the “porcupine tendency” of their counterparts: when prodded, they roll up and when approached they shed needles.

What seems involved in all this is the lame duck psychology now strongly at work in Saigon and the field. The 1967 elections will replace the Military Directorate, the Cabinet and most regional and provincial officials. The spin-offs are familiar: at the political level—jockeying for election odds; at the ministerial—difficulties in recruiting first-rate men; at the bureaucratic—reluctance to take decisions or even deal with the papers.

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As matters now stand, the prospect is that the gap will widen between a US sense of urgency that the first six months of 1967 should be used to the full and GVN impulses to waffle until after the next election. The basic question is—do we wait for a new GVN?

The stakes are too great for us to waste half this year. Moreover, we have no necessary reason to suppose that a new GVN will act on matters which the Directorate has put off. It may be more reluctant to do so on the grounds that it is more “nationalistic” or “independent” than its predecessor. So we should press hard for what is crucial to us and for what we believe will shorten the war. We should try for as many irreversible commitments to social change as we can obtain from the present GVN. If persuasion and inducements are not enough, we must look to a more active use of leverage and influence to accomplish what we consider important to us over the next six months—in terms of impact on Vietnam and US public opinion.

On our own side, staffing at the Mission in Saigon and in the new Porter organization in the field will require urgent attention this spring. Many of the key officers in Saigon and the field are now short-termers. Among them: Habib (Political Counselor), Wehrle (Economic Counselor), Zorthian (JUSPAO Director), Heymann (Regional Director—IV Corps). The turnover among middle grade officers in substantive work and junior officers with Vietnamese language capability will be high. Few replacements have yet been named.

Additionally about 1,200 US civilians are in process of being transferred to the new Porter organization. Many of them will be in place only shortly before their tours are up. Moreover, we now have, or can expect, requests for about 60 additional positions needed at regional and provincial levels.

Recruitment of first-rate people or voluntary extensions of duty remain severe problems, more difficult perhaps because of the no-wife policy than for any other reason. We will need special priorities to meet these requirements.

2. Civil-Side Reorganization and the Field

Whether Porterʼs new Office of Civil Operations (OCO) is viewed as a final organizational solution or as an inevitable intermediate step it is achieving a number of useful purposes. It establishes, on the civil side for the first time, unified inter-agency direction with a chain of command and communication from Saigon to the regions and provinces. It centralizes US–GVN field coordination of civil matters in one US official at each level. It affords a civil-side framework which can work more effectively with US military for politico-military coordination and more integrated pacification planning.

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At the time of my visit, OCOʼs impact had been felt mainly in Saigon. Its headquarters organization was largely completed. Three of the four Regional Directors had been named, all were at work, and one was in full time residence in his region. Regional staffs were being assembled but not yet in place. At province level, teams were being interviewed for the selection of Provincial Representatives. Porter expects them to be designated by January 1. Some slippage is possible, and it may be 90 days or so before the new organization is functioning. I participated in the initial briefings of the province teams I visited, passing along and emphasizing Bob Komerʼs admonitions against over-bureaucratization of effort and for fast and hard action. These were well-received. Morale was good. All the GVN Province Chiefs with whom I talked thought the new structure a great improvement.

But OCOʼs first test will come in the coordination of the out-of-phase GVN Revolutionary Development Plan with the militaryʼs Combined Campaign Plan for 1967 and in the influence it can bring to bear on the redirection of ARVN assets to the clear-and-hold operations which underlie RD. The next section reviews the status of these matters.

3. Pacification: 1967

The lack of progress in pacification remains the crux of the Vietnam problem, largely determining duration and extent of the war, persistence or fade-away of the NVA/VC forces, and the likelihood of negotiations. We may get negotiations without an internal resolution of Vietnamʼs security situation. We are unlikely to have negotiations or withdrawal without some significant progress toward genuine pacification. Despite the substantial results our arms have achieved against the enemyʼs main force in 1966 and our civil successes, we have not yet found a way to assist the GVN to achieve continuous local security below the provincial level—or to impose its obverse: continuous local insecurity for the VC guerrillas. This is the gap in our line. Closing it is a major task for 1967.

The crucial inputs seem to me to be two: targeted civil-military planning at corps and province; redirection of ARVN to clear-and-hold.


Civil-Military Planning

The lack of detailed, coordinated, and focused civil-military pacification planning is appalling. The GVNʼs RD plans are built from the village level up. The militaryʼs Combined Campaign Plan (AB–142) from the national level down. Different time schedules compound the problem. Scatteration of security resources, RD cadre placement, economic development projects is the accepted order. At local levels we lack a systematic means for reinforcing situations of strength or exploiting opportunities presented by vigorous local leadership or favoring circumstances.

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The critical factor is the interface between civil and military programs. In the field this does not yet exist. AB–142 has been sent to Corps for detailed corps and sector planning. Final corps plans were due in Saigon on December 15 but had not yet been examined by any civilian agency for compatibility with RD cadre and police positioning, other GVN inputs, or the distribution of US economic projects and commodities. None of the civilian Regional Directors or provincial staffs with whom I talked knew of GVN plans for the time-phasing and deployment of the retrained ARVN battalions that are to be assigned to clear-and-hold in the regions or provinces of their responsibility.

The need is to convert the largely separate functional planning of the past into integrated area planning based on provinces, districts, villages and lines of communication. The new plans should set concrete and detailed local goals, concentrate resources for their achievement, be developed on predictable force allocations and time-phasing, and coordinate civil and military means. This concept is generally accepted at Saigon. But at no corps or province I visited has this type of planning process been begun.


ARVN Redirection

In my report to you on August 30, I referred to the MACV effort to improve the quality and effectiveness of GVN forces as “the most significant event now taking place in Vietnam.” The effort has since gained some momentum. Manila provided a powerful new impetus.

At the top of the GVN, there seems complete agreement. Thieu and Ky are abundantly on record. The Minister of Defense, General Co, spoke to me privately and eloquently on the need for a change in ARVN attitudes towards the civil population, retraining in tactics, new pacification medals and promotion criteria based on RD accomplishments, and tighter discipline and mobile court martials (to try offenders in the locale of their misdeeds). The rhetoric could not have been improved. And all is not words. At II Corps, I was told that General Vinh Loc had submitted his 1967 campaign plan using all of his 22 battalions on search-and-destroy. He was called in to Saigon, put on the carpet successively by Ky and Co, and told to redo it. His plan now assigns 10 of his 22 battalions to retraining for clear-and-hold.

Yet in the field a different view emerges. None of the MACV advisers I met at sector or sub-sector level believes that the job is being attacked with sufficient urgency, comprehension or scope. They have much skepticism about retraining plans based on 14 ARVN teams, one for each division and corps, each receiving a two-week training course and sent out to lecture individual ARVN battalions from January through August 1967. They speak of long-standing reforms in attitude, behavior, and tactics needed and unlikely to be produced quickly by troop indoctrination courses. They note resistance developing on the part of ARVN officers who feel they are about to be downgraded from [Page 979] combat to secondary missions. They suspect this attitude is not dissimilar to the preference for combat over pacification or advisor duty held by many US officers. Generally, they favor a more comprehensive approach: improvements in ARVN living standards and dependent care, more use of combined US/ARVN units for clear-and-hold, an upgrading of advisor rank, and greater participation by MACV to speed up the redirection process.

Underlying these matters, there was a deeper division of US opinion on priorities in the Vietnam war than I had previously found. The split was more in evidence in the field than in Saigon where daily relationships cushion acerbities of opinion. The controversy concerns the relation between the main force and the guerrilla threats, tends to polarize on civil-military lines (although there are dissenters on each), and centers on differences in estimates of NVA/VC order-of-battle, infiltration, and recruitment in the south.

The military generally argue the unresolved and increasing main force threat and view the guerrillas and their political infrastructure as a supporting arm which can be readily dealt with once the main force war is won. They accept a main force O/B of 175 NVA/VC battalions, substantial deployment of main force units inside Cambodia, monthly average rates of infiltration from the north at 8,600 for calendar 1966, and steadily rising, VC recruitment in the south at 3,500 a month, and have much skepticism about reports of declining VC morale and capacity. These projections dictate an emphasis on one kind of war.
The civilians stress the VC guerrillas and their political apparatus as the decisive enemy; view the NVA main force as a supporting and reactive arm; question the current intelligence estimates. They argue the Maoist theory that in highly developed nations, control of the central government and the cities ensures eventual control of the countryside; but that in Vietnam, as in most weak and underdeveloped states, the opposite is the more likely case: domination of rural areas will strangle the cities and eventually wear out the center. They emphasize that none of the indices of pacification progress shows much advance: secured hamlets, cleared roads and canals, collected rice, destroyed enemy infrastructure, arrested subversives. They center on Viet Cong assassinations of village officials and hamlet chiefs which will total more than 3,500 for 1966 and on forcible abductions which will be over 6,000. (For the month of November, the respective figures were 123 VC assassinations and 503 abductions.) In their view the shortest route to the enfeeblement or withdrawal of the NVA/VN main force is the destruction of the totalitarian revolutionary apparatus in the south and its replacement by a broad base of popular support for the GVN in the districts and villages and hamlets of Vietnam.

It will be useful to end or narrow this cleavage quickly if it is possible to do so. There will be no black or white choice. But it is central to planning, [Page 980] strategy, training schedules, deployments (both US and GVN), an appropriate mix in the allocation of resources, and the emphasis to be applied to ARVN retraining. It is producing stresses and strains between the civil and military establishments at Saigon and in the field. These may grow worse. More importantly this unresolved difference, if prolonged, will impede concentration on the main vulnerabilities of the enemy.

(I think it right that you have my personal view on what is implicit in this entire section. The civil-side reorganization is a move in the right direction. It should be fully supported and given every opportunity over a reasonable period to succeed. If it works it will have other advantages as well. But I remain doubtful that we can get pacification moving quickly or effectively enough with the present organization or that we will have the requisite planning, retraining, and leverage applied to ARVN until MACV is tasked with a single responsibility for the pacification program.)

4. Recommendations

The Next Six Months: Reduce the number of items now being negotiated at Saigon. Reset our priorities in terms of what is crucial for us. My own choices would be: ARVN redirection, economic stabilization, a national reconciliation program, local elections.

GVN Inertia: Reexamine and recapture the leverage of our aid programs, regain MAP control, reestablish flexibility in counterpart disbursal, commodity deliveries and budget support.

Our threats to use such pressures in 1966 have been too ad hoc and sporadic. If you approve, Komer and I will organize an interagency lev-erage study to develop a system of graduated pressures and a scenario for applying them to our priority purposes within the limits of our legislation and our agreements with the GVN. The aim would be to produce a set of well-ordered contingency actions whenever decision is made to invoke them. But this will be a painful process and we will need your support.

US Staffing:
  • —Reissue your June 6, 1964 inter-agency directive3 on the importance of an affirmative response by US officials recommended for service in Vietnam.
  • —Reexamine the no-wife policy, at least during a second tour.
  • —Resubmit to the Congress last yearʼs Vietnam provisions of the Hays Bill for additional hazardous zone benefits for civilian employees.
  • —Request the prompt compilation of an all-agency list of critical positions with designated replacement for each. Saigon should not be asked to absorb staffing gaps because of transfer or assignment delays. And security and health conditions may require unexpected reliefs.
  • Priorities—Require a basic reexamination of our intelligence on NVA/VC force levels, infiltration and recruitment rates. The estimates involved are embedded in specialized fields. You may wish to consider a broader special blue-ribbon committee of inquiry—without publicity and with a mandate to report to you by the end of February.
  • Planning—Insist on combined provincial RD/P plans by February 1 at the latest, coordinating civil and military programs and containing specific and detailed provincial goals for 1967. Request a prompt report to Washington of any major RD revision required for military security factors.
  • ARVN Redirection—Press for an accelerated schedule for ARVN retraining. Insist on rapid and full implementation of ways and means, now identified, to increase ARVN effectiveness, including expanded use of US/ARVN combined units in pacification operations.
William Leonhart
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, vol. LXII. Secret.
  2. For text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966, Book II, pp. 1260–1261.
  3. For text, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. I, p. 205.