121. Action Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Unger) to the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Kohler)1


  • Strong Point-Obstacle System in Viet-Nam


On March 13 General Starbird and his associates briefed you on a strong point-obstacle system designed to inhibit infiltration into the northern portion of South Viet-Nam.2 The unclassified code name [Page 290] of this project is Practice Nine. As you will recall, the initial phase calls for construction of a series of strong points just south of the DMZ extending inland a distance of approximately 30 KM. Secretary McNamara has given the go-ahead for the preliminary work on this portion of the system. Plans for a westward extension using air-dropped mines and sensors are still in a preliminary stage.
On March 9 CINCPAC/MACV was given authority to proceed with improvements to the port of Hue which will be receiving most of the Project Nine material and to Route One north of Hue. The next step will be to acquire the necessary right of way for the strong point system and to make arrangements for relocating civilians who will be displaced by the construction work or who will find themselves in the no-man’s land between the line of strong points and the Demarcation Line between North and South Viet-Nam. MACV estimates that between 13,000 and 18,000 civilians will have to be relocated.
We have queried Saigon about GVN receptivity to this project and about the political, sociological and economic problems which it might create (Tab D).3 Saigon responded to the effect that the Mission saw no major difficulties, provided Washington was convinced that the cost of the project in manpower and matériel was justified (Tab C).4
DOD has now proposed that we send a Joint State/Defense message to Saigon asking the Embassy to approach the GVN to secure its support in the acquisition of land and the relocation of civilians (Tab A).5
While we believe the initial 30 KM section of the system will be of limited military value as an anti-infiltration measure (it might have somewhat more utility as an impediment to an overt invasion) we can perceive no political problems associated with it which would justify our interposing an objection. However, it is important to bear in mind that to be fully effective against infiltration the system will [Page 291] have to be extended across the remainder of South Viet-Nam and into Laos. The more successful the initial section is the more the enemy will be forced to move his infiltration operations westward thus generating pressures for further extension. Approval of phase one of this system thus at least bears the implication of approval of the entire concept. In principle we would have no objection to the use of air-dropped sensors and mines in agreed areas of Laos so long as we continue the policy of conducting air operations against North Viet-Nam. But we would have to reserve judgment on the use of ground elements to back up the system. (We note that the use of a small number of ground forces is a feature of the preliminary plan for the Laos extension.)
Two other proposals which are connected with but not essential to the execution of Practice Nine are: (1) the use also of third country troops to man the strong point system in order to give it an international flavor and (2) the reconstruction of Route Nine, presumably all the way to the Mekong. Both of these proposals require further consideration. An immediate decision is not required. In the meantime EA will explore these problems further with Embassies Saigon & Vientiane.6


That you approve the attached Joint State/Defense message to Saigon relating to the acquisition of land and resettlement of population (Tab A).
That you sign a letter to Assistant Secretary McNaughton noting that approval of Phase One of this plan does not constitute approval of the details of subsequent phases of Project Nine (Tab B).7
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret. A notation by Kohler, dated March 28, reads: “Discussed with S, who considers entire project approved in principle at top level and agrees to going ahead with implementation of first requirement.”
  2. The feasibility study of an anti-infiltration barrier across northern South Vietnam and southern Laos was begun under orders of McNamara on September 15, 1966. The Defense Communications Planning Group, headed by General Alfred Starbird, was in charge of planning and implementing the air, ground, and electronically supported anti-infiltration barrier. In its eastern part within South Vietnam, initially known as Practice Nine and later termed Illinois City, the barrier entailed a static system of bases between areas of ground obstacles. The section of the “barrier” that extended into Laos would include small teams used for reconnaissance and interdiction in operations known as Prairie Fire. Air operations in support of the line were termed Muscle Shoals and the troop-supported components of the barrier came under the code-name Dye Marker. The initial development of the barrier would occur in northeastern Quang Tri Province between the DMZ and Route 9. (Joint Chiefs of Staff, The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the War in Vietnam, 1960–1968, Part III, pp. 45–16–45–28) On January 12, 1967, the President placed Practice Nine program in the category of highest national priority. (Memorandum from Rostow to the President, January 12; Johnson Library, National Security File, NSAMs, NSAM 358) A “MACV Practice Nine Requirements Plan” submitted by Westmoreland to Sharp, January 26, initially was disapproved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Department of Defense, Official Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 911/321 (9 Jan 67), IR 1160, Sec. 2) However, in a February 22 memorandum to McNamara, Wheeler stated his disagreement with the decision of the other service chiefs and recommended that the plan be implemented. (Ibid.) As a result, in a March 6 memorandum to the JCS, Secretary of Defense McNamara, upon the positive recommendation of Wheeler and despite protests from the four service chiefs and Sharp that the diversion of forces and funding for the scheme could not be arranged in the time called for, directed that preparations for the execution of the strong-point obstacle system go forward and that the system be in place by November 1. (Ibid.)
  3. None of the tabs is printed. Tab D is telegram 156207 to Saigon, March 16. It informed the Embassy in Saigon that the Department would send it a joint State-Defense message requesting procurement of GVN support for the project.
  4. Tab C is telegram 20625 from Saigon, March 17, in which Lodge suggested that the GVN approved of the plan and would likely bring it up at the Guam conference.
  5. Tab A is a draft of telegram 164440 to Saigon which was sent on March 29. It was a joint State-Defense message directing the Embassy to approach the GVN in regard to Practice Nine. A copy of this telegram as it was transmitted is in the National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S.
  6. A joint State/DOD message, telegram 194042 to Bangkok and Vientiane, May 13, requested the Ambassadors in Laos and Thailand to secure the permission of their host governments for the implementation of logistical measures for the barrier. (Ibid.) There were also other problems that needed to be factored into consideration of the plan. In telegram 24607 from Saigon, May 3, the Embassy warned that if a proposal for mutual withdrawal was implemented, “the enormous cost of these installations would be wasted, and we would presumably have to destroy them, at further cost.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 2 D Barrier) In a June 1 memorandum, McNaughton recommended to McNamara that the Defense Department oppose a 10-mile line of mutual withdrawal, inside of which the barrier would be, since Practice Nine could not be implemented under those conditions. (Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files: FRC 72 A 2467, Viet Barrier 385 (Jan.–July 1967)) Also, in a memorandum dated May 22, Leonard Sullivan of the Office of Defense Research and Engineering argued that weather posed significant problems that had not been addressed. “The problems related to poor visibility, impossible surface trafficability, and potential isolation of these outposts during a very large percentage of the year are surpassed only by those caused by the level of enemy activity in the area.” The obstacle system could not be established “without large troop commitments.” (Department of Defense, Official Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 911/410 (22 May 67), IR 1436)
  7. Tab B is a March 27 letter from Kohler to McNaughton, which informed him that the State Department approved the first phase of the project. As indicated in footnote 1 above, the measure was approved. In memorandum JCSM-204–67 to McNamara, April 17, the Joint Chiefs recommended that full implementation of the barrier concept be delayed until April 1, 1968, but requested that funds be allocated as soon as possible in order to initiate the line’s construction and other operational requirements. (Department of Defense, Official Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 911/321 (Jan 67) IR 1160, Sec. 6) In a memorandum to the JCS on April 22, McNamara approved the implementation of measures designed to support the plan. He continued to hold to the November 1 deadline for completion. (Ibid.)