147. Memorandum by the President’s Special Assistant (Komer)1


  • Thoughts on Future Strategy in Vietnam

As I depart Washington for Saigon, I want to leave behind my own views on future conduct of the war. The story of our involvement in Vietnam is one of increasing commitment of US resources as we found the GVN (despite our help) increasingly incapable of meeting a growing threat. Without faulting this process, it also reflects a tendency to resort in our frustration to actions which we can control (e.g., bombing operations, US ground force operations) in lieu of the much tougher, slower, and less certain measures required to make the Vietnamese pull their weight.

I believe that we should re-examine this trade-off. With COMUSMACV asking for a major troop increase, with the bombing offensive widening—each with a series of corollary implications of potentially major magnitude (e.g. reserve call-up), we need to examine any alternative course of action which could optimize the chances of a satisfactory Vietnam outcome without such an extensive further step-up in the US share of the war. I believe that there is a series of measures which could get enough more out of our Vietnamese allies. Some are measures which we have previously rejected, but on grounds which look a great deal less compelling now when matched against the potential alternative. My reasoning follows:

What Are the Critical Variables Which Will Determine Success in Vietnam? I will state my case in bare outline, with emphasis on the next critical 18 months:
It is Unlikely that Hanoi will Negotiate. We can’t count on a negotiated compromise. Perhaps the NLF would prove more flexible, but it seems increasingly under the thumb of Hanoi.
More Bombing or Mining Would Raise the Pain Level but Probably Wouldn’t Force Hanoi to Cry Uncle. I’m no expert on this, but can’t see it as decisive. Could it prevent Hanoi from maintaining substantial infiltration [Page 345] if it chose? Moreover, some facets of it contain dangerous risks.
Thus the Critical Variable is in the South! The greatest opportunity for decisive gains in the next 12–18 months lies in accelerating the erosion of the VC in South Vietnam, and in building a viable alternative with attractive power. Let’s assume that the NVA could replace its losses, I doubt that the VC could. They are now the “weak sisters” of the enemy team. The evidence is not conclusive, but certainly points in this direction. Indeed, the NVA strategy in I Corps seems designed to take pressure off the VC in the South.

How Do we Maximize the Chances of a “Breakthrough” in the South? Therefore, if we could maximize the pressures of all kinds on the VC—direct and indirect—political, economic, psychological and military—we might at the optimum force Hanoi to fade away, or at the minimum achieve such success as to make clear to all that the war was being won. Such a course would also reinforce the pressures on Hanoi to negotiate. But if we can’t get a settlement in 12–18 months, at the least we should shoot for such concrete results in South Vietnam that it might permit us to start bringing a few troops home rather than sending ever more out.

I confess here to a strong bias that we are already winning the war in the South. No one who compares the situation today to that of April 1966 (much less April 1965) can deny we’re doing better. But many contend we’ve just stopped losing, not started winning. Much depends on one’s confidence in our O/B estimates, which I for one question—especially with regard to VC recruiting rates and losses in the South. Much also depends on how much weight one gives to political trends, changing popular attitudes, etc. But I won’t argue the case here—time will tell who’s right. In any case, we’re not drawing ahead clearly enough or fast enough to optimize our confidence in achieving a 12–18 month turnaround. So what more needs to be done?

How Much Would We Achieve from a Major New US Force Commitment? COMUSMACV is asking for 210,000 men no later than June 1968 and roughly 100,000 as soon as possible (on top of the 475,000 plus 60,000 ROK’s, Aussies, etc. already programmed). However, MACV’s justification for these added forces needs further review. To what extent are they based on inflated O/B estimates of enemy strength? If enemy main force strength is now levelling off because of high kill ratios, etc., would the added US forces be used for pacification? General DePuy estimates that 50% of US/ROK maneuver battalions are already supporting RD by dealing with the “middle war”, the VC main force provincial battalions. How good are US forces at pacification-related tasks, as compared to RVNAF? What are the trade-offs? A major US force commitment to pacification also basically changes the nature of our presence in Vietnam and might force us to stay indefinitely [Page 346] in strength. Whether or not the added US forces would become heavily involved in pacification, however, another major US force increase raises so many other issues that we must ask whether this trip is really necessary.
What package of alternative measures designed to get the GVN to pull more weight—militarily, politically, economically—might reduce or obviate the need for a major US force increase? I believe that an urgent across-the-board attack on this problem offers sufficient promise to deserve analysis. Many measures, previously rejected because the cons seemed to outweigh the pros in each individual case, should be re-examined in the light of the new range of trade-offs involved. To me, some of their disadvantages look pretty pale compared to the potential costs of another 200,000 US troops and/or sharply stepped-up bombing of the North.

Moreover, we have been more permissive in dealing with recognized deficiencies of RVNAF and the GVN than we can afford to be any longer, given the alternatives involved. We must use every sensible means of persuasion, or if necessary pressures which we have shied from using in the past. The following is just an outline of the package which should be considered.

First is an all-out effort to get more for our money out of RVNAF. We have trained and equipped over 650,000 (and for so little cost that it is a good investment in any case). But can’t we greatly increase the return?
Insist on jacking up RVNAF leadership at all levels. All observers agree that this is RVNAF’s most critical weakness. A massive attack on it could pay real short-run dividends. Insist on dismissal of incompetent commanders. Find US means for rewarding competent ones, such as withholding MAP from ineffective units.
Insist on a Joint Command. Putting at least ARVN under Westy and his corps commanders might be the best short-run way to get more response out of ARVN. If it would ease the GVN problem, the contingents of the other five contributors could be added. Whatever the problems entailed, they seem small to me compared to sending another 200,000 men.
Greatly Expand the US Advisory Structure, Especially with RF/PF. Here’s another quick way to get more for our money. In some cases the troop to advisor ratio in RF/PF is 1,000 to 1. Only 1,200 advisors (the strength of one USMC maneuver battalion) might have many times the payoff.
Expand RVNAF as a substitute for more US forces. Westy wants 50,000 more RF/PF in FY 1968. Let’s consider 100,000 in a two-phase expansion.
Increase RVNAF pay, housing, ration, and other incentives. Bull through a better promotion policy. The savings from cutting back on non-productive units and expenditures might finance much of the increase.

Enrich RVNAF equipment. I’m told the rifles and carbines are poor, that more radios for RF/PF would help greatly, that new equipment would build up morale and effectiveness.

A crash program along the above lines would be cheap at the price, in fact so cheap that we probably ought to do most of it anyway. Piaster and manpower constraints are manageable in my view.

Expand civilian pacification programs along similar lines:
We’re turning out RD teams about as fast as feasible. So supplement them with “instant RD teams” on model of civil/military team in Binh Dinh.
Even 44 more US advisors for RD teams would make a big supervisory difference. Ditto for 50 more US advisors for the police.
Give RD teams and police all the equipment they need—from military stocks.
Integrate the US advisory effort on pacification to provide a new forward thrust.
Press harder for removal of incompetent or corrupt province and district officials.
Revamp and put new steam behind a coordinated US/GVN intelligence collation and action effort targeted on the VC infrastructure at the critical provincial, district, and village levels. We are just not getting enough payoff yet from the massive intelligence we are increasingly collecting. Police/military coordination is sadly lacking both in collection and in swift reaction.
Press much harder on radical land reform initiatives designed to consolidate rural support behind the GVN.
Step up refugee programs deliberately aimed at depriving the VC of a recruiting base.
Last but not least, use our influence discreetly to maximize the chances of smooth transition to an effective, popularly-based GVN. This is central to the proposition that we can get the Vietnamese to pull their weight. When we look at the alternative cost of taking over even more of Vietnam’s war, political intervention looks less frightening. Can we afford more coups, or crises in Saigon which in my view could undermine our whole position regardless of how many troops we send?

Conclusions. Many more actions—large and small—could be added to the above illustrative list. My argument is simply that some such package of measures—carried through with real determination—may offer just as much prospect of accelerating the favorable trends in SVN over the next 12–18 months as major new US military commitments—and could obviate much of the need for the latter. And they would be a lot less costly to us.

The above package could be combined with other US unilateral measures—let’s say a minor force increase to 500,000, accelerated emphasis on a barrier, and some increased bombing—to further optimize [Page 348] its prospects. Granted that my underlying premise is that we’re already doing well enough in SVN—the critical area—to see light at the end of the tunnel. But my basic point is that this added package at least offers sufficient promise to deserve urgent review.

R.W. Komer2
  1. Source: Center for Military History, Dep CORDS/MACV Files, Pacification Concepts: 1967–68. Secret; Eyes Only. This memorandum was sent first to Katzenbach, and then to McNamara and Vance. In a transmittal memorandum to the latter two, April 24, Komer argued that the memorandum “deserves careful study” and noted that it was “done in haste and deliberately designed to plead an alternative case.” (Ibid.)
  2. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.