197. Memorandum From the President’s Special Counsel (McPherson) to President Johnson1

For the President

These impressions of Vietnam should obviously be discounted by several factors:

  • —this was my first trip, and so I have no previous standard against which to measure my judgments.
  • —being there two weeks is just enough time for heroes to be discovered and discarded, and not enough time to identify the long-term trends that will determine the future.
  • —a VIP traveller is exposed to the “winning” situations, and as a result his natural instinct is to listen harder to the skeptics than to the optimists.
  • —I am neither a military nor a geopolitical strategist; what I thought especially important may only have been incidental, and vice versa.

This said, here is what I saw and came to believe.

[Page 490]
A.

The colossal size of our effort.

The first and last thing you come to understand is that the big issue on the campuses, whether we should be in Vietnam or not, is almost beside the point. We are there in such enormous force, in such totality, that the fact of our presence is where you start from.

At 1500 feet in a Huey on any given afternoon, you look out on two or three Eagle flights of choppers going in to chase VC’s; an air strike in progress; artillery “prepping” another area; a division camp here, a battalion forward area there; trucks moving on a dozen roads.

Flying north along the road to Danang, you see why the highway is secure: great areas have been scraped off the hilltops every five miles or so, ringed by 105’s2 and covered with tanks and tents. We have just about paved the road-side for a hundred miles.

B.

The quality of our people.

I am sure that America has never committed so much of its talent to a single military or political operation. The officers I spoke with were, by and large, superb professionals, and some of them had a sense that this war is far more complex, and its issues far more difficult, than could be addressed by military firepower alone. This was particularly true of the Army—surely because the Army has the main job of advising the ARVN and dealing with the frustrating human problems of security and pacification.

We have a number of civilians in Vietnam who have been there for years, whose commitment is total, and who tend to discount the virtues of any new “way” to win the war and secure the peace. They have seen many bright flags go up, and come down, tattered and spoiled, within a few months.

The military tend to defend the status quo, that is, whatever is being done at the moment. The embassy people tend to be absorbed in specific political questions—who is down and who is up in Saigon. Neither group seems to be looking for a new kind of politics, a politics of programs instead of personalities.

It may be that Ambassador Bunker, working with Lilienthal, can inspire that kind of politics in the Saigon government. He has a number of civilians in OCO, and some military advisors with the ARVN, who can support him in that effort, and are anxious to do so.

My impression is that most of the military have “accepted” revolutionary development as an assignment, but only in their heads; their hearts are committed to the shooting war against the VC main forces. The OCO people—Komer excluded—seem to be hesitant about occupying [Page 491]the driver’s seat and calling for more effort in the unglamorous pacification campaign. Being loyal by nature and training, the military will do their part in assisting revolutionary development, but there will be many occasions in which questions of priority will be difficult. It will require constant pressure from here to keep the pacification effort at the fore-front.

One last observation about the quality of our people. An old master sergeant told me that “there never has been an army like this. Our kids out here are the finest soldiers we ever put on a battlefield—and I went through World War II and Korea with some mighty good units. These boys don’t wave the flag, but they do their job better than soldiers have ever done it.” From what I saw, I’m sure he must be right.

I would recommend that thought be given to extending the tour of some officers and men—particularly those who are serving as ARVN advisors. One year is more than enough for the foot soldier. It is too short for those who must do the sometimes satisfying, often infuriating job of dealing with an alien military force, whose customs and experience are not only different from ours, but pose constant obstacles to military efficiency.

C.

The quality of RVN people.

Bill Jorden and I had a long dinner with Ky one night, and I had another hour with him before I left. I also had an hour and a half with Thieu. I did not meet Huong or Suu, the two principal civilian candidates.

With Ky and Thieu, I talked chiefly about the “new politics” of programs instead of personalities, and about corruption. They made all the right sounds; they were for the first and against the second. (Bunker rightly says this is the problem, whether they are only making the right sounds and haven’t the will or the intention of performing; whether, as he puts it, they are smooth, or only slick.)

Whatever the case, Ky is, as you know, disarmingly candid, and his ambition, which is almost unlimited, could be the engine of progress for Vietnam, as well as glory for himself.

When I talked of the need for program, and said I thought the American people would more willingly support a man with a vision for his people than someone who had only won a fight for power, Ky said “We’ll all have a program. We’ll all sound like Roosevelts. The question is, who could carry it out? The civilians are too old, and I don’t know what General Thieu wants.” It was unnecessary for him to say who could carry out a program of reform.

When I talked of corruption—which I was told is almost universal throughout the government, from the police check-point to the license office, from the district chief to the corps commander and probably [Page 492]the ministries in Saigon—he said, “Most of the generals are corrupt. Most of the senior officials in the provinces are corrupt. But getting at corruption takes time. And you must remember that corruption exists everywhere, and people can live with some of it. You live with it in Chicago and New York.” I accepted this at the dinner, shortly after I arrived in Vietnam, but when he repeated it at the end of my visit I said “I don’t think you have all that time. And I don’t think you can stand even as much corruption as we have in the States. We have a government that people have given their loyalty to, and we can absorb some corruption. The problem here is that people have not given their loyalty to the national government, and I don’t think they will so long as officials of that government leech on them day and night.” He agreed at once, which was a bit disconcerting—too much like the old Asian game of saying yes to whatever the colonial westerner wants. I said I thought a real national leader could create a powerful constituency if he convinced the people that between them—between the leader at the top and the people at the bottom—they could crush the sons-of-bitches in the middle who were sapping the strength of people. His eyes lit up for a moment, and he said, “Yes, yes"—but then he thought of the trouble that would entail, and he said “But it takes time to get them out. You must be patient.”

I met a few province chiefs and district chiefs; they were generally present at briefings in the field, but either through embarrassment over their lack of English or the American’s impatience with their slowness, they did no briefing themselves. This is unwise. Whenever a military or civilian VIP travels through Vietnam, our people should make a point of having ARVN officers or civilian personnel take an active part in the briefing. Otherwise it is only an American show; and the war in Vietnam is not only an American show. I made a point of this to MACV.

Everyone I talked to rated the ARVN soldier as “good, if he is well led.” Of course the problem is just that—honest and devoted leadership.

I heard many expressions of contempt for the Popular Forces and Regional Forces, the fellows who man the triangular French-style forts around the hamlets. But most of those expressions came from American military in Saigon. Our officers in the field, and our OCO civilians, gave them higher marks. The difference in judgment stems from a difference in concept: in Saigon the view is that the PF and RF should do more patrolling and ambushing; in the field, people are more inclined to admire these semi-trained men for staying in the forts at all, and to mark their successes in fights with the VC, rather than their failures.

[Page 493]

Most of our chips in the pacification field are riding on the revolutionary development program. I had a good talk with General Thang, who runs it; he says he wants to quit, but Komer believes he can be talked out of it. I asked him if the problem was lack of support from Ky and Thieu. “The problem is not what they say,” he said, in almost the same words Bunker had used, “but what they do.”3

I spent a whole day at the RD training center in Vung Tau, with Major Nguyen Be, the director of the school and one of the fathers of the program. He is a charismatic figure. I liked him instinctively and I was surprised at the intensity of his convictions. He sees RD as truly revolutionary, as creating the basis for a popular democracy, and he fears the program will be blunted and perhaps destroyed “when those in the power structure learn what it is we are trying to do—give the people power.” I had some sign of this from Thieu, who said “better educated and more patriotic people—Army people—ought to be put in charge of every RD team.”

Over 55,000 cadre have been turned out of Vung Tau. How well they are doing is hard to say. They are supposed to move into hamlets in 59-man teams; the average size of the teams in place, however, is about 30. The rest just leave. Hamlet life is boring; the pay of a cadre is poor (3500 piastres a month, or $35) and the teams often run into Vietnam’s endemic problem—corruption or lack of interest at the province level.

I saw teams in some hamlets that had made some forward movement, at least according to their charts. I heard of others where progress existed solely in the words of the team leader, and where nothing had changed. An American whose insights seemed right to me said, “Nothing can really work unless there is political change. RD has been tried before, under Diem; almost everything has been tried. But until there is a government in Saigon that can gain the people’s trust, and make its will felt in the provinces, all of these schemes will break apart on the same old rocks: suspicion of the government, corrupt officials, lack of response by those in a position to help.”

Still, Major Be and his instructors believe in the program, and they are working at it seven days a week. If the ARVN cooperate with the cadres, without dominating them—which in my opinion would distort the whole RD effort—RD can become the base on which a more secure and hopeful country can be built.

D.

Politics

Fred Weyand, the fine general who is just getting this third star, said “Before I came out here a year and a half ago, I thought we were [Page 494]at zero. I was wrong. We were at minus fifty. Now we are at zero.” That was my impression, on this first visit. I think we have created a vacuum, and pushed the VC out of a great many places they controlled. Now the question is, what’s going to fill the vacuum?

It could be the VC; though they are hurt, I think they are still strong enough to do it. It could be us, with another 200,000 troops. But if it is us, what follows when we leave? This is a constant dilemma in Vietnam: how much to run the show, and run it well, as we can; how much to hang back and try to bring the government along, frustrating as that is. One day we must leave; but we cannot leave until the RVN is strong enough and respected enough to take our place as the controlling factor in Vietnam.

Today, most Vietnamese are politically inert. The common judgment is that not more than 10 to 20 percent of the people would voluntarily cast their lot with the VC. Another 20 percent would go with the RVN. That leaves 60 percent “don’t knows.” An astute young civilian who has lived in the Delta for the last three years, studying VC morale, says “If there were an election in this province, with one VC candidate, one RVN candidate, and one man who said to hell with both of them, the latter would win.”

RVN must erase the image of its past behavior. Some officers and civilians are trying to do this, urged on by American advisors.

There must be visible and direct action against corruption. Today, complaints about corruption are quashed as they move up the line. There is an elaborate process of pay-offs that sees to this. People know this, and while they may endure it, they obviously will not give their loyalty to a system that perpetuates it. The most infuriating practice of all is that of arresting those who complain about corruption as “possible VC.”

The supply of social services must be made more responsive. It takes forever to get action on urgent needs in the hamlets, and there is plenty of rake-off as the goods finally move down the line. Organization is one problem; I never understood how the ministry-corps commander-division commander-province chief-district chief system was supposed to work, and apparently it often just doesn’t. It would seem useful to try to separate military and civil responsibilities, and perhaps to relieve the corps and division commanders of all purely civil responsibilities.

Security forces in the hamlets are still not strong enough, or aggressive enough. It is almost impossible for an American, living in our comfortable (if sometimes riot-torn) society, to understand what the problem of security is in Vietnam. You just can’t go down that country road, although it looks peaceful. You can’t spend the night in this area. You take off from a rice paddy with your .50-cal. gunners aiming at an impassive crowd of peasants standing on a dike. This PF outpost was overrun last week. (And that police check-point was annihilated [Page 495]in February; the VC went into the neighboring hamlet, and asked the people to identify the off-duty police living there. The people hated the police so much, because they had illegally charged them 100 piastres for every bag of rice they moved through the check-point, that they pointed them out at once, and the VC, playing heroes, executed them.)

Some RF and PF units are beginning to move out on patrol at night, where there is fire-power to back them up.

E.

Specific politics

I have heard that Gene Locke and General Westmoreland are backing Ky. A number of American civilians, in OCO and the embassy, are convinced that the best president for Vietnam would be a civilian and a southerner. They are for Mr. Huong, a former prime minister and mayor of Saigon. He is in his sixties.

Ky told me Huong had said to him, “I can’t win, and I hope you do. I am too old to get much done.” Thieu said, “I am a candidate, but I hope Huong wins. We should have a civilian president.” Thieu is not optimistic about his own candidacy.

Ky said “There will be a coup if a civilian wins and tries to negotiate with the VC or the North, or tries to form a coalition.” Thieu said “If I were Chief of Staff or Defense Minister, I would take no part in a coup; I would be loyal to a civilian.” (Looking at American military power around Saigon, it seemed clear to me that we could, if we chose, pretty well contain a coup involving ARVN military units.)

Ky said, “The problem I will face is keeping the vote from going too high.” Apparently he meant that his friend Loan’s enthusiasm—coupled with his power as police and security chief—might get the better of him and produce a 90 percent “mandate.” Thieu said, “There must not be any police interference with the election.”

I stressed the vital importance of fair elections with both men, saying that a corrupted outcome could undermine American support for the war and set the RVN back years in its efforts to gain public support. As expected, both agreed.

It seems to me that if Thieu remains in, and has not already made a deal with Huong, Ky will win in a simple plurality vote. But if Thieu throws his support to Huong, that would mean a new ball game. I believe we should play it loose for awhile. This is what Ellsworth Bunker appears to be doing.

F.

The Viet Cong

Though they are in trouble in most areas, they can still operate in many villages throughout the country, using “terror and blandishment,” as Robert Shaplen calls it. (His book, “The Lost Revolution,” is [Page 496]the best work on Vietnam I have read, and I recommend it highly. It covers the 1945–1965 period.)4

Recruitment is more difficult; the VC are having to assure potential recruits that they will keep them in their home areas. More often than not they move them soon thereafter into regional or main force units, and this has created some of the dissatisfaction that has led many to become hoi chans.5

Despite their losses, they command militant support among a number of villagers. I was told of an old woman, who, seeing her husband arrested as a VC and having already lost two sons with VC units, threw grenades after the RVN police as they left her hamlet.

The VC take every advantage of the hatred generated by RVN corruption, and by the absence of government services. At the same time, they have little to offer in a positive way; their basic appeal is to those who want to get rid of today’s system and today’s “colonialists"—Americans.

It sounds romantic to say so, but if I were a young peasant living in a hamlet, and had had none of my family hurt or killed by the VC; if I saw that the ridiculous Vietnamese educational system would almost certainly deny me the chance to go beyond the fifth grade; if I was frustrated by the lack of opportunity, and bored by the limited life of the hamlet; if I had no sense of commitment to today’s South Vietnamese nation, because the Saigon government had given me no reason to have it; and if I were offered the possibility of adventure, of striking at my Frenchified oppressors and their American allies, and of rising to a position of leadership in the VC, I would join up.

This is only to say that some well-spring of idealism and romanticism is being reached by the Viet Cong, and that it will continue being reached until the government finds a way to tap it for itself. The RD teams, and the spirit of men like Major Be, are the most likely means of doing that; but as I have said, their spirit can be destroyed, just as other efforts have been destroyed in the past, by listless, negligent, or corrupt government officials.

I visited one Chieu-Hoi center. Accommodations were pretty crowded and facilities were few. There are stories of hoi chans being beaten, and frequent accounts of their being denied ID cards and work permits. Whatever the truth of these tales, they do illustrate the understandably divided emotions with which hoi chans are regarded by government forces.

[Page 497]

The VC do not give up to U.S. forces in great numbers, although we scare a great many of them into turning themselves in to ARVN units. The language problem, and their fear of our terrific might, make it difficult for them to come to us. I don’t know how effective our psy war operation is. MACV’s people are infatuated with how many million leaflets they’ve dropped; someone suggested they would be more effective if they dropped them in their canisters. There is, I take it, much room for improvement in this part of our effort.

It is impossible to tell how many recruits the VC are now getting. The young civilian in the Delta said “Recently most young men around here have managed to dodge both the VC and the ARVN draft.” MACV’s figures are highly suspicious. Last year’s figure was an extrapolation from captured records in 6 provinces out of 44. (The same can almost be said of ARVN and MACV’s body counts, in my opinion; nobody seemed to know how many innocent bystanders, impressed baggage carriers and others had been included in the VC “body count.” Some improvements in technique are being made in intelligence estimates, however, based on captured morning reports and order of battle documents. The whole business of VC strength, North Vietnamese infiltrators, etc. is a matter of intense controversy between our Army and the Air Force. It is in the latter’s interest to show that strikes in the North and in Laos have sharply reduced the enemy’s strength; and the Army just as stoutly holds to its figures that show a substantial rise in that strength even after two years of bombing.)

G.

Other Free World Forces6

I visited Philcag, and was stunned by the soldierly bearing of the Filipino soldiers.7 They have an effective civic action effort, a med cap program, and they are building a large and decent refugee camp. Their commander, General Tobias,8 is a spit-and-polish tiger. I asked him if many of his men had fought the Huks.9 He said, “Yes, but compared to the VC, the Huks were amateurs.” He was not sanguine about chances of increasing Philcag’s numbers in the near future.

[Page 498]

I visited both the ROK marines and the ROK Tiger division.10 God, they are a tough bunch. They have a method of seal-and-search that is the epitome of war psychology; it is slow, harrowing, and effective. Some of our civilians feel they have created as many problems as they’ve solved, that they are too brutal and careless of civilian life. I can’t judge the merits of this. I only know I hope I never meet one in a rice paddy some night without the right set of credentials.

I paid a brief visit to an Australian unit. The CO, a colonel of supply, said he thought the Australians were too cautious; they did not patrol widely, or invite attacks; he thought their effectiveness was being diminished by their conservatism. He suggested that this had political causes, as the home government didn’t want to see a big casualty list.

H.

Tactics

Our firepower is unbelievable. But so, too, are the bunker fortifications of the VC. I prowled around one in a forest north of the 1st Division area, and it was like an underground garage. In the Ho Bo and Boi Loi woods, in the 25th Division area,11 we used B–52s to blow enormous craters all over the place, but our soldiers still had a terrific time cleaning out the VC who remained. We still have few answers to booby-traps and mines. The VC are ingenious in setting them, and they take a fearful toll of civilian lives.

The “war zone”12 question is a tough one. Some commanders think it is no question at all; you simply move everybody out and then you sweep the place as if it were the Benning battery range. Others believe, as I do, that you create tough political problems when you move people against their will, and that in the absence of special circumstances, it is better to go through the difficult business of trying to root out the VC from among the innocent farmers. I heard Senator Russell13 say something to this effect the other night—that you always create problems when you move people away from their homes, particularly in Asia, where ancestor worship is the rule.

[Here follows McPherson’s continued discussion of military tactics, the outlook of Air Force personnel, images of servicemen in the [Page 499]field, and general comments on personnel, including a description of Robert Komer as “the hope” of many officers and civilians in Vietnam.]

L.

Conclusions

I come back neither optimistic nor pessimistic, neither more hawk nor more dove. We are simply there, and we should be.

I had to laugh each time I thought of Fulbright’s phrase “the arrogance of power.”14 I’m sure it applied, and may still apply, to some Americans in Vietnam, who thought we could bring this conflict to an end by the sheer force of military power and the sheer weight of our assistance programs. But when I think of the American major sitting in his fly-specked office in Gia Dinh province, wondering how to get his Vietnamese advisee to do something intelligent for a change, “arrogance of power” makes me laugh. Our people in Vietnam know, so much more intimately and painfully than Senator Fulbright knows, what the limitations of power are.

I wish there were some new way to convey the reality of Vietnam: some vivid way to say how inter-twined all the strands are, political, military, social, economic, educational, racial, nationalistic. Any one of them can snarl up, or support, any one of the others.

If our effort is only military, we will lose the big prize. We can have, and indeed have now, a kind of enclave-plus-strike force capability. We can line the roads between the enclaves with soldiers, and in that way “secure” them.

But security in Vietnam, freedom from that feeling that you are in somebody’s sights, will ultimately have to be won by something more than military means alone. Leadership at the top, and the political and economic stimulation of the masses of poor who live in the rural areas, are just as important to security as live ammunition. That is a platitude back here in Washington. It is as much a reality in Vietnam as the beauty of the women.

One thing you must always insist on is honest reporting by your own people. You must put a premium on candor, and a pox on what is only meant to make you, and other leaders at home, feel confident. General Harkins15 destroyed himself by his unfounded and misleading optimism. There is a natural tendency in the military to feel that things are going pretty well, and will go much better if we only have a few more bodies and bombs. I am not competent to pass on the more-troops question, but I think every eye that passes on it should be somewhat [Page 500]wary of the hungry optimism that is a part of the military personality.

Every aspect of our national life and our role in the world is involved in Vietnam. I feel that I am only another of those many men who have a part of their souls at stake there.

Harry
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Memos to the President, Walt Rostow, 6/1–8/2/67, Vol. I. No classification marking. McPherson visited Vietnam from late May through early June. The notation “L” on the memorandum indicates that the President saw it.
  2. 105-mm artillery.
  3. See Document 189.
  4. Robert Shaplen, The Lost Revolution: The U.S. in Vietnam, 1946–1966 (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).
  5. A reference to hoi chanh, or ralliers defecting from the Viet Cong by way of the government-sponsored Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) amnesty program.
  6. Thai, Filipino, Australian, New Zealander, and South Korean troop units, plus a host of noncombatants from various other nations, served alongside American soldiers and ARVN in Vietnam. For the “More Flags” effort by the Johnson administration, see Stanley R. Larsen and James L. Collins, Jr., Allied Participation in Vietnam (Washington: Department of the Army, 1975).
  7. The Philippine Civic Action Group, 2,000-strong, was dispatched to the Republic of Vietnam during 1966 as part of the Free World Military Assistance program. Its primary base camp was in Tay Ninh Province. Medical teams operated in three other provinces. Documentation on the Filipino contribution to the war effort is in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XXVI.
  8. Brigadier General Gaudencio V. Tobias.
  9. The Hukbalahap were Communist-inspired insurgents in the Philippines.
  10. The official name of the Tiger division, stationed in Binh Dinh Province, was the Capital Division.
  11. The U.S. Army’s 25th Division was headquartered at Cu Chi. It operated principally in Hau Nghia and Long An Provinces. For information on the war in this area, see Eric Bergerud, The Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991); Thomas C. Thayer, War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1985); and Jeffrey Race, War Comes to Long An (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).
  12. Fortified Viet Cong base complexes, often near population centers.
  13. Senator Richard Russell (D–GA).
  14. In the spring, Senator J. William Fulbright (D–AK) published a critical account of U.S. foreign policy, The Arrogance of Power (New York: Random House, 1967).
  15. Westmoreland replaced General Paul D. Harkins as Commander, MACV, on June 20, 1964.