234. Telegram From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson in Texas1

CAP 67721. Herewith Bob Komer’s personal Viet-Nam assessment, as requested.

Fm Amb Komer 164.

To the White House eyes only the President.

Herewith personal estimate VN situation you requested.2 Am returning with McNamara for short consultation and will fill in orally if you desire.
No matter how many call me rosy optimist, I feel more confident than ever that at long last we are slowly but surely winning war of attrition in South. After fifteen months full-time on VN, including two months out here, I will stick to my guns despite more sceptical views SecDef and others who not as intimately familiar with myriad day-to-day details which add up to what really happening in VN. Moreover, after ten years as national estimator synthesizing all facets of various situations I have some experience at this business, as Walt Rostow can attest.
While other top brass here less willing go out on estimative limb than I, universal tenor of briefs to SecDef party one of sober optimism—even on electoral prospects. Westy clearly thinks we are winning military war. His real pitch is that the more you give him the faster he can reinforce success.
Regrettably our military have been their own worst enemies by succumbing in past to tendency build up enemy in order justify more troops. This has so added to press scepticism that when Westy told press two weeks ago that enemy losses probably exceeded crossover point in March and again in May, they wouldn’t even print it.
Our own outdated figures are what convince press of stalemate. For example, no qualified observer—military or civilian—still holds to early 1966 vintage estimate that VC in-country recruiting averages 7000 per month. The new J–2’s best guess is 3500, which would mean that with mounting losses we’ve inflicted on enemy in 1967 crossover point was reached some time ago. Yet until J–2 completes major study validating new figure,3 all official estimates are still based on old figure—thus daily widening credibility gap.
All here agree that VC visibly declining. This is becoming more and more of an NVA war. Main force war and even pacification going much better in II–IV Corps. But high level of conventional operations against NVA in I Corps obscures this picture of growing success in rest of country.
Now for NVA infiltration. Even if it remains as high as 6300 monthly average now estimated during 1966 there must be some reason why Hanoi doesn’t put in even more in order prevent constant defeats it suffering. Answer probably lies in several factors which prevent Hanoi from supporting any larger force in South. One of these is undoubtedly our bombing of North. SecDef keeps pointing out that bombing hasn’t stopped infiltration. But it equally valid to say that bombing plus logistic difficulties do in fact place some kind of ceiling on Hanoi’s ability infiltrate South. Thus if we can keep grinding down VC/NVA, while preventing Hanoi from further buildup in SVN, Hanoi will be increasingly behind eight ball.
This factor, plus impressive air briefings for McNamara on sharply higher pain level we inflicting on NVN during last few months good weather, suggests that continued bombing of North desirable complement to military effort in South.
Another major change in situation is that our cutting off of seaborne coastal infiltration routes has forced Hanoi rely on much more difficult Laos-Cambodian corridor. Thus Bunker, Westy, and I see [Page 586] strong case for raids against Laos routes. It could reduce need for more US troops. We not talking here about seizing ground or employing US forces. Combination of continued bombing, the new barrier, and raids into Laos offers real hope of limiting NVA infiltration, thus complementing our growing attrition of southern VC.
Though McNamara still sceptical on pacification, I feel in much better position than he to see that we finally making some progress, with every prospect doing better given sizable and growing investment we at long last putting into it. True, countryside still insecure and infrastructure/guerillas still everywhere. But no one who sees as much as I do would deny that we doing much better than last year.
Biggest worry out here (and I won’t downplay it) is that election will go sour. Thieu/Ky are running scared—because of Big Minh as much as civilians—which increases risk they’ll rig elections. We can’t live with a sham election, partly because resulting regime would simply be so lacking in popular support that it would be under constant pressure. Hence we must weigh in heavily (and publicly as means of pressuring Ky/Thieu) for reasonably fair election. If a civilian wins, I think we could live with him—and surely prevent military coup. Whatever happens, new regime will probably be even less effective than present one, largely because new Senate/Assembly will play independent role.
Provided we can make sure elections not a sham, and can sustain present military pressure, enemy summer/fall offensive will prove even more a fizzle than last year. This could lead Hanoi to rethink whether it can really afford to wait us out through 1968 elections. Even if it decides to outwait us, I am convinced that by mid-1968 we will be so visibly winning that even press here won’t be able to deny it. Therefore I recommend:
Keep bombing North through remaining few months of good weather. Hold off pause or cutback to 20 degrees until fall, when onset monsoon will force some diminution anyway. I fear military would scream publicly if we cut back just when they claim they’re finally getting results.
Allow up to brigade size ARVN raids into Laos as added means getting at infiltration routes.
Whatever added US forces you decide to give Westy, put positive public face on it. Also get him to say it’s enough for now by promising to let him reargue case later if necessary.
Keep heat on to revamp ARVN. Westy has made real progress, but a lot more is possible and will reduce US troop needs.
Tell us in spades we’d better make sure elections clean. Add your own oral message to Thieu/Ky. If you authorize in time, McNamara could tell him Tuesday.
Above hasty thumbnail sketch adds up to my judgment that, wasteful and painful though it is, our massive investment out here is [Page 587] finally beginning to pay off. Will gladly elaborate at length in person but hope you will protect my candor.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Komer-Locke on Vietnam. Secret; Literally Eyes Only for the President. Received at the LBJ Ranch at 4:54 p.m.
  2. The President requested a similar report from Locke on the situation in Vietnam in telegram CAP 67697 from Saigon, July 7. (Ibid.) Locke’s report, which echoed points put forth earlier by Bunker in his weekly summaries, was sent as CIA 9145, July 11. (Ibid.) Rostow summarized the recommendations of both men in lists which he sent to the President on July 12. (Ibid.)
  3. See Document 397.