397. Special National Intelligence Estimate1
CAPABILITIES OF THE VIETNAMESE COMMUNISTS FOR FIGHTING IN SOUTH VIETNAM2
To estimate the capabilities of the Vietnamese Communists to conduct military operations in South Vietnam over the next year or so.3
Our earlier understanding of overall Communist capabilities in Vietnam had, of necessity, to rely heavily on data provided by the GVN. Much of this turned out to be unreliable, and in many instances our numerical estimates of Communist forces, other than for the Regular units, were too low. Our information has improved substantially in the past year or two, but the unconventional nature of the war poses difficult intelligence problems, the more so in a social environment where basic data is incomplete and often untrustworthy.
Manpower, for example, is a key element for the Communists but we lack precise basic data on population size, rates of growth, and age distribution for both North and South Vietnam. Assessing Communist capabilities also involves an understanding of the organization and effectiveness of the various components in the Communist military and political apparatus in South Vietnam. Much of the evidence on these components is obtained from a variety of sources, including captured documents, of varying reliability and timeliness. The analysis of this data, as well as that concerning North Vietnamese support to the South [Page 1024] and all manpower questions requires complex methodological approaches which cannot rise above the uncertain data inputs.
Our data and conclusions are therefore subject to continuing review and revision, especially since capabilities do not remain static. In this estimate we have concentrated on reaching the best judgments of the current strength of the Communist forces and, because of incomplete and unreliable basic data, we have not attempted to reconstruct Communist strength retrospectively.
Reservations with respect to evidence are explained where appropriate in the individual sections of the estimate. The main conclusions which follow, however, allow for such uncertainties in the supporting intelligence, represent our best appreciation of the overall situation as it now stands, and are based on the assumption that there is no radical change in the scale and nature of the war.
- During the past year, Hanoi’s direct control and share of the burden of the war in South Vietnam has grown substantially. This trend will continue.
- Manpower is a major problem confronting the Communists. Losses have been increasing and recruitment in South Vietnam is becoming more difficult. Despite heavy infiltration from North Vietnam, the strength of the Communist military forces and political organizations in South Vietnam declined in the last year.
- The major portion of this decline has probably been felt at the lower levels, reflecting a deliberate policy of sacrificing these levels to maintain the structure of political cadres and the strength of the Regular military forces. In particular the guerrillas, now estimated to total some 70,000–90,000, have suffered a substantial reduction since the estimated peak of about early 1966. Regular force strength, now estimated at 118,000, has declined only slightly, but Viet Cong (VC) units are increasingly dependent upon North Vietnamese replacements.4
- Given current Communist strategy, and levels of operations, a major effort will be necessary if the Regular forces and the guerrillas are to be maintained at or near present levels. To do so will require both a level of infiltration much higher than that observed in 1967 and intensive VC recruitment as well. Considering all the relevant factors, however, we believe there is a fairly good chance that the overall [Page 1025] strength and effectiveness of the military forces and the political infrastructure will continue to decline.
- The Communist leadership is already having problems in maintaining morale and quality. These problems have not yet impaired overall military effectiveness, but they are likely to become more difficult.
- Difficulties in internal distribution will continue to cause local shortages and interfere with Communist operations from time to time. But we believe that the Communists will be able to continue to meet at least their essential supply requirement for the level of forces and activities in South Vietnam described in this estimate.
- Communist strategy is to sustain a protracted war of attrition and to persuade the US that it must pull out or settle on Hanoi’s terms. Our judgment is that the Communists still retain adequate capabilities to support this strategy for at least another year. Whether or not Hanoi does in fact persist with this strategy depends not only on its capabilities to do so, but on a number of political and international considerations not treated in this estimate.
[Here follow additional estimates of enemy manpower. In addition to the enemy strength of 118,000 personnel for regular units (NVA/VC main and local forces) and an estimated 70,000–90,000 guerrillas cited in the conclusion above, the report added 35,000–40,000 in support elements (a maximum of 248,000 personnel). Outside of this total, the authors of the SNIE did not factor in militia-type units, such as the self-defense force, the secret self-defense forces, and the youth combat organization, all of which were too difficult, they believed, to estimate accurately, and the non-combatant political cadres, which numbered in the range of 75,000–85,000. They did admit previous underestimation of the non-regular military forces, and thus implied that the enemy did have a much larger overall organization than the SNIE’s maximum military figure suggested. The estimate concludes by asserting that Communist infrastructure in Vietnam had been in decline since early 1966 and would continue to decline. However, it contained an admission that the enemy could persist at the current level of struggle for at least a year.]5
- Source: Department of State, INR/REA Files: Lot 90 D 99, National Intelligence Estimates; Special Intelligence Estimates. Top Secret. Submitted by the DCI and concurred in by the U.S. Intelligence Board. In a covering memorandum to the President, November 14, Helms cautioned that this SNIE was “sensitive and potentially controversial” because of the “variance” of its figures with past estimates. Because of this issue, Helms confided that he considered withholding the issuance of this SNIE. However, he had reconsidered since, in light of public knowledge of the discussions over the enemy order of battle, “the charge of bad faith or unwillingness to face the facts would be more generally damaging than the issuance of this document which can stand on its own feet.” (Central Intelligence Agency, DCI (Helms) Files, Job 80–B01285A, DCI (Helms) Chrono, Aug-Dec 1967, 01 Aug-31 Dec 67)↩
- This estimate supersedes NIE 14.3–66, “North Vietnamese Military Potential for Fighting in South Vietnam,” dated 7 July 1966, Top Secret. [Footnote in the source text.]↩
- The figures in this estimate are current as of 1 October 1967. [Footnote in the source text.]↩
- In comparison, the forces arrayed against the Vietnamese Communists included: VNAF—730,000 (of which 327,000 were regulars), U.S.—470,000 (soon to be augmented by 45,000 personnel), ROK—45,000, Australia—6,300, Thailand—2,500 (also to be supplemented by 10,000 personnel), Philippines—2,000, and New Zealand—400.↩
- In a speech before the National Press Club, November 21, Westmoreland listed the elements of progress made by the allied side in South Vietnam and the myriad of problems faced by the enemy. For full text of the speech, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1967, pp. 1034–1038. The specific figures as listed in the SNIE were mentioned in a November 22 press briefing by Westmoreland in which he insisted that the enemy’s ability to carry on the struggle had deteriorated. He suggested that the estimated 40,000 Communist troops that were lost during the summer of 1967 could not be replaced. He also acknowledged that the new estimate had not included Viet Cong political infrastructure in South Vietnam. The full revised estimate was made public on November 24. See The New York Times, November 23 and 25, 1967.↩