6. Letter From the Commander of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (Krulak) to Secretary of Defense McNamara 1

Dear Mr. McNamara:

I have just come from Vietnam where, as always, there is a lot of talk concerning what we need to do the job. The views vary greatly. In many cases they derive from what I regard as faulty reasoning or unjustified assumptions. Let me tell you what I mean.

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The nature, length and intensity of past wars have largely been functions of the capabilities of the antagonists. Both sides did everything they could to win, using all the ingenuity and all the resources at their disposal. In the Vietnam war, this is not the case. Each adversary has the capability to do more than he is doing, and the length and nature of the war are heavily influenced by national judgements as to what type and intensity of action best suits their purposes.

It is this unused capability that has made it so difficult to estimate the nature of the war even a few months in the future. The opponents have exhibited this fact by matching bets time and again, and each time the result has been a state of equilibrium at a higher level of intensity.

Equilibrium, as a matter of fact, is one of the dominant characteristics of the war. Either the new actions of one contestant, or the counter-actions of his adversary, have created a succession of military plateaus. The plateaus have been the basis for miscalculations, sometimes giving the illusion of progress when actually no absolute progress is being attained. Examples of U.S. decisions leading to plateau changes are the initial introduction of ground forces, the initiation of air attacks against NVN, the use of SAC aircraft, and anti-infiltration ground and air action in Laos. Examples of enemy decisions which have generated plateaus at higher levels are attacks against U.S. shipping, growth in infiltration, the increased use of USSR munitions and advisors in NVN, and the attacks of U.S. aircraft by MIGs. A recent example of a plateau change was the enemy decision to make extensive use of the DMZ as a sanctuary, and the U.S. decision to counter this move by taking selective action against enemy forces and bases in the hitherto proscribed DMZ.

In the main, the enemy has decided the plateau on which we fight, although our power is vastly greater than his. Ours has largely been a reactive role; hoping for the enemy to come to terms at the current level of conflict, while preparing to punish him more intensely in case he does not. Consequently, any valid projection of force requirements must be preceded by an estimate not only of what the enemy can do, but of what he is most likely to do next.

But it goes further than that. Conclusions as to how much and what kind of power we need to commit must also be affected by the contribution of our allies. And, in this regard, I believe that inadequate emphasis has been placed on the resolution of the GVN, its willingness and its capability to bear its share of the burden. The visit which I concluded yesterday underscored my earlier conclusions that the GVN forces are not now contributing to the war to the full extent that they are capable. The consequences of this condition are evident. Our progress in large operations, counterguerrilla operations and pacification is slowed by the failure of GVN forces to assume a more active [Page 17] correlated role in these undertakings. Although more U.S. power is needed in RVN, any deductions respecting the magnitude of the needed increase will be influenced by conclusions regarding the capabilities and willingness of GVN forces to participate more extensively in a mutual GVN/U.S. effort.

So we must not only estimate what the enemy can and will do, but must conclude also just how much more our Vietnamese allies can and will contribute. Wound up in these two estimates is an array of variables, all having a direct effect upon any quantification of requirements or calculation of time needed to achieve our objectives. Taking departure from the situation described earlier relating to uncommitted resources, here are a few of the variables which give me trouble:

  • —What is the USSR going to do? Will she add to the 1500 technicians already in NVN? Will she send more men to make the GCI and SA–2 systems more effective? Will she send a better family of radars? Will she send replacements for lost MIG-21s? Will she fly them in action, as in the Korean War? Will she send more oil? More trucks? Or, in a contrary vein, will she weary of changing her Five Year Plans, back off and let Ho Chi Minh and the Chicoms go it alone?
  • —What are Mao and Lin Piao going to do? Will the current level of Chinese influence in NVN increase? Will they add to the 40,000 men they have invested now, and send tactical units into NVN? Will they send them into RVN? Will they create a diversion in Laos or Thailand? Or will their internal problems so preoccupy them as to cause a gross reduction in Chicom effort?
  • —What is Ho Chi Minh going to do? Will he shoot the works, try and send six divisions south to seize control of part of RVN? Will he send his Beagles south? Will he send more forces into Laos? Or into Thailand? Will he use the forces in the vicinity of the DMZ to try and make a Dien Bien Phu out of Khe Sanh? Or will he conclude, since he cannot win, that he should put his faith in protracted guerrilla and subversive war and count on weariness to defeat the U.S.?
  • —What is the GVN going to do? Is the existing government going to last? Will they do the sensible things necessary to curb inflation? Will the military continue at its present pace, or will it begin to operate somewhere near its practical capability? Will they get honestly into Revolutionary Development on the big scale now contemplated? Or will they, more and more, tend to “Let George Do It”?

Each of these variables can serve as a determinant of the cost of the war to use, and of the time it will take to bring it to a military end. And the frustrating thing is that none of them is rejectable, out of hand, because of impracticability or unreality. Thus, simply by a choice of assumptions related to these variables, one can generate conclusions which bear no similarity one to the other. And that, it seems to me, has [Page 18] been the greatest defect of our military planning up to now—the arbitrary assumption of constants which subsequent events have proven not to be constant. Indeed, there seems to be only one constant, which is this;—it flies in the face of our Vietnam experience to assume that any factor will continue unchanged for long.

An example of this inconstancy is the recent major change in enemy strategy. During 1965 and the first half of 1966 the enemy put emphasis on massing his forces—transition into Phase III of the revolutionary war cycle. This was climaxed in June of this year, when he tried us on for size in large scale maneuver involving thousands of people. We met him head-on in Hastings, in the DMZ area, and Attleboro,2 in the Laos border-high plateau area. He took a severe beating each time, and even the most cement headed Communist could see from these experiences that there was no chance of defeating us in mass, combined arms battle. They had to change, and they did.

First, it is clear that, without risking their own major formations, the Reds are now trying to present us with a continual threat of large unit involvement, by maintaining strong forces near the borders, in the Laos and DMZ sanctuaries. In doing so, they hope to draw our ground strength into the inhospitable hinterland and away from the key populated areas, where the beginnings of Revolutionary Development have begun to worry them. Second, they are intensifying guerrilla warfare, terrorism and subversion. Their purposes in this are two-fold, to thwart our Revolutionary Development efforts and, of equal importance, to present us with close quarters combat circumstances where, because of the great population density, our supporting arms are of minimum avail.

There is no doubt that the enemy is doing both of these things. They are to be found today in strength in the Laos and DMZ sanctuaries. There is evidence of continued activity of NVN units near the borders. There are small trans-border forays to hold our attention, but there are no mass adventures such as Attleboro or Hastings. Their attitude in the border areas is largely defensive.

And there has been an upsurge in terrorism and guerrilla activity in the populated regions. Prisoners in the Danang-Chu Lai area tell us, over and again, that this is what we now have to look forward to. The VC want to subvert and seize control of those people who have moved to our side, and they want to confront us with a surfeit of land mines, ambushes, snipers and raids; in other words, with the close quarters misery war where they know the casualty ratio is the least favorable to us, and our supporting arms are least effective on them.

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In doing these things, I think Ho Chi Minh has made a sagacious decision and a far reaching one where we are concerned. He is putting his hopes on manpower erosion and protracted combat among the people, expecting that the demand for more fighting men to meet the needs of the slow-moving guerrilla war will cause U.S. resolution to waver.

There is little doubt that more fighting men are going to be needed in countering the renewed enemy guerrilla/terrorism program. Some of these additional men must be Americans,—for leadership and example, to apply the “monkey see, monkey do” influence we have on our Vietnamese military counterparts. However, the great majority of the soldiers who sit in the hamlets, day and night, to protect the people, must be Vietnamese. The thousands of nightly counterguerrilla patrols have to be conducted by Vietnamese; not by Americans. We must show them how, as we have in the past; we must encourage them and, in a limited degree, we must go with them. But the major manpower contribution to the guerrilla war and Revolutionary Development should be theirs. We will have a major task of our own, protecting the flanks of the ARVN engaged in Revolutionary Development and in destroying Viet Cong bases and resources.

This Revolutionary Development is what the Vietnamese should be doing. It is within their competence and their capability, but they are not doing it. Right now there are about 190 battalions or battalion equivalents in the ARVN. I doubt if ten percent are involved in protecting the people from the harassment, depredations and oppression of the Viet Cong. Most of them are busy reacting to the initiatives of the Main Force or involved in static defensive activities of limited productivity. I know this is true in the I Corps where, of the 32 ARVN battalions, no more than four are really deep into Revolutionary Development. They need to be gotten into pacification on a gross basis.

The plans for this transition are good. During my current visit to Vietnam I became well acquainted with the details of the ARVN RD program in I Corps. As a plan it cannot be faulted, but there is a long reach between plan and fulfillment. It is a tremendous change for the Vietnamese military, and the road is rutted with ignorance, cynicism, oriental face and the ghosts of earlier, now-defunct, programs. I really do not look to see the ARVN come around to doing what they ought to do, without greater compulsion than is now being exerted on them.

I say all this as preamble to these conclusions:

  • —We do need more U.S. people in Vietnam—but the numbers are going to depend greatly upon just how much the Vietnamese military choose to do for themselves. This is the great unanswered question of 1967.
  • —The real and greater need, on the U.S. side, is for power, more than people. The Reds will happily match us—five or ten for one—in [Page 20] successive people plateaus, but there is no sense in competing on those terms.
  • —As to the need for more U.S. power, I mean the infusion of things;—things that show our resolution; things that cause the enemy losses of men and resources, at little cost to us. He is counting on the flesh and blood loss ratio becoming unbearable to us. We must frustrate him by eschewing the high U.S. manpower cost programs, which he can counter, in favor of low U.S. manpower cost programs, which he cannot. Examples? A quantum increase in the Arc Light effort to harry the VC bases in RVN and to help disrupt their logistics; a ten-fold growth in air interdiction of the Laos routes and of the DMZ area; constant bombardment from the sea of every sensitive point on the enemy communications, transportation and air defense system within naval gun range in the southern waist of NVN; greatly increased progressive and selective aerial destruction of NVN transportation, military logistic support and power resources.3 These exemplify actions which we can afford more than manpower, which strike the Reds where it hurts them most, and which show them that we are not fooling.
  • —Meanwhile, persuasive leverage must be applied to get the Vietnamese military busy doing what they have never done and have never wanted to do before—protect the people. So far they have only talked about it and, while the talk is modestly encouraging, it still has had no effect on the Viet Cong. They have to be made to produce in this area, else the manpower burden will be ours by default.
  • —The leverage needed to make the GVN get seriously into the Revolutionary Development business is at hand. We have it, if we will use it, in the form of greater U.S. control over the distribution of military medical and commodity imports. In my belief, the GVN get their hands on munitions and civilian goods too quickly, too easily and with too few restraints. While it will be necessary to preserve their face by exerting our increased controls in an unobtrusive manner, we can still make plain that the things they most want are going to materialize only as we see them doing what we want them to do in Revolutionary Development. This material leverage, moreover, should be applied mainly through the interface with the U.S. military, who have a better dialog with their RVN counterparts than do the civilians. One practical step would be to hand over the U.S. part of the Saigon port problem wholly to the military.
  • —Finally, we have to generate a comprehensive plan of campaign; and not just a plan for the ground campaign or the air campaign, not even a plan just for the overall military campaign. Rather, it should integrate everything—the plans for our political and economic operations in Vietnam, plans for employment of all U.S. military elements, plans for the RVNAF and plans for employment of those U.S. and GVN nonmilitary and quasi-military activities which are involved in Revolutionary Development. It should derive from an analysis and comparison of all of the possible strategic plateaus, in terms of the results expected in each case, versus the corresponding hazards and costs involved. And it should be a sensible plan, in terms of time; not going off into the blue of the distant future, but being revised and updated—as a mandatory matter—every six months.

Happy New Year. May 1967 bring us much nearer to the honorable Peace for which we all pray. I believe it can.



P.S. I will be in Washington on 26, 27 and 28 January, and look forward to the opportunity of seeing you.4

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, McNamara Vietnam Files: FRC 77–0075, Vietnam (January and February 1967). Top Secret.
  2. Attleboro and Hastings were large U.S. military offensives in Vietnam launched during 1966.
  3. The expanded bombing would be carried out by B–52s to be deployed at U Tapao air force base in Thailand. (SNIE 10–67, “Reactions to a Possible US Action,” January 5; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)
  4. In a January 26 memorandum to the President, Komer advised Johnson to meet with Krulak, who had just returned from two trips to Vietnam and was “perhaps our best counter-insurgency man in uniform,” in order to hear his report on the situation in Vietnam. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. LXIV, Memos (A)) Komer wanted the Marines’ Combined Action Company “technique” in I Corps to be adopted by the Army in the III or IV Corps of South Vietnam. (Ibid., Files of Robert Komer, RWK Chron File, January–March 1967) The President met with Krulak on January 27, 12:01–12:19 p.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) No record of the meeting has been found.