91. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Komer) to President Johnson1


  • Change For The Better—Latest Impressions from Vietnam

After almost a year full-time on Vietnam, and six trips there, I felt able to learn a good deal from my eleven days in country, 13–23 February. I return more optimistic than ever before. The cumulative change since my first visit last April is dramatic, if not yet visibly demonstrable in all respects. Indeed, I’ll reaffirm even more vigorously my prognosis of last November (which few shared then) that growing momentum would be achieved in 1967 on almost every front in Vietnam.

I. General Impressions. Wastefully, expensively, but nonetheless indisputably, we are winning the war in the South. Few of our programs—civil or military—are very efficient, but we are grinding down the enemy by sheer weight and mass. And the cumulative impact of all we have set in motion is beginning to tell. Pacification still lags the most, yet even it is moving forward.

Indeed my broad feeling, with due allowance for oversimplification, is that our side now has in presently programmed levels all the men, money, and other resources needed to achieve success. There is so much in country—Vietnamese and US—that some programs are even beginning to get in the way of each other.

If this is so, our greatest present need on the US and especially GVN sides is to pull together our multiplicity of programs, set better priorities, refine program content, and do whatever else is necessary to get the most out of the massive effort which can now be supported by the incredible logistic base which we have built. This is easier said than done. I also believe that we could “win” eventually anyway even without better management. But we can achieve our purposes more quickly, and with less cost in blood and treasure, through more effective utilization of resources already available.

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If better management is the key, the first requisite (I again contend) is a vigorous top US team in Saigon. The second is better civil/military coordination, especially in the critical gray area of pacification. Third, and by far the most important, is a more effective and coordinated GVN effort, though experience dictates that results in this area will come slowly at best. Whatever new GVN emerges from the political process now in motion may be even less “efficient” in many respects than the present Ky regime, though its weaknesses are such that the difference might be marginal. However, the political plus from an elected government would far outweigh any likely loss in administrative efficiency.

Lastly, that vital intangible—the mood of the people—is changing for the better. As CAS chief John Hart put it, a “victory psychology” is beginning to emerge in Vietnam. I saw it everywhere I went—in the confidence shown by GVN officers and officials high and low in the 10 provinces I visited, in the growing traffic on the roads, the increased pace of economic activity, the tone of the press, and the way in which more civilians are emerging to take part in the political process. This optimism is shared by most US military and civilians; the chief remaining doubters are a large segment of the US press corps and many of the US officials concerned with pacification. To my mind, many of this latter group fail to see the forest for all the trees, as will become clear in the following sections of this report.

[Here follows the body of the paper, in which Komer discussed the status of political, military, pacification, and economic measures in South Vietnam.]

VI. The Future Course of the War.

Though my latest visit was the most encouraging yet, I don’t wish to end on a note of excessive optimism. Even if most things are beginning to break our way, Hanoi retains the option—should it choose to suffer the pain—of a protracted guerrilla war aimed at waiting us out. Many think it will do so, at least through our 1968 elections. Plenty could still go wrong on our side too, especially a political crisis in Saigon as the Vietnamese struggle over who should inherit the fruits of American success.

Yet I return from Vietnam with more confidence than ever in my November prognosis that 1967–68 would be a period of gathering success, and that by mid-1968 at the latest it would be clear to all that we were “winning” the war in the South. Indeed, I now believe that it will be clear much sooner—almost surely by end-1967 if not before. It now seems quite conceivable that gathering momentum in the South, plus the turmoil in China and our continued pressure on the North, could lead to negotiation or Hanoi fadeaway in 1967. And I am one of those [Page 210] who believe that cessation of infiltration from the North would almost inevitably be a decisive psychological shock to the southern VC.

Even if the VC/NVA manage to sustain a protracted war, it seems likely that we can inflict such damage on them in the next 12–18 months—and achieve sufficient pacification, political and economic progress in the south—to reduce the enemy threat to proportions permitting redeployment of some US forces. In this case, Vietnam would gradually become more like a super-Malaya case, in which continued attrition of the enemy hard core could take years—but at a rate of loss and cost to us far less than in the present phase. In sum, we will face plenty of problems in Vietnam, but these are increasingly the problems of gathering success—no longer those of forestalling disaster.2

I will submit separately a list of action recommendations.3

R. W. Komer
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, McNamara Vietnam Files: FRC 77–0075, January and February 1967. Secret. Komer had participated the previous day in a press conference with the President and David Lilienthal, head of the American side of a joint U.S.-South Vietnamese nongovernmental development planning group, at which time he discussed several of his conclusions contained in this memorandum. See American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1967, pp. 863–865. The various operations that constituted the U.S. pacification support program became housed in the OCO after November 1966.
  2. The CIA echoed Komer’s optimism. In a February 18 memorandum entitled “Pacification and Nation-building in Vietnam: Present Status, Current Trends and Prospects,” Helms presented the Agency’s analysis to Komer, Vance, Rostow, and Bundy. Its summary reads as follows: “Major strides have been made in improving the organization and effectiveness of pacification and nation-building programs on both the U.S. and GVN sides. The recent integration of U.S. civil operations into a single organization should markedly improve their effectiveness, and the aggressive leadership of the Minister for Revolutionary Development is beginning to overcome past weaknesses in the Vietnamese administrative structure. The Vietnamese civilian cadre apparatus has been completely overhauled in the past year, with various groups integrated into a single, standardized organization. Some weaknesses in cadre leadership and recruit selection remain, however, and the current emphasis on achieving quality rather than quantity will limit the expansion of revolutionary development activities in the countryside. Effective integration of civilian cadre activities with local security resources also remains a problem in many areas.” The conclusion of the memorandum described the prospects for the program as “generally favorable.” The effective employment of the ARVN in support of pacification and the ability of the allied military forces to stem intensified VC activity in 1967 would be decisive in shifting the civil struggle in favor of the GVN. (Washington National Records Center, RG 330, McNamara Files: FRC 71 A 3470, Vietnam 380 Pacification 1967)
  3. Not found.