106. Memorandum From the Ambassador at Large (Lodge) to Secretary of State Rusk1


  • Herewith what I tried to convey to you on Sunday2

American public opinion can stand a long drawn out military campaign with few casualties or a relatively short campaign with high casualties (such as World War II which from the American standpoint began with heavy combat operations in December 1942 and ended in April 1945, i.e., two and one-half years). But American public opinion cannot stand a long drawn out war with high casualties. As far as the overwhelming mass of public opinion is concerned, the big thing is U.S. casualties. If they go down, none of the other things matter very much. And Vietnamese civilian casualties would go down too.

It would be most imprudent to expect quick results in Viet-Nam. The central purpose, after all, is to build a nation and this involves psychological changes which usually come gradually. As realists we should assume a protracted effort—hopefully with low casualties. If things should go quicker than we expect, so much the better.

“Search and Destroy”

The policy of the U.S. military in Viet-Nam has consistently—and rightly—been to conduct what is called “offensive operations.” But [Page 333] these are defined as “search and destroy”—and this raises serious questions.

Such a definition clearly implies a belief that an exclusively military victory is conceivable and that if we just get out and destroy enough Viet Cong the war will come to an end. This is the so-called “war of attrition.”

Such a war was sound doctrine in World War II, but it is not realistic in the Viet-Nam war. It is not possible to win the war by killing the enemy by military means on the ground in South Viet-Nam. The hard core terrorist guerrilla certainly cannot be reached that way. He will only be reached when the people give enough information about the terrorists so that they can be rooted out by police-type methods. This is what is meant by “pacification” which, in turn, is the first step in “nation-building.” And the North Vietnamese soldier can be better reached by bombing North Viet-Nam and by being apprehended when he reaches his so-called “safe haven” in South Viet-Nam.

The following questions, therefore, arise:

has there not been unnecessary killing of people on our side because of the policy of “search and destroy,” in particular by the devastating effect of our artillery and airpower on Vietnamese civilians and buildings?
has not this tactic failed to do the job?
has it not also created an undue number of refugees?
has it not made heavy demands on precious intellectual and physical energies which might otherwise have been aimed at nation-building, which is the most promising way to achieve a durable result?

Might we not, therefore, do much better if we defined the phrase “offensive operations” as meaning “split up the enemy and keep him off balance”? In accordance with this definition the U.S. military would be playing its own utterly indispensable part: acting as a shield behind which the Vietnamese nation-building and pacification operations can take place.

Someone who enjoys the President’s confidence and has a good grounding in military and political matters, but who is not in the regular military hierarchy, should see whether a policy of “split up and keep off balance” would not result in fewer U.S. casualties, fewer refugees and at the same time actually expedite the pacification program, by releasing energies now inevitably absorbed by the great demands of the present policy of “seek out and destroy.”

The question of how we use our armed forces is a matter of the greatest political importance, even though its execution is military. It should be viewed from the viewpoint of the highest possible overall civilian strategy.

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More Troops?

More troops, therefore, should, in accordance with this reasoning, be sent in numbers sufficient only to enable us to keep faith with our troops in exposed positions, as in the northern end of South Viet-Nam—and not to continue the past emphasis on “search and destroy.”

The new emphasis should be on the creation of durable local political institutions under which police-type programs—for “territorial security”—can operate. Such an emphasis would be on protection of heavily populated areas, which would, of course, require operations outside of these areas. It would deny safe haven to the infiltrators from the North. It should organize South Vietnamese society as efficiently as North Vietnamese society is organized. There should thus be intensive and repeated scourings—i.e., “comb-outs”—precinct by precinct, block by block, house by house, and farm by farm. It should be as hard to move from one precinct to another or from one village to another in South Viet-Nam as it is today in North Viet-Nam. All this should mean fewer U.S. casualties and fewer Vietnamese refugees. And it should hasten the end of the war.

Our present practice of having virtually everything available to the press is also a loser. The enemy would never do such a thing. We should institute censorship just as we did in World War II and on the very simple grounds that we are risking American lives if we don’t.3

A New Turn

Thus it would be clear that we are not going to abandon Viet-Nam; but that we are going to run the war with a somewhat different emphasis in the light of our experience at the time of the Tet raids, which has created a new situation.

There were those who, in the late forties and early fifties, believed that the so-called “cold war” with the Soviet Union must come to a head. Some were making plans accordingly—to “end the cold war by winning it.” Then General Eisenhower explained to the American people that we must learn to live with the cold war. Everyone now sees that this was good advice.

We can learn to live with this Vietnamese situation and, if we do not watch the clock, we will find that time will be working for us. We have had soldiers in Germany and in Korea since 1945. Similarly, we can have soldiers in Viet-Nam providing protection for the nation-building [Page 335] program against external aggression. But South Viet-Nam must become competitive with Communism—not just on the conventional battlefield but in every single aspect of life, notably in the organization of their society. We must build a solid foundation before we start putting on the penthouse.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Lodge, Henry Cabot. Top Secret; Nodis. The next day Rusk transmitted this memorandum to the President under cover of a note which read: “I think you will be interested in reading the attached memorandum from Cabot Lodge.” In his own covering memorandum to the President, March 6, Rostow wrote: “Herewith Cabot Lodge makes his case for a modification in military policy which would permit us protracted operations in Vietnam at low casualty levels.” The President wrote on this covering memorandum: “Ask Taylor & Clifford & Bunker each for separate comments.” (Ibid.)
  2. March 3.
  3. In commenting on Lodge’s points in two separate memoranda to Clifford, March 8, both Goulding and Warnke opposed the idea of censoring information from Vietnam as ineffective and likely to produce even greater opposition. (Washington National Records Center, Department of Defense, OSD Files: FRC 330 73 A 1304, 1968 Secretary of Defense Files, VIET 381)