107. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
Saigon, March 6, 1968, 1200Z.
21321. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my forty-second weekly message.
- In my last week’s message,2 I attempted to give an interim evaluation of the effects of the Tet offensive pending more detailed reporting from the provinces. I think it is important also to try to make some evaluation of what motivated an obvious change of tactics on Hanoi’s part and what the implications are of their failure to achieve their immediate objectives in order to plan for the period ahead. I should also like to mention some of the things to which I think we should be giving top priority.
- This change of tactics represented a radical departure from the theory of a prolonged war. It may be that the most likely reason for the change, a view shared by Thieu, was a growing awareness on Hanoi’s part that the war was not going well; that with the great increase in American power, the progress toward a representative, nationalist government in South Viet Nam and the spreading of pacification through the countryside, the gradual approach did not seem capable of coping with it. Hanoi also undoubtedly calculated that it had assets it could use in South Viet Nam in the anticipated wide popular support and defections from ARVN. Their widespread propaganda to this effect would indicate that this was an essential part of their plan.
- The Communists seemed to have hoped that the result of the initial offensive would leave them in control of a number of cities and perhaps portions of others, including Hue and Saigon; that the countryside would have come into their hands automatically through victory in the cities; that there would be enough popular response to enable them to form coalitions between the NLF, newly formed front groups like the Alliance of Democratic and Peaceful Forces, and independent “progressive” groups to govern on the local and ultimately perhaps on the national level. Not only was the GVN not envisioned as part of the coalition, but on the contrary the Communists expected that it would have been discredited, its army weakened by the defection of large numbers of troops, the U.S. humiliated by the occupation of its Embassy and attacks on other installations, and disillusioned with the showing of its Vietnamese allies against whom the brunt of the attack was directed.
- In such a situation, Hanoi would be in the posture of strength from which they would like to negotiate hoping thus to achieve a cease-fire and provisions for eventual American withdrawal; and perhaps under such conditions quite willing to accept a coalition between the NLF, the newly created non-Communist fronts, and independent “progressive” groups.
- It is clear that the Communists have not achieved anything like these expectations, but it is undoubtedly true also, as Thieu has said, that they have had a fall-back position. It would appear now that while they have kept up some harassment of the cities, they are in the process of making an assessment of the present situation and there have come hints of a new course of action. In recent propaganda there is renewed emphasis on the countryside, the “destruction” of the pacification campaign as a major achievement of the offensive. This suggest arise [sic] they may now try to move to exploit their current gains against our rural programs.
- Another current theme is the “collapse” of the GVN administration. We may expect that the GVN at all levels may be a continuing target in the period ahead through what Thieu referred to as “political spoiling tactics,” propaganda, assassinations, and terrorism. A third element in the Communist propaganda is the frustration of the U.S. “search and destroy” programs. They claim that they are tying down our troops in a defensive role. And the importance of Saigon and Hue in current Communist propaganda would indicate that these may be, as Thieu has said, two principal targets of future Communist military action.
- As I have previously mentioned, there are options open to Hanoi and their choice of options will probably depend on their assessment of the developing situation in the urban and rural areas of Viet Nam and [Page 337] the outcome of new military engagements. But it may be significant that Communist propaganda is now speaking of the long war, of the need for each victory to be the basis for another, and of the stubbornness of the Americans. They are not promising easier, quick solutions. This may well indicate that the strategy outlined by Thieu in his recent conversations with me, which I have previously reported, i.e., pressure in I Corps and the Central Highlands to tie down our troops, harassment of the cities, and an attempt to take over the rural areas, may well be the course they will follow. This could involve a prolonged effort through the spring and summer (Thieu sees a critical period as probably May–October) in the hope of attaining their political objective of achieving a strong posture for negotiations.
- But while, because of the nature of the war, the enemy may have options, we have opportunities which through prompt and decisive action can be turned to our advantage; action as prompt and decisive as lies within Vietnamese capabilities, channeled by our advice and guidance, and stimulated to the maximum extent possible by our persuasion, prodding, urging, and leverage. [Omitted here is Bunker’s list of items to which the Embassy would give top priority: the recovery program, the resumption of “aggressive offensive operations,” increasing the size of the RVNAF, shuffling the top echelons of the RVNAF to reward those who had been effective, an expansion of the Phoenix program, reforming the bureaucracy, financial measures, the development of a new spirit of commitment and unity, and the restoration of people’s confidence in the GVN. In the remainder of the telegram, Bunker elaborated upon additional recovery and political matters.]