112. Telegram From the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler) to the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Westmoreland) and the Commander in Chief, Pacific (Sharp)1
JCS 2721. 1. I had a most interesting and informative conversation today with our new Secretary of Defense, Mr. Clifford. He is a very astute, intelligent and able man who is closely in touch with Congressional leaders, the business community, and the heads of the news media agencies. As you no doubt know, he has been the trusted advisor to four Presidents. In my judgment, apart from his important official position, he is a man of stature and achievement, one whose views must be accorded weight.
2. The main points he made with me this morning were the following:
- The Tet offensive mounted by the enemy came as a great shock to the American public. He believes that this shock was the greater because of the euphoria engendered by optimistic statements in past days by various spokesmen supporting administration policy in South Vietnam.
- He is concerned at the lessening support for the war effort; he cited satiric articles by Art Buchwald as reflecting the beliefs of many people that actualities in South Vietnam and what is said are poles apart.
- He thinks that the American public cannot stand another shock such as that administered by the Tet offensive. He believes that we have laid ourselves open to the possibility of an additional setback with the American public by playing down the effects of the Tet offensive on the GVN, the RVNAF, and on the South Vietnamese public. One government spokesman (who shall be nameless) was ridiculed a couple of weeks ago for what the press considered to be wild overstatements in minimizing the strength and cunning of the enemy and the impact on the GVN.
- He considers that additional substantial attacks over a fairly wide area of South Vietnam could create a credibility gap with the American public and the news media which would be virtually unbridgeable.
3. I must admit that Secretary Clifford’s assessment is shared by me although, not having the contacts he enjoys, I cannot document the feelings in the business community and among the news media as can he. Nevertheless, I have been upset by views expounded in the news media, in the Congress, and in letters from the public to me that we are fighting a war which cannot be won; that unending hordes of North Vietnamese are [Page 352] surging against South Vietnam; that the GVN is corrupt and inept; that the South Vietnamese people are either solely interested in making money, largely by stealing from American sources, or are completely apathetic as to the outcome of the war, that the senior GVN military are war lords vying for power and are unconcerned about saving their country.
4. During our conversation Mr. Clifford called my attention to a key article by Gene Roberts on the front page of The New York Times of 7 March. The article is datelined Saigon 6 March, and puts in quotes a number of expressions of opinion attributed to “a senior military spokesman.”2 Among these which aroused the Secretary’s concern are these:
- A general statement that the military command is less worried now than at any other time during the last five weeks about a general second wave of attacks against Saigon and other population centers. This is followed by “I don’t believe the enemy has any great capability to assume any general offensive in the near future. He has been hurt and hurt badly. He is tired. His logistic efforts have been adequate to support his campaign thus far, but there is evidence of developing logistic problems.”
- “But I do give him a capability in I Corps north where he has large forces near Hue. In my opinion, Hue is the next objective.”
- A general statement to the effect that supply and transportation problems and a steady pounding by American bombs have weakened the enemy’s position around Khe Sanh and have decreased the possibilities of immediate attack. Apropos of the foregoing, Mr. Clifford remarked that of course he does not know whether the quotes attributed to the spokesmen are correct. In this connection, he asked that I obtain the tapes of the press interview or stenographic notes if there are no tapes.
4. The Secretary continued that he believes our best course of action is to be conservative in assessments of the situation and enemy capabilities. Otherwise, we could have the American public subjected to the second shock. In particular, he expressed the following views:
- Do not denigrate the enemy.
- Do not indulge in forecasting enemy plans or our plans.
- Do not make predictions of victory.
- Do express the view that there is tough fighting and that the enemy has residual capabilities not yet committed.
- This conservative approach, he feels, would put us in a strong public information position. If we suffer some reverses, the public will not be shocked. If we achieve some successes, we can modestly and without overplaying the situation claim and receive some kudos.
5. The Secretary particularly stressed the impact of statements such as that appearing in the Times article on public opinion and in Congress in connection with your request for additional forces. He pointed out that your programs will require the call-up of on the order of 240,000 reservists, extension of terms of service, and authority to call to active duty individuals in the reserve pool. End strength of the armed forces will increase by 450,000 or more by end FY 69. In his view, these requests will be made much harder perhaps impossible to sell if we do not adopt a sober and conservative attitude as to the military, political, economic, and psychological situation in South Vietnam.
6. I pointed out to Secretary Clifford that you have a difficult problem facing you. No commander can afford to be pessimistic and apprehensive in dealing with his troops because such an attitude in the commander engenders poor morale and defeatism in his forces. The Secretary replied that he fully recognized the dilemma facing field commanders in this regard. Nevertheless, he feels that a conservative public stance will be in the over-all benefit to our public image and to the support we will receive for administration policies in pursuing the war to a successful conclusion. He considers that you can tell your senior commanders you are deliberately adopting this attitude for the purposes extensively discussed above and, at the same time, encourage them to approach the job with optimism and an [3 illegible words].
7. I believe this guidance from the Secretary of Defense is so critical to our military effort in Southeast Asia that you should devise some way of passing it on without attribution as command guidance to your commands and public information staffs. Needless to say, if you have comments, I will be pleased to have them. Warm regards.3
- Source: Johnson Library, William C. Westmoreland Papers, #30 History File, 1–31 March 68 . Secret; Eyes Only; Immediate. Received at 0314Z.↩
- In telegram MAC 3280 to Wheeler, March 8, Westmoreland replied that he was the “senior military spokesman” referred to in the March 7 story in The New York Times. “My comments were based on my best estimate of the current situation, and I chose the opportunity to make them known because of my concern for the local attitude, particularly that of the Vietnamese, since there is constant talk of a second wave attack,” Westmoreland explained. “You know of my efforts to attempt to reverse this defensive attitude and get on the offensive, which action is necessary if we are to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the enemy and to reverse the adverse trend now apparent in the countryside in a number of areas.” He pledged to conform to Clifford’s guidance. (Ibid.)↩
- In an unnumbered telegram to Wheeler, March 10, Sharp replied: “The guidance from Secretary Clifford is appreciated and is being acted upon. Intend continuing efforts to insure credibility in all public statements, and am advising all subordinate commands of the necessity for conservative expressions of opinion on both good and bad aspects of the war.” (Ibid.)↩