117. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

21733. Ref: State 124584.2

I agree that the question of additional US troops for Vietnam raises fundamental questions regarding our policy here. As the paper contained in reftel indicates, the positive and negative effects of an increase on the Vietnamese Government and people involve difficult judgments affecting both our long-range and short-term objectives here.
A critical element in judging the effects of an increase in US forces is obviously the size of that increase. General Westmoreland, based on his understanding of the capabilities of the military services to deploy trained units, has recommended that the first increment should amount to an additional seven combat maneuver battalions plus an MP battalion. These forces are needed to partially offset troops which have already been dispatched to northern I Corps. If Pres Thieu’s analysis of enemy strategy and capability is correct, NVA/VC forces can be expected to mount another major offensive in the late spring or summer. This offensive must be decisively defeated. Even though Vietnamese forces will be building up during the time between now and summer, we can not expect them to be fully trained, equipped and in place before this phase occurs. I would therefore favor earliest deployment of the first increment recommended by General Westmoreland. The question of the dispatch of forces beyond this increment should be reexamined at a later date in the light of the situation during the summer months. The comments that follow relate to the general problems I forsee resulting from additional US forces, although I believe these problems will be manageable if the increase is limited to the numbers proposed under General Westmoreland’s recommendation for a first increment. I am not attempting to address in this message the effects of the proposed deployment of additional US forces in terms of measures required in the US to back up this action and give us the required reserve forces, since these are matters which have to be determined in Washington.
I agree that the deployment of additional US troops would probably stiffen the GVN’s will at a critical time and would be a further affirmation of our commitment and of our capability to meet it. The countervailing factor that it could tend to further Americanize the war and give the Vietnamese an escape route from their responsibility is an important consideration, however. The Tet attacks have given the anti-Communist elements here both a shock and a shot in the arm, as reftel indicates. The question now is how to take advantage of this without imposing impossible demands on the government, which will tend to make it throw up its hands and slip away from its responsibility, leaving us to carry the main burden. I think the answer to this will turn both on the size and deployment of additional US forces and on the availability of equipment and other support needed to allow the GVN to increase its military effort promptly. In other words, we need to maintain a careful balance between modernization of RVNAF and the build-up of our own forces. One of the clear lessons of the past few weeks has been that the Communists have given all out support in terms of military equipment and supplies for the NVA/VC and they have been able to outgun those RVNAF forces that are still equipped with our older weapons. Our modernization program for RVNAF is just beginning to make progress. We cannot afford to let this [Page 361] program slip and must examine each major item carefully to insure that RVNAF gets a fair share and that the momentum and confidence inspired by issue of the new items is not lost. The number of additional US troops contemplated for deployment should not have any appreciable effect upon the modernization and improvement of RVNAF. In fact, these two matters should go hand in hand to increase the momentum of the overall build-up of strength and capability in country to progressively destroy the enemy. I consider it most urgent that we get the weapons RVNAF needs over here as expeditiously as possible, in order to maintain the momentum of the GVN’s present mobilization plans. I view this matter as both a short and long term objective, while in contrast the provision of additional US forces is a necessary but a short term goal.
I am concerned about sizable additional US forces because of the effects of our overwhelming presence here and the possibility that the destructive effect of our type of warfare will nullify some of our basic purpose. By this I mean that we will increasingly come to play the role of a colonial power, whether intentionally or not. For this reason, I think we must maintain a very careful balance between what we undertake to do ourselves and what we can achieve through pressure on the GVN, always bearing in mind what the GVN is capable of in terms of its own human resources. However, bringing in the additional US forces presently contemplated should not add seriously to the problem of an overwhelming US presence at this time, since these forces will be deployed in the hinterlands fighting VC and NVA units, where destruction and visibility should be minimal. Additional forces when added to the proposed RVNAF build-up, should permit us to regain our momentum and accelerate it beyond that of 1967. The foregoing general observations underlie some of the specific comments which follow in the numbered paragraphs of the paper quoted in reftel.
I agree with para 3 that the GVN has the capacity to improve the security and political climate, and thus its image in the US, but the definition of this capacity must be a realizable one. Therefore, the range of decisions and actions to be required of the government must be keyed to a realistic assessment of what they can do, rather than an ideal related primarily to what we or American public opinion would like to see. No matter how much we achieve here, the American press and probably certain of our own Congress will never regard it as sufficient, given their tendency sometimes to demand standards of perfection which even we have not attained. I am confident that we and the GVN can do what is necessary, but in deciding what this is, we must take sufficiently into account the fact that this is an underdeveloped Asian nation torn by decades of war and with limited human resources, endeavoring to function under a new and unaccustomed form of government in which it has had little practice and less tradition.
Re para 5 I agree that a high-level mission to Saigon can play a helpful psychological role in this situation and Sec Clifford would be the ideal person to head it. I would be inclined, however, to recommend that the mission come at a somewhat later date, perhaps in April, to evaluate what is being done and to give an added push to our effort, I could then continue with the task of laying before the government what we expect of it and of getting this effort under way. I should note at this point that most of the decisions and actions listed are ones on which we have already been pushing the government and on which they have already begun to take encouraging action. This does not mean they cannot do more, but merely underlines the fact that we in the Mission, as well as the GVN, are basically on the same wave-length with Washington in terms of our objectives, and of the time-frame within which we are working.
Re para 6—mobilization, I have already reported on Pres Thieu’s decision to accelerate the mobilization process and his desire to provide between 100,000 and 125,000 additional men for the armed forces during the next six months. In this regard Pres Thieu envisages the extensive use of units on Fairfax type operations to protect the cities, their environs, and the LOCs. We are working with the GVN to maintain key civilians in their government functions where they cannot be spared or replaced. Gen Westmoreland informs me that FY 68 program for the expansion of the Vietnamese armed forces involves an increase of 64,000 men. Only approximately 25,000 of this force increase has been realized. The current approved program is therefore short approximately 40,000 men, for which equipment has been programmed. In accordance with this program, these 40,000 men were to be used to fill existing units and to activate the following major elements: approximately 80 RF companies and 250 PF platoons, 1 artillery battalion, 1 engineer battalion, 1 separate infantry regiment, and 2 infantry battalions to flesh out existing regiments. If additional men are mobilized, RF/PF units could be organized and equipped with WW II-type weapons available by virtue of receipt of more modern weapons by ARVN. Gen Westmoreland’s proposed FY 69 program involves an increase of 93,000. A formal request for approval has been submitted through his channel. Therefore it is Gen Westmoreland’s opinion that the number of men Thieu plans to mobilize can be conscripted, trained and equipped. Assuming that 125,000 men are mobilized during the next six months, this will result in a net increase of approximately 60,000 men in RVNAF over current strength in consideration of estimated losses of approximately 10,000 per month through casualties and desertions. There will be shortages of some equipment until FY 68 programmed quantities are delivered and until FY 69 items are programmed and available from production. Individual weapons will [Page 363] again be of the WW II type and vehicle shortages will have some effect on mobility. However, these problems are believed to be manageable. The major problem is one of leadership, where it is estimated that officer and NCO requirements may be difficult to fill. We feel that we should encourage Thieu and the Joint General Staff to proceed soonest with their mobilization, not only to form additional units that are sorely needed and to fill up their ranks, but to deny this manpower to the Viet Cong, who are, themselves, in desperate need of manpower.
Re para 7—Thieu/Ky relationship, this has been one of many main preoccupations since my arrival almost a year ago. This relationship continues to have its peaks and valleys, and it is now in one of its valleys, but I shall continue to devote my fullest energies to maintaining it and to encouraging a greater unity of leadership on all sides. The objectives outlined in paras 7 and 8 are those which have guided me in the past and I will continue to pursue them vigorously.
Re para 9 and 10—getting the GVN back into the countryside, this is a point on which Gen Westmoreland and I have been pressing the top leadership continuously for the past few weeks, and as I have reported, Thieu and Ky are fully in accord with it. While there have been circles in the military leadership who have been too conservative and reluctant to move out into the countryside, we believe that some success has already been achieved, and in most areas this effort is already well underway. We will continue to press vigorously in this direction and to furnish the necessary support to make it possible for the government to take the initiative without fear. Westmoreland and I agree regarding the vital role of the province chiefs and their staff and the sense of mission of the ARVN units and we intend to pursue the evaluation process at all levels.
Re para 11—drive on the VC infrastructure, I agree that the pres-ent situation offers an opportunity which must be exploited promptly and vigorously and we are already engaged with the GVN in this process. It will be pushed with even greater vigor.
Re para 12—government reform and anti-corruption campaign, Pres Thieu is as you recognize, already moving in the desired directions and we will keep up the pressures on him to accelerate the reform and to assure that it achieves the desired purposes. I agree that incompetent military commanders, province chiefs and civilian officials must be removed and that we should make our own views on such persons known. The way in which this is done, however, is something on which the judgment should be left to those of us here on the spot. We understand the objective and agree with it. The only point I would like to make at this stage is to emphasize that these changes involve very complicated relationships among the leaders here, especially in the military, [Page 364] and that we must not allow our eagerness for change to outweigh the overall objectives of maintaining unity of leadership. I recognize that Thieu is overly cautious and reluctant to move in such matters, and I will continue to press him as needed, but we must accept the fact that the definition of what is possible must in the last analysis remain his, since he is the President.
Re para 13—the united front. I agree that in order to take fullest advantage of the nationalist spirit of cooperation, we must prevent personal rivalries and differences from undermining this effort. The Thieu/Ky relationship, the relations between the executive and legislative branches, and the inter-play of political groups and leaders all bear on this picture. One cautioning note which I would like to sound here is that when we choose to stimulate Vietnamese initiatives for national unity, they should be related to the actual political situation here and should have lasting meaning in Asian terms, not just American ideas of what we think they should develop. The skepticism with which the National Salvation Front is viewed by many Vietnamese as evidence that the introspective Vietnamese often finds a hidden meaning and purpose in what to us seems logical and reasonable. We will continue to press for meaningful efforts to unity the nationalist elements here and to create the basis for longer-term political activity.
Re paras 14–16, we will be formulating further proposals on economic measures along the lines suggested in these paragraphs.
I believe that the factors discussed in paras 17–19—US actions and leverage, have already been addressed at the beginning of this message. I would merely reiterate here my general feeling that the emphasis should remain on enlarging and modernizing RVNAF and that US force increase should be limited to what we consider essential to maintain the offensive and to overcome certain geographic advantages which the enemy has, without unduly widening the war or over-Americanizing it. I know that this definition requires careful spelling out but I would hope that this could be our basic guideline in doing so.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 10:48 a.m.
  2. In telegram 124584 to Saigon, March 5, the Department transmitted the text of the paper attached as Tab B to Document 103. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)