124. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State 1
Saigon, March 14, 1968, 1030Z.
22088. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my forty-third weekly message.
- In my last two messages,2 I reported on our preliminary readings on the effect of the Tet attacks on the situation countrywide, and their meaning in terms of enemy strategy. It is clear that we must push ahead not only with the recovery program to get things back to the pre-Tet normal situation, but also move ahead as rapidly as possible toward [Page 375] achievement of our longer range priority objectives, i.e., mobilization, reorganization of the armed forces and civil administration, pacification, the attack on corruption, and economic measures. These latter will first have to be concerned with a restoration of the badly damaged economy, and in restoring confidence in the business and farming communities before any real advances can be envisaged. Taxes will have to be increased to close the inflationary gap and a vigilant watch kept on the upward pressure on prices. In surveying the situation this week, I can report progress on both the recovery effort and on some of our longer range objectives. At the same time, there are areas where we face continuing difficulties.
- Progress is evident in the following areas:
- President Thieu is continuing to take an increasingly active and decisive role in the government, providing more effective and more visible leadership than at any time in the past. Because of his temperament, he does not give the picture of the dynamic, charismatic leader that we might think of as ideal. But he has shown increasingly a desire to take hold of the reins and I think he is doing better in both American and Vietnamese eyes. He has continued to chair meetings of the Central Recovery Committee where he has made quick, sound decisions, pushed his Ministers to rapid action, and in general imparted more of a sense of urgency and confidence in the Vietnamese bureaucracy. He has moved to speed up mobilization, has taken steps on administrative reform, outlined his tax proposals, and enforces austerity measures, including the closing of bars and nightclubs, and imposed a ban on luxury building.
- In pushing the relief and reconstruction effort, Thieu made a second personal inspection in Hue March 9, where he gave further impetus to the relief effort by making on-the-spot decisions and a display of interest and concern. While in Hue he made a point of contacting ordinary people and touring the entire city to see and hear their problems first hand. General Forsythe, who accompanied Thieu, tells me that the gratitude and warmth of the people toward him was obvious. Remembering the attitude of the Hue population toward the central government in the “Struggle” and even in the recent past, this response to Thieu is doubly significant. On March 11, Thieu also made a brief radio and TV appearance, as I have been urging him to do, in which he launched the official campaign for voluntary contributions to a national fund for the Tet victims.
- The relief and reconstruction effort is continuing to move forward with good results. Universities and some other schools have reopened, relief convoys are moving to Hue and the Delta, distribution of relief supplies continues, and reconstruction is underway. Some 81 [Page 376] million piasters have been hand carried in cash to the provinces to speed the relief effort. In Saigon, the curfew has been cut by two hours, resulting in improved morale, and the port is functioning much better, the discharge rate now having reached 8,000 tons per day. Prices continue to move downward. Nationwide, the number of refugees now stands at about 500,000 and will probably continue to decline as people whose homes have not been destroyed move back as security is established. Other statistics, though not final, also testify to the magnitude of the problem. The number of houses destroyed is now estimated at 74,000 and civilian casualties at 9,100 killed and 21,200 wounded.
- The movement back into the countryside has begun. At least 321 of the 555 RD teams are in the hamlets; 93 out of 109 Truong Son (Montagnard) teams are also in place. The President has also issued instructions that all RD cadre would be sent back to normal RD duties effective immediately, and that they therefore would no longer be supervising refugee camps, manning command posts, guarding cities and towns as they have been doing in some instances. Both General Cao Van Vien and RD Minister Tri have been making personal inspections, urging on rural officials an aggressive return to the pacification effort. The RD Ministry also has 12 teams in the countryside to develop the necessary program changes to adapt RD plans to the present situation.
- On the military side, an encouraging development was the fact that both volunteer enlistments and draftees jumped dramatically in February. There were 10,084 volunteers in February compared with 6,059 in January and 3,924 in February of last year. Over 10,600 draftees also reported for induction in February, as compared with 3,766 in January and 4,006 in February of last year. It is worth noting that despite personnel losses in the recent heavy fighting, RVNAF unit strength is generally satisfactory and GVN forces are maintaining a high level of combat effectiveness. Of the 155 RVNAF maneuver battalions, 98 were combat effective as of February 19, but this had jumped to 118 by March 1. Average countrywide present-for-duty-strength of RF companies is 99 (full strength, 123) and for PF platoons is 29 (full strength, 35).
- A Civil Defense Directorate was established in the Ministry of Interior March 7. The organization of local units is going forward throughout the country, and at latest reading there were nearly 19,000 volunteers in 20 provinces.
- The Prime Minister has signed a decree on the organization and functions of the new Directorate General of the Civil Service which should provide a sound institutional base from which to launch an effective reform program within the civil service.
- Tran Van Don successfully held his national congress to form a broad, nationwide anti-Communist front on March 10. While there [Page 377] were some conspicuous absences among the invited notables, attendance was impressive in terms of the wide span of political elements represented. Also noteworthy on the political scene this week was the passage by the lower house of the national budget, with no significant changes from the administration draft. The budget now goes to the Senate.
- Among the difficulties still confronting us are the following:
- Perhaps the most negative development this week has been an obvious tendency on the part of some Vietnamese leaders to return to politics as usual. While the success of the Tran Van Don congress testifies to the continuing strength of the feeling of national unity which emerged from the Tet offensive, there have also been disturbing signs that characteristic Vietnamese factionalism is again emerging. Most troublesome in this category have been reports of intention by Ky, particularly spread by his supporters, to force a change in the power structure which would give Ky more authority. Some reports even went so far as to suggest a forcible change in government leadership might be in the offing. I took up this matter specifically with Ky yesterday morning and will report on it in more detail in the political section.
- Related to the Thieu/Ky problem in the continued activity by Tran Van An and Nguyen Van Huong to form political organizations which are generally viewed to be in competition with Don’s front.
- Another matter is the effort by some lower house Deputies to place on the house agenda a motion of no confidence in the government, although at last report it appears that this may not materialize.
- The enemy continues to pose a formidable military threat in several areas. He is apparently having considerable success in recruiting to make up for losses as well as continuing to reinforce his shattered units by infiltration. The situation seems to be most serious in the Delta. Ky told me this morning that General Thang had reported to him last Saturday that 367 outposts had either been overrun or their complements withdrawn to defend the [garble] and that some 2,000 men, with as many weapons, are unaccounted for; whether they were killed or deserted is not known. There are reports that Viet Cong recruitment starts at age 14 for guerrilla forces and even as low as age 10 for hamlet defense units. Harassment by mortar and rocket fire, sometimes accompanied by ground assaults or the planting of rumors of pending offensives, have created fear and uncertainty among some urban dwellers as well as a lack of confidence in the ability of the GVN to provide security. But with the U.S. and ARVN troops beginning to go over to the offensive, the initiative appears to be shifting to the allies. Communist documents have emphasized the need for “continuous and fierce attacks” to prevent the allies from going on the offensive. The enemy’s fears may [Page 378] be justified, for last week a majority of the ground contacts were allied-initiated, with the enemy generally attempting to disperse into small units to avoid combat. The low level of enemy activity and the unusual risk in attempting to bring in supplies by sea suggests that he is having logistic difficulties, or that he is trying to conserve his strength for another big effort. I Corps is an exception to this general statement where the enemy seems to be preparing for large scale conventional warfare.
[Omitted here is discussion of the situation in the countryside, political activities, and economic matters.]