126. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of the Air Force (Hoopes) to Secretary of Defense Clifford1


  • The Infeasibility of Military Victory in Vietnam

As a contribution to current deliberations and to your own ongoing review of the situation, this memorandum argues the case that the idea of military victory in Vietnam is a dangerous illusion, at any price that would be compatible with US interests, the interests of the people of South Vietnam, or the cause of world peace. Secretary Brown agrees that it should be forwarded for your consideration.

Military victory—that is, the destruction or ejection of NVN forces and reduction of VC guerrilla forces to impotence or at least to a level that is manageable by ARVN alone—has been the implicit (though not always clearly recognized) goal of US policy at least since the decision [Page 380] to build up American manpower in 1965. It continues to be the unexamined assumption of General Westmoreland’s strategy, of his request for additional forces, of the JCS support for his strategy and his requests, and of all other proposals for intensifying or enlarging our war effort in Vietnam.

Moreover, military victory (as defined above) appears to be a necessary precondition for the realization of a US political objective which defines “free choice” for the people of SVN as a process necessarily excluding NLF/VC from participation in either elections or government. Whether or not this definition reflects the true US intent, it is clearly the position of the GVN and has not been rejected by the USG. As is known, even non-communist politicians are now being jailed by the GVN out of fear that they will open a dialogue with the NLF. These facts suggest that if military victory is not feasible, the US political objective must be redefined.

One’s assumption about the necessity or feasibility of military victory is therefore a critical fork in the road. Reaffirmation will lead in the direction of a larger and wider war effort aimed at destroying the NVN/VC forces. Refutation will lead to adoption of a far less ambitious strategy, aimed at protecting the people of South Vietnam, permitting a stabilization of the US resource commitment at tolerable levels, and followed by a prompt, utterly serious effort to achieve a compromise settlement of the war that reflects the enduring political and military realities in Vietnam. It is imperative, at this watershed in our Vietnam experience, to subject the assumption to the most searching re-examination. Our future ability to formulate rational policies for VN depends on this.

The history of our involvement in Vietnam, particularly since 1965, has been marked by repeated miscalculations as to the force and time required to “defeat the aggression,” pacify the countryside, and make the GVN and ARVN viable without massive US support. Each fresh increment of American power has been justified as the last one needed to do the job. Responsible political and military officials have consistently underestimated NVN/VC strength and tenacity, have promoted uncritical notions of what US military power can accomplish in the political and geographical environment of SEA, and have indulged in persistently wishful thinking as regards the present capacity and real potential of the GVN and the ARVN. It is important that these misjudgments be kept in mind as we weigh the alternatives that now lie before us.

The following points contain some material that may already have come to your attention. The purpose here is to combine all of the relevant arguments and bring them to focus on the root question of whether military victory is feasible.

[Page 381]

[Omitted here is the body of the memorandum, in which Hoopes discussed several factors that mitigated against continued escalation in Vietnam. Military action had not increased popular support for the GVN, which was compounded by its inability to control its own territory. Significantly, the bombing campaign had failed to deter the enemy because of support provided the DRV by the Soviets and Chinese. In addition, the air war’s impact on manpower was minimal. As a consequence, Hoopes argued, “on balance, NVN is a stronger military power today than before the bombing.” The introduction of the troops Westmoreland wanted would cause a number of difficulties and likely would not make much difference in terms of proportional strength. The DRV could “neutralize” the proposed augmentation of 206,000 U.S. troops by deploying only 50,000 new troops of its own. With so many troops in South Vietnam, the casualty rates would rise with resultant political costs to the administration but without altering the fundamental conditions of stalemate in Vietnam. In addition, the impact of the force augmentation would be detrimental to efforts to reform and invigorate the GVN, would have a deleterious impact on the U.S. economy, and could significantly undermine the domestic political order. An alternative means of attacking the enemy by intensive bombing that included crop destruction could be more effective in terms of sapping enemy will but would prove too costly to implement.]

Townsend Hoopes
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, Department of Defense, OSD Files: FRC 330 73 A 1250, VIET 381, 1968. Secret.