157. Notes of Meeting1


(On the table was a document on the growth of North Vietnam Army forces in South Vietnam.)2

The President: Thank you for coming. I am sure Secretary Rusk and Secretary Clifford have followed this meeting closely. I want to hear from people who are not regular advisers from time to time.

I asked General Abrams to come here today. General Wheeler has been conferring with General Westmoreland. I want to hear your views and what you think will be helpful to me.

General Wheeler: In late February I visited South Vietnam.3 At that time the situation was fluid. The South Vietnamese were shook and had a variety of paralysis. Government and military were clustered in urban areas to protect against a second wave of attacks. I told President Thieu that the South Vietnam forces had to go on the offensive. Thieu said South Vietnam could not take another Tet offensive.

General Westmoreland has turned this around. They are now out in offensive activities.

General Westmoreland told me in Manila:

  • —Do not fear a general defeat with the forces we now have.
  • —There could be a tactical victory.
  • —The morale of the South Vietnamese is good.
  • ARVN are now on the offensive.

The North Vietnamese army force in South Vietnam is now increased by 50,000–60,000 men. The enemy can reinforce with two divisions in 30 days. It could give the enemy greater chance for a tactical victory.

General Westmoreland believes that replacement packages are coming down from the North. The enemy has suffered great casualties.

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Khesanh has served a useful purpose. It held two enemy divisions around it and one enemy division in support. The enemy has been badly battered. He has withdrawn one unit to the south and one moved to the east. I do not think the enemy has the intention of attacking Khesanh now.

We face additional hard fighting. He has sanctuaries. I see no reason for all the gloom and doom we see in the United States press. There were setbacks during Tet—mostly psychological and two military. The most setback was here in the United States, which was one of their objectives.

The President: When General Westmoreland was last here, we did not give him all the troops he asked for. We agreed to make up the difference with a package of additional allied troops. We have sent all but three or four battalions promised.4

General Wheeler: Three battalions will arrive by mid April.

The President: General Abrams has been working closely with South Vietnamese.

General Abrams: When I was assigned to Vietnam eleven months ago I was assigned to work with the South Vietnamese troops. I worked with them six days a week. In the first few days of February, I visited all the Vietnamese commanders.

Then I went to northern I Corps to coordinate deployments in I Corps. In the last few days before I came back I spent time visiting all four Corps.

First, the Vietnamese armed forces performed well during the Tet offensive. We would have been in a catastrophe had they not fought well. The South Vietnamese were in bad posture when the attacks came. At that time, most South Vietnamese troops had 50% of their units home on Tet leave. There were three commanders who decided not to let their men off.

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The Division commanders expected attacks in several areas, and canceled the leaves of the men. In some cases the division commanders were not ready.

The South Vietnamese have 149 maneuver battalions—8 performed unsatisfactorily; 30 performed with distinction; the rest performed satisfactorily.

The First South Vietnamese division cleaned out two thirds of the Citadel. They lost two thirds of their strength. They took the palace.

The Airborne Division took 11% casualties.

The desertion rate in these divisions was slightly higher than in other divisions. The Second Ranger Group performed very poorly. The trouble is with their leadership.

The 44th Regiment was a great disappointment. It is made up of integrated training and operations. We thought it was a good thing, but in Tet they weren’t worth a damn. The problem was with the regimental commander.

There are three divisions in III Corps around Saigon that are a problem. They did fight during the Tet. Desertions exceeded casualties in February. They had more training and help in 1967 than any other. We may have helped them too much.

In the Delta, the divisions performed well. They had nasty and difficult fighting.

In February, there were 7,000 volunteers for service in the Vietnamese army versus 1500 in January.

There have been two replacements of division commanders which look helpful. I feel good about the Delta.

I visited all the outfits. They are out moving, even in 3rd Corps. The roads are open. Traffic is moving. Trucks are moving over Route 4. ARVN is out operating from one end of the country to another.

They have shortened the recruit training period. They will add 135,000 more troops.

Some other commanders have been relieved. Some province chiefs have to go.

I feel good about the way the thing is going. The morale of the ARVN is high. Some have won battles, with the best of the NVA. The ARVN are promoting from the ranks.

We are trying to improve weaponry. Some of this was done before Tet. M–16s have been distributed to two divisions in the Delta. We are going to give them machine guns and mortars.

We need to give regional forces and popular forces better weapons. The regional forces and popular forces stuck and fought too. Desertion rates did not increase in the regional forces and popular forces.

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The President: Will you get 135,000?

General Abrams: Yes.

The President: Are they drafting 18 year olds?

General Abrams: Yes. Thieu and Ky are determined to do it.

The President: What percent of the ARVN are poor?

General Abrams: 8 of 149 battalions.

The President: How many U.S. battalions are there now?

General Abrams: 103 now. We will have 106.

The President: What are the capabilities for improvement?

General Abrams: They are better. Westy has worked on this for a long time. They have a fine Officer Candidate School and Staff Colleges.

The President: How do the ARVN compare with the Koreans?

General Abrams: The Koreans had the same problem of building their army and fighting at the same time. I would say the Vietnamese are doing as well if not better than the Koreans.

The President: What about the battles in I Corps against the North Vietnamese Army units?

General Abrams: In I Corps, his main objectives are the two northern provinces. In that, the principal objective is Hue.

He committed 14–16 battalions to take Hue and 14–16 battalions to take Saigon. Since then, he has moved back in on Hue. I do not believe Hue is in danger.

He has 44% of his main units in I Corps, 22% in II Corps, 24% in III Corps, and 10% in the Delta. Of ours, 49% are in I Corps.

The President: Do you think he will attack in Khesanh?

General Abrams: I would bet he is not. He started out to on the 23rd of the month. We put too much on him.

The President: How?

General Abrams: By bombing.

The President: What do you expect in April?

General Abrams: He will continue his pressure on Saigon. He will try to keep up the pressure. He may try at Hue. I don’t believe he has the strength to do that.

The President: What do you see this year?

General Abrams:

  • —Hard fighting
  • —Attrition of enemy forces
  • —Improvement in ARVN, RF and PF
  • —Enemy is making this year an all-out effort.

The President: Is it a change in his strategy?

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General Abrams: Yes.

The President: What kind?

General Abrams: He was losing under the old strategy. He was losing control of people.

McGeorge Bundy: What is the relation of Regional Forces and Popular Forces and ARVN to the pacification in the future?

General Abrams: In many places the Popular Forces and the Regional Forces were pulled into towns. This took them away from the influence and protection outside towns. Our biggest problem is in the 4th Corps.

In III Corps, the losses in men in the Regional Forces and Popular Forces have not been great. We only need to move them out of the provinces.

I Corps and II Corps—it is pretty good.

McGeorge Bundy: Were they not as much affected by Tet?

General Abrams: Not as much affected, no.

Ambassador Goldberg: Can there be another series of Tet-like offensives?

General Abrams: No.

Douglas Dillon: When the buildup of the ARVN is completed, can they carry a larger part of the fighting?

General Abrams: Yes. I would have to quit if I didn’t believe that. They can take on more fighting against the Viet Cong. I feel quite certain of that.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings. Top Secret. The meeting was held in the White House. Those attending were the President, Clifford, Rusk, Taylor, Rostow, Goldberg, Bradley, Dillon, Lodge, Bundy, Acheson, Vance, Ridgway, Ball, Dean, Murphy, Wheeler, Abrams, Harriman, Jones, Christian, and Tom Johnson. Fortas entered the meeting at 2:50 p.m. and the Vice President at 3:07 p.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  2. Attached but not printed; it is summarized below.
  3. Regarding Wheeler’s report, see Document 160.
  4. In telegram MAC 4192 to Wheeler and Sharp, March 27, Westmoreland outlined MACV’s minimal requirements. He noted that the package would require an adjustment of the force ceiling to 560,000, exclusive of spaces to be filled through civilization. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 407, Litigation Collection, Westmoreland v. CBS , MACV Backchannel Messages from Westmoreland, 1–31 March 1968 (Folder II)) Wheeler responded in telegram JCS 3449 to Westmoreland, March 28, by noting that the maximum ceiling would be 549,500 spaces consisting of the Program 5 deployments, retention and replacement forces, and reinforcements in support of deploying brigades, and requested Westmoreland to specify the elements that would comprise the forces he wanted. (Ibid., MACV Backchannel Messages to Westmoreland, 1–31 March 1968 (Folder II)) Westmoreland sent a “front channel” request for these forces in telegram MAC 4242 to Wheeler and Sharp, March 28. (Ibid., MACV Backchannel Messages from Westmoreland, 1–31 March 1968 (Folder II))