220. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • CIA:
    • The Director, Mr. Richard Helms
    • Mr. Paul V. Walsh
  • JCS:
    • The Chairman, General Earle G. Wheeler
    • Lt. Gen. George S. Brown
    • Executive Col. D.P. McAuliffe
    • Maj. Gen. William E. Depuy
    • Col. A.C. Edmunds
  • DIA:
    • The Director, General Joseph Carroll
    • Maj. Gen. Grover Brown
This meeting convened at 1030 on 3 May 1968. It was called by General Wheeler in response to Mr. Helms’ offer to brief the Chairman on the community problems in estimating enemy strengths.
Mr. Helms opened the meeting by explaining generally the inability of the intelligence community to reach agreement on estimates of enemy strengths in South Vietnam. He pointed out that in addition to differences in estimates on agreed OB categories, there was a fundamental difference on whether certain categories of forces—the so-called irregular groups—should be quantified and included in the estimates.
Mr. Walsh gave a brief run-down on the CIA concept of an insurgency base and the elements contained in it, and presented a comparison of the CIA and MACV estimates.
General Carroll and Mr. Walsh discussed the various problem areas in the estimates, the points of disagreement and possible alternatives for their resolution.
The consensus of the meeting is summarized in the following points:
These estimates have a high degree of political sensitivity and all concerned should exercise the utmost discretion in dealing with them and controlling their dissemination.
There is a real need to present these estimates in such a way that the combat threat is clearly distinguished from political or irregular threats. The qualitative differences within groups should also be considered and probably new terminology needs to be created.
The disagreement on some elements—e.g., Political Infrastructure—could probably be eliminated if the terms were redefined.
The current method of attrition, its shortcomings, and the impact this has on maintaining strength estimates is in need of a basic overhaul.
The requirement that monthly OB reports be published is a basic contributor to the confusion and problems associated with strength estimates.
General Carroll was instructed to draft for General Wheeler’s signature a message to MACV indicating that there are a number of soft areas in the estimates which warrant immediate investigation, and making the following points:
MACV should examine the entire question of attrition with a view to devising better methods.
Consideration should be given to differentiating the combat threat between full-time and part-time guerrillas.
Consideration should be given to the best means of presenting and quantifying the elements not included in the military OB.
The question of definition of Political Infrastructure should be reexamined.
It was agreed that all concerned must go back to the drawing board and that CIA and DIA would cooperate in working out new formats and definitions and resolving existing differences.
Mr. Helms agreed that he would withhold dissemination of the CIA figures pending completion of this reexamination.
General Wheeler agreed to take steps to reduce MACV’s OB reporting requirements, particularly those generated by OSD/SA.2
Paul V. Walsh
Deputy Director
Economic Research
  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Executive Registry Subject Files, Job 80–R01580R, 284—Order of Battle. Secret; No Foreign Dissem; CIA Internal Use Only.
  2. The CIA intelligence estimate SC No. 10295/68, “North Vietnam’s Ability to Withstand Manpower Attrition,” was submitted to the JCS on June 10. (Central Intelligence Agency, O/DDI Files, Job 78–T02095R, Briefing Paper for General DePuy, The Attrition of Vietnam Communist Forces) In a June 11 memorandum to Helms, Wheeler noted that the enemy might suffer losses of 350,000 during 1968 and suggested that while the enemy still was intent upon military victory, he doubted that the Communist forces “can absorb such losses over a protracted period of time and maintain the level of battlefield effectiveness required to pursue this strategy and attain his goals.” (Ibid.) The CIA-DIA estimate of NVA presence in South Vietnam, as later published in August, was some 40,000–60,000 greater than that of MACV of roughly 100,000. In addition, the CIA-DIA estimates of main and local forces, administrative cadre, and guerrillas, as advanced in December, were all substantially higher than those of MACV. The contrasting range in total enemy forces was 265,000–355,000 by the CIA and DIA to 233,305–239,305 for MACV. (CIA Memorandum, “Chronology of the VC/NVA OB Problem,” October 22, 1969; ibid., OER Papers on OB) Additional periodic CIA estimates of the enemy’s strength are ibid., MACV Press Briefings and OB Problems. For further discussion of the dispute over the enemy order of battle, see Harold P. Ford, CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes, 1962-1968 (Langley, Va.: Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1998), pp. 85–141.