228. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State 1

26928. 1. I am not worried about the outcome of the fighting which has been going on around Saigon since Saturday,2 because the ARVN, police and US forces are very substantial and we can manage anything which they throw in, including their reserves. There are, however, some aspects of this and related matters on which I want Washington to have my views.

2. The VC main strategy manifests itself in several ways, two of which are assassination and sabotage. Assassination is concentrated on police outposts, and sabotage at public utilities. One power station is already out of action as result of sabotage, and two were damaged by shelling. A pre-offensive attack was directed against Vietnamese TV station and failed, but could be attempted again. Further sabotage efforts must be expected on other power stations, the water works, post office, government buildings, etc. This is well understood here and I am assured that every effort is being made to give all practical protection, especially to key power and water installations, but this does not preclude further individual successes by the VC.

3. A byproduct of the fighting has been some thousands of temporary evacuees, who have fled from the fighting areas, some of whom will have lost their homes and will need to be provided for. The hospitals are now full of wounded. There is a reduction in vegetable and meat supplies into the city, although some supplies are coming through from the northeast. Rice is ample.

4. The aim—or at least one aim—of all this is pretty clear: to produce as much terror and havoc in the city for as long as possible, in order to cause as much trouble as possible to the authorities and the people, with the hope of overwhelming and collapsing the administration of the city services, producing mass discontent and hopefully the uprising which they failed to achieve in the Tet offensive. There is no sign of panic or such collapse, and our military and the Vietnamese authorities are very confident that they are going to bring this under control before it reaches that stage.

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5. That they have other aims in mind is obvious, such as influencing the Paris talks, impressing American and world opinion with their continued ability to mount substantial campaigns in order to cause more despair in the American public, etc. What emerges is that they are making another great effort, not on the scale of Tet but still impressive, and they have the capability of keeping this going here for some days and possibly weeks. If they break off this attack it will be to resupply, then start again some weeks hence, although perhaps on a reduced scale in view of their increasingly difficult resupply problems during the monsoon season in Laos. They are in any case willing to pay a very heavy price in terms of losses.3

6. Along with this there has been an extraordinary movement South, and infiltration, in the last four months, and this continues. (However, our success at Khe Sanh, the A Shau Valley campaign with its capture of huge supplies, and our spoiling operations in April, also with capture of heavy supplies, have inflicted great losses on the enemy’s manpower and supplies.) Hanoi and NLF broadcasts have called for the bombing of the Palace and American Embassy by VNAF defectors, and a mass uprising. We must expect that one or more of our installations in and around Saigon will be singled out at any time over the next days or weeks for special sabotage, with a possibility of more casualties to Americans.

7. There is some interesting evidence of what is going on on the enemy’s side. In I Corps just north of Hue on May 1, 102 NVA troops surrendered, the largest single batch in this war, induced by the amplified broadcasts of a captured sergeant. The highest level defector of this war, Lt Colonel Tran Van Dac who joined the VC in 1945 and rose as a commissar and propagandist, defected on April 19 and revealed the plans and timing of the present offensive. This information was used in our preparations for the attack on Saigon, and has proven substantially correct. On May 8 another Lt Colonel defected near Saigon on the grounds that the political commissars were asking the impossible in military terms and he could not take it any more. He and others have added that morale is not as good as it was, and there is waning confidence in the ranks now that the VC can win. There is evidence that [Page 656] replacements from the North and impressed Southerners are being thrown into battle with little military training. There is also some evidence that Hanoi was moving toward a bid for talks even before the March 31 speech and that they are anxious to continue the talks.

8. It is my view that Hanoi and the NLF are hurting, are now engaged in a huge gamble, and this is a year of climax. They, perhaps, still hope for a collapse in Saigon. I feel certain they will fail. Perhaps most important in terms of their gamble is that they now hope to win because of what they regard as our desperate desire for peace. The speeches of McCarthy, Kennedy, Galbraith and others, articles in the US press and TV, the shift in Newsweek, Walter Cronkite and others, may have convinced them that if they negotiate and fight we will be ready to throw in the sponge by forcing a coalition on the South Vietnamese.

9. The arrogance of their May 3 reply—to arrange for the complete cessation of bombing and other acts of war—was part propaganda and part bravado.4 All the evidence suggests they are going to be tough in the negotiations and are out to obtain the colossal concession of coalition government. They, or at least some in the North, must be arguing that the United States regards its bargaining position as weak, and therefore that they are in a strong position. Unless we act with genuine confidence in the strength of our bargaining position, I am fearful of the outcome.

10. Washington knows my position as a result of my visit. I think we are in a very strong position to negotiate, and that it is Hanoi which is worried, or at least some in Hanoi are worried, for I suspect they have their hawks and doves just as we do.

11. The conclusions I draw from all the foregoing are clear:

Harriman’s orders to agree to a full cessation of bombing in the North should be amended.
We should demand as a condition of full cessation a substantial reduction in the unprecedented NVN movement South, which we are in a position to observe.
We should demand a reduction now in the level of violence in the South.
Most important, we should under no circumstances agree to full cessation of bombing in the North, while Saigon is under harassment and attack. I can think of nothing more calculated to cause despair here than to agree under these conditions. The suspicion in the South as to our negotiating intentions is that we are ready to go very far, even to coalition with the NLF or its new alliance, to stop the war. If we cease [Page 657] our bombing of the North while Saigon is under attack, this suspicion would enormously increase and could become unmanageable in terms of maintaining morale and unity here. Thieu is expected to establish a new and broader government shortly and we must not handicap it at the outset. A full cessation of bombing under Harriman’s present instructions would encourage the hard liners in Hanoi to think we are ready to call it quits, and in the debates which must be taking place in the North they would be justified in their view that the thing to do is to keep the pressure on Saigon.5
I myself would go further, and even while the talks proceed I would bomb power stations, railway yards, and military installations near and in the cities below the 20th parallel, adding to their troubles in the North, creating more refugee problems for them, and putting new strains on their facilities.
In short, until they reduce the movements south and call off the campaign against Saigon, we should not agree to a full cessation, and at some stage we should let Hanoi know why. As a footnote, we would look ridiculous if we agreed to a full cessation, and a few days later had one of our American installations blasted by sabotage with heavy American casualties.6

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/CROCODILE. Secret; Immediate; Nodis; Crocodile. Received at 6:11 a.m. Repeated to Paris for the delegation. Bunker reported on the same subjects in his 50th weekly message to the President, telegram 26826 from Saigon, May 9. (Ibid., POL 27 VIET S) Bunker’s weekly message is printed in full in Pike, ed., The Bunker Papers, Vol. 2, pp. 433–438.
  2. May 4.
  3. On May 9 Sullivan, en route to Paris, discussed the second NVA/VC series of attacks with Westmoreland and Calhoun at Udorn. “All evidence which Westmoreland presented bears out his contention that North Vietnamese are in serious military decline and that their current situation is getting worse,” Sullivan reported. “Fact that they chose to launch their current Saigon offensive even though their attack plan was compromised gives indication of their desperation and of its political motivation.” (Telegram 6399 from Vientiane, May 9; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET S) Harriman asked Sullivan, who attended the Geneva talks of 1961–1962 as Harriman’s deputy, to become part of the Paris delegation.
  4. See Document 221.
  5. Bunker’s reports on the GVN’s position on negotiations are in telegrams 26805 and 26833 from Saigon, both May 9. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/CROCODILE) In telegram 162732 to Paris, May 11, the Department noted its agreement that an agreement on full cessation in the midst of ongoing attacks inside South Vietnam would seriously undermine the GVN’s morale. (Ibid., IS/OIS Files: Lot 90 D 345, Paris Peace Conference, Todel Chron.) In telegram 13887 from Paris, May 12, Harriman noted that while he and Vance did not believe that their instruction required amendment, they were concerned that the NVA/VC might not reduce military activities in the South while talks went on. (Ibid., Delto Chron.)
  6. In an undated memorandum to Clifford, Nitze agreed that the re-establishment of the demilitarized zone and the diminution of violence in the South had to be agreed upon prior to a complete bombing halt but that no specific prior agreement was needed on the reductions in NVA infiltration. He also stated his opposition to Bunker’s call for an expansion of the bombing. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Nitze Papers, Vietnam War—Courses of Action, Post Paris Talks, 1963, 1967–1968, n.d.)