290. Memorandum From the President’s Special Counsel (McPherson) to President Johnson1

Yesterday a very able man whom I got to know in Vietnam last summer, John Paul Vann, called from Denver. He is on home leave from his job as the top civilian in the pacification program in III Corps. He is something of a legend out there, and has always been pretty skeptical of our efforts, while certain that we could do much better if we tried.

Vann says two things are clear about the enemy in III Corps today: first, he has incurred the terrific animosity of the civilian population through his rocket attacks; second, he has almost committed suicide militarily. Vann is convinced that the enemy determined to shoot everything he had, with a “termination” date—an exhaustion date—of November.

His information sources are 3 Vietnamese cadre in each province—men who used to be political advisors with the RF and PF. Ironically, he says Vietnamese Government officials cannot believe his sources because they are not paid agents of the GVN. Partly as a consequence of this, the GVN has been slow to exploit what he calls “a new willingness on the part of the civilian population in III Corps to line up with the Government.”

The ARVN is improving somewhat in III Corps, but the real change is in RF-PF performance—the first improvement he has seen in 7 years in Vietnam. He says the RF and PF can put a much higher percentage of riflemen in the field out of total strength than either the ARVN or U.S. military forces. And “men on the ground with rifles are more important in this war than artillery and air.” RF and PF units in III Corps have just received their first shipment of M–16s, and he expects modern weapons to make a real difference in their performance.

Vann says General Abrams has started to master the “chief security problem in the area around Saigon—the chaotic organizational situation. Until now there have been a dozen separate commands, US and GVN, and cooperation between them has frequently been miserable. This is beginning to change.” He is extremely high on Abrams, whom he says “is the first senior commander to cope with the GVN military situation.”

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Vann says the enemy exploited the two principal weaknesses in U.S. military tactics during the Tet offensive: our unwillingness to fight at night, and our reliance on air and artillery.

As to the first, he says almost all our night actions are close-in ambushes designed to protect our positions. Therefore the enemy has 12 hours every day to change his position, re-supply, and rest.

As to the second, he says our reluctance to use infantry has permitted the enemy to dig in and hold almost any position, since only direct hits by artillery or air can destroy him. The absence of infantry harassment has enabled him to move whole regiments into position to attack populated areas.

The one thing the enemy did not count on, says Vann, was that we would use air and artillery in populated areas. He has taken heavy losses in the cities, much heavier than he expected. We have also suffered psychological losses among the urban population through the use of air and artillery, but “to be ruthlessly candid about that, the people in the urban centers have no place to go; many are bitter, but they do not become assets for the enemy because the government controls the urban areas.”

Vann believes we can start to withdraw some U.S. forces in the reasonably near future “without loss of over-all military effectiveness—indeed, with some gain. The size of our non-combat element is far too great. We ought to start rotating units through central base camps, instead of giving each unit a base of its own. The Vietnamese are getting much better, and they will get better still if we start to reduce the size of our presence in Vietnam.”

The main purpose of his call was to say that “while we were ridiculously optimistic in the past, we may be dangerously pessimistic now. There has been a major decline in enemy fortunes in III Corps, at least, and the opportunity exists now for exploiting that decline and substantially improving our prospects.”

Since Vann is a former Army Colonel who resigned in Vietnam back in the early 60’s because he thought General Harkins was lying about the war, his present views are worth considering.

Harry C. McPherson, Jr.2
  1. Source: Johnson Library, Office Files of Harry McPherson, Memoranda for the President (1968) [2 of 2]. No classification marking.
  2. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.