49. Memorandum From William J. Jorden of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1


  • Situation in Viet-Nam

This memo contains some reflections on recent events in Viet-Nam and some thoughts on what should be done.

First, it is my opinion that the series of well-coordinated NVA/VC attacks in all parts of the country represents a distinct setback to the Government in Saigon and to us. But it may also offer some opportunities that should not be lost.

I regard these events as a setback because:

  • —among other things, they reflect probably the worst intelligence failure of the war. If the VC and North Vietnamese can move probably [Page 112] 30,000 men into place for attacks in all parts of the country without detection, something is wrong with the GVN’s intelligence network. It would have taken weeks to stockpile the weapons and ammunition used in these attacks. Thousands of Vietnamese must have been used in this process. Many thousands of others must have been aware of movements through or near their villages, and of unusual activity in their neighborhoods in the cities. Yet I have seen no clear evidence that any of these movements were reported or their significance correctly understood. We didn’t have one single attack thoroughly anticipated, of the many that occurred. Something is rotten in the Vietnamese CIO, the Military Security Service and the National Police. And what about our intelligence work in the provinces?
  • —by these attacks, the NVA/VC have demonstrated an ability to hit any urban center they choose, and to carry out a level of coordination in their attacks heretofore unknown in Viet-Nam.
  • —I believe that the effectiveness of these assaults, despite their short duration in most cases, have severely shaken confidence in the Government’s ability to provide security for its people. It is a virtual certainty that thousands of Vietnamese who have felt secure in the urban centers are now telling themselves: if the VC can hit like this once, they can do it again; I better be more careful of what I say and do.
  • —these events cast serious doubt on any future statements that people in Viet-Nam’s urban centers are “under Government control” or “free from VC threat.” They clearly are not, if the VC are prepared to pay the price to hit them.
  • —finally it is clear from intelligence reporting of the last day or two that many Vietnamese are prepared to believe and to spread the wildest rumors about the Americans—that we helped the VC enter Saigon, that we are working with the VC to set up a coalition government, that we are looking for a chance to get out, etc., etc. This means to me that VC propaganda has been exceedingly effective and that our and that of the GVN leaves a hell of a lot to be desired.

I recognize, of course, that the North Vietnamese and VC paid a heavy price for this adventure. Even if the reported losses are inflated—as they may be to some extent—they have sacrificed a lot of people, probably including some of their best sabotage and terror personnel. The effects of these losses should be felt for some time. But I doubt that either the VC or the general Vietnamese population are as impressed as we are by these losses. If the level of VC activity drops dramatically in the weeks ahead, it will indicate how badly they have been hurt.

In any case, it is my deep conviction that the Vietnamese people and the Government itself have been more seriously shaken by the events of this week than we now realize or than they are willing to admit.

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This is not without potential benefit. It may cause people in the Government to take a more serious view of their situation and to pull up their socks—in strengthening their military forces and going after the VC with new vigor, in pushing forward programs of reform, in giving the people more protection and a higher stake in the future, in pushing personal rivalries and jealousies into the background.

But I am utterly convinced it will not have this effect unless we provide some strong pushing in the right directions.

I said at the outset that this week offers opportunities. But I would urge that we strike while the iron is hot. The moment can easily be lost.

I would recommend:

—that Bunker have a real heart-to-heart talk with Thieu. It should be private. He should tell Thieu that, in our judgment, the coordinated VC attacks and their extensive propaganda campaign have had a strongly negative effect on both Vietnamese and American opinion. It is of the highest urgency that the GVN act now and act decisively to meet the problem. The time for caution and for slow steps forward is past. We recognize that strong measures will entail mistakes. We can live with those and will not be throwing brickbats. But what we cannot live with is a “business as usual” approach to a grave crisis.

Thieu can count on our support. We will help him in every way possible. But we cannot support inaction and half-measures. We strongly believe that he, Vice President Ky and Prime Minister Loc should be a closely-knit team; that they should be working together and cooperating; that each should have his own clearly defined responsibilities and that each of them can move, knowing he has the support of the others and of the Americans.

We believe that it is urgent that he push ahead rapidly on:

  • —strengthening the ARVN and getting the most able officers in command positions, eliminating or shelving officers who are up to their necks in corruption;
  • —shaking up and getting more teamwork in his intelligence serv-ices. It is a disgrace that the VC can mount 30 or 40 simultaneous attacks all over the country and his Government doesn’t know a damn thing about it in advance;
  • —improving the quality and honesty of his provincial and district leaders; the GVN’s well-conceived reform program in this area should be pushed with maximum energy;
  • —a large-scale and effective drive on corruption. The Vietnamese people are sick and tired of sending their sons into the Army to receive $30 a month while they face death, when Vietnamese “operators” and blackmarketeers are making millions a year on shady deals. It may be that the only approach to this knotty problem (given the involvements [Page 114] in deals of so many army officers, their wives, and other officials) is to declare an amnesty for all past dishonesty. But to make it clear that a new deal is now in effect, and the first officer or official who violates the new rules is going to get rapid and strong justice.

It may be the only way to get someone like General Vien (who is himself clean but whose wife has been busy in the marketplace) to take a strong supporting stand. Men like Vien are very worried about the effect of past activities of their friends and families. If they have a clean slate to start from, they can crack down.

Finally, they need to get cracking fast on national political organization to compete with the VC and the Front. My own personal belief here is that Senator Don and his Soldier-Farmer-Worker bloc has the best potential for something useful and we should be thinking about the most effective way of supporting it. They have no solid financial base. They need some kind of revenue-producing establishment whose profits can be fed into their organization. This is a better approach than a “black bag.” I wouldn’t talk to Thieu about the Don situation, but I would urge him to get together with Ky and begin real organizational work on a pro-government party, broadly based and national in scope. Every day that is lost is a day the VC use to their own advantage.

In sum, I think the time is ripe for a new approach in Viet-Nam. The Vietnamese deeply want a better shake. They do not want to be taken over by the Communists. They want a Government that they think is honest and effective. They want action. And they want it now. I think we should, too.

Otherwise, we are in for a year of trouble and heartbreak.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 1 EE (1), 2/2–20/68, Post-Tet Political Activity. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. A notation on the memorandum indicates that Rostow saw it.