53. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

17920. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my thirty-seventh weekly message:

A. General

Because of the emergency caused by the widespread enemy attacks which began in the early hours of January 31, I have regretfully had to delay this week’s message. It thus covers a period of ten days from January 25.
The early days of the period, although witnessing a continuation of the massive build-up of enemy strength along the DMZ and the northern part of I Corps, with anticipatory preparations for the Tet holidays underway, began in an atmosphere of relative calm. It began, however, with what to me was an occasion of great significance, an occasion largely overlooked as so many important developments here tend to be because of the concentration on the military situation. Appearing as the nation’s freely elected President before the freely elected legislative branch, President Thieu delivered his first state of the [Page 124] union message.2 It was a sober, positive, and constructive speech, wide-ranging and comprehensive in scope, outlining plans to benefit the Vietnamese people. He began by a reference to the constitutional framework now in place and expressed the hope that the executive and legislative branches can work effectively together to serve the nation. He indicated his plans to move quickly in establishing the other institutions called for in the Constitution, notably the judiciary, the inspectorate, and the advisory councils. But he noted that the democratic system cannot exist only through an external form; that it demands fundamental changes in organizations and laws as well as in political structures and habits; and he noted the importance of the development of political parties.
While he mentioned some of the substantial achievements which had already been accomplished, the main thrust of his speech looked to the future. Here he covered both plans for the longer term and short range priority programs on which the government proposed to concentrate in the next six to seven months. These included judicial and administrative reform, expansion of educational opportunities; the development of industry and agriculture; the stimulation of land reform, in the social field, vigorous measures to improve the refugee situation; to expand public health measures; to improve the condition of labor and measures and incentives to bring the youth into the service of the nation. To carry out these programs, he presented a budget of 95 billion piasters which the Assembly is scheduled to take up as the first order of business when it resumes its session February 6. It is almost certain, however, that by mid-year the government will have to submit a supplementary budget since the amounts provided in its present submission for the military effort are inadequate.
In dealing with the government’s position on the question of peace and negotiations, Thieu stressed the fact that the GVN is merely acting to defend itself against aggression and re-affirmed the government’s adherence to the principles established by the Manila summit conference. Implicit in this program is the desire and intention of the GVN to strengthen its position before any negotiations open. The contrast between Hanoi’s methods and that of President Thieu’s government is very great and, I hope, instructive to the critics of this regime and our effort in support of it.
The massive, countrywide terrorist attacks on centers of population which began in the early morning hours of January 31 have been fully reported. I will not attempt to duplicate this reporting here. It is [Page 125] obvious that they were premeditated and planned well in advance. It is equally clear that they were coordinated and correlated with the massive and open invasion in northern I Corps by North Vietnamese forces.
It is evident too that the initial success of the attacks was due in part to the element of surprise and to the fact that they were made in flagrant violation of the Tet truce period which Hanoi as well as the GVN had proclaimed. I think it’s fair to say also that there was some failure of intelligence on our side, for a sizable number of GVN troops and many GVN officials were on leave.
That these widespread, concerted attacks will result in a massive military defeat for the enemy is evident in the casualty figures reported Saturday morning. From 6:00 PM January 29 the beginning of Tet truce period, to midnight, February 2, according to our figures, 12,704 of the enemy were killed, and 3,576, many of whom will become prisoners of war, were detained; 1,814 individual and 545 crew served weapons were captured. Allied losses were 983 killed of which 318 were US, 661 ARVN, and 4 other Free World; the number of allied wounded was 3,483. Enemy casualties for these few days are considerably larger than for any previous month of the war. Based on the enemy casualties, I asked General Westmoreland for an estimate of the total number of enemy committed and he said he thought that this was probably in the neighborhood of 36,000.
Enemy military operations have been well orchestrated with their psychological warfare. As you know, for a considerable period, both Hanoi and the NLF have spread rumors that negotiations and a resulting coalition government were imminent after Tet. The inference, of course, was clear: if peace is so near, why go on fighting and getting killed? When the attacks came, the Liberation Radio called for everybody to rally to the revolution, alleged that many ARVN troops had defected, and of course claimed great victories, that the “US bandits and their lackeys had never before been dealt such stinging blows.” Liberation Radio also spread the rumor that US forces were cooperating with Viet Cong attacks in order to put greater pressure on the GVN to agree to a coalition of government; and Hanoi Radio announced the formation of a “front of national, democratic and peace alliance” in Saigon and Hue.
Given the fact that the enemy has suffered massive military defeat, the question arises whether he has secured in spite of it a psychological victory; whether peoples’ trust in the invincibility of the allied forces has been shattered; whether their confidence in the ability of the GVN to provide security has been shaken; or whether on the other hand Viet Cong perfidy in flagrant violation of the truce during the traditional Tet holiday, their use of pagodas, hospitals and residential [Page 126] areas as sanctuaries and their terrorist tactics have aroused peoples’ indignation and resentment. While our information at this point on the reaction of the Vietnamese, especially in the provinces, is sketchy it seems apparent that both reactions have occurred. But it also seemed to all of us here that if the GVN would take prompt action, if Thieu would give evidence of strong leadership, would call in all elements in support of the government, that what might have turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the GVN and its allies could be turned into a psychological victory as well.

It is for this reason, as I have reported, that I saw Thieu Thursday3 morning and told him that I thought this was the psychological moment for him to demonstrate his leadership and to galvanize the nation by a statement which would constitute a declaration of national unity. I said it would not only reassure the civil population, especially in the provincial centers, but could also be a positive declaration to give life and meaning to the main programs and priorities he had spelled out in his state of the union message. I suggested that he might want to meet with leaders of both houses of the Assembly and perhaps have them associate themselves with his declaration and intentions. I think Thieu was impressed with the arguments for taking advantage of the present situation to mobilize greater popular support. The next morning, he held a meeting of the National Security Council and included the presidents of both houses of the Assembly to lay out an action plan of relief and recovery for the civil population. In the afternoon, he recorded a speech to the nation which was delivered on TV and radio that same evening.

[Omitted here is discussion of the U.S.-GVN Joint Task Force on post-Tet reconstruction.]

One naturally considers what the motives and purposes of Hanoi and the Front have been in staging these massive attacks and apparently preparing momentarily to launch extremely heavy ones in northern I Corps. Were they prepared to suffer these tremendous casualties in order to gain a psychological and propaganda victory? There are some evidences that they might actually have had some expectations of popular uprisings, and in any case they are publicly claiming that these have occurred. The British Ambassador, who has had much Asian experience, remarked that the VC, having made these claims, will suffer, in Asian eyes, a very serious defeat if they prove to be not true. Had they planned these offenses hoping to put themselves in a strong position to enter negotiations, hoping to force a coalition government by demonstrating that the NLF commands the loyalty of the South Vietnamese people and must [Page 127] have a major voice in any peace settlement; conversely hoping to demonstrate that the GVN is a weak puppet government and can be ignored? Or is this part of a long winter-spring offensive which would endeavor to exert pressure to the extent to the enemy’s capabilities at least until our elections, hoping if possible to score some major victory, but in any case to inflict heavy casualties on our troops in the expectation that they might create adverse psychological reactions in the United States and thus a change in policy?
I am inclined to the former theory. It seems to me that the primary purpose of this particular operation was probably psychological rather than military, that it was designed to put Hanoi and the Front in a strong position for negotiations by demonstrating the strength of the Viet Cong while shaking the faith of the people in South Viet-Nam in the ability of their own government and the US to protect them. This would be consistent with the determination on their part to press towards peace talks.

[Omitted here is additional discussion of the Joint Task Force, politics, economics, Chieu Hoi, and casualties.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 9:02 a.m. This telegram is printed in full in Pike, ed., The Bunker Papers, Vol. 2, pp. 316–326.
  2. This speech before the RVN House and Senate occurred on January 25. See The New York Times, January 26, 1968.
  3. February 1.