62. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
18582. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my thirty-eighth weekly message.
- Because of the emergency situation caused by the Viet Cong Tet attacks, my last report was sent to you on February 4, just four days ago.2 Nevertheless, I think enough has happened in the meantime to justify a short report at this time. As more facts concerning the massive Tet offensive of the enemy comes to light and the story unfolds, a number of things become evident. Information is being steadily accumulated as reports come in from the country and Saigon. Consequently, what were somewhat tentative assumptions a few days ago begin to take more definite shape.
- It seems fairly clear now that:
- Plans for the offensive were worked out long in advance and with meticulous care. Instances have come to light in which enemy units were infiltrated disguised as civilians to reconnoiter targets, withdrawn, and re-infiltrated again as civilians immediately before the attack.
- Commitment of enemy troops was considerably larger than the estimate I reported in my last message. Estimates now are that 52,000 enemy troops, plus another possible 10,000 guerrillas, for a total of approximately 62,000 enemy forces, were committed to these widespread attacks.
The enemy believed that there would be uprisings in their support and that they would be able to take over many of the cities. This is supported by captured documents and prisoner interrogations which indicated that enemy troops were told they would find popular support, that there would be defections from the ARVN troops, and that [Page 148] reinforcements would follow. Unlike previous heavy attacks, they had no orders covering possible withdrawal. The tenacity with which the VC/NVA have held on to some of the areas they have captured (as in Hue and parts of Saigon) also suggests that the leaders envisaged a seize-and-hold and not a hit-and-run operation. Given the forces available to the VC/NVA, this would not be possible without massive popular and ARVN support. The enemy radio constantly pounded on the theme that the masses were rising to help the Viet Cong, and the government forces were defecting to join with the Communist troops.
A particularly interesting captured document is the Order of the Day from the headquarters of the South Viet-Nam Liberation Army to all military forces in South Viet-Nam. The document has a tone of urgency and calls all enemy troops “to liberate the 14 million people of South Viet-Nam” and “fulfill our revolutionary task.” It refers to the attacks as the greatest battle in Vietnamese history and states that the assaults “will decide the fate and survival of the fatherland.” It exhorts the enemy forces “to achieve the final victory at all costs.”
- No popular uprisings took place in any city, nor did the security forces defect to the enemy. Initially, many Vietnamese were frightened and impressed by the enemy’s ability to attack on such a wide scale, and their confidence in the ability of their government and the United States to provide security was shaken. Now they have observed that the enemy was not able to stand in the face of our forces but has instead fallen back and has been able to remain in none of the cities he has tried to seize. The reaction consequently has changed from one of apprehension and doubt to anger, indignation, and resentment at the treachery of the enemy’s attack during the Tet holidays, at the widespread destruction he has caused, and the terrorist tactics he has employed.
- The enemy has suffered a major military defeat. He has suffered losses on an unprecedented scale. From the early morning hours of January 31 until midnight of February 7, the enemy lost nearly 25,000 KIA, nearly 5,000 detainees, more than 5,500 individual and nearly 900 crew-served weapons. These losses are two and one-half times that of any previous month. Although these losses seem extraordinarily high, they are substantiated to a considerable degree by the number of detainees and weapons captured. Friendly losses have been 2,043 killed (703 US, 1,303 ARVN, and 37 FW), less than one-twelfth of the enemy’s. Gen. Westmoreland tells me that this estimate of enemy KIA is computed on a very conservative basis, since neither enemy killed by airstrikes nor artillery have been included. This has been a heavy blow for the enemy, particularly as many of the men killed were among the best they had, carefully trained regulars and commandos, many of them from [Page 149] North Viet-Nam. From a military point of view, he had gained little in return for his heavy expenditure of men and equipment.
- In inflicting this severe military defeat on the enemy, our forces everywhere turned in a superior performance. A highly encouraging development also was the very commendable performance of ARVN forces. General Westmoreland reports that all the ARVN division commanders were on their toes and performed well, as did the corps commanders. General Abrams has been visiting the ARVN divisions. He returned yesterday from II Corps with glowing reports of the performance of the ARVN 22nd and 23rd Divisions. The Commander of the 23rd Division, with headquarters at Ban Me Thout, allowed no Tet leave and, anticipating an attack, had deployed his troops outside the city; had he not done this, destruction would have been much greater.
- Although the enemy has suffered a heavy setback, he still retains the capability of launching a second wave attack in Saigon and in the III Corps area. Elements of three enemy divisions, the 5th, 7th and 9th, are in the III Corps area. In northern I Corps, in the DMZ, and the Khe Sanh area, he still has four divisions and farther south is threatening to exert pressure on Danang. As I have previously reported, it is Thieu’s opinion that the enemy will endeavor to keep up pressure throughout the summer in I Corps and the central Highlands. In my talk with him yesterday, he added the view that in addition to this pressure, he believed the enemy would continue efforts at harassment and infiltration against the cities in order to pin down friendly troops in defense of the populated areas and would also endeavor to recover territory in the countryside, in what he called a “counter-pacification effort.”3
- Enemy attacks have resulted in heavy damage in many cities and towns. We do not yet have an accurate count of the number of houses destroyed or refugees created, but we do have enough information to know that there has been very considerable property damage. As of this morning, the refugee count in the Saigon metropolitan area was 93,000 and for the country as a whole about 190,000. Thus far, with 31 provinces out of 50 reporting, even though sketchily, we estimate the number of evacuees (many of whom will return home as soon as fighting subsides) may reach between 250,000 and 300,000. About 15,000 homes are reported destroyed though this figure will undoubtedly increase. Civilian casualties compiled from preliminary figures total almost 800 dead and 7,500 injured, though this also is probably much under the actual total. Some important installations, such as hospitals, radio stations, and power plants, have also been damaged. The [Page 150] GVN, however, has taken prompt measures to deal with all these problems through the Joint Task Force, which I mentioned in my last message and to which I shall refer in more detail later in this report.
- It may be argued that the enemy objective was not primarily military, that his military defeat is more than compensated by his political and psychological gains. But I believe clear evidence is emerging that Hanoi expected to take and hold a number of cities. Enemy documents and interrogations clearly suggest that at least middle and lower level cadre and officers thought this was to be the final push to victory. The Order of the Day of the South Viet-Nam Liberation Army would lend credence to this view. Some Vietnamese leaders who know the Communists well tell us that they think the Communists expected to take the cities and so end the war. This, in fact, seems to be a fairly general interpretation among our contacts.
- As I mentioned in my last message, however, Thieu leans to the theory that the Tet attacks represent an effort to get into a more favorable position for negotiations. He believes that the enemy realizes his strength is ebbing and so took a desperate gamble so they could at least give the impression abroad of great and growing Communist power in South Viet-Nam.
- I think the two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. It seems possible that Hanoi would actually expect that the Vietnamese people would in many cases side with the invading forces, either out of fear or because of grievances against their own government. The experience of the Buddhist “Struggle” movement in I Corps in 1966, when military and police units sometimes sided with the anti-government forces, may have encouraged Hanoi to believe that it was possible to trigger defections from the GVN security forces.4 Thus their maximum objective may have been the occupation of some major urban centers and the collapse of the GVN.
- But the primary objective of winning the war in one great series of attacks on the cities does not preclude a lesser objective. Hanoi may well have reasoned that in the event that the Tet attacks did not bring the outright victory they hoped for, they could still hope for political and psychological gains of such dimensions that they could come to the negotiating table with a greatly strengthened hand. They may well have estimated that the impact of the Tet attacks would at the very least greatly discourage the United States and cause other countries to put more pressure on us to negotiate on Hanoi’s terms.
- But I am convinced that there is now a great opportunity not only to frustrate Hanoi’s expectations, but to compound the enemy’s military defeat by also turning it to political and psychological advantage for the GVN. Much depends on the promptness and effectiveness with which the GVN acts to return the situation to normal, to set about the task of reconstruction and to care for the victims of the fighting. I have urged on Thieu that this is the psychological moment to assert aggressive, dynamic leadership, to mobilize and energize elements of the government and to let the people know that he proposes to push ahead with the programs he outlined in his state of the nation message. I have stressed the importance of capitalizing speedily on the mood of anger and resentment at the Viet Cong treachery at Tet which is sweeping the nation. And I have urged on him the importance of keeping the people informed about the GVN’s programs to help them; that through frequent brief appearances on radio and TV he should tell the people what is going on and seek their support.
- I have also suggested to Thieu that other Cabinet members supervising emergency activities should speak to the people about their programs and that notables in Vietnamese life should be involved in all these activities and should be encouraged to stimulate efforts by the population. I offered our assistance and participation on these information activities in any way that he thought useful, and left with him a memorandum of specific suggestions.5
- I also suggested to Thieu yesterday he might want to consider broadening the base of his government by associating with it in some way prominent and influential civilians such as Nguyen Luu Vien, Tran Van Huong, Mai Tho Truyen, Vo Long Trieu, Ha Thuc Ky, Tran Van Tuyen, Phan Quang Dan, Tran Van An, and others, Thieu said that perhaps such individuals could be asked to serve as an advisory council to the government and that he was considering convening a Congress of Notables, something along the lines of the congress which had been convened in 1966 to promote the movement for elections [Page 152] for a Constituent Assembly to draft the Constitution.6 He also noted that Ky had gone on television on February 5 to inform the people of the GVN’s relief and recovery effort and that he himself will address a joint session of both houses of the Assembly on the morning of February 9.7
- Our pacification organization has turned itself into a relief operation for the time being. Bob Komer is managing US support of the GVN’s relief and recovery effort under Vice President Ky and has established a command post in the palace with Ky. A small group of bottleneck-breakers and problem solvers are working there to pull together civil-military operations on both GVN and American sides.
[Omitted here is continuing discussion of reconstruction measures and the economic situation.]
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 8:35 a.m. This telegram is printed in full in Pike, ed., The Bunker Papers, Vol. 2, pp. 327–333. On February 6 Bunker, Westmoreland, and Thieu had preliminary discussions on ways to galvanize the GVN and also on Loan’s February 1 public execution of a VC suspect. (Telegram 18269 from Saigon, February 6; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S) Additional information on Loan’s action during the height of Tet is in telegram 109066 from Saigon, February 2, and memorandum from Meeker to Rusk, February 3. (Both ibid.)↩
- Document 53.↩
- This meeting was reported in telegram 18561 from Saigon, February 8. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)↩
- For documentation of the Struggle movement, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume IV.↩
- In telegram CAP 80391 to Bunker, February 6, the President suggested that the Ambassador get Thieu to “move rapidly on the deeper problems facing the Vietnamese government” such as shoring up the ARVN, improving the performance of the intelligence services, and rooting out corruption. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, Walt Rostow, Vol. 59 [1 of 2]) In telegram 112634 to Saigon, February 9, the Department also provided a list of necessary steps for the GVN to take, including mobilizing the people in the rebuilding effort, making radical personnel changes, undertaking a more aggressive pacification campaign, and seizing momentum through “a sense of theater and drama to get its message to the people and guide their emotions as they emerge from their state of shock.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)↩
- In a February 9 memorandum to Rusk, Harriman noted in relation to these comments by Thieu: “Whichever means is used, I strongly endorse the idea of broadening the political base of the Saigon government. It is not today representative of the people and does not have the ability to rally the loyalty which is essential for a strong national government. I hope that Bunker will be encouraged to follow up on this conversation and that some steps are taken along the lines to which both men appear to agree.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Special Files, Public Service, Kennedy-Johnson, Chronological File, February 1968)↩
- In the speech, Thieu asked the National Assembly for its support to speed up mobilization plans. (Telegram 18892 from Saigon, February 10; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)↩