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

19824. Ref: State 114390.2 Subj: Command Relationships.

I have given careful consideration to the suggestion that a new command arrangement be developed here to increase the authority of COMUSMACV over RVNAF and third country forces. While I agree that we want to consider measures to make our prosecution of the war more effective, I think we must avoid adopting solutions which may in themselves create more problems than they solve. This sums up my reaction to the idea proposed. In saying this, I recognize that the main reasons for such a change in command arrangements are military and I am not in the best position to judge the merits of this proposal from this viewpoint. I have, of course, talked with General Westmoreland who is developing his own thoughts on reftel, and will address this particular aspect of the question in his reply. Our replies [Page 218]will naturally be closely coordinated but I would like to address myself primarily to the obviously sensitive political factors which would be involved in any such proposal.
As we have emphasized in numerous messages over the past few months, Vietnamese sensitivities about real or imagined encroachments on their sovereignty and allegations of US domination of their governmental activities have increased slightly. The lifting of censorship of the press last summer, the election campaigns, and the establishment of the National Assembly have all afforded wider means voicing these views. They have often taken the form of highly critical and even vitriolic comment on our massive presence here and its overwhelming effect on Vietnamese society and political life. No matter how we might seek to disguise such a command arrangement, I have no doubt that the Vietnamese will see it for exactly what it is intended to be, and this will only add to the hue and cry.
In addition to this internal political factor, such a change in command arrangements would lend itself readily to propaganda exploitation by Hanoi and the NLF, and indeed all critics of the pres-ent Vietnamese Government and of our efforts here. Hanoi's constant reiteration of the phrase “puppets” and the “Thieu-Ky-US clique” would be given added force and indeed substance. Two of our basic and urgent objectives here are to build up constitutional processes and to increase confidence and competence among the leaders of the new Vietnamese Government. In my opinion such a change would tend to undermine both of these objectives. If there were some international umbrella, such as the United Nations afforded for the Korean war command structure, this might make the proposal more digestible, but I do not believe that either the facade of a Vietnamese overall commander for the seven nations grouping would be adequate to this purpose. Moreover, the Koreans themselves would want high-level positions in the command structure and this would only complicate present relationships, which are satisfactory.
An added point related to the naming of President Thieu as overall force commander would be that such a move runs in the face of our effort to emphasize his civilian Presidential role under the Constitution. I recognize that he is also Commander-in-Chief of Vietnamese Forces, but the public impression that he is first and foremost a General would be strengthened. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine naming someone with lesser stature to this position.
A further consideration of the political side is the likelihood that a fundamental revision of command relationships will stimulate [Page 219]already expressed GVN desires for a more formal status of forces agreement between our two governments. This opens a can of worms which we all want to avoid.
In sum, I can see no political advantages from such a revision in command arrangements, and very considerable disadvantages. Subject to more expert views on the military purposes which would be served by this change, would urge that it not be considered at the present time, or in the foreseeable future.
General Westmoreland has seen this message and concurs with it.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Immediate; Nodis.
  2. Telegram 114390 to Saigon, a joint State/Defense message to Bunker, Sharp, and Westmoreland, February 13, requested an assessment of the “feasibility and desirability” of developing a command structure that would give COMUSMACV more direct authority over South Vietnamese and allied nation forces. One such plan involved designating Thieu the overall force commander and Westmoreland the field force commander. (Ibid.)