82. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
20175. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my fortieth weekly message.
- Since my last weekly message, there have been a number of
significant developments in the situation, some favorable,
others less so. I shall try to summarize these briefly at the
beginning and will endeavor to enlarge on them later in the
- The GVN has continued to press the recovery program with commendable energy. Despite frustrations, substantial progress has been made. In the Saigon area, public services have been maintained, distribution of food has been expanded, prices have come down (now about 20 percent higher that pre-Tet), and the problem of evacuees has been handled effectively. The curfew has been relaxed and people are getting back to their normal occupations. In the cities and towns throughout the country, recovery work is underway, food supplies are adequate, and efforts are being made to open lines of communication as rapidly as possible. The counterparts of the Central Recovery Committee at corps and province level are for the most part working effectively. Perhaps a major by-product of the effort has been that of getting Ministries to work together, horizontally instead of vertically.
- We have as yet no comprehensive inventory of destruction throughout the country but this is now underway. It is obvious from preliminary reports, however, that destruction has been heavy. Evacuees will probably number from 400,000 to 450,000, of which perhaps 30–40 percent having left their homes for security reasons will be returning. Most of the remaining will be refugees in the true sense in that their homes have been destroyed. We have no accurate count of the number of houses destroyed nor an inventory of the damage to industry. Our latest count showed 61,000 houses destroyed, a figure considerably higher than that of the GVN. As reported in my last week's message,2 industrial plants have suffered extensive damage. It is apparent, therefore, that the repair of physical destruction caused by the Tet offensive [Page 235]will involve an extensive and time consuming effort, and a substantial allocation of resources.
- Further elements in the enemy's strategy developed with renewed attacks on a number of cities during the night of February 18–19 in what appears to be the second phase of the Tet offensive. These for the most part were rocket and mortar attacks directed principally at airfields and bases. Exceptions were the cities of Phan Thiet and Song Be which the enemy entered and from which he was thrown out with heavy losses. But what is evident is that the enemy in effect is attempting an investment of some of the major cities. For example, troops are being moved closer to Saigon and to Can Tho in the Delta. He is making intensive efforts to disrupt lines of communication, cutting Highway 4 from the Delta every night. His present moves seem to confirm Thieu's view that he will continue to attempt to harass, isolate, and choke off the cities. He remarked to me yesterday that the countryside has always been of prime importance to the VC for this reason.
- The enemy is bringing in heavy reinforcements to the Saigon area and severe fighting has been taking place in Gia Dinh. These reinforcements evidently have been coming from replacement camps in Cambodia. Heavy truck traffic has been noted on the Cambodian side proceeding up to the border and heavy sampan traffic observed from the border inland to Viet-Nam. This raises the question as to how long we can afford to permit the enemy to make use of the Laos and Cambodian sanctuaries as freely and effectively as he has been doing for the infiltration of men and material. I recognize that this is an extremely difficult problem having many complex and sensitive political aspects, and will therefore want to make it the subject of another message.
- The enemy's present moves, it seems to me, lend credence to General Westmoreland's views and those of President Thieu on the probable future course of his strategy. As I reported last week, General Westmoreland believes that the enemy may be preparing for a major offensive in the northern provinces, perhaps supported also in the Central Highlands, and that he has the capability to mount such an offensive. Thieu's view, which he confirmed again in my talk with him yesterday, is that the present offensive will be followed by a second one which may come some months from now, perhaps around May to July: that in this he will try to pin down our troops in the North, in the Central Highlands, and in defense of the cities; to continue mortar and rocket attacks on airfields in an effort to reduce our air potential; to continue harassment and infiltration of the cities to carry on political “spoiling” and attempt to paralyze the government through terror attacks; and to attempt to regain and hold as much of the countryside as possible. Thieu believes that the main enemy objective is still the [Page 236]countryside, and that his purpose in its control is twofold: to choke off the flow of food and other supplies to the cities, and to be able to demonstrate that he controls a large part of Vietnamese territory before going to negotiations. Thieu believes, therefore, that the enemy's ultimate objective is a political settlement, and his view of timing looks toward the end of 1968 or early 1969.
- If these views are correct, and they seem to me quite logical, then it appears they will involve a major effort on the part of the enemy. How long he can sustain such an intensive effort, given the losses which he has already taken and which such an effort will inevitably entail, is problematical, especially if we have the men and material to meet and frustrate him at every turn; I think there is no question about the will.
It is apparent that the pacification program has suffered a setback, though to what extent it has not been possible to determine. Eighteen of the fifty-four ARVN battalions assigned to pacification were withdrawn for defense of the cities; so apparently were a considerable number of the Regional and Popular Forces and some of the RD teams, though the exact numbers are not known. The consequent impairment of security which has resulted has raised doubts in people's minds concerning the capability of the government to provide adequate security in the countryside. On the positive side, however, is the fact that substantial numbers of the Viet Cong forces were withdrawn from rural areas for the attacks on the cities and that for the first time a large part of the infrastructure has surfaced and been identified. This should make possible a more effective rooting out process.
First priorities, already underway, are to get supplies to the provinces; to get refugees into permanent camps; and to get inspection teams out. The next priorities are to get the forces back into the countryside as soon as possible; to re-establish security; to revive the economy; through psyops to capitalize on the Tet failure; and to attack the exposed infrastructure.
- Popular reactions have continued to surface. Confidence in the government was at first badly shaken; but at the same time popular opinion hardened against the VC. While the enemy instilled new fear in the city dwellers, he learned that the masses will not voluntarily support him. In the view of many experienced observers, the crisis has generated a greater feeling of unity and more willingness to contribute to the common cause than has ever been witnessed in this country. There are anxieties about the “second wave” attacks, but there is also among many Vietnamese a new esprit; they feel they have met and defeated the best the enemy had, they are proud of their army for the first time in many months, and as Phan Quang Dan puts it, they believe that their government and their system has proved it is “viable” in the toughest kind of situation.
- Military situation. Since General Westmoreland has reported daily, comprehensively and in detail, developments in the military situation, I shall only give a brief summary of the present outlook. The “second wave” of the Tet offensive is apparently underway. It began with a coordinated series of rocket and mortar attacks throughout II, III, and IV Corps in the early morning hours of February 18. Since then, many cities and airfields, including Saigon and Tan Son Nhut, have suffered harassing mortar and rocket fire. Enemy forces at considerable strength are close to Saigon with the obvious purpose of investing the city. The apparent intention of these attacks throughout the country is to tie down defense forces and prevent them from moving back to the countryside, while at the same time continuing to maintain tension among the urban population and impress them with VC power. The prime enemy objective, I believe, is III Corps and Saigon, although he also poses a threat to Can Tho in the Delta, and a continuing and very serious threat in the northern part of I Corps with four divisions in Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces.
- Although we have by no means necessarily seen the whole of the enemy intention or capability for “second wave” attacks, I am inclined to be encouraged by the slowness and apparent relative weakness of his follow-up attacks. Obviously, it was essential from his point of view to hit the cities and the GVN again as quickly as possible. Enemy radio broadcasts made the point that we must not be allowed to get back on our feet. In fact, it appears to me that the GVN, with our help and prodding, has reacted to the new situation, both military and political, faster and better than has the enemy.
- On the political-economic side, we have reported daily the government effort over the past three weeks to provide immediate relief to the victims of the fighting, show vigorous leadership and inspire confidence by public appearances and statements, and rally all nationalist groups to the support of the government in this crisis.
[Omitted here is discussion of additional measures undertaken by the GVN to rebuild in the aftermath of Tet.]