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91. Notes of Meeting1

NOTES OF THE PRESIDENT'S MEETING TO DISCUSS GENERAL WHEELER'S TRIP TO VIETNAM

ATTENDING THE MEETING

  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • Secretary Rusk
  • Secretary McNamara
  • Clark Clifford
  • General Taylor
  • Under Secretary Paul Nitze
  • CIA Director Helms
  • Walt Rostow
  • George Christian
  • Tom Johnson

General Wheeler: This is a summary report. By later today the full report should be ready.2

The ARVN were not as seriously hurt as some reports indicated. The ARVN were not fragmented although units fighting in Hue in some cases are down to 25% strength.

The ARVN are held up in the cities and fear a recurrence of attacks similar to the ones on the cities during Tet. They seem to be looking back over their shoulders.

General Taylor: What about communications into the hinterlands?

General Wheeler: The communications are there, particularly to the district towns. What happened in the areas outside the towns is the difficult thing. There is a lack of knowledge about some outposts.

Secretary Rusk: What's the mood of General Westmoreland and Ambassador Bunker?

General Wheeler: Both are concerned. Westmoreland is concerned about the military situation. Bunker is pushing the government to get on with the job.

The President: Buzz, we are very thankful that you are back and appreciative of what you are doing.

[Page 268]

I want Dick Helms to give us a summary of the situation as he sees it today.

Director Helms: It is difficult to give a summary of the situation since we are in the middle of the battle. The Communists are in high gear. This military activity may continue 3 to 4 months. Their objective is to wreck the Government of South Vietnam and its military structure. If, in the process, they can hit the U.S. units, that is okay. But their principal objective is against the ARVN.

The allies are on the defensive. The enemy does have the initiative. The enemy still has 50% of its main forces units intact and they are now in a position to get manpower additions from the countryside.

The ARVN fought well but they have had a hard time. The net of this is that the ARVN is in worse shape today than before Tet. I am concerned about defections since the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese have treated the people in the countryside rather decently. We may have to confront the possibility of desertion.

The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese may ruin themselves if they go “flat out.” I doubt that the Government of South Vietnam will collapse. It looks like there will continue to be more fighting and stand-off. I don't think it will be a decisive period for or against either side. The longer this thing is drawn out, the less likely I think negotiations are.

General Wheeler: I talked to General Westmoreland and all of the senior U.S. commanders. I also talked with Ambassador Bunker, President Thieu and Vice President Ky. There were a number of factors which surprised me. I certainly learned things I did not know before:

  • —The Tet attack was very powerful and nationwide.
  • —The enemy's prime objective was against the ARVN and the Government of Vietnam.
  • —The enemy also wanted to destroy our logistic base and our command and control system. They were also after our air power.
  • —The enemy planned on a major uprising and many defections. Our press had led the North Vietnamese to think the ARVN army was a pushover. That proved to be untrue.
  • —The enemy has laid land lines down the Laotian panhandle. This will permit them to operate on radio silence and give their orders through land lines. This will make it much more difficult to monitor their intelligence.
  • —The margin of victory was very thin in a number of battles.
  • —What the future intensity of the conflict will be is an unknown.
  • —We do know that more Tet-type attacks are planned.
  • —The enemy is still hanging in around the cities. They are still trying to infiltrate into Saigon.
  • —The ARVN performed well. There were no defections. There has been some underpar performance due to poor leadership.
  • —The RF and the PF carried the brunt of the fighting. Many elements of the ARVN were shot down.
  • —I think it will take a minimum of 3 to 4 months before the ARVN returns to its previous strength. There are 58 ineffective battalions and 97 effective battalions as of the time I left. The RF and PF situation is not entirely clear.
  • —The regular troops did take more casualties than the RF and PF forces.
  • —We believe about 40,000 enemy were killed. We cannot count the number wounded and missing.
  • —On the Vietnamese side, there were approximately 12,000 KIA's and wounded.

The President: What you are saying is that the ARVN has been seriously hurt?

General Wheeler: Out of 140–150 battalions, 58 are ineffective due to losses of one type or another.

General Taylor: Are all back from Tet?

General Wheeler: A number are back but we still do not know.

Paul Nitze: When ARVN units fall below 60% of full strength, they then call them ineffective. This suggests that a lot of men disappeared who are neither missing, or wounded, or killed in action.

General Wheeler: I have here a paper which was written on 31 January by the Military Affairs Committee and the Current Affairs Committee of the Liberation Army.3 We believe this document to be authentic.

In it the Viet Cong say their principal objectives were: a general offensive to destroy the ARVN, an effort to neutralize military and political support and to generate a general uprising.

They failed to get an uprising. There was no ARVN desertions. They did not capture the military targets they set out to capture. In many cases their attacks were ill-timed and ill-coordinated.

The document continues to say that they have problems with morale, with personnel, and need to continue the general offensive. They recommend pressing on with actions. They want to concentrate on our forces and take the “must win” areas like Saigon and Hue.

They told the units to avoid attacks on U.S. forces because of the heavy casualties that would result. They postponed their “victory day” 3 to 4 months. They told their forces to continue to attack their bases and harbors and to destroy the Vietnamese units and do everything they could to cause defections.

There is a major problem with the ARVN withdrawing to the cities and towns. They are worried about the security in the urban areas. I pointed this out to Thieu and Ky and told them that they are letting the countryside go by default.

[Page 270]

Thieu and Ky recognized the danger in this and both of them said “we are faced with a dilemma.” They said that they cannot afford to have another Tet offensive in Saigon and in other towns.

The government is most worried about maintaining the support of the people.

There are these other observations:

  • —Pacification is at a halt.
  • —The Viet Cong cannot roam at will in the countryside.
  • —The worse situation on pacification is in I Corps north. The next worse is in I Corps south. The best pacification now is in II Corps.
  • —None of the pacification programs is satisfactory to us. Bob Komer said the situation was not satisfactory anywhere.
  • —As to our own forces, they are in good shape. The Air Force was not significantly degraded by the attacks. There has been an increase in helicopter losses, but there are more helicopters in Vietnam today than there were before Tet.

The equipment loss rate is up in all categories.

Westmoreland is working to open Highway 1 in I Corps.

The President: Did we ever do anything about getting civilian contractors into these areas to build some of these bridges and other projects?

Secretary McNamara: We are going to increase the work being done by these contractors.

General Wheeler: I asked about this. General Westmoreland said they can employ productively about 25,000 civilians.

The President: Use them to the maximum. This might save us from sending more troops from here.

General Wheeler: The construction engineers told me they have plenty of activities to keep the contractors busy.

The President: Be sure it is done.

General Wheeler: 1968 will be a critical year in the war. There is heavy fighting ahead. The losses will be high in men. The losses will be high in equipment.

The question is, can the ARVN withstand another wave of attacks. The government has many problems, among them are the refugees, many civilian casualties and the continuing problem of morale.

The military situation is this: General Westmoreland must have a sufficient force in I Corps to hold securely those two northern provinces.

The enemy still has several courses of action open. They could attack Khesanh. They could leave a holding force around Khesanh and move south to attack Quang Tri and Hue. They could attack Danang. [Page 271]He does have the tactical flexibility. We know he is building a road in northern provinces to use for tanks and artillery. In short, General Westmoreland has no theater reserves. He has been stripped of his reserves.

He needs reserve forces for three reasons:

1.
To repulse any enemy invasion.
2.
To destroy the enemy forces and their bases.
3.
To exploit enemy defeats.

It is my judgment, and the judgment of General Westmoreland, that we must move into the Delta to catalyze the ARVN into action. The margin of victory was very thin in many of the battles over the Tet. The margin between defeat and victory in many areas was surprisingly narrow. In the Delta three battalions of U.S. troops were sent to help the ARVN. If it had not been for these battalions, several key province towns could have been overrun.

The second surprise I had was that we came very close to losing Tan Son Nhut Air Base. It was touch and go there. This attack was blocked by battalions coming in and hitting the enemy from the rear. It was close. Around Danang, we had another close call. We had to put people down by chopper and then move them to catch the enemy second North Vietnam Division. It was close there too.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of General Westmoreland, he needs a theater reserve of two divisions.

General Westmoreland said he was thankful for the troops which had been sent. He said they had a good effect on the ARVN and on the people.

The President: Are all of them there now?

General Wheeler: All are due there today.

The President: How long will it be before they are ready?

General Wheeler: The 82nd should be ready now. The Marine units should be ready in a few days.

Westmoreland handled this bad situation well because of three things:

1.
Mobility
2.
Fire power
3.
Flexibility in command.

As you can see from the attached table (see attachment)4 General Westmoreland has asked for three packages.

By 1 May he wants a brigade of the 5th mechanized division; 1 armed cavalry regiment; 3 artillery battalions; 4 engineer battalions; [Page 272]other elements of the 5th Marine division; a Marine air wing and other units.

General Westmoreland wants more armor for where there is a threat the armored cavalry regiment is good for opening and securing roads.

If the President approves this, we propose a Four Structured Planning Meeting at Honolulu with representatives of the Joint Chiefs, General Westmoreland and the service secretaries to go over these requests and get the exact details ironed out.

This total request comes to 205,000 men.

The President: What are the alternatives?

General Wheeler: The only alternative to this, in our judgment, is a decision to be prepared to give up areas in lieu of more troops. Without the reserve, we should be prepared to give up the 2 northern provinces of South Vietnam. This, of course, would be a political hazard. It also would give the North Vietnamese a strong position for negotiating. It would, I believe, cause the collapse of the ARVN.

The President: What about those 65,000 troops the ARVN was supposed to provide?

General Wheeler: You will get them. They have begun steps to draft 18 and 19 year olds. They are recalling men to active duty who haven't served 5 years. President Thieu assured me we would get more than 65,000 if they could be absorbed and supported by the U.S. Government.

General Westmoreland thinks they can go above 65,000 this year. General Westmoreland wants them to concentrate on mobilizing their army, since the ARVN are frequently outgunned by the enemy. This is one reason why they are reluctant in some cases to fight.

The President: How is the recruitment of enemy coming?

General Wheeler: This is a matter of conjecture. We do know that they have brought their forces up by at least 3,000 men.

Prior to Tet they had approximately 225,000 troops of all types. By infiltration, recruitment and other steps, they were able to get this number up to 240,000 by the time of Tet. We estimate they lost 40,000 killed; 5,000 disabled; and 3,000 prisoners of war who are military types. This totals about 48,000 enemy out of action. We now estimate that they have approximately 200,000 effective fighting units.

(At 9:35 the meeting moved to the Sitting Room.)

General Wheeler: There were several North Vietnamese divisions which were relatively untouched including the 9th and the 5th. On the border, the first NVA division was relatively untouched. They back-stopped main force VC units. I think the two divisions around Khesanh have taken a good shellacking.

[Page 273]

Director Helms: I worry about those figures on casualties and enemy strength being used. I am not sure how accurate they are.

General Wheeler: They are the best we have.

Secretary Rusk: What is General Westmoreland's strategy? What are his priorities? Is he tied to the towns?

General Wheeler: He feels he must have sufficient forces to hold.

General Taylor: Can he do it with these reserves (referring to the 200,000 requested).

General Wheeler: Yes, I believe so unless the enemy ups the ante.

The President: Are we adequately prepared for Khesanh?

General Wheeler: Yes, sir.

The President: Do you think that it will be there (Khesanh) or elsewhere?

General Wheeler: We do not know. We know that we have about 5900 men at Khesanh with a Vietnamese ranger battalion. These units are heavily supported by air and artillery. We are pouring in air.

The price the enemy would have to pay would be a very high one if they were to try to take Khesanh. General Westmoreland does not believe they can take it.

We have been bombing the enemy very heavily outside of Khesanh. They are being pushed severely. Just this week we hit an ammo dump and set off 4–1/2 hours of secondary explosions.

Westmoreland thinks the enemy can attack Khesanh or move south toward Hue and Quang Tri.

The President: How far is that?

General Wheeler: About 60 miles. The enemy could leave a holding force in the area.

The President: As I understand it, they have 40,000 to 50,000 men in a 40 mile area. We have 5000 men in Khesanh. We would bring in by plane or by road the necessary reinforcements if this position were attacked. Is it possible that the enemy has moved in more troops?

General Wheeler: Yes, Sir, it is possible that he could have moved in more troops. We ran into 3 tanks and we know that the enemy has a brigade of paratroopers. While we are on that we need CIA to give us some good photo reconnaissance of downtown Hanoi and the production centers. In addition, one prisoner of war said he saw 20 tracked vehicles with what appeared to be Frog missiles on them. In short, the enemy could show up with more forces in the south than they have shown before.

The President: What about our taking the initiative ourselves? Is there anything we can do other than just sitting and waiting for them to attack?

[Page 274]

General Wheeler: As far as new bombing efforts there is nothing new in the cards. We could plan an amphibious operation in the north, but we do not have the capacity to do it at this time.

Secretary Rusk: I think the President is talking about new initiatives in I Corps moving our units to attack rather than being on the defensive.

General Wheeler: Well, the 1st Cavalry Division is engaged in offensive actions against the enemy.

The President: It seems to me for months we have been waiting for them to move. They may be recouping and replacing their losses during this time. Does he plan any surprise moves of his own?

General Wheeler: He plans to move along the road and clear it. In addition, he is sending out patrols on foot to locate the enemy and get prisoners and move against them when possible.

The President: So he really has no initiative of his own other than to interrupt their road building and to patrol.

General Wheeler: No, except the 1st Division is engaged against the enemy at Hue.

The President: We may get some dazzling and shocking surprises. Perhaps we have overbuilt Khesanh. It looks like the enemy can pick and choose his own time and place. Does Westmoreland have any plans to attack them? I am not questioning his strategy. I am just trying to find out what the situation really is. As I understand it, he is prepared to move with other forces to attack the enemy if they attack Khesanh. Also he is prepared to move against anything coming down into the south. If they move across the DMZ, he will counter-attack.

How many men are programmed for him?

General Wheeler: 517,000 in the next 90 days. These are part of the Program 5 package.

The President: What do you have available to send to him in the next 60 days?

General Wheeler: We have not had a chance to go over this thoroughly.

Secretary McNamara: General Westmoreland has asked for 105,000 additional men by May 1. He has asked us to do it in 60 days, but I don't think we can do it in less than 90 to 120 days.

The President: Where will these troops come from?

Secretary McNamara: They will come in two increments resulting from a call up in reserve forces. There would be two call ups in the Army, the first for 90,000 and the second for 70,000. There would be about 50 to 60 thousand Marines called and about 20,000 Navy and Air Force. This would total about 250,000 in reserve call up. In addition, we would need to extend tours up to 6 months and increase the draft call in May.

[Page 275]

The President: Then we would call up the reserves and extend enlistments up to 6 months.

Secretary McNamara: Yes, we would ask for an extension of enlistments for 6 months for a period of authority extending for 8 months from now. No single man would stay in longer than 6 months, but the need for this authority may extend for the next 8 months.

As I see this total program, it would add 2–1/2 billion dollars to the 1968 budget. It would increase the 1969 budget by $10 billion. It would increase the 1970 budget by about $15 billion.

Of course, we would have to expand production of helicopters, ordnance, air power, and ground support equipment.

The President: How is the M–16 production coming? Colt is working 3 shifts now on a 5 day a week basis. There will be a second source coming in. We get production of about 29,000 rifles now and expect this to be up to 40,000 by the end of the year. A total of 683,000 M–16's have been produced so far.

In addition, we would open several new camps. There would be a need to open Camp Chaffee in Arkansas and Pickett Hill in Virginia. In addition, we would open Camp Roberts in California and Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.

The President: Could you handle all of the equipment and supplies for all of these bases?

Secretary McNamara: Yes, the Marine units could be ready in 8 weeks. The Army units could be ready in 12 to 16 weeks. We would immediately call 57,000 Marines and 90,000 Army. At the time of the announcement we would also say that this would be followed by an additional 70,000.

The President: What type of men are these that would be called?

Secretary McNamara: They are of three types:

1.
World War II and Korean veterans.
2.
Men who have already fulfilled two years of active service and are now in the active reserves.
3.
Men who have 6 months training and have had less active service.

There will be lots of griping but I don't think the problem will be serious.

The President: What problems are there now?5

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson's Notes of Meetings. Top Secret. The meeting lasted from 8:35 to 11:15 a.m. and was held in the White House. The Vice President joined the meeting at 8:50 a.m. (Ibid., President's Daily Diary)
  2. See footnote 2, Document 90.
  3. Not found, but summarized below.
  4. See footnote 3, Document 90.
  5. No additional pages of these notes have been found.