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

20798. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my forty-first weekly message.

A. General

It is now four weeks since the enemy launched his Tet offensive. Many factors are still only partly known in this new situation, but I thought it would be worthwhile to try to make a preliminary assessment of where we stand. This will have to be a rather rough approximation since it will be some time before the returns of the comprehensive and detailed examinations now underway will be in. Nevertheless, I believe the following general points can be made:
It is evident that the enemy made a heavy commitment of his forces to the Tet offensive, some 62,000 plus guerrilla and other elements in supporting roles; that more than half of the forces committed have been destroyed and more than 10,000 weapons captured, a figure which tends to substantiate the reported personnel losses. These heavy losses would appear to have a number of consequences: many enemy units are expected to be ineffective for a considerable period; a heavy replacement flow will be required from North Viet-Nam which is likely to result in a significant increase in the proportion of NVA troops in South Viet-Nam; and there is a possibility that he may be forced to reassess his strategy, for example the all-out offensive versus the “conservation of forces” policy, the attack on urban areas versus his “frontier” strategy, or the desirability of going into a primarily guerrilla war posture.
This reassessment of strategy by the enemy may be influenced by the psychological effect on him of the heavy losses and defeats he has suffered. He mounted an intense propaganda effort prior to the attacks, thoroughly indoctrinated his troops with the idea the winter-spring campaign would be the decisive and concluding period of the war, that a coalition government would be formed, and their hardships would cease. Now the enemy propaganda is talking about a long war, and there are no further references to “victory this spring.” It would seem logical that this pre-Tet psychological buildup would be followed by a letdown as the enemy troops come to realize that they have not won the final victory, but on the contrary have taken very heavy losses [Page 283] only to be thrown out of all the cities they attempted to seize. Probably the letdown will be most rapid and severe among VC provincial and regional forces, guerrillas, and infrastructure. If this should take place, it may well result in an upturn in Chieu Hoi rates.
It is clear also that the enemy made a major miscalculation in believing that the people would rise to support his forces. A recently captured document makes this even clearer than before. COSVN order dated February 1, a critique of the first phase of the Tet offensive, points to the lack of popular uprising and ARVN defections as key failures. But, as I have noted before, failure of the masses to actively support the enemy does not necessarily mean there is solid popular support for this government; and among many elements of the population, there is widespread apprehension and fear of further attacks by the enemy. Nevertheless, opinion has hardened against the enemy, and GVN efforts to assist the victims of the fighting have probably improved the government’s image in certain quarters. In some areas, popular indignation against the enemy is running very high. The post-attack feeling of national unity and willingness to cooperate with the authorities remains strong. Granted there is still a considerable distance to go to create a solid, enduring climate of opinion which can be described as strong, positive support for the government as against the present essentially anti-VC feeling! Nevertheless these are positive elements in the present military picture.
There are factors on the other side of the ledger. The enemy has shown a capacity for continued heavy infiltration from the North. Indeed it seems apparent that this was substantially stepped up in the months immediately preceding the Tet offensive, a fact which raises acutely the question of what measures should be taken to reduce substantially infiltration through Laos and Cambodia. The enemy has also been able to equip his troops with increasingly sophisticated weapons; they are in general better equipped than the ARVN forces, a fact which has an adverse bearing on ARVN morale. And the enemy has demonstrated flexibility, skill, resourcefulness, discipline, and determination. That he suffered such a severe setback has been due to the skill, tenacity, and bravery of our commanders and troops and those of the ARVN, to our mobility, and to our superiority in artillery and air power.
It seems apparent also that a number of options are open to the enemy. If instead of reverting to a policy of a prolonged war, or a guerrilla posture, he decides, as Thieu believes he will, to go “fast” in the months ahead with the objective of putting himself in a strong posture for negotiation, we may be approaching a decisive period in the war should this be his decision, and provided we act quickly and decisively to meet the threat! If we take positive action now, and this, of course, [Page 284] involves getting the GVN to take a whole range of decisions and actions, I am confident in our ability to meet the threat successfully. It is possible indeed that this could shorten the conflict and bring us more quickly to a decision. Thieu sees this in a time frame encompassing late 1968–early 1969.
The physical destruction caused by the Tet offensive has been heavy and widespread. One-hundred two cities and district towns were attacked, creating at present count some 550,000 evacuees, of which it is expected some 30–40 percent will return to their homes when security is restored. The number of houses destroyed now stands at 66,400, but this does not yet take into account figures for the heavy destruction at Hue. The present count of civilians killed stands at 4,700 with another 19,500 injured, but again this does not include figures for Hue. These figures give some idea both of the magnitude of the problem and of the time and resources that will have to go into the recovery effort. But assisted, prodded, and supported by our people, the government reacted well at the outset and is now showing more drive and effectiveness than at any time since my arrival in this country. While its performance is not beyond criticism, it is better than many of us expected, and far better than press reports indicate. We have to bear in mind the limitations of the human resources available here in drawing a fair judgment. Most important, I believe, is the fact that the government has recovered faster and is moving more swiftly than the enemy. Both sides are tired and disorganized in the wake of the near Armageddon, which the enemy provided, but our side is reviving more rapidly.
The relief and recovery program is moving ahead with no apparent loss of momentum since Ky turned over the direction of the Central Recovery Committee to Prime Minister Loc. This in part is the result of a more active participation on the part of President Thieu who chaired the Feb 24 and 28 meetings and has exhibited both comprehension and decisiveness in his interventions. He has told me he plans to chair the task force twice a week in the future. It is also due in part to the surprisingly effective performance of Minister Doan Ba Cang who has turned out to be a more hardnosed and efficient coordinator than Gen Thang. It is also due to the very effective efforts of Bob Komer, Gen Forsythe, and our staff. At this writing Saigon is approaching normal in many ways: prices are down to 15 percent above the pre-Tet level, rice distribution is back in the retailers’ hands and no longer poses a problem, public utilities are functioning, there is a uniform 1900 to 0700 curfew throughout the city. One-hundred-sixty-nine thousand evacuees are being cared for, the work of clearing away the rubble is well underway, and the long task of rebuilding has begun. While moving more slowly in the provinces in many cases, [Page 285] relief and recovery is also going forward there in a satisfactory manner.
Having failed to hold the cities, the enemy is now keeping up harassment of the urban population and attempting to dominate the countryside. The second wave of the offensive, as I mentioned last week, is in many ways becoming a race to re-establish control in the rural areas. Both enemy and friendly forces were withdrawn from the countryside to take part in the fight for the cities. That phase seemed to end Feb 25 when President Thieu attended an emotion-filled ceremony at which the Vietnamese flag was again raised over what remains of the ancient and sacred city of Hue.2 If Thieu is correct in his analysis of the enemy strategy, the present enemy concentrations near the cities and harassment by mortaring and rocketing of the urban populations is intended to tie us down to urban defense while he attempts to take over and hold as much of the countryside as possible. Interrogation of an enemy officer in I Corps supports this view of the enemy intentions. Thieu is fully aware of this, so are General Westmoreland and Gen Vien, and our troops are beginning to move back into the rural areas.
Pacification has been set back but contrary to some press reports certainly is not dead. While it is imperative that we move fast, we have by no means lost the race. About one-half of the RD cadre have remained in their assigned hamlets with the other half working in the urban areas. Some provinces were relatively untouched, and in at least 16 provinces it should be possible to get the program back on the rails rather quickly. Thirteen provinces were hardhit and we estimate that it will take a minimum of six months to get the program there back to the pre-Tet level. By corps areas, we can say the situation in I Corps is bad, with the program suffering most severely in the northernmost provinces; in II Corps it is in relatively good shape; III Corps is in worse condition, though we view the situation there as very serious in only three provinces, but those three include two provinces which are neighbors of Saigon, Gia Dinh and Bien Hoa. IV Corps is perhaps the most serious problem with something approaching areawide paralysis prevailing in that key region.
It is clear that we must move rapidly. Given a free hand, the enemy will use the people in the countryside, step up recruitment, replenish food stocks, and erode previous GVN pacification gains. Instructions have gone out to Vietnamese forces and US advisers to seize the initiative and to go on the offensive, roads and waterways are being re-opened and commercial traffic is beginning to move north of [Page 286] the Mekong. The next step is to break the RF/PF out of their defensive shells, and to get all RD teams back to their hamlets. While some risks are involved, it seems to me important that we do not over-commit ourselves in defense of the cities. Our ability to take the offensive, especially in the countryside, will be psychologically important both in restoring the morale of the South Vietnamese population and in persuading the enemy that he cannot possibly win militarily.3
The effects of the Tet offensive on the Vietnamese economy must be rated as adverse and seriously damaging, without significant positive offsets. Estimates of the physical damage have been reported elsewhere. It is doubtful that the extent of this widespread damage will ever be estimated accurately in money terms, but for a country whose capital wealth is low, it is a severe blow. If peace and security were now restored, one could imagine a rapid recovery of the sort that often takes place after localized natural disasters. But the continuation of fighting and insecurity will make the recovery longer and more difficult for Viet-Nam. Reconstruction will inevitably divert resources from the war and the pacification effort. In the meantime, the effect, both monetary and psychological, on people who have lost their homes, seen factories and places of business destroyed, and communications interrupted will be hard to sustain.
Another result of the damage inflicted during the past month and the consequent reconstruction effort will be a buildup of inflationary pressures. It seems certain that GVN expenditures will increase by at least 10 billion piasters. At the same time, disruption of economic life will inevitably lead to reduction of tax revenues, probably by the same order of magnitude. Our preliminary estimates show more than a doubling of the increase in money supply, from 19 billion piasters to more than 50.

[Omitted here is discussion of the impact of Tet on the business community, the GVN’s overall performance during and after the attacks, reconstruction and mobilization efforts, pacification, and the political response to Tet.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. This telegram is printed in full in Pike, ed., The Bunker Papers, Vol. 2, pp. 351–361.
  2. In telegram 20585 from Saigon, February 27, Bunker reported Thieu’s discussion of his trip to Hue and his assessment of the enemy’s next moves. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)
  3. In a discussion with Bunker and Westmoreland on February 24, Thieu described the dilemma he faced in having to keep some troops on the periphery of the cities in order to prevent infiltration while at the same time needing the ARVN out in the countryside in the pacification program. (Telegram 20584 from Saigon, February 27; ibid.)