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

20928. For Secretary Rusk from Bunker. Pass OSD for Secretary Clifford.

You have noted in a recent public statement that we may be entering a climactic stage in Viet-Nam.2 I believe that indications here tend to support this view. There are many factors which may have convinced Hanoi that it should gamble on a broad and carefully phased all-out effort. These include our steady grinding down of their forces, the effects of the bombing in the North, the successful constitutional process in South Viet-Nam, the beginnings of results on pacification, and possibly other factors which are difficult to judge, such as a revised Hanoi estimate of the trend in American public opinion. We are not yet clear on Hanoi’s aims, but an attempt to engage us in negotiations in 1968 after such a military effort, combined with its current diplomatic and propaganda offensive, is one possibility.
I think it would be useful at this point to review Thieu’s current analysis of Hanoi’s three-phase strategy (Saigon 18561 and 19925).3 The first phase involved military efforts to seize terrain, to create as much destruction as possible, to build up heavy casualties, and to pin down GVN and allied troops in the northern I Corps and central Highland areas. Second, to continue to harass the cities, intensify infiltration, increase popular tension, and build up the guerrilla forces and infrastructure. This would include interrupting supplies from the countryside to the cities, pinning down troops in urban areas, and facilitating political spoilage in these areas through propaganda and agitation. Third, to undermine the pacification program by extending VC control in the countryside through a counter-pacification program. Thieu thought that following these three efforts, Hanoi would decide whether to negotiate, if her position remains strong enough, or to fade away. Thieu believes that Hanoi and the NLF will be able to maintain this pace until the end of the year or early 1969, before moving clearly in one of the two indicated directions. I am inclined to agree that even with higher [Page 299] losses they have the capacity to continue at least through the summer and into the fall at this general level of activity, unless we and the GVN are able to pose new problems for them by going on the offensive on both the military and political fronts.
Hanoi’s presumed change in strategy presents both a heightened risk and an important opportunity for us. We must at any reasonable cost eliminate enemy chances of major gains, especially in the two northern provinces, lest this undermine already shaken South Vietnamese morale. We should, however, be quick to exploit the opportunity created by the enemy’s heavy losses in the Tet offensive, and possibly in a subsequent Thua Thien-Quang Tri action. If the GVN can, as we hope, recover quickly enough from the Tet onslaught and take advantage of the opportunities offered by the new situation and we can initiate counter-offensives in certain areas while containing the NVA in northern I Corps, the combined effect may be to put Hanoi under sufficient pressure to shorten its planned time frame.
We are pushing the GVN leadership as hard as we can to get forces out into the countryside and to counter-attack where feasible, to accelerate civil recovery, and to rally the people in a policy of national unity. We believe that we are getting some results from the GVN in what are admittedly difficult circumstances for them, but as I have said before it is essential to bear in mind what human resources we have to work with here in assessing the possibilities for a more effective leadership and more rapid progress.
There are a number of complementary measures which only Washington can take, however. They involve factors which we cannot fully judge from here, but which we believe could powerfully reinforce the GVN effort and perhaps ultimately contribute to shortening the war.
First, while we recognize the many problems involved in the early despatch of a limited number of added combat troops to Viet-Nam, we believe that they would reinforce our ability to exploit the enemy’s heavy losses and perhaps to make new moves to deal with infiltration through Laos, as indicated below.
Second, accelerated modernization of the South Vietnamese forces is of military and moral importance. The introduction of Russian-designed assault rifles, light and heavy machine guns, anti-tank rockets and artillery rockets into Viet Cong military units has increased the enemy’s combat power to a major degree and has adversely affected morale of the Vietnamese armed forces, since they are now out-gunned at battalion level and below. This subject has been addressed by General Westmoreland through military channels.
Third, the enemy’s Tet offensive has given us an opportunity to underline the importance of the San Antonio formula as a prerequisite [Page 300] to any cessation of the bombing in the North and to talks with Hanoi. Both the President and you have recently reaffirmed this position and this has reassured the GVN leadership. I should point out here that the Tet offensive has clearly had an effect here of hardening the GVN’s public and private position on negotiations and related questions such as the status of the NLF and overt contacts with it. In fact, with the present state of Vietnamese morale, following the shock of the Tet attacks and their aftermath, I believe that an early move by us to engage in bilateral talks with Hanoi would have a most damaging political effect here. Continuing close consultation with the GVN on these matters and the latter’s inclusion at an early stage in any negotiations with Hanoi assume even greater importance now.
In assessing our bombing policy in the North, we can see some advantage in increasing the pressure on Hanoi by adding certain military targets, provided they are of military value and do not increase substantially the likelihood of greater civilian deaths and casualties. Certain decisions have already been taken in this sense and perhaps there is nothing more that should be done in this direction. There is some evidence that Hanoi expected retaliation for the Tet attacks, however. We have been forebearing in recent weeks and months in our effort to indicate to Hanoi that we were ready to talk, but their response has been the series of vicious attacks in South Viet-Nam over the Tet holidays and their diplomatic offensive designed to put pressure on us.
I urge prompt completion of contingency planning and appropriate responses should Hanoi introduce spectacular new weaponry or other major new military moves. Examples of this are possible enemy bombing south of the DMZ, attacks on our carriers, use of the Soviet Frog missile, or extensive use of armor in SVN. Such intensifications of the NVN military effort would inevitably further affect South Vietnamese morale by emphasizing their relative inferiority in terms of weapons and equipment.
Areas of continuing special concern to me are Laos and Cambodia. As I have pointed out earlier (Saigon 28293 of June 17, 1967)4 and repeated several times since, I consider it essential to develop some effective way of greatly reducing the major infiltration through Laos, which should make the situation here much more manageable. There has also been increasing circumstantial evidence of enemy supplies, including weapons and ammunition, coming through Cambodia. Since the effort to strengthen the effectiveness of the ICC there does not seem to be prospering, I believe that early consideration should be given to other measures which will deter the growing NVA/VC use of [Page 301] Cambodia and the apparent resupply from this quarter. Our measures should be applied in such a way as to bring pressure on Sihanouk to deal more forthrightly and concretely with the problem. They should combine political, psychological and any required military actions. With these twin problems of Laos and Cambodia in mind, I have convened a SEACOORD meeting on March 7, at which Ambassadors Unger and Sullivan, Admiral Sharp, General Westmoreland and I will review the situation in those two countries and recommend courses of action to deal with them.5
I recognize that some of the steps suggested above will be regarded in certain circles as degrees of escalation, and to be frank about them, they are. What I believe should be weighed against this factor, however, is the apparent all-out nature of the present enemy strategy which suggests that he is playing all his military cards short of inviting some kind of open Chinese or Soviet participation beyond the reportedly growing use of Chinese labor to replace North Vietnamese manpower. In deciding on our actions, we of course wish to avoid steps which might make such external military involvement more likely for reasons of face or desperation. Our objective should be to take measures which will encourage the North Vietnamese leadership to seek negotiations on an acceptable basis, in recognition of our determination to continue on our present course until they do.
I hope that these suggestions will receive prompt high-level consideration so that we can capitalize on the enemy’s exposed position at a time when it may count the most.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Nodis. Received at 8:44 a.m.
  2. See footnote 6, Document 67.
  3. In these telegrams, Bunker reported on meetings with Thieu during which Thieu discussed the enemy’s strategy. For telegram 18561 to Saigon, February 8, see footnote 3, Document 62. Telegram 19925 to Saigon, February 20, is in National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 17 VIET S.
  4. Not printed. (Ibid.)
  5. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XXVIII, Document 345.