249. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The President
  • Ambassador Colby
The meeting consisted of a general review of pacification strategy, history, and organization. The President showed particular interest in the organizational structure of pacification and the role of the pacification effort in relation to the Paris talks and the possibility of a cease fire.
After an initial discussion of the President’s visits to III and IV Corps, we talked a little about the overall strategy of pacification. I drew the contrast between Sir Robert Thompson’s thesis of gradual and careful development outwards from an oilspot, and the alternative of rapidly asserting the Government’s authority throughout the land.2 I pointed out the first strategy might be appropriate when the enemy was particularly strong a few years ago, but that the second strategy is the only possible approach at this time, when the enemy main forces have been pushed out of the way and the enemy is moving to a political phase. This discussion included some historical references to the strategic hamlet program, the President commenting that if the strategic hamlet program had been started in 1957, there would not have been a war. I agreed in general with the thesis, although I said that the weakness of the Diem regime during its early stage came from lack of a politically participating population, and only after 1960 inadequate territorial security forces. I pointed out that the strategic hamlet program afforded a good lesson in organizational principles as well. Certain programs can be delegated to field commanders and local authorities and only general supervision maintained from the center. On new and different programs, however, a vigorous projection of central government guidance [Page 738] and detailed supervision is necessary. The strategic hamlet program benefited from this until the time of the Buddhist explosion, at which time the Government’s attention was diverted and the program began to deteriorate. I drew from this the need for a strong, central management of the present pacification program, a rather complex affair which is not entirely familiar to the local authorities who will be carrying it out. I illustrated this with a few examples of adjacent provinces having obviously uncoordinated plans. I thus suggested that the planning process this year should be very carefully looked at from a central point of view and detailed approval be required of province pacification plans. The President was in accord with this overall approach.
We then discussed in general the 1969 Guidelines, which I said were currently before the Prime Minister for consideration. The President said that he expected to be consulted on them before they were actually issued. I pointed out the somewhat conservative goals of several of the programs, such as 20,000 Hoi Chanh and resettlement of only 300,000 refugees, and suggested that a somewhat more vigorous effort might be appropriate. In this connection I referred to General Abrams’ negative reaction to the goal that 90 percent of the population be relatively secure, stating that it is necessary to include reference to the extension of Government authority, if not relative security, over the remaining 10 percent as well. I made a particular point of urging the necessity of activating the political process, moving upwards from popular participation at the village to the government rather than merely downwards through the government administration. This again brought up a contrast with the Diem period and the President was fully in accord with this approach.
The President raised the question of organization, which quite apparently was one of the major things he wished to discuss with me. He said that six months ago when the Government was changed, he had considered eliminating the Ministry of RD and moving it into a general directorate under the Prime Minister, working directly with the Presidency. The function would be to give overall direction to the pacification program as a whole, rather than allowing it to be lost as only one of a number of equal ministries working on the overall national situation. He said he had thought of putting a Minister of State in as the head of the pacification program. He asked my views. I concurred fully with the need for a strong staff and individual to give overall direction and control to the pacification program. I pointed out the necessity that the program fully involve a number of ministries, not just RD. I suggested, however, that the execution [executive?] functions of the RD Ministry, in the Cadre and Self Help fields, might be separated from this overall programming and planning function. These functions could perhaps be transferred to another ministry (e.g., the RD Cadre to the Interior), [Page 739] or these two functions could be left in the Ministry of RD, while overall programming and planning be moved to the central staff. The President seemed somewhat attracted to this idea, and evidenced a reluctance to eliminate the RD Ministry due to the misunderstandings this would create that the Government is turning away from the whole RD program. I emphasized the need for an effective Minister of State to do this overall coordinating and planning job, and suggested that he should have a military background. We did not discuss precise names.
The President asked whether I thought that plans were adequate for pacification in case of a cease fire. This led to an extended discussion of the role of the VC Liberation Committees and appropriate counteraction, especially as exemplified in the current Accelerated Pacification Campaign. I stated that I had read LTC Be’s plan for the establishment of Cadre teams in one of three neighboring hamlets,3 with instructions to move rapidly into the adjacent ones in case of cease fire. I said that I found this somewhat artificial and impossible to apply, pointing out the map of Long An with its great collection of VC controlled hamlets covering a large portion of two districts. I then described our efforts to accumulate information on GVN village governments, those elected, those appointed, those in exile, and those without any government. I pointed out that the villages with either elected or appointed governments cover a great portion of the land, although some of these are in exile. This brought out the importance of not only reestablishing Government presence in all these villages, but also of actually conducting elections, in order to secure legitimacy for the GVN’s claim. I suggested that considerably greater discussion and emphasis on villages, rather than on hamlets, would give the GVN an advantage in the contest for legitimacy, as the GVN could easily admit certain hamlets to be minority controlled within the overall village, but assert that village government is the basic structure of the state, despite a possible minority VC presence within the villages. This would effectively meet any claim to legitimacy or right to coalition by the enemy, who was actually assisting this tactic by putting his claim primarily into village Liberation Committees.
We then discussed the modalities of a cease fire, and ended up pretty well agreeing at the difficulty of defining a cease fire which would be acceptable to both sides, especially with respect to the role of territorial security forces and police. During the course of this, we discussed the possible reassignment of the territorial forces to the Ministry of Interior, in a separate directorate and not as members of the police, in [Page 740] order to meet any contention that military forces be frozen in place. The conclusion of this discussion was the importance of continuing a vigorous effort to assert GVN presence and authority in all the villages, hold elections therein in order to provide a base of legitimacy and involve the population, establish real territorial security (including an ending of the accommodation in many areas by which the VC rules the countryside at night and the GVN by day), and prosecute the Phung Huong campaign. The President fixed on the point that the GVN even in the Tet period had not actually been driven out of most of the rural areas, but when the VC had attacked the urban areas, the GVN had itself withdrawn its forces from the rural areas, abandoning them to the enemy. He stated that his recent emphasis on the need to be prepared to meet a resumption of the VC general offensive was designed to require local province chiefs and commanders to be prepared to maintain themselves in the countryside while they fought off any possible renewed attack on the urban areas.
The President asked what I saw as the major problems facing pacification in the coming months, and how the pacification plan should be managed. I referred to several obvious problems such as: the quality of leadership; the necessity of careful supervision and direction of province planning and execution required by the central authorities; bringing about the active participation of the population; the danger of a psychological setback in Vietnam and abroad from a new enemy offensive, if we built up a state of euphoria on our side; the necessity to develop a base of law and legal procedure for the Government’s actions, especially in the process of detention, etc. In the course of this the President commented on the impact he had had on the Corps Commanders in recent months, referring to the spring when they had alleged that they had no responsibility for “civil matters” in contrast to the current period in which they were fully engaged in pacification planning and execution. I stated that one of the major problem areas was the need to convince the population of a psychology of success and to develop confidence that they could take more and more of the responsibility of the war upon their own shoulders. I commented that the President’s strong emphasis on People’s Self Defense was very much along this line, but that it would have to be followed up by an insistence on elections and a deference to the elected authority of village councils, etc.
In the course of the discussion, the President indicated much interest in the Malaysian rural development system and its derivation from the wartime emergency committees. He appreciated the key role played by Deputy Prime Minister Razak and his frequent, random, and rigorous inspections. He was interested in this technique of management, but aware that he did not have the same ability to circulate nor to [Page 741] preempt the Government’s role. We agreed, however, that a vigorous Minister of State could perhaps develop this capability, and that the central planning and programming staff discussed above could also carry out this kind of specific inspection. I pointed out that we are preparing some suggestions for a systematic way of presenting information on pacification to command levels and showed him a couple of our examples. He was interested and expressed appreciation for the documents he had already received, and I led him through a working study of one of the provinces in order to show him how to utilize them.
The President asked how the situation in Thailand seemed. I drew the obvious comparison between Vietnam and Thailand’s overall religious and national unity, institution of the monarchy, and lack of a colonial background, to say that the Thai had nowhere near the same serious problems as the Vietnamese. I then stated that at the national level the Thai have developed a fairly full structure to carry on counterinsurgency and national development, but that at the local level it began to thin out and that the process of involvement of the population and deference to their political initiatives was perhaps even less developed than they were here in Vietnam.
In the course of the discussion we talked about the possibility of a year-end roundup on the status of pacification for the press. I suggested that it might be put together by the Central Pacification and Development Council as a report to the President. It could then be released to the press by Vietnamese sources. I stated that I would be glad to background our press on the situation, but that I thought that the basic source of information about the program should be Vietnamese. The President indicated approval of this idea and I said that I would prosecute it further. We agreed that the presentation should be in low key, bringing out the fact that a conscious program had been developed, but that the enemy was still around and might well come back and fight us again.
I regret that this memorandum indicates that I did most of the talking, but this appeared to be the President’s intention, as he would throw out a subject and ask me to discuss it. He was obviously in the process of adding one more source for his ideas for decision making.
W.E. Colby
  1. Source: U.S. Army Center for Military History, Dep CORDS/MACV Files, Pacification File, GVN Liaison File: 1968. Confidential. Prepared on December 10. The meeting was held at Independence Palace. Copies of the memorandum were sent to Abrams, Bunker, Berger, Goodpaster, and Major General Charles A. Corcoran, Assistant Chief of Staff for CORDS. Abrams had reviewed the military situation with Thieu the previous day. (Telegram 44409 from Saigon, December 9, and an attached memorandum from Rostow to the President, December 9, 11:15 a.m.; Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Meetings with the President, July-December 1968 [1])
  2. Thompson was a British General who had led a similar pacification effort against Communist insurgents in Malaysia. His theories on how to fight the Vietnam war were published later in No Exit From Vietnam (New York: David McKay, 1969).
  3. GVN pacification training chief Nguyen Be’s plan has not been found.