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

40117. From Ambassador Bunker and General Abrams. Ref: State 254365.2

The stand taken by the Hanoi delegates at the 11th private meeting indicates a clear desire to shift their main effort from the battlefield to the conference table. This has come as no surprise to us. We were drafting a paper which thought this was a likely early move by Hanoi, and much of the following is taken from that paper.
There has been a steady deterioration in Hanoi’s position in South Vietnam ever since the military defeats which overtook their general offensive at Tet and again in May/June. The August/Sept offensive could not even be got off the ground and was the weakest of all three attacks. After ten months of enormous effort, Hanoi and the NLF have nothing to show for the loss of over 150,000 killed, plus the thousand killed by B-52 and other air attacks, or who died of wounds or disease, or were captured, or defected, or were eliminated by arrest.
At the same time Hanoi has seen the emergence in the South of a stronger and more confident government under Thieu and Huong; a stronger and more effective and aggressive South Vietnamese military and para-military force; a growing bitterness and hostility toward Communism among the people; and an arming of the people themselves in the Civilian Self-Defense Corps. There have been no mass defections to the Communists from the nationalist side in the South—civil or military.
We have been gradually accumulating evidence since about April/May that Communist supporters and cadres in military and civilian ranks were beginning to doubt victory and to lose faith in their leaders. More and more time of the leaders in recent weeks has been devoted to maintaining faith in victory and to overcoming the argument that the South Vietnamese and their allies are “too strong to be attacked.” Moreover, the NLF has been having more and more trouble recruiting in the South as people left controlled or threatened areas for govt-controlled [Page 163] areas, and the government increased its mobilization and deprived the Communists of manpower resources.
The loss of Southern-born cadres was particularly worrying, as these cadres were shifted in large numbers from guerrilla, proselytizing and civil work into the regular forces, where they were chewed up in battle. Others deserted, or were killed, captured, arrested or defected. The 75/25 ratio of Southern to Northern troops in the regular forces was reversed within the year, and could not be concealed. As husbands, sons and brothers left their hamlets not to be seen or heard from again and there were no signs of peace, restiveness and resistance began to be reported in some Communist controlled areas.
Beginning with Khe Sanh, our B-52 strikes became a devastating tactical weapon. These strikes and other air bombing of the northern panhandle, in new bombing patterns and designs, have significantly constrained the movement of supplies through the DMZ and into Laos. This, and the wholesale uncovering of caches in the last couple of months—a product of improved intelligence, greater cooperation of the people in the countryside, and information supplied by POW’s and defectors—have created supply difficulties for the enemy.
A record number of enemy battalions were withdrawn into North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the last days of Sept and early October, signifying an end to the “third offensive.” We therefore conclude that Hanoi has had to seek a respite on both military and morale grounds.
What else may be motivating Hanoi in this latest move at the eleventh private meeting, we can only speculate about. It may be that Hanoi assumes that if it can get the bombing stopped and keep it stopped until Jan 20, the next President will find it very difficult to resume the bombing. Meanwhile it will have time to rest and resupply and prepare for a renewed struggle in the spring. Gen Abrams believes that [after?] a bombing cessation it will take at least two or three months for Hanoi to rebuild for another attack.
Another possible explanation for the sudden switch by Hanoi is that it sees itself as in the relatively strongest position it is ever likely to be for purposes of negotiations, and if it waits any longer to negotiate there may be an erosion of its support in the South or a further weakening of its relative position as the Thieu government moves into more offensive operations on the several fronts—military, Chieu Hoi, anti-VC infrastructure, revolutionary development and pacification.
A third possibility is Hanoi’s fear of a Nixon victory and what that might portend.
Finally, it may well be that Hanoi has drawn the conclusion that the US will not disengage in Vietnam no matter who is elected, and that [Page 164] it must now make the best possible bargain while it is still in a comparatively strong position to negotiate.
We personally feel that some or all these factors have played a part, but what is significant is that each of these factors put Hanoi in a defensive position. Hanoi did not take the stand they did at the 11th meeting because victory was in their grasp, but because victory has eluded them and they must now seek the best possible terms. For this reason we venture to predict that Hanoi will soon propose a cease-fire.
A complete cessation of bombing will cause some apprehension here, but I do not think it need worry us excessively. We shall maintain a military offensive in the South, the stepped up pacification campaign to extend control over more contested hamlets will be announced on Oct 21, and the intensified Chieu Hoi and Phoenix program attacking the VC infrastructure will be pressed simultaneously.
We expect that the NVA/VC will try to intensify the fighting as the serious negotiations start, but we do not think they have a capability for sustained action during the next two or three months and will need that time to repair their supply base.
We do not want to leave the impression that we think the war is over or that the North Vietnamese or VC forces are about to collapse. Their fanatical faith in the rightness of their cause, the fear of reprisal and retribution in both the South and the North in the event of defeat, the professionalism of men who have made revolution their life and career, the extraordinary investment of lives and hope over so many years, the tradition of discipline, and the Asian, coupled with Communist, indifference to lives, all suggest that Hanoi and the NLF will continue to fight with undiminished fervor.
Up to now Hanoi’s political effort has been secondary to its military effort as Hanoi sought a military breakthrough. What we now expect is that the major effort will shift to the political front, with the military in a secondary and supporting role. We believe that there will be very heavy fighting up to the time a cease-fire is arranged or other steps are agreed to diminish the conflict.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Bunker Files: Lot 74 D 417, Vietnam Telegram Chrons—1968, 1969. Secret; Immediate; Nodis/HARVAN/Double Plus.
  2. In telegram 254365 to Saigon, October 11, the Department transmitted the Paris delegation’s report of the October 11 private meeting. (Ibid., A/IM Files: Lot 93 D 82, HARVAN-(Outgoing)-October 1968) For the report, see Document 58.