11. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Further Australian Reinforcements for Viet-Nam


  • The Secretary
  • Mr. Thomas F. Conlon, FE/SPA
  • Mr. Robert W. Furlonger, Charge dʼAffaires, Australian Embassy
  • Mr. Robert H. Robertson, Counselor, Australian Embassy

Australian Reinforcements

Mr. Furlonger called at his request to leave with the Secretary a copy (attached) of the letter from Prime Minister Holt to the President which he delivered to the White House March 4, regarding further Australian reinforcements for Viet-Nam.
The Secretary said that the President had shown him the letter and that it was very good news indeed. He said that the President would [Page 19] want to reply2 and assured Mr. Furlonger that when the announcement is made (in Canberra Tuesday evening, March 8), it will be very warmly received in the U.S. The Secretary asked if Parliamentary action will be required.
Mr. Furlonger replied that Parliamentary approval would be required, but that no problem was anticipated on this score. Mr. Furlonger asked if the Secretary had any comments on the current situation in Viet-Nam.

Military Situation in Viet-Nam

The Secretary noted that under present arrangements the Australian Government is getting details on the military situation through the Australian Embassy in Saigon. On an overall basis, we are encouraged at the seizure of the military initiative over the past few months by South Vietnamese and Allied forces. This is not without its problems, for we are also concerned that the American press has given so much attention to American operations and less to Vietnamese operations, which continue to be the main focus of attention. The South Vietnamese in fact are doing most of the fighting and absorbing most of the casualties.
The Secretary continued that Allied forces have also been getting into areas not touched by Government forces for years, particularly Binh Dinh province and areas in Quang Tri province. The impact on the DRV and VC regular forces has been severe. In 1965 the VC lost as many killed as the U.S. did during the whole Korean War. Since January 1, 1966, VC casualties, included wounded, have totalled 30,000. This raised a question as to how long the VC can suffer losses of this magnitude. Firepower available to us in Viet-Nam is rapidly increasing, and by mid-1966 more firepower will be delivered than in any month during World War II. General Westmoreland is quietly confident about the outlook, although we realize that there is a tough job ahead.
The Secretary added that at some point the other side will have to make a tough decision whether to increase their present effort or to revert to the guerrilla phase. We donʼt know what their decision will be. There are some signs that they are reluctant to accept the risks of maintaining battalions in combat. If they revert to the guerrilla phase, this will, to [Page 20] some extent, ease the burden on our forces and increase the burden on the South Vietnamese.
Mr. Furlonger asked how the situation was developing on the civilian side. The Secretary replied that we are encouraged by the evident recognition by the GVN that the civilian side is important. The main problem is how much the Vietnamese can do with their administrative apparatus and the trained people they have. There is a tremendous shortage of trained people available to the GVN. The GVN is getting numbers of trained cadres from the training center at Vung Tau and are sending groups of some 50 or so trained in both the military and civic action fields into the villages. The limitation is the GVNʼs administrative capacity to train enough people to do the job. We hope that some slack can be taken up by international action, in the field of health, for example. The Iranians are taking up the burden of providing health workers for one province. We are trying to persuade the Canadians to take on three provinces. This would not be too difficult to organize and carry out. Overall, we will be doing our best to use things in place of manpower. We will be approaching New Zealand to see what further can be done.


Letter From Prime Minister Holt to President Johnson

Dear Mr. President,

The Government has now completed its consideration of what more Australia can do in Vietnam by way of military contribution at this time. Various possibilities were before us and in particular we understood that an additional battalion would have special value.

The position is that the existing Army Force in Vietnam totals some 1,400 men, of which the main element, the battalion, is due for relief in May/June of this year. We are proposing to replace the present force with a substantially enlarged contribution of forces in the form of a self-contained Australian task force of some 4,500 personnel under Australian command. The task force will contain in addition to its headquarters, two infantry battalions, an SAS squadron for deep patrolling and surveillance, and combat and logistic support units. We are advised that to operate most effectively, the task force will need intimate and continuous [Page 21] helicopter support. For this purpose we are providing a flight of eight R.A.A.F. Iroquois helicopters, including four to be withdrawn from Malaysia where they are now assisting security operations in the Thai border area. The flight of Caribou aircraft and the team of 100 Army advisers will be continued.

We have been informed by our military advisers that the provision of a force of this size represents the upper limit of our army capacity, having regard to our existing military commitments in Malaysia. They advise us that the force can be sustained, but make it clear that short of a major emergency it will not be practicable to enlarge it. But we believe that the task force we have in mind will be the most militarily effective contribution we can make to the allied effort in South Vietnam and it is our judgment that we should go this far at this time, in consequence of the high importance of the issues at stake in South Vietnam and to make a clear demonstration of Australian support for the massive efforts of your own nation.

The details of our additional commitment will require examination by Australian and United States military staffs of such matters as command structure, operational role and deployment organization and logistics, and I have arranged for the Chairman of our Chiefs of Staff Committee to take up the preliminary aspects of these matters at once with the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific.3 Also, we have instructed our Ambassador in Saigon to inform the South Vietnamese Prime Minister of our decision, so that the formal request of that Government for additional forces may be obtained. We are already aware, of course informally, of their interest in an increase on our part. We may wish to make the formal request public.

I am letting Harold Wilson and Keith Holyoake know of our decision in view of their concern with us and you in the defence problems of South-East Asia and the inter-relation between the disposition of forces in South Vietnam and in Malaysia.

My present intention is to announce the enlarged Australian contribution in Parliament on the night of Tuesday, 8th March, and until then we are taking steps to ensure that the decision is held in absolute security.

If I may switch down now to another level of topic, I feel that you may like to know that, as a small but interesting piece of emphasis which we place on the significance of the Vietnam conflict, we will be making what is a virtual innovation for us by the issue of a service medal. We plan to provide, jointly with New Zealand, a special Vietnam Medal. I am not [Page 22] sure how soon I can announce this here. I hope to say something about it on Tuesday evening also, but until then at least, it is confidential.

Yours sincerely,

Harold Holt 4
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret. Drafted by Conlon on March 7 and approved by S on March 14.
  2. In a March 6 message drafted by Berger and Conlon, cleared by Komer, and approved by Rusk, President Johnson thanked Holt for the decision to send a self-contained force of 4,500 Australian troops to South Vietnam. Johnson saw it as a clear signal of Australian determination to combat “the threat of Communist aggression against the peoples of Southeast Asia” and acknowledged that the commitment, along with Australia forces in Malaysia, represented a “very large proportion of the Australian Armed Forces and is a real sacrifice.” (Text in telegram 728 to Canberra, March 6; ibid.) When the Australian Parliament approved the dispatch of troops, Johnson sent Holt another message welcoming the contribution. (Telegram 736 to Canberra, March 8; ibid.)
  3. In Johnsonʼs March 6 letter he indicated that he was instructing U.S. military leaders to enter into discussions with Australian military officials about these command and other arrangements. (Ibid.)
  4. Printed from a copy that indicates Holt signed the original.