100. Memorandum From the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler) to Secretary of Defense Laird 1



  • Report of Trip to South Vietnam
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Memorandum of Secretary of Defense to ASD (ISA), dated 14 July 1969, subject: Guidance for Southeast Asia Visit2
Memorandum of Conversation with President Thieu 3

1. In accordance with our conversation of 14 July 1969,4 I visited the Republic of Vietnam during the period 16–20 July. The purpose of my trip was, as you announced in Washington, to

  • —Make a thorough assessment of the current military situation.
  • —Study all aspects of the continuing Vietnamization Program, including US troop deployments.
  • —Consult with other military leaders on US military strategy.

2. During my stay, I consulted with Admiral McCain, General Abrams and his deputy, General Rosson, and their component commanders; and with principal US field commanders in Vietnam. Also, I met with civilian officials of the Government of Vietnam and the principal military leaders of the Vietnamese Armed Forces.

The Current Military Situation

3. My impression is that the military situation in Vietnam is better than I have observed on any of my earlier visits there. The military situation appears well in hand. I consider that we are well prepared for any initiatives the enemy may attempt.

  • —The enemy has severe food shortages in I CTZ. The combined efforts of our interdiction program, the improvements of pacification which increasingly deny him local support, and the pressures exerted by friendly operations appear to have limited his ability to undertake major sustained operations with forces now in Northern South Vietnam.
  • ARVN battalions are spending almost 20% more of their time in combat operations than a year ago. The growing effectiveness of the RF/PF has permitted a further ARVN concentration against enemy main forces.
  • —The declining enemy activity has enabled an increase of US and ARVN effort in direct support of pacification, further to compound the enemy’s support problem and to strengthen the security of the population and friendly forces as well.
  • —The Regional Forces continue to produce about the same number of casualties and maintain a constant kill ratio of more than 4:1 in spite of a general decline in enemy activity. Their ratio of weapons captured to weapons lost is more than three times the ratio of 18 months ago.
  • —The Popular Forces improvement in performance is reflected in a gradually increasing kill ratio and a growing weapon exchange ratio, both now more than 3:1.
  • —There is an increase of almost 50% in the major roads open to traffic in South Vietnam; now two-thirds of the waterways (more than a four-fold increase in 15 months) are open to traffic. In January 1967 only ⅓ of the railroad mileage was open; that figure is now ½. This year the mileage has increased from 44% to 49%.
  • —The trend in pacification continues slowly upward.

4. Although the situation is generally improved and unspectacular progress continues, a number of countervailing factors persist:

  • —The enemy retains a capability in the vicinity of the DMZ to mount a multi-battalion attack, with ample logistic back-up, if he so chooses.
  • —The enemy continues to expand and improve his network of LOCs in Laos, to include a POL pipeline from Vinh through Mugia Pass. His offensive toward Muong Soui and Luang Prabang in Laos is considered by General Vang Pao and some senior US military people to be aimed at forcing the Royal Laotian Government to require suspension of US bombing of the NVN LOCs in the Laos Panhandle.
  • —The enemy retains the capability to sortie from his Cambodian sanctuaries against friendly forces in II and III CTZ and, in the latter, to mount multi-battalion attacks against Tay Ninh and some lesser effort against Saigon. There continues to be four VC/NVA divisions within and contiguous to III CTZ.
  • —Although in the Delta no multi-battalion attacks have taken place since last year, enemy main force units as well as NVA units have been introduced in recent months for the first time.
  • —The net rate of ARVN desertions, although declining, continues as a cause of concern.
  • —The RVNAF leadership, although improving, still appears as a limiting factor on the improvement of the RVN forces.
  • —Despite the improvement in overall security of the population, terrorism continues to rise. Some small comfort may be derived from the fact that the enemy’s fewer successes in larger scale hostilities encourages diversion of his effort to terrorist activity.
  • —The large number of refugees continues as a serious problem, having the potential also to threaten the progress of pacification and political stability.

5. On balance, I concur in the judgment of Admiral McCain, General Abrams, General Rosson and other senior commanders that there is continuing improvement in the military situation in Vietnam. Conversations with Vietnamese military leaders and with President Thieu support this judgment.

Vietnamization, Including US Troop Deployments

6. Progress in the RVNAF Improvement and Modernization program is heartening. The turnover of equipment to RVNAF forces is on overall schedule and, in many cases, ahead of schedule. Because of good RF/PF performance, acceleration in the ARVN equipping program has been possible in a number of cases due to completion of training programs earlier than planned.

7. The Vietnamese Navy has received a large part of the vessels scheduled for turn-over and, after a considerable period of “over the shoulder” training, has assumed responsibility for operations in the Delta area. Our naval commanders report that their staff work is good, their morale high and their operations show professional results. They have accepted their responsibilities with spirit and determination.

8. The Vietnamese Air Force has shown marked improvement in recent months. As you know, both the ARVN and US Army forces have long respected the professionalism of the VNAF close-air support operations. It is now interesting to note their performance across the spectrum:

  • —With fixed wing tactical fighter aircraft, the VNAF, possessing 21% of the inventory of VNAF plus USAF tac fighters, in May 1969 supplied 26% of the strike sorties flown by these forces.
  • —The VNAF airlift squadrons are lifting over 25% of current RVNAF tactical airlift requirements.
  • —The more than 65 VNAF UH–1 helicopters are maintaining an in-commission rate equal to US forces overall and higher than some US elements.
  • —The infusion of the 0–1 observation aircraft with VNAF has expanded their reconnaissance and forward air controller activities as a part of the VNAFARVN air-ground team we are seeking to build.
  • —Most important, the VNAF confidence and diligence have markedly risen in the past few months and the VNAF appears to be reaching out to attain self-sufficiency. This is attributed by General Brown’s people to these factors:
  • —The infusion of new equipment which, due to its long lead time, has only lately begun to arrive.
  • —A higher priority in RVNAF for personnel, achieved by the establishment with the Joint General Staff of a formal manning structure and justified requirements for the right type of personnel.
  • —The momentum and confidence derived from increasingly successful operations.
  • —The realization that US forces are going to be withdrawn and the VNAF must stand on its own feet.

9. There are a number of problems in VNAF remaining, particularly a weak command and control system and a lack of coordinated staff work. Too, some difficulties in management are ascribed to Vice President Ky, whose continued influence within the VNAF inhibits changes which would be desirable.

10. Our people consider that there is much intelligence and ability in the RVNAF to get things done. However, there are difficulties in fitting together the styles of doing things between Americans and Orientals. It appears, however, that the realization that significant US force re-deployments are in prospect is having a beneficial effect on RVNAF diligence and initiative. General Abrams and his people are continuing to emphasize with all levels of the RVNAF the importance of improving RVNAF leadership and reducing the impact of the desertion problem.

11. The performance of ARVN units continues to show improvement. Should the present low level of activity continue, and barring a concerted enemy effort to overwhelm a major ARVN unit, the ARVN divisions can give a good account of themselves and can hold their own against the enemy after the first increment of US troops are re-deployed. However, as you are aware, there has not yet been adequate time for the enemy to react to the US troop re-deployments; hence no assessment of enemy reaction to the deployments can so far be made. However, it is the estimate of General Abrams that a second 25,000 increment can be withdrawn without unwarranted risks to RVNAF success and confidence unless significant changes in enemy dispositions and patterns of activity should take place. I join Admiral McCain, General Abrams and General Rosson in their judgment that assessment of enemy reactions should precede each decision to withdraw further US forces. In other words, I advocate a cut-and-try approach.

12. Meanwhile, the program to accelerate ARVN effectiveness is being pursued by General Abrams with vigor and imagination. Joint ARVNUS operations continue to be carried out with a view to enhancing ARVN confidence and tactics. These have included two operations in which the VNAF has provided helicopter lift for ARVN. The resulting growth in material confidence among the Vietnamese military services is encouraging.

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US Military Strategy

13. My first undertaking upon arriving in Saigon was to discuss with Admiral McCain, General Abrams, and General Rosson the military strategy and tactics governing our operations. The results of our discussions were conveyed to you and to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I understand that the JCS have forwarded to you a formal expression of our coordinated views.5 However, there are two additional aspects of this matter which are pertinent and timely:

The operations of friendly forces in South Vietnam have undergone, in fact, a change in pattern as a result of a modification in the enemy pattern of activity. In essence, the enemy has been holding the bulk of his larger formations in remote sanctuaries in-country or in Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam. Guerrilla units operating in smaller elements—squad and platoon—have directed their major activities toward attacks by fire on friendly installations and population centers, acts of terrorism against the population, varied by occasional ambushes along roads and small ground attacks against isolated units. In response to this pattern of activity, General Abrams and his associates have sought to maintain contact with and pre-empt the movements of the larger enemy formations against population centers and have encouraged subordinate commands, using smaller friendly units, to seek out and destroy the small enemy units operating within country. The Regional Forces and Popular Forces have been particularly active in this latter role.
An increasing number of combined operations is being undertaken. I found in I and III Corps Tactical Zones that the so-called “Buddy System” is being extensively employed. By means of having a US battalion operating on a continuing basis with a designated ARVN battalion, the ARVN is being encouraged to be more active in the field. Collateral beneficial effects have been to inculcate higher professional standards and a growing confidence in the ARVN that they can operate effectively on their own.
In view of these changing patterns of operations, the semantic difficulties that have arisen over the use of the term “maximum pressure on the enemy,” and the wide-spread misconception that mobile offensive operations are more costly in casualties than static defensive operations, I suggested to General Abrams that the terms “search and destroy” and “reconnaissance in force” be stricken from the lexicon of military terminology employed in South Vietnam. He readily agreed to my proposal; I expect that he and his subordinates will hereafter employ a phrase such as “pre-emptive operations” or words to that effect.

14. In connection with the foregoing paragraph, I wish to iterate my professional judgment that the concept of operations being followed by General Abrams in the conduct of ground operations is militarily sound in that it has consistently frustrated achievement by the enemy of his objectives and has incurred the lowest level of casualties consistent with achieving our minimum stated objectives in Southeast Asia. He has consistently used mobility and massive firepower to reduce the exposure of his forces to the enemy. He and I concur in the judgment that the adoption of tactics which would permit the enemy to move men and supplies at will would result inevitably in an increase of casualties among all friendly forces and would permit the enemy, once again, to launch attacks against South Vietnamese population centers.

Selective Items of Guidance for Southeast Asia Visit (References a and b, above)

15. As to size and timing of withdrawal of US forces: General Abrams will be prepared to forward his recommendations regarding the second CY 1969 increment for US redeployments in the last week of July 1969. In this connection, the following items are pertinent:

As noted in the Memorandum of Conversation with President Thieu, he will confer with Minister of Defense Vy and appropriate members of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff on Wednesday, 23 July, as to the size and composition of the increment and the takeover of vacated areas and installations by elements of the RVNAF. He does not believe that, at this late date, an additional increment above 25,000 would be feasible. He cites as factors persuading him to this view the fact that both the civilian and military officials of South Vietnam are conditioned to an increment of this size, and they have made plans to assume the responsibility from withdrawn US forces. To increase the number to be withdrawn at this late date will throw a real burden upon the Vietnamese military in the planning for and redeployment of their own forces, and will introduce an unfavorable psychological factor because of the discussions and planning done to date. On the US side, General Abrams pointed out to me the very intricate staff work that [Page 314] will have to be accomplished in order to insure that we maintain the proper balance in composition of forces, their geographical location, and the level of support which could be rendered to the command.
As to the withdrawal of 100,000 in CY 1969: It was very apparent to me during my conversation with President Thieu that he is highly apprehensive that our CY 1969 withdrawal program will go beyond the level discussed with him by General Abrams and by President Nixon at Midway. As is set forth in the Memorandum for Conversation, he expects further withdrawals in CY 1970, and he suggested that General Abrams and his staff confer with the Vietnamese Joint General Staff to the end of determining the magnitude and timing of further withdrawals subsequent to 1 January 1970. Moreover, in view of his reference to and discussion of President Nixon’s three criteria, it is my belief that he anticipates further exchanges between President Nixon and himself concerning CY 1970 withdrawals. In view of these factors, I am of the opinion that a withdrawal of more than 50,000 in CY 69 and/or failure to consult with President Thieu regarding CY 1970 would impose severe psychological and political handicaps upon the Government of Vietnam. Additionally, I believe that the effect upon the RVNAF could be deleterious in the extreme.
Vietnamization and the NSSM 36 exercise: As I understand it, inputs from the field regarding the NSSM 36 exercise will be received in accordance with the established time table. I wish to stress, however, that, in my judgment we can not complete the whole program by 31 December 1970 or by 30 June 1971. If all goes according to plan, we can complete the ground forces component of the program within those dates and most of the Navy programs; however, the Air Force program can not be completed before 1972. An additional point which must be borne in mind is that the resulting structure is not designed to provide the South Vietnamese Armed Forces the capability to deal with both the full enemy guerrilla force in country and cope with the North Vietnamese armed forces. This fact highlights two points; namely, the imperative requirement to obtain the withdrawal of North Vietnamese formations and individuals from South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to North Vietnam; and the strong probability that we will have to maintain a residual support force in South Vietnam for some years to come unless and until the withdrawal of the North Vietnamese is achieved.
As to RVNAF composition: I queried General Abrams as to the desirability of creating a constabulary force. He responded that he could see no value militarily to such an organization; on the contrary, he believes that the creation of another paramilitary force in South Vietnam would further deplete the manpower pool, impose additional disruptive demands on our and GVN resources and will offer little or nothing beyond what the ARVN, RF, PF and National Police now contribute [Page 315] to population security. As to the associated question regarding the adequacy of quantitative levels to handle the existing threat, I revert to my earlier comments regarding the necessity for removing, by one means or another, the NVA from the threat equation. So long as North Vietnamese divisions and regiments are poised on the periphery of South Vietnam, it is my view that the RVNAF alone cannot in the near future maintain the integrity of South Vietnam.
As to RVNAF achievements: As pointed out earlier in this report, although the performance of all elements of the RVNAF is not of uniform quality across the board, there is definite indication of progress in all areas. The slow but steady progress in pacification is evidence of the validity of this statement. On the other hand, I am not satisfied that the achievements of the RVNAF are properly publicized or understood, either in South Vietnam or in the United States. I asked for a separate report on this subject and I have directed the Joint Staff to work with OASD (PA) to ascertain what and how improvements can be made.


16. I recognize that this report does not provide answers satisfactory to us in all areas; nevertheless, I believe that, within the limits of time available to me, it sets forth a realistic assessment of the situation and the direction and degree in which we can move without endangering the progress we have made in the past year and a half.

17. I am convinced that we are on the right track. I was impressed by the determination and the quiet confidence expressed by American and Vietnamese military leaders that they can cope with the situation which will be created by the withdrawal of US forces. I was also impressed by the expansion of the pacification program which, I think, is hurting the enemy badly. On a less optimistic note, I can only conclude that the situation remains fragile, and we must proceed with deliberation if we are to avoid making an irretrievable wrong step.

Earle G. Wheeler
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, DOD/ISA Subject Files: FRC 330 72 A 6308, Box 8, Vietnam #2, 1969, 000.1. Top Secret; Sensitive. Kissinger sent a copy of this memorandum to Nixon under cover of a July 22 memorandum in anticipation of a meeting the President was to have at 6:30 p.m., July 22, with Laird and Wheeler. Kissinger wrote: “Although there is much substantive discussion which could be held as a result of Gen. Wheeler’s report, this meeting should be primarily cosmetic, with the view to setting the stage for more detailed subsequent discussion. General Wheeler’s trip report is optimistic in terms of progress being made in all areas of Vietnamization, and especially in terms of the military situation in Vietnam which he assesses is the best he has ever found it.” Also attached to Kissinger’s covering memorandum was a draft of a mission change statement that was undergoing coordination with the JCS. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1320, Unfiled Material, 1969)
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. Wheeler met Thieu at the Independence Palace in Saigon on July 19 from noon to 1:20 p.m. Also at the meeting were McCain, Abrams, and Berger. The participants discussed the current lull in the fighting, modernization of South Vietnam’s armed forces, the U.S. withdrawal schedule, and understandings and decisions growing out of the Midway meeting between Thieu and Nixon. The tone of the conversation was optimistic. (Memorandum of conversation, July 19; National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)
  4. No record of this conversation has been found.
  5. On July 26, after consultation with McCain and Abrams, the JCS informed Laird that the Viet Cong/North Vietnamese fundamental objective had not changed from bringing all Vietnam under Communist control. To achieve this objective the enemy had to defeat U.S. forces or cause them to withdraw. While the enemy had reduced his level of activity, he had not changed his strategy. Therefore there was no need to change U.S. strategy and mission. (Memorandum from the Joint Chiefs to Laird, JCSM–459–69, July 26; JCS Files, JMF 907/520 (2 July 1969), as cited in Historical Division, Joint Chiefs of Staff, The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Vietnam War, 1969–1970, p. 96) At a meeting on July 28 Laird informed the Joint Chiefs that to conform with Presidential statement and COMUSMACV current tactics, the mission of defeating Communist aggression was to be replaced by one of assisting South Vietnam in preserving the opportunity to decide its own political fate free of outside interference. (Ibid., pp. 96–97)