128. Memorandum From John Holdridge of the Operations Staff of the National Security Council to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • CIA Study of the North Vietnamese Leadership2

CIA’s analytical unit has come up with a very able and lengthy study on possible Hanoi policy and leadership after Ho. Although there are no stimulating new lines of speculation in the piece, it provides a very sound and readable evidential backup for the general views on the probable leadership and policy held at present by most “experts”. Unfortunately, no summary of consequence is provided with the study (CIA has somehow gained the impression that you don’t like summaries), so we have extracted the main thoughts and conclusions and set them out below.

CIA believes that:

  • —The leadership in the DRV has long been divided on proper tactics for fighting the war, on the priorities for achieving Communist objectives in SVN, and on the degree to which DRV resources should be contributed to the effort.
  • —The cautious approach has been pushed primarily by Truong Chinh with the most notable example of his strategy being his report of May 1968. This report, first published in September 1968, had the flavor of a policy approach which had won out after considerable debate. It set forth a prescription for protracting the SVN war (after the great Communist losses of Tet 1968), for emphasizing the withdrawal of the U.S., and of settling on terms far short of maximum goals. Subsequently DRV conduct of the war tended to confirm that Chinh’s prescription was being followed.
  • —Military tactics, for example, changed to a de-emphasis of big unit operations and a renewed effort to strengthen grass roots military units. This continued to the present.
  • —The adoption of Chinh’s line was a rebuke to Le Duan, the other main contender for Ho’s mantle who, over the years, has consistently [Page 417] pushed for a more aggressive strategy in SVN. (This history is ably detailed in the CIA study which also contains an impressive batch of materials showing that Duan was the main author of the Tet 1968 campaign.)
  • —Chinh’s 1968 speech also covered problems on the North Vietnamese home front and developed the thesis that a balance should be reached in Hanoi policy between the twin objectives of building the North and unifying the South. Chinh, always an orthodox hardliner on Communist agricultural policy, pushed for more emphasis on socialization as opposed to private enterprise in this sector. Although socialist practices have lost ground in the pressures of the war, the regime is sticking in theory to Chinh’s policy line. Le Duan, on the other hand, has advocated a more pragmatic approach on agriculture.
  • —On the issue of negotiations and how the DRV ought to conduct them, the positions of the two main contenders for the leadership are not as clear as on other questions. There is nothing in the record to suggest that either one advocates a significantly different approach from that so far followed by the Communists at Paris.

Who Will Win Out

  • —In CIA’s view the evidence on the leadership lineup since Ho’s death shows it about the same as it has always been. Since the regime has turned away from some of Le Duan’s policies, however, this may have a bearing on how real power is distributed.
  • —For now, the regime will try to demonstrate unity; however, the Agency believes fundamental problems of authority cannot be avoided for long. A really functioning collective leadership seems unrealistic, even for the short term. The elements for a bitter party feud are present and could lead to indecisive, ineffective policies, or to a debilitating struggle for power. Unfortunately, no confident prediction can be made on the way it will come out.

How Policy Will Go

  • CIA feels the regime has been moving along new policy lines for over a year. In the DRV these include the slowdown in infiltration, more Marxism in economics, and greater efforts to improve government and party organization. In the South, the combat pace has been slackened and preparations made for the longer haul. At Paris, a new political program and new political organizations have been introduced to help shift the struggle from the military to the political realm.
  • —Why these steps were taken is not clear: On the evidence, Hanoi could be preparing for a stepup in the war next year, for further efforts at protraction, or for bringing the war to a fairly early conclusion.
  • CIA doubts a stepup, primarily because of the lack of physical signs in the South. They also note Chinese Communist distaste for DRV [Page 418] policy during the past year which suggested Hanoi was seeking less than an all out victory in SVN. (There has been a slight warm-up lately between Peking and Hanoi, at least superficially—see below.)
  • CIA thinks Hanoi is preparing both to protract the war if necessary and for an early settlement, perhaps expecting cracks soon in the allied side. They believe this approach will be continued after Ho, although in specific terms, it might take a number of shapes which could unpredictably affect the course of the negotiations.

Comment: The Agency’s assessment of the leadership seems generally sound to us. We are inclined to think, however, that there is probably very little chance of any significant Hanoi policy concessions in the negotiations during the predictable future. Everything we have seen from the North Vietnamese since Ho’s death at least suggests an inclination to stand pat and possibly a hardening of policy. In the latter respect, we are struck by the seeming warmth which is now developing between Peking and Hanoi, a situation which has occurred since CIA’s memo was produced. It is true, however, that it has often seemed darkest just before the dawn in terms of DRV policy breaks at Paris.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 139, Vietnam Country Files, Vol. X, September 1969. Secret. Sent for information. A stamped note on the memorandum indicates Kissinger saw it October 14.
  2. Intelligence Memorandum No. 1851/69, September 24, “North Vietnam After Ho Chi Minh: The Policy and Leadership Implications,” attached but not printed.