147. Backchannel Message From the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

564. Ref: WH929792

General Abrams and I have discussed subject of reference telegram and submit our joint preliminary views. In considering the timing and magnitude of the next U.S. troop withdrawal, we believe following factors should be taken into account.
The enemy has begun his winter/spring offensive.
Truck traffic has resumed in the Laos panhandle.
Some infiltration groups have been identified indication resumption of infiltration on a modest scale.
Enemy’s 24B regiment has moved into the western DMZ and all three regiments of his 324B regiment are now in Laos opposite Thua Thien.
Level of hostilities has increased quite sharply during the last month. Enemy losses have increased each week since October 18 from a low point for the week ending October 18 of 1,624 KIA; enemy losses for this week were approximately 3,500. Friendly losses have also increased, particularly RVNAF. For the current week, they will be 82 percent of friendly losses.
General Abrams’ last assessment of progress in Vietnamization was forwarded to JCS October 27.3 A new assessment will be sent November 23.4
In my personal assessment which I sent to the President October 29 (MY 287),5 I said that I believed there is a serious question whether we should fix any overall schedule for replacements during the next year before we know more about the magnitude of the upcoming enemy effort; and that flexibility in our planning of any announcement of targets is of great importance. This would probably also apply to a half year period. The principle of flexibility was also expressed in the President’s 3 November speech. It is true that Vietnamization has progressed steadily and that the Vietnamese forces are improving and taking on a greater share of the combat, taking an increasing proportion of casualties and inflicting more than 50 percent of casualties on the enemy. But they have still much to learn professionally.
In my talk with President Thieu (reported in MY 226)6 he stressed the need to improve and train forces to replace U.S. withdrawals. He suggested that it would, therefore, be advisable to defer, if possible, further replacements until March 1970.
In view of the above considerations, General Abrams and I believe it is preferable to follow the “cut and try” method of deciding on troop withdrawals which has been used to date. We, therefore, prefer alternative A, but we are not yet prepared to give an opinion of the number which we believe could be safely withdrawn.
If a decision is made in line with the larger figure suggested in alternative B, we believe it would be preferable to make separate announcements for three individual increments.
We suggest that it is important that I be authorized to talk with President Thieu and General Abrams authorized to talk with the Minister of Defense and General Vien as soon as possible. We believe that with the completion of General Abrams’ assessment and after obtaining views of our Vietnamese counterparts, we shall be able to submit our views in more definite form.
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 65, Vietnam Subject Files, 8–A, All Backchannel, Vol. III, November 1969. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Kissinger sent a retyped verbatim copy of this message to President Nixon under cover of a November 28 memorandum in which he summarized the major points raised by Bunker. (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 140, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, Vol. XII–2, 15–30 November 1969)
  2. In backchannel message WH 92979, November 14, Kissinger informed Bunker that the President wanted Bunker’s and Abrams’ view on two alternatives: (a) an announcement in mid-December of a withdrawal of 60,000 U.S. troops to be completed in mid-April 1970, or (b) an announcement at the same time of a withdrawal of 100,000 to be completed by the end of June. Kissinger noted that (a) would be more palatable to Saigon, but (b) would be more flexible. (Ibid., Box 65, Vietnam Subject Files, 8–A, All Backchannel, Vol. III, November 1969)
  3. MAC telegram 13922, October 27, Abrams to Wheeler. Holdridge sent Kissinger an October 28 memorandum in which he enclosed a copy of MAC 13922, and summarized its major points. Holdridge stated that MAC 13922 dealt mostly with Communist activity in the Laos panhandle and commented as follows: “MACV’s assessment of the activities along the logistic network seems sound, although we have seen this developing for some weeks, and it really does not tell us much about over-all DRV intentions for it is reasonable to assume that Hanoi would try to keep Communist forces up to reasonable strength in SVN regardless of what it planned in the way of military action for 1970—unless, of course, it was planning a wholesale withdrawal of NVA forces. It looks like we can rule the latter out.” (Ibid., Box 140, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam Memos & Misc. XI–B, 10/17/69–10/31/69)
  4. The assessment was transmitted in telegram MAC 15163, Abrams to Wheeler, November 24. Holdridge prepared an assessment of this telegram for Kissinger on November 24 and Kissinger saw it the next day. Holdridge characterized Abrams’ assessment as: “sounds like many we have read over the years, all of them implying that we are more or less on a military treadmill in SVN. The key question now appears to be whether we can get off effectively via Vietnamization and allow the South Vietnamese to take our place.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 140, Vietnam Country Files, Vol. XII–2, 1–15 November 1969)
  5. Summarized in Document 142.
  6. See footnote 2, Document 141.