153. Memorandum of Conversation1
- Sir Robert Thompson
- Desmond Palmer
- Dr. Kissinger
- Dr. Larry Lynn
- John Holdridge
- Sir Robert Thompson’s Report on Conditions in Vietnam2
Dr. Kissinger stated that before going on to discuss Sir Robert Thompson’s report, procedures needed to be established. He asked Sir [Page 500] Robert not to offer anything to a wide audience until he, Dr. Kissinger, had a chance to see Sir Robert’s report and the President had had a chance to consider it.3 Dr. Kissinger mentioned that a special study group was meeting in the afternoon for the purpose of determining the situation in the provinces,4 and to reach a factual basis for our moves in Vietnam. Sir Robert was to address this group. There never before had been a government consensus on what was actually happening, and we were trying now to reach such a consensus—perhaps five years too late. He then asked Sir Robert to give his conclusions.
Sir Robert declared that the situation had clearly improved, and was better than he had expected, both in terms of the HES statistics (which he did not necessarily accept) and in terms of extensive government control of the countryside. The VC were very much weaker, due to some extent to the strong government position which had evolved. In addition, he said, the people had made the decision that the VC were weaker than the GVN, and wouldn’t win. It was for these reasons that the government had been able to spread out with the speed which had been displayed. Sir Robert mentioned situations in which villages which earlier had consisted of 3 or 400 people had expanded considerably due to the return of refugees; even former inhabitants of urban areas had flocked back.
Dr. Kissinger asked whether the improved situation was due in large part to the activities of the American forces or whether the VC were simply lying low. Sir Robert replied that the VC were not deliberately lying low but had been displaced into the forests and foothills. He had accepted, however, that the VC had not yet been seriously damaged, and were still there.
Dr. Kissinger asked if the Vietnamese were sensitive about American troop withdrawals, and if so, in what ways. Sir Robert said in response that the sensitivities were psychological. With the US forces as a shield, the government had been able to recruit without difficulty and had acquired a manpower base in the provinces which the VC currently lacked. (VC strength remained the same, but the VC have had recruiting difficulties.) His implication was that this balance might be disturbed without the US shield.[Page 501]
Dr. Kissinger asked if the South Vietnamese could eventually take over from the US forces. Sir Robert expressed the opinion that at first it would be necessary to reach a position in which VC strength would become marginal throughout the South and the North Vietnamese troops were put in a position of being strictly an invasion force. When asked by Dr. Kissinger if this goal was in sight, Sir Robert said that two more years would be required, and that he looked to the elections in the fall of 1971 as being the crucial period.
Elaborating, Sir Robert said that the 1971 elections would be a dangerous time, and that the future of South Vietnam might hang on the outcome. The greatest danger was that if things had gone well prior to the elections, a peace campaign might develop. The people might want to see an end to the wartime difficulties and might respond to a peace campaign behind which the NLF would certainly throw all its strength. There might be as many as a dozen candidates, thus confusing the issues.
Dr. Kissinger inquired whether Sir Robert had raised this possibility with Thieu, to which Sir Robert mentioned that he had done so, but without any particular response. He had also mentioned these thoughts to Khiem and to Ambassador Bunker. Continuing, he speculated that if Thieu won in 1971 and continued his present policies, the North Vietnamese would indeed be put in a position where the only alternative to defeat was invasion. The North Vietnamese perhaps would contemplate invasion before accepting a negotiated settlement, in which they in any case did not believe. For this reason, he said, it was necessary for the US as it withdrew to leave residual forces.
Dr. Kissinger asked how many US troops should be left. Sir Robert suggested a number something like that in South Vietnam. When Dr. Kissinger queried whether a figure of 50,000, as in South Korea, would suffice, Sir Robert replied that he would not go as low as 50,000 and observed that the residual forces would need to be overweighted on the support side with some combat elements.
Dr. Kissinger raised the question of whether our withdrawals up until now had affected the general situation in Vietnam. Sir Robert replied in the negative, noting that even in the Delta there was as yet no cause for worry. The ARVN seemed to have the U Minh forest region well in hand, and he thought that the greatest threat in the Delta was in Chau Doc and the Seven Mountains area. He noted that the Communists were trying to reestablish the VC presence in the Delta but were having difficulties. For instance, the regiment that went into the U Minh area had been hard hit, and it was not easy for the forces operating well out of their old base areas to sustain themselves. For one thing, it was hard for them to get ammunition through, even in the area right across from Kien Hoa, which was a VC stronghold.[Page 502]
Dr. Kissinger asked Sir Robert for his impressions as to why the change for the better in Vietnam had taken place. Sir Robert singled out Hue as having been a critical factor. The VC attacks in Hue and the massacre of its people in the Tet offensive had given a much greater sense of mobilization to the Vietnamese people in general—a sense that they were really fighting a war. He noted in passing that the recovery of Hue and the surrounding countryside since the Tet attack had been “quite staggering”.
Dr. Kissinger asked Sir Robert for his views on the effects that a cease-fire might have on Vietnam developments, to which Sir Robert replied that a cease-fire would be “fairly disastrous”. He gave three reasons for this judgment:
- A cease-fire would take the whole momentum out of the GVN program and give the VC a chance to recover;
- The South Vietnamese people would regard a cease-fire as a loss of US resolve;
- A cease-fire could not be verified, and TV cameras would focus on GVN violations while not touching on violations of the other side. Dr. Kissinger commented on this last point that there were a lot of volunteers in the US who would get in line to beat up Thieu, led by Averill Harriman.
Dr. Kissinger asked Sir Robert for an assessment of how the ARVN was doing. Sir Robert observed that he had not seen too much of the ARVN but had been very impressed with the First Division in I Corps. He had met the commanders of two regiments and was sure that they would fight. He pointed out this was a big division with 17 battalions.
Dr. Kissinger asked Sir Robert for a judgment on what he would do if he were laying out Hanoi’s policies. Sir Robert’s concept of Hanoi’s best course was to keep its attacks focussed on Vietnamization to the exclusion of other objectives. If Hanoi were to act in this way, it would thereby pose the greatest dangers for our side apart from the peace movement. Hanoi’s objective in attacking Vietnamization would be to force a US withdrawal, to compel the Vietnamese to put all their effort into building up its military forces, including the RF and PF, and in effect to prevent the GVN from building up any presence except for armed forces in the rural areas, where it was weakest. The Communists could accomplish this purpose by keeping up the strength of their own forces and mounting small-scale attacks. It was important, he explained, to provide security to the villages, but the people in the villages want more than security. They want improvements in the social and economic fields. Mr. Palmer expressed agreement.
Sir Robert went on to speculate, however, that in the next two years there probably would be a tendency on the part of the Communists to diffuse their efforts. While they should concentrate on Vietnamization, they would probably be unable to resist taking on other targets—the [Page 503] US forces, the ARVN, pacification—and spread themselves thin. If so, they would not be able to make a real dent in the general situation. Dr. Kissinger expressed keen interest in Sir Robert’s analysis of the likelihood of enemy miscalculation and diffusion of effort.
Dr. Kissinger raised the subject of enemy infiltration, to which Sir Robert commented that the strength of the Communist units had diminished, and the infiltration which was presently occurring might be necessary simply to build up combat levels. He remarked that the standards of the infiltrees coming in were well down—the new arrivals were not the cream of the North Vietnamese armed forces. Sir Robert surmised from this that the North Vietnamese did not have much left in the way of manpower resources.
Dr. Kissinger referred to the favorable developments which had occurred, and asked Sir Robert whether we could have won the war if we had not decided to withdraw. Sir Robert’s response was that in the end the Vietnamese must win the war, and doubted the value of more troops since most Communist forces were out of the country and could not be effectively reached. He noted, though, that new infiltration trails were being built in South Vietnam, and referred to COSVN Resolution 9 on the Communists’ determination to improve their logistics. Dr. Kissinger observed that he had been shown photographs of these trails, and wondered why they were not being mined. Sir Robert stated that we were up against a very soft target between the mountains and the coast. The enemy had to rely on porters, and his battalions were strung out thinly along the trails. In particular, the enemy was dependent on outside ammunition and now had much less in-country support. It was his opinion that if infiltration continues to go up, the enemy would try something more. He might attempt to get a sustained attack going—a “mini-Tet”—probably against two or three targets, but not sustained throughout the country. Sir Robert looked to the March-May period next year for such an effort.
Dr. Lynn noted that looking at the situation in the various provinces there were great differences among them but GVN control seemed to be going up. He contrasted the situation in Thua Thien, where enemy main forces had pulled out but where strong local forces were still present, with the Delta, where there were no main forces and local forces were not strong; in each area GVN control was increasing. What were we doing right that we could reproduce elsewhere? Were there any indications as to where we should put our emphasis?
Sir Robert thought that our emphasis largely should be on economy of forces. We needed to concentrate in areas where the VC were most powerful, such as north and south of Danang, MR 5, and the Delta. He singled out Dinh Tuong and Long An as being particular trouble spots, saying that what went on in one affected the other, and [Page 504] both in turn were affected by developments in Kien Hoa. Nevertheless, security was improving in these provinces and he mentioned having driven along the roads in Long An in a party of three jeeps, not one of which was armed. He reported also that roads were open to many district capitals.
Dr. Lynn asked for an assessment of whether this change in the enemy’s situation had been achieved due to our initiative and the relative ability of the GVN forces to keep the roads open with US help, or to a change in enemy strategy. Sir Robert attributed the change to the enemy’s inability to sustain his efforts. He could mine the roads but the roads were being repaired. Dr. Lynn asked if what he was saying meant that we had won the war militarily. Sir Robert said he would not like to divide the military aspects from the other aspects; thus we had not won the war, and the situation was still fragile. If the VC recovered, or there was a loss of popular confidence in the US, circumstances could change.
Dr. Lynn queried Sir Robert on the causes for erosion of the VC underground in the villages—was this due to lack of support from the main forces, or to what our side had accomplished in routing out the infrastructure, or both? Sir Robert did not give a firm answer but simply pointed out that the infrastructure generally lacks military support and its erosion added to the enemy’s problems. Sir Robert cited the massive Chieu Hoi figures, noting that these meant the loss of lower grade manpower and basic enemy strength. He pointed out that this did not mean there were no VC committee members at the village-district-province level. Some of these leaders were able to go through the system and acquire new identities.
Dr. Lynn asked what we should do to maximize the chances of stabilizing the gains which had been made. Sir Robert replied that the answer lay in the psychological and not the military field, and that military developments were cued to psychological ones. Asked if we had been helped psychologically by our withdrawals, Sir Robert replied that to some extent we had been helped. Once the people had gotten used to the concept of withdrawals, and found they could carry on by themselves, there had been increased confidence. Nevertheless, people still wanted the US around. Sir Robert cited Bu Prang as an excellent way to play the game—to keep US forces out, and lay the burden of the fighting on the Vietnamese.
Dr. Kissinger summarized Sir Robert’s comments as saying in effect that North Vietnam no longer has the capability of winning, and that while progress would be slow it could not be reversed. For example, if the enemy were to put all his effort into defeating Vietnamization, then pacification would improve. Sir Robert agreed, and reiterated the point he had made earlier that the other side would make [Page 505] mistakes. It was a matter of opportunity: if they saw the possibility of taking on another target besides Vietnamization, they would do so.
Dr. Lynn remarked that some people were worried over the extent to which progress in the countryside actually represented accommodation. How could we know? Sir Robert said that there was less accommodation now than in the past, and this could be seen in the district towns. He did not elaborate. Mr. Palmer added that there was a time factor involved—when peasants returned to the rice paddies after a district was opened up, the RF/PF then moved in. There was more terrorism in the Delta than in other areas but elsewhere it was less easy to maintain a threat. He mentioned, too, that the province chiefs were good. Sir Robert endorsed Mr. Palmer’s comment, saying that the province chiefs throughout the country “were the best yet.”
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 92, Vietnam Subject Files, Sir Robert Thompson, 1970. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Holdridge with Lynn’s concurrence. In a December 8 covering memorandum to Kissinger, Holdridge wrote: “Following this session, I asked Sir Robert to elaborate on one point which I thought he had been trying to make but which may not have come through too clearly: was he in effect saying that the GVN civil administration had not moved in behind the security forces to a sufficient degree, and that more attention needed to be directed to this problem? He agreed that this was what he had meant to convey.” Kissinger approved White House distribution only and wrote, “Excellent memcon! HK. Note editing page 1” on Holdridge’s December 8 memorandum. See footnote 3 below for the editing changes.↩
- Summarized in Document 158. The report, December 3, is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 92, Vietnam Subject Files, Sir Robert Thompson, 1970.↩
- Kissinger requested a change in this sentence. It originally read: “He felt it was important to segregate what Sir Robert would give to the bureaucracy from what he would say to the President, and asked Sir Robert not to offer anything to a wide audience until he, Dr. Kissinger, had a chance to see Sir Robert’s report.”↩
- Brief minutes of the Vietnam Special Studies Group meeting on December 1, attended by Kissinger, Helms, Packard, and Richardson are in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–001, Vietnam Special Studies Group Meetings, 12/1/69.↩