171. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • The Situation in the Countryside of South Vietnam

The Vietnam Special Studies Group analysis2 of the situation in the countryside is producing promising results. Last week, the Group met and accepted without dissent a comprehensive assessment of this subject. The principal findings of this effort are condensed below. Because of the importance of this subject, you may want to also read the fuller treatment of this analysis enclosed at Tab A.3

I believe that the concentrated analytical effort that has gone into this study and the fact that its results were very favorably accepted by the community suggest that the situation in the countryside is accurately described by the paper. We are now broadening the effort to include more provinces and sending five analysts to Vietnam to check their findings on the ground.

The Control Situation

About 11 million people, some 62 percent of South Vietnam total population live in the countryside. A primary objective of the VC/NVA strategy has been to gain control of the countryside, thereby surrounding the cities so that they “fall like ripe fruit.” The GVN has also sought to control this rural population. The principal conflict between the VC and GVN is over the control of the countryside that could enable either side to have access to and deny the other side the benefits of using the countryside for its own purposes.

The essence of control in South Vietnam is that the GVN and Viet Cong exercise it through both political and military organizations.

Therefore, the best indication of control is to be gained from the strength of the GVN and VC political and military organizations that [Page 538] affect the population. In this sense, control should be defined as that level of combined political and military strength within the population that when possessed by one side excludes effective strength by the other side.

Based on this approach to understanding control, today’s situation in the countryside is found to have developed in three broad phases:

  • The Control Stalemate. From 1964 through the Tet offensive of early 1968, the control situation was relatively stable with the GVN controlling 20% of the rural population compared to VC’s 35%. The remaining 45% was under control of both sides.
  • The Viet Cong General Offensive. During the Tet offensive, GVN control fell by 5% and VC control rose by about 7%, but well over half of the GVN losses were recovered by October 1968 despite the VC May and August offensives.
  • —The GVN Control Upswing. With low levels of enemy activity and a renewed effort on pacification, the GVN’s control began to increase rapidly in October 1968. This control upswing has continued through September 1969 when the GVN controlled about 55% of the rural population, the VC controlled only 7%, and the remaining 38% was under the influence of both sides.

This represents a dramatic change in the status of the control war since September 1968: GVN control has increased from 20% to 55%, while VC control has fallen from 35% to 7%. This means that the GVN now controls some six million rural inhabitants; but there are still five million rural inhabitants whom it does not control and who are thus subject to some degree of enemy influence.

Factors Causing Control Changes

These conclusions regarding the situation in the countryside raise the critical issue of whether the GVN can continue to achieve control gains or whether its recently achieved control gains are likely to be reversed.

To examine this issue, we analyzed the effect on the control war of main forces, local security forces, enemy strategy and tactics, and other important factors influencing change in the countryside. Our conclusions were based on in-depth studies of five provinces selected because of their key role in the war or because they were representative of general conditions in major areas of the country.

Friendly Main Force Pressure

In four out of the five provinces studied, it was the vigorous offensive activity of U.S. forces more than ARVN forces which gave the Allies the upper hand in the main force war during 1968. After the enemy’s main forces were gravely weakened by the Tet and May offensives in most areas, it was principally U.S. units which applied relentless pressure on the enemy throughout the following year. Large enemy formations [Page 539] were either dispersed or they were forced to retreat to remote jungle bases far from populated areas. Under these conditions, the enemy’s local security/control apparatus became highly vulnerable and GVN control gains became possible.

Friendly Local Security Forces

The principal proximate cause of the improved control situation in the past year was the great shift in the relative strength and effectiveness of GVN and VC local security forces. Countrywide, RF strength increased 55% and PF 39%. On the other hand, VC guerrilla strength fell by 40% and the infrastructure was also weakened. In most cases, however, GVN local security forces were able to extend GVN control only in the context of a much more favorable Allied posture in the main force war than had existed before 1969.

Enemy Strategy and Tactics

The enemy was able to cause moderate overall deterioration in control by his general offensive strategy in early 1968, but he evidently lacked the strength to consolidate his gains. When he was forced to shift to a more or less defensive posture in late 1968, he lost the initiative in the control war to the GVN. He is now attempting to reverse the trend through a new protracted war strategy, but thus far without significant effect.

Other Factors

In four of the five provinces studied, there were favorable shifts in political support and the quality of GVN officials, and a sense of GVN momentum developed in the control war. These factors contributed to GVN gains, but we are not yet able to determine the extent of this contribution.

Thus, the two decisive factors in changing the control situation after years of stagnation appear to be the aggressive activity of U.S. main force units and the large increase in strength and effectiveness of GVN local security forces in the face of a largely passive enemy.

Future Prospects for the Countryside

After late 1968, U.S. forces contributed considerably more than ARVN forces to the greatly improved Allied posture in the main force war. At least in the provinces studied, therefore, ARVN prospects for success in taking over the burden of the main force war appear questionable if the enemy is able to rebuild his large units. If there is a further decline in enemy main force strength, however, or a continuation of the status quo, ARVN prospects in this regard are considerably better, especially in view of the 36% increase in ARVN manpower since 1967.

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GVN local security forces, on the other hand, have shown both qualitative and quantitative improvement, while Viet Cong guerrillas and infrastructure have declined in numbers and effectiveness. If this trend continues, it will be increasingly difficult for enemy main forces to re-assert their influence in populated areas, and GVN control gains will probably continue. This can occur, however, only in the context of progress—or at least no deterioration—in the main force war.

For the near future, the enemy is likely to continue his strategy of attempting to rebuild both his local control apparatus and his main forces, and to maintain pressure on U.S. and ARVN units to the extent he deems necessary to achieve his goals, probably with economy of force tactics. We are as yet unable to specify the level of effort the enemy must undertake to blunt the GVN pacification initiative, which he is attempting to do at the present time. We suspect this will be a piecemeal effort rather than a massive countryside offensive; and the most likely first target is the Delta. These tentative conclusions are consistent with the themes of COSVN Resolution Nine; that is, they suggest a protracted war strategy. However, the signs we have detected are not inconsistent with a more aggressive effort involving a frontal assault on ARVN and pacification or a concentrated effort to hit selected cities for political reasons.4

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 118, Vietnam Subject Files, Vietnam Special Studies Group. Secret. Sent for information. Nixon wrote at the top of the memorandum: “Excellent analysis—Keep on top of it.” A draft of this study with Kissinger’s queries and comments is ibid.
  2. Laurence Lynn and Robert Sanson of the NSC staff led a working group of the VSSG that studied 12 of 44 provinces to determine the accuracy of assessment of Government of Viet-Nam control over the rural population. For Kissinger’s account of the drafting of the study, see White House Years, pp. 434–435.
  3. Attached but not printed.
  4. On January 21 Kissinger sent a memorandum to the Vietnam Special Studies Group, reiterating the importance that the President attached to the study and suggesting a next phase for the study on a priority basis. At a January 14 meeting the Group agreed, according to Kissinger’s memorandum, to have the analysts who did the province analysis “verify and extend their results in Vietnam,” have the U.S. Mission in Saigon comment on it, study seven additional provinces, develop detailed maps on the control situation in the five provinces and, if possible, in the additional seven, and develop a concise description of the local conditions existing under VC and GVN control. Kissinger requested additional information on VC infrastructure, the role and effectiveness of local forces, contribution of GVN economic assistance and other civil programs towards control, types of activities by each side that affect the other’s control, and whether a distinction could be made between the ability of the GVN to maintain control and to expand control. Kissinger suggested the paper should be prepared by early March. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 118, Vietnam Subject Files, Vietnam Special Studies Group)