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221. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon 1


  • Vietnam

This memorandum updates the Vietnam trip report that I submitted to you in February.2 The following sections present an assessment of the current situation in Vietnam, the outlook there, and alternative courses of action we should consider.

In brief, the current military situation remains favorable, despite US redeployments and the current limited increases in enemy combat operations. Meanwhile, progress continues to be made in Vietnamization, although several problem areas remain. Most notable are the problems of inadequate leadership and political and economic instability. Events of the past weeks in Laos and Cambodia complicate the situation, introducing a number of imponderables but also offering the opportunity for new initiatives. I believe, on balance, we continue to make progress toward the US objective of self-determination for the South Vietnamese people.

In seeking this objective in South Vietnam, however, we should continue to do so, as you have outlined in your key messages, in a fashion which will:

  • •Maintain the support of the American people.
  • •Be within tolerable economic limits.
  • •Not destroy the political, economic, and social fabric of South Vietnam.
  • •Not disable us from honoring our other security and foreign policy obligations.
  • •Not result in the alienation of our friends and allies elsewhere in the world.
  • •Not precipitate a wider and even more costly conflict.

I should like to review the situation in the perspective of these criteria:

I. The Current Military Situation in Vietnam

A. Patterns of Activity

The tempo of the war continues to be relatively slow, recent enemy activity notwithstanding. Until the March 31 flare-up, enemy attacks had been at about one-half the level for similar periods last year. Their consumption of mortar, artillery, and rocket munitions had been less than half that of a year ago, 11 tons per week, compared to 24 tons per week last year. There are occasional interruptions in the pattern, but the basic trend is that of declining combat activity.

One of the most telling indicators of this decline is combat deaths. Data available now for the first quarter of 1970 reveals deaths for all combatants well below those for comparable periods during the past two years.

Combat Deaths 1st Qtr Totals
1966 1967 1968 1969 1970
NVA/VC 13,060 22,756 72,455 44,846 26,884
SVN 3,407 3,096 10,500 5,922 3,261
US 1,224 2,126 4,869 3,184 1,108

Fortunately for the United States, combat deaths dropped during the past three months to the lowest levels in the last five years. To some extent, this results from the lower overall US troop levels and, hence, reduced exposure. The lower US casualty levels is one of the strongest reasons, in addition to your firm leadership and guidance, for continuing public support for our program.

By mid-April we will have reduced US authorized strength in Vietnam by 115,000 troops, emphasizing pacification efforts rather than offensive action. During the same time, the enemy force level has declined by at least 40,000. While US and NVA/VC forces in South Vietnam have been reduced, the South Vietnamese have been increasing their military forces, particularly the Regional and Popular Forces. As a result, the ratio of total allied forces to NVA/VC forces has improved almost 20 percent since June 1969, from 5.6 to 1 to about 6.7 to 1.

We do not know the reasons behind the lower level of NVA/VC activity. It could be a positive reaction to our own policy of troop withdrawals. [Page 759]It could also reflect a policy of waiting until the situation is more favorable to them following expected additional US redeployments. General Abrams reports the enemy continues to have the capacity to increase hostile activity significantly, but not to mount a sustained offensive. The March 31–April 1 “high point” is symptomatic of this capability.

The US effort continues to be large and costly. We still have over 430,000 troops in Vietnam, together with about 40,000 men in Thailand, 30,000 offshore, and another 90,000 in the Philippines, Guam and Okinawa. The level of US tactical air support is down 30 percent from the peak levels of 1968, but it remains at a high level, about 23,000 attack sorties per month. B–52 sorties are also reduced, from a peak level of 1,800 per month to the current level of 1,400 per month. However, this is about 75 percent higher than the level the US was flying as recently as January 1968. Although the cost of the war has declined as our force levels and support are being reduced, we still spent about $17 billion for the war in 1969.

The burden of the war on the United States is reflected in more than just the lives lost and the resources expended. There is also a major “opportunity cost.” By using resources valued at $10–20 billion per year during the past four years in Southeast Asia, we have foregone the opportunity to use the resources for other purposes, even in the Defense field. This has put us at a distinct, and increasingly aggravated, disadvantage vis à vis the Soviet Union. The following table tells the story:

General Impact of SEA on USSR/US ($billion in 1967 prices)
1965 1966 1967 1968 1969
Mil Budget $54.2 $57.0 $60.1 $62.5 $65.0
To NVN 0.3 0.6 0.8 0.6 0.4
Net for Other $53.9 $56.4 $59.3 $61.9 $64.6
1965 1966 1967 1968 1969
Mil Budget $52.8 $63.3 $73.8 $75.9 $72.0
To NVN 2.1 10.2 17.5 20.2 17.6
Net for Other $50.7 $53.1 $56.3 $55.7 $54.4

The data reflected above are subject to errors in detail. The Soviet budget contains unspecified space and atomic energy elements, for example. Trying to make dollar comparisons of two dissimilar economies is, in addition, hazardous at best. Furthermore, our accounting for US incremental costs of the war represents approximations. But despite such vagaries, a clear central point remains. The Soviet Union, by [Page 760]avoiding direct and substantial involvement in Southeast Asia, has been able to avail itself of other defense alternatives and resource uses our war involvement makes increasingly difficult for us. The gap in the respective USSR/US opportunities is, furthermore, widening as long as (a) USSR defense budgets stay level or increase, (b) USSR aid to North Vietnam stays relatively low, (c) US defense budgets decrease, and (d) US involvement in Southeast Asia stays relatively high.

North Vietnam receives, as noted, almost all of the war material it needs from the Soviet Union—and Red China. Manpower losses for North Vietnam have been heavy, an estimated 800,000 dead or permanently disabled since 1960. However, North Vietnam has enough manpower to sustain the current rate of losses almost indefinitely and to absorb heavier casualties, such as those suffered during 1968, for many years. Since the NVA/VC have great control over the level of combat in the South, and therefore the number of casualties they sustain, they could continue the present level of the conflict almost indefinitely. Given this situation and the intolerable costs and risks posed by a broadened general conflict, military victory in South Vietnam continues to be impossible.

B. Enemy Infiltration and Logistics Flow

In February I reported that, according to our best estimates, the enemy's force accessions through infiltration were expected over the next 4–5 months to average about 4,500 men per month. That estimate still looks reasonably valid, though the data are subject to error. What is agreed is that the enemy's force accessions are now, and are expected to continue, well below the level needed to maintain even a constant force level.

We have, during the past two years, made an extensive effort to slow down the flow of men and supplies moving through Laos into South Vietnam. During the past year, the number of attack sorties against the Ho Chi Minh Trail has almost doubled, from 5,700 per month in the 1967–1968 dry season to 10,000 per month. Currently we are expending about 40,000 tons of air ordnance per month in Laos and a total of over 110,000 tons per month in all of Southeast Asia.

Despite these efforts, the flow of supplies through Laos appears to be substantially higher this year than last. Unfortunately, we do not know how many supplies the NVA/VA actually have available to them in South Vietnam or how this may compare with previous supply positions. Our lack of an estimate stems from our uncertain knowledge of (a) the supplies needed to keep the logistic system going, (b) the status of the supply flow through Cambodia, or in by sea, and (c) the total amount of supplies we have destroyed in Laos and South Vietnam.

[Page 761]

We do not know why the flow of supplies has increased while the levels of troops and combat activity have decreased. The enemy may be replacing his stocks, which probably were depleted during the last wet season. The supplies might be intended for a new campaign, but the continued low level of troop infiltration is evidence to the contrary. It is also possible that the enemy is simply stockpiling supplies as a hedge against future needs, for example, anticipation of difficulty in moving supplies through Cambodia.

C. Security and Pacification

Security improved greatly in the rural areas last year. I am encouraged that this progress was made despite our redeployments. However, the VC infrastructure is still intact—although frequently of reduced quality—and many of the social and economic problems which create support for the insurgency are still unsolved. I do not believe that military forces can achieve much further progress in pacification. Further gains in pacification will require more effective police forces, land reform, refugee resettlement, and economic development, as well as the planned expansion in territorial forces. Training of the new territorial units continues ahead of schedule, an encouraging sign.

II. Major Problems Affecting South Vietnam

Although our Vietnamization policy has been successful so far, its future success is tied, inter alia, to two primary factors. The first is NVA/VC actions. As indicated above, they can escalate the hostilities when they wish. The second is a set of basic South Vietnamese problems which could seriously affect their ability to take over the war.

A. Political Problems

The political situation is still unstable. Although the war is becoming increasingly a political struggle, the South Vietnamese government is not well prepared to meet this challenge. While the South Vietnamese military forces are responding to the military equipment and advice we are providing, the government's programs for countering the political challenge are still weak. For example, the Phoenix program to destroy the VC infrastructure is making little progress. The upcoming election for the Senate and the 1971 elections for President could weaken the government as various factions compete for power. The government needs to increase its base of popular support. I receive persistent reports that the government does not effectively communicate its goals to the people, and that it likewise does not effectively respond to the needs of the people. While the recent Chau affair may not seriously have damaged President Thieu's popularity and effectiveness in South Vietnam, the affair is symptomatic of Thieu's insensitivity to issues that cause a bad reaction in the United States.

[Page 762]

On the positive side, local government has been strengthened. Almost all hamlets and villages successfully carried out elections, and signs of greater local self-reliance and initiative are appearing.

B. Economic Instability

As my February trip report indicated, the Vietnamese economy is a major uncertainty and perhaps the weakest link in the Vietnamization program. Neither our mission in Saigon nor we in Washington have given the issue adequate attention.

We are facing a major test in the future. As US force levels and defense expenditures decline, strong inflationary pressures will develop in South Vietnam unless economic assistance levels—from whatever sources—are increased and South Vietnamese domestic production is increased.

After my return from Saigon, I initiated a series of steps to improve our grasp of the Vietnamese economic situation. First, I established a special defense study to review thoroughly the economic situation in Vietnam, including inflation, foreign exchange problems, development needs, and other key issues. I expect the report by the end of May. Based on the findings, I hope to be able to provide better visibility for effective Vietnamization in the economic field.

C. Leadership

I am advised the most serious problem of the South Vietnamese military forces continues to be lack of good leadership. The result is occasionally ineffective combat operations, a high desertion rate, and disciplinary problems. As I mentioned in my trip report, General Abrams believes there are about four key military positions where a change in leadership is urgently required. I stressed with President Thieu and other GVN leaders the need for positive action to appoint better men to key military positions and to devote more attention to leadership within the armed forces. President Thieu has asked General Abrams for his views and opinions. I will pursue the matter vigorously to insure that we do not let this opportunity languish.

D. Cambodia and Laos

The political climate remains obscure following the removal of Sihanouk. While the new Government has stated it intends to remain neutral, both its short and long term prospect for survival are unclear at this time.

I believe we should take a balanced approach at this time, supporting Cambodian neutrality and avoiding direct involvement. I see merit, though, in encouraging the type and level of cooperation between Cambodian and South Vietnamese units that has prevailed [Page 763]over the past few weeks along the Cambodian/South Vietnamese border. I would not advocate a step-up in border operations beyond that which has seemed to work to good advantage in the past. I would also emphasize the necessity for close coordination and liaison between South Vietnamese and Cambodian units. US forces should not be involved. Guidance along these lines has been passed to General Abrams, who reported on April 4 “… this matter is well in hand at this time.”

Should the Lon Nol government request US military support, we should judge the request on its merits. However, any military activities we might consider should be limited and tightly controlled to avoid widening the Southeast Asia conflict and inciting US anti-war sentiment.

There have been no major changes in the political climate within Laos, and the military situation at least has not worsened in the past week. The possibility remains that the North Vietnamese may step up their dry-season campaign in the hope of (a) forcing Souvanna to request a US bombing halt in Laos and (b) increasing anti-war sentiment in the United States. It is significant to note that the Communists have not yet regained control of all areas they claimed in 1962.

III. US Planning Alternatives

A. Redeployments

Unless the enemy significantly increases the tempo or alters the patterns of the war, I believe we should continue our redeployments. To maintain US support for Vietnamization, to provide proper incentives for the South Vietnamese to assume more responsibility for the war, and to keep the US burden within tolerable economic limits, I believe we must continue to reduce US forces in South Vietnam. For a number of military and political reasons it may be prudent to reduce our rate of redeployment temporarily from the current average of 12,500 per month. I am discussing the next redeployment increment with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and I will send you specific recommendations in a few days.

B. Financial Planning

The defense budgets for FY 70 and FY 71 have been predicated on substantial reductions in our forces in Southeast Asia. The JCS and General Abrams believe our plans should be revised to maintain in FY 71 the present levels of tactical air and B–52 support. This would cost $1.4 billion more than has been planned for in the budget. Substantial cuts in other important defense programs would have to be made to fund this additional air support. The JCS are now reconsidering their proposal and will submit their views to me on April 30.

[Page 764]

While I believe that the budget is adequate for the planned Vietnamization program, the budget will not allow much flexibility for increasing the level of combat. I believe our chances of obtaining additional funds from Congress for Southeast Asia are small. In fact, we must expect additional cuts. We could try to obtain additional funds by cutting support for non-SEA forces and slowing modernization programs. However, we are already following this course to a considerable extent. I believe further such diversions would impact with serious effect on our overall military capabilities. Alternatively, we could reallocate funds within the defense budget by reducing our non-SEA forces, such as those in the United States or in Europe. This, of course, would be a longer-term proposition and one which could not be expected to free funds immediately.

I therefore believe that if we should have to find more resources for the war than we have planned in the budget, we could not do so without serious military, political, or economic ramifications.

C. Political Initiatives and Negotiations

With US military options constrained, Vietnamization faced with continuing problems, instability spreading throughout Indo-China, and options available to Hanoi to expand the fighting, there will be those who contend the prospects are dim for achieving our objectives in South Vietnam. I do not share that view. I believe alternatives are available to maintain the momentum towards stability and self-determination for the South Vietnamese. The alternatives lie in the political field.

During 1969, US policy was to eschew US cease-fire initiatives. NSDM–9 provided that the US not initiate a cease-fire proposal “at an early stage.”3 NSDM–24 provided that the US should not pressure the South Vietnamese on cease-fire matters4 and NSDM–36 announced your decision not to link holiday cease-fires to a permanent negotiated cease-fire.5 Recognizing that you expect me to look at all alternatives, I have directed that a number of possible initiatives be evaluated. I believe it is important that we, and not the North Vietnamese, take the initiative on these matters—particularly in view of indications they may be prepared to take steps toward a cease-fire. The leaders in Hanoi may be laying the ground work for a wide range of possible initiatives by North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front. We are not fully [Page 765]prepared, in my judgment, to meet such initiatives. The first order of business is to insure such preparation.

As a first step to becoming better prepared, we should expeditiously resolve some conflicting points of view within our own Government. I have suggested to Dr. Kissinger that we address within the NSC at an early date the basic issues involved in our present positions, delineate possible Hanoi initiatives, outline possible responses by “our side,” and postulate initiatives we might take.

At Paris, one US option is to appoint a new ambassador. You have taken noteworthy steps to highlight Ambassador Habib's stature and qualifications. Others of us have tried to do the same. The other side, having made an issue of Ambassador Habib's status, will nonetheless probably not cooperate until he is replaced with someone of greater international stature. We, on the other hand, have said we will not replace him until some movement by the other side warrants such action. We might break this deadlock by appointing a new negotiator, but announcing that he will not assume his duties in Paris until there is a responsible reaction by the other side. This would give Hanoi a face-saving device to reopen private talks or make new proposals.

Another option is to propose some major new substantive initiatives to enhance our image of flexibility and to probe the intentions of the other side. As a first step, we could support the French proposal to explore the possibilities of a conference on Indo-China. Our support of the concept would serve to demonstrate to all parties concerned our interest in a political settlement and would simultaneously involve additional parties in the political process. The existence of a broader political forum could serve as a barrier to expanded military action by Hanoi.

As a lesser option, we might make a major new proposal to deal with the situation in Laos. If this is done, however, it will be necessary for us to look carefully at the provisions for bombing in the Panhandle because North Vietnam will almost certainly demand this as the price of a settlement in North Laos. A settlement could conceivably be worth this price if we can ensure that the bombing halt would not endanger our forces in South Vietnam or undercut the Vietnamization effort. It is noteworthy that Hanoi has abided, with only limited exceptions, by the basic military provisions of the November 1968 bombing halt “understandings.” We reached that point by taking action on the “assumption” Hanoi would (a) stop the shelling of population centers, (b) not violate the DMZ, and (c) allow reconnaissance flights over North Vietnam. The spirit of the understanding has prevailed. Perhaps this precedent could provide a direction for further de-escalation of the war, or at a minimum, pose barriers to Hanoi's expansion of the war.

[Page 766]

D. Troop Contributing Countries

Additional barriers to Hanoi's expansion of the military conflict could be established by continued—and expanded—participation in South Vietnam by other Asian nations. In keeping with the Nixon Doctrine, I believe that the Troop Contributing Countries (TCC), as well as other Asian countries not now making a significant contribution in Vietnam, should maintain the maximum presence there commensurate with their capabilities. The record is disappointing. Vietnam remains primarily a US effort. Other countries, if anything, are doing less rather than more.

I would hope that we could find a variety of ways in which the TCC and other Asian countries could increase their involvement with the South Vietnamese people. In all discussions and planning with the TCC and other Asian nations, we should seek ways in which their total efforts may be increased. Their contributions could be centered, if necessary, into the areas of training, logistics, and economic intercourse. The point is that the wider the front of nations involved in SVN, the more credible the barrier to expanded NVN military action.

E. Prisoners of War

It is essential to keep pressing the enemy hard on the prisoner of war issue. We have made some limited progress in getting confirmation on more names and increasing the flow of mail. More emphasis should now be placed on securing impartial inspection of camps and the release of all prisoners. As I previously informed you, President Thieu originally agreed generally with my suggestion that South Vietnam offer to release 500 or more prisoners to the North. We had been pressing the South Vietnamese to make this offer at the March 26 meeting in Paris. Unfortunately, Thieu decided to proceed only with about 323 sick and wounded prisoners, on the theory that his people would not understand releasing able-bodied prisoners who could fight again. The other side has rejected the offer, at least initially.

I believe we should press the South Vietnamese to make successively larger release offers. We might announce a schedule for releasing several thousand North Vietnamese prisoners over the next six months. We should consider making releases at least partially contingent upon enemy performance in this area. The principal goal would be to build momentum into the notion of prisoner release, so that the enemy would find it impossible to resist worldwide calls for reciprocity. Meanwhile, we should consider the need to define more precisely the relationship between the prisoner issue and US troop withdrawals. We should at the same time hit hard on impartial inspection, in the hope that the enemy might come to view release as the lesser of two evils.

[Page 767]

IV. Summary

In brief, progress is being made towards our objectives in South Vietnam. But the situation shows few, if any, signs of decreasing in complexity. In particular:

  • • Vietnamization is proceeding satisfactorily.
  • • The US efforts, however, continue to be large and costly.
  • • The war is decelerating in South Vietnam, with the concomitant dividends of fewer US casualties, maintenance of US support, and more opportunities for application of our energies and resources for other foreign policy and domestic efforts.
  • • Serious problems confront our continuing efforts, viz,
    • —Gaps in the GVN leadership, both political and military.
    • —Economic instability in SVN.
    • —Options available to Hanoi to reverse the military patterns in SVN and to expand the conflict in Laos and Cambodia.
  • • Positive alternatives are still available to the US, viz,
    • —Political initiatives in Paris. —Prospects for other political forums, such as the French concept for an Indo-China conference. —Solitication of expanded efforts by other Asian nations in SVN.

I would be remiss if I did not convey to you the full support of the Defense establishment for your policies and programs in Southeast Asia. While it is our responsibility, in our view, to apprise you, as this memorandum attempts to do, of our assessments and analyses, there is complete dedication to your decisions. In particular, the military leadership, from the Chiefs and General Abrams to our other leaders in the field, are doing everything within their capabilities to accomplish their assigned tasks with maximum safety and security.

Melvin Laird
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 145, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, April 1, 1970. Top Secret; Sensitive. Haig sent this memorandum to Kissinger characterizing it as unclear of purpose and suggesting “several very alarming features.” Haig indicated that (a) “The [Clark] Clifford thinking permeates the OSD staff,” (b) Laird conceded for the “first time that Vietnamization is a farce,” (c) Laird dramatized that financial impossibilities precluded continuation of the war and the only hope was a political solution, and (d) the United States “must draw down as rapidly as possible and to, above all, prevent further involvement in Southeast Asia.” Haig added “I believe that it [Laird's memorandum] will cause the President to ask himself what in the hell Laird has been doing all these months.” Haig also stated “the President will gag upon reading this rambling, purposeless softening effort.” (Memorandum from Haig to Kissinger, April 4; ibid., Box 1009, Haig Special Files, Haig's Vietnam File, Vol. V [2 of 2]) On April 10 Lynn informed Kissinger that he prepared a memorandum for the President reviewing Laird's trip and this April 4 Laird memorandum, but it is not clear that Lynn's analysis was sent forward. (Ibid., Box 95, Vietnam Subject Files, Vietnam, Troop Replacements, 1970)
  2. Document 187.
  3. Document 51.
  4. Document 123.
  5. Document 154.