37. Memorandum From the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler) to Secretary of Defense Laird1



  • Observations and Recommendations Concerning the Military Situation in Southeast Asia
This memorandum is designed to set forth in summary fashion my impression of the current situation in South Vietnam, to include the effect of the enemy attacks launched in recent days, and the military problems posed General Abrams by the continuing enemy buildup in the DMZ area, Laos and Cambodia. Also presented are my views concerning military actions which we should take. Since this report is deliberately in summary form, I will not attempt documentation from operational and intelligence sources; such supporting detail is readily available.
The current series of enemy attacks has, to date, achieved no results of military significance. Contrary to effects of the Tet offensive of 1968, the enemy has gained little or nothing psychologically. Indeed, I was surprised at the calmness displayed by President Thieu, Prime Minister Huong and General Vien, Chief of the Vietnamese Joint General Staff, regarding the attacks by fire (ABF) launched by the enemy against Saigon and DaNang and, most recently, against Hue. Nevertheless, I think it clear that, if rocket attacks (even in the small numbers employed to date) continue against major population centers, an appropriate reaction must be undertaken. I make this judgment based on two factors: first, the GVN will be under great pressure to retaliate in kind; and, second, beyond a certain point U.S. restraint will be interpreted as confirming North Vietnamese contentions that our bombing halt was “unconditional,” and that the U.S. lied to the GVN regarding the circumstances leading to the cessation of acts of force against North Vietnam. I understand that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have forwarded a package of appropriate retaliatory actions to Mr. Packard. (Apropos of retaliatory actions, you will recall Vice President Ky’s assertion that the Vietnamese Air Force could retaliate with attacks [Page 106] against Hanoi. This is nonsense. However, at my request General George Brown, Commander, Seventh Air Force, drew up a plan for an attack against military facilities in the vicinity of Dong Hoi. Under this concept the South Vietnamese forces would provide the strike aircraft; U.S. forces would provide support in the areas of MIG cap, Sam and flak suppression, ECM, photo reconnaissance, etc. I consider that this plan has a certain political and military attractiveness.)
All sources, U.S. and Vietnamese, confirm that the pacification effort has been very little affected by current enemy actions. Indeed, there is evidence that, spurred by President Thieu’s personal interest, progress continues in this key program. The Phoenix attacks on the VC infrastructure continue successfully. The Hoi Chanhs (enemy defectors) are on the rise. The RVNAF, including RF & PF, is steadily improving in effectiveness; they can be expected over time to assume more of the burden.
Free World forces continue to hold the initiative within SVN. The enemy continues to have the capability to mount offensive “surges” periodically. However, he can do so only at the expense of heavy personnel losses when he debouches from his sanctuaries, weeks and months of preparation of the battle area, and the expenditure of laboriously assembled logistic resources. Moreover, his tactical concepts require that he preposition supplies along his routes of advance to the battle, thus exposing them to capture or destruction. As General Abrams expresses it, the VC/NVA do not base their operations on a logistic “tail” as do other armies but on a logistic “nose.”
The most striking and dangerous situations are comprised of the enemy troop and logistic build-ups in the DMZ area, in the panhandle of Laos and in Cambodia.
Ten (10) NVA regiments are deployed just north of, within and south of the DMZ. Moreover, intelligence now indicates that an additional NVA division may well be deployed in this same area. Moreover, the enemy has, since 1 November 1968, established an ample logistic base contiguous to the DMZ with which to support forces of the above magnitude in offensive operations. Also, there is quite convincing evidence that the enemy is infiltrating through the DMZ.
The enemy has been urgently stocking his base areas in the panhandle of Laos in order to be logistically prepared for the onset of the rainy season in that area. Normally, the monsoon will switch about four to six weeks hence. The immense quantities of material and supplies seized or destroyed during the recent operation in the A Shau valley are, I think, ample proof that enemy base areas situated deeper and further to the north in Laos represent lucrative targets for pre-emptive action by our ground and air forces. As an illustration, using 1968 rates of enemy ammunition expenditure and friendly casualties the caches [Page 107] found in the A Shau valley would have provided the enemy the capability of inflicting 7,658 friendly KIA and 24,471 friendly WIA.
By now, I think that all of us recognize the importance to the enemy and the threat to our forces posed by the Cambodian sanctuary base areas. In actuality, it is those base areas from which the threat to Saigon originates and is sustained. They, and their counterparts in Laos and contiguous to the DMZ, are also the prime cause of U.S. casualties.
I have reached the following conclusions and, accordingly, submit the recommendations which follow:
Enemy base areas provide the human and material means to inflict casualties on U.S. forces and those of our allies. If these base areas are destroyed or neutralized, friendly casualties will automatically decrease.
The next rocket attack(s) on Saigon, Hue or Da Nang must be followed by an appropriate response by us. Preferably our response should take the form of naval and/or air attacks against targets in North Vietnam.
General Abrams should be authorized immediately to operate offensively in the southern DMZ in order to preempt enemy build-up in and use of that area.
General Abrams should be tasked for plans to attack and destroy, by air and ground action (raids in force) critical enemy base areas in Laos in order to deplete enemy logistic resources during the rainy season in Laos.
General Abrams should be tasked for plans to destroy by air and ground action (raids in force) enemy Cambodian sanctuary base areas.
Earle G. Wheeler
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OASD/ISA Files, FRC 330 75–0013, Vietnam Task Force, Joint Staff Memos. Top Secret; Sensitive. Laird sent this memorandum to Nixon on March 13, indicating that it contained Wheeler’s observations and recommendations of the trip he and Laird made to Vietnam, March 5–12. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 70, Vietnam Subject Files, Secretary Laird’s Trip to S. Vietnam, March 5–12, 1969) See Document 38 for Laird’s impressions.