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

616. Ref: Saigon 605.2

I have given further thought to the President’s consideration of desirability of announcing initial troop reduction after the Midway meeting, together with his expressed willingness to wait a few weeks longer. I have also discussed the message with General Abrams. As viewed from here my conclusion is that the more prudent course would be to wait, for the following reasons:
First, Thieu has set a date of June 30 for various goals. These goals include designated hamlets to be pacified, another round of village and hamlet elections in June, and the deployment of 68 newly trained regional force companies by June 30.
Despite the February and May attacks, steady and continued progress is being made in extending government control over the countryside. The high level of defectors under the Chieu Hoi program is being maintained in the 900–1100 range per week. The Phoenix program to eliminate the VC infrastructure is producing higher weekly returns despite the more stringent criteria—around 400 a week. Enemy killed are running between 3500 and 5000 a week.
In early July Thieu will have a good story to tell of progress made and goals achieved during the first half of this year. The evidence for this is not merely in the statistics but can be found in the increasing sense of confidence and recognition of progress among his military, civil and political leaders from the national level down to the village level, and among the people themselves in wider and wider areas of the country.
In this atmosphere, an announcement of a reduction of US forces sometime after July 1 could be taken in stride.
More important than the above, however, is the military situation. There are many indications that two more attack waves are brewing, with one possible in June and another in July. We expect these will follow the pattern of enemy’s tactics this year, i.e. of short duration, with emphasis on indirect fire and limited ground attacks to economize losses, and aimed at US installations to increase US casualties. We have every confidence that these will be knocked back with heavy losses to the enemy. However, since General Abrams was in Washington there has been some increase in enemy deployments that could threaten I Corps, and General Abrams wishes to reserve on the order of withdrawal of the two increments until he can better assess the situation.
I think, and General Abrams concurs, that June 30 would be a good cut-off date for assessing situation, with the conclusions to be available in the second week in July, that is about one month after the Midway meeting. By then we would have the June record of enemy action in hand, and a clearer picture of their July and subsequent intentions. Unless there is a massive increase in the infiltration pipeline during May or June, for which we have no evidence as yet, the recent reduction in North Vietnamese infiltration groups moving South, along with the 2–3 months lag in arrivals in the South, suggest that the enemy offensive attacks will peak the first half of July.
This suggests that the announcement of the first troop reduction could be made sometime in July if our reading of the situation is correct. At Midway the communiqué might be able to say that sufficient progress is being made in pacification and the improved fighting capability of the military and para-military forces to warrant an initial reduction in US combat forces levels in the foreseeable future.
Since troop reductions will be on the agenda at Midway, I thought it desirable to obtain Thieu’s view about an announcement at that time. When I saw him this morning (on various matters before my departure for Bangkok), without indicating my views I asked him if it would be desirable to announce the initial reduction, or replacement as Secretary Rogers preferred to call it, at Midway or wait a little longer, say until early July. There were advantages and disadvantages of an announcement on June 8. In any event the announcement would be in terms of his (Thieu’s) initiative. I said he would probably want to think about it, but I would welcome his views at this time.
Thieu said a reduction in the US forces has now been a subject of open discussion for six months, the South Vietnamese people are accustomed to the idea, and it would not be a surprise if an announcement was made. It is accepted here that something like a reduction of [Page 225] 50,000 this year would be the figure, and both “the principle and a number of this size” would be understood here. A figure of 100,000 would not be understood. Essentially this problem was an American problem and if the President feels it is necessary in US terms, then there would be no objection to having an announcement of some kind made at Midway.
However, he went on, any announcement would have to be tied to one of the three conditions which the President has laid down, and this would probably be the improvement in the Vietnamese capacity to take over a greater share. He said “The timing and form of the announcement will need to be discussed and worked out, but the substance is understood and accepted here.”
I interpret this to mean that he is prepared to agree to some reference at Midway to troop reductions, perhaps even some specific reference to numbers and dates.
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 65, Vietnam Subject Files, 8–A, All Backchannel. Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only.
  2. In backchannel message 605 from Saigon, May 20, Bunker provided Kissinger with an interim response to backchannel message WH90677, May 19, in which Kissinger informed Bunker that the President was considering making an initial troop withdrawal announcement at the end of the Midway Conference. Nixon thought that the announcement might give Thieu the initiative on the issue, but based on Bunker’s advice he would be willing to postpone for several weeks if Bunker considered it necessary. Bunker wrote: “With regard to suggestion concerning desirability of making initial troop withdrawal announcement at conclusion of Midway Meeting, I can see both advantages and problems. Consequently, I should like to give the matter further thought and would prefer to delay my reply until tomorrow. I hope this will be satisfactory to you and the President.” (Ibid.) Telegram 616 is Bunker’s considered reply.