229. Memorandum From John H. Holdridge of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Hanoi’s Decision-Making Process

Attached at Tab A is a CIA Intelligence Memorandum which discusses 12 factors influencing the decision-making process of the 12-odd men in Hanoi’s Politburo.2 The paper predicts that, balancing these factors, the Politburo will conduct a possibly critical review of its current strategy in late August–early September, and will consider three basic options—press on to victory, protracted warfare, or a change of war strategy and negotiating positions, particularly on ceasefire. Conceivably this review might trigger an unprecedented discussion of the long dormant but potentially explosive issue of a choice between Hanoi’s fundamental priorities of pursuing the Southern revolution or building socialism in the North. The memorandum speculates that Ho Chi Minh’s death, Pham Van Dong’s poor health, and the absence of any demonstrable gains in the offensive could encourage the surfacing of suppressed rivalries among Politburo members and provoke a sharp struggle for personal primacy.

The CIA paper asserts that Hanoi’s decisions are made on the basis of balancing four sets of 12 factors: the “Human Dimension” (common psychology of the Politburo’s members); “the North Vietnamese base” (party discipline in the North, popular morale, manpower and U.S. interdiction campaign); the “Situation in the South” (the status of the Saigon government, the Communist Apparatus in the South, Battlefield Developments); and finally “External Factors” (Sino-Soviet support, the International Developments, U.S. electoral situation and U.S. Negotiating Position).

The paper emphasizes the human context and factors of Hanoi’s decision-making process—the attitudes and relations among the 12 men of the Politburo who makes all major policies in North Vietnam. [Page 813] Xenophobia, sharing a Calvinist-like dogma and convinced that history is on their side, these men approach their decisions with a psychology often alien from the way in which we make our own decisions.

Discussing those factors affecting the North Vietnamese base, the paper concludes that Party discipline is unlikely to deteriorate in any great extent and that as yet there are no signs of decisive popular morale problems which could force a change of policy. Pressures on morale, however, are acute and the regime will have to keep a weather eye on this matter while applying strict controls to assure compliance with directives. Quantitatively, Hanoi’s manpower is sufficient to sustain the war in the South at its current level for several years but qualitatively the government is facing significant difficulties. The offensive has seriously weakened the NVA’s whole structure, which will need at least 18 months to restore itself to the March 30 levels. Despite the intensive air interdiction campaign, the communists probably have sufficient stocks of military equipment in South Vietnam to support periodic high points for several months and still have the capability to meet their minimum import requirements while continuing to support the war at a high level. (The paper assumes the DRV will be capable of food self-sufficiency, an assumption not borne out by the record of the past couple of years.)

Concerning the “Situation in the South,” the Politburo almost certainly assumes that the Thieu government is fairly solidly in control. Hanoi does not expect a serious internal crisis in the near future, provided U.S. resolve does not weaken. Of paramount importance in Hanoi’s decision-making process is its concern to protect its Southern cadre for future operations. The Politburo also is aware of the limitations of its local military and political apparatus in the South and probably is dissatisfied with its performance in the current fighting. The situation on the Southern battlefields will be an extremely important one in Hanoi’s decisions. The North Vietnamese have not yet decided that the 1972 military campaign as a whole is going badly and clearly plan at least one more round of major military activity. In the context of other pressures, a military setback could contribute in a major way to a decision to revise present policy.

Assessing the “External Factors,” the CIA study asserts that the Politburo is acutely sensitive to any signs of diminishing interests on the part of its allies but is reasonably confident their commitment will continue. Sino-Soviet support and Hanoi’s dependence on it remains an area where there is a potential for great leverage to be exerted on North Vietnam. While the CIA paper doubts that neither the Soviets nor the Chinese will initiate a cutback in aid, it concludes that Hanoi would be compelled to change its policy if it believed its allies do not intend to provide sufficient supplies.

While the “International Environment” will not have a decisive influence on Hanoi’s thinking, its leaders undoubtedly view the [Page 814] changing international situation with considerable disquiet as their rigidity is out of step with new trends toward accommodation. The Politburo will pay closer attention to the electoral politics of the United States but is not likely to base a fundamental policy shift only on its expectation of the elections outcome. Hanoi almost certainly believes that President Nixon will be re-elected and thus may consider floating some new negotiating formula to probe U.S. willingness to reach a settlement. Finally, the U.S. negotiating position itself is a factor in Hanoi’s decision-making process. However, North Vietnamese strategy probably will not be affected by any proposal other than one giving the Communists a clear shot at gaining control in South Vietnam.

Comment: The CIA Memorandum does not weigh the relative value or importance of the various factors influencing the decision-making process in Hanoi and scrupulously avoids judgments on the outcome of the forthcoming policy review expected in the last of August or early September. The paper nevertheless emphasizes that no one factor is controlling and that a combination of elements will be required to turn Hanoi from its present course. The study implies that of all the factors a military setback in the South coupled with a conviction that President Nixon will be re-elected and a fear of weakening Soviet-Chinese resolve hold the most promise for a revision of Hanoi’s present strategy.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 25, Chronological File, 4–6 August 1972. Secret; Sensitive. Outside the system. Urgent; sent for information. Sent through Haig. A notation on the memorandum reads: “HAK has seen.”
  2. Attached but not printed at Tab A is the August 3 CIA intelligence memorandum. In his transmittal memorandum, Helms wrote to Kissinger: “You have indicated to George Carver that you need some paper like the attached in the course of this afternoon. Therefore, I am sending you this draft in the hope that it will be useful for your purposes. It is not an agreed Agency document, so I am making no copies available to the members of the WSAG. You have the only text outside the Agency.”