242. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Ellsworth Bunker, American Ambassador to Vietnam
  • Thomas Polgar, Station Chief
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Winston Lord, NSC Staff
  • John D. Negroponte, NSC Staff
  • Peter W. Rodman, NSC Staff

[The conversation began in the sitting room.]

Mr. Polgar: There has been a significant change in our ability to gain access to the enemy.

Dr. Kissinger: I see your reports—at least the ones Helms lets me. You say all the Cadre are demoralized?

Mr. Polgar: Not all, but a significant number. It shows in two ways: It is easier for us to recruit them. And when we capture them they talk without torture—The New York Times notwithstanding.

Dr. Kissinger: I must say if I were in the hands of the GVN, I’d talk without torture too!

Is North Vietnam in your area of jurisdiction? Do you think Hanoi understands what’s going on?

Mr. Polgar: Yes. The reporting to Hanoi from elements subordinate to COSVN is quite realistic.

Dr. Kissinger: Then how about these grandiose orders to have a national offensive? They don’t have the capability.

Mr. Polgar: They don’t have. On both sides there is a tremendous gap between what they say they will do and what they have the capacity to do.

Dr. Kissinger: I’m used to the fact that the South Vietnamese, when you ask them, give you an epic poem.

Mr. Polgar: General Abrams once said that with the South Vietnamese you have to differentiate between Yes that means Yes and a Yes that means No.

COSVN, which we have access to, realizes what is happening very clearly.

[Page 840]

Dr. Kissinger: What do they think we think is going on?

Mr. Polgar: What they wanted didn’t work. We have access to COSVN assessments with fair regularity. The question obviously arises, are they real? Yes, because we have captured the identical documents in sweep operations.

COSVN issues an assessment the 15th of every month of the current situation, the overall military situation, the specific military situation, the proselytizing situation, and the political situation. They are very methodical people! Here is a comparative analysis we have done [attached at Tab A].2

—In April they said that “our units have achieved great victories throughout the length and breadth of South Vietnam. Countless ARVN units have been totally destroyed and many others have had significant losses.”

—In May COSVN found that less than half their objectives have been fulfilled. “Our attacks have been well coordinated but results have only killed a small number of ARVN and captured a few targets.”

—In July, the most recent one we have, COSVN found that, “though a number of victories were achieved . . . VC objectives have not been fulfilled. The balance of strength has not been shifted substantially nor have recent victories been decisive.”

We don’t have June’s assessment.

Dr. Kissinger: This could mean either that they are or they aren’t better off than they were before.

Mr. Polgar: What they have gained in South Vietnam has to be balanced with the losses they’ve suffered in North Vietnam.

Dr. Kissinger: What have they gained in South Vietnam?

Mr. Polgar: They’ve reestablished secure base areas in South Vietnam and can move their main force units in South Vietnam pretty far from their base area—Base Area 470, the U Minh forest, for example. The entire mountainous area near Quang Tri is now irretrievably lost; that was held by the Americans. Their main-force divisions in Binh Dinh were badly mauled, but they’re there.

Dr. Kissinger: Can they keep these base areas in MR IV?

Mr. Polgar: You asked me what they gained. This doesn’t cover our Pacification losses—to which I don’t happen to attach the same significance as my colleagues. If you chase the NVA out, pacification automatically returns.

Dr. Kissinger: I’m trying to gauge the negative implications.

[Page 841]

Mr. Polgar: Since the counteroffensive in Quang Tri started, their guidance seems to reflect the realization that victory in 1972 just isn’t in the cards.

Dr. Kissinger: Is victory ever in the cards?

Mr. Polgar: Here there is a distinction between what the cadre in the South and the leadership in the North are saying. In the South, the cadre realize they have to live indefinitely with the GVN—they’re getting bombed, or arrested. The demoralization of the cadre is significant. The orders direct them to fly the flag, to go out and proselytize—they reply that this just isn’t feasible. Their people are simply not rising up. This creeps into all these guidances.

[The group then moved to the dining room for lunch.]

Dr. Kissinger: What do you think, as they look at the situation, what do they see ahead for themselves?

Mr. Polgar: Protracted warfare.

Dr. Kissinger: Not a political settlement.

Mr. Polgar: No. As a matter of fact, even if there is a political settlement, they see it as protracted warfare. They say, if there is a settlement, “it will not apply below the district level.”

Dr. Kissinger: Do they think they can get a Government of National Concord?

Mr. Polgar: Not from the Nixon Administration. Tran Van Don says the President himself is thinking of having a Government of National Concord—but the cast of characters is different! And not before the Senate leadership elections in October.

Dr. Kissinger: A three-segment government! Buddhists, Generals, and Thieu supporters!

Ambassador Bunker: Broadening the base!

Mr. Polgar: The Senate has to reorganize itself every year. The Chairman of the Senate has important powers.

Mr. Negroponte: In light of our peace terms, very important powers.

Dr. Kissinger: What is the prospect for them with protracted warfare?

Mr. Polgar: They think in a different time frame from us. They say, it will take 50 years to establish socialism in the South.

Dr. Kissinger: What does this require from us? Aid?

Mr. Polgar: I think the ARVN and police can definitely handle protracted warfare. I think the 1972 offensive is confirmation that they realized it was a losing proposition.

The Polish representative in the ICC says the war will go on forever unless it is decided in Washington or Moscow. Washington could [Page 842] pull the rug out from Thieu, and Moscow contributes to the situation where the GVN controls the situation. It will not be tidy in any event.

If the enemy doesn’t have missiles, the ARVN can handle it with its own air force.

Dr. Kissinger: When will the demoralization of COSVN reduce them to the hard core? I can imagine that without victory within a certain predictable number of years, much of their following will slip away.

Mr. Polgar: It is already happening. In the Delta, their forces are 85% northerners.

Ambassador Bunker: This is a great difference between 1968 and this year. It was a largely VC operation in 1968, particularly in the Delta.

Mr. Polgar: They’ve issued orders again to attack cities—it isn’t that they’ve refrained or haven’t tried—but nothing happens. For example, in Qui Nhon, the capital of Binh Dinh province.

Dr. Kissinger: What will happen in the next year?

Mr. Polgar: It is getting steadily worse. For example, they have something called the “legal cadre program.” Our Cassandras, like Robert Shaplen, said this was a horrible threat to us. But we find from our sources and interrogations that once the “legal” cadre start getting jobs and earning money, he buys a Honda. Suddenly he has a degree of freedom he never had before. New vistas open up—girls, a TV. Then they start behaving like the western European labor movement.

So the legal cadre is not a viable revolutionary weapon.

Dr. Kissinger: So why does anyone become a Viet Cong?

Mr. Polgar: Family tradition. From resistance days against the French. For example, the Viet Minh married local girls; they were looking to 15–18 years ahead. Recently in Binh Dinh . . .

Dr. Kissinger: Aren’t we ahead of them in impregnating Vietnamese girls? Or is our Army letting us down again?

Mr. Lord: What would be the psychological impact on the cadre of a ceasefire with Thieu still in power?

Mr. Polgar: You saw the reports. A “change in policy” is now more important.

Dr. Kissinger: What does this mean? That the GVN stop fighting?

Mr. Polgar: The Czech Communists were satisfied with Benes as President as long as he didn’t do anything.

Dr. Kissinger: There can’t be a campaign in the dry season of 1973. The earliest is 1974.

Mr. Polgar: The bloodletting they’ve suffered is incredible. One intercept reported a unit saying “we’re getting butchered.” The 308th division [Page 843] that was doing a flanking attack to cut Route 1 near Hue has now been brought north to defend Quang Tri. It shows the losses they’ve suffered.

Dr. Kissinger: And they lose their freedom of maneuver.

Mr. Polgar: The ARVN has a training bottleneck. Like every army, it hasn’t enough NCO’s. But it has no real manpower problem.

If you project fighting at this level, the GVN can do it.

Dr. Kissinger: You don’t think either the North or the VC want a negotiated settlement?

Mr. Polgar: I see nothing to suggest they want a negotiated settlement except on their terms.

Dr. Kissinger: Well, they’re not going to get their terms.

Mr. Polgar: We have to always distinguish between COSVN’s assessment and their directives. Their assessments have changed, but the directives they receive have not. The true picture is being reported, but the conclusions drawn from it are different. It is like the German army—the High Command simply rejected the realistic assessments.

Mr. Negroponte: You totally dismiss their propaganda from Hanoi? It has to be hortatory?

Mr. Polgar: Yes. Since July, there has been much more Radio Hanoi internal broadcasting about shoring up the home front, combatting defeatism, etc. And talking to East European Communists, they say, even though the situation is bad, we won’t give in.

Dr. Kissinger: Why should they be the first human society that didn’t have a break point? Even the Nazis did—though it took a physical occupation to bring that about.

Your prognosis is, the war in the South will die down gradually, and take on the character of protracted warfare.

Mr. Polgar: Unless the Soviet Union and China embark on a really huge resupply program.

Dr. Kissinger: If they do, it will still take a year.

Mr. Polgar: Assuming the Soviet Union and China don’t want a massive escalation. For example, if they introduce aircraft, the situation will change in less than a year.

Dr. Kissinger: Even that—ours would have to be out before it could make a difference. Theirs would have to be forward-based. It couldn’t be done in less than a year.

Mr. Polgar: This new offensive, advertised in the August–September–October framework, is already rolling. It may intensify a bit. But it won’t make a difference.

Dr. Kissinger: If this is the offensive, it’s a lot less than we’ve seen before.

[Page 844]

Mr. Polgar: This is the 1968 pattern. There were three “offensives!” They claimed that each was greater than the last, but in fact each was smaller.

In the northern front, they are under too much pressure to do much damage. They have some nuisance value.

Dr. Kissinger: Do you disagree with Weyand, who says they’re not dangerous?

Mr. Polgar: No, they will be contained. But we will pay a price for it—a district town here and there.

Dr. Kissinger: If that is true, indefinitely, they can’t hold what they have. They’re expending capital. The ARVN will gradually move back.

Mr. Polgar: That’s true. If everything goes well.

Mr. Negroponte: What could go wrong?

Mr. Polgar: Many things. But on balance, if there is no significant infusion of artillery missiles, etc. they’re using what they have and will gradually be pushed back. Not as far back as American forces pushed them in 1968. As I said, I don’t think the ARVN will ever go into the Plain of Reeds, the U Minh Forest, or in jungle near An Loc. The ARVN will hold the most populated areas.

Dr. Kissinger: And the VC will stay in their base areas.

Mr. Polgar: And in much geography where nobody lives, the VC will be able to claim control.

Dr. Kissinger: It is not a brilliant prospect for them.

Mr. Polgar: As the Ambassador said, it is precisely for this reason that they did the 1972 offensive.

Dr. Kissinger: Are they now worse off or better because of the offensive?

Mr. Polgar: Somewhat better. This is why I said you have to measure their gains against what they lost.

Dr. Kissinger: If they settle now, they could hold some of the gains. If they don’t they’ll lose more in 1973.

Mr. Polgar: I and you agree. But is it the enemy’s logic?

In this room: The VC fears the GVN won’t abide by a ceasefire. The GVN has extensive plans.

Dr. Kissinger: They too.

Mr. Polgar: Both sides approach a ceasefire with the same degree of good will!

Dr. Kissinger: Don’t talk about my friends like that! They assure me of their good will and serious intent. I would hate to see them with ill-will and a frivolous intent.

[The group adjourned again to the other room to continue the conversation.]

[Page 845]

Dr. Kissinger: What do you think is the most significant thing that I haven’t asked you?

Mr. Polgar: In general, the GVN is stronger than it is generally given credit for. Thieu has a following, though the newspapers say he doesn’t.

Dr. Kissinger: He’s a corrupt military dictator!

Mr. Polgar: That’s correct—but he has a following.

Dr. Kissinger: A corrupt military dictator is an ally who resists our enemies! In 1961 Adenauer was one, according to Galbraith and Schlesinger, and those who therefore concluded that the question of the defense of Berlin didn’t have to be addressed.

Mr. Polgar: His management doesn’t subscribe to the Hatch Act.

Dr. Kissinger: Does he bug the headquarters of the opposition?

Mr. Polgar: Look at how many people have a vested interest in this government—jobs, family with jobs. Remember, people said the Bonn Government would never last.

Dr. Kissinger: You predict that if there is no settlement, then over 2–3 years the GVN will become steadily stronger.

Mr. Polgar: Yes.

Ambassador Bunker: That’s my theory.

Dr. Kissinger: Even if they resupply, it will take 2–3 years.

Mr. Polgar: Yes, to mount an attack of a similar level of danger.

Dr. Kissinger: And unless the entire NVA field army is down here, by themselves the VC can never do it.

Mr. Polgar/Ambassador Bunker: No.

Mr. Polgar: Though the GVN will get stronger, the situation will not be tidy.

Dr. Kissinger: No, you pointed out they will still keep their base areas. But compared to the situation today, GVN control will steadily improve. And the situation today is better than it was after Tet, after which there was rapid progress.

Mr. Negroponte: Won’t they have a freer ride logistically if they’re now established in Ashau, and across the DMZ? Or isn’t logistics the key constraint?

Mr. Polgar: If we stop mining and bombing, and the Soviets go all out . . .

Dr. Kissinger: But this won’t happen unless there is a settlement. That is their dilemma. With a settlement, they’ll pay a price in the morale of their troops, but with the mining lifted. The question then is how quickly can they be resupplied.

Mr. Polgar: [To Negroponte] If the Soviets did that, for the next great offensive, then they would be in a better position.

[Page 846]

Dr. Kissinger: No, the resupply would be quicker, but they would not necessarily be in a better position.

Mr. Polgar: The Polish Ambassador recommends to his government that no more supplies should be unloaded in China because there is no guarantee it is getting through.

Dr. Kissinger: Vogt swears the pipeline isn’t operating.

Mr. Polgar: The trucks are.

Dr. Kissinger: They can’t transport POL by truck. If there is no pipeline, there is no way they can meet all their essential requirements, even with 1,000 tons by truck. It is a real constraint. With a pipeline, and 1,000 tons by truck—assuming it is possible—maybe they can get their 2,700 tons.

Mr. Polgar: When we capture trucks, it’s usually because they ran out of gas. In the South, there is no more mechanized transport (in MR–III, IV). In the North, yes, but in the South, they’re back to bicycle and sampan. Either there is no POL or no trucks. In Cambodia, the eagerness with which they requisitioned all the Lambrettas and Hondas shows that transport was a problem.

Mr. Lord: Are there differences within the Hanoi politburo? Do we have any analysis?

Mr. Polgar: No one has the raw intelligence. From the ICC Poles, they claim neither they nor the Russians have any insights.

Dr. Kissinger: I believe that’s probably true.

Mr. Polgar: Even the Russian diplomats speak of assignment to Hanoi as penal servitude.

Dr. Kissinger: I really appreciate this. Thank you.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 58, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Trips, Kissinger Memcons, August 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. The meeting took place at Ambassador Bunker’s residence. All brackets are in the original.
  2. Not found.