247. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1
- Vietnam Military Situation as Viewed in Saigon
In my two days in Saigon I received extensive briefings on the military situation from General Weyand, General Vogt, Ambassador Bunker,2 the CIA station chief,3 and other Embassy officers—and President Thieu.4 I asked them for their estimates of the current military situation and their forecasts for the next two months, the next six months, and the next twelve months.
There were no significant divergences of view. The consensus that emerged was as follows.
1. The ARVN had already virtually recovered its equipment and manpower losses from the first phase of the 1972 offensive. But the enemy’s main-force capability had suffered severe losses in manpower and equipment, especially heavy weaponry, that he had little immediate prospect of recovering. The GVN was likely to gradually re-expand its area of control in the coming months. The enemy’s difficulties would progressively worsen over the coming months, given his losses and his massive resupply problem, the advent of the rainy season (mid-September), our continued bombing and blockade, and the ARVN’s recovery of the initiative.
- —The enemy’s effort in MR I, for example, had already developed into a defense of its Quang Tri position rather than an offensive against Hue. General Weyand estimated that the enemy had suffered 100,000 killed or seriously wounded country-wide since the offensive. General Vogt estimated that 600–650 out of the enemy’s 750 tanks have been destroyed.
- —In MRs II, III, and IV, enemy infiltration of manpower had already tapered off to close to zero, in contrast to 1968 when infiltration continued at a high level late into the year.
2. Nevertheless the enemy retained the capacity to launch a wave of small-unit attacks by fire over the next two months and give an impression of widespread activity and presence. This was particularly possible in MRs I and III. Some district towns might be taken, and there may even be shelling and sapper attacks against Saigon.
- —COSVN headquarters and the enemy’s Sapper Command had moved in-country for the first time in MR III.
- —General Minh, contrary to our best judgment and advice, has been concentrating his forces on Route 13 where the battle had stabilized, instead of spreading his forces to meet threats elsewhere in MR–III. I raised this matter with President Thieu who acknowledged that Minh has lost his aggressiveness.
But there was little likelihood of an ARVN disaster or of a sustained two to three week enemy offensive that would have any military impact. The enemy’s sapper losses would be severe in the process. The cadre on whom the burden would fall were already demoralized, vulnerable, and increasingly reluctant to take risks.
3. The middle-term (6-month) prospect was that the enemy would at some point wind up the offensive, withdraw several of the NVA divisions northward, and revert to a protracted-warfare strategy—not because this offered any prospect of success but because he had no alternative. President Thieu said he thought the enemy would rather revert to protracted warfare, despite its futility, than admit defeat.
—Throughout the country it was apparent that the enemy’s strategy was now shaped by his limited capability. He was not husbanding his resources but, on the contrary, was using whatever forces were available to him. Thus he was losing his freedom of maneuver. Cambodia was vulnerable, for example, but the NVA units that had pressed Cambodia were now fighting in MRs III and IV. The division threatening Hue was now drawn back to help hold Quang Tri.
Ambassador Bunker was convinced that the launching of the 1972 offensive had itself been prompted by the earlier failure of protracted warfare to achieve any appreciable political gain.
4. Our bombing and mining of the North was crucial to all this in the short and middle terms. The enemy’s essential problem was that he had suffered staggering losses and was still running down his stockpiles, while we were hitting him more effectively in the North and compounding all his difficulties of resupply in the South.
—I asked General Vogt to give me a list of any targets in the North that we were not hitting that he thought would be lucrative.[Page 908]
5. Over the longer term (a year and longer), the deterioration of the enemy’s position was cumulative. Even if he managed to resupply, it would take him two to three years to prepare for another large-scale offensive, just as it took him an extended period to recover from Tet 1968 and the 1970 Cambodian operation.
—The GVN, meanwhile, was inaugurating new programs to upgrade its pacification and territorial forces and reform its mobilization law.
—The enemy had made substantial inroads into pacification during the offensive. But with the fading away of the NVA main-force strength, the GVN’s recovery of pacification was almost certain.
There were significant base areas where the enemy might not be rooted out for a very long time—U Minh forest, Plain of Reeds, A Shau Valley, the Khe Sanh area, and the mountains near Quang Tri. But the enemy faced the prospect that, in the absence of a political settlement, the military balance would be tipping progressively in ARVN’s favor over the next two to three years.
6. President Thieu thought that in the absence of any significant successes in South Vietnam the enemy might focus his efforts over the next several years on Laos and Cambodia, with a view to developing springboards for eventual renewed attacks on South Vietnam. Thieu said he was resigned to the prospect of relatively weak anti-Communist resistance in Laos. But he thought much more could be accomplished in Cambodia if Lon Nol could develop a proper sense of priorities.
Overall, my discussions elicited a consensus that while Hanoi may not yet be on the ropes, their strategy was soon likely to revert to one of protracted warfare within GVN capabilities to contain. Virtually all of the persons with whom I spoke viewed the military situation with considerable confidence and foresaw a continued decline in our direct involvement—provided we continued to provide military and economic aid to South Vietnam and took the necessary steps to repair the remaining gaps in the RVNAF force structure, such as further Vietnamizing the air war.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 161, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, August 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. Sent for information. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.↩
- Kissinger met with Weyand, Vogt, and Bunker on the evening of August 16 and the morning of August 17. A memorandum of conversation for each meeting is in the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 58, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Trips, Kissinger Memcons, August 1972.↩
- For his meeting with Polgar and Bunker, see Document 242.↩
- For his meetings with Thieu, see Documents 243 and 245.↩