190. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

3225. For the Acting Secretary. Subject: Approach to Thieu. Ref: State 062480.2

I had initiated request to see Thieu shortly before reftel was received. Latter, therefore, provided welcome and timely guidance.
I saw the President late this afternoon and told him that I personally thought I understood what he was doing and why but that if President Ford, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense and other senior advisers were to be fully effective in their continuing strong efforts to provide not only the $300 million supplemental but further military assistance funds they needed to know not my assessment but President Thieu’s own description of his strategy and intentions.
President Thieu said Vietnam now found itself faced with a stronger enemy force than at any time, certainly since 1972. That force is being constantly reinforced with units or personnel [garble—from?] North Vietnam’s strategic reserve divisions. Thus the enemy is able to concentrate strong superior forces in local areas of his choosing leaving his own forces at a distinct disadvantage. At the same time, South Vietnam is not getting the one for one replacement of military items provided for in the Paris Agreement.
In light of this situation, the President said, he could no longer fight what from a military standpoint had for the last two years been a “stupid” way to fight a war. He had to give up territory or face the prospect of having his own forces destroyed piece by piece, eventually producing a situation where because of effort to defend every part of the country he could no longer defend any of it.
In the Highlands he might have kept Pleiku and perhaps Kontum. However, with the roads from the coast blocked by the enemy this could have been done only at great cost and even then the strong local superiority of the enemy would eventually have made a defense of Pleiku a suicide mission. He had, therefore, decided to pull out what [Page 685] forces he could. Because of the close proximity of strong enemy forces he had considered speed and surprise to be essential. It had been a trade off between losing some equipment and aircraft and perhaps at the expense of a carefully organized and very orderly withdrawal or losing all of his forces because of inability to disengage themselves from an imminent enemy attack.
The loss of Ban Me Thuot, the President said, had definitely been a blow. It had happened because the North Vietnamese had been able to concentrate a force equivalent to two divisions plus supporting units. If the government had been able to hold Ban Me Thuot he might have used it as a base for the eventual recapture of Pleiku. Because of the heavy investment of resources which an effort to recapture Ban Me Thuot would take, and then with an uncertain outcome, he had decided to forego the attempt.
Turning to the rest of the country, especially the northern portion, and to the future the President said there is a soldier’s way and there is a politician’s way of looking at things. From the standpoint of the soldier what makes sense in the current situation is an effort to maintain the integrity of the country from Binh Dinh Province south, less the Highland provinces which had been given up.
But as a politician, he said, he had to think of matters differently. He said in his speech earlier that day that he would not abandon Thua Thien, i.e. Hue, and that he was determined to defend “our territory.”3 On the other hand, he has had to take away from General Truong the airborne division without adequate replacement. This made the present force ratio in MR–1 even less favorable to the government than it had been previously. Guang Tin and most of Quang Ngai Provinces are under present circumstances really not defensible. General Truong has been instructed to do his best with the forces he has at hand. Hue would not be abandoned but would be fought for. The President made it clear, however, that he did not think General Truong would be able to hold anything north of the Hai Van Pass. The President also made it clear that the defense of Danang had priority and that an enclave might emerge there. It would have to be decided later whether to try to hold that enclave. If it were to be useful as a beachhead for the future recapture of other territory that was one thing but if were to be held simply as a suicide mission that would be another.
At the end of our discussion the President returned to the theme that until now the RVN had fought a war based on the premises of the Paris Agreement. This premise had made for a stupid war militarily, [Page 686] with scattered units on the government’s side trying to defend every piece of territory. The current North Vietnamese offensive has now ended any hope of continuing to fight on the premises of the Paris Agreement. Therefore, consideration of what is militarily most effective in defending as much as the population as possible and maintaining the integrity of the armed forces would henceforth be the most important consideration.
On US assistance the President said that he appreciates and is grateful for President Ford’s determination to seek $300 million supplemental this year. He pointed out, however, that the $300 million would not provide for replacement of any capital items lost in combat. Thieu said he would like, for example, for form strike units to take the offensive to the enemy at places of his, and not the enemy’s choosing but without replacement of major items he would not be able to do so.
In summary, Thieu had made a basic decision to trade major parts of territory, probably including all of MR–1, and large portions of MR–2, in order to provide for an effective defense of the remainder with the resources available. It is, in my view, a courageous decision.
  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for East Asia and the Pacific, Box 21, Vietnam, State Department Telegrams, To SECSTATE, Nodis (3). Secret; Immediate; Nodis; Cherokee.
  2. Telegram 62480 to Saigon, March 20, instructed Lehmann: “You should see Thieu as soon as possible to obtain from him his rationale for the withdrawal of his forces from Kontum and Pleiku and the drawdown of his forces in MR–I. You should tell him that we need a clear picture from him as to his intentions and strategy to deal with what is now clearly a general North Vietnamese offensive.” (Ibid., State Department Telegrams, From SECSTATE, Nodis (1))
  3. The text of President Thieu’s speech was transmitted in telegram 3187 from Saigon, March 20; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files.