209. Backchannel Message From the Ambassador to Vietnam (Martin) to the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft)1

686. Ref: WH50640.2

Before proceeding to the questions, a few general observations might be useful. I have read all the analyses that have been made available to Saigon, the last being the joint DIA/CIA/INR paper on the military situation concluding that it is no longer a question whether Hanoi will win but only when.3 Unfortunately, I have a long memory. When I arrived in Saigon in July 1973, it was the unanimous opinion of the military intelligence briefers that (1) Phnom Penh would collapse on 16 August, the day American bombing would cease, and (2) that the RVNAF, now that the Americans had pulled out and no more bombing could be done by the Americans, would do well to last until the first of the year. The FANK not only did not fold, it took Kompong Tom back without American air. In Viet-Nam, there can be no question that through last June (1974) when the ammunition shortage really took effect, the military initiative was in the hands of the RVNAF and the Hanoi forces were hurting.
Therefore, I back off from that assessment, remembering that the intelligence community’s greatest fear is that it will have been caught short in failing to predict a disaster. Looking at it, dispassionately and objectively, the military situation doesn’t come over to me quite that bleakly. This is not to say it isn’t grim, I know very well it is—but not that hopeless. Pure counting of divisions, in other words, theoretical enemy capability—3 to 1 in the Weyand report—does not give the whole picture.
For example, the Marine Division has now been reconstituted and is ready for action. The Second Division as a strength of 10,000 will [Page 753]be fully effective in one month. The 22nd Division, with the best staff and best commander, is adding to its 2,000, an element of 300 from the 3rd Division, 400 from the First Division, 6,000 fillers, and a RF force from Saigon in two weeks, and will be fully ready for field action in four weeks.
Even more importantly, General Toan and General Nghi, who has taken over remnants of II Corps, have quietly lifted the Airborne Division into Phan Rang by night, and I think we will see some very hard fighting during the course of the week. With the virtual cascade of leaks out of Washington these days we are not going to be as well informed about GVN aggressive moves as formerly, but perhaps we will have a clearly successful aggressive action for the President to cite in his speech. Also progress is being made in plans to upgrade the territorial forces into the regular ARVN structure. Even more importantly, significant progress is being made in preparing plans for Thieu to completely delegate operational responsibility to General Vien as General Weyand recommended.
All this leads me to concur in General Weyand’s statement that the GVN should be able to hold the situation in MR 3 about as it stood on 3 April, with perhaps some recovery in MR II. We also believe the Delta will hold well for the immediate future.
Since Weyand’s departure, we have had a lessening of tension and an increase of morale. Thieu’s speech4 did contribute to a diminution of the wild rumors that infect Saigon, which are picked up by American press, spark a flood of background dope stories from Washington, which tend to heighten concern here, and cause us to spend too much time putting the rumors to bed again. For example, stories giving the essence of the hopeless prognosis of the DIA/CIA/INR military analysis were on the wires within 48 hours of the study’s availability to the Washington bureaucracy.
People are awaiting the formation of a new government with hope in some cases. We have quietly encouraged all the responsible opposition to respond affirmatively if asked to serve. The response has been mixed, but the idea that differences must be submerged is gradually taking hold.
Although we can never discard the possibility of a military coup, I believe the possibility is increasingly remote for the time being, although the coup rumors continue to flow in.
I am much less concerned this week than last about a crumbling of order and morale here in Saigon, but I live in constant fear of an unauthorized, uncoordinated action or statement from Washington that could tear the fragile fabric of confidence that is gradually being restored.
I was taught forty years ago the most dangerous activity an intelligence officer could undertake was to try to analyze the enemy’s intentions—better stick to his capabilities. But I have been watching our friends from Hanoi with a certain intensity since 1936. It is simply not in character for them to make an immediate smash at Saigon. There are both constants of their own policy and the imponderables of our reaction which they have to mull over for a while. The Patton syndrome is not a facet of their characters. Danang, Hue, Kontum, Pleiku, Nha Trang were not taken in a sudden frontal assault. They were abandoned by the GVN. And the magnitude of the territory abandoned and now occupied by Hanoi also presents digestive problems.
Although I admit the possibility that the reserve divisions now being brought into the south could be rushed south for an immediate smash at Saigon before the RVNAF can regroup and refit, I think the probability unlikely. They, perhaps better than most Western analysts, understand the magnitude of Thieu’s gamble and, despite the disastrous features of its implementation, Hanoi recognizes that it is a new ball game militarily and that they can no longer mass superior force to chew up isolated outposts one by one. As the shock wears off, the RVNAF is also beginning to realize that it is a new ball game and with the constitution of the new divisions, they will, for the first time, be able to meet the enemy in equal force. And most are rather eager for revenge—always a good motivation factor for a military force. So if we can keep the equipment and munitions coming on the scale General Weyand has recommended, the possibility exists that they are going to surprise hell out of the authors of that military analysis.
My belief is that the North Vietnamese know this. Although they will resume the pressure after taking a while to rethink the situation, there are other reasons to avoid a direct smash at Saigon. For three decades they have tried to avoid the image of naked military conquest. Until very recently—when the obvious could no longer be hidden—they never admitted the existence of North Vietnamese military units in the south. Obviously, the picture presented to the world of millions fleeing their control is not one they relish. With a city of three million, 99 percent of whom hate and fear them, there is no way they can militarily take Saigon without enormous carnage for all the world to see, although if I were running their strategy I would have already taken it, counting on the world to quickly forget as they did in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. [Page 755]They are, to a considerable extent, prisoners of their deeply ingrained training to avoid public and direct responsibility for the image they could not possibly avoid if they now smash at Saigon.
They also are uncertain about whether, in the end, we would react at some point with U.S. military force early enough to prevent their military victory over Saigon but too late to prevent enormous damage to the economic and military infrastructure they have carefully built up in the past two years. Nixon may be gone, they may as yet be unsure of President Ford, but they have deep memories that, as they say, Henry has screwed them again and again when they thought victory was at hand. American public opinion is obviously changing. Although Washington will be the last to perceive and capitalize on this, Hanoi is not unaware that the shock of their naked aggression, and the picture of the millions who voted with their feet has done much to dispel the propaganda fog of distortion the Hanoi lobby has so carefully inserted into the American conventional wisdom. You may have seen that young State Senator John W. Decamp on the Cronkite show recently. He said the attitude of his colleagues in the Nebraskan Legislature has dramatically changed. He was already determined to run for the Hruska seat in the U.S. Senate next year and he now believes there is no way his logical opponent, a Nebraska dove, can head him. After escorting some orphans home, he turned around and came back to Viet-Nam not only to help but for maximum exposure as a dedicated proponent of much more aid to Viet-Nam. He will be attending one of the Department’s foreign policy conferences in Washington soon and it would be helpful, perhaps, to the President’s program if he were invited to personally report to the President on his observations in Viet-Nam. The point is—it is now politically sexy to be for aid to a small ally under savage attack by a bloody aggressor and, according to him, the most effective line is that this must not be the first time America simply abandoned an ally who we had encouraged to fight.
Another reason I believe Hanoi will wait before launching a smash against Saigon is their estimate that either Saigon or Washington will hand them the city by sheer ineptitude. And, based on recent performances in both cities, that is perhaps the most valid argument. I must leave Washington to you.
In Saigon, however, the mood is much different from last week. The opposition politicians are beginning to realize that they have nowhere to go. Some are considering whether they should join Can’s Cabinet5 to help assure survival despite their distaste for Thieu. [Page 756]Others cannot yet quite bring themselves to this point. We are very quietly encouraging the thought and if Can does not make it, the task of the next formateur should be much easier. The other point gaining acceptance in the conventional wisdom is that any change must be constitutional and that a coup is unthinkable under today’s circumstances. The last new point gaining acceptance is that a negotiation, not for a coalition to provide a disguised takeover for Hanoi, but a negotiation to solidify the division on the present Nha Trang–Tay Ninh line would not be an unmitigated disaster if a true cease-fire and military evacuation of North Vietnamese forces to positions north of that line could be arranged. It is a bit too early for the military to accept this, but even within senior ranks, it is not treason to discuss it.
It is the above mix of factors which lead me to conclude we have time to redress the military balance, to make the case for the three year program as a matter of conscience, and to drive it home into the public consciousness that this is the only possible way we can ever get out of Viet-Nam without so eroding our position in the world that the costs will be infinitely greater than the amounts of the remaining $700 million from the original FY 75 request and two billion a year over the next three years. I say it can be done if the resources that exist in the Executive branch can be repeat can be motivated to make a real fight out of it without tiptoeing with forelock in hand to avoid offending the Congressional doves. They are now vulnerable and the first place we should begin is with the current hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Refugees. I believe a polite, but forceful presentation of our position can easily be made in a way which will enlist national support.
Now to your questions.
  • 1—Our objective should be to stabilize the current military and political situation (the latter with or without Thieu if his departure seems essential and can be managed by the Vietnamese without chaos). Then to devise a formula (the three year package if no one has a better idea) which will let us fix a definite date of departure in a way that will not destroy our credibility abroad or remain a divisive issue at home. With such an assurance to back them we might consider whether to urge the South Vietnamese, and demand, at the price of further steps on détente, that the Soviets and Chinese have Hanoi accept independence of RVN along Nha Trang–Tay Ninh line with enforceable machinery to ensure evacuation of North Vietnamese forces north of that line. For Hanoi this would be better than going back to the so-called ceasefire line of January 1973 since they constantly reiterate their devotion to the Paris Agreements.

    But the short-range objective must be survival. We should, in answer to your second question, ask the Congress for $493 million in additional economic aid for FY 1975, $140 million for the extraordinary [Page 757]costs of the refugees generated by the North Vietnamese massive invasion and $353 million for the development projects to provide the economic infrastructure which will provide the jobs to make these people quickly self-sustaining. This would bring the total economic aid for FY 1975 to $775 million.

  • 2—In military aid I support fully the recommendations of General Weyand for an additional $722 million for FY 1975 and in making it I would point out that this brings the total only to $1.422 million, only $22 million over the amount originally requested which, had it been appropriated would have avoided the whole unnecessary tragedy.

    For the three year period—FY 76 through FY 78, I believe the original figures of $2.2 billion economic aid and $4.3 billion military aid to still be valid.

  • 3—The best arguments to be made in support of our requirements for economic and military aid in terms of the current realities in Viet-Nam might well be taken from the comments of Secretary Kissinger and the President in their recent statements in California.6 We need the $722 million supplemental for this year in order to provide for the equipment needs of the ARVN and above all for the shortages in ammunition which previous deficiencies in appropriations have caused. I would argue with these it is clear that the South Vietnamese who have lost 50,000 killed, more than in our whole experience, during the two years since the cease-fire can’t possibly be said not to have the will to fight as recent combat actions after the necessary withdrawal have very clearly shown.

    On the economic aid the case for the $493 million additional aid would seem to require little justification for the $140 million earmarked for the tragic suffering the massive North Vietnamese invasion has caused. The remaining $353 million in the supplemental is to provide the economic infrastructure which will provide jobs for these and other Vietnamese. To argue that we will give “humanitarian” money for aid for refugees, but will provide nothing to give him a job to make him self-sustaining would seem to make a mockery of the word “humanitarian.” On the longer range three year program the argument should continue to be that there is simply no way the United States can discharge its moral obligation without clearly giving the Vietnamese a guarantee of specific amounts of aid over a precise amount of time within which they can make the necessary adjustments for the future. Again the Secretary’s language in his press conference at Palm Springs is an eloquent attestation of the moral responsibility.

  • 4—The minimum number of Vietnamese nationals to whom and to their families we clearly owe protection in the case of danger, numbers around 175,000. These include our local national employees, in-laws of U.S. citizens, Vietnamese employees of American concerns, including the communications media, American foundations, and voluntary agencies, religious leaders and Western educated professionals, such senior civil servants, government officials and military officers who with their families would feel their lives endangered, and the list of intelligence and other sensitive source contacts.

    To the above categories, our obligation is clear and immediate. Judging from the experience in 1954, there will be several million others who will want to leave and this is a question to which Washington must give immediate attention and decision.

  • 5—To evacuate even the lower number of Vietnamese will require either sealift or a jumbo airlift. The modalities of such an operation are extremely complex, and rely for their success on an ability to maintain ground security for the duration of the evacuation. My staff here is working on these options and coordinating with CINCPAC and other headquarters which control the military resources upon which we might eventually need to draw. As I have previously informed you I plan to have a comprehensive plan on the way to you by the end of the week.
There may be some reason why we have to throw this enormous, costly investment away at even greater future cost to the American people. But given a little imagination, ingenuity, and above all the determination to get the whole truth before the American people such reasons are not apparent to us here. We believe it can be done, but it is going to require a considerable amount of determination, a little bit of cold blooded determination that American interests can be achieved here. One of the requirements is that you keep the panic button firmly locked away.
  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Backchannel Messages, Box 3, Martin Channel, April 1975, Incoming (1). Secret; Immediate. Sent with the instruction: “Deliver immediately.”
  2. In backchannel message WH50640, April 6, Scowcroft asked Martin for an assessment of U.S. strategy in Vietnam before the NSC convened on April 9. Scowcroft also posed specific questions to the Ambassador on status of the evacuation. (Ibid., Outgoing, 1)
  3. The collaborative DIA, CIA, INR report, “Assessment of the Military Situation and Prospects for South Vietnam,” April 4, concluded: “Taking all factors into account, the only question over the defeat of the Republic of Vietnam is timing—whether it will collapse or be militarily overwhelmed in a period of weeks or months.” (Central Intelligence Agency, NIC Files, Job 79–R01142A) The CIA transmitted the report to Saigon on April 4. (Ibid., Job 80–R01720R)
  4. Thieu announced the resignation of Prime Minister Khiem and the Cabinet and his determination to resist Communist aggression on April 4. In that speech, Thieu said: “The American people as well as the American Congress must see now that they have got to do something for the people of South Viet Nam to keep from earning the label of traitors.” He added: “The United States has not been replacing military supplies and equipment on a one-for-one basis as agreed in the Paris agreement.” (Text in Chicago Tribune, April 5, 1975, pp. B1, B8)
  5. In his speech Thieu announced the appointment of Nguyen Ba Can as Prime Minister.
  6. President Ford held a news conference in San Diego on April 3; see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Gerald R. Ford, 1975, Book I, pp. 411–423. Kissinger held a news conference in Palm Springs on April 5; it was reported in The New York Times, April 6, 1975.