JCS Memorandum on the "Strategic Importance of the Southeast Mainland," 27 January 1962

Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 2, pp. 662-666

27 January 1962


The Joint Chiefs of Staff have asked that the attached memorandum, stating their views concerning the strategic importance may be required if the situation continues to deteriorate, be brought to your attention. The memorandum requires no action by you at this time. I am not prepared to endorse the experience with our present program in South Vietnam.

Robert S. McNamara

cc: Sec. Rusk

Washington 25, D.C.

13 Jan 1962


Subject: The Strategic Importance of the Southeast Asia Mainland

1. The United States has clearly stated and demonstrated that one of its unalterable objectives is the prevention of South Vietnam falling to communist aggression and the subsequent loss of the remainder of the Southeast Asian mainland. The military objective, therefore, must be to take expeditiously all actions necessary to defeat communist aggression in South Vietnam. The immediate strategic importance of Southeast Asia lies in the political value that can accrue to the Free World through a successful stand in that area. Of equal importance is the psychological impact that a firm position by the United States will have on the countries of the world-both free and communist. On the negative side, a United States political and/or military withdrawal from the Southeast Asian area would have an adverse psychological impact of even greater proportion, and one from which recovery would be both difficult and costly.

2. It must be recognized that the fall of South Vietnam to communist control would mean the eventual communist domination of all of the Southeast Asian mainland. There is little doubt that the next major target would be Thailand. Cadres are now being established in that country and "land reform" or "capitalist dictatorship" pioys may prove fertile exploitation fields for the communists. Thailand is bordered by a "pink" Burma and a vacillating Cambodia, either of which will easily fall under communist pressure. Thailand would almost certainly then seek closer accommodation with the Sino-Soviet Bloc. SEATO would probably cease to exist. The only determined opposition to a communist drive would then be Malaya and Singapore. While the people of Malaya have the will to fight and might have the backing of the United Kingdom, the country itself would be isolated and hard pressed. The communist element in Singapore is strong. Short of direct military intervention by the United States, it is questionable whether Malaya and Singapore could be prevented from eventually coming under communist domination or control.

3. Military Considerations. (The Appendix contains a more detailed appraisal of these military considerations.)

a. Early Eventualities--Loss of the Southeast Asian Mainland would have an adverse impact on our military strategy and would markedly reduce our ability in limited war by denying us air, land and sea bases, by forcing greater intelligence effort with lesser results, by complicating military lines of communication and by the introduction of more formidable enemy forces in the area. Air access and access to 5300 miles of mainland coastline would be lost to us, our Allies and neutral India would be outflanked, the last significant United Kingdom military strength in Asia would be eliminated with the loss of Singapore and Malaya and US military influence in that area, short of war, would be difficult to exert.

b. Possible Eventualities--Of equal importance to the immediate losses are the eventualities which could follow the loss of the Southeast Asian mainland. All of the Indonesian archipelago could come under the domination and control of the USSR and would become a communist base posing a threat against Australia and New Zealand. The Sino-Soviet Bloc would have control of the eastern access to the Indian Ocean. The Philippines and Japan could be pressured to assume at best, a neutralist role, thus eliminating two of our major bases of defense in the Western Pacific. Our lines of defense then would be pulled north to Korea, Okinawa and Taiwan resulting in the subsequent overtaxing of our lines of communications in a limited war. India's ability to remain neutral would be jeopardized and, as the Bloc meets success, its concurrent stepped-up activities to move into and control Africa can be expected.

4. Political Considerations. The Joint Chiefs of Staff wish to reaffirm their position that the United States must prevent the loss of South Vietnam to either communist insurgency or aggression, must prevent the communist control or domination of the Southeast Asia mainland and must extend its influence in that area in such a manner as to negate the possibility of any future communist encroachment. It is recognized that the military and political effort of Communist China in South Vietnam and the political and psychological thrust by the USSR into the Indonesian archipelago are not brushfire tactics nor merely a campaign for control of the mainland area. More important, it is part of a major campaign to extend communist control beyond the periphery of the SinoSoviet Bloc and overseas to both island and continental areas in the Free World, through a most natural and comparatively soft outlet, the Southeast Asian Peninsula. It is, in fact, a planned phase in the communist timetable for world domination. Whereas, control of Cuba has opened for the Sino-Soviet Bloc more ready access to countries of South and Central America, control of Southeast Asia will open access to the remainder of Asia and to Africa and Australia.

5. In consideration of the formidable threat to the Free World which is represented in the current actions in South Vietnam, the need for US and GVN success in that area cannot be overemphasized. In this connection, reference is made to the staff level document entitled "Summary of Suggested Courses of Action" prepared for General Taylor for reference in his mission to South Vietnam. On 21 October 1961, this document circulated comments and recommendations on 20 courses of action that could be taken in South Vietnam short of the direct utilization of US combat forces. The Joint Chiefs of Staff note that, in keeping with the President's decision that we must advise and support South Vietnam but not at this time engage unilaterally in combat, all of the courses of action recommended with few exceptions have either been implemented or authorized for implementation. In this connection, it is noted that the Vietnamese Government has specifically requested further assistance from the United States.

6. Reference is also made to the agreement made between the Government of Vietnam and the United States on 4 December 1961 wherein the Government of Vietnam agreed to take several major steps to increase its efficiency.

7. In response to President Diem's request for assistance and the agreement between the governments, men, money, materials and advice are being provided to South Vietnam. Unfortunately, our contributions are not being properly employed by the South Vietnamese Government and major portions of the agreement have either not been carried out or are being delayed by Diem.

8. For a combined US/Vietnam effort to be successful, there must be combined participation in the decision making process. To date efforts made on both the military and diplomatic level have failed to motivate Diem to agree to act forthrightly on our advice and properly utilize the resources placed at his disposal. He has been slow to accept the plans and proposals of Admiral Felt and General McGarr and he has in many instances disregarded the advice of Ambassador Nolting. The reason for Diem's negative reaction to proposals to save South Vietnam while he maintains a positive position that it must be saved may be found in CINCPAC's appraisal of his character--an uncompromising inflexibility and his doubts concerning the judgment, ability and individual loyalty of his military leaders. Recent intelligence reports of coup d'etat plotting involving senior Vietnamese military officers and the possibility that high Vietnamese officers have approached US officials tend to confirm Diem's doubts concerning the loyalty of some of his military leaders.

9. In this regard, should a successful coup overturn Diem, we might discover that many of Diem's difficult characteristics are national rather than personal. The Vietnamese are tough, tenacious, agile, proud, and extraordinarily self confident. Their recent political tradition is one of the multiplicity of parties and groups inclining toward conspiratorial and violent methods. The disappearance of a strong leader who can dampen and control these tendencies could well mean reversion to a condition of political chaos exploitable by the strongly led and well disciplined communists. If Diem goes, we can be sure of losing his strengths but we cannot be sure of remedying his weaknesses. Achievement of US objectives could be more difficult without Diem than with him. Therefore, it must be made clear to Diem that the United States is prepared and willing to bolster his regime and discourage internal factions which may seek to overthrow him.

10. In consideration of the foregoing, the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that there is an immediate requirement for making a strong approach to Diem on a Government-to-Government level. If we are to effectively assist South Vietnam, we must convince Diem that (a) there is no alternative to the establishment of a sound basis upon which both he and the United States Government can work and (b) he has an urgent requirement for advice, as well as assistance, in military, political and economic matters.

11. Accordingly, it is recommended that you propose to the President and to the Secretary of State that:

a. Upon his return to Saigon, Ambassador Nolting meet with President Diem and advise him that, since the United States considers it essential and fundamental that South Vietnam not fall to communist forces:

(1) The United States is prepared and willing to bolster his regime and discourage internal factions which may seek to overthrow him.
(2) Suitable military plans have been developed and jointly approved. Diem must permit his military commanders to implement these approved plans to defeat the Viet Cong.
(3) There must be established an adequate basis for the reception and utilization of US advice and assistance by all appropriate echelons of the GVN.
(4) There must be no further procrastination.
(5) Should it be found impossible to establish such a satisfactory basis for cooperation, the United States foresees failure of our joint efforts to save Vietnam from communist conquest.

12. Vigorous prosecution of the campaign with present and planned assets could reverse the current trend. If, with Diem's full [words missing] forces, the Viet Cong is not brought under control, the Joint Chiefs of Staff see no alternative to the introduction of US military combat forces along with those of the free Asian nations that can be persuaded to participate.

13. Three salient factors are of the greatest importance if the eventual introduction of US forces is required.

a. Any war in the Southeast Asian Mainland will be a peninsula and island-type of campaign-a mode of warfare in which all elements of the Armed Forces of the United States have gained a wealth of experience and in which we have excelled both in World War II and Korea.
b. Study of the problem clearly indicates that the communists are limited in the forces they can sustain in war in that area because of natural logistic and transportation problems.
c. Our present world military posture is such that we now have effective forces capable of implementing existing contingency plans for Southeast Asia without affecting to an unacceptable degree our capability to conduct planned operations in Europe relating to Berlin or otherwise.

14. The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that in any consideration of further action which may be required because of possible unacceptable results obtained despite Diem's full cooperation and the effective employment of South Vietnam armed forces, you again consider the recommendation provided you by JCSM320-61, dated 10 May 1961, that a decision be made to deploy US forces to South Vietnam sufficient to accomplish the following:

a. Provide a visible deterrent to potential North Vietnam and/or Chinese Communist action;
b. Release Vietnamese forces from advanced and static defense positions to permit their future commitment to counterinsurgency actions;
c. Assist in training the Vietnamese forces;
d. Provide a nucleus for the support of any additional US or SEATO military operations in Southeast Asia; and
e. Indicate the firmness of our intent to all Asian nations.

We are of the opinion that failure to do so under such circumstances will merely extend the date when such action must be taken and will make our ultimate task proportionately more difficult.

For the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

L. L. Lemnitzer
Joint Chiefs of Staff

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