Memorandum of Conversation (Diem, Thuan, Lodge, McNamara, Parkins, Flott), 29 September 1963

Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 2, pp. 749-751

Memorandum of Conversation September 29, 1963

Diem, Thuan, Lodge, McNamara, Taylor Parkins, Flott

.....The war was going well, thanks in large measure to the strategic hamlets' program. Due to that program the VC enemy was having increasing difficulties in finding food and recruits, and was being steadily forced into increasingly difficult and unrewarding tactical situations. . . . He said that the British had given the Vietnamese government valuable advice at the outset of the program based on British experience in Malaya. He said that for a variety of local reasons, his government had not followed the British advice in all instances. He recalled that the British had advised him to consolidate and hold firmly one area before extending the strategic hamlet program to another. They had also advised him to hold the arterial coastal highway and consolidate the area between it and the seacoast before trying to secure areas further inland. He noted that the British had said that the strategic hamlets' program should be limited at first to the most populus and most productive areas of the country. He remarked in this connection he had made important departures from the British plan but always for good and valid reasons. Outlining his thoughts on maps he explained that if he had disregarded even for a short time the underpopulated and comparatively unproductive highlands, these areas would have become a base for VC attacks and for a VC drive to the sea to cut the highway and split the Republic. He acknowledged their strategic hamlets' program was overextended and that in some areas the VC could attack and overwhelm the poorly garrisoned strategic hamlets. He said that he realized some strategic hamlets were set up before the defense personnel were properly trained or armed, but that on balance both the risks and the losses were acceptable. For example, he said he could push ahead rapidly with the establishment of ten sub-standard strategic hamlets. The VC could attack these and overwhelm, say, two of them, but if two fell eight others would survive and grow stronger. And the area within which the VC could operate with impunity would shrink faster than otherwise would have been the case.

Another reason he gave for making departures from the British plan was that by so doing he could put isolated, strategic hamlets into key crossroads and junction points and force on the VC considerable detours in their supply routes. He said he had taken a calculated risk of opening highways for the areas through which they passed were absolutely secure. He said on the whole he was satisfied with this gamble and that thanks to his willingness to make departures from the plan and accept risks the war effort was further along.

....He noted the elections held a few days before had been a great success. Many more people voted than ever before, thanks in part to the fact that there were about fifty percent more ballot boxes than at the time of the last election. Communists efforts to disrupt the voting had been a failure, partly as a result of several security operations in which all three security services participated. Again, the vast extension of the strategic hamlets' program made it easier and safer for people to vote than in past years, and he was touched at the interest that even the simplest peasants in exercising their suffrage and participating in the democratic process. In spite of the improve security situation at least two people were killed by VC because they voted, and he showed this loss deeply and personally. The discussion groups in the strategic hamlets had further increased people's interest in government and voting. (Ambassador's comment: This contrasts with well-founded observations. The truck loads of soldiers were carted around in trucks so that they could vote several times in one day.) . . . Diem noted that while the total number of VC had declined in the past year, the number of relatively large units, companies and battalions engaged had risen. He explained this was because of the success of the strategic hamlet's program. In the past the VC could get what they wanted from the village-food and recruits-with a mere handful of men. Now they were increasingly forced to mount a company scale attack to get into the village. Furthermore, since the whole rural environment had become much more actively hostile to the VC, they were forced to group in larger units to survive. These larger units, of course, offered better targets to the government forces. The fact that there was a greater use of large units by the VC is one more indication of how well the war was going for the government. It was one more indication that the VC found themselves more and more in a position of being like a foreign expeditionary corps rather than as a force that could exist and move in the population like a fish in the sea.....

Secretary McNamara said he was concerned over a number of things: that while the progress of the war was reasonably satisfactory, he was concerned over a number of things. There was the political unrest in Saigon and the evident inability of the government to provide itself with a broad political base. There was the disturbing probability that the war effort would then be damaged by the government's political deficiencies and the attendant loss of popularity. The recent wave of repressions have alarmed public opinion both in Vietnam and in the United States. . . . The Secretary warned Diem that public opinion in the U.S. seriously questioned the wisdom or necessity of the U.S. government's aiding a government that was so unpopular at home, and it seemed increasingly unlikely to forge the kind of national union or purpose that could bring the war to an early and victorious conclusion.

(Comment: Diem offered absolutely no assurances that he would take any steps in responses to the representations made to American visitors. In fact, he said nothing to indicate or acknowledge that he had received even friendly advice. His manner was one of at least outward serenity and of a man who had patiently explained a great deal and who hoped he had thus corrected a number of misapprehensions.)

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