NSC Working Group on Vietnam, "Section I: Intelligence Assessment: The Situation in Vietnam," 24 November 1964

Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 3, pp. 651-656

24 November 1964



* Note: The judgments of this Section are based as closely as possible on existing National Estimates: SNIE 53-2-64, "The Situation in South Vietnam," dated 1 October 1964; SNIE 10-3-64, "Probable Communist Reactions to Certain Possible US/GVN Courses of Action," dated 9 October 1964; and SNIE 50-2-64, "Probable Consequences of Certain US Actions with Respect to Vietnam and Laos," dated 25 May 1964.


1. As compared with sharply accelerated political deterioration last August, adverse political trends appear at least to have slowed. There has been no repetition of the flurry of riots and demonstrations of serious proportions, or of labor strikes, armed revolts, urban lawlessness, and coup plotting that seemed to be bringing South Vietnam close to the brink of internal chaos and disintegration, although pressures and open criticism have already appeared from various sectors in response to the new civilian government. The outlook for the government is still uncertain. Its success so far in avoiding open mass opposition is encouraging, but even if the government can avoid a direct public confrontation, the lack of positive support from various key segments of the populace seems certain to hamper its effectiveness. The generally strong stand of Huong so far, however, may make his government more viable than his critics now predict. Finally, although General Khanh has given up his position as Prime Minister, his power position does not appear to have been weakened as a result of the civilian cabinet and indeed may have improved somewhat.

2. The political situation, nonetheless, remains critical and extremely fragile. Direction and a sense of purpose are still lacking. Administration in both Saigon and the provinces remains seriously plagued by confusion, apathy, and poor morale. A cohesive leadership or even a modus operandi between the various power forces has not been established. The present government is composed primarily of technicians and has about it a caretaker aura. Basic differences have not been resolved and, despite the restraint exhibited in recent weeks, open conflict could emerge at any moment.

3. The military leadership remains factionalized, and even the extent of Khanh's support among these factions is uncertain. Khanh and some of his military colleagues, while supporting the new government, have made it clear that they intend to remain the real power in South Vietnam and that they will not countenance any interference from the civilians in the conduct of the war.

The Security Situation

4. The security situation in the countryside has continued to deteriorate. The Viet Cong retain the initiative and are applying increasing pressure on a nationwide scale, from the northern coastal lowlands to the Camau peninsula. They have improved their firepower and capabilities for large operations and have demonstrated increased daring and improved coordination and planning in their attacks, ambushes, and sabotage. They have strengthened their armed forces and military organization, in part from increased infiltration, particularly in the northern provinces. Finally, Viet Cong control is spreading over areas heretofore controlled by the government, and the insurgent military presence is now closer than ever before to an increasing number of urban centers, major installations, and transportation lines.

5. By and large, government military operations continue to be reactions to Viet Cong initiatives and the government has not been able to disrupt the overall Viet Cong effort. The total number of military operations making contact with the Viet Cong remains small. The GVN does seem presently capable of curbing or repelling major military initiatives on the part of the VC. Furthermore, there are recurrent instances of encouraging initiative and success on the part of individual GVN units. Meanwhile, however, political stresses, factionalism and power struggles within the military leadership, and numerous military command changes have adversely affected military morale and organization. South Vietnamese field commanders are finding it increasingly difficult to engender wholehearted interest in military matters and pacification operations. The pacification effort itself, limited in scope and effectiveness over the past months, is now showing a noticeable slackening of momentum in many areas. The Embassy has noted in a recent assessment that the deleterious effects of political turmoil, administrative and military disruptions, and growing Viet Cong capabilities have been greater than heretofore appeared.

Present Prospects, Assuming No Major Changes in US Policies

6. Arrest or reversal of the deteriorating military trend will in part depend on the ability of the new government to hold together, gain a base of popular support, and energize the administration. It is too early to assess the prospect that the present untested leadership can achieve these goals.

7. It is possible that the new government can improve GVN esprit and effectiveness, though on the basis of present indications this appears unlikely. It is also possible that GVN determination and authority could virtually give way suddenly in the near future, in response to VC pressures or South Vietnamese defeatism, though the chances seem better than even that the new GVN can hang on for the near future and thus afford a platform upon which its armed forces can, with US assistance, prosecute the war and attempt to turn the tide. Success in this effort requires that, at least, the Saigon Government not be so unstable and inept as to increase the difficulties of the counterinsurgency campaign in the countryside. Even under the best of circumstances, however, reversal of present military trends will be extremely difficult. Moreover, given the extent of Viet Cong capabilities and control of the countryside, failure to reverse existing military trends within the next few months will increasingly reduce the prospects for survival of the present or any successor anti-Communist government.


8. Lasting success in South Vietnam depends upon a substantial improvement in the energy and effectiveness of the RVN government and pacification machinery. The nature of the war in Vietnam is such that US ability to compel the DRV to end or reduce the VC insurrection rests essentially upon the effect of US sanctions on the will of DRV leadership to sustain and enlarge that insurrection, and to a lesser extent upon the effect of sanctions on the capabilities of the DRV to do so.

a. The basic elements of Communist strength in South Vietnam remain indigenous: South Vietnamese grievances, war-weariness, defeatism, and political disarray; VC terror, arms capture, disciplined organization, highly developed intelligence systems, and ability to recruit locally; and the fact that the VC enjoys some status as a nationalist movement. The high VC morale is sustained by successes to date and by the receipt of outside guidance and support.
b. The DRV contribution is substantial. The DRV manages the VC insurrection. It gives it general tactical direction, maintaining a steady flow of communications between Hanoi and senior VC echelons. It exercises similar control over the political/propaganda activities of the "National Liberation Front." It provides the VC senior officers, key cadre, military specialists and certain key military and communications equipment. The tactical direction of VC efforts is in effect provided by Vietnamese who are North Vietnamese officers on a detached duty. Consequently, we believe that any orders from Hanoi--to step up or to desist from further military action--would in large measure be obeyed by Communist forces in South Vietnam.
c. The DRV contribution may now be growing. There appears to be a rising rate of infiltration, providing additional DRV stiffening to VC units. This may be reflected in a raised level of VC aggressiveness and in further VC exploitation of political disarray in the cities.
d. US-inflicted destruction in North Vietnam and Laos would reduce these supporting increments and damage DRV/VC morale. It might give the GVN/ ARVN a breathing spell and opportunity to improve. However, it would almost certainly not destroy DRV capability to continue supporting the insurrection in the South, although at a lessened level, should Hanoi so wish. Much would depend on whether any DRV "removal" of its direction and support of the VC were superficial or whole. If the latter situation obtained, the South Vietnamese could in time probably develop enough military and political dynamism themselves to reduce the VC threat to manageable proportions--assuming the DRV did not thereafter attempt once more to subvert their country. If any DRV "removal" were superficial or permitted to become so, however, limited to gestures to compliance that removed only the more visible evidences of the DRV increment, it would probably not be possible to develop sufficient GVN/ARVN capability-and, most importantly, will-to establish and maintain a viable and free government in South Vietnam.

9. DRV POLICY and the DRV View of the Situation in South Vietnam

a. The Communist leaders in Hanoi undoubtedly feel that present trends in South Vietnam are much in their favor. They anticipate that a political vacuum is forming which they can probably soon fill with a "neutralist" coalition eventually designed [words missingi Communist elements. They see . . . [words missing] . . . become more favorable to them as soon as South Vietnam slips a bit more; in the meantime their major concern in Laos is to keep the corridor and the areas bordering North Vietnam and China in Communist hands.
b. The North Vietnamese regime (DRV) is intensely committed to the final aim of bringing South Vietnam under its control, an outcome which for Hanoi's leaders would mark the completion of their revolution. In pursuing its ends in South Vietnam the DRV has been patient, careful to avoid the costs and risks of direct involvement. Both Hanoi and Peiping are almost certainly anxious not to become involved in the kind of war in which the great weight of superior US weaponry might be brought to bear against them, and they almost certainly feel--under present circumstances at least--that they will not have to initiate actions carrying great risk of such US response in order to win the day in time.
c. The recent mortar attack on US equipment and personnel at Bien Hoa airfield may indicate a willingness to take somewhat greater risk of increased US counteraction. In any case, it is obvious that DRV leaders had decided that the humiliation to the US, the damage to RVN morale, and the boost to the morale of their own forces justified running such risks as they estimated were entailed.
d. The DRV leaders probably believe that victory may be near through a collapse of anti-Communist government in South Vietnam. They probably feel that the GVN's will to continue the fight is waning, that the South Vietnamese are uncertain of the extent of future US support, and that blows such as that at Bien Hoa can further this doubt and perhaps critically depress South Vietnamese will to resist. To this extent the DRV,/VC operations may be entering a new stage involving carefully selected blows against US units. It is not likely however, that Hanoi believes the time has arrived for launching upon General Giap's "third stage"-engagement of the ARVN in conventional (i.e., non-guerrilla) warfare. Indeed, as a means of averting heavier US involvement in Indochina, Hanoi may soon opt to make a serious call for negotiations, perhaps using the vehicle of Sihanouk's repeated demands for an international conference to guarantee Cambodia's neutral status.

10. Hanoi's comprehension of US intentions.

a. The course of actions the Communists have pursued in South Vietnam over the past few years implies a fundamental estimate on their part that the difficulties facing the US are so great that US will and ability to maintain resistance in that area can be gradually eroded-without running high risks that the US would wreak heavy destruction on the DRV or Communist China. Hanoi's immediate estimate is probably that the passing of the US election gives Washington the opportunity to take new military actions against the DRV and/or new diplomatic initiatives.
b. Initiation of new levels of military pressure against the DRV with the declared aim of getting Hanoi to stop its support of the VC in the South and the PL in Laos would confront Hanoi's leaders with a basic question. Is the US determined to continue escalating its pressures to achieve its announced objectives regardless of the danger of war with Communist China and regardless of the international pressures that could be brought to bear against it, or is the US escalation essentially a limited attempt to improve the US negotiating position? They would also have to decide whether US aims were indeed limited. Their decision on these questions would be affected by the US military posture in the area, by the extent and nature of the US escalation, the character of the US communication of its intentions, and their reading of domestic US and international reactions to the inauguration of US attacks on the North. In any event, comprehension of the other's intentions would almost certainly be difficult on both sides, and especially so as the scale of hostilities mounted.
l0c. (removed) (JCS criticism)

11. DRV ability and willingness to sustain damage. We have many indications that the Hanoi leadership is acutely and nervously aware of the extent to which North Vietnam's transportation system and industrial plant is vulnerable to attack. On the other hand, North Vietnam's economy is overwhelmingly agricultural and, to a large extent, decentralized in a myriad of more or less economically self-sufficient villages. Interdiction of imports and extensive destruction of transportation facilities and industrial plants would cripple DRV industry. These actions would also seriously restrict DRV military capabilities, and would degrade, though to a lesser extent, Hanoi's capabilities to support guerrilla warfare in South Vietnam and Laos. We do not believe that such actions would have a crucial effect on the daily lives of the overwhelming majority of the North Vietnamese population. We do not believe that attacks on industrial targets would so greatly exacerbate current economic difficulties as to create unmanageable control problems. It is reasonable to infer that the DRV leaders have a psychological investment in the work of reconstruction they have accomplished over the last decade. Nevertheless, they would probably be willing to suffer some damage to the country in the course of a test of wills with the US over the course of events in South Vietnam.

12. DRV appraisal of the value and hazards of Chinese Communist rescue. Strong US pressures on North Vietnam would pose painful questions for the DRV leadership and doubtless occasion sharp debates within the upper echelons of the hierarchy. We believe, however, that Hanoi would refrain as long as possible from requesting such Chinese assistance as might endanger DRV independence: for example, large-scale ground force "volunteer" intervention. This hesitancy would of course be overcome if DRV leaders considered the existence of their regime to be at stake.

13. DRV judgment of the weight to attach to world pressure against the US. Hanoi probably believes that considerable international pressure would develop against a US policy of expanding the war to the North and that this might impel the US to relax its attacks and bring the US to an international conference on Vietnam. With both open and covert USSR and Communist Chinese propaganda and political action support, Hanoi would endeavor to intensify such free world sentiments-probably overestimating their impact on the US. Hanoi would probably be confident that in any case--while this game was being played or while an international conference was being held--the VC and Pathet Lao could continue to undermine non-Communist authority in South Vietnam and Laos.


14. Although there is little evidence on the matter, we believe that close cooperation exists between Hanoi and Peiping and that Hanoi consults Peiping on major decisions regarding South Vietnam. Peiping clearly supports Hanoi's decision to maintain pressure in the South even at the risk of US attacks on North Vietnam. Pieping's interests in undermining the US position in Asia is well served by Hanoi and the Viet Cong. Preoccupation with the security of their frontiers also has been a factor behind the Chinese leaders' announcement of their readiness to assist in North Vietnam's defense, despite their evident desire to avoid provoking a direct clash with the US. The Sino-Soviet relationship provides added incentive for Peiping to honor its commitments to Hanoi. Despite any current efforts to modify the polemics, the Chinese Communists still will feel compelled to demonstrate their readiness to support "wars of natural liberation," particularly in the case of Vietnam.

15. Short of large-scale introduction of ground forces, Chinese Communist capabilities to augment DRV offensive and defensive capabilities are slight, certainly as compared with US forces at hand. Peiping could provide the DRV some air defense equipment. It could send additional jet fighters and naval patrol craft in limited numbers, though at some cost to its own defensive posture. Recent Chinese Communist deployments into South China indicate that improvements are being made in their defense posture which would also strengthen their offensive capabilities.


16. In the wake of Khrushchev's ouster there are some tenuous indications that Khrushchev's successors may intend to pursue a somewhat more active policy in Indochina. Nevertheless, Moscow's role in Vietnam is likely to remain a relatively minor one. In general the Soviets remain committed to a Communist government in the North and continuing efforts to undermine South Vietnam, but they are unwilling to run substantial risks to bring it about. Soviet influence in North Vietnam is based upon Moscow's ability to provide strategic nuclear protection and upon the North Vietnamese desire for continuing Soviet military and economic aid. Moscow's ability to influence decisions in Hanoi tends consequently to be proportiona' to the North Vietnamese regime's fears of American action against it, rising in moments of crisis and diminishing in quieter periods. Moscow's willingness to give . . . seems to be in inverse proportion . . . to North Vietnamese. . .

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