Briefing by Ambassador Taylor on the Current Situation in South Vietnam, 27 November 1964

Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 3, pp. 666-673

Taylor briefing 27 Nov 64

Subject: The Current Situation in South Vietnam-November 1964

After a year of changing and ineffective government, the counter-insurgency program country-wide is bogged down and will require heroic treatment to as-
sure revival. Even in the Saigon area, in spite of the planning and the special treatment accorded the Hop Tac plan, this area also is lagging. The northern provinces of South Vietnam which a year ago were considered almost free of Viet Cong are now in deep trouble. In the Quang Ngai-Binh Dinh area, the gains of the Viet Cong have been so serious that once more we are threatened with a partition of the country by a Viet-Cong salient driven to the sea. The pressure on this area has been accompanied by continuous sabotage of the railroad and of Highway 1 which in combination threaten an economic strangulation of the northern provinces.

This deterioration of the pacification program has taken place in spite of the very heavy losses inflicted almost daily on the Viet-Cong and the increase in strength and professional competence of the Armed Forces of South Vietnam. Not only have the Vietcong apparently made good their losses, but of late, have demonstrated three new or newly expanded tactics: The use of stand-off mortar fire against important targets, as in the attack on the Bien Hoa airfield; economic strangulation on limited areas; finally, the stepped-up infiltration of DRV military personnel moving from the north. These new or improved tactics employed against the background of general deterioration offer a serious threat to the pacification program in general and to the safety of important bases and installations in particular.

Perhaps more serious than the downward trend in the pacification situation, because it is the prime cause, is the continued weakness of the central government. Although the Huong government has been installed after executing faithfully and successfully the program laid out by the Khanh government for its own replacement, the chances for the long life and effective performance of the new line-up appear small. Indeed, in view of the factionalism existing in Saigon and elsewhere throughout the country, it is impossible to foresee a stable and effective government under any name in anything like the near future. Nonetheless, we do draw some encouragement from the character and seriousness of purpose of Prime Minister Huong and his cabinet and the apparent intention of General Khanh to keep the Army out of politics, at least for the time being.

As our programs plod along or mark time, we sense the mounting feeling of war weariness and hopelessness which pervade South Vietnam, particularly in the urban areas. Although the provinces for the most part appear steadfast, undoubtedly there is chronic discouragement there as well as in the cities. Although the military leaders have not talked recently with much conviction about the need for "marching North," assuredly, many of them are convinced that some new and drastic action must be taken to reverse the present trends and to offer hope of ending the insurgency in some finite time.

The causes for the present unsatisfactory situation are not hard to find. It stems from two primary causes, both already mentioned above, the continued ineffectiveness of the central government, the increasing strength and effectiveness of the Vietcong and their ability to replace losses.

While in view of the historical record of South Vietnam, it is not surprising to have these governmental difficulties, this chronic weakness is a critical liability to future plans. Without an effective central government with which to mesh the US effort, the latter is a spinning wheel unable to transmit impulsion to the machinery of the GVN. While the most critical governmental weaknesses are in Saigon, they are duplicated to a degree in the provinces. It is most difficult to find adequate provincial chiefs and supporting administrative personnel to carry forward the complex programs which are required in the field for successful pacification. It is true that when one regards the limited background of the provincial chiefs and their associates, one should perhaps be surprised by the results which they have accomplished, but unfortunately, these results are generally not adequate for the complex task at hand or for the time schedule which we would like to establish.

As the past history of this country shows, there seems to be a national attribute which makes for factionalism and limits the development of a truly national spirit. Whether this tendency is innate or a development growing out of the conditions of political suppression under which successive generations have lived is hard to determine. But it is an inescapable fact that there is no national tendency toward team play or mutual loyalty to be found among many of the leaders and political groups within South Vietnam. Given time, many of these conditions will undoubtedly change for the better, but we are unfortunately pressed for time and unhappily perceive no short-term solution for the establishment of stable and sound government.

The ability of the Vietcong continuously to rebuild their units and to make good their losses is one of the mysteries of this guerrilla war. We are aware of the recruiting methods by which local boys are induced or compelled to join the Viet Cong ranks and have some general appreciation of the amount of infiltration of personnel from the outside. Yet taking both of these sources into account, we still find no plausible explanation of the continued strength of the Vietcong if our data on Viet Cong losses are even approximately correct. Not only do the Viet Cong units have the recuperative powers of the phoenix, but they have an amazing ability to maintain morale. Only in rare cases have we found evidences of bad morale among Viet Cong prisoners or recorded in captured Viet Cong documents.

Undoubtedly one cause for the growing strength of the VietCong is the increased direction and support of their campaign by the government of North Vietnam. This direction and support take the form of endless radioed orders and instructions, and the continuous dispatch to South Vietnam of trained cadre and military equipment, over infiltration routes by land and by water. While in the aggregate, this contribution to the guerrilla campaign over the years must represent a serious drain on the resources of the DRV, that government shows no sign of relaxing its support of the Viet Cong. In fact, the evidence points to an increased contribution over the last year, a plausible development, since one would expect the DRV to press hard to exploit the obvious internal weaknesses in the south.

If, as the evidence shows, we are playing a losing game in South Vietnam, it is high time we change and find a better way. To change the situation, it is quite clear that we need to do three things: first, establish an adequate government in SVN; second, improve the conduct of the counter insurgency campaign; and, finally, persuade or force the DRV to stop its aid to the Viet Cong and to use its directive powers to make the Viet Cong desist from their efforts to overthrow the government of South Vietnam.

With regard to the first objective, it is hard to decide what is the minimum government which is necessary to permit reasonable hope for the success of our efforts. We would certainly like to have a government which is capable of maintaining law and order, of making and executing timely decisions, of carrying out approved programs, and generally of leading its people and gearing its efforts effectively with those of the United States.

As indicated above, however, it seems highly unlikely that we will see such a government of South Vietnam in the time frame available to us to reverse the downward trend of events. It seems quite probable that we will be obliged to settle for something considerably less.

However, it is hard to visualize our being willing to make added outlays of resources and to run increasing political risks without an allied government which, at least, can speak for and to its people, can maintain law and order in the principal cities, can provide local protection for the vital military bases and installations, can raise and support Armed Forces, and can gear its efforts to those of the United States. Anything less than this would hardly be a government at all, and under such circumstances, the United States Government might do better to carry forward the war on a purely unilateral basis.

The objective of an improved counter insurgency program will depend for its feasibility upon the capacity of the South Vietnamese government. We cannot do much better than what we are doing at present until the government improves. However, we need to have our plans and means organized on the assumption that some improvement will occur and will permit intensified efforts toward the pacification of the country.

In any case, we feel sure that even after establishing some reasonably satisfactory government and effecting some improvement in the counterinsurgency program, we will not succeed in the end unless we drive the DRV out of its reinforcing role and obtain its cooperation in bringing an end to the Viet Cong insurgency.

To attain these three objectives, we must consider what are the possible courses of action which are open to us. To improve the government we will, of course, continue to aid, advise and encourage it much as we are doing at the present time. We will try to restrain, insofar as we can, the minority groups bent upon its overthrow. We will indicate clearly the desire of the United States Government to see an end to the succession of weak and transitory governments and we will throw all of our influence on the side of stabilizing programs both for organizations and for personnel.

As these efforts in themselves will probably be inadequate, we should also consider ways and means to raise the morale and restore the confidence both of the government and of the South Vietnamese people. One way to accomplish this lift of morale would be to increase the covert operations against North Vietnam by sea and air and the counter-infiltration attacks within the Laotian corridor. While the former would be covert in the sense of being disavowed, nonetheless the knowledge of their occurrence could be made known in such a way as to give the morale lift which is desired. Additionally, we could engage in reprisal bombings, to repay outrageous acts of the Vietcong in South Vietnam, such as the attack on Bien Hoa.

All these actions, however, may not be sufficient to hold the present government upright. If it fails, we are going to be in deep trouble, with limited resources for subsequent actions. It is true that we could try again with another civilian government but the odds against it would be even higher than those which have confronted the Huong government. We might try in a second civilian government to take over operational control by US officials if indeed the GVN would agree to this change. However, there are more objections to this form of US intervention than there are arguments in favor of it. Another alternative would be to invite back a military dictatorship on the model of that headed of late by General Khanh. However, Khanh did very poorly when he was on the spot and we have little reason to believe that a successor military government could be more effective. Finally, we always have the option of withdrawing, leaving the internal situation to the Vietnamese, and limiting our contribution to military action directed at North Vietnam. Such action, while assuring that North Vietnam would pay a price for its misdeeds in the South, would probably not save South Vietnam from eventual loss to the Viet Cong.

There is little to say about the ways and means of intensifying the in-country counterinsurgency program except to recognize again that this program depends entirely upon the government. If we can solve the governmental problem, we can improve the in-country program.

In bringing military pressure to bear on North Vietnam, there are a number of variations which are possible. At the bottom of the ladder of escalation, we have the initiation of intensified covert operations, anti-infiltration attacks in Laos, and reprisal bombings mentioned above as a means for stiffening South Vietnamese morale. From this level of operations, we could begin to escalate progressively by attacking appropriate targets in North Vietnam. If we justified our action primarily upon the need to reduce infiltration, it would be natural to direct these attacks on infiltration-related targets such as staging areas, training facilities, communications centers and the like. The tempo and weight of the attacks could be varied according to the effects sought. In its final forms, this kind of attack could extend to the destruction of all important fixed targets in North Vietnam and to the interdiction of movement on all lines of communication.

Before making a final decision on any of the courses of action, it will be necessary to have a heart-to-heart talk with Prime Minister Huong and General Khanh to find out their reaction to the alternatives which we are considering. They will be taking on risks as great or greater than ours so that they have a right to a serious hearing. We should make every effort to get them to ask our help in expanding the war. If they decline, we shall have to rethink the whole situation. If, as is likely, they urge us with enthusiasm, we should take advantage of the opportunity to nail down certain important points such as:

a. The GVN undertakes (1) to maintain the strength of its military and police forces; (2) to replace incompetent military commanders and province chiefs and to leave the competent ones in place for an indefinite period; (3) to suppress disorders and demonstrations; (4) to establish effective resources control; and (5) to obtain US concurrence for all military operations outside of South Vietnam.

b. The US undertakes responsibility for the air and maritime defense of South Vietnam.

c. The GVN takes responsibility for the land defense of South Vietnam to include the protection of all US nationals and installations.

d. The GVN accepts the US statement (to be prepared) of war aims and circumstances for negotiations.

Shortly after initiating an escalation program it will be important to communicate with the DRV and the CHICOMS to establish certain essential points in the minds of their leaders. The first is that under no circumstances will the United States let the DRV go unscathed and reap the benefits of its nefarious actions in South Vietnam without paying a heavy price. Furthermore, we will not accept any statement from the DRV to the effect that it is not responsible for the Viet Cong insurgency and that it cannot control the Viet Cong actions. We know better and will act accordingly. However, the enemy should know that the United States objectives are limited. We are not seeking to unify North and South Vietnam; we are seeking no permanent military presence in Southeast Asia. But on the other hand, we do insist that the DRV let its neighbors, South Vietnam and Laos, strictly alone.

Furthermore, we are not trying to change the nature of the government in Hanoi. If the North Vietnamese prefer a Communist government, that is their choice to make. If the DRV remain aloof from the CHICOMS in a Tito-like state, we would not be adverse to aiding such a government provided it conducted itself decently with its neighbors.

But with all, we are tired of standing by and seeing the unabashed efforts of the DRV to absorb South Vietnam into the Communist orbit against its will. We know that Hanoi is responsible and that we are going to punish it until it desists from this behavior.

Just how and when such a communication should be transmitted should be a subject of careful study. But, some such transmission is required to assure that the Communists in the North know exactly what is taking place and will continue to take place.

We can be reasonably sure that the DRV, and Viet Cong will not take such offensive actions on our part without a reaction. Already the Viet Cong, assisted from Hanoi, are doing many things to hamper and harass the central and local governments of South Vietnam, to encourage minorities to resist Saigon and to foster the spirit of neutralism and defeatism everywhere. They are quite capable of intensifying such actions, of raising the level of harassments of people and officials, of mounting mortar attacks on the model of Bien Hoa, and of continuing to try to effect the economic strangulation of many areas within South Vietnam.

There are several courses of action which they could adopt which are presently not on their program. They can call for international intervention to force us to desist from our pressures. They can engage in limited air and ground attacks in South Vietnam using formed units of the armies of North Vietnam and perhaps volunteers from Red China. It is quite likely that they will invite some CHICOM military forces into the DRV if only to reinforce its air defense. Furthermore, they have some limited seaborne capability for raids against the South Vietnamese coast.

If their counter actions failed and our pressures became unbearable, the DRV might feign submission and undertake to lie low for a time. They would probably, however, insist that they do not have the capability of compelling the Viet Cong to lay down their arms and become law-abiding citizens. Any temporary reduction of their support of the Viet Cong could, of course, be resumed at any time after the United States had been cajoled into leaving the scene of action.

In view of the foregoing considerations, we reach the point where a decision must be taken as to what course or courses of action we should undertake to change the tide which is running against us. It seems perfectly clear that we must work to the maximum to make something out of the present Huong government or any successor thereto. While doing so, we must be thinking constantly of what we would do if our efforts are unsuccessful and the government collapses. Concurrently, we should stay on the present in-country program, intensifying it as possible in proportion to the current capabilities of the government. To bolster the local morale and restrain the Viet Cong during this period, we should step up the 34-A operations, engage in bombing attacks and armed recce in the Laotion corridor and undertake reprisal bombing as required. It will be important that United States forces take part in the Laotian operations in order to demonstrate to South Vietnam our willingness to share in the risks of attacking the North.

If this course of action is inadequate, and the government falls, then we must start over again or try a new approach. At this moment, it is premature to say exactly what these new measures should be. In any case, we should be prepared for emergency military action against the North if only to shore up a collapsing situation.

If, on the other hand as we hope, the government maintains and proves itself, then we should be prepared to embark on a methodical program of mounting air attacks in order to accomplish our pressure objectives vis-a-vis the DRV and at the same time do our best to improve in-country pacification program. We will leave negotiation initiatives to Hanoi. Throughout this period, our guard must be up in the Western Pacific, ready for any reaction by the DRV or of Red China. Annex I suggests the train of events which we might set in motion.

Whatever the course of events, we should adhere to three principles:

a. Do not enter into negotiations until the DRV is hurting.
b. Never let the DRV gain a victory in South Vietnam without having paid a disproportionate price.
c. Keep the GVN in the forefront of the combat and the negotiations.

Maxwell D. Taylor



(The following suggests a sequence of events without at this time attempting to establish precise time intervals. It assumes that 34-A operations and corridor strikes including armed reconnaissance in Laos have been continuing for some period prior to initiating scenario. It also assumes that background briefing on infiltration has been given in both Saigon and Washington.)

1. Definitive discussions with GVN to obtain firm GVN request for joint action against DRV and to reach agreement on the framework of demands to be made on the DRV as well as on general negotiating procedures. (See 15 below)

2. Initiate discussions with Thai Government.

3. Initiate discussions with other selected friendly governments.

4. Quietly initiate necessary preparatory military moves that have thus far not been taken. (Preparatory military moves should have included or include stationing of Hawk battalion and F-lOS's at Danang, a MEB afloat off Danang and the alerting of the 173rd ABG).

5. Initiate discussions with RLG.

6. Cease travel to Vietnam of additional dependents, but take no action to evacuate dependents already in Vietnam pending further developments.

7. An appropriate intermediary tells Hanoi nothing has been heard from the US; he is concerned over the situation; and does Hanoi have anything to pass on to the US?

8. Yankee Team strikes Route Seven targets in Laos.

9. RLAF attack on DRV side of Mua Gia Pass with US air CAP.

10. A single VNAF air strike against an infiltration target in DRV just north of DMZ.

11. A significant MAROP supported by US air cover.

12. GVN-US air strike on an infiltration target just north of DMZ.

13. Continue limited military actions in the foregoing categories sequentially with not more than a few days gap between each, while being prepared promptly to make higher level responses to attacks from MIGs or V-C spectaculars in SVN.

14. Throughout the foregoing, in absence of public statements by DRV, initiate no public statement or publicity by ourselves or GVN. If DRV does make public statements, confine ourselves and GVN to statements that GVN is exercising right of self-defense and we are assisting.

15. In light of developments, disclose to selected allies, and possibly USSR, US/GVN terms for cessation of attacks as follows: (It will be important to assure that one of these channels undertakes accurately and fully to communicate these terms to both Hanoi and Peking)

A. Demands:

1. DRV return to strict observance of 1954 Accords with respect to SVN-that is, stop infiltration and bring about a cessation of VC armed insurgency. (Query--should demand include DRV observance of 1962 accords with respect to Laos and how should such demand be framed so as to give ICC Laos effective role in monitoring infiltration through Laos?)

B. In return:

1. US will return to 1954 Accords with respect to military personnel in GVN and GVN would be willing to enter into trade talks looking toward normalization of economic relations between DRV and GVN.

2. Subject to faithful compliance by DRV with 1954 Accords, US and GVN would give assurances that they would not use force or support the use of force by any other party to upset the Accords with respect to the DRV.

3. Within the framework of the 1954 Accords, the GVN would permit VC desiring to do so to return to the DRV without their arms or would grant amnesty to those peacefully laying down their arms and desiring to remain in SVN.

C. If and when Hanoi indicates its acceptance of foregoing conditions, careful considerations must be given to immediate subsequent procedures which will avoid dangers of (a) becoming involved in a cease fire vis-a-vis the DRV and/or the VC accompanied by strung-out negotiations; (b) making conditions so stringent as to be unworkable from practical point of view. Probably best procedure would be to have the GVN and DRV meet in the DMZ under ICC auspices with US observers to reach agreement on mechanics of carrying out understanding while action against the VC and DRV continues, at least in principle.

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