1965 Why Vietnam?


As part of Washington Babylon’s release of Doug Valentine’s Life and Times of a South Vietnamese Special Police Officer we are going to feature content from worldwide archives that recall one of the most painful episodes of recent American and Asian history. This was a documentary produced by the Department of Defense.

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The following is excerpted from the Pentagon Papers:

The story of the Phase II build-up begins near the end of the chain of events which led to the decision, announced on 28 July 1965, on a Phase I build-up to 44 Free World battalions. Sparked by the news that the Viet Cong were building up their strength, that ARVN was doing badly on the battlefield, and that the President desired “that we find more dramatic and effective actions in South Vietnam,” Secretary of Defense McNamara prepared to decide what forces would be necessary to achieve the goals of the United States in Vietnam. The history of the decision on the size and composition of the forces to be deployed during the time remaining in 1965, termed Phase I forces, is the subject of another study in this series. However, there were some events and decisions taken in this period which were to influence the decisions on Phase II forces. While Secretary McNamara was preparing for his 16-20 July trip to Saigon to discuss the build-up of American forces in Vietnam, he asked General Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for an assessment of “the assurance the U.S. can have of winning in South Vietnam if we do everything we can.” The results of the study, which General Wheeler directed to be prepared by an ad hoc study group with representation from the Office of the Chairman, the Chairman’s Special Studies Group, DIA, J-3, and the Joint War Games Agency, were given to Secretary McNamara on 14 July. The study group’s assessment was a conditional affirmative. “Within the bounds of reasonable assumptions . . . there appears to be no reason we cannot win if such is our will–and if that will is manifested in strategy and tactical operations.”

At the same time, Secretary McNamara asked Assistant Secretary McNaughton to work with the study group to suggest some of the questions that occurred to him. McNaughton’s memorandum to General Goodpaster is included in full.

Assistant to the Chairman, JCS

SUBJECT: Forces Required to Win in South Vietnam

Secretary McNamara this morning suggested that General Wheeler form a small group to address the question, “If we do everything we can, can we have assurance of winning in South Vietnam?” General Wheeler suggested that he would have you head up the group and that the group would be fairly small. Secretary McNamara indicated that he wanted your group to work with me and that I should send down a memorandum suggesting some of the questions that occurred to us. Here are our suggestions:

1. I do not think the question is whether the 44-battalion program (including 3d-country forces) is sufficient to do the job, although the answer to that question should fall out of the study. Rather, I think we should think in terms of the 44-battalion build-up by the end of 1965, with added forces–as required and as our capabilities permit–in 1966. Furthermore, the study surely should look into the need for forces other than ground forces, such as air to be used one way or another in-country. I would hope that the study could produce a clear articulation of what our strategy is for winning the war in South Vietnam, tough as that articulation will be in view of the nature of the problem.

2. I would assume that the questions of calling up reserves and extending tours of duty are outside the scope of this study.

3. We must make some assumptions with respect to the number of VC. Also, we must make some assumptions with respect to what the infiltration of men and material will be especially if there is a build-up of US forces in South Vietnam. I am quite concerned about the increasing probability that there are regular PAVN forces either in the II Corps area or in Laos directly across the border from II Corps. Furthermore, I am fearful that, especially with the kind of build-up here envisioned, infiltration of even greater numbers of regular forces may occur. As a part of this general problem of enemy build-up, we must of course ask how much assistance the USSR and China can be expected to give to the VC. I suspect that the increased strength levels of the VC and the more “conventional” nature of the operations implied by larger force levels may imply that the often-repeated ratio of “10 to 1” may no longer apply. I sense that this may be the case in the future, but I have no reason to be sure. For example, if the VC, even with larger forces engaged in more “conventional” type actions, are able to overrun towns and disappear into the jungles before we can bring the action troops to bear, we may still be faced with the old “ratio” problem.

4. I think we might avoid some spinning of wheels if we simply assumed that the GVN will not be able to increase its forces in the relevant time period. Indeed, from what Westy has reported about the battalions being chewed up and about their showing some signs of reluctance to engage in offensive operations, we might even have to ask the question whether we can expect them to maintain present levels of men-or more accurately, present levels of effectiveness.

5. With respect to 3d-country forces, Westy has equated the 9 ROK battalions with 9 US battalions, saying that, if he did not get the former, he must have the latter. I do not know enough about ROK forces to know whether they are in all respects “equal to” US forces (they may be better in some respects and not as good in others). For purposes of the study, it might save us time if we assumed that we would get no meaningful forces from anyone other than the ROKs during the relative time frame. (If the Australians decide to send another battalion or two, this should not alter the conclusions of the study significantly.)

6. I would hope that we can minimize the amount of the team’s creative effort that must go into analyzing the ROLLING THUNDER program or such proposals as the mining of the DRV harbors. Whether we can or not, of course, depends a good deal on the extent to which we believe that the ROLLING THUNDER program makes a critical difference in the level of infiltration (or perhaps the extent to which it puts a “ceiling” on logistical support) and the time lag in the impact of such things as a quarantine of DRV harbors. My suggestion is we posit that the ROLLING THUNDER program will stay at approximately the present level and that there will be no mining of the DRV harbors. My own view is that the study group probably should not invest time in trying to solve the problem by cutting off the flow of supplies and people by either of these methods. I do not know what your thoughts are about the wisdom of investing time in the proposal that ground forces be used to produce some sort of an anti-infiltration barrier.

7. Is it necessary for us to make some assumption with respect to the nature of the Saigon government? History does not encourage us to believe that Ky’s government will endure throughout the time period relevant to the study. Ky’s behaviour is such that it is hard to predict his impact-he could, by his “revolutionary” talk and by his repressive measures generate either a genuine nationalist spirit or a violent reaction of some sort. I would think that the study must make some observation, one way or the other, as to things which might happen to the government which would have a significant effect on the conclusions of the study. My own thought is that almost anything within the realm of likelihood can happen in the Saigon government, short of the formation of a government which goes neutral or asks us out, without appreciably affecting the conduct of the war. The key point may be whether the Army rather than the government holds together.

8. One key question, of course, is what we mean by the words “assurance” and “win.” My view is that the degree of “assurance” should be fairly high- better than 75% (whatever that means). With respect to the word “win,” this I think means that we succeed in demonstrating to the VC that they cannot win; this, of course, is victory for us only if it is, with a high degree of probability, a way station toward a favorable settlement in South Vietnam. I see such a favorable settlement as one in which the VC terrorism is substantially eliminated and, obviously, there are no longer large-scale VC attacks; the central South Vietnamese government (without having taken in the Communists) should be exercising fairly complete sovereignty over most of South Vietnam. I presume that we would rule out the ceding to the VC (either tacitly or explicitly) of large areas of the country. More specifically, the Brigadier Thompson suggestion that we withdraw to enclaves and sit it out for a couple of years is not what we have in mind for purposes of this study.

9. At the moment, I do not see how the study can avoid addressing the question as to how long our forces will have to remain in order to achieve a “win” and the extent to which the presence of those forces over a long period of time might, by itself, nullify the “win.” If it turns out that the study cannot go into this matter without first getting heavily into the political side of the question, I think the study at least should note the problem in some meaningful way.

10. I believe that the study should go into specifics–e.g., the numbers and effectiveness and uses of the South Vietnamese forces, exactly where we would deploy ours and exactly what we would expect their mission to be, how we would go about opening up the roads and providing security for the towns as well as protecting our own assets there, the time frames in which things would be done, command relationships, etc. Also, I think we should find a way to indicate how badly the conclusions might be thrown off if we are wrong with respect to key assumptions or judgments.

As to timing, the Secretary said he would like to have a “quick answer” followed by a “longer-term answer.” He set no specific dates; I gather that he expects your team to work as fast as you reasonably can.

General Vogt and General Seignious of ISA are available to work with you on this project, as am I.

Sgd: John T. McNaughton

Copies to:
General Vogt
General Seignious

The McNaughton memorandum is of interest because it demonstrates several important items. First, the fact that the question about assurance of winning was asked indicates that at the Secretary of Defense level there was real awareness that the decisions to be made in the next few weeks would commit the U.S. to the possibility of an expanded conflict. The key question then was whether or not we would become involved more deeply in a war which could not be brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

Secondly, the definition of “win,” i.e., “succeed in demonstrating to the VC that they cannot win,” indicates the assumption upon which the conduct of the war was to rest–that the VC could be convinced in some meaningful sense that they were not going to win and that they would then rationally choose less violent methods of seeking their goals. But the extent to which this definition would set limits of involvement or affect strategy was not clear.

Thirdly, the assumptions on the key variables (the infiltration rates, the strength of GVN forces, the probable usefulness of Third Country Forces, the political situation in South Vietnam) were rightfully pessimistic and cautious. If they were to be taken seriously, the conclusions of the Study Group were bound to be pessimistic. If the Study Group was to take a “positive attitude,” they were bound to be ignored. The latter inevitably happened.

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