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Continuing with the internal record into the Johnson Administration, on November 27 Hilsman informed a representative of the Saigon government that the withdrawal plans remained in force though "we shall keep in Viet-Nam whatever forces are needed for victory." On December 2, General Harkins announced withdrawal of 300 military personnel the next day and another 700 in the following weeks, "making a total reduction in force of 1000 before the end of 1963" (reported in the press, as noted).
An internal DOD memorandum of March 2, 1964, states that "In December 1000 men came home," including "two military police units whose airport guard duty had been taken over by Vietnamese trained for that purpose." It called for continued training missions so that US troops can be withdrawn. The details of what happened are murky. But the question is academic, in light of radically revised assessments of the military situation, which canceled the assumptions on which the withdrawal plans had been conditioned.
The first report prepared for LBJ (November 23) opened with this "Summary Assessment": "The outlook is hopeful. There is better assurance than under Diem that the war can be won. We are pulling out 1,000 American troops by the end of 1963." Apart from a serious budgetary deficit, the "main concern is whether the generals can hold together until victory has been achieved." The next day, however, CIA Director John McCone informed the President that the CIA now regarded the situation as "somewhat more serious" than had been thought, with "a continuing increase in Viet Cong activity since the first of November" (the coup). Subsequent reports only deepened the gloom.76
On December 6, the CIA reported that VC activity had increased since mid-1963, "reaching record peaks since the coup" and becoming "more effective." The DOD confirmed this "disturbing analysis of the current military situation," urging pressures against North Vietnam. Estimates of past success were sharply reduced. Forrestal informed the President that recent reports were "rather alarming," though the ruling generals offered better prospects than the Diem regime. Previous reports had been "too optimistic." Pentagon Intelligence (DIA) informed McNamara that "The Viet Cong by and large retain de facto control of much of the countryside and have steadily increased the overall intensity of the effort" since February 1963, reaching an "all-time high" in "incidents and armed attacks" after the November 1 coup. Though "only 914 persons are known to have been introduced into the RVN during 1963" and there were an estimated 27,000 VC casualties in 1963 through November, VC force levels remained stable, indicating that casualties were being replaced "through extensive local recruitment." The CIA added that "the VC have made definite progress," with the Strategic Hamlet Program "particularly hard hit in certain provinces." The CIA was unsure whether the problems "are only now coming to light under the country's new management, or whether it is the result of the current lack of firm leadership at the local and national levels" (December 16). In critical Long An province near Saigon, barely more than 10 percent of the Hamlets "previously reported as completed" were actually functional. By December 21, General Krulak, previously an optimist, warned the Joint Chiefs of the seriousness of the situation, judging the government's position to be "much weaker now than two to six months ago," when the withdrawal option seemed feasible to them.77
Krulak was reporting on a December 19-20 McNamara visit to Saigon. Under Secretary of State William Sullivan added that reports by US military and province advisers "were uniformly discouraging and indicated a considerable falsification of data by the previous Vietnamese regime." "The visit was a sobering one," he added. Reporting to the President, McNamara described the situation as "very disturbing": "Current trends, unless reversed in the next 2-3 months, will lead to neutralization at best and more likely to a Communist-controlled state." The situation had been "deteriorating in the countryside since July to a far greater extent than we realized" and Viet Cong progress since the coup "has been great." In light of this sharply changed assessment, McNamara said nothing about withdrawal, recommending only that "U.S. resources and personnel cannot usefully be substantially increased," though we should be "preparing for more forceful moves if the situation does not show early signs of improvement" (his emphasis).
McCone agreed that "indices on progress of the war turned unfavorable for the GVN" about July 1963, moving "very sharply against the GVN" after the coup. He reported an estimate of 1550 infiltrators from North Vietnam for 1963 (roughly the same as McNamara); MACV estimated "more than 7600" since January 1961, declining to about 1000 in 1963, mostly "political cadres," adding that "external supply of arms is not a critical matter." The worst problem, McCone reported, is that "The VC appeal to the people of South Vietnam on political grounds has been effective," something that the US could never counter. Sullivan reported that "There is a People's Republic of the Viet Cong" running from Saigon through most of the Delta, "a well-established subsisting entity which probably pays its own way, even with regard to the war material which it imports from the outside world." GVN Commander-in-Chief General Don said that "We are like an expeditionary force in a hostile territory, holding only a few strong points and maintaining only a few main roads of communication." "The abrupt exposure of the true situation that had developed throughout the country came as a surprise and shock to many Vietnamese and Americans," another State Department official reported on December 31.78
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76 FRUSV, IV640, 652, 629, 635f.; FRUSV-64, 119-20.
77 FRUSV, IV 681ff., 698f., 704ff., 722.
78 Ibid., 728-53.