Vietnam War: The Documents - 3

April 1963 White House meeting with Britisher R.G.K. Thompson

R.G.K. Thompson was the architect of a successful British anti-guerilla campaign in Malaya, and was a consultant to the U.S. government on the Vietnam conflict. His briefing of President Kennedy, described in this document, was apparently the source of the "1,000 man withdrawal" that some say showed Kennedy's resolve to withdraw all U.S. forces from Vietnam.
Memorandum of a Conversation, White House,
Washington, April 4,1963,10 a.m (1)


Situation in Viet-Nam


The President
The Honorable David Ormsby Gore, British Ambassador
Mr. R.G.K. Thompson, Head, British Advisory Mission to Viet-Nam
Mr. Chalmers B. Wood, Director, Working Group, Viet-Nam
The following are the principal points touched on between the President and Mr. R.G.K. Thompson:

1. Diem. Thompson emphasized that Diem had much support in the country where it counted and that he had written off the Saigon intelligentsia. In reply to a question from the President, he said that the quality of the political opposition was very poor. He said that if Diem disappeared there would be a risk of losing the war within six months since there was no other leader of his caliber available. (After the meeting with the President, he qualified this remark by saying that as a result of the war effort there was a continuing increase in the number of competent and experienced Vietnamese officials.)

2. How the War is going. Thompson said that on the military side statistics showed that things were moving in our favor. He cited particularly the increased number of defectors (from an average of 15-20 a week in early 1962 to 148 for the week ending March 25, 1963). He cautioned that the pattern of the war would not change much, that there would be no major victories on our side, and that we had to expect as a part of the fortunes of war occasional reverses, such as the one at Ap Bac.

3. Infiltration. The numbers were not large but the quality of the cadres infiltrated was high. The Viet Cong did not possess the food and equipment necessary to absorb a large quantity of infiltrators and they wished to keep North Viet-Nam's role in the war at least semicovert.

4. The President asked why the Viet Minh were able to defeat the French. Thompson replied the French never had any hope of getting the people on their side and that the strategic hamlet program, which had gone much better than anyone had expected, provided a degree of security in the countryside which the French had never been able to achieve.

5. American Military Personnel. Thompson said that the American military personnel that he had observed, particularly the MAAG Advisers in the provinces, were very good. He was also impressed by the good behavior of the American military in Saigon.

6. Favorable contrast between the Government of Viet-Nam and Viet Cong controlled territories. Thompson said that things had now progressed to a point where an observer in a plane could distinguish, on the one hand, GVN-controlled territories where roads and bridges were repaired and strategic hamlets built, and, on the other hand, VC territory where the bridges were generally down and the roads cut.

7. Defoliants. Thomson doubted that the effort involved in defoliation was worthwhile on the grounds that even when the foliage was dead, sufficient branches and twigs remained to provide hiding places for the Viet Cong. He also cited the automatic aversion of the Asians to the use of unknown chemicals. As to crop destruction, he believed this should only be carried out in a situation where it was clear that the Viet Cong had no sources of supplies other than the areas to be destroyed. The President asked that the defoliation and crop destruction programs be reviewed again.

8. Vietnamese Morale. Thompson said that the morale not only of the top leaders but also of most Vietnamese civilian and military authorities, particularly province chiefs, was up.

9. Helicopters. These were useful instruments for preventing Viet Cong concentrations and surprising the Viet Cong, but they would not lead to large scale victories. The war would "be won by brains and feet".

10. Terrorism. Terrorism is not bad at present but as it becomes clear that the Viet Cong are losing, an increase in terrorism, particularly hand grenades in Saigon, should be expected. Such terrorism would be an admission of defeat. It would require steady nerves to endure it, particularly given the unfavorable publicity which would probably be generated in the foreign press.

The Viet Cong were not using much terrorism against officials. They did not kill popular officials but sought to make them unpopular before bumping them off.

11. North Viet-Nam. Not much has been accomplished by the GVN agents who are amateurs when they come up against the professional defense, security, and intelligence measures of the DRV on its home grounds.

12. Tactical Air. This is a key factor, Thompson said, in preventing Viet Cong concentrations, in rescues, and in assisting villages which are attacked. Thompson was dead against strafing and bombing of occupied villages as this would leave an indissoluble legacy of bitterness. He believed that present controls were sufficient to prevent attacks against villages occupied by the Viet Cong.

13. Surrender Policy. Thompson believed that the surrender policy as now elaborated was good. He thought we should give it public support when it was announced (it is now due for announcement on April 17).

14. U.S. Presence. If the GVN continued to progress at the present rate, if it were possible to declare one or two provinces white areas by summer 1963 (no announcement about white areas should be made unless it were certain that the areas were indeed freed of the Viet Cong), and finally, if confidence of success continued to grow until the end of the year, an announcement out of the blue by the United States that it was reducing the American military in Viet-Nam by say 1,000 men would have three good effects:

a) It would show that we were winning;
b) It would take the steam out of the Communists' best propaganda line, i.e., that this was an American war and the Vietnamese were our satellite; and
c) It would reaffirm the honesty of American intentions.

(1) Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, 4/63-5/63. Secret. Drafted by Wood on April 5. Approved by the White House on April 9.

Thanks to David Fuhrmann for supplying this document.
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