BY JOHN PRADOS
In the summer of 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson was wrestling with the question of whether or not to send large numbers of additional American troops to South Vietnam. Gen. William C. Westmoreland, head of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, was pushing hard for more ground troops.
Small numbers had gone in that spring to defend U.S. airbases. The base defense and ground patrolling was called the enclave strategy. Then the 173rd Airborne Brigade had been sent to function as a sort of fire brigade, a force that could augment South Vietnamese Army troops throughout the country. A large number of Americans were working as advisers to the ARVN. Beyond that, GIs, Marines, and Air Force personnel in many kinds of specialized units provided the South Vietnamese with combat support—including helicopter lift, supply flows, and air strikes. U.S. Special Forces trained and organized tribal militias and strike units.
Army troops in Vietnam numbered 27,300 in mid-1965, having nearly doubled in six months. Marine strength had risen to more than 18,000. With Westmoreland pressing for more troops, Johnson needed to determine how much further to go. For his part, Westmoreland needed an operational plan for the coming force employment.
Westmoreland was not satisfied with the enclave strategy. He wanted a substantial and hard-hitting offensive capability with forces that could be maneuvered freely, not confined to patrolling base perimeters. At the time MACV had nine U.S. battalions and one from Australia. In early June Westmoreland requested one Marine and three Army battalions and an airmobile division, the 1st Cavalry Division. He also wanted the deployment of a South Korean infantry division, for a total of 34 battalions. The 34-battalion proposal was the troop list LBJ was considering in those summer days.
Almost immediately, Westmoreland upped the 34-battalion program to a 44-battalion deployment. Asked if this would be enough, Westmoreland said no in a dispatch to Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Earle G. Wheeler. Westmoreland could not predict how many troops the United States might need in Vietnam, but believed we were in for the long haul.
He figured it would take until the end of 1965 just to get the 44 battalions deployed in Vietnam. But President Johnson had yet to decide to do so. And the Pentagon had not given him any concrete plan on how the escalation would go into effect. An Army official paper on engineers in the Vietnam War notes: “Until May 1965 the planning for engineer support of a general troop buildup was characterized by the same lack of definition suffered by operations planning.”
The first large contingent of Army engineers, the 35th Engineer Group, arrived at Cam Ranh Bay on June 9, 1965. They had faced the gargantuan task of creating the port capacity and logistical facilities to fuel a U.S. army. When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara visited South Vietnam to survey the prospects for an escalation, Chester Cooper from his team toured Cam Ranh and came away sobered by the work required.
LACKING A PLAN
Some within the Pentagon decried the lack of definition in MACV operational planning. To the extent the command had any plan, it was to stop a North Vietnamese-Viet Cong thrust across the Central Highlands that could cut South Vietnam in half. To that end, the bulk of the 84th Engineer Battalion was posted to Qui Nhon, where Westmoreland intended to land the 1st Cav before ordering it into the Central Highlands.
The Cav’s job was to prepare camp and port facilities. Westmoreland also wanted to send Marines to Qui Nhon for security. The 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marines landed there on July 7. A crowd of jolly Vietnamese converged on the beach and met the Marines, who staged an assault landing. When a brigade of the 101st Airborne Division arrived in country, MACV also sent them to Qui Nhon to extend the enclave for the airmobile insertion.
In his memoirs Westmoreland writes about the maneuvering that took place in developing the deployment program. Among other things, he recommended a limited national mobilization. On June 29, through JCS chief Wheeler, Secy. McNamara asked Westmoreland and Pacific Theater commander Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp, Jr., what forces MACV might need beyond the 44 battalions. Westmoreland suggested 24 battalions, about 100,000 men.
Pentagon officials followed McNamara’s lead. They created a mobilization program that combined Reserve call-ups with additions to the regular force that would have added an additional 63 battalions. On July 9 McNamara ordered his staff to prepare to deploy the full 44 battalions and ramp up the augmentation, even as he conducted his Vietnam War survey. The officials who labored over this force increase were unaware of Johnson’s aversion to national mobilization. LBJ rejected the Reserve call up, although he approved the massive ground troop commitment, including the deployment of the 1st Cav.
The scheme, Westmoreland said in his memoirs, would involve an initial phase in which U.S. and allied forces stemmed the enemy tide, a phase that would go through the first half of 1966. The allied forces would then go on the offensive and eventually defeat the enemy by destroying its base areas. That might require a year and a half. Then American troops would protect the logistical bases. During the second phase they would penetrate what was termed “Indian Country” to eliminate North Vietnamese and VC base areas and sanctuaries. The third phase would involve sustained ground combat to mop up the enemy main forces and guerrillas—or failing that, containing them beyond South Vietnam’s borders.
On July 2 Wheeler called Maj. Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, the head of his Joint Staff, into his Pentagon office. Wheeler asked Goodpaster to assemble an ad hoc team to come up with a plan for intensified military operations in Vietnam. The result may have been the closest thing the United States had to an explicit military strategy for the war—Westmoreland’s war—the war of attrition.
Goodpaster was a problem-solver who had been commissioned into the Engineer Corps and led the 48th Combat Engineer Battalion in Italy in World War II. He later served on general staff duty in Washington and went back to the JCS when the Korean War started. He served in Paris with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower when Ike led the NATO military command. That began a decade-long association with Eisenhower, which included working for his chief of staff and as a staff secretary in the White House from 1954-61.
Goodpaster was slated to take command of the XVIII Airborne Corps when President Johnson prevailed upon Wheeler to keep him in Washington. Kennedy had used Goodpaster as a conduit for private briefings of Eisenhower, and LBJ wanted to continue that practice. Goodpaster kept secrets well. It’s likely that Wheeler relied upon him, as Goodpaster never called attention to his 1965 Vietnam War study, and the ad hoc group’s report remains one of the least-known documents of the war. Yet the study encapsulates nearly everything MACV and Westmoreland would do.
THE BIG UNIT WAR
LBJ held a press conference on July 28 to announce he would send a hundred thousand troops to South Vietnam, including the 1st Cavalry Division, with more to follow if necessary. It marked the beginning of the Big Unit War. The Goodpaster group finished its study, “Intensification of the Military Operations in Vietnam: Concept and Appraisal,” on July 14. Although warning that its conclusions were tentative, mainly because of the lack of U.S. experience with the envisioned offensive operations, the study concluded that “There appears to be no reason we cannot win in South Vietnam if such is our will.”
The study anticipated that its recommendations would be refined by the Pacific Command and MACV, but it went on to set out a full campaign that included ground, naval, and air components. The definition of “winning” was subjective. It reflected the ambiguities of the unconventional conflict in Vietnam. The maximum “win” was to compel Hanoi to abandon the war. A lesser victory would be to destroy the Viet Cong insurgency. An “acceptable” level of success would be to contain the insurgency, destroy base areas, deny the enemy the capacity to rebuild or re-concentrate forces, and clear nearly all of South Vietnam.
Evidence for that would be an end to the enemy’s battalion-size attacks without any requirement for substantial U.S. forces in country. Questionable outcomes would be American troops remaining necessary, even if North Vietnam and the VC were denied the enclaves, Saigon, and the Mekong Delta. Outcomes to be rejected were further erosion “from current holdings of land and people,” losing slowly, bogging down, or a complete loss. The planners speculated that the expected outcome should be between the maximum and the acceptable.
The planners related their strategic objectives to the components of warfare. The air war was the tool deemed most likely to induce Hanoi to stop the war. At minimum, air power would sharply limit North Vietnam’s ability to support forces in the South. On the infiltration routes the maximum benefit would be to halt the flow of troops and supplies. The minimum would curtail the flood to a stream. In combination with other actions this would enable containment of the insurgency.
Within South Vietnam the maximum benefit would be to destroy the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese main force battalions and their base areas, which would open the VC-held areas to pacification. For pacification itself the maximum would have been to restore normality (law and order, freedom of movement, economic activity), with the minimum being clearing areas with sufficient security to start South Vietnam on an upward course.
Adversary countermeasures included air defense, expedients to maintain the supply flow, and efforts to carry out the takeover of South Vietnam. The planners worried about efforts to attempt the destruction of a sizable force, even once U.S. and allied forces were deployed.
During this time just one regiment of the NVA’s 325th Division was known to be in the Highlands (the presence of two others was deemed “probable”). North Vietnam was considered capable of sending one or two more divisions south during 1965, and had the ability to attack across the Demilitarized Zone with roughly three divisions, declining to one during the monsoon season. The Joint Staff believed that once the monsoon ended, Hanoi’s ability to operate along the DMZ would increase.
The group studied the South Vietnamese Army, including numbers, units, casualties, and desertions. For the strategy they proposed, Goodpaster’s planners decided that the U.S. would need 7-35 additional battalions. Their purpose would be to establish superiority and turn the tide. “Whether commitment of additional forces will be required to sustain the offensive to achieve ‘the winning outcome’ is not clear,” the study noted.
Basic elements of the operational plan were broken down by areas. By far the most detailed portion of the analysis concerned the Rolling Thunder air campaign. Following an extensive discussion of North Vietnam’s air defenses, the Joint Staff planners speculated that 122 of 240 targets had already been reduced, and that 15,000 combat sorties could neutralize the remainder, with several thousand more needed to maintain the level of damage among all the targets, plus 3,500 additional sorties for combat support in South Vietnam.
B-52 sorties were taken into account. The sortie requirements translated into a need for 9-15 additional fighter squadrons, with two more airbases the size of Cam Ranh (10,000-foot runways) or four Chu Lai-type facilities (8,000-foot runways). The planners believed that munitions in the stockpile would suffice for all the air operations.
Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail the main intervention mechanism remained airpower. The Joint Staff acknowledged the potential of a barrier across the narrow neck of Indochina, below the DMZ and across Laos, a distance of 175 miles. But the planners believed that a minimum of two full divisions would be needed to hold that position.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Harold K. Johnson had visited Vietnam and studied that same defensive scheme a few months earlier. Johnson had decided that three divisions were required. The Joint Chiefs study rejected the barrier scheme, saying that forces of that size could be better used on offensive operations. Special Forces patrols and air attack seemed preferable to a static defense. The combination of attacks on North Vietnam and its lines of communication could reduce supplies that went through from about 8,000 tons a day to just 1,500.
Key to this strategy was to increase North Vietnam’s supply requirements to more than 1,500 tons per day—a tall order. The planners believed that the VC needed only 10 tons a day, and that each North Vietnamese division required 12 tons for routine tasks. With increased combat, these would mushroom to 125 tons for the VC and 100 tons for each NVA division.
So the Americans and South Vietnamese would need to keep the enemy intensely engaged over a lengthy period. From allied bases, forces would push out into enemy-held territory and attack base areas and sanctuaries. The allies should establish “blocking positions,” occupy them on a random basis, and free up territory for new blocking positions, the report said. U.S. units would rotate between the mobile offensives and security tasks.
Intelligence would be a problem. Every effort would have to focus on localizing the enemy. Worse than that, the Joint Staff planners acknowledged, their plan depended critically on several assumptions. To wit: The U.S. would not bomb the civilian population, would not use nuclear or chemical weapons, and was dependent on the South Vietnamese assigning troops to serve under MACV in major operations. Missions would be carried out to avoid Chinese or Soviet intervention.
No restrictions would be set to account for domestic public opinion in the United States. Some activities would be bound to arouse opposition among Western allies, but the report said that should not deter U.S. planning.
In other words, things that some observers later said were instrumental in the American failure in South Vietnam were already set as assumptions in this, the supposed ideal plan for the war. It also turned out that the Joint Staff was wrong about the bombing. Before the end of 1965 the U.S. was buying back 500-pound general purpose bombs we had sold to Germany through NATO. Air commanders at Danang and elsewhere were launching planes without ordnance, or with just one or two bombs.
President Johnson made his decision to intervene, but even the problem-solvers could not give him a strategy to prevail.
Historian John Prados is a senior fellow for the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. His books include Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975.