Order of Battle and Communist Capabilities
During the fall of 1967, two questions weighed heavily on the minds of the American public and the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson: Was the U.S. strategy of attrition working in South Vietnam and who was winning the war? According to General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), the answer could be found by the solution to a simple equation. Take the total number of communist troops estimated in-country and subtract those killed or captured during military operations to determine the “crossover point” at which the number of those eliminated exceeded those recruited or replaced. There was a discrepancy, however, between MACV and the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) order of battle estimates concerning the strength of communist guerrilla forces within South Vietnam. In September, members of the MACV intelligence services and the CIA met to prepare a Special National Intelligence Estimate that would be utilized by the administration as a gauge of U.S. success in the conflict.
Provided with an enemy intelligence windfall accrued during Operations Cedar Falls and Junction City, the CIA members of the group believed that the number of communist guerrillas, irregulars, and cadre within the South could be as high as 430,000. The MACV Combined Intelligence Center, on the other hand, maintained that the number could be no more than 300,000. Westmoreland was deeply concerned about the possible perceptions of the American public to such an increased estimate, since communist troop strength was routinely provided to reporters during press briefings. According to MACV’s chief of intelligence, General Joseph McChristian, the new figures “would create a political bombshell,” since they were positive proof that the communists “had the capability and the will to continue a protracted war of attrition.”
In May, MACV attempted to obtain a compromise from the CIA by maintaining that Viet Cong militias did not constitute a fighting force but were essentially low level fifth columnists used for information collection. The agency responded that such a notion was ridiculous, since the militias were directly responsible for half of the casualties inflicted on U.S. forces. With the groups deadlocked, George Carver, CIA deputy director for Vietnamese affairs, was asked to mediate the dispute. In September, Carver devised a compromise: The CIA would drop its insistence on including the irregulars in the final tally of forces and add a prose addendum to the estimate that would explain the agency’s position. George Allen, Carver’s deputy, laid responsibility for the agency’s capitulation at the feet of Richard Helms, the director of the CIA. He believed that “it was a political problem…[Helms] didn’t want the agency…contravening the policy interest of the administration.”