War of Numbers
(Steerforth Press, 1994)
From the Appendix
WHAT FOLLOWS IS A DETAILED ACCOUNT of how General Westmoreland's intelligence staff -- with White House encouragement -- falsified the Vietcong strength estimates before the communist Tet Offensive of January 1968. It is by far the most heavily researched portion of the book. My sources include forty military and twelve civilian intelligence officials, voluminous files of official reports, and other correspondence, such as letters home. I have yet to interview the four persons still living whom I believe chiefly responsible for the falsification: General Westmoreland himself, General Philip Davidson (Westmoreland's J-2 after McChristian), Mr. Robert S. McNamara, and Mr.Walt W. Rostow. I plan to approach them before the book goes to press, in the hope that they will shed further light on what happened, including the extent of President Johnson's involvement.
As already noted, MACV discovered its vast underestimate of Vietcong numbers in late 1966. Westmoreland's then J-2, General Joseph A. McChristian, although embarrassed, admitted his error, and by early 1967 was pressing for a higher order of battle. At this point, the main resistance against one came from the Pentagon, including the office of the secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara. As McNamara explained to an aide in late January, he realized the official OB was all wrong, but that he was not yet prepared to tell Congress. He meant what he said. On 6 March 1967, he briefed a Congressional committeeusing the official numbers, the same ones he knew to be low.
McChristian's response to the Pentagon's foot-dragging was to adopta second set of books. Kept informally by his OB chief, Colonel Gains B. Hawkins, the second set listed the lesser three of the OB's four parts.The total for its most important component -- the VC's main battleforces -- remained public knowledge. To MACV strength analysts (mostly unaware that a controversy existed) the compromise was satisfactory.None of them felt much pressure to raise or lower their numbers for any reason other than evidence.
Incredibly, General Westmoreland during this period seems not to have grasped what the full public impact might be of the higher numbers.Furthermore he had neglected to add them all up. He received his first detailed briefing on the second set of books, with their big sums totaled, in May 1967. General McChristian and Colonel Hawkins conducted the briefing in Westmoreland's private office. Using a flipchart, they reviewed the OB's four components one by one, and when they reached the bottom line on the flipchart's last page, Westmoreland -- according to my source -- "almost fell off his chair." "What will I tell Congress?" he gasped. "What will I tell the press?" On recovering, some minutes later,he turned to McChristian and said: "General, I want you to take another look at those numbers."
McChristian took this as a suggestion to tamper with the second set of books. This he refused to do. He was sent home on 1 June 1967, protesting vigorously. At least some of his chagrin arose from the fact that his replacement was his archrival in the Army, an old West Point classmate, General Philip Davidson.
Davidson was more amenable than McChristian to manipulating the unofficial books. Among his first acts on 1 June was to lobby with the agency's DDI representative in Saigon to drop from the OB one of its main subcomponents, the so-called self-defense militia (or tu ve). Davidson's suggestion flew back and forth between Saigon and Washington for over a month. It came up at a meeting between Westmoreland and McNamara in Vietnam on 9 July, and again when the general and the secretary saw President Johnson at the White House on the thirteenth. Exactly what transpired at these meetings I have yet to find out,but what happened thereafter is clear.
MACV strength analysts began to suspect that someone was doctoring the order of battle. Among the first to harbor this suspicion was Lieutenant Joseph Gorman, chief analyst for the VC main battle forces in IV Corps, which comprised South Vietnam's southernmost and most populous quarter. One of his jobs was to warn J-2 headquarters each time he discovered a new VC unit, so that J-2 could add it to the OB. During this period, however, he found the headquarters increasingly reluctant to enter new units on the lists. At first he thought that J-2 had tightened its "acceptance criteria," but as the summer wore on its reasons for disallowing new units became more and more frivolous. One VC battalion was turned down by J-2 because Gorman's request form had a typographical error; another because the form's cover sheet was not centered; a third because the sheet lacked the proper red-pencil markings. A second analyst, Lieutenant Richard McArthur -- assigned in June to keeptrack of VC guerrillas countrywide -- wrote his parents on 26 July that he had found that the guerrilla number for II Corps was "completely false,"and that J-2 was "feeding people nonsense figures with no documentary evidence." He added, "I can't believe half the things I'm digging up."
Meanwhile, pressure continued to build on the order of battle. At the Board of National Estimates conference on Fourteen Three -- convened in Langley in June -- the CIA was still insisting on higher numbers. By August, its sessions had reached an impasse, and the principals had agreed to meet at an OB conference at Westmoreland's headquarters in early September -- with CIA, DIA, and MACV attending. The purpose of the conference was to come to an agreement over VC strength.
MACV's preparations for the conference were both above board and below it. In one of the war's most unusual messages, dated 20 August, MACV deputy General Creighton Abrams cabled Washington, with Westmoreland's approval, the old request to drop the self-defense militia from the OB. What made the cable so extraordinary was the frank reason he gave for wanting to do so. To leave the militia on the lists, he explained, would contradict the "image of success" MACV had been lately building, and would provoke the press into drawing "an erroneous and gloomy conclusion" over the progress of the war. The message was widely distributed in official Washington.
MACV's below-board measures were also unusual. No longer content to exclude units from the OB, J-2 now began to cut down the size of units already in it. Marshall W. Lynn, a lieutenant charged with keeping tabs on six regiment-sized VC formations near Saigon, has explained how it was done. One morning shortly before the start of the scheduled conference, a colonel from J-2 stopped by Lynn's desk with the suggestion that the strengths at which Lynn was carrying his six VC units were "way too high." Lynn denied it, at which the colonel simply picked up Lynn's strength sheet, crossed out the numbers by each regiment, and penciled in new ones, on the average one-third lower. To Lynn's amazement, a unit which he had carried with 3,100 men became "1,900" instead. As for J-2's acceptance criteria for new units, Gorman remarked that by early September, "you could march a VC regiment down the hall, and they wouldn't put it in the OB."
The conference, which I describe at length in Chapter 5, ended with the CIA caving in on the first day, 11 September. And the order of battle, instead of doubling -- to reflect the evidence discovered in late 1966 -- actually fell, from about 290,000 to just over 240,000. As Chapter 5 points out, the drop was accomplished by marching the subcomponent, the self-defense militia, from the lists (as well as another whole category, the so-called political cadres) and by a general acceptance of J-2's "scaled down" numbers. Among those dismayed by the proceedings was DIA's chief order-of-battle analyst, Captain Barrie Williams. Captain Williams felt "the whole session was painful. It was clear we were double-dealing."
Copyright © 1994 by Anne Adams. Pages 212-215. All rights reserved.