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John S. McCain POW CIA-Defense Department Documents

 Vietnam War - National Intelligence Council Reports

Vietnam War
National Intelligence Council Reports

2,400 pages of reports produced by the CIA's National Intelligence Council dealing with aspects of the Vietnam War, and events leading to the Vietnam War..

Files date from 1948 to 1975. These reports on the Vietnam War were not available to the public until May 2005.

The National Intelligence Council is a center of strategic thinking within the United States Government, providing coordinated analyses of foreign policy issues for the President and senior policymakers. Its work ranges from brief analyses of current issues to over-the-horizon Estimates of broader trends.

The reports show how the US intelligence Community viewed critical Vietnam War developments over a 27-year period, ranging from analysis of the implications of the post-World War II breakup of colonial empires, to United States intervention, to the United States exiting the Vietnam War,  to the Communist takeover of Saigon in 1975.

The documents are estimative intelligence products, that is, reports that projected the impact of current trends into the future to give policymakers and military commanders a heads-up about where events were likely to lead and their probable impact on US security interests. Because they reflected the careful scrutiny and final agreement on conclusions by various Intelligence Community analysts and agencies, they were considered the most authoritative assessments of the Intelligence Community.

Of the 174 sets of documents, all but 18 of the documents were produced by the Office of National Estimates (ONE), which was established in November 1950 for the sole purpose of producing such "national intelligence" assessments. ONE was replaced in 1973 by the National Intelligence Officer (NIO) system, which remains an integral part of today's National Intelligence Council (NIC). Fourteen documents in the collection published between 1973 and 1975 were produced by the NIO system, and four documents published before December 1950 were produced by ONE's predecessor organization, the Office of Reports and Estimates (ORE).

The documents fall into two broad categories: 1) formal products of the national intelligence estimative process, and 2) memoranda put out unilaterally by ONE. The most important difference in the two categories is that the products of the formal process, mostly National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) or Special National Intelligence Estimates (SNIEs) were coordinated with the constituent agencies of what is now known as the Intelligence Community while the ONE memoranda for the most part were not.

Beginning in 1948 Central Intelligence Agency analysts produced a series of papers for policymakers on dimming French prospects for winning the war in Indochina.  The first of these, The Break-Up of the Colonial Empires and its Implications for US Security, was published on September 3, 1948.  While the Cold War had not yet spread to Asia, the Estimate offered a sobering look at the incipient rivalry developing with the Soviet Union, and the already evident appearance of a colonial block in the United Nations.  Unlike most later papers in the series, moreover, it directly criticized US policies.  At risk, the paper said, were needed raw materials and access to military bases previously controlled by the colonial powers.  "Unless the US itself adopts a more positive and sympathetic attitude toward the national aspirations of these areas, it warned, and at least partially meets their demands for economic assistance, it will risk their becoming actively antagonistic toward the US."

Estimates continued to predict a French defeat.  Paris could not really afford to continue the war in Indochina and yet meet its defense obligations in Europe, asserted a January 10, 1952 Memo prepared in the Office of National Estimates.  "In the absence of either some form of internationalization of the Indochina problem or of substantial additional US aid, public sentiment for [French] withdrawal will gain steadily and perhaps accelerate."

In National Intelligence Estimate 53-63, Prospects in South Vietnam, April 17, 1963, analysts affirmed that Communist progress had been blunted with a judgment that while the North Vietnamese would not introduce regular military units in an effort to obtain a quick victory, the Communists hoped military pressure and political deterioration would in time create circumstances for a coup de grace or a political settlement that favored their cause.  The document proceeded down that path, observing along the way "some promise" in political and security matters and raising doubts here and there about the government's ability to translate military success into political stability. 

Within weeks the political situation was literally set afire with the Buddhist protests and self-immolations on street corners in the middle of the day.  The Kennedy Administration and American television audiences watched these scenes with horror, and ONE could now use straightforward language in predicting results of  Diem not addressing the Buddhist issue. Special National Intelligence Estimate 53-2-63, The Situation in South Vietnam, July 10, 1963 states, "disorders will probably flare again and the chances of a coup or assassination attempts against him will become better than even."  At the same time, the new paper added, Washington's "firm line" had increased Diem's uneasiness about US involvement in his country.  "This attitude will almost certainly persist, and further pressure to reduce the US presence in the country is likely."

Special National Intelligence Estimate 50-2-64, Probable Consequences of Certain US Actions with Respect to Vietnam and Laos, May 25, 1964, said it was impossible to set any meaningful odds about whether Hanoi's leaders would prefer to lower their expectations rather than face "the destruction of their country."  Already bruited about in Washington were a variety of escalatory steps, including bombing attacks on North Vietnam.  In response to an American escalation, ONE did not see a strong military reaction by China, and especially not by the Soviet Union, unless American troops actually crossed the so-called de-militarized zone.  Two weeks later, in early June, Sherman Kent, chair of the Board of National Estimates, sent a memorandum to DCI McCone, Would the Loss of South Vietnam and Laos Precipitate a "Domino Effect" in the Far East?, June 9, 1964,  challenging the very premise of the "Domino Effect."

The first air attacks in early February 1965 were said to be in retaliation for a VC strike against an American base, Pleiku, in the central highlands, killing eight Americans and wounding many more, but planning for a sustained offensive against North Vietnam had been in the works for some time.  What put an exclamation point on the American attack was the presence of Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin in Hanoi.  Kosygin had come to repair relations with the North Vietnamese leaders, who had criticized Moscow's supposedly inadequate aid program and cautionary political advice.  An intelligence Memorandum drew another darker conclusion from the visit, however.  The assessment, made on February 5, 1965, was that Kosygin was there, in effect, to be in on the kill when Vietnam fell and steal glory from the Chinese.  "We accordingly believe that the Soviet leaders seek to share-and guide-what they believe to be a Communist bandwagon."  As the Russians saw the situation, it argued, the United States was not going to intervene and a Communist victory was drawing near.  They expected Washington was close to being ready to negotiate a face-saving exit.

The explosion President Nixon set off with the Cambodian "incursion" reverberated across the political landscape from Congress to Kent State University and back to the Lincoln Memorial, where Nixon tried to start a pre-dawn dialogue with college students from all parts of the country.  Whatever time the incursion may have bought for Saigon, it did not do anything to improve Lon Nol's chances for surviving.  A special National Intelligence Estimate in early August 1970 reported that in the four months since Sihanouk's ouster, half of Cambodia had been overrun by the Communists.  Without outside support in the form of heavy military assistance, the outlook was grim.  He might survive until the end of the year, until the rainy season ended, but after that the Cambodians were in for it, with the prospect for heavy fighting against long odds.

An October 1973 Estimate concluded that North Vietnam did not believe it could gain power through the political provisions of the Paris agreement and would launch a military offensive to try to reunite Vietnam.  The Estimate did not predict success for Hanoi:  ARVN's resolve had grown stronger, it insisted, and the US had not so far dissolved its commitment to Saigon. The ominous build-up of military supplies suggested it would not be longer than a year away.  The unknown factor was the political situation in the United States and whether the President would have greater or lesser freedom of action.  Obviously, Hanoi would take note of any changes in that regard.

The final Special National Intelligence Estimate in this collection, Assessment of the Situation in South Vietnam, published on March 27, 1975, predicted that even if the ongoing North Vietnamese attack, which had come too soon according to previous assessments, were blunted, Thieu's government would find itself in control of little more than the delta and Saigon.  The continuing debate in America on further aid to South Vietnam was an unsettling factor fueling defeatism.  It foresaw final defeat by early 1976, a prediction still too generous as it turned out.  Outright defeat could be avoided only if there were changes in Saigon that opened the way "to a new settlement on near-surrender terms."

Key reports among the 174 are:

The Breakup of the Colonial Empires and Its Implications for US Security, 3 September 1948

Prospects for the Defense of Indochina Against a Chinese Communist Invasion, 7 September 1950

Consequences to the US of Communist Domination of Mainland Southeast Asia, 13 October 1950

The Possibility of an Early Major Viet Minh Attack in Indochina, 14 March 1951

Critical Developments in French Policy Toward Indochina, 10 January 1952

Probable Communist Strategy and Tactics at Geneva, 19 April 1954

Consequences Within Indochina of the Fall of Dien Bien Phu, 30 April 1954

Would the Loss of South Vietnam and Laos Precipitate a "Domino Effect" in the Far East? 9 June 1964

Reactions to Continuation or Termination of the Pause in Air Attacks on the DRV, 19 January 1966

Use of Nuclear Weapons in the Vietnam War, 18 Mar 1966

North Vietnamese Military Potential for Fighting in South Vietnam, 7 July 1966

The Vietnamese Communists' Will to Persist,  26 August 1966

Significance of Cambodia to the Vietnamese Communist War Effort, 26 Jan 1967

Evaluation of Alternative Programs for Bombing North Vietnam, 1 June 1967

Problems of Viet Cong Recruitment and Morale, 3 August 1967

The September Presidential Election in South Vietnam, 8 August 1967

Implications of an Unfavorable Outcome in Vietnam, 11 September 1967

Capabilities of the Vietnamese Communists for Fighting in South Vietnam, 13 November 1967

Alternative Interpretations of Hanoi's Intentions, 18 Jan 1968

Communist Intentions in Laos, 21 Mar 1968

Speculation on Hanoi's Motives, 8 April 1968

Hanoi's Negotiating Position and Concept of Negotiations, 6 May 1968

The Pacification Effort in Vietnam, 16 Jan 1969

The Outlook from Hanoi: Factors Affecting North Vietnam's Policy on the War in Vietnam, 5 February 1970

The Short-Term Prospect for Cambodia Through the Current Dry Season - May 1974, 5 December 1973

The Likelihood of a Major North Vietnamese Offensive Against South Vietnam Before June 30, 1975, 23 May 1974


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