Find a Security Clearance Job!


Viet Cong Order of Battle

Military doctrine as it had emerged from World War II and Korea focused on regular military formations. There was no place for the guerrillas and political infrastructure that were at the heart of the Viet Cong order of battle numbers controversy. It was much more than a simple matter of numbers: which Viet Cong groups were counted was a function of the kind of war being fought, and no question could be more fundamental than that. The CIA considered the OB to be a measure of the enemy's capability to wage war using all persons at its disposal, whether military or civilian. MACV, on the other hand, considered the OB as an identification of the armed military elements of the enemy that its soldiers had license to kill. Westmoreland did not want to encourage or authorize his soldiers, or provide them with an excuse, to kill civilians in violation of the law of war. Westmoreland acknowledged in essence that one of the reasons he excluded irregulars from the order of battle was that he didn't think they were really soldiers.

The intelligence officer who was central to this issue in the United States was CIA analyst Sam Adams. Adams claimed that, had his views been accepted, the United States would not have been surprised by the Tet offensive in 1968. The basis for Adams's analysis, as with the analysis at MACV, was captured enemy documents which suggested that an additional 200,000 guerrilla-militia personnel ought to be counted in the armed strength of the Vietcong. These were the "uncounted enemy."

From a strength of approximately 5,000 at the start of 1959, the Viet Cong's ranks grew to about 100,000 at the end of 1964. The number of infiltrators alone during that period was estimated at 41,000. The situation at the beginning of 1965 was critical. By taking advantage of the civil unrest and political instability that had prevailed since mid-1963, the enemy had grown stronger and tightened his hold on the countryside. Estimates of enemy strength had risen from a total of 30,000 in November 1963 to 212,000 by July 1965.

CIA Special Assistant George Carver, told a White House military aide in September 1966 that MACV's estimate of 100,000 to 120,000 Viet Cong irregulars "may be extremely low." In January 1967, O/NE observed that documentary evidence suggested that the enemy's irregular strength in South Vietnam had reached 250,000 to 300,000 by the end of 1965, whereas MACV was still sticking to its 100,000 to 120,000 estimate.(12) In May 1967, shortly after McNamara's tasking of CIA and at a time when MACV was carrying a total enemy O/B in South Vietnam of 292,000, CIA responded to an inquiry by Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach that the enemy's paramilitary and political organization in South Vietnam "is still probably far larger than official US order of battle statistics indicate," and thus that the total enemy O/B there "is probably in the 500,000 range and may even be higher."

The main enemy in the south from 1964 to the 1968 Tet offensive was the Vietcong, totaling roughly 245,000 men in a 300,000-man enemy force five months before Tet (the remaining 55,000 troops were NVA) ("Meeting with Foreign Policy Advisors on Vietnam," 18 August 1967, Meeting Notes File, Box 1, Johnson Presidential Library). That entire force waged an infrequent guerrilla war and fought an average of one day in 30.

In late 1966, Samuel A. Adams (1933-88), a CIA analyst in Washington, reviewed captured communist documents which indicated that the number of individuals claimed by the NLF as their organized supporters and followers in the hamlets and villages was much larger than the number of guerrilla-militia participants shown on the MACV Order of Battle. By December l966, after examining the situation firsthand in Vietnam and digesting stacks of raw reports at CIA Headquarters, Adams concluded that the total number of enemy forces in South Vietnam was 600,000. Adams later wrote in Harper's magazine that his discovery was "the biggest intelligence find of the war - by far." To Adams, "the most important figure of all was the size of the enemy army - that order of battle number, 270,000." If one added in Adams' numbers for the irregular component to the enemy OB, the size of the enemy force doubled. "We'd be fighting a war twice as big as the one we thought we were fighting." Continuing, Adams claimed that "the addition of 200,000 men to the enemy order of battle meant that somebody had to find an extra 600,000 troops for our side. This would put President Johnson in a very tight fix-either quit the war or send more soldiers." While O/B data on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Main Force and Local Force units were fairly reliable, the accepted number of irregular forces was being substantially underestimated and might number "more than 300,000," making the total O/B "as high as 500,000.

In the spring of 1967, McNamara took the extraordinary step of quietly asking CIA to prepare its own independent judgments for him on the efficacy of the US bombing programs and on the enemy's order of battle (OB) in South Vietnam. Former Deputy Director for Intelligence R. Jack Smith emphasized the emotional nature of this latter unique McNamara request of DCI Dick Helms: "Never before had a civilian intelligence organization challenged an army in the field about its orders of battle. . . . But here were a bunch of civilians telling not only the Pentagon but also the forces in the field that the number they were facing was higher."

MACV intelligence estimates gave impetus to the belief that the war was finally going the allies' way. In their analysis of enemy strength in the second half of 1967, MACV intelligence officers began to talk about enemy casualties reaching the "crossover point," where the gaps left in enemy strength could not be filled by new replacements and recruits. Westmoreland then approved a controversial decision to omit from the MACV order of battle two whole classes of so-called Communist irregulars : Self Defense Forces and the VC Infrastructure [VCI]. This reduced the estimated total number of guerrillas, irregulars, and cadre from 114,348 to 81,300. All of the 81,300 irregulars carried in the proposed new MACV estimate were under the category of guerrillas.

Under the classification spaces for Self Defense Forces and VC infrastructure were two footnotes. According to the MACV rationale, "the self defense forces provide a base for recruitment as well as for political and logistical support, but are not a fighting force comparable to the guerrilla." While acknowledging that local VC hamlet self-defenses "cause some casualties and damage, they do not represent a continual or dependable force and do not form a valid part of the enemy's military force." Relative to the enemy infrastructure, "the political cadre (infrastructure) has no military function."

As could be expected, the proposed revised MACV order of battle caused a furor among the various intelligence agencies, especially the CIA. In an eventual compromise, essentially everyone agreed to disagree. The new estimates carried the MACV changes, but with the footnotes explaining that Self Defense Force and VC figures were not included in the new figures. MACV HES estimates, however, continued to show an enemy guerrilla force of about 155,000 rather than the 81,000 published by the MACV J2 or intelligence section. The overall 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. 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).

Part-time and unarmed communist supporters living in rural villages and hamlets had been organized into units denominated as youth assault teams, self-defense forces, and secret self-defense forces. Self-defense units undertook various security duties in communist-controlled areas. Secret self-defense units included persons performing self-defense functions but living in government-controlled areas. Their participation in the communist-led insurgency was to be kept secret.

Well prior to May 1967 when the Order of Battle dispute arose, MACV had included the self-defense and secret self-defense forces in its OB estimates of the total enemy effort. The number of individuals MACV had ascribed to those part-time forces had not changed in several years, however, because the staff did not take them seriously. MACV had taken its original OB figures from the South Vietnamese nationalists' estimates of enemy strength and unit organization. The South Vietnamese had included the self- defense and secret self-defense groups in their list of enemy forces. The South Vietnamese, in turn, had taken their original OB information from the French expeditionary forces that had fought the Vietnamese communists from 1946 to 1954. Thus, French colonial officers, who were not excessively concerned for fine distinctions between combatant and noncombatant rural Vietnamese, had made the original decision to include the self-defense and secret self-defense in an OB.

Gen. Creighton Abrams, Deputy Commander, MACV, stated on 20 August 1967 "If SD [Viet Cong Self-Defense forces] and SSD [VC Secret Self-Defense forces] are included in the overall enemy strength, the figure will total 420,000 to 431,000. . . . This is in sharp contrast to the current overall strength figure of about 299,000 given to the press here. . . . We have been projecting an image of success over the recent months. . . . Now, when we release the figure of 420,000-431,000, the newsmen will . . . [draw] an erroneous and gloomy conclusion as to the meaning of the increase. . . . In our view the strength figures for the SD and SSD should be omitted entirely from the enemy strength figures in the forthcoming NIE."

Removing the self-defense and secret self-defense organizations from the OB did not imply that the United States would ignore these units' potential and actual contributions to the enemy's war effort. MACV removed the units from the scheme of classification not to hide such units from analysis but to place them in another reporting system, the Hamlet Evaluation Survey, designed as part of the CORDS (Civil Operations Rural Development Support) program by Robert Komer especially to measure progress and regression in the guerrilla war. The Hamlet Evaluation Survey attempted to measure the respective degrees of government and enemy control and organization of the population by estimating the impact on the war of communist supporters in the self-defense and secret self-defense formations. Forming a relevant assessment of progress in the total war effort required use of both the OB and the Hamlet Evaluation Survey: one to measure results in the shooting war fought against main force communist units and the other to measure the pace of pacification and nation-building.

At the forefront of MACV's adamant position was its J-2 estimates chief, Col. Daniel O. Graham. CIA could not budge Col. Daniel O. Graham and his MACV O/B estimates team. Having for some time predicted the imminent arrival of the "crossover point," in Saigon, Graham now challenged CIA's presentation of Washington's O/B analysis, disparaging the irregular forces as having no military significance. Years later Graham admitted that "of course" he had not believed MACV's 300,000 figure but had defended it because it was "the command position."

MACV proceeded to announce that the total North Vietnamese/Viet Cong order of battle in South Vietnam had dropped from an estimated 285,000 to 242,000, a decline of 43,000. MACV's classified estimate, produced by Col. Graham, was even more optimistic, holding that enemy strength in South Vietnam had dropped from an estimated 285,000 to 235,000, a decline of 50,000.

SNIE 14.3-67, published on 13 November 1967, in the Conclusions, outlined at the beginning of the Estimate, and a table accompanying the text, stated that enemy regular force strength there was 118,000 and its guerrilla strength 70,000 to 90,000, for a total of 208,000 at most. the previous year's National Intelligence Estimate of the enemy's O/B in South Vietnam, which in July 1966 had judged that the enemy had some 285,000 to 305,000 troops.(66) The new SNIE reduced that total by close to 100,000.

The intelligence and policy communities entered the new year of 1968 with MACV, the CIA, and an authoritative SNIE backing up the perception that the enemy did not have the capability to launch major operations. The Tet offensive rendered the argument over Viet Cong numbers irrelevant: in the course of the fighting, the Viet Cong were eliminated as a military force.

The Capital Legal Foundation, representing General William Westmoreland, the former commander of US forces in Vietnam, sued CBS when the latter, in a 90 minute documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception", alleged that Westmoreland was part of a conspiracy to deliberately underestimate enemy troop strength in Vietnam prior to the TET offensive of 1968, in order to manipulate American public opinion and create the illusion that the United States was winning the war. The Westmoreland-CBS trial ended in a compromise settlement. Westmoreland withdrewa his defamation suit without a verdict when it became clear that he was losing. The terms of the settlement were sufficiently vague as to leave unresolved in the public mind the question of whether Westmoreland had in fact an acceptable explanation for his conduct.

Sam Adams died at the age of 55. One morning in October 1988, his wife discovered his body in their living room, a first-aid book open beside him - one last lonely research effort that didn't pan out.

Join the mailing list