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Who Knows What Time Will Buy: Two Documents on “Shaping Minds”

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Who Knows What Time Will Buy: Two Documents on “Shaping Minds”

Christopher J. Mewett

Last week, Small Wars Journal published a meditation by Yinon Weiss on the limitations of tactical training for partner forces as a means to influence war outcomes. Weiss is right to question what such campaigns have accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to consider how future capacity-building efforts might be improved. The American war in Vietnam failed for similar reasons, the conventional wisdom would have us believe, leaving one to wonder whether the U.S. Army will ever learn its lesson.

But what if the U.S. military hasn’t been focusing on the wrong thing the whole time? What if the Army has been asking itself the same questions that Weiss is now asking for at least 50 years and still finds it difficult to wage wars successfully?

Weiss’s essay brought to mind two documents that I came across last year while researching a different conflict—one that took place a half-century ago and a half a world away. The two memoranda reproduced below were authored in early 1965 by then-BG William E. DePuy for GEN William C. Westmoreland, commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). BG DePuy was at that time serving as MACV’s Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations, or J-3. Both memoranda address a challenge fundamental to the mission of U.S. advisors: helping the Government of South Vietnam (GVN) to establish a positive political platform with which patriotic, anti-communist Vietnamese could identify, both for the purposes of sustaining military morale and building broad-based support for the government.

The first months of 1965 were a critical time for American involvement in Vietnam. Main force Viet Cong units had begun to conduct regimental- and division-sized operations in the South, and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units were being destroyed with alarming frequency—and in nearly all parts of the country. As DePuy would later remark, the decision in the spring of 1965 to commit the first U.S. maneuver units was made in an atmosphere of near-crisis: Westmoreland “gave the Vietnamese government six months to live at most, because they were losing a battalion a day, and a district town a week, something like that. The situation was very critical.”[1]

Not only were GVN combat forces suffering, but the government itself was in utter disarray. A succession of coups had wracked Saigon with uncertainty and instability, further hamstringing forces in the field and suppressing commanders’ initiative. With no American ground units in country and few resources to directly allocate, it comes as little surprise that MACV would devote its attentions to schemes to improve GVN performance. DePuy was realistic about the prospects for success: in the 6 February memorandum, he wrote that “the Government [of South Vietnam] must be persuaded to do a number of things which although clearly desirable we must admit are highly unlikely.” The closing paragraphs of both memoranda show a commitment to persevere, but give little cause for optimism; each foreshadows a time when the press of combat operations and pacification activities would overshadow such long-term political questions as those addressed here, which would never be answered adequately. The scope of the political problems at the heart of Vietnamese society would prove much too great for external solutions.

But the content of these memoranda gives the lie to stereotyped accounts of conventional soldiers misunderstanding the war in Vietnam. These documents show that senior Army officers were at a very early stage considering the issue on which American success or failure in Vietnam would depend: the ability of any South Vietnamese government to offer a tolerable and credibly effective alternative to communist rule. Ultimately the American effort failed: the crux of the war was inaccessible to American means. Perhaps we should reconsider whether this is the real “lesson of Vietnam.”

Source: The William E. DePuy Papers. Box 3: Diplomas, etc. 1937–1969 Correspondence 1956–1965. Folder: “D” (65). U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA.

MEMO                                                                                                1 February 1965

From:  ACofS, J-3, MACV                           

To:      General Westmoreland[2]                                

SUBJECT:      Motivation                             

1. The longer we observe the situation in South Vietnam the more we come to believe that motivation is the key to success or the cause of failure.

2. Time after time we find officers and soldiers who have been adequately trained, failing to put that training into use, usually because it calls for extra effort and extra sacrifice. We see desertion rates of up to 50% among conscriptees in the training centers. We see commanders holding back – taking a wait and see attitude – because they have apparently no conviction and less faith in the outcome of the war. We see public officials and officers who are charged with such functions as Civic Action and Psychological Warfare or Information Services, simply going through the motions in a superficial way.

3. We often ask ourselves the question as to why and how the Viet Cong are able to motivate these same Vietnamese people and to cause them to endure hardship and privations and to give their lives as members of highly disciplined, obviously competent and self-confident units.

4. Sometimes we are told that this is because the Viet Cong are fighting for their own country against the white man. Sometimes we look for magic answers in the doctrine of communism. We submit that these explanations are only tangential to the problem.

5. Motivation is a technique which the communists have learned, which our side has not. Americans are particularly blind to this requirement and technique because of the assumptions on which we operate. We take it to be self-evident that our political concepts as expressed in our society are a superior formulation of government and human relationships—self-evident because the fruits of that system are in evidence for all to see. As a consequence, we spend very little time working on the convictions of our own people and therefore, are not disposed to place much emphasis on training in respect to the countries we are trying to assist.

6. The communists on the other hand, particularly those in Russia and in China from whence the system derived, could operate on no such easy assumptions. Their pre-revolutionary background provided no basis for agreement or for action and they were caused, from the very beginning, to build mental attitudes from scratch. The fact that their doctrine itself is spurious, is less important than the techniques they developed for molding the minds of their followers, particularly their leading cadre. In the early 1950’s the term “brain washing” became popular through a book written by Mr. Hunter.[3] This term covers only half of the process and is somewhat misleading. The communist cadre simply goes into the mind of the individual he proposes to train or convert, and laboriously guides his thinking into the proper paths. He answers every doubt and question. He does so in such a way that he draws from the recipient his own expression of convictions as well as doubts and, because the leading cadre is well trained himself, and has discussed each one of those doubts and convictions many times, from many angles, he eventually and gradually leads the neophyte communist into the paths of “right” thinking. He tries to do so in such a manner so that at the end of the road the process will have seemed to have been a natural one and the individual will have arrives at concensus [sic] with his fellow communists through his own mental powers. Once having achieved the basic indoctrination, the communists have learned that this work is never done and that a part of each day must be set aside to strengthen, to fortify and reaffirm.

7. This whole process is highly individualistic. It is one of the great paradoxes of our time that those governments who believe in the freedom of the individual, spend very little time dealing with the people as individuals, but rather deal with them more as groups and prototypes. Conversely, the faceless society of communism spends the bulk of its time working on the ego and the intellect of individuals. The communists seem to care very much what a man thinks because they are persuaded that his actions will be conditioned by how he thinks. Therefore, in this part of the world where there are no assumptions or traditions on which we can rely for zealous performance or dedicated commitment, we should take our lesson from the communist book. We need not worry about communism as a superior doctrine because it is not. It fails to produce those things which people deserve to have. It is our belief that there is sufficient logic and sufficient merit in the case of the west and within the interest of the non-communist Vietnamese, to create through careful training a dedicated cadre for the ARVN, the Regional Forces, Popular Forces, and the Provincial and District officials. We think that this effort, already 10 years overdue, must be made if victory is to be attained in this part of the world. This is the task to which students and the young intellectuals should be set. This is a challenge for all patriots and anti-communists and for all those individuals intelligent enough to see through the communist objectives, and intelligent enough also to recognize the motivational problem which must be solved.

8. As you know, the Chinese Mission has been in Saigon for several months[4] and has never been able to get its effort off the ground, although I believe that the Chinese understand very well this very problem and have developed techniques and approaches which would be of great value in this country. We are about to enter once more into negotiations with the Chinese and Vietnamese on the scope and nature of the political warfare program. Parenthetically, this will be our third such attempt. Each earlier attempt has been overtaken by a change in government and by a new head of the Political Warfare Department. We propose at these discussions to recommend that the major effort of the Political Warfare Department be in the field of motivation – that its initial efforts be among the leadership, that is the officers, then the noncommissioned officers of the [Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces], District and Province officials – that as soon as possible similar programs be developed at Dalat and Thu Duc amongst cadets being groomed for commissions – and that a major effort be mounted as soon as possible in the basic training centers. It will be necessary, of course, to have a central political warfare school and everything depends upon the quality and the effectiveness of that school and its ability to cadre and expand without losing quality. Nothing would be worse than a superficial troop I&E [indoctrination and education?] program. The rules of “discussion” not “lecture” in small groups must be rigidly maintained. In this regard, the Chinese should be very helpful. In addition, the work which has been done by Mr. Scotten[5] is relevant and MACV should put some of its best talent into this effort. It would be appropriate also to associate the Rand Group on ARVN Motivation with this effort.[6]

9. In summary, it is our conviction in J-3 that unless we devise a system whereby we can go into the minds of every member of the RVNAF and eventually through them and other public officials into the minds of all the effective leadership in this country, and lead them into a conviction that the government can and must win for good and logical reasons, we will have no chance in the long run of seeing any return on our very extensive investment. This is the basic course of action we intend to pursue with the Political Warfare Department.

                                                                        W. E. DePUY
                                                                        Brig Gen, USA
                                                                        ACofS, J-3[7]

Source: The William E. DePuy Papers. Box 3: Diplomas, etc. 1937–1969 Correspondence 1956–1965. Folder: “D” (65). U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA.

MEMO                                                                                                6 February 1965

From:  ACofS, J-3, MACV                           

To:      General Westmoreland                                  

SUBJECT:      The Revolutionary Spirit

1. In furtherance of a conversation about the revolutionary spirit in Vietnam, you asked us to analyze more carefully the importance of this matter. You also asked that we determine whether or not there are any courses of action open to us or conversely, actions to be avoided.

2. At first it may seem presumptuous for an Occidental to attempt to analyze the motives and emotions of the Asiatic and particularly so with respect to this country which is a crossroad of cultures and influences and a veritable hodge-podge of races and sects. On the other hand our own country is not so old, nor our own national experience so irrelevant that we do not have amongst ourselves a fair grasp of the basic revolutionary principles involved. Furthermore, as human beings we have each lived through our own individual rebellion against authority and remember of what it consists.

3. The revolutionary spirit which we all understand by instinct partakes of many emotions but primarily it assumes possession of “Good over bad”. This is powerful medicine. The revolutionary, starting with this advantage then captures all of the slogans such as:

Youth against age
New Against old
Freedom against oppression
The fresh against the stale
The lean and hungry against the fat
The poor against the rich
Love against hate
Sacrifice against indulgence
The people against arbitrary power

In the case of Vietnam, also:

            Brown against white
            Vietnamese against all outsiders
            The Resistance vs the collaborators

4. It is not necessary to speak in the five tones in order to translate all of these slogans or emotions into something like “Give me Liberty or give me Death.” Additionally, the whole pantheon of Vietnamese heroes – Thu Duc, Le Van Duyet, Quang Trung, etc., etc., -- are men who furthered the revolution – who kept out the invader and who identified themselves with all of the many variations on that theme of the good against the bad.

5. Unfortunately the VC have captured most of these emotional issues.

6. All Vietnamese are keenly aware of this fact. In each manifesto which follows each successful coup the leaders rededicate themselves to the revolution. They speak the revolutionary phrases – they appeal to the revolutionary masses – they put the word revolution in the titles of their organizations – “The Military Revolutionary Council”, “The People’s Revolutionary Committees.”

7. General Ky[8] spoke to the students as a fellow revolutionary. He said to them, “I am one of you, I am young, I wish to further the revolution.” General Thi spoke to the students as did General Chuan. They each said they would fight against any government which did anything to block the revolution. General Khanh stood on top of a loudspeaker truck in August and told the students that he understood very well their feelings and their objectives because he was young and therefore shared their revolutionary spirit.

8. In an environment like this and in the mid-course of revolution which was frustrated by the Geneva Accords [of 1954] and the subsequent decision not to have elections [to unify Vietnam in 1956], we must recognize and somehow cope with the mystique of the revolution. We tried supporting Mr. Huong who represents stability. Mr. Diem also represented stability. Stability sounds anti-revolutionary and therefore, it cannot stand alone as a virtue. In fact, stability which stems the revolutionary tide is regarded as a crime against the people and is punishable by nothing less than death. Diem went down this road and now we already see much pressure to execute the unfortunate Mr. Huong.

9. It is quite obvious that because the United States is in fact no longer revolutionary and represents the quintessence of stability – because we are white – strong and rich – we are peculiarly vulnerable to VC propaganda. Also, because we seem to have a thin skin we find it painful when those whom we would like to support find it necessary for revolutionary reasons to criticize us publicly. We know now, or we should know, that in this environment our full indorsement [sic] of any individual is the kiss of death. We are unquestionably confronted with a difficult situation.

10. On the other hand, there is a countervailing force at work. The history of Vietnam is one long resistance against various invaders and alien ideologies. Because human faculties develop themselves through usage, the faculty of resistance has taken on enormous proportions among the Vietnamese. Therefore, this spirit which is potentially troublesome to us is also resistant to the communist. If it were not for this stubborn resistant strain in the Vietnamese and an incredible toughness in the countryside, the struggle against the VC would have ended long ago. We may even now underestimate the resilience and tenacity of the Vietnamese.

11. There are some other aspects of local history which we must address. Most of the current leaders both civil and military [of South Vietnam] were not members of the Viet Minh. Thus by definition and strong feelings they were not members of the “Resistance” but were instead by the same genre of definitions:- “collaborators.” Furthermore, we are told that the procedure of security clearances and the general atmosphere in ruling circles favors the collaborator over the resistant. Obviously we cannot disassociate from all the resistant patriots because many were communist. This is a sure formula for disaster and isolates the government from the main motivational stream. Somehow, in order to win, the anti-communist leaders must go down into the intellectual and emotional arena of the revolution and come to grips with the problems they find there.

12. A related problem is that of the “petite bourgeoisie” philosophy and morality of the current anti-communist leaders. Revealing, is the fact that on 20 December only the “junior” generals went to see Mr. Suu[9] in the “bad” part of town while the Senior Generals went to Gia Long Palace. At the other end of the scale this same set of standards excludes from promotion to NCO or officer ranks many deserving soldiers who have demonstrated leadership on the field of battle but who do not meet certain educational or social requirements. The VC on the other hand prefer to mold their leaders from the common clay.

13. Against this background we must choose our guidelines carefully and move adroitly. The following policies seem to be basic and minimum:

            a. We are here to assist the Vietnamese to complete successfully their revolution which has been frustrated so long.

            b. We support the spirit of the Revolution and the patriotic elements.

            c. We do not support any single Vietnamese as an individual but rather we will support those individuals who have been chosen by the collective wisdom of the patriotic forces through whatever processes they may devise.

            d. We do not expect to be admired or even thanked but we expect civilities and reasonable protection.

            e. We will remain in the background insofar as possible consistent with the overriding requirement to defeat the cruel anti-revolutionary forces of the Chinese and the VC.

            f. We do not like, but must expect, recurrent manifestations of anti-Americanism.

14. These appear to be reasonable policies because they are pragmatic in nature and to some extent they have evolved through experience, but alone they will not solve the problem. To solve the problem the Government must be persuaded to do a number of things which although clearly desirable we must admit are highly unlikely. Some of these would be:

            a. The leadership should renounce luxury and live simple austere and dedicated lives.

            b. The Government should embark on a grass roots indoctrination program using VC methods (not content) to recapture the revolutionary forces and open up communications with the people.[10]

            c. All non-communist revolutionary elements must know they have the understanding and sympathy of the Government.

            d. The leadership of the revolution and its instrumentalities – the Government/the Army – must come increasingly from the people on the basis of merit alone.

15. It would be possible to ramble on over an entire program for an ideal government. However, one great deterrent to this kind of thinking is that neither time nor human nature would seem to be on our side. Therefore, as we work on these problems we must not allow anything to diminish the tempo or effectiveness of military or pacification operations. Rather, we must increase both and if, as we suspect, the current leadership is unable to change its spots, we will continue to frustrate the VC by doing what we have been doing but doing it both more and better. Who knows what time will buy.

/signed                                                            W. E. DePUY                                                             Brig Gen, USA                                                    ACofS, J-3

[1] Romie L. Brownlee and William J. Mullen III, Changing an Army: An Oral History of General William E. DePuy, USA Retired. U.S. Army Center of Military History Publication 70-23 (1985), p. 123.

[2] A note of acknowledgement from Westmoreland, hand-written in red pencil, appears in the top right corner of the document’s first page: “J-3  Noted. Excellent paper. Let us keep pushing Political Warfare effort. WCW

[3] Edward Hunter (1902–1978) was a newspaperman, red-baiter, and self-proclaimed “propaganda specialist” for the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services. His 1951 book Brain-washing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds expanded on a term he had introduced to the English language in an article published the year before.

[4] This refers to the Republic of China Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam, a small contingent of Chinese Nationalist personnel dispatched from Taiwan to South Vietnam in October 1964. The group furnished two “political warfare” advisors each to headquarters of the Capital Military District and the four Corps Tactical Zones; three more for the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Political Warfare College in Dalat; and a handful to the Armed Forces General Political Warfare Directorate in Saigon. See LTG Stanley Robert Larsen and BG James Lawton Collins, Jr., Vietnam Studies: Allied Participation in Vietnam, U.S. Army Center of Military History Publication 90-5-1 (1975), p. 115–116 and 118.

[5] DePuy misspelled the surname of Frank Scotton, a foreign service officer with the U.S. Information Service who was responsible for the development of a political indoctrination program for so-called People’s Action Teams—a “Phoenix-type thing” in which small groups of disaffected villagers armed and funded by the CIA to conduct armed propaganda in VC-dominated areas, beginning with Quang Ngai province in late 1964. See Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam. Lincoln, Neb.:, 2000, Chapter 4.

[6] This would seem to be a reference to the RAND Motivation and Morale project, initiated by an April 1964 request from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs that RAND “study the motivations of the revolutionary fighters in South Vietnam, commonly known as the Viet Cong (VC).” Westmoreland and members of the MACV staff were briefed in December 1964 on preliminary findings based on interviews conducted by RAND personnel with VC defectors and prisoners over the preceding five months. It’s likely that DePuy was familiar with this work and simply made a mistake when referring to the group’s focus on “ARVN Motivation.”  John C. Donnell, Guy J. Pauker, and Joseph J. Zasloff, “Viet Cong Motivation and Morale in 1964: A Preliminary Report,” RAND Memorandum RM-4507, March 1965, p. 1 and 4.

[7] A hand-written note in black ink appears below DePuy’s signature block: ““Note: J-5 heartily concurs! Need a central rallying point, personifying the values for which we seek to convince the ARVN that they fight, however. The commies have a cause and an understandable way of achieving it in their doctrine.” MACV’s Assistant Chief of Staff for Plans (J-5) at the time was Air Force two-star Milton B. Adams.

[8] Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, a major general and head of the Republic of Vietnam Air Force, would serve as Prime Minister of the South Vietnam from June 1965 to October 1967. He participated in the anti- Diệm coup in 1963, and was an influential player in the various intrigues of 1964 and 1965.

[9] Phan Khắc Sửu (1905–1970) was the figurehead president of a civilian government installed by Generals Nguyen Khanh and Duong Van Minh in October 1964. He served in this capacity until Ky’s coup in June 1965 deposed the civilian government. Here DePuy refers to the actions of Vietnamese general officers in the aftermath of the events of 19 December 1964, when Khanh and other members of the junta dissolved the civilian High National Council and arrested several of its members. U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor was infuriated by the junta’s actions and angrily lectured the officers he held responsible. Khanh remarked afterwards to a reporter that if “Taylor does not act more intelligently, the U.S. will lose Southeast Asia and we will lose our freedom… You must be more realistic and not have a dream of having Viet Nam be an image of the United States.” See “South Viet Nam: The U.S. Versus the Generals,” Time (Vol. 85, Issue 1), January 1, 1965.

[10] A hand-written note in red pencil appears in the space after paragraph (b): “—to include, importantly, the college campus…” It’s not clear who added this note, though the handwriting does not appear to be Westmoreland’s.

Marginalia mentioned in footnote 2.


About the Author(s)

Christopher J. Mewett is a support contractor with the Department of the Army. He studied history at Texas A&M and central and eastern European studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. His research interests include the history of military thought, Clausewitz, American strategy in Vietnam, and U.S. Army doctrine. He can be reached at