124. Department of State Press Release1

No. 2


Following is the text of a letter from Secretary Rusk to 100 student leaders in response to their letter to President Johnson of December 29.2 The Secretary’s letter, dated January 4, was forwarded to Robert Powell, President of the Student Body, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill:

January 4, 1967

Dear Student Leaders:

I have received and read carefully your thoughtful letter to the President about our policy in Viet-Nam.

Your interest and your concern are shared by most thinking Americans. No one desires more strongly to bring an early and honorable conclusion to the conflict in Viet-Nam than those who are working day and night, both here and in Viet-Nam, to achieve that end.

The questions you have raised are among those that have been asked and discussed repeatedly in the councils of your Government. If some of these matters continue, as you say, to agitate the academic community, it is certainly not because answers have not been provided. It is more, I think, because the answers to great and complex questions can never fully satisfy all the people in a free and questioning society.

Nevertheless, I am glad to have the chance to address myself to the four specific questions about which you stated you and others felt doubt or concern.

First, you asked if America’s vital interests are sufficiently threatened in Viet-Nam to necessitate the growing commitment there.

There is no shadow of doubt in my mind that our vital interests are deeply involved in Viet-Nam and in Southeast Asia.

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We are involved because the nation’s word has been given that we would be involved. On February 1, 1955, by a vote of 82 to 1 the United States Senate passed the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty. That Treaty stated that aggression by means of armed attack in the treaty area would endanger our own peace and safety and, in that event, “we would act to meet the common danger.”3 There is no question that an expanding armed attack by North Viet-Nam on South Viet-Nam has been under way in recent years; and six nations, with vital interests in the peace and security of the region, have joined South Viet-Nam in defense against that armed attack.

Behind the words and the commitment of the Treaty lies the lesson learned in the tragic half century since the First World War. After that war our country withdrew from effective world responsibility. When aggressors challenged the peace in Manchuria, Ethiopia, and then Central Europe during the 1930’s, the world community did not act to prevent their success. The result was a Second World War—which could have been prevented.

That is why the Charter of the United Nations begins with these words: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind. . . .” And the Charter goes on to state these objectives: “to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained . . . and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security. . . .”

This was also the experience President Truman had in mind when—at a period when the United Nations was incapable of protecting Greece and Turkey from aggression—he said: “We shall not realize our objectives unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes.”4

These are the memories which have inspired the four postwar American President as they dealt with aggressive pressures and thrusts from Berlin to Korea, from the Caribbean to Viet-Nam.

In short, we are involved in Viet-Nam because we know from painful experience that the minimum condition for order on our planet is that aggression must not be permitted to succeed. For when it does [Page 389] succeed, the consequence is not peace, it is the further expansion of aggression.

And those who have borne responsibility in our country since 1945 have not for one moment forgotten that a third world war would be a nuclear war.

The result of this conviction and this policy has been a generation’s effort which has not been easy for the United States. We have borne heavy burdens. We have had to face some conflict and a series of dangerous situations.

But the hard and important fact is that in the postwar world external aggression has not been permitted to develop its momentum into general war.

Look back and imagine the kind of world we now would have if we had adopted a different course. What kind of Europe would now exist if there had been no commitment to Greece and Turkey? No Marshall Plan? No NATO? No defense of Berlin? Would Europe and the world be better off or worse? Would the possibilities of detente be on the present horizon?

Then turn the globe and look at Asia. If we had made no commitments and offered no assistance, what kind of Asia would there now be? Would there be a confident and vital South Korea? A prosperous and peaceful Japan? Would there be the new spirit of regional cooperation and forward movement now developing throughout Asia?

If you were to talk to the leaders of Asia as I have, you would know what Asians really think of our commitment in Viet-Nam. You would know that the new vigor in Asia, the new hope and determination, are based in part on the conviction that the United States will continue to support the South Vietnamese in their struggle to build a life of their own within the framework of the Geneva Accords in 1954 and 19625—that we shall see it through to an honorable peace.

Second, you wonder whether our vital interests are best protected by our growing commitment.

We must always weigh what we are doing against the requirements of the situation and what the other side is doing. You are aware, I am sure, that the flow of men and material from North Viet-Nam into the South radically increased towards the end of 1964 and continued at a high level in the next two years. It was to meet that escalation, designed to achieve military victory by the North against the South, that we sent our men in large numbers and began an air campaign against military targets in North Viet-Nam.

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At the other end of the scale, one must contrast what we are doing with what we could be doing. You know the power that is available to us—in men, resources and weaponry.

We have done both more than some people would wish, and less than others advocate. We have been guided both by the demands imposed upon us by increased aggression and by the need for restraint in the application of force. We have been doing what the President judges to be necessary to protect the nation’s vital interests, after hearing the views of the government’s military and civilian experts. We shall continue to do what is necessary to meet the threat the Vietnamese and their allies face.

Third, you raise the question whether a war that may devastate much of the countryside can lead to the stable and prosperous Viet-Nam we hope for.

First, it is an error to suggest that the fighting in Viet-Nam has devastated much of the countryside.” There has been too much destruction and disruption—as there is in any war. And we deeply regret the loss of life that is involved—in the South and in the North, among both soldiers and civilians.

But devastation has been far less than on the conventional battlefields of World War II and Korea. If peace could come to South Viet-Nam today, I think most people would be amazed at its rapid recovery. For the Vietnamese are intelligent, energetic and ambitious people. And they are determined to see their country prosper. I am confident that they can achieve that end—if they but have the chance to do so, in peace and in their own way.

That day cannot come too soon.

You also suggest that there are “apparent contradictions” in the American position on efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement.

We have said that there will be no difficulty in having the views of the Viet Cong presented at any serious negotiation. The details of how this might be done can be discussed with the other side; there is little point in negotiating such details with those who cannot stop the fighting.

We have made it clear that we cannot accept the Liberation Front6 as the “sole” or “only legitimate voice” of the Vietnamese people. Yet that is what the Front has said it is. The Buddhists, Catholics, Cao Dai,7 Hoa Hao,8 ethnic Cambodians, the almost a million refugees who fled [Page 391] from North Viet-Nam to the South in 1954–55, and the Montagnards9 are not prepared to have the Liberation Front as their spokesman. The capacity of the Government and people of South Viet-Nam to conduct the election of the Constitutional Assembly in September 1966, despite the opposition of the Viet Cong, made clear that the VC are a small minority in the country, determined to convert their ability to organize for terror into domination over the majority. Those now enrolled with the Viet Cong should be turning their minds in a different direction. They should be asking: “How can we end this war and join as free citizens in the making of a modern nation in South Viet-Nam”?

We know that the effort at armed conquest which we oppose in Viet-Nam is organized, led, and supplied by the leaders in Hanoi. We know that the struggle will not end until those leaders decide that they want it to end.

So we stand ready—now and at any time in the future—to sit down with representatives of Hanoi, either in public or in secret, to work out arrangements for a just solution.

You state correctly that we have a commitment to the right of self-determination of the people of South Viet-Nam. There is no ambiguity whatsoever. We shall abide by the decision of the Vietnamese people as they make their wishes known in free and democratic elections. Hanoi and the Liberation Front do not agree.

You also suggest that there is disparity between our statements and our actions in Viet-Nam, and you refer to recent reports of the results of our bombing in North Viet-Nam.

It is our policy to strike targets of a military nature, especially those closely related to North Viet-Nam’s efforts to conquer the South. We have never deliberately attacked any target that could legitimately be called civilian. We have not bombed cities or directed our efforts against the population of North Viet-Nam.

We recognize that there has been loss of life. We recognize that people living or working in close proximity to military targets may have suffered. We recognize, too, that men and machines are not infallible and that some mistakes have occurred.

But there is a vast difference between such unintentional events and a deliberate policy of attacking civilian centers. I would remind you that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, wounded, or kidnapped in South Viet-Nam, not by accident but as the result of [Page 392] a deliberate policy of terrorism and intimidation conducted by the Viet Cong.

We regret all the loss of life and property that this conflict entails. We regret that a single person, North or South, civilian or soldier, American or Vietnamese, must die.

And the sooner this conflict can be settled, the happier we and the Vietnamese people will be.

Meantime, we shall continue to do what is necessary—to protect the vital interests of the United States, to stand by our allies in Asia, and to work with all our energy for a peaceful, secure and prosperous Southeast Asia. Only by meeting these commitments can we keep on this small and vulnerable planet the minimum conditions for peace and order.

Only history will be able to judge the wisdom and the full meaning [of] our present course—in all its dimensions.

But I would close by sharing with you a hope and a belief. I believe that we are coming towards the end of an era when men can believe it is profitable and, even, possible to change the status quo by applying external force. I believe those in Hanoi who persist in their aggressive adventure—and those who support them—represent ideas and methods from the past, not the future. Elsewhere in the world those committed to such concepts have faded or are fading from the scene.

I believe, therefore, that if we and our allies have the courage, will, and durability to see this struggle through to an honorable peace, based on the reinstallation of the Geneva Accords of 1954 and 1962, we have a fair chance of entering quieter times in which all of us will be able to turn more of our energies to the great unfinished tasks of human welfare and to developing the arts of conciliation and peaceful change.

The overriding question for all of mankind in this last third of the Twentieth Century is how to organize a durable peace. Much of the experience which has gone into answers to that question has been largely forgotten—perhaps some of it should be. But the question remains—and remains to be answered. I should much enjoy discussing this with you if we can find a way to do so.

I would value a chance to discuss the issues posed in your letter with a representative group of signatories or with as many as could conveniently join me in Washington at a mutually agreeable time.

With best wishes and thanks for your serious concern,

Sincerely yours,

Dean Rusk10
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 306, Subject Files, 1955–1971, Acc. #69–H–3445 [A], Entry UD WW 200, Box 177, Miscellaneous Record Copy. No classification marking. Fanelli sent a copy of the release to Slocum under a January 18 covering memorandum indicating that “Joe Glazer has suggested possible use of the Rusk letter in USIS publications with a student audience.” Fanelli also stated that: “Since the questions asked by the U.S. student leaders are similar to those of many students abroad, I think wide distribution of the Rusk reply would be very helpful.” (Ibid.) An unknown hand wrote on Fanelli’s memorandum that the press release was sent to all USIS posts and made the subject of a column.
  2. For text of the December 29 letter to Johnson, see “Text of Students’ Letter to the President,” New York Times, December 30, 1966, p. 4.
  3. For further information regarding the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, see Foreign Relations, 1952–1954, vol. XII, Part 1, East Asia and the Pacific, Document 358; and Foreign Relations, 1952–1954, vol. XIII, Part 2, Indochina, Document 1168.
  4. Reference is to President Truman’s March 12, 1947, “Special Message to the Congress on Greece and Turkey: The Truman Doctrine.” For text, see Public Papers: Truman, 1947, pp. 176–180.
  5. See footnote 2, Document 71.
  6. The National Liberation Front, also known as the Viet Cong.
  7. Reference is to a minority religious sect in Vietnam.
  8. Reference is to a minority religious sect in Vietnam.
  9. Reference is to an ethnic minority in Vietnam, who reside primarily in the Central Highlands of the country.
  10. Printed from a copy that indicates Rusk signed the original.