264. Memorandum From Robert H. Johnson of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Rostow)1


  • Use of Defoliants in Viet Nam

It seems to me that if we are going to cope successfully with charges that we are engaged in germ or poison gas warfare, we must make the general character of the operations as open and above board as possible. Would it be possible to get the ICC to examine every drum of the defoliant mixture to determine that it is what we say it is? If we are going to pursue the policy of letting the ICC find out itself whether we are violating the Geneva Accords, this may be impossible. It may be difficult, in any event, to get the ICC to agree to any such action. An alternative approach would be to bring in some other international group or perhaps a group of private scientists. Publicity ought to emphasize the fact (I believe it is a fact) that the chemical agents involved are the same kind that are used by farmers against weeds.

I think that the adverse political consequences of the operation would also be less if this is not the first concrete move that is announced in connection with our stepped-up effort in Viet Nam. If it could be put in the context of a comprehensive story of what we plan to do and why we plan to do it, we shall be much better off. There is some danger that North Viet Nam, which has already got hold of our general plans and begun a propaganda operation, can exploit this operation to the point where its propaganda would be a quite effective backfire against our subsequent charges of DRV involvement in the South.

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It seems to me important that this question be got to the President on an urgent basis, possibly this weekend, no later than Monday.2 If we are not going ahead we ought to stop our preparatory efforts quickly. Otherwise we may pay many of the political costs while reaping no military advantages.

The cost estimates on this program seem to have gone upward continuously. Whereas earlier this week I understood that the total cost was on the order of $4 million ($1 million for chemicals and $3 million for air transport), I now understand that it may be on the order of $10-15 million. This estimate is for just the initial phase operation-the attack on the food supplies. Other estimates have put total possible cost of the three-phase program at $70 million or more. I think that these figures raise serious questions with respect to the comparative value of this as opposed to other measures we might take in Viet Nam.

As you probably know, subsequent phases would involve selective defoliation in Zone D and of the communications routes between Saigon and other key cities and defoliation along the Cambodian border. If I understand a recent Department telegram3 correctly, we have in mind defoliating an area near, but not on, the border, but at a constant distance from it. Will this accomplish the purpose?

I am not certain whether the President is being asked to approve all three phases. Politically, the defoliation of areas around Zone D and along the roads to the principal cities would seem to present least difficulties. If we should decide against the operation directed at VC crops, we might still decide to go ahead with Zone D and roadside operation. The principal political danger in it may be to turn non-Communist villagers whose crops are accidentally destroyed against the government. That is, of course, one of the political drawbacks of all three proposed phases.

I would recommend that, since State and Defense are now to discuss the subject this afternoon,4 they might consider preparing a joint paper for the President. The Defense draft ought clearly to state the technical military case for case. (A bootleg copy of a [Page 641] draft5 which I have seen did not.) The State draft ought to discuss the political problems in the area and worldwide.

Relevant recent cable traffic is attached.6

Robert H. Johnson7
  1. Source: Department of State, S/P Files: Lot 67 D 548, Sept.-Dec. 1961. Secret.
  2. November 20.
  3. Telegram 582 to Saigon, November 10. (Department of State, Central Files, 751K.00/11-961)
  4. This discussion took place at the Department of State at 2 p.m. on November 17 and included U. Alexis Johnson, William Bundy, and Rostow, among others. (Memorandum from Bagley to Taylor, November 18; National Defense University, Taylor Papers, T-127-69)
  5. Not found, but apparently a reference to a draft of a memorandum of November 21 from Gilpatric to the President. (Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files: FRC 66 A 3542, Viet-Nam 1962-370.64)
  6. Not found attached to the source text.
  7. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.