88. Memorandum From the President’s Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Rostow) to the Secretary of State1

To follow up on our conversation of yesterday.2 You say, quite rightly, that if we raise the Viet-Nam issue on an international level “we must be ready to go.” This could mean these things:

We must know quite precisely what kind of international action we want-action which might radically reduce the external component in Diem’s guerrilla war.
If international action is unsatisfactory, we must be prepared, depending on circumstances and timing, for three levels of follow up:
  • —A sharp increase in the number of Americans in South Viet-Nam for training and support purposes;
  • —A counter-guerrilla operation in the north, possibly using American Air and Naval strength to impose about the same level of damage and inconvenience that the Viet Cong are imposing in the south;
  • —If the Vietminh cross their border substantially, a limited military operation in the north; e.g., capture and holding of the port of Haiphong.
As I see it, the purpose of raising the Viet-Nam issue as a case of aggression is either to induce effective international action or to free our hands and our consciences for whatever we have to do. The optimum goal is to create a more persuasive deterrent position with respect to the Laos conference and VietNam. At the minimum we put ourselves in a political position to salvage South Laos and save Viet-Nam with a more rational military plan than we now have.
I would underline this. I do not believe that raising the issue requires that we be immediately prepared, if we do not succeed, to go for Hanoi; it merely clears the ground for direct action and, in so doing, creates more effective support for whatever negotiations we may have in Southeast Asia.
Behind all this is a view, which I believe Alexis Johnson shares, that we are unlikely to be able to negotiate anything like a satisfactory Laos settlement unless the other side believes that we are prepared, as an alternative to a satisfactory settlement, to fight. My anxiety has been that our present military plan, focussed on the [Page 207] Mekong Valley (which I assume the other side knows), might not be an effective and persuasive deterrent. I would assume that a posture aimed more directly against North Viet-Nam is more likely to be diplomatically persuasive.
Whatever organizational arrangements may commend themselves for Southeast Asia to you, I suspect it would be helpful if we were to provide some regular forum soon where we could consider the Laos and Viet-Nam problems together; their relation to Thailand and the rest of Asia; and their relation to Berlin planning.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.00/7-1361. Secret. Initialed by Rostow.
  2. No other record of this conversation has been found.