1. Memorandum From the Secretary of Defense (McNamara) to President Kennedy1



  • Defoliant Operations in Vietnam

You have previously approved, subject to prior consideration and authorization by Washington of specific plans, U.S. participation in a selective and carefully controlled joint US-VN program of defoliant operations in Vietnam.3 These operations were to start with the clearance of key routes and proceed thereafter to food denial only after the most careful basis of resettlement and alternative food supply has been created. Proposed operations in Zone D and the border areas were not to be undertaken until there were realistic possibilities of immediate military exploitation.

A specific plan for clearance of key routes has been developed by CINCPAC. As the proposed initial defoliant operation, it has been designed with limited specific objectives to provide an opportunity to evaluate its success and thereby determine the advisability of further defoliant operations. The operations recommended in the plan are designed to clear vegetation along key lines of communication to be used by the Vietnamese in a campaign to eliminate the Viet Cong from specified provinces in Southern Vietnam. Principal features of the plan are the following:

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To assist the counter-insurgency operation by clearing lines of communication in support of current or projected campaigns.
To improve aerial observation of selected areas controlled by the Viet Cong.
To assist in clearing fields of fire and to reduce the likelihood of close-in ambushes.
Scope. Approximately three hundred miles of road would be defoliated to a distance of 200 meters on both sides. The selected routes are all at least ten miles from the Cambodian Border. (See attached map.)4 They would be defoliated by segment in a sequence which avoids concentrating the operation in any one area, thereby reducing the risk of alerting the Viet Cong to the proposed Vietnamese campaign in Binh Duong Province. Operations would commence about 10 January. It could take up to two weeks to determine the full effect of the first application, and a second application may be required for all or part of the area. Sufficient chemicals for the operation arrive in Saigon this week.
Participation. Defoliant operations will be conducted by U.S. and VN forces. The bulk of the operation will be carried out by U.S. personnel in uniform under PACAF control. They will employ U.S. C-123 aircraft with USAF markings. Some of the spraying will be performed by Vietnamese employing their own H-34 helicopters and ground spraying equipment.

Public Relations. At the direction of the Department of State, Ambassador Nolting has discussed the public relations aspects of the defoliation program with the GVN. The Ambassador has obtained GVN concurrence in the State Departmentʼs proposals that, at the time of the operation, the Vietnamese Government would undertake appropriate publicity in the form of press releases, public statements and leaflet drops. The publicity would include statements that the program is under GVN direction and control and that U.S. assistance has been requested. The defensive purpose of the program will be explained and, in addition, efforts will be made to advise the inhabitants of affected areas that the spray will have no harmful effects on humans, livestock, or the soil. In response to any press inquiries, U.S. officials would reply along the following lines:

“Noting Communist guerrillas use roadside underbrush to ambush civilian buses, trucks, and passenger cars, making roads unsafe for daily travel by people of the country, the GVN has asked the U.S. for assistance in a program of clearance of jungle growth along roads of Vietnam. U.S. equipment will be used. Road clearance will aid the ARVN in patrolling roads to protect people and will facilitate normal [Page 3]maintenance. Operation involves use of materials which are similar to those used every day for weed clearance along rights of way in the United States. As our people know from experience, these defoliants of the 2-4D variety are not harmful to humans, animals, or the soil. Since there are miles of jungle roads in Vietnam, U.S. planes and personnel are actively cooperating in jungle growth clearance operation.”

It is understood that the recommendations of the Department of State are being forwarded by a separate paper.5

The Department of Defense recommends that CINCPAC be authorized to implement his proposed plan for clearance of selected routes, upon receipt by Ambassador Nolting of GVN concurrence in this specific plan.

  1. Source: National Defense University, Taylor Papers, T-015-69. Top Secret. A draft of this memorandum, with virtually identical wording, is in Department of State, S/S-NSC Files: Lot 72 D 316, NSAMs. President Kennedy approved the program on January 3.
  2. The source text is undated, but the papers accompanying the draft cited in footnote 1 indicate that it was sent to the President on January 2.
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. I, Document 275.
  4. Not printed.
  5. Attached to the draft cited in footnote 1 is a memorandum of January 2 from Secretary Rusk to the President recommending approval of the proposal as long as the program was carried out under the direction of Ambassador Nolting. Also attached is a memorandum of January 2 from Harriman to Rusk suggesting that the latter recommend approval of the program.