40. Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defense (McNamara)1



  • Rules of Engagement for US Helicopters in Vietnam

It came to the attention of General Wheeler’s team during his visit to Vietnam, that under local interpretation of JCS instructions, all US aircraft other than Farmgate are precluded from using their weapons until they are actually fired upon even in the case of clearly identified enemy personnel discovered during the progress of combat. This prohibition is more restrictive than the Joint Chiefs of Staff had intended and seriously limits effective self-defense. Accordingly, CINCPAC has been authorized to permit all helicopters to fire on clearly identified Viet Cong elements which are considered to be a threat to the safety of the helicopters and their passengers.2

For the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

Maxwell D. Taylor
Joint Chiefs of Staff
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files: FRC 69 A 3131, Vietnam 380 thru 381 1963. Secret.
  2. On February 25, Chalmers Wood sent a memorandum to Harriman which indicated that the decision to change the rules of engagement for U.S. helicopters in Vietnam had been cleared with the President but not with the Department of State, and had become an embarrassment because of a news leak: “Today’s Washington Daily News runs the headline ‘New Order to American Troops in Viet Nam … “SHOOT FIRST” ‘ “.

    “On reading this headline I called JCS and asked them to send a message to Saigon within 24 hours inquiring under what authority the Secret order changing the rules of engagement for helicopters had been released by informed military sources’ to the UPI. I learned that CINCPAC has sent such a message.

    “I also asked why JCS had not cleared the order changing the rules of engagement with State. They replied that the Attorney General had wished the matter taken to the President for decision quickly. While this is true, they would not have been delayed if, for example, Bill Bundy had called you on the matter before it went to the White House. DOD has, once again, promised to clear such matters with us in the future.” (Department of State, Vietnam Working Group Files: Lot 67 D 54, PR-11 Press Relations)

    John Mecklin described this as a “spectacular leak”, which “leaked so rapidly that stories appeared in the press before the new rules had even taken effect.” According to Mecklin, the leak should have been anticipated: “The order had to be circulated among something like a thousand persons, most of them young, embittered helicopter crewmen who had lost buddies to V.C. fire, and many of whom were close personal friends of newsmen.” (Mecklin, Mission in Torment, p. 119)