108. Letter From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Bundy) to the Ambassador in Vietnam (Lodge)1

Dear Cabot: I have delayed in carrying out the job assigned to me in the President’s 1484 to you of March 20th,2 because the planning documents and our whole thinking have been evolving so that it did not seem useful until now to go into the situation more deeply with you.

As you know, we carried with us to Saigon a so-called “Annex A” which was an analysis of the implications of direct US military action against North Viet-Nam.3 You saw that analysis at the time and gave your comments to Bob McNamara and John McNaughton. The latter subsequently revised it into the form which I now enclose as Tab B.4

For the first ten days after our return, we were so preoccupied with the various actions under the first 11 recommendations of the report that we did not again focus on the issue, except that the JCS in this period went forward with their examination of the implications of putting in readiness the various categories of action described in the final McNamara-Taylor report at pages 6 and 7.5 The original criterion provided that the Border Control Actions, going beyond those approved by the President at present, should be placed on a 72-hour basis, that the same should be done for the Retaliatory Actions, and that the actions falling within “graduated overt military pressure by GVN and US forces” should be placed on a 30-day readiness basis.

In their examination, the JCS worked to the categories as stated in the report, but pointed out, quite rightly, that they needed further political guidance.

Accordingly, we in the Department, with great help from Mike Forrestal in the White House, turned our attention to re-thinking the [Page 226] political scenario. The result is the attached Tab A,6 which has now been talked over informally with the JCS and will be the subject of further refining and inserting appropriate military actions within its framework. (It should be noted that this scenario, in Part III, goes beyond Recommendation 12 and deals with the kind of actions discussed in Tab B.)

Three conclusions stick out from the re-analysis and I think are now accepted here:

There would be serious domestic problems in moving directly to overt US military action, and, even more basically, if we are to focus the objective where it belongs, on North Viet-Nam, it seems to us vital that the initial acknowledged actions be carried out extensively by the GVN itself. Hence, the new scenario would call for a progression of actions that would put the GVN and Khanh right in the forefront for a period before we ourselves considered moving to overt US action.

The categories used in the McNamara-Taylor report seem to us more and more not to fit the most likely time sequence. In particular, we believe that actions against Cambodia and Laos are dependent heavily on the political position in these countries at the time, and that, in general, it seems more likely that we would wish to hold off in hitting Cambodia until we had gone ahead hard against North Viet-Nam itself. Serious as the Cambodian role is, if we start to take strong military action, even in the form of hot pursuit, we will perhaps be making Cambodia wholly hostile and ready to help the VC, and we would certainly be stirring up an international hornets nest that would obscure the real objective and focus of our effort against North Viet-Nam.

Laos is a somewhat different case. If we are to carry actions against Laos to the point where North Vietnamese forces would move back in, we must be prepared to deal with all the implications of upsetting the “settlement” in Laos (however precarious and unsatisfactory it is). At the very least, we should be ready at that point either with forces stationed in Thailand or to do that at once. [sic] Moreover, for a whole host of reasons, opening up a Laos theater is the least appetizing way to go about it until we have made a real attempt in North Viet-Nam. Trouble in Laos can only be dealt with with ground forces effectively, and I am sure you know that this would not be an easy move to take from a domestic standpoint nor would it be too good from a strictly military view.

In short, there appear to be reasons not to open up other theaters until we have made clear that North Viet-Nam is the main theater and have got really started on it. Obviously, we must deal in due course—once we really mean business—with the activities of North Viet-Nam [Page 227] in both Laos and Cambodia. But our feeling is that this would probably come later rather than sooner, and we are writing an annex to the next revision of Tab A that will cover the problem in that sense.

We have also considered the part to be played by retaliatory actions of a tit-for-tat variety. As you will see, these are woven into the present scenario, but we do not necessarily envisage them as a separate and prior category of action. Part of the reason is that they are hard to fit and to present as fitting specific actions by the Viet Cong; one can hit an oil dump in response to an attack on an oil dump, but attempts to retaliate against the far more subtle and damaging Viet Cong assassinations, for example, may be hard to rationalize. But, more basically, tit-for-tat actions, presented as such, do not seem to us by themselves to convey the picture of concerted and steadily rising pressures that reflect complete US determination to finish the job.

I state this to you frankly, knowing that you and Paul Harkins are looking at this category of action, and I do not exclude the possibility of there being individual cases where our general conclusion will yield to the attractiveness of a specific proposed operation. We will examine them too in an annex.

The result of the above would be to require some sorting of military and political actions and perhaps to change appreciably the readiness times applicable to each category. The Border Control and Retaliatory Actions may not need as short a fuse as 72 hours, but conversely the initiation of actions under the old category of graduated military pressure should probably have a shorter fuse than 30 days.

The re-sorting of the actions is now in process within the JCS, and will be reflected in the revised and enlarged scenario we are now preparing. It will require the careful selection of actions which would make a strong impact right from the outset and might be applied thereafter either in the form of a single large action—if and when we move to the US overt phase—or through successive, progressively more serious groups of targets. The JCS considered this informally the other day, and feel that it should be no serious problem to arrange the sequence of actions so that it could be handled in either way.

As to the problem of readiness times on the military side, the overt GVN actions are mostly ready now, since we contemplate extensive and perhaps even exclusive use of the Farmgate unit on the air side; even the insertion of B–57s, to be flown with a Vietnamese who would in fact be only a passenger, would take very little time. Thus, the whole question of readiness times is more apparent than real, except for actions to respond to possible escalation although of course we will fit this in and see if there are bugs that do need to be ironed out.

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Thus, we are now working to amplify the political scenario and dovetail it with the military actions that would be taken at each stage. Secondly, we are working on an annex that would frame the possible timing and type of action in Cambodia and Laos. Thirdly, we will do an analysis of retaliatory actions. And fourthly, once these three jobs are done, we propose to refine our estimates and judgments of North Vietnamese and Chinese Communist reaction, through a comprehensive National Intelligence Estimate. Lastly, this Estimate in turn will give us a better fix on how likely the more drastic forms of North Vietnamese and Chinese Communist action really appear to be, so that we can properly advise the President, at the right time, just what the real risks of escalation are and what it would take to deal with them from a military standpoint.

This, then, is the status of our planning. I am pouching this rather detailed explanation so that you, in consultation with Paul Harkins and his senior people as you see fit, can see how our minds are working and give us your own comment back. I am hoping that this will reach you by about April 10, and, if you saw fit, I myself will be in Manila from the 12th through the 15th,7 and would welcome a discussion with whomever you might choose to send. I could make several hours available for this purpose more or less at their convenience, and we could settle time and place by cables between Manila and Saigon if this does not reach you before our departure the morning of the 10th. In order to make the consultation not too conspicuous, I would suggest that the Saigon representation be small and arrive in a discreet manner.

I need hardly add that all of this planning is on a contingency basis and does not reflect any policy decisions yet taken by the President.

I have some other thoughts that relate back to your memorandum of October 30th to Averell Harriman,8 and I will write you a separate letter on this.9 However, you will see that we have at least put in the motif of the carrot-and-stick, in the form of possible food offers. As to our negotiating position with respect to some reduction of the US presence eventually, this would take further thought, and my own inclination is that we should not raise it at an early point.

Forgive the length of this, but the subject is complex and we will doubtless need further exchanges to see if we are all thinking at least in the same general lines.

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With warm regards to you and to Emily,

Yours ever,

William P. Bundy10

P.S. I have gone over this letter with General Goodpaster (General Taylor’s Assistant), with John McNaughton, and with Bill Sullivan and Mike Forrestal. However, it would not make much sense at this point to try to write you any firm views on behalf of the Department, Secretary McNamara, or the JCS. All of us tend to agree with much of the substance contained in the attached Tab A, but it has not been examined in detail and does not reflect a firm “Washington position.” On the contrary, we very much need your thinking at this point in particular.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. VII, Cables and Memos. Top Secret.
  2. Document 92.
  3. Apparent reference to papers cited in footnote 4, Document 93.
  4. Not found.
  5. Document 84.
  6. Not attached, but apparent reference to the attachment to Document 102.
  7. As a member of the U.S. Delegation to the Ninth Ministerial Council Meeting of SEATO.
  8. Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. IV, pp. 656–659.
  9. Not found.
  10. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
  11. Printed from a copy that bears these typed initials.