172. Summary Record of the National Security Council Executive Committee Meeting1

PRESENT

  • Secretary Rusk, Secretary McNamara, Director McCone, General Taylor, Under Secretary Ball, Director Bell, Assistant Secretary Manning, Assistant Secretary Bundy, Assistant Secretary McNaughton, General Goodpaster, Special Assistant Sullivan, Mr. Chester Cooper, Mr. William Colby, Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Mr. Douglass Cater, Mr. Bromley Smith

Secretary Rusk opened the meeting by stating his general view toward the entire Southeast Asia problem. He reviewed current efforts to seal the Cambodian border and to uphold the government in Laos.

Referring to the proposal for a Congressional resolution,2 Secretary Rusk said it is most important that we not put the President in a precarious position. For example, General Khanh’s position is somewhat difficult for us to defend until he takes certain actions to damp down religious controversy and internal bickering in South Vietnam. We must remember that while the South Vietnamese are not fighting for the U.S., they must create an image of being willing and able to fight for themselves.

With reference to the proposal to assume larger responsibility of Vietnamese conduct of the war,3 Secretary Rusk expressed his doubts that we should try to persuade Khanh to accept a plan involving U.S. officers giving direct orders to Vietnamese officers. He preferred a parallel command arrangement. He feared that if we got too deeply into operations of the Vietnamese military, we would be open to accusations of colonialism. We would be giving Khanh’s enemies a chance to move against him in South Vietnam.

Secretary McNamara said the first issue which should be presented to the President is whether we believe that additional U.S. efforts within South Vietnam will or will not prevent further deterioration in South Vietnam.

Secretary Rusk developed his belief that we should straighten out the Laotian situation, possibly by moving against North Vietnam, and if we succeed in this, we would then straighten out South Vietnam. Secretary McNamara commented that we had not studied the scenario for Laos. Does it provide another road to the north? If so, it required [Page 370] study by the group. Mr. William Bundy was assigned the task of preparing a Laotian scenario which emphasizes the link between the Laotian problem and the South Vietnamese problem.

Secretary Rusk referred to four preconditions which must be met before we agree to a Laotian conference. Copies of Vientiane telegram 1407 were circulated (copy attached).4 This cable contains a summary of Souvanna’s press conference.

Secretary McNamara asked how we would get the Pathet Lao to withdraw from Laos. How could we force this? Secretary Rusk replied we could put pressure on Hanoi and Peking on the basis of the Geneva Accords of 1962. If we were not successful in getting a conference on our terms, we might attack East Laos and North Vietnam. This action thus becomes our path to the north.

General Taylor said we can go into North Vietnam only for both reasons, i.e., Laos and South Vietnam. Secretary McNamara said that if we went via the Laotian routes, the time schedule might be as short as fifteen to thirty days.

Secretary Rusk repeated his view that Laos is one chapter and South Vietnam is another and separate chapter. Mr. McGeorge Bundy commented that we could not separate the political and military chapters on Laos and South Vietnam. We will have to crank in any Laos scenario.

Secretary Rusk said we might accomplish our purpose in phases. The first phase would be diplomatic activity in an effort to get a conference based on our preconditions. If we get a conference on our terms, we will have achieved our objective. Phase two would involve the situation if there were no conference. The question immediately arises as to whether we should use force to get a conference. In phase two U.S. pressure would be exerted first to restore the Plaine des Jarres in Laos to the neutralists, force the removal of Pathet Lao forces from Laos, and then deal with North Vietnam. He mentioned that consideration was being given to a plan which would provide for a UN Security Council resolution authorizing a four-power commission, including teams to inspect the Cambodian/Vietnamese border.

Director McCone expressed his view that if we go into North Vietnam we should go in hard and not limit our action to pinpricks. General Taylor commented that a surprise attack from the air could be very effective, but thereafter attacks would be less effective and losses would go up.

Secretary McNamara pointed out that we had three kinds of military force: A South Vietnamese air force comprising some fifty fighter bombers; a much larger force consisting of South Vietnamese air forces plus Farmgate; and U.S. air power.

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Secretary Rusk expressed his view that we should hit light at first so that North Vietnamese prestige was not involved. Ho Chi Minh could back out of the situation if his prestige was not deeply engaged. The Secretary referred again to the importance of getting the maximum out of General Khanh, such as actions which would induce full Vietnamese support of the Khanh government before we go to Congress asking U.S. support of the South Vietnamese government. Secretary McNamara’s response was to ask what specifically do we do. Can General Khanh do what we ask him to do in the light of his restricted political power? Secretary Rusk said we do not go to war for a government which is more interested in quarreling than in fighting the Viet Cong.

Mr. Sullivan summarized his proposal to send many more U.S. advisers to Vietnam so that General Khanh can carry out some of the actions he is prepared to take. Many things that the South Vietnamese government wants to do are not being done merely because there are not enough Vietnamese officials who know what to do.

Director McCone said the proposal to send more U.S. advisers might produce a reverse reaction, i.e., there were so many Americans that the Vietnamese would take the position that they had no responsibility.

Secretary McNamara referred to another major issue, i.e., can U.S. air stop a Chinese Communist movement into Laos and Vietnam? Our inability to halt such a movement from the air means that we will need to be prepared to put U.S. forces on the ground in Southeast Asia. He said our objective was to find the best way to deter the North Vietnamese from attacking South Vietnam, and, if the Chinese Communists attack in response to U.S. actions, the best way to defeat them.

Secretary Rusk said we should consider moving a U.S. division in Korea to Southeast Asia, at which time we would make public a declaration that any attack on South Korea would be met by the use of nuclear weapons.

Mr. McGeorge Bundy said we need an operational plan on targets in North Vietnam. General Taylor said the Chiefs and CINCPAC were at work on such a plan which involved dividing targets into three categories.

Secretary Rusk said he favored cutting down on dependents in South Vietnam beginning now. They should be returning in small groups so that they would not be a problem to deal with on D-Day. Secretary McNamara said he thought this would give a wrong signal to the South Vietnamese, i.e., that we were preparing to withdraw. All agreed that the dependents should come out on the day the President makes a speech outlining our plans.

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Mr. McGeorge Bundy said the President was interested in seeing what could be done if we decide to intensify covert actions now being undertaken. It was agreed that there is little more which can be down in this area.

There was a lengthy discussion of what was called interlarding our political encadrement as explained in the paper listed as Tab 3.5 After Mr. Sullivan explained the concept, both Secretary McNamara and Director McCone pointed out that even if this plan were put into effect, it would have little effect in South Vietnam in the near future.

General Taylor said his reaction to the plan was to call it the “third coup.” As he saw it, it followed a chief of staff concept. He said Khanh would have to want it badly or he would not accept it. He felt it raised the question as to whose war, ours or South Vietnam’s. He thought it would have a bad effect on Vietnamese conduct of the war. He doubted that sufficient U.S. personnel could be found to implement it.

Secretary McNamara said that if he were President he would want to ask his advisers this question: “Do I want to use military force in Southeast Asia in the next two or three months?” This decision is not affected by whether or not we decide to attempt interlarding of U.S. forces. However, the President now appears to look at interlarding as an alternative or a substitute for the use of force.

Secretary Rusk said that a better situation in Saigon is a supporting requirement to a decision to go north. Congressional and world opinion must be given this reassurance. Secretary McNamara said the proposed actions in South Vietnam were not a substitute for the use of force. The attempt to take over more of the direction of the war in South Vietnam was extremely complex. We lacked sufficient U.S. personnel. General Khanh could be removed suddenly as head of the government by assassination or by coup. We must concentrate on the most crucial points and acknowledge that the measures to support South Vietnam are restricted. They will not substitute for the use of force against North Vietnam. We do not have a solution and these proposals will not save us.

General Taylor said we should try the interlarding concept on a pilot province basis.

Secretary McNamara said that where our proposals are being carried out now, the situation is still going to hell. We are continuing to lose. Nothing we are now doing will win.

General Taylor replied that it was too early to say that Khanh was losing. To reach the conclusion that he is not going to win out is unwise. We should give him four or five months before we decide that the actions he is taking will not be successful.

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Mr. Sullivan commented that all we are doing now ends up with Viet Cong assassinations which remove promising provincial leaders as soon as they begin to act effectively. Secretary McNamara added that the leadership in the provinces is worse now than before because most present province leaders lack governmental experience.

Mr. Sullivan said General Khanh can’t implement his program, which is acceptable to us, because he lacks the personnel resources to carry it out.

Secretary Rusk said that, if necessary, the U.S. is prepared to take military action against North Vietnam and Communist China to keep Laos and South Vietnam from being overrun by the Communists. Thus, we are obliged to do everything we can to strengthen South Vietnam because the alternative is the use of force.

Secretary McNamara said the probability is that further weakening will occur in South Vietnam. The question is whether we should hit North Vietnam now or whether we can wait. South Vietnam is weaker now than it was in January, but we can ride through for a few additional weeks, even with further weakening. Thus, we do not have to act now, but we may have to use military force later.

Secretary Rusk said we must act for reasons arising out of the situation in Southeast Asia and not for reasons arising out of the situation in the U.S. He hoped that we could get better reporting out of South Vietnam where all is not doom and gloom. We must get better information here and in Vietnam in order to present a brighter picture of the actual situation in Vietnam. We badly need actions in the information field.

General Taylor commented that we need a government-wide information program. He urged that senior officials here and U.S. officers returning from Vietnam be used in this program.

Secretary Rusk said we must counter public reports that the President is not acting because of the upcoming elections. He thought that a major speech by the President was required soon. It would not need to contain much new, but he and other officials must say the same thing over and over again. He pointed out that while he had said nothing new in his last speech, the press had called attention to one idea as if it were new when in fact he had been saying it for months.

General Taylor commented that the South Vietnam government isn’t going to lose rapidly or win rapidly. Secretary McNamara restated his view that the situation in the provinces is much worse, the number of desertions has risen, and recruitment in South Vietnamese units is not adequate. He asked whether anything that we did could improve the situation as long as Viet Cong harassment continues. His personal view was that it was very doubtful whether we could affect the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam unless the Viet Cong could be stopped. If the Communist activity could be halted, what we are now [Page 374] doing in Vietnam would definitely improve the situation. General Taylor said the military would prefer to wait until fall before military action was taken. Better equipment would be available in the field and the administration of our military effort would be further along. However, prompt military action could be taken and it would serve as a shot in the arm for General Khanh and possibly be useful in dealing with the situation in Laos.

Secretary McNamara expressed doubt that we could get at the North Vietnamese situation via the Laos route, as suggested by Secretary Rusk.

Bromley Smith 6
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Aides File, McGeorge Bundy, Meetings on SEA, Vol. 1. Top Secret. Drafted by Bromley Smith.
  2. See Document 169.
  3. Document 170.
  4. Dated May 24, not attached. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 15–1 Laos)
  5. Document 170.
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.