185. Letter From the Under Secretary of State (Ball) to the Secretary of State1

Dear Dean: Wednesday afternoon2 the President asked me to participate in a discussion with Walter Lippmann. The others involved were Bob McNamara and McGeorge Bundy. The President sat in on part of the discussion and after Lippmann had left, he talked further to the three of us for almost an hour.

Lippmann made his usual argument for neutralization—admitting, when I pressed him, (a) that his proposed course of action was based on the assumption that all of Southeast Asia was destined inevitably to become a zone of Chinese Communist control; (b) that we could not halt Chinese expansionism in this area; and (c) that our best hope was to seek by political means to slow that expansionism down and make it less brutal.

The exchange with Lippmann was rather animated but it did serve to bring out the differences in the assumptions on which we were proceeding. I do not think that the President bought Lippmann’s ultimate thesis. He was, however, quite clearly impressed by Lippmann’s contention that the United States was presenting itself in a bad light to the world by refusing to negotiate and entertaining the possibility of enlarged military action.

After Walter’s departure, the President returned to the question that has been preoccupying him. (He said that he had not slept more than a few hours the night before.) How could he maintain his posture as a man of peace in the face of the Southeast Asian crisis? How could he carry a united country with him if we were to embark on a course of action that might escalate under conditions where the rest of the world would regard us as wrong-headed?

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While no precise instructions emerged from our discussion, I was persuaded that the President will not act hastily and that he is by no means tied on to a scenario of the kind that was being considered when you left. This impression has been confirmed by casual remarks he has made since the Lippmann conversation.

Before talking with the President, I had already begun to ask some hard questions which it seemed to me had been treated too cavalierly. When I first moved back into the Vietnamese situation a fortnight ago, I had the feeling that plans were going forward too precipitously and that there was an inarticulate wish to sweep the difficult issues under the bed. It seemed to me that much of our planning was proceeding on the assumption that, since we were in danger of losing by pursuing the present course, we should promptly undertake a more decisive plan of action even though (a) no one could be sure that the new plan of action would have the desired effect and (b) the risks of a major catastrophe might be vastly enlarged.

Against the background of the President’s wise caution, Alex and I have, by an insistent challenge of the basic premises, considerably slowed down the headlong crystallization of a plan for enlarging the war. The new mood of diminished certainty will necessarily alter the purposes of the Honolulu meeting. Instead of concentrating on detailed arrangements necessary to carry out a specific plan of action, the meeting should, I think, be devoted primarily to an examination of the assumptions and implications of alternative courses of action in order to bring about a greater common understanding between Saigon and Washington and lay the basis for plans consistent with the hard realities. Since Alex returned Thursday3 morning, he and I have worked closely together in trying to point up some of the problems and focus on available alternatives. With the Honolulu meeting in mind, we have drawn up a list of questions that you might wish to inject into the discussion.

I realize that these questions may appear negative and defeatist. I am disturbed, however, by the fact that we are not facing up to the basic requirements for achieving the maximum effectiveness in our present management of the war. Both Alex and I find it personally difficult to advocate a course of action that could result in the loss of many American lives, the further disruption of Western solidarity, and grave dangers of escalation-at a time when we feel unprepared to do all that we know to be possible to reverse the downward trend (if it exists) in South Viet-Nam.

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I cannot, in other words, reconcile myself to the-fateful step of action against the North until we are satisfied in our hearts that we have taken every possible step to achieve full effectiveness in our own efforts in the South. I need not specify the kinds of steps needed. You and I have frequently talked about them.

We appreciated your prompt response on our thoughts with respect to the Polish proposal for Laos.4 They have been passed on to the President but we have not yet heard from him. (He is at the Ranch over this long week-end.) If and when he approves in principle, our first step should probably be for Unger to have a thorough discussion with Souvanna. Unless Souvanna comes along, we will obviously have no package.

Yours ever,


P.S. With the President’s approval, I am asking Paris today to set up a meeting for me with de Gaulle on Friday, June 5. I will be seeing the British on Monday (June 8), at their request, to talk about a number of things, including Cyprus. It seems to us that since Bill Bundy has just been to London and I am going there, our failure to talk to Paris would be a subject for wide comment. You might give some thought to the line I should take with the General, and we can go over it on Thursday when you return.5



Are we proposing action against the North because we are reasonably confident it will, in fact, work, or merely because we are becoming reasonably confident that the present course of action will not work and we are not able to think of anything else to do?

What will be the effect on the SVN of action against the North?

Here we should measure the temporary boost to morale that may be given the GVN leadership against the dangers of a panic of the SVN population—particularly in Saigon—that may result from (a) [Page 403]counter-threats by Hanoi, Peiping, and perhaps Moscow and (b) increased terrorism in the cities (bombing of cafes, public buildings, assassinations, etc.).


What do we seek to achieve by bombing the North?

If we hope to achieve merely an interruption or impairment of the North’s ability to direct insurgency through the radio net, or to assist insurgency through men and supplies, then we must ask ourselves whether the Viet Cong may not now have self-sufficient tactical centers in the South adequate to enable the carrying-on of their campaign with only marginally diminished effectiveness.

If on the other hand, we intend by attacking the North to force North Viet-Nam to direct the cessation of insurgency in the South, how feasible is this? The history of the Viet Cong has been that of carrying on underground when necessary. Even after the partition they did not give up a plan that has now been in existence for more than two decades and that has a fundamental ideological underpinning. Is it not probable that—even though the DRV announced that they were ceasing their encouragement and assistance to the Viet Cong in the South—they would covertly direct the Viet Cong to continue insurgency without their direct help?

This question can be formulated in another way. Do we yet have in South Viet-Nam a sufficiently strong political base in the GVN to deal with the indigenous disaffection that would continue even if the North were in fact to order a cessation of insurgency? The argument may well be made that—even granting the strength of indigenous disaffection—the cessation of encouragement and direction from the North would reduce the insurgency to manageable form. Is this demonstrable?


What kinds of assurances will the USG be required to give the FGVN in order to assure their tranquillity?

Presumably this would mean more than the provision of antiaircraft and other air defense apparatus. It would mean the assurance that if there were a land effort against SVN we would have the forces immediately available to defend the country. This raises a number of issues:

It implies an open-ended commitment of the US to defend SVN with our own troops. This must be considered in the light of the deep aversion of many Americans to the commitment of US ground forces to the Asian mainland.
From the SVN point of view, the appearance of substantial American troops might either have the effect of raising the old colonial bogey or of persuading the SVN that the US would do the fighting and they need do nothing.
From the point of view of many other friendly nations, such a US action would be regarded as America’s inability to learn from past experience. While we might minimize by strenuous information and [Page 404]diplomatic activities, we could not count on having many, if any, of our friends with us very far down the road. In any event, we should have an extended period of psychological and political preparation and an opportunity to measure its results before final decisions are reached.

Why are we contemplating an air action against the North in the face of a recently played war game that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of such a tactic. (Alex participated—along with Mac Bundy, Max Taylor and many others.)6 The answers I have been given are not wholly satisfactory. They are merely that the war game was crudely played and that the time span for action (60 days) was too brief. Yet, it did reveal some of the serious disadvantages of the proposed course and those lessons have not been critically applied to the plans now being proposed.
Would not the proposed course of action lead directly to what we have been seeking to avoid—a conference in which our bargaining position is poor? Either on our own initiative or through the actions of others, we would be faced with a Security Council action almost as soon as the first air strike was completed. The first efforts of the Security Council would be to obtain a ceasefire. If we vetoed such a resolution, we would almost certainly be faced with a call for a General Assembly.

Under these circumstances, we could well find ourselves in a position not wholly dissimilar from that of Britain and France at Suez. World opinion would be against us and opposition would be heightened by the racial implications of a white attack upon the Asian people. Our friends could not be counted on to stay with us far down this track. It seems unlikely that we could hold out very long against some form of conference either in New York or Geneva—in which the neutralization of Southeast Asia would be very appealing to most of the participants. While we might have gained some slight advantage by the demonstration of American will and capability, we would have lost greatly in the moral approbation of most UN members.

  1. Source: Department of State, Ball Files: Lot 74 D 272, Manila Folder. Top Secret.
  2. May 27.
  3. May 28.
  4. On May 27, the Polish Embassy in Vientiane proposed immediate consultations in Switzerland among high-level representatives of the 1954 Geneva Cochairmen (the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union), the ICC member nations, and the three political factions in Laos. (Circular telegram 2209, May 27; Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 LAOS)
  5. Ball wrote the following note at the end of the postscript: “You might wish to tell Lodge about this since he has been concerned about the effect in Saigon of any conversations in Paris.”
  6. See footnote 5, Document 99.