191. Memorandum From the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Taylor) to the Secretary of Defense (McNamara)1



  • Transmittal of JCSM–471–64. “Objectives and Courses of Action-Southeast Asia”
On 30 May 1964, the Joint Chiefs of Staff considered the subject paper and directed the Joint Staff to recast certain parts to make it acceptable to all Chiefs. The recasting was done but because of the desire to get it to you before your departure for Honolulu on 31 May, it was dispatched by the office of the Director, Joint Staff before being seen by all the Chiefs in its modified form. When I saw it on 31 May prior to leaving with you for Honolulu, I found that it did not entirely conform to my views and directed its withdrawal from your office pending further consideration by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nevertheless, because of its pertinence to the impending discussions in Honolulu, I made it available to you and Assistant Secretary McNaughton as a paper still under consideration and not approved in its existing form.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff met on this paper on June 1 and made several changes in language which they have cabled to Honolulu. They requested that the paper be modified and transmitted to you. To meet their request, I am attaching it in modified form to this memorandum. It should now be considered an agreed JCS paper less the views of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, which I will submit later.2
Maxwell D. Taylor
Joint Chiefs of Staff



Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defense (McNamara)3


  • Objectives and Courses of Action—Southeast Asia
Over the past few months and particularly in recent weeks, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have given considerable attention and thought to our national purpose in Southeast Asia. In this context they are concerned because of what they consider to be a lack of definition, even a confusion in respect to objectives and courses of action related to each objective.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that it is their first obligation to define a militarily valid objective for Southeast Asia and then advocate a desirable military course of action to achieve that objective. Based on military considerations, the Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that the United States should seek through military actions to accomplish destruction of the North Vietnamese will and capabilities as necessary to compel the Democratic Government of Vietnam (DRY) to cease providing support to the insurgencies in South Vietnam and Laos. Only a course of action geared to this objective can assure that the North Vietnamese support of the subversive efforts in Laos and South Vietnam will terminate. The Joint Staff currently is developing a new plan of action against North Vietnam designed to achieve this objective. This plan will be completed as a matter of urgency.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff are concerned that the military validity of the objective stated above may not be recognized. They note that some current thinking appears to dismiss this objective in favor of a [Page 438] lesser objective, on visualizing limited military action which, hopefully, would cause the North Vietnamese to decide to terminate their subversive support of activity in Laos and South Vietnam. This lesser objective is thus not geared to destruction of capability but rather to an enforced changing of policy and its implementation which, if achieved, may well be temporary in nature. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that this lesser objective just described is militarily an inadequate objective for the present situation, but would agree as an initial measure to pursue a course of action to achieve this lesser objective.
In the event that US action is to be related to achievement of the lesser objective, it is incumbent upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff to furnish their views as to the implementing military actions. Assuming national authority chooses to pursue the lesser objective, resort to a broad range and evolutionary development of miscellaneous activity can perpetuate the inadequacy of present response and the impact on the North Vietnamese could be delayed and even diffused and uncertain. Reluctance now to take positive action will almost inevitably increase the price and gravity of such action when it is finally taken. This situation exists because, in spite of more than two years of effort to convince a determined enemy of our determination that he will not prevail, he has clearly increased his effort and achieved improvement in his relative situation. Thus, even within the lesser second objective, the time for continuing a monologue of “messages” that repeat the substance or maintain the intensity of our past effort seems to us to be well past. If we mean to send a “message” to convey the determination which must be part of our national purpose if we really intend to prevail in this situation, we must recognize the requirement to convey directly, sharply, even abruptly, that the situation has indeed changed insofar as the United States is concerned. It appears that the way to convey that “message” now is along the following lines:
Select carefully a limited number of target complexes-perhaps two-in North Vietnam.
In selecting these target complexes, screen carefully to assure that those chosen are in fact directly and significantly associated with support of the effort in Laos and North Vietnam; that they represent completely valid military objectives; that they are susceptible to reasonable quick and precise destruction by air attack; that their destruction can be achieved with minimum impact on civilian populations. (Appended hereto are summary data on the target complexes selected in keeping with these criteria.)4
Once the targets are chosen, appropriate planning action should be initiated to establish readiness for implementation.
In relation to establishing readiness for this action, we must, of course, establish a related readiness for implementing the course of action related to the first objective discussed above since readiness for escalation must be clearly established as a matter of military prudence and clearly demonstrated to achieve the full impact of the initial effort.
In summary, the Joint Chiefs of Staff conclude that:
There is no basis to be hopeful about the situation in Southeast Asia until and unless North Vietnam is forced to stop supporting the insurgent activities in Laos and South Vietnam.
The best way to achieve this objective is through destruction of the North Vietnamese will and capabilities as necessary to compel the DRV to cease providing such support.
If there should be a national decision that the United States will resort to lesser measures to cause the North Vietnamese to make a decision to terminate their subversive activities, then we should not waste critical time and more resources in another protracted series of “messages,” but rather we should take positive, prompt, and meaningful military action to underscore our meaning that after more than two years of tolerating this North Vietnamese support we are now determined that it will stop.

Just as it is essential to convey a meaningful “message” to the North Vietnamese, it is obviously also important that we convey to our Allies the will and determination of the United States in this matter. In this connection, your attention is invited to the recent comment of the US Ambassador to Thailand, who, in discussing current attitudes of our important Thai Allies, made this significant statement (reference U.S. Embtel Bangkok to Department of State 2014, DTG 241345Z May 64):5

“It should be clearly evident from recent reporting that events propelling Thai toward massive re-examination value their commitment to West. At this moment they still believe we would honor our undertakings but rapid pace recent events and mini mum U.S. responses are almost visibly eroding confidence manifested last October, when I first arrived.”

In summary, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that:
In any national level discussions of action against North Vietnam, you seek precise delineations of both objectives and their supporting courses of action.
In defining objectives, it be recognized that the Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that termination of North Vietnamese support efforts in both South Vietnam and Laos can be assured only through destruction of North Vietnamese will and capabilities as necessary to compel the DRV to cease providing such support; based on military considerations, the Joint Chiefs of Staff advocate acceptance of this objective and the initiation now of measures designed to increase readiness for its achievement.
If is be determined that a lesser objective is to be adopted, the military implementation thereof be geared to demonstrating an early sharp change in US outlook and determination, generally as discussed in paragraph 4, above; that necessary supporting actions be incorporated in an appropriate scenario, without however diffusing or delaying in any way the impact of the deliberate signal of change.
For the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
J.W. Davis
Rear Admiral, USN
Deputy Director, Joint Staff
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OASD/ISA Files: FRC 69 A 7425, Vietnam 381. Top Secret. A note on the source text indicates that McNaughton saw this memorandum.
  2. Document 199.
  3. Top Secret; Sensitive.
  4. Not printed.
  5. Dated May 24. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 LAOS)