210. Summary Record of a Meeting1


  • Secretary Rusk (later), Secretary McNamara, Secretary Dillon, Attorney General, Under Secretary Harriman, Director McCone, Director Bell, Director Rowan, Mr. Rostow, Assistant Secretary Bundy, Assistant Secretary Manning, Assistant Secretary McNaughton, General Goodpaster, Deputy Under Secretary Johnson, Special Assistant Sullivan, Mr. Chester Cooper, Mr. William Colby, Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Mr. Douglass Cater, Mr. Bromley Smith

[Here follows discussion of the situation in Laos.]

The group then turned to consider item three of the agenda, i.e., next steps in South Vietnam.2 Mr. Sullivan reported on the existing situation. The most important element in the South Vietnam picture is the will and determination of the Khanh government and the South Vietnamese people. Their morale would be deeply affected by the position we take in Laos. If we stand firm they will be encouraged to adopt our new suggestions with respect to adding U.S. advisory personnel to the Vietnamese civil and military structure. They must, however, have a clear idea of what we plan to do in the future. If we go to a Geneva conference without gaining our preconditions, there will be crisis of confidence in South Vietnam. If we ask and obtain a Congressional [Page 488] resolution in support of our Southeast Asia policy, the Vietnamese will be greatly encouraged. The Manning information operation here and the Zorthian USIA operation in Saigon are efforts in the right direction. We will need to indoctrinate our own people so that they are not conveying to the Vietnamese that we are Gung Ho for a military victory, but, rather, are in South Vietnam for the long term. Our training people can convince the South Vietnamese that we are sticking with them. With the takeover of the military command by General Westmoreland, we can shift from trying to kill every Viet-Cong, to protecting the Vietnamese population. The country team in Saigon has taken three provinces in which pilot projects will be initiated. These three are among the eight provinces recommended by the Honolulu meeting. The Vietnamese Foreign Minister Quat is returning to South Vietnam and, hopefully, will speed up the dispatch abroad of South Vietnamese ambassadors. In addition, the South Vietnamese government has wired [hired?] a U.S. public relations firm to assist it in drawing public attention to its accomplishments. He concluded by repeating that if the Vietnamese can be convinced we are sticking with them and not withdrawing, they will agree to our plans for greater participation in the government structure of South Vietnam.

Secretary Rusk asked why the South Vietnamese doubt that we are sticking with them. Mr. Sullivan responded that they are upset by the statements which Senator Morse makes almost daily, by Agence France Presse reports from Saigon, by whispering which constantly goes on in Saigon involving neutralization proposals, and by the diplomatic activity which we are engaged in involving the problem of Laos.

Secretary McNamara said there is no question but that we face a morale problem in South Vietnam. Many South Vietnamese doubt that we will take actions necessary to save the situation. We must be prepared to take what actions are necessary to maintain morale which has weakened in the last two or three weeks.

Mr. Sullivan said that events in Laos have weakened morale in South Vietnam. He referred to certain evidence that the South Vietnamese think we lack firmness in our policy toward the Laos situation.

Mr. William Bundy disagreed. He suggested that we wait until we had further evidence of the effect of our actions in Laos on the state of morale in Saigon. The air strike in Laos has helped morale in South Vietnam. Secretary McNamara agreed that as a result of our air strike in Laos morale in South Vietnam has improved in the last two days.

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Mr. Cooper asked how we could realistically change South Vietnamese morale. The situation in Laos might have affected morale in South Vietnam, but we cannot say flatly that it was the result of our actions in Laos. It may have been the result of the improved situation in Laos.

Mr. Sullivan said it was necessary to reassure the South Vietnamese every day. Secretary Rusk agreed and said that this necessity applied to several other countries, even including Germany. We cannot build our policy on the constant need to reassure nervous friendly countries.

Secretary McNamara said he concluded, following the Honolulu meeting, that the situation in South Vietnam was weakening. He acknowledged that Ambassador Lodge thought things were getting better there. However, Secretary McNamara felt that the U.S. would not have to take any major action in South Vietnam in the next two or three months. We should review the situation and the actions we are taking every two weeks. Mr. Sullivan agreed that we did not have a short fuze on the South Vietnamese situation. He noted that the Viet Cong had eased up on their attack on South Vietnam military bases and are concentrating their propaganda on trying to erode South Vietnamese support of General Khanh’s government, to weaken U.S. support of that government, and to bring U.S. domestic public opinion pressure on the U.S. Government to reduce its support of General Khanh.

Secretary Rusk suggested we might initiate an operations checklist which might have as many as one hundred items on it. This checklist would be reviewed every few days. Pluses and minuses would be placed after each item on the list. Items would include such subjects as the countries giving aid to South Vietnam, the appointment of South Vietnamese ambassadors, the religious question, and pay and housing for troops. These detailed actions are the essence of our program rather than big diplomatic moves. The checklist would be a stimulus to continued action on the many small proposals.

Mr. Cooper said the weekly combined report now being prepared on South Vietnam meets part of the Secretary’s suggestion.

Mr. McGeorge Bundy suggested that Mr. Sullivan’s group was the proper group to draw up a list of current problems with comment as to progress being made on each. Mr. Rowan volunteered to prepare a study on South Vietnam morale, based on press reports from Saigon.

Secretary Rusk felt it would be helpful to the President to know that we are reviewing South Vietnam actions comprehensively and in detail.

Director McCone expressed some concern over the prospect that we might be confronted in South Vietnam with a sudden Communist thrust. There is some evidence to indicate that the Communists may [Page 490] be holding back their forces and building up for a new attack. The Watch Committee is closely following this subject. There has been a period of relative quiet for the past two weeks in Vietnam, during which there have been no large enemy military actions. Conceivably, the Viet Cong may be assembling resources for a major blow at the Khanh government. Mr. Alexis Johnson said that the Viet Cong may be turning away from military actions to attacks on the morale of the South Vietnamese, as had been pointed out earlier by Mr. Sullivan.

Secretary Rusk asked that the closest watch be kept on the deployment of the Communist Chinese air forces. He emphasized the extreme importance of any movement of these air forces.

Mr. Sullivan summarized the views of Mr. Burdett, an English correspondent who had spent considerable time in Communist areas in the Far East. Mr. Burdett’s view is that the Viet Cong is not seeking a military victory in Vietnam but is trying to turn South Vietnam into another Laos by creating political confusion for the Khanh government and spreading confusion throughout the countryside.

The group then turned to consideration of a draft Congressional resolution3 which was summarized by Mr. William Bundy. The draft resolution tries to convey a firm posture but also emphasizes the peace motive and the readiness to negotiate, plus the willingness to use SEATO and the UN. The objective is to enlist the support of as many Senators as possible, minus Senator Morse. Paragraph two of the draft resolution is modeled on the Near East resolution rather than on the Offshore Island resolution or the Cuban revolution.4 The whereases are important in the effort to gain maximum support. Section three of the draft is considered by the lawyers to be very important but it could be dropped as not being absolutely necessary.

The group then turned to Mr. McGeorge Bundy’s paper, “Alternative Public Positions for U.S. on Southeast Asia for the Period July 1–November 15.”5 Mr. Bundy said the only time to seek the Congressional resolution on Southeast Asia would be at the end of the Civil Rights debate, which may occur within ten days or two weeks. However, if there were a crash situation in Southeast Asia. a resolution could be dealt with at any time.

Secretary Rusk said the ideal situation would be a short resolution adopted unanimously by Congress. It would be disastrous if Congress refused to vote a resolution proposed by the Administration or if the resolution was basically weakened during the course of Congressional [Page 491] debate. We should ask for a resolution only when the circumstances are such as to require action, and, thereby, force Congressional action. There will be a rallying around the President the moment it is clear to reasonable people that U.S. action is necessary.

Secretary McNamara said we would not be in a position to ask for a Congressional resolution before July 1.

The Attorney General foresaw great difficulties in obtaining approval of a Congressional resolution if the Administration’s course of action was not crystal clear. He felt the difficulties on the Hill would be great if events are not pushing us to prompt action. It would be much simpler to obtain approval of a resolution if U.S. actions are forcing the pace. Heavy ground work with Congressmen will be necessary.

Mr. McGeorge Bundy said the Congressional ground work would be difficult if we are not committed to seek a resolution. Secretary McNamara doubted that we could go to Congress before July 1. Secretary Rusk said there was no basis for a resolution in the existing situation or on decisions which the Administration has so far taken.

Secretary McNamara said a Congressional resolution before September was unlikely unless the enemy acts suddenly in the area, which is also unlikely. Our actions proposed to date are not such as to require a resolution.

Mr. McGeorge Bundy asked that the group not dismiss the proposal to seek Congressional resolution without taking into account the great benefit such a resolution would have in conveying our firmness of purpose in Southeast Asia.

Secretary Rusk said we can get a resolution passed only with great difficulty unless the President has already taken basic decisions as to what we would do in Southeast Asia. Success in obtaining the Cuba resolution and then support we obtained from NATO countries followed the announcement of our decision to act. Before we reach a higher climax resulting in firm U.S. decisions, our Congressional problem will be considerable.

Mr. McGeorge Bundy agreed to beef up the last page of his paper which deals with how we can meet the situation in Laos prior to a Congressional resolution or without seeking one.

Secretary McNamara suggested that a press campaign should be launched which would be of such a nature as to avoid building up public pressure for drastic action. Mr. Manning said perhaps the public information program should be aimed at continuing the present disinterest in the Laos and South Vietnam situations. This is a different objective than trying to sell a Congressional resolution.

Secretary Rusk said the Congressmen he had met recently were reacting as if they were unconcerned and not as if there were a crisis. Secretary McNamara pointed out, however, that there was dissatisfaction [Page 492] in Congress with what we are now doing. Mr. Manning said one very thin sample of public opinion consisted of letters being sent to the State Department. About one-third of the letters received dealt with Southeast Asia. Most of these were “soft” in the sense of inquiring as to what we are doing in Southeast Asia, but were not as “soft” as they had been earlier.

Secretary McNamara suggested that in the event of a dramatic event in Southeast Asia we would go promptly for a Congressional resolution, but we would not plan on one and that our public information program would not be aimed at getting support for a resolution.

Mr. McGeorge Bundy called attention to the problem of how far we could go in influencing the situation in Southeast Asia without taking actions which could be initiated only with a Congressional resolution. Secretary McNamara replied that the thirteen actions he had recommended could be taken without a Congressional resolution and that these actions go quite far. Mr. McGeorge Bundy agreed that even air defense actions in Southeast Asia would be possible without a Congressional resolution.

Secretary Dillon said the arguments for a Congressional resolution could be reversed. If we get a resolution and then do not act promptly, there could follow a crisis of morale.

Mr. Alexis Johnson asked whether, if the Pathet Lao attacked, we had sufficient authority to hit back. Mr. McGeorge Bundy felt that under the NATO [SEATO?] Treaty such a response would be possible. Director McCone said that putting U.S. troops on the ground in Southeast Asia would require a Congressional resolution. He reminded the group that the idea of a resolution arose when we were discussing how to deal with a Communist reaction to an attack by us on North Vietnamese targets.

Secretary Rusk requested that the paper on the Congressional resolution be rewritten to reflect the views expressed during the meeting.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Aides Files, McGeorge Bundy, Meetings on Southeast Asia, Vol. 1. Top Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Smith. The source text indicates the President did not attend.
  2. Items 1 and 2 on the attached agenda were: “The immediate situation [in Laos]: Report by Mr. William Bundy;” and “Laos—alternative steps: Presentation by Mr. Forrestal.”
  3. See Document 169 and attachment 3 to Document 214.
  4. For text of the Middle East resolution, March 9, 1957, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1957, pp. 829–831. The Formosa or Offshore Islands resolution, January 29, 1955, is ibid.: Basic Documents, 1950–1955, pp. 2486–2487. The resolution on Cuba, October 2, 1962, is ibid.: Current Documents, 1962, pp. 389–390.
  5. Document 211.