318. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

457. There is need for guidance to COMUSMACV in the execution of joint military planning now underway with RVNAF. This planning will involve three contingency areas: (1) cross-border operations into Laos, (2) DRV ground attack against northern provinces of SVN, (3) air attack of targets in DRV by VNAF and/or US air forces. I should like to comment by category with regard to some of the emerging problems.

[Page 685]

A. Cross-border operations into Laos

This kind of operation has already been undertaken with limited success in the form of the Leaping Lena parachute drops. This pattern has the advantage of making reasonably sure that a reconnaissance team arrives at destination and does not turn back at some point before getting there. I do not think that we should be discouraged by poor initial results but should proceed to reestablish the capability for Leaping Lena operations which is currently virtually nil as the result of disaffection of trainees at Nha Trang.

In expanding cross-border operations, consideration is now being given to a concept involving the establishment of three “bridgeheads” of considerable dimension in Laos as described in MACV 8213 to CINCPAC1CS DTG 160943Z.2

As I understand the proposal, it seems to me to be subject to several objections. It is overly ambitious in relation to the forces which could properly be made available without detriment to the pacification effort which should always remain the bread-and-butter preoccupation of RVNAF. Since such diverted forces, in my judgment, should not exceed at this time about 2–3 battalion equivalents additional to present border forces the cross-border operations are likely to be relatively ineffective in stopping infiltration. To achieve any effectiveness, I would agree with the joint planners that US advisors should accompany the ground forces.

It is proposed to provide VNAF air support for these ground operations on approval of CINCRVNAF and COMUSMACV. Such air operations would raise some of the questions posed by Ambassador Unger in Vientiane’s 160 [170]3 to Department and would cause concern in my mind over loss of US control of air actions outside of SVN, which could have great political and military significance to US interests. US Mission is presently studying pros and cons of using US air against Panhandle targets as described in Embtel 2364 rather than VNAF and results of this study will bear on our position with regard to use of air in cross-border operations.

Notwithstanding these adverse comments, I am in favor joint cross-border planning not because of its probable effectiveness but because us [it?] will have value in letting off some of the steam building up in local military.

[Page 686]

B. Defense against DRV ground/air attack

COMUSMACV has described in following terms the most probable (in view of JCS) offensive ground reaction of DRV in case of military escalation:

“Entire units of PACV could be infiltrated on an intensive scale probably with unit designations changed and in VC uniforms but otherwise maintaining unit integrity. This infiltration could take place across the demilitarized zone and through the Laotian Panhandle. Forces equivalent to division strength could be thus infiltered and marshalled in Quang Nam or Thua Thien and could make a sudden and violent descent upon Da Nang and Hue or both, with little or no warning. An attack at Da Nang could be highly destructive and would represent a direct blow against a major US air base.”

In view of this threat, COMUSMACV recommends holding a BLT on call to land at Da Nang within 6 hours and the remainder of MEF to follow as soon as possible. In addition, he wishes a US brigade available on call to move to the defense of Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa if needed and to provide a general reserve. He also recommends deployment to SVN ASAP logistic, communication and anti-aircraft missile units, the latter for the air defense of Saigon complex, Da Nang and Nha Trang.

In summary, COMUSMACV feels that a DRV ground action in I Corps is sufficiently probable to require a BLT to remain indefinitely afloat off Da Nang (with the remainder of MEF on alert presumably at home stations on Okinawa), to keep a brigade available for quick deployment to Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa, and to deploy now the logistic and communications elements necessary to support the additional combat forces and the air defense elements necessary in anticipation of hostile air attacks on Saigon, Da Nang and Nha Trang.

There is considerable logic behind the ascribed capability of DRV to create a serious ground situation in I Corps if PAVN units are added to the VC. However, if the form of the attack were the infiltration mode described above, a concurrent air attack on Saigon, Da Nang and Nha Trang seems incompatible with the covert character of the ground action. Nevertheless it is quite clear that an air threat against these crowded bases always exists in any circumstance.

The question comes down to the point of deciding whether or not the DRV actions in the Gulf of Tonkin have so changed our evaluation of the capabilities and possible intentions of Hanoi as to warrant preparation against a ground attack in I Corps and the consequent threat to Da Nang by positioning the Marines, alerting the army forces and taking now the air defense/logistic measures mentioned above (including increasing military forces permanently in SVN).

[Page 687]

Another question arising in joint planning concerns command relationships in case US ground forces are brought into SVN. This question could become an area of futile debate if not brought under early control and should be avoided if possible. If something must be said, COMUSMACV could comment that the Korean pattern of allied command relationship, with appropriate modifications, would probably be favored by US but this matter need not be decided now.

C. Air attack of targets in DRV

Joint planning will soon give consideration to the air attack of targets in DRV either under the tit-for-tat concept of Category II CINCPAC OPLAN 37–64 or the mounting pressure concept of Category III, same plan. Here we are brought face to face with certain new factors which bear on the OPLAN 37–64 concept.

It is well to remind ourselves that this CINCPAC plan was drawn up with the idea of applying military pressure in DRV through overt actions of GVN with US participation limited to reconnaissance beyond capability of VNAF and to Farmgate activities to which would be added the contribution of the B–57’s. Since this early concept, several new factors have come into play. The DRV attack in the Gulf of Tonkin has required a US posture of readiness reflected in CINCPAC Fragorder 062335Z 5 which calls on US air forces alone to attack NVN targets. The crash requirement for a plan ready for immediate implementation caused the movement of the B–57’s to SVN as US, not Farmgate, aircraft. Finally, the appearance of MIG 15/17’s at Phuc Yen Airfield, Hanoi, has set definite limits upon what the VNAF propeller planes can do in contributing to OPLAN 37–64.

5 This cable transmitted the fragmentation operations order summarized below (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)

These new factors call for a quick review of OPLAN 37–64 to decide what role the US wishes VNAF (without and with Farmgate) to play in any air action against NVN. Emphasize quick review because COMUSMACV needs guidance today as to how to conduct his planning discussions. For example, he will need to know whether VNAF can hope to get jets (particularly the B–57’s) and, if so, when and how many. All of these questions do not need to be answered now but we do need to decide in general what role the GVN should be encouraged to play in out-of-country air operations. It will not do to say the role is zero as now implied in CINCPAC Fragorder. This government must be given a significant military role to play which will stimulate enthusiasm without diverting attention from the in-country pacification plan. This is going to be a hard balance to strike.

In conclusion, I recommend approving following joint planning guidance for use by COMUSMACV with GVN: [Page 688]

Cross-border operations
Only one area of ground operations to be undertaken at outset, preferably the one offering greatest promise of success.
Not more than two battalion equivalents to be committed at any one time (beyond present border forces).
Plans for air actions in Laos to make provision for use of either VNAF/Farmgate or US air without prejudice to final decision.
All air operations in Laos to be on approval by COMUSMACV (who will obtain necessary US clearances).
Defense against DRV ground/air attack
No planning for landing US ground forces in SVN beyond Marines at Danang to protect airfield in case of clear threat. CINCPAC to have logistic support responsibility for the Marines.
No indication of any intention to increase permanent US garrison beyond possible introduction of Hawk units if [unknown amount of source text missing].
Discussion of command relationship to be avoided as long as possible. If necessary, use Korean pattern as basis for planning without commitment.
Air attack of targets in DRV
Include B–57’s in Farmgate for planning purposes.
Joint planners to examine MIG threat and decide what targets could be safely given to propeller aircraft under current conditions.
Eventually assure appropriate participation of VNAF in light of foregoing examination.

This message, while bearing on some of the matters contained in Deptel 439,6 was prepared before its receipt and does not constitute an answer to it.

The foregoing has been discussed in detail with Westmoreland who concurs with the above recommended guidance for joint planning with GVN. He reaffirms his position on military posture as described in MACV 8149 DTG 150123Z.7

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Priority; Exdis. Repeated to the White House, the Department of Defense, and CINCPAC. According to another copy, this telegram was drafted and initialed by Taylor. (Ibid., Saigon Embassy Files: Lot 68 F 8)
  2. An abbreviated text of this telegram is printed in the Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol. III, pp. 539–540.
  3. Document 250.
  4. Document 251.
  5. See footnote 2, Document 319.
  6. This telegram reviewed the military situation in South Vietnam and proposed various troop deployments to improve it. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)