331. Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defense (McNamara)1



  • Recommended Courses of Action—Southeast Asia
In their memorandum to you dated 14 August 1964,2 the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised that they were analyzing the next military courses of action in Southeast Asia and that appropriate recommendations would be forwarded for your consideration before implementing actions are taken on the Bundy memorandum dated 13 August 1964.3 [Page 714] They also reiterated the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, less the Chairman, of 2 June 19644 that military courses of action should include attack of targets in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRY) with the objective of destroying, as necessary, the DRV will and capabilities to continue support of insurgent forces in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and Laos.
In analyzing courses of action, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have considered the views of CINCPAC and Ambassadors Taylor and Unger. The Joint Chiefs of Staff also noted the DIA assessment dated 7 August 19645 of Asian communist capabilities and 15 probable courses of action following the 5 August retaliatory attack on North Vietnam and the current US buildup in the Western Pacific. This assessment indicates that the most likely course of action would be stepped up actions in RVN and Laos with attendant increased flow of men and supplies.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff have considered Ambassador Taylor’s statement of objectives and courses of action.6 In recognition of recent events in SVN, however, they consider that his proposed course of action B is more in accord with the current situation and consider that such an accelerated program of actions with respect to the DRV is essential to prevent a complete collapse of the US position in Southeast Asia. Additionally, they do not agree that we should be slow to get deeply involved until we have a better feel for the quality of our ally. The United States is already deeply involved. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that only significantly stronger military pressures on the DRV are likely to provide the relief and psychological boost necessary for attainment of the requisite governmental stability and viability.
Recent US military actions in Laos and against the DRV have demonstrated our resolve more clearly than any other US actions in some time. These actions showed both force and restraint. Failure to resume and maintain a program of pressure through military actions could be misinterpreted to mean we have had second thoughts about Pierce Arrow and the events leading thereto, and could signal a lack of resolve. Accordingly, while maintaining a posture of increased readiness in the Western Pacific, the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that the US program should have as concurrent objectives: (1) improvements in South Vietnam, including emphasis on the Pacification Program and the Hop Tac plan to clear Saigon and its surroundings; (2) interdiction of the relatively unmolested VC lines of communication (LOC) through Laos by operations in the Panhandle and of the LOC through Cambodia by strict control of the waterways leading therefrom; (3) [Page 715] denial of Viet Cong (VC) sanctuaries in the Cambodia-South Vietnam border area through the conduct of “hot pursuit” operations into Cambodia, as required; (4) increased pressure on North Vietnam through military actions. As part of the program for increased pressures, the OPLAN 34A operations and the DeSoto patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin should be resumed, the former on an intensified but still covert basis.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff believe, however, that more direct and forceful actions than these will, in all probability, be required. In anticipation of a pattern of further successful VC and Pathet Lao (PL) actions in RVN and Laos, and in order to increase pressure on the DRV, the US program should also provide for prompt and calculated responses to such VC/PL actions in the form of air strikes and other operations against appropriate military targets in the DRV.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff recognize that defining what might constitute appropriate counteroperations in advance is a most difficult task. We should therefore maintain our prompt readiness to execute a range of selected responses, tailored to the developing circumstances and reflecting the principles in the Gulf of Tonkin actions, that such counteroperations will result in clear military disadvantage to the DRV. These responses, therefore, must be greater than the provocation in degree, and not necessarily limited to response in kind against similar targets. Air strikes in response might be purely VNAF; VNAF with US escort to provide protection from possible employment of MIGs; VNAF with US support in the offensive as well as the defensive role; or entirely US. The precise combination should be determined by the effect we wish to produce and the assets available. Targets for attack by air or other forces may be selected from appropriate plans including the Target Study for North Vietnam consisting of 94 targets, recently forwarded to you by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.7
While a US program as discussed above will not necessarily provide decisive end results, the Joint Chiefs of Staff advocate its adoption and implementation at once. Anything less could be interpreted as a lack of resolve on the part of the United States. The military course of action which offers the best chance of success remains the destruction of the DRV will and capabilities as necessary to compel the DRV to cease providing support to the insurgencies in South Vietnam and Laos.
Attached as Appendices to this memorandum8 are discussions of the following: [Page 716]
Operations in the Laos Panhandle—Appendix A.
OPLAN 34A operations—Appendix B.
Other possible actions against North Vietnam-Aerial mining against the DRV and resumption of the DeSoto patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin—Appendix C.
Other actions in RVN-Strict control of waterborne traffic on the Mekong and Bassac rivers and direct action against Viet Cong leadership—Appendix D.
In summary, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that:
The following military actions receive priority (not necessarily in the order listed):
Continuation of the Pacification Program in RVN with emphasis on the Hop Tac program to establish the security of Saigon and its surroundings;
Continuation of the present forward deployment of US combat units;
Resumption and intensification of OPLAN 34A operations with emphasis on maritime operations and with initiation of air operations against selected targets when practicable. OPLAN 34A operations should remain covert for the time being.
Resumption of DeSoto patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin;
Operations against the VC LOC, including staging base areas and infiltration routes in the Laos Panhandle by:
GVN and Thai forces in cross-border operations with US support as required;
US armed aerial reconnaissance, attacking infiltration installations.
Retaliatory actions by GVN/US forces against appropriate targets in the DRV in response to stepped up Viet Cong/Pathet Lao actions should such occur.
Institution of “hot pursuit” operations into Cambodia.
The following related actions be taken:
Institution of strict controls on the Mekong and Bassac rivers;
Direct action against the Viet Cong leadership in RVN.
Since the above actions will probably not in themselves accomplish our objectives of compelling the DRV to respond favorably, we should be prepared to:
Commence deployment of remaining Category III OPLAN 37–649 forces;
Commence a US air strike program against targets in North Vietnam in accordance with current planning.
In light of recent developments in South Vietnam and the evaluations furnished by COMUSMACV, the Joint Chiefs of Staff conclude that accelerated and forceful action with respect to North Vietnam is essential to prevent a complete collapse of the US position in Southeast Asia. They consider that a decision as to specific actions and the timing of these actions is urgent and recommend that conversations with Ambassador Taylor focus on this issue with a view to its early resolution.
For the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
Curtis E. Le May
Acting Chairman
Joint Chiefs of Staff
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OASD/ISA Files: FRC 69 A 926, 381 Southeast Asia. Top Secret; Sensitive. Also printed in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol III, pp. 550–552.
  2. Document 316.
  3. Attachment to Document 313.
  4. Document 191.
  5. Not found.
  6. See Document 319.
  7. The 94-target study list was Appendix A to ICSM–729–64, dated August 24, which identified the most significant targets in North Vietnam in five categories: 1) airfields, 2) lines of communications, 3) military installations, 4) industrial installations, and 5) routes of armed reconnaissance. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 218, ICS Files)
  8. None printed.
  9. CINCPAC OPLAN 37–64, “Military Actions To Stabilize the Situation in RVN,” dated March 30, 1964. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 218, JCS Files) See also footnote 4, Document 149.
  10. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.