342. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to the President 1


  • Courses of action for South Vietnam

The attached memorandum (Tab A) records briefly the consensus which has been worked out with Max Taylor in recent days.2 This course of action is the best we can design for the central purpose of thickening the thin fabric of the Khanh government in the next two [Page 747] months. Everyone regards this as the first priority task, and the American actions are all framed with this as their primary purpose. Our consensus now runs against any plan to force substantial escalation before October, at the earliest. My own guess is that unless there is a very marked change in Saigon, we will still be cautious a month from now, although Bob McNamara is a little more aggressive than the rest of us.

This paper does not discuss long-range actions, but you should know that in the longer perspective nearly all of us are agreed that substantially increased pressure against North Vietnam will be necessary if we are not to face the prospect of a gradual but increasingly inevitable break-up of our side in South Vietnam.

I also attach at Tab B a Special National Intelligence Estimate which was approved today.3


Tab A


The Situation

Khanh will probably stay in control and may make some headway in the next 2–3 months in strengthening the government (GVN). The best we can expect is that he and the GVN will be able to maintain order, keep the pacification program ticking over (but not progressing markedly), and give the appearance of a valid government.
Khanh and the GVN leaders are temporarily too exhausted to be thinking much about moves against the North. However, they do need to be reassured that the US continues to mean business, and as Khanh goes along in his government efforts, he will probably want more visible US effort, and some GVN role in external actions.
The GVN over the next 2–3 months will be too weak for us to take any major deliberate risks of escalation that would involve a major role for, or threat to, South Vietnam, However, escalation arising from and directed against US action would tend to lift GVN morale at least temporarily.
The Communist side will probably avoid provocative action against the US, and it is uncertain how much they will step up VC activity. They do need to be shown that we and the GVN are not simply sitting back after the Gulf of Tonkin.

Courses of Action

We recommend in any event:

US naval patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin should be resumed immediately (about September 12). They should operate initially beyond the 12-mile limit and be clearly dissociated from 34A maritime operations. The patrols would comprise 2–3 destroyers and would have air cover from carriers; the destroyers would have their own ASW capability.
34A operations by the GVN should be resumed immediately thereafter (next week). The maritime operations are by far the most important. North Vietnam is likely to publicize them, and at this point we should have the GVN ready to admit that they are taking place and to justify and legitimize them on the basis of the facts on VC infiltration by sea. 34A air drop and leaflet operations should also be resumed but are secondary in importance. We should not consider air strikes under 34A for the present.
Limited GVN air and ground operations into the corridor areas of Laos should be undertaken in the near future, together with Lao air strikes as soon as we can get Souvanna’s permission. These operations will have only limited effect, however.
We should be prepared to respond on a tit-for-tat basis against the DRV in the event of any attack on US units or any special DRV/VC action against SVN. The response for an attack on US units should be along the lines of the Gulf of Tonkin attacks, against specific and related targets. The response to special action against SVN should likewise be aimed at specific and comparable targets.

The main further question is the extent to which we should add elements to the above actions that would tend deliberately to provoke a DRV reaction, and consequent retaliation by us. Examples of actions to be considered would be running US naval patrols increasingly close to the North Vietnamese coast and/or associating them with 34A operations. We believe such deliberately provocative elements should [Page 749] not be added in the immediate future while the GVN is still struggling to its feet. By early October, however, we may recommend such actions depending on GVN progress and Communist reaction in the meantime, especially to US naval patrols.

The aim of the above actions, external to South Vietnam, would be to assist morale in SVN and show the Communists we still mean business, while at the same time seeking to keep the risks low and under our control at each stage.

Further actions within South Vietnam are not covered in this memorandum. We believe that there are a number of immediate impact actions we can take, such as pay raises for the police and civil administrators and spot projects in the cities and selected rural areas. These actions would be within current policy and will be refined for decision during Ambassador Taylor’s visit. We are also considering minor changes in the US air role within South Vietnam, but these would not involve decisions until November.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. XVII, Memos. Secret. Also printed in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol. III, pp. 561–562, and Pentagon Papers: New York Times Edition, pp. 357–359.
  2. The meetings took place September 7 at noon and September 8 at 11:05 a.m. Rusk, McNamara, McGeorge and William Bundy, Manning, Taylor, and Wheeler attended both, while McCone was present at the second. Johnson Library, Rusk Appointment Book) The first meeting is described in United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967, Book IV, pp. 25–27; and Taylor summarized both meetings briefly in Swords and Plowshares, pp. 320–321. In his diary, Taylor also notes that there was general agreement on the recommendations in telegram 768 (Document 339), but “there was a rather sharp debate over the timeliness of provoking North Vietnamese action.” (National Defense University, Taylor Papers, T–272–69)
  3. Document 341.
  4. Secret. Drafted by William Bundy. Also printed in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol. III, pp. 561–562. For an earlier draft, also dated September 8, see ibid., pp. 560–561. In anticipation of Taylor’s return and in response to the deteriorating situation in Saigon, McNaughton and William Bundy had begun drafting papers on Vietnam on September 2. McNaughton’s first and second drafts, dated September 2 and 3, of a seven-point “Plan of Action for South Vietnam” are in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. XVII, Memos. The second draft is also printed in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol. III, pp. 556–559.

    Bundy’s paper, “Possible Courses of Action for South Viet-Nam,” initially drafted on September 3 and revised on September 5, was similar to McNaughton’s but had only five sections: Analysis of the Present Situation, Actions To Be Taken in Any Event, Major Additional Action We Might Consider Within South Viet-Nam, Major Additional Courses of Action Outside South Viet-Nam, and Summary and Conclusions. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. XVII, Memos) Both papers were pessimistic about the situation in Vietnam and presented a range of possible U.S. actions to improve it. The text printed here represents the consolidation and revision of the Bundy and McNaughton drafts in light of the discussions on September 7 and 8.