396. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam1

978. Saigon for MACV. State-Defense Message.

We have weighed carefully your recommendations Embtels 1357 and 1360,2 and supporting messages MACV 010359Z and [Page 877] CINCPAC 010501Z.3 There is no doubt here that this event adds considerably to cumulative factors pointing toward much harder policy in near future. At same time, we would find it hard to portray attack as major act of escalation in itself, since it differs only in degree and extent of damage from such previous incidents as Card sinking4 and recurrent attacks on US personnel and equipment playing military roles. We have also been reluctant give any appearance reacting only when US personnel affected.
In addition above reasons arguing against one-shot retaliatory treatment, all of us here, including JCS, are negative on a tit-for-tat policy as basis for real action against the North. Not only is it hard to define such a policy, but all our studies and war games have indicated that in the end it conveys a weak signal to Hanoi and also has maximum disadvantages in wider international sphere.
Accordingly we come back to basic point that attack does bring measurably nearer point of decision on systematic wider actions against North. We here are seeking convey to press and public that we take incident seriously but that it must be seen in wider context.
At same time we recognize morale and other factors arguing for some early action. In this connection we now need your reading of how upset GVN and key leaders are by attack. As possible early actions that would have right signal level to North, keep up morale, and with gains outweighing disadvantages. we are considering and need your comment on following:
Releasing US aircraft as such for action against VC. This has disadvantages assuming explicit US combat role for first time and over time involving us in civilian attacks through error that could be adverse psychologically. On other hand, it could add materially your capabilities.
Sending in security battalions for Bien Hoa, Da Nang, and Nha Trang, or as you and MACV might recommend. This could have desirable appearance securing decks for action. On other hand we not clear how much it would really add to security or whether GVN would welcome and cooperate. Obviously it tends add to our casualties and general exposure.
Beyond such action, we need your recommendations, in conjunction with MACV, of preliminary or preparatory actions to secure SVN base and protection US personnel that would be required in conjunction with possible decision for wider action. This involves such factors as air defense key installations (especially Da Nang) against [Page 878] possible air strikes, handling of VC reactions of any character throughout SVN, and of course ground deployments to deter action in North. As you know planning has always included these factors, but we need your current judgment in light changes in overall situation and growing VC capabilities as to all measures we should now include in our planning. JCS covering same point in separate cable to MACV.5
There will be further high level meetings tomorrow and we would appreciate interim reply on above points for use that meeting.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Drafted by William Bundy and cleared with Rusk, McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy. Repeated to CINCPAC and the Department of Defense.
  2. Documents 393 and 394.
  3. The former strongly endorsed Taylor’s recommendation, and the latter stressed that early action must be taken in retaliation for Bien Hoa and transmitted a list of targets which should be attacked. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)
  4. The Card, which was being used as a helicopter and aircraft ferry, was sunk in Saigon harbor on May 2.
  5. Document 395.