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

1368. CINCPAC for POLAD. Deptel 978.2 From Saigon end of line, the Bien Hoa attack looks quite different from the view set forth in reftel. It was unique as an attack directed specifically against US units and equipment under circumstances unrelated to the day-to-day operations in which our forces take their losses incidental to the discharge of the advisory functions within GVN units. It resembled more the Bay of Tonkin incidents with the exception (1) that the enemy were the VC (whom we hold to be the agents of the NVN) rather than the NVN themselves; (2) the event took place on land rather than on sea; and (3) US forces sustained losses and the enemy escaped unscathed. Finally, it demonstrated a new tactic, the employment of surprise attack by massed mortar fire, with such success that the US B–57 capability in this country was knocked out in about 15 minutes. Hence, we cannot view it as a VC aggression which is merely an improved version of similar past conduct. It is clear that Hanoi also views this as something special and expects something from us.

So much for the Saigon point of view.

I gather that, seen from Washington, the problem is to (1) keep up local morale; (2) get some signal to Hanoi, and (3) review preliminary and preparatory military actions. On the first point, with Saigon leaders beset by the problems of forming a government and with a double holiday with few newspapers published, public reaction has been minimal. Khanh took off for Dalat yesterday after making a press release which understates the actual damage suffered at Bien Hoa. Had he been particularly exercised, he would have contacted me on [Page 880] the subject—which he did not. For the moment, I believe no action needs to be considered purely for impact on local morale. However, if there is no US reaction. our prestige is going to sag both with friend and enemy.

With regard to a signal to the North, I could make no suggestion without knowing what thought we wish to convey at this time. I see no overall advantage either for morale or signalling purposes in releasing US aircraft for action against VC. We are missing few, if any, lucrative targets now with our present VNAF/Farmgate force and, by December, the number of operationally available VNAF aircraft will be roughly double the present number by virtue of completion of training of the last of the four A1H squadrons. Meanwhile, the disadvantages cited in pare 4a reftel always with us.

To place US battalions at such places as Bien Hoa, Da Nang and Nha Trang is likely to convey message that US intends to continue to limit its actions to SVN and to defensive measures—a note I hope we will not strike. I am not sure what effect the presence of such US units would have on SVN. I am sure that our troops would regard static security mission as pretty inglorious business. On balance, I would recommend against this measure under the circumstances presently in mind. My opinion might be different if we were embarked on an escalating program of pressures against DRV.

My views on preliminary and preparatory military actions are contained in pare 6 MAC 129623 which is just being dispatched.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Also sent to CIA, the Department of Defense, and the White House and repeated to CINCPAC. According to another copy, this telegram was drafted by Taylor. (Ibid., Saigon Embassy Files: Lot 68 F 8) Received at 6:07 a.m.
  2. Document 396.
  3. Apparently an incorrect reference since MAC 12962 contains only two numbered paragraphs. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. XXI)