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



  • Courses of Action in Southeast Asia
This memorandum responds to the memorandum of 17 November 1964 from the Assistant Secretary of State, Far Eastern Affairs, requesting review of the drafts on this subject prepared by the National Security Council (NSC) Working Group.2 Because of the preliminary and tentative nature of these drafts, this memorandum addresses only those matters which are considered to comprise the fundamentals of the present problem.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider Southeast Asia to be an area of major strategic importance to the United States, the loss of which would lead to grave political and military consequences in the entire Western Pacific, and to serious political consequences world-wide. These considerations are amplified in Appendix A.3 In the present situation the Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that there are three basic issues relative to our courses of action in Southeast Asia as follows:

What are our objectives?
What are the courses of action open to us?
What are the probable consequences of these courses of action?

These issues are examined in the following paragraphs.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff understand established national policies include as objectives in Southeast Asia a stable and independent noncommunist government in the Republic of South Vietnam (RVN)4 [Page 933] and a stabilized situation in Laos which conforms to the Geneva Accords of 1962.5 They consider these objectives to be valid and essential to maintaining the US security position world-wide. They further consider that the best probability of success in attaining these ends will be afforded by achieving the prerequisite objective of causing the cessation of North Vietnamese (DRY) support and direction of the insurgencies in RVN and Laos. Early implementation of political and military actions designed to achieve these objectives, in addition to continued aggressive programs in SVN, offers the greatest assurance of success.
The alternatives open to the United States in Southeast Asia are summarized in the five courses of action listed below, keyed as indicated to the courses of action set forth in the NSC Working Group (NSCWG) paper:
Course A’ (This course of action is implicit in the content of the NSCWG paper but is not clearly identified as a separate and distinct option.): Terminate commitments in RVN and Laos, and withdraw under conditions which impair as little as possible our standing in the eyes of the world.
Course A (Corresponds to the NSCWG Course of Action A.): Continue actions within our present policies, including feasible improvements within the boundaries of those policies.
Course C (Corresponds to the NSCWG Course of Action C.): Undertake a program of graduated military and political initiatives to apply additional pressures against the DRV, without necessarily determining in advance to what degree we will commit ourselves to achieve our objectives, or at what point we might stop to negotiate, or what our negotiation objectives might be.
Course C’ (This is a variant and logical extension of the NSCWG Course of Action C, although not specifically identified as such in the NSCWG paper.): Undertake a controlled program of graduated military pressures, systematically applied against the DRV, in coordination with appropriate political pressures. This course is distinguished from Course C by the advance decision to continue military pressures, if necessary, to the full limits of what military actions can contribute toward US national objectives. The military program for this course of action is the program set forth in JCSM–96–64, dated 18 November 1964.6
Course B (This Course of Action should be used in lieu of the NSCWG Course of Action B, which is not a valid formulation of any authoritative views known to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.): Undertake a controlled program of intense military pressures against the DRV, swiftly yet deliberately applied, designed to have major military and psychological impact from the outset, and accompanied by appropriate [Page 934] political pressures. The program would be undertaken on the basis that it would be carried through, if necessary, to the full limits of what military actions can contribute toward US national objectives; it would be designed, however, for suspension short of those limits if objectives were earlier achieved. The military program for this course of action is the program recommended in JCSM–955–64, dated 14 November 1964.7
The probable consequences of the foregoing courses of action, with respect both to accomplishment of our objectives and to other potential reactions, are summarized below, with additional particulars set forth in Appendix B.
Course A’: Abandons our objectives, sacrifices the military advantages attainable from a firm position on the mainland of Southeast Asia, and initiates progressive deterioration in our military position throughout the Western Pacific and in our political position worldwide.
Course A: Puts some added demands on the DRV, but not commensurate with those imposed by the DRV on RVN. Thus it offers no identifiable probability of accomplishing our objectives, nor of alleviating the critical situation in RVN. The present possibility of internal collapse in RVN could lead to accelerated take-over by the communists, and entails substantial risks to US personnel and equipment in country during the attendant disorders.
Course C: Is inconclusive as to accomplishment of over-all objectives, because it is undertaken without a clear determination to see things through in full. Its uncertain pace could permit and encourage enemy build-ups to counter our own. Thus it would raise the risks and costs to us of each separate military undertaking, would invite further escalations on the part of the enemy, and would make miscalculation regarding the resolve and determination of the United States more likely. At any specific level of intensity, this course of action appears likely to entail the highest military risks of those considered, and to foster progressively increasing adverse political pressures in many quarters.
Course C’: Offers a probability of achieving our objective through progressively reducing the DRV support to the insurgencies. Its systematic force build-up would add further deterrence to possible CHICOM intervention, and should make miscalculation of US resolve less likely. Should escalation occur, it can be dealt with adequately and on terms more favorable than those applicable in Course C above. From a strictly military point of view this course of action involves probable higher military costs and casualties than Course B, for example, through failure to eliminate DRV air and DRV facilities available to CHICOM air at the outset. The determination signaled by this course should enlist substantial US public and world support, while giving pause to the opposition.
Course B: Offers the best probability of achieving our objectives at the least risk, casualties, and cost, and with the least probability of enemy miscalculation. In addition to its military advantages and its [Page 935] reduced probability of escalation, this course of action offers greater psychological impact and presents to all concerned a clear and unequivocal picture of US determination and US objectives. The possibility of intervention by the CHICOMs is judged to be less likely than in Course C’. There should be no problems beyond those in Courses C or C’ in dealing with any world opinion which might oppose this course of action.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff reject Course A’ because it abandons the objectives. They reject Course A because it does not offer a reasonable probability of achieving the objectives. They do not recommend Course C, because it is inconclusive as to attainment of our objectives, yet entails potentially high risks and costs.
Course C’ is not recommended as the preferred course of action. However, should a controlled program of systematically increased pressures be directed, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend the program of actions contained in JCSM–967–64.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that:
Course B, as defined in this paper and which offers the best probability of attaining the stated objectives, be implemented at this time.
The substance of this memorandum be reflected in appropriate revision of the NSC Working Group drafts of a study of US courses of action in Southeast Asia.
For the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
Earle G. Wheeler8
Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff
  1. Source: Department of State, Ball Files: Lot 74 D 272, Vietnam. Top Secret; Sensitive.
  2. See Document 403.
  3. Neither Appendix A nor any of the other four appendices is printed.
  4. NSAM 288 of 17 March 1964. [Footnote in the source text. NSAM 288 is printed as Document 87.]
  5. NSAM 249 of 25 June 1963. [Footnote in the source text. NSAM 249 is in Department of State, NSC Files: Lot 72 D 316, NSAM 249.]
  6. A copy of this 2-page memorandum with 17 annexes is ibid., Bundy Files, Working Papers, Nov 1964, Vol. IV, JCS; the memorandum is printed in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol. III, pp. 639–640.
  7. Document 411.
  8. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.