477. Telegram From the President to the Ambassador in Vietnam (Taylor)1

CAP 64375. For Amb Taylor only at opening of business day from the President of the United States.

I talked at length with Dean Rusk and Mac Bundy about your recommendation of reprisal for the Brink bombing.2 While I fully recognize the force of your feeling, which was strongly supported by a number of good men here, I myself concurred with Dean Rusk and Bob McNamara, who for overlapping reasons felt that we should not now make an air reprisal in North Vietnam. In reaching this decision, we were guided by a number of considerations peculiar to this episode. First and foremost, of course, is the continuing political turmoil in Saigon. If we ourselves were uncertain for several days about the source of the Brink’s bombing, we cannot expect the world to be less uncertain. I know that “the Liberation Front” has claimed the credit, but we all know that radio claims are not the most persuasive evidence of what has actually happened. This uncertainty is just one sign of the general confusion in South Vietnam which makes me feel strongly that we are not now in a position which justifies a policy of immediate reprisal.
What I want to do in this message is to share my own thinking with you and to ask for your full comment so that we can lay a basis of understanding that will give us a base-line not only for prompt reprisals but for other actions, mainly within South Vietnam, which can help to turn the tide.
I continue to feel very strongly that we ought not to be widening the battle until we get our dependents out of South Vietnam. I know that you have not agreed with this view in the past, and I recognize that there are some agencies which may face recruiting difficulties if dependents are removed, but no argument I have yet heard overrides the fact that we are facing a war in Saigon and we are considering actions which may bring strong communist reaction, if not by air, at least by a concentrated VC effort against Americans; this last is estimated by intelligence community as the very likely enemy reaction [Page 1058] to a reprisal like air attack on target 36. In this situation I simply do not understand why it is helpful to have women and children in the battle zone, and my own readiness to authorize larger actions will be very much greater if we can remove the dependents and get ourselves into real fighting trim. Neither this nor any other part of this message is intended as an order, but I do wish you to understand the strength of my feeling and the fact that I have not been persuaded by arguments I have heard on the other side.
I also have real doubts about ordering reprisals in cases in which our own security seems, at first glance, to have been very weak. I notice in your last talk with Huong that he seems to have the same worry. I do not want to be drawn into a large-scale military action against North Vietnam simply because our own people are careless or imprudent. This too may be an unfair way of stating the matter, but I have not yet been told in any convincing way why aircraft cannot be protected from mortar attacks and officers quarters from large bombs.

I am still worried, too, by our lack of progress in communicating sensitively and persuasively with the various groups in South Vietnam. I recognize the very great problems which we face in dealing with groups which are immature and often irresponsible. But I still do not feel that we are making the all-out effort of political persuasion which is called for.

In particular, I wonder whether we are making full use of the kind of Americans who have shown a knack for this kind of communication in the past. I do not want to pick out any particular individual because I do not know these men at first hand. But I do think that we ought to be ready to make full use of the specialized skills of men who are skillful with Vietnamese, even if they are not always the easiest men to handle in a country team. In this, again, I recognize that you must have the final responsibility for the selection and management of your country team, and I am giving no order but only raising a question which is increasingly insistent in my own mind.

To put it another way, I continue to believe that we should have the most sensitive, persistent, and attentive Americans that we can find in touch with Vietnamese of every kind and quality, and reinforced by Englishmen, and Buddhists, and labor leaders and agricultural experts, and other free men of every kind and type, who may have skills to contribute in a contest on all fronts. I just do not think we should leave any stone unturned, and I do not have the feeling that we have yet done everything that we can in these areas.

Every time I get a military recommendation it seems to me that it calls for large-scale bombing. I have never felt that this war will be won from the air, and it seems to me that what is much more needed and would be more effective is a larger and stronger use of Rangers and Special Forces and Marines, or other appropriate military strength [Page 1059] on the ground and on the scene. I am ready to look with great favor on that kind of increased American effort, directed at the guerrillas and aimed to stiffen the aggressiveness of Vietnamese military units up and down the line. Any recommendation that you or General Westmoreland make in this sense will have immediate attention from me, although I know that it may involve the acceptance of larger American sacrifice. We have been building our strength to fight this kind of war ever since 1961, and I myself am ready to substantially increase the number of Americans in Vietnam if it is necessary to provide this kind of fighting force against the Viet Cong.

I am not saying that all this has to be done before there can be any reprisals. Indeed, as I say, I am not giving any orders at all in this message. But I am inclined to offer this suggestion:

I would like to see you move more strongly in four directions:

The removal of dependents.
The stiffening of our own security arrangements to protect our own people and forces.
A much wider and more varied attempt to get good political relations with all Vietnamese groups.
An intensified US stiffening on-the-ground by Rangers and Special Forces or other appropriate elements.

If you can give me either progress or persuasive arguments on these matters, I would look with favor on the execution of immediate and automatic reprisal against targets like No. 36 in the event of further attacks. I myself believe that such reprisals should have a Vietnamese component whenever possible, but I hope that the necessary consultation for such a component can be kept down to a very few hours so that we could react with a speed which will show beyond any question what caused our action.

Let me repeat once more that this whole message is intended to show you the state of my thinking and to ask for your frankest comments and responses. I know that you are the man on the spot and I know what a very heavy load you are carrying. I am grateful for it and I want you to know in turn that you have my complete confidence in the biggest and hardest job that we have overseas. But in this tough situation in which the final responsibility is mine and the stakes are very high indeed, I have wanted you to have this full and frank statement of the way I see it.
  1. Source: National Defense University, Taylor Papers, T–157–69. Top Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Drafted in Texas and sent to Washington for transmission to Taylor during the morning of December 30. Sixteen corrections were phoned to Bromley Smith for inclusion, all but two of which were of one or two words. The two of substance were the addition of “if not by air…target 36” in paragraph 3 and “and I want you to know…overseas” in paragraph 8. A list of the corrections and a marked-up draft are in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Pres/Taylor Nodis Clores and Codeword Messages.
  2. The meeting referred to in footnote 2, Document 475.