479. Telegram From the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler) to the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Westmoreland)1

JCS 5485. 1. I still have not received information as to the factors which influenced highest authority to disapprove recommendations of Ambassador Taylor, CINCPAC, AND JCS to undertake reprisal for Brink bombing. While reasons are no doubt numerous, on reflection recalling meetings on Vietnamese problem in general and BOQ bombing in particular, I surmise that the following items might have exerted a strong influence:

The presence of U.S. dependents in South Vietnam. This has been a matter of continuing concern to highest authority and was specifically referred to by Secretary Rusk at out meeting on 28 December.2 There is concern in Washington, amounting almost to conviction, that our dependents are liable to attack as VC/DRV reprisal to a U.S. attack against the DRV. While our dependents remain in South Vietnam, I consider that forceful action by the U.S. outside the borders of South Vietnam is practically precluded.
Doubt in some Washington sectors that security measures of critical installations in Saigon and elsewhere are adequate. While you may question the bearing that U.S./South Vietnam security arrangements have on whether or not we should execute reprisals, the fact remains that there is an attitude of mind here in some areas to the effect that lax security not only invites but in some curious way justifies a VC attack and thereby inhibits us from retaliatory action.
A widespread and strong belief, shared by some DOD senior officials, that reprisals must be executed within 24–36 hours. In discussing this the other day, I was confronted with the view that delay beyond the upper limit cited effectively removed a U.S. military act against the DRV from the reprisal to the offensive area. In other words, the hypothesis is that a reprisal action undertaken subsequent to 36 hours would be, in effect, an escalatory act based upon a desire to “shoot our way out of a political difficulty.” While I myself do not accept this rationale, it is a hard fact of life that many people in positions of policy importance do accept it.
The fact the U.S. policy determination currently is limited to the decision to exert a limited squeeze on the DRV; no decision has yet been taken to move militarily against the North. This being so, the GVN disarray on Christmas Eve did not permit an affirmative decision to execute a reprisal for the Brink bombing. To express this another way, the political confusion in Saigon does not encourage nor, indeed, permit the U.S. to increase the stakes in Southeast Asia.

2. As a sidelight to c. and d. above, one of the principals who opposed on 23 December the proposed attack on target 36 expressed the view that we should continue to maintain the capability to execute a reprisal action within 6 hours subsequent to a VC/DRV provocation which justified action by the U.S. I pointed out then and later that, under current relationships with the GVN and ARVN, an additional 24 hours would be needed to crank into a reprisal action VNAF participation. My observation, based on COMUSMACV’s cable on this subject,3 was accepted without comment.

3. The foregoing represents sort of a year-end wrap-up of Washington views on the problem of South Vietnam and North Vietnam. While I would be hard put to document in detail each of the above items, they reflect my analysis of Washington attitudes and provide a degree of guidance as to what, lacking changes in the situation, can be expected from Washington in future months. Of this, I anticipate during the forthcoming session of Congress sharp inquiries into U.S. policy in South Vietnam, the conduct of the war and the reasons for our lack of success. The Congress and the American people are increasingly concerned about the situation in Southeast Asia. While many people may not realize it, I believe that their concern is not that we are engaged in a war but are frustrated that we are not winning the war.

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4. This message does not require a reply, of course, unless either or both of you desire to do so. I have tried to lay out for your consideration certain vexing aspects of the over-all problem which gall our policymakers and inhibit them from action. It is obvious to me that we must continue to maintain our retaliatory capabilities as specified above, with and without VNAF participation; that we must continue to press the military and the civilians in Saigon to submerge their differences and fabricate a reasonably sound governmental structure; and that we must somehow convince the Washington policymakers that our security arrangements are as good as the type of war we are fighting will permit. As to dependents, I add nothing to what I have set out above except to assure you that, in my opinion, their continued presence in South Vietnam is a hurdle which trips decisions.

5. Happy New Year.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Westmoreland Papers, Message File, 1964. Secret. Also sent to CINCPAC for Admiral Sharp.
  2. See Document 473.
  3. Not further identified.