89. Memorandum From Michael V. Forrestal of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)1


  • Vietnam

I have read Bill Smith’s two memoranda on Vietnam2 with great interest. These support in appropriate cautious language some of the things which I have been hearing myself. It may be worthwhile for all of us if I commit to paper some additional evidence in support of Bill Smith’s worries.

Before Sullivan left for Saigon, he attended a meeting of the JCS with Secretary McNamara and General Taylor. Sullivan reported to me that he was impressed by the vehemence of opinion in the JCS for strong overt U.S. action against the North. Admiral McDonald was particularly outspoken, but the other Chiefs appeared to support his views.

General Anthis (who is Krulak’s successor) told me after a rather wet working dinner at Ray Cline’s office that he felt if we couldn’t “make the high jumps in South Vietnam, then we should pole-vault into the North”.

After the mission’s return from Saigon, Sullivan tells me that McNamara’s report was very strenuously criticized by some officers in MACV and some of his own team. Yesterday a correspondent from Time Magazine (Cook) told me he was convinced that the decision not to attack the North was made because President Johnson did not wish to face a domestic political crisis before the election. He said that his Pentagon sources were convinced that the correct decision in Vietnam was avoided for this reason. I told him this was hogwash and could [Page 175] not come from responsible officials and certainly not anyone who was associated with the top-level team representing all interested agencies who accompanied the Secretary.

So I agree with Bill Smith that there may be a problem developing here, but I don’t think it is quite like the missile gap issue in 1960. The difficulty then apparently was that the Eisenhower Administration felt it could not safely disclose enough of the facts to permit a reasonable explanation of the Government’s position. I don’t think quite the same problem exists with respect to our policies in Southeast Asia today. The question of whether or not overt U.S. forces should be used against the North depends upon an assessment of factors which are, in most instances, currently discussed in the press. Against the history of the Bay of Pigs and the October Cuban crisis, the advantage in political debate, I think, lies with the Administration. Prudence and caution are really more popular stances, I believe, than loud demands for war. The thing to avoid is too flat an impression that we have stopped thinking about all the possibilities.

I agree with Bill Smith that responsible officials in the Government should be encouraged to speak quite frankly about our current estimates of the position in South Vietnam and the rationale supporting McNamara’s recommendations. In speaking about the North, it should be emphasized that the situation is constantly being reviewed by Defense and State to see if further actions need be taken.

Actually, I am somewhat more worried by those who argue for a bugout in Southeast Asia than I am by the adherents of Rostow.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. V. Secret.
  2. In March 17 memoranda to Bundy, William Y. Smith of the NSC Staff reported “undercurrents” of pessimism within the Department of Defense over the situation in South Vietnam. The belief was that there was no alternative to Khnah, yet he did not have the ability to rally the army. Furthermore, Smith reported that some feared that the Johnson administration was not taking forthright action because of the upcoming Presidential campaign. In his second memorandum, Smith drew an analogy between the missile gap issue in the 1960 campaign and Vietnam in 1964. Smith suggested that the Johnson administration should avoid the mistakes made by Eisenhower in 1960 by briefing opposition candidates on Vietnam and by making sure that the administration spoke with one voice. (Ibid.)