113. Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Ball to President Johnson1


  • Viet-Nam

This memorandum has been discussed with Bob McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and Ambassador Thompson and has been revised to reflect their suggestions.2 [Except for the major difference in positions set [Page 253] forth on page 10]3 it can be taken as representing the generally agreed views of all four of us.

The memorandum consists of two major parts.

Part I is a discussion of the probable risks inherent in a program of gradually mounting military pressure on the North. In spite of these risks, we are in general agreement on this program.

We have taken account of these risks in connection with the military actions already taken. As we move—step by step—up the scales of military action you will certainly wish to appraise the level of risk at each point—although admittedly your ability to control exposure to risk is likely to diminish as the scale and intensity of military pressure increases.

Part II of the memorandum is a program of political action. Such a program is an essential accompaniment to the military program. It is needed for several reasons:

To make clear to the world that our objectives are peace and freedom;
To minimize the danger of MIG engagement and Chinese and Soviet involvement, giving the Soviets an alternative to support the Chinese militancy;
To pre-empt a probable peace offensive by the Communists;
To enable you to opt for a political settlement at any point where you determine that the risks of further military pressure have become prohibitive in the light of our over-all interests.


The Risks of Our Military Program

A. Nature and Objectives of the Proposed Military Program

The course of action we are now proposing to follow (subject to refinement by exchanges with Saigon and further staff work here) envisages continued air attacks, on a joint United States/South Vietnamese basis, against military targets directly related to North Vietnamese infiltration. It also contemplates attacks on targets such as railroad lines, in response to Viet Cong attacks on corresponding targets in the South.

We would continue to justify such air attacks as responses to Viet Cong action in the South. Viet Cong attacks on United States personnel and installations would call for practically automatic responses. Other Viet Cong activities would be assessed continuously, and the criteria for response left as flexible as possible.

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Since we would seek to justify our attacks as responses to Viet Cong actions we might not be able fully to control their tempo. However, we would seek to keep as much flexibility as possible.

We envisage that the attacks would slowly increase in scale.

We propose to mount strikes at roughly weekly intervals unless our hand is forced by dramatic VC actions.

The fundamental objective of this program is to increase United States bargaining power, vis-a-vis Hanoi and Peiping, to the point where a satisfactory political solution becomes possible. Hopefully these attacks should also tend to improve morale and increase stability in Saigon while impairing the infiltration efforts of the North Vietnamese.

B. Risks of War with Communist China


We cannot long continue air strikes against North Viet-Nam without facing the likelihood of engagement with the 53 Chinese MIGs sent to Hanoi to defend North Viet-Nam. The danger of encountering these MIGs will increase as we strike targets closer and closer to Hanoi.

In our air strikes to date, we have hit targets up to sixty miles north of the 17th parallel. At some point—if we close the remaining gap of 250 miles to Hanoi—engagement by United States planes with the 53 MIGs sent to Hanoi will become inevitable. We recommend delaying the chances of MIG involvement by continuing for the next eight weeks to confine our strikes to targets below the 19th parallel. Such targets lie outside the effective range of the ground control center of the Hanoi-Haiphong complex.

Once our planes have been engaged heavily by MIG aircraft, you will be compelled—in order to prevent unacceptable losses—to face the decision to mount an air effort to eliminate the major MIG base at Phuc Yen, near Hanoi. This base is heavily defended. Some parts of the base are near populated areas. Any effective strike against it would require a massive air effort.
If we hit targets in or approaching the Hanoi-Haiphong area, it will be likely at some point to trigger a DRV ground force move South. The DRV can support an invasion of 125,000 troops (20–50,000 through the DMZ; balance through Laos). There is no current estimate of what US response would be needed to stop this action. It would clearly require substantial increases of US ground, air and naval forces.
Last November, the United States intelligence community unanimously agreed that, if the United States attacked above the 19th parallel, “Chinese Communist aircraft operating from Chinese bases would probably assist in defending North Viet-Nam against the United States attacks”.4 Perhaps the involvement by Chinese air would first take the [Page 255] form of “volunteers,” but it might shortly be followed by direct engagement of Chinese planes operating from the sanctuary of Chinese territory. There are now approximately 350 Chinese jet fighters deployed in the Hainan area of South China—within striking distance of North Vietnam.
Once Chinese aircraft entered the conflict you would be under considerable pressure to order United States forces to knock out offending Chinese bases—and even to strike at Chinese nuclear production installations.
If Chinese air bases were hit, some of our intelligence experts believe it likely that China would move massive ground forces into North Viet-Nam, and subsequently into Laos, South Viet-Nam, and possibly Thailand. Other experts assess the chances as being lower. All agree that such a movement would be entirely possible.
If Chinese ground forces were to move into Southeast Asia, we would be compelled to make a major effort to stop them. The only way that this could be done through conventional means would be by introducing substantial United States ground combat forces into South Viet-Nam. The magnitude of the required effort would almost certainly mean that you would have to call up reserves.
It is estimated that the Chinese have the logistical capacity to support 14 Chinese divisions and 8 North Vietnamese divisions in a movement into Laos, Thailand and South Viet-Nam (without taking account of United States and Allied interdiction operations). In order to counter this movement, we would be required to bring in 5 to 8 United States divisions with a total troop strength (including supporting elements) of 300,000 men.
The confrontation of Chinese ground forces by American ground forces would induce debate in the United States as to the need to use nuclear weapons—although DOD does not believe there would be a military requirement for such weapons. Recalling the Korean experience, some Americans would argue that United States ground forces should not be asked to fight large numbers of Chinese troops without resort to nuclear weapons, in which the United States has a clear advantage.
To use nuclear weapons against the Chinese would obviously raise the most profound political problems. Not only would their use generate probably irresistible pressures for a major Soviet involvement, but the United States would be vulnerable to the charge that it was willing to use nuclear weapons against non-whites only.
Peiping’s decision whether or not to intervene may well turn upon its estimate of the extent to which it can expect Soviet support. Unless we provide the Soviets with a political alternative they can support they will be in a weak position to bring pressure on the Chinese Communists to move toward a settlement. Without such a political [Page 256] option they will also find difficulty in resisting Chinese pressure to provide assistance in the event of a United States-Chinese military conflict. Such a political option is suggested in Part II of this paper.

C. Chances of Conflict with the USSR

We cannot be certain at this time what the Soviets will do if we continue our air strikes against North Viet-Nam—particularly if these strikes lead to direct conflict with the Chinese. The Soviets may want the Chinese and us to bloody our noses, but we doubt they would be in a position to exploit this desire. In the last analysis, the Soviet stake is the leadership of the Communist Bloc. Competition for that leadership would probably force the USSR in the direction of increasing its aid and involvement. On balance, we think it highly likely that—if the war should continue and escalate—the Soviets would feel compelled to extend an increasing amount of assistance to the North Vietnamese and Chinese.

Kosygin’s trip has already resulted in a commitment by the Soviets to give increased defense assistance to Hanoi. We do not know what form this increase will take. The United States Intelligence Community thinks “the chances are about even” that ground-air missiles—probably with Soviet missile crews—will be included. The likelihood of increased aid commitments will grow as our raids extend northward to Hanoi.
If we should become engaged directly with the Chinese, the Soviets would be faced with a painful dilemma. Under the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty (which is fifteen years old on February 14) the Soviets are obligated to come to China’s assistance if China is attacked. The Soviet Union could avoid this commitment only by claiming that China’s actions had caused the attack. Under existing circumstances, this would be tantamount to denouncing the treaty.
Since China is rich in manpower, the Soviets would probably seek to limit their contribution to advanced military equipment. But, again, the contribution to Soviet missile and other personnel or volunteers could not be excluded.
Soviet harassment of United States interests elsewhere might well be another step in this sequence of events. Ambassador Kohler pointed out on Thursday that “…the Soviets will be intrigued with possibilities inherent [in the]somewhat less enthusiastic support of our policy in Southeast Asia by [the] majority [of] Western European countries and may think that by presenting them with [a] nasty flareup in central Europe and exerting pressure on us to temper actions in Viet-Nam, they have [a] real opportunity of causing serious intra-alliance friction.”
At the very least, progress toward improvement of United States-Soviet relations would be severely set back. Moreover, we could look forward to a substantial deterioration in the evolution of the Bloc [Page 257] toward a reduction of tensions and the development of a system more compatible with that of the West.

C [D]. Negotiating Pressures and World Reactions

In many major capitals there are already signs of deep concern at the present state of the conflict and the dangers of escalation. U Thant, the French, and India have already called for some form of negotiation. The British have advised us that they are under public pressure to take a negotiating initiative. Labor back-benchers can be expected to increase this pressure with any rise in the intensity of military operations. The Canadians have also told us that they are considering proposals that would lead to negotiation, although both they and the Indians do not propose an immediate conference.
More generally, Ambassador Stevenson has reported that there is substantial sentiment in the United Nations favoring negotiation. This could conceivably lead to negotiating initiatives.
Any escalation—even the repetition of air strikes at the present level of intensity—will increase these pressures. If we found ourselves engaged with the MIGs and particularly if we were compelled to strike Phuc Yen, the Soviets, Indians, Canadians, British, and others would almost certainly bring strong pressure for immediate negotiations. Many would call for an immediate conference with no preconditions—before we had built up sufficient bargaining power.
Up to this point, we have the public support of Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines. We have, at least, the understanding and acceptance of the Governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, and our NATO allies generally—except for France. On the other hand, we must recognize that even such an ally as Japan has expressed its strong opposition to any systematic program of air strikes against the North.
Even the continuance of military pressure against North Viet-Nam at the present level would probably arouse sharp hostility among the Afro-Asian nations. Indonesia would be of particular concern, since by stepping up its actions against Malaysia it could create a two-front conflict. The general attitudes of Afro-Asian and neutralist nations need not be a serious drawback in themselves, but they would contribute to an over-all world atmosphere highly critical of our position.


Outline of a Political Program

A. Our Objectives in South Viet-Nam

McNamara and Bundy differ from Ball and Thompson as to what the United States should realistically expect to achieve in South Viet-Nam and the degree of risk we should assume.

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McNamara-Bundy Position5

McNamara and Bundy believe that we must pursue a course of increasing military pressure to the point where Hanoi is prepared to agree not only to stop infiltration from the North, but effectively to call off the insurgency in the South and withdraw those elements infiltrated in the past. To achieve this objective, they would accept the risks of substantial escalation, including the acceptance of ground warfare with Red China—although they believe it likely that we can achieve the desired objective without such a war. This view is shared by Maxwell Taylor.

Ball-Thompson Position

Ball and Thompson believe that—short of a crushing military defeat—Hanoi would never abandon the aggressive course it has pursued at great cost for ten years and give up all the progress it has made in the Communization of South Viet-Nam. For North Viet-Nam to call off the insurgency in South Viet-Nam, close the border, and withdraw the elements it had infiltrated into that country would mean that it had accepted unconditional surrender.

Ball and Thompson believe that Red China would be extremely reluctant to permit Hanoi to suffer such unconditional surrender since it would mean the collapse of the basic Chinese ideological position which they have been disputing with the Soviets. Peiping would thus be under great pressure to engage the United States on the ground as well as in the air.

Ball and Thompson believe that the Chinese decision to intervene on the ground would, in the final analysis, probably depend largely on the extent to which Peiping felt assured of Soviet support. There is no way that we can safely predict whether or not such support would be forthcoming. They are convinced, however, that the risks of Chinese ground intervention would be great and the costs of such intervention tremendous—particularly since the very taking of this step by Peiping would presumably imply substantial Soviet involvement, perhaps even to the point of a large-scale Soviet-US confrontation.

Ball and Thompson have supported the air strikes that have so far taken place and they would support a program of gradually increasing military pressure. They believe that only in this way can the United [Page 259] States achieve a bargaining position that can make possible an international arrangement that will avoid a humiliating defeat to the United States. They do not believe, however, that we can realistically hope for an international arrangement that will effectively stop the insurrection in South Viet-Nam and deliver the entire country south of the Seventeenth Parallel to the government in Saigon free and clear of insurgency. They consider that the most we can realistically expect from any international arrangement are measures to stop the infiltration so that we may be able, over time, to reduce our commitments. Hopefully the military actions preceding such an arrangement would have created a sufficient sense of unity in Saigon to make it possible for the South Vietnamese Government—with diminishing United States help—to clean up an insurgency that had become manageable by the shutting of the borders.

In all events, Ball and Thompson recommended that you must be prepared and alerted—whenever it appears that military conflict may have reached the level of intensity where Chinese ground intervention seems likely—to accept a cease-fire under international auspices short of the achievement of our total political objectives.

B. Elements of a Political Program

The political program we propose consists of four parts:

The issuance of a joint US-South Viet-Nam statement of aims;
Based on this statement, the submission of the South Vietnamese problem to the Security Council and full discussion in the Security Council of all aspects of that problem;
Negotiation of the conditions for a conference to be conducted among a group of countries consisting of the United States, Great Britain, France, South Viet-Nam, North Viet-Nam, Red China, and the Soviet Union; and
Negotiations at the conference.

(a) Issuance of an Agreed US-South Viet-Nam Statement of Aims

Ideally, the United States and South Viet-Nam should jointly issue a statement of war aims as a prelude to the submission of the South Viet-namese case to the Security Council. Because of the action of U Thant in issuing a statement of his own, we may find it necessary for the President to outline our objectives to the world over the weekend, without waiting for a full South Vietnamese concurrence.

A joint US-South Vietnamese statement of aims would include these elements:

The two governments intend to continue to take all necessary military measures to stop the Communist aggression against the Republic of South Viet-Nam.
Our joint and sole aim is to secure and maintain the political independence and territorial integrity of South Viet-Nam so as to permit [Page 260] it to develop its institutions and live in peace with its neighbors free from outside interference.
The independence of South Viet-Nam requires the cessation of the guerrilla activities in South Viet-Nam directed and supplied from the North, the stopping of infiltration from the North, and the withdrawal of Viet Cong cadres previously infiltrated into South Viet-Nam.
South Vietnamese independence, which is the birthright of every nation, large and small, should be internationally guaranteed.
Such a guarantee must be reinforced on the ground by peace-keeping machinery with enough strength and a sufficient mandate to assure that all parties to the agreement abide by their promises.
This machinery can best be established under the aegis of the United Nations.
Once these arrangements are carried out, the United States is prepared to withdraw its military forces from South Viet-Nam. [It must, of course, be made clear that any final arrangement should include the right of South Viet-Nam to call in assistance at a moment’s notice if the United Nations’ guarantee should prove inadequate.]

(b) Submission to Security Council

As soon as possible—and we do not think that this can be delayed at the most for more than a week—the United States should bring the Viet-Nam issue to the United Nations Security Council. Conditions at the moment are propitious since the Security Council has the most favorable composition in years—the five permanent members, plus Bolivia, Uruguay, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Jordan and the Ivory Coast.

In proceedings in the Security Council, the United States would:
Present all available evidence to establish that the insurrection in South Viet-Nam is not an indigenous revolt but an insurgency imposed, directed, supplied, and inspired from North Viet-Nam. [The effective establishment of this proposition may require some compromise of existing intelligence. We should be prepared to do this.]
Call for the establishment of peace in South Viet-Nam under conditions that will assure its independence. These include the halting of infiltration and the stopping of the direction and encouragement of the revolt from the North.
Call for a meeting with representatives of the Governments of the United Kingdom, France, USSR, Communist China, North Viet-Nam and South Viet-Nam to discuss arrangements for a cease-fire, the cessation of infiltration, and the establishment of peace in South Viet-Nam.
Suggest that the Hanoi regime as well as the Republic of Viet-Nam be invited to join in the deliberations of the Council.
It is unlikely that Hanoi would send representatives to New York. Most probably both Hanoi and Peiping would scornfully reject the [Page 261] Security Council proceedings—at lease in the first instance. But taking the problem to the Security Council and calling for peace negotiations—while stepping up our military efforts and our military buildup—would increase the pressure on the Soviets to help put an end to the crisis by joining in a call for a cease-fire and a conference.

(c) Preparatory Meeting of the Six Countries

The proposed prepatory meeting would provide the forum for really serious negotiations. By debating the conditions under which a conference might be called—while at the same time continuing our military activity—we might be able to push the other nations in the direction of our objective.

(d) The Conference

If we should ever get to a Geneva-type conference we would presumably have concluded most of the bargaining in the earlier proceedings. The conference could, however, be the mechanism for arranging for UN guarantees and a UN presence. Moreover, it would probably be desirable to include a Laos settlement in such a conference as well.

Need to Preempt Security Council Initiative

We must be aware that the Soviets may take the initiative to bring us into the Security Council as the defendant rather than the prosecutor. Moreover, the pressure on the Secretary General to call the Security Council into session under Article 99 of the Charter will also increase; so far, he is restrained from acting by his own caution and our negative advise. We cannot negotiate a settlement of the issue in6 the Security Council, because Hanoi and Peking will not be willing to do it there. But we can start the process there, and thereby secure the political initiative in our own hands.

George W. Ball
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. XXVIII. Top Secret.
  2. The source text is attached to Ball’s note of February 13 to McNamara, in which he stated: “Attached is a revision of my paper for the meeting with the President today at 12:30.” Ball added the following handwritten postscript: “You will note that I have flagged on page 10 what I take to be a basic difference of view between you and Bob on the one hand and Tommy [Llewelyn Thompson] and me on the other. This needs discussion before we talk with the President.” No previous drafts of the paper have been found. Ball later stated that he and Thompson prepared the paper and reviewed it with McNamara and McGeorge Bundy. (Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern, pp. 390–391)
  3. Reference is to Part II A. These and following brackets are in the source text.
  4. The Feb. 11 estimate is that this “might” occur. [Footnote in the source text. Reference is to Document 111, paragraph 17.]
  5. McGeorge Bundy wrote in the left-hand margin of the source text next to this paragraph: “not our view.” Ball later recollected that before the February 13 meeting with the President, Bundy called him to correct Ball’s statement of the views attributed him. Bundy, according to Ball, said he did not believe that the United States had to increase military pressure “to the point where Hanoi is prepared to agree not only to stop infiltration from the North, but effectively to call off the insurgency in the South and withdraw those elements infiltrated in the past.” (The Past Has Another Pattern, pp. 504–505)
  6. A note on page 13 of the source text, which begins with paragraph 2 above and ends with the footnote reference, reads: “Revised page Mr. Bundy.”