124. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Johnson1


  • Vietnam decisions

I have been brooding about our discussion of yesterday,2 and I think I am beginning to understand where the problem is.

I think that some of us—perhaps mostly me—have been confusing two questions. One is the firmness of your own decision to order continuing [Page 283] action; the other is the wisdom of a public declaration of that policy by you. Let me give you a little background and a recommendation.
Rightly or wrongly, those of us who favor continuing military action against the North do see it as a major watershed decision. However much it is based on continuing aggression in the South (as it should be), it amounts to a U.S. decision to mount continuing pressure against Hanoi by use of our air and naval superiority. This is not the same, in operational terms, as what we did last August. And it is not the same as a policy of episodic retaliation for particular attacks against large numbers of Americans. It is very different indeed, and the difference is just what we are counting on as the one possible means of turning around a desperate situation which has been heading toward a disastrous U.S. defeat.
Precisely because this program represents a major operational change and because we have waited many months to put it into effect, there is a deep-seated need for assurance that the decision has in fact been taken. When you were out of the room yesterday, Bob McNamara repeatedly stated that he simply has to know what the policy is so that he can make his military plans and give his military orders. This certainly is equally essential if we are to get the necessary political effects in Saigon. If we limit ourselves to reprisals for spectaculars like Pleiku and Qui Nhon, we leave the initiative in the hands of the Communists and we can expect no good result.
Thus it seems essential to McNamara—and to me too—that there be an absolutely firm and clear internal decision of the U.S. Government and that this decision be known and understood by enough people to permit its orderly execution. That is one side of the problem.
The other side of the problem, as I understand it, is that you do not want to give a loud public signal of a major change in policy right now. This is a position which makes a lot of sense on a lot of grounds. When I talked to Cabot Lodge yesterday, he told me that he had taped a statement for Dave Garroway’s “Today” show in which he stoutly and firmly supported your decision not to make loud public statements. Lodge believes, as you know, that action speaks louder than words in this field. Russ Wiggins of the Post has just called me to try to make a luncheon date (I refused), and in the course of listening to him I learned that he too thinks it is right to act against the North and equally right not to boast about it, because such boasting only makes life harder for the Communists. Tommy Thompson also argues the virtue of not rubbing the Communist nose in this mess, at least at your level.
So in terms of public statement, I fully understand the forces which were leading you yesterday to suggest that any public comments might be best handled by the Secretary of State and Ambassador Stevenson. Most of the need for public utterance which led Bill Moyers and me to urge a Presidential speech last week can be met just as well by the Secretary, [Page 284] and there is real gain in keeping you out of the immediate military aspect of the matter at this stage.
Thus I think it is possible to reconcile the need for a clear decision within the Government with a need to avoid excessive public noise—by a policy of Presidential decision and Secretarial exposition.
That leaves us only one problem: which is communication with our Allies. What we tell them is not likely to stay tightly secret, and yet I think it is crucial that they not feel left out or uninformed. In different ways this is as important for London as for Saigon, for Ottawa as for New Delhi, for Bonn as for Tokyo, for Paris as for Bangkok.
My solution to this problem would be to give a clear account of our private thinking, with appropriate emphasis for each capital, but without any indication of the size and frequency of planned actions, other than to say that they will be limited and fitting, and that any further escalation will be the fault of the enemy.
For this purpose, Taylor’s phrasing of the new policy which he gave to General Khanh3 is just about right. He described it in the following language:
  • “A. Intensification by all available means of the program of pacification within SVN.
  • “B. Execution of a joint GVN/US program of measured and limited air action against selected military targets in the southern part of DRV.4 Air strikes under this program will be jointly planned and agreed.
  • “C. Announcement of this policy of measured action in general terms and presentation to the United Nations Security Council of the case against the DRV as the aggressor, accompanied by an indication of readiness to discuss ways of bringing the DRV aggression to an end.”
In summary, what I think we need is internal clarity about the importance and scope of the decisions you are taking, and as much public calm and coolness as possible. For these purposes, Rusk is the ideal spokesman for policy, and Stevenson the ideal defender and explainer (which means, incidentally, that McNamara probably should not undertake a TV program proving that Hanoi is the aggressor—this should be Adlai’s job, though that is very unfair because it is Bob who has had all the necessary spade-work done).
McG. B.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, McGeorge Bundy, Vol. VIII. Secret.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 122.
  3. See Document 119.
  4. The President crossed out “in the southern part of the DRV.” and made a handwritten interpolation to revise the sentence as follows: “We will respond to and deter aggression by the execution of a joint GVN/US program of measured and limited air action against selected military targets.”