132. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Bundy) to Secretary of State Rusk1


  • South Viet-Nam Course of Action

The key question remains whether to take a talking initiative in your press conference statement.2 I do not think we can well omit it from the [Page 296] press statement and then make it at the UN; this would seem a weakening of our position, coming so close on the heels of the statement, whereas it can be put all in one bite in the statement.

I would rack up the arguments as follows:

If we do not take a talking initiative:

There will be moderate, but bearable, public criticism at home. Even without an initiative, we can go far enough to hold this within bounds.

However, the real question is what others will then do.

Wilson is very restive and has specifically flagged this very point in his talk with Bruce.3
U Thant already has the idea of a group of major powers to work on a two-stage process.
The Indians have already proposed this on a “cessation of provocations” formula, and the Canadians have expressed their sympathy. Latest word last night is that the two governments are in close touch.
The Soviets have already called for an immediate conference, although Hanoi has not taken this up. (This points to Hanoi not showing up in New York, and possibly not playing at all, which would get us off the hook right then and there if we made an initiative.)

The sum total adds to a virtual certainty that either (a) some other power will call for a preliminary meeting, or (b) there will be a move in the SC calling on North Viet-Nam to cease its actions but calling, on an equal basis, for us to stop attacks in the north and withdraw our forces over Geneva limits. In the former case, we would look unwilling to talk even if we accepted, and we would lose much control of the terms of reference of the talks. In the latter case, we would be put on an equal footing with the DRV and this would greatly stimulate “both your houses” feeling all over.


The risks of military escalation will be very substantial.

If we take an initiative:

We will in any case run some risks of lowering morale in South Viet-Nam and in Laos and Thailand. We must in any case clear exactly what we are doing with them, and this we have not yet done.
We will have to fight off efforts in the Security Council itself to frame the terms of the “cessation of provocations.” We should not seek to litigate these in the Council, and should if necessary accede to others adding our own actions, or a cease-fire in the south, to the agenda, provided we get a formula that somehow puts the DRV actions in the forefront. [Page 297] (This is another element arguing for an initiative by us, with maximum US control of wording.)
We will have moved to “half a Geneva” before we have established any real pattern of pressures on Hanoi, and would be in the somewhat novel position of continuing our military actions while some form of talks was going on. But this is what we always thought we would face in weeks or a very few months in any case.
We cannot totally control the grouping that would emerge. The present proposal calls for US, UK, France, USSR, Communist China, and the two Viet-Nams. But I hardly see how we can avoid Laos, unless we move separately to convene a Laos Conference on the Article 19 point. A two-ring circus is not without precedent—the 1954 Geneva Conference went for some time with both Korea and Indochina on the agenda—but the merger would tend to obscure the “preliminary” label we wish to retain for the Viet-Nam part.
The risks of military escalation will be reduced, perhaps to a major degree. If we feel impelled to increase the pace of our actions, we may find ourselves under a shade more pressure not to. But equally the Communist side might feel somewhat inhibited from drastic responses.
Developments within South Viet-Nam will be crucial to whether a decent bargaining position emerges. If the VC continues to gain, we still face the grim choice of hitting the north really hard (most unlikely to do the job at that point) or of waking up one morning to find the GVN has been at the Liberation Front or Hanoi behind our backs. (This too would be in a Geneva patten, for the real deal was made outside the conference, in 1954, between the French and the Viet Minh.) This would put us in a most ungraceful position—but my own view is that the blow to our prestige would be worse than if we had not negotiated and the same thing had happened.

On balance:

I would strongly favor an early initiative.4

  1. Source: Department of State, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, WPB Chron, Jan.-Mar. 1965. Top Secret. Drafted by William Bundy, but the source text is neither initialed nor signed by him.
  2. Stating that he understood that the President had asked Rusk to hold a press conference later that week, Cleveland offered suggestions as to what Rusk might say in a memorandum to Rusk of February 16. (Ibid., Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)
  3. See footnote 5, Document 131.
  4. Bundy further elaborated on possible developments in Vietnam and the consequences of certain U.S. actions in an uncompleted draft memorandum dated February 18 and entitled “Where Are We Heading?” (Department of State, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, WPB Chron, Jan-Mar. 1965) The memorandum is printed in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol. III, pp. 692–693.