15. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Bundy) to Secretary of State Rusk 1


  • Notes on the South Vietnamese Situation and Alternatives

For your meeting this afternoon with the President,2 and even though Ambassador Taylor’s incoming messages have not been released by the President except to yourself and Mr. Ball, I thought it might be helpful to have notes prepared among Mike Forrestal, Len Unger, and myself.

I think we must accept that Saigon morale in all quarters is now very shaky indeed, and that this relates directly to a widespread feeling [Page 31] that the US is not ready for stronger action and indeed is possibly looking for a way out. We may regard this feeling as irrational and contradicted by our repeated statements, but Bill Sullivan was very vivid in describing the existence of such feelings in October,3 and we must honestly concede that our actions and statements since the election have not done anything to offset it. The blunt fact is that we have appeared to the Vietnamese (and to wide circles in Asia and even in Europe) to be insisting on a more perfect government than can reasonably be expected, before we consider any additional action—and that we might even pull out our support unless such a government emerges. We have not yet been able to assess the over-all impact of the continuing political crises and of the Binh Gia military defeat,4 but there are already ample indications that they have had a sharp discouraging effect just in the last two weeks.
By the same token, it is apparent that Hanoi is extremely confident, and that the Soviets are being somewhat tougher and the Chinese Communists are consolidating their ties with Hanoi. All three have called for a Laos conference without preconditions but have refrained from mentioning a conference on Vietnam. We think the explanation is extremely simple: that they are not too happy with the way things have gone in Laos, but that they see Vietnam falling into their laps in the fairly near future. At the same time, as to Laos, none of us think that the Communist side would concede in any meaningful fashion on any of the preconditions; they probably hope that Souvanna or we would abandon these preconditions, and they probably share our judgment that for Souvanna to do so would drastically weaken his own position in Vientiane if not destroy it.
In key parts of the rest of Asia, notably Thailand, our present posture also appears weak. As such key parts of Asia see us, we looked strong in May and early June, weaker in later June and July, and then appeared to be taking a quite firm line in August with the Gulf of Tonkin. Since then we must have seemed to be gradually weakening—and, again, insisting on perfectionism in the Saigon government before we moved. With all the weakness that we all recognize in the Saigon political situation, the fact is that it is not an unusual or unfamiliar one to an Asian mind, and that our friends in Asia must well be asking whether we would support them if they too had internal troubles in a confrontation situation.
The sum total of the above seems to us to point—together with almost certainty stepped-up Viet Cong actions in the current favorable weather—to a prognosis that the situation in Vietnam is now likely to come apart more rapidly than we had anticipated in November. We would still stick to the estimate that the most likely form of coming apart would be a government or key groups starting to negotiate covertly with the Liberation Front or Hanoi, perhaps not asking in the first instance that we get out, but with that necessarily following at a fairly early stage. In one sense, this would be a “Vietnamese solution,” with some hope that it would produce a Communist Vietnam that would assert its own degree of independence from Peiping and that would produce a pause in Communist pressure in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, it would still be virtually certain that Laos would then become untenable and that Cambodia would accommodate in some way. Most seriously, there is grave question whether the Thai in these circumstances would retain any confidence at all in our continued support. In short, the outcome would be regarded in Asia, and particularly among our friends, as just as humiliating a defeat as any other form. As events have developed, the American public would probably not be too sharply critical, but the real question would be whether Thailand and other nations were weakened and taken over thereafter.
The alternative of stronger action obviously has grave difficulties. It commits the US more deeply, at a time when the picture of South Vietnamese will is extremely weak. To the extent that it included actions against North Vietnam, it would be vigorously attacked by many nations and disapproved initially even by such nations as Japan and India, on present indications. Most basically, its stiffening effect on the Saigon political situation would not be at all sure to bring about a more effective government, nor would limited actions against the southern DRV in fact sharply reduce infiltration or, in present circumstances, be at all likely to induce Hanoi to call it off.
Nonetheless, on balance we believe that such action would have some faint hope of really improving the Vietnamese situation, and, above all, would put us in a much stronger position to hold the next line of defense, namely Thailand. Accepting the present situation—or any negotiation on the basis of it—would be far weaker from this latter key standpoint. If we moved into stronger actions, we should have in mind that negotiations would be likely to emerge from some quarter in any event, and that under existing circumstances, even with the additional element of pressure, we could not expect to get an outcome that would really secure an independent South Vietnam. Yet even on an outcome that produced a progressive deterioration in South Vietnam and an eventual Communist takeover, we would still have appeared to Asians to have done a lot more about it.
In specific terms, the kinds of action we might take in the near future would be:
An early occasion for reprisal action against the DRV.
Possibly beginning low-level reconnaissance of the DRV at once.
Concurrently with a or b, an early orderly withdrawal of our dependents. We all think this would be a grave mistake in the absence of stronger action, and if taken in isolation would tremendously increase the pace of deterioration in Saigon. If we are to clear our decks in this way—and we are more and more inclined to think we should—it simply must be, for this reason alone, in the context of some stronger action.
Intensified air operations in Laos may have some use, but they will not meet the problem of Saigon morale and, if continued at a high level, may raise significant possibilities of Communist intervention on a substantial scale in Laos with some plausible justification. We have gone about as far as we can go in Laos by the existing limiting actions, and, apart from cutting Route 7, we would not be accomplishing much militarily by intensifying US air actions there. This form of action thus has little further to gain in the Laos context, and has no real bearing at this point on the South Vietnamese context.
Introduction of limited US ground forces into the northern area of South Vietnam still has great appeal to many of us, concurrently with the first air attacks into the DRV. It would have a real stiffening effect in Saigon, and a strong signal effect to Hanoi. On the disadvantage side, such forces would be possible attrition targets for the Viet Cong. For your information, the Australians have clearly indicated (most recently yesterday) that they might be disposed to participate in such an operation. The New Zealanders are more negative and a proposal for Philippine participation would be an interesting test.
William P. Bundy 5
  1. Source: Department of State, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, WPB Chron, January-March 1965. Top Secret. Printed also in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol. IV, pp. 684–686.
  2. See Document 17.
  3. Presumably a reference to comments Sullivan made during consultations in Washington in October. Sullivan had been serving as an assistant to Ambassador Taylor since the summer of 1964. He was appointed Ambassador to Laos on November 25 and presented his credentials to the Royal Lao Government on December 23.
  4. See footnote 5, Document 14.
  5. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.