16. Paper Prepared by Chester L. Cooper of the National Security Council Staff1

Re the War

There are three distinct aspects to the Bombing-of-the-North gambit:

Retaliation in kind against major VC terrorism or North Vietnamese actions against U.S. personnel or installations. We should do this with or without a stable government in Saigon, but after evacuation of dependents.
Limited, selective attacks against infiltration-related targets. We should do this only if there is a stable government in Saigon and after evacuation of dependents.
Large scale bombing of military and industrial targets. We should not initiate this with or without a stable government in Saigon.

We should not underestimate the risk of bombing the North. (A summary of a recent CIA study on Communist military readiness capabilities is attached.)2 But aside from the risk of greatly expanded hostilities, there is the considerable risk that the object of the exercise (i.e., forcing Hanoi to call off its dogs in the South and/or to improve our negotiating posture) won’t be attainable by this means. The risks involved in retaliation are less than those in the other two categories.

I assume that our objective in Vietnam is to reduce the insurgency to a point where the GVN can handle the problem itself or alternatively to establish sufficient leverage to achieve by negotiation what we are unable to achieve (at least achieve in a reasonable period of time) on the ground. If this be so, then the war must still be fought and victories achieved in South Vietnam. A major (and well-publicized) military victory a month would do much to convince Hanoi that the cost of the insurgency is high and would entail infinitely less risk than bombing important North Vietnamese installations. Moreover, a few important military victories are now essential for Vietnamese (and U.S.) morale. But how?

Thus far, U.S. military advisers at Division level and above have had virtually no significant influence on the planning and execution of major [Page 35] military operations. We advise period. In large part this is because we have been understandably reluctant to go beyond this. In large part, too, ARVN officers resist relying on U.S. advice at this level because of (not unnatural) regard for face and pride. Thus we find ourselves critiquing rather than executing a Binh Gia-type operation.

Simply, briefly, crudely we have, or think we have, the best staff officers in the world; our intelligence on VC operations and concentrations, while still not good enough is improving; regular ARVN forces are nothing to be ashamed of. What is needed is to undertake the kind of top-level strategic and tactical planning using ARVN forces that we would be using if it were indeed our war. This will take some new arrangements with the GVN, some additional high powered U.S. staff officers and a willingness to assume the risk of authority and responsibility for failure as well as success.

Re Evacuation

Depending on accompanying and subsequent U.S. moves, the evacuation of U.S. dependents can signal determination or weakness. My own feeling is that we should pare down sharply. We have more use for MPs than to ride school buses; the presence of so many women and children in Saigon is an inhibition, conscious or subconscious, on action. To wait until we have to evacuate in haste and possibly in confusion would be folly.

Re the Government

All we need—and all we should press for—is a government that is in charge, that is prepared to continue the war, that is receptive to our advice, and that has enough support or at least acceptance among the various political groups to stay in power for a couple of years—or, at least, have its personnel shuffled and structure modified only in reasonably orderly fashion. Whether it’s a military, civilian, democratic or autocratic government is beside the point now.

Developments in the last day or so indicate that there may be a thaw in the relationships between Huong and Khanh and Khanh and the Embassy. This is fine and we should move forward carefully and gently rather than worrying about the fine print of any Huong-Khanh confrontation.

However, we still confront the Buddhists, who will continue to retain the power to move [make] any government unworkable, even if they cannot actually topple it—a fact of contemporary Vietnamese political life we will simply have to accept and reckon with. The problem is that the Buddhists—or, more accurately, the militant bonzes who now control the “Buddhist movement”—don’t know what they want, in a positive sense. The Buddhist leadership enjoys the exercise of political power but prefers to veto rather than propose. It does not want the [Page 36] responsibility of office or, actually, direct participation in the governmental process. This leadership is hypersensitive to affronts to its honor or present political position, and to any recrudescence of what it considers “Neo-Diemist” or “Catholic” authority. The leadership is also divided among itself and jockeying for primacy within the Buddhist movement in a manner such that no contender for politico-ecclesiastical power can afford to let another appear more militant than he. (In many ways the Buddhist movement in SVN bears striking analogies to the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.)

At the moment the Buddhist leaders, particularly Tri Quang, are calling for Premier Huong’s ouster. Actually, this demand may be a bargaining counter. When Huong came to power, Tri Quang was ready to accept him, but anti-Huong “out” politicians got the ear of Tam Chau in mid-November and persuaded Tam Chau to lend his tacit support to anti-Huong demonstrations. To prevent Tam from usurping the mantle of militancy, Tri Quang moved to the head of the anti-Huong parade.

The Buddhists can probably be placated and Huong simultaneously kept in office but only if there is a juggling of personnel in Huong’s cabinet and in the make-up of the compromise body which emerges to replace the HNC. To keep the Buddhists on the reservation it will be necessary for discreet overtures to be made to Tri Quang and to other leaders to flatter them by soliciting their views and, more importantly, to sell them on the need for not opposing Huong and Suu, if only to maintain the appearance of governmental continuity. In turn, however, their advice will have to be sought on the composition of the successor to the HNC and on cabinet changes. These soundings would have to be undertaken by both Vietnamese and Americans. The process will be delicate and time is fast running out. If started at once, however, and if reasonable Buddhist personnel demands are met, they can perhaps be kept in line during the critical days ahead.

On the US side, such soundings might perhaps best be taken by a special Washington emissary. His presence and functions would obviously have to be carefully coordinated with Ambassador Taylor, but such an emissary could play a useful role as a lightning rod, a soothing balm to hypersensitive Vietnamese pride, and a communicator between presently contending elements in Saigon.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, SEA Special Intelligence Material, Vol. III. Secret. Cooper forwarded this paper to McGeorge Bundy on January 6 with a covering memorandum which read: “Attached is a quick and dirty exposition of some of the views I expressed this morning. It might be useful in connection with your meeting later this afternoon.” (Ibid.) Regarding the meeting, see Document 17.
  2. Attached, but not printed.