20. Telegram From the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Johnson, in Texas1

CAP 65363. The following message from Max Taylor recommends reprisal action for the execution of Bennett and the restaurant atrocity.2 Rusk, McNamara, and I all disagree with this recommendation. We do not believe that important escalation should be attached to a single episode at this stage. McNamara and I do think, however, that if terror and executions continue, we should substantially increase weight of Rolling Thunder attacks, probably including oil supplies in Haiphong area. Rusk is less certain.

We are considering usefulness of leaflet drops on Hanoi-Haiphong area which would say that if these outrages continue, necessary further action will be taken.

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Meanwhile you should know of Taylor's recommendation in case you wish to take his judgment and overrule Washington doves.

Taylor's message follows:

From: Embassy Saigon No. 44023

This is a US Mission message.

Viet Cong execution of Sergeant Bennett closely followed by My Canh restaurant atrocity brings into sharp focus blackmail potential VC and Hanoi possess in numbers of US hostages in their hands and the usefulness of this blackmail to support a stepped-up terrorist campaign. Since they well aware we place higher value on human life than do they, Hanoi/VC prepared use this weapon to own advantage. They have evidently decided that execution of US prisoners will be very sensitive issue for USG, and their experience with Hertz case in which they undoubtedly aware that we have caused GVN to delay execution of Hai, may have led them to believe that we will pay very high price to prevent execution of our personnel. They thus hope to cause political problems between US and GVN, to stir up US public opinion against Viet-Nam policy, to damage US troop morale, and also raise morale their terrorist cadre by showing their ability to retaliate for GVN executions and by possibility of delaying or halting further GVN executions. (We understand 5 or 6 convicted VC terrorists now awaiting carrying out of death sentence.)

Text of announcement, which first made over Radio Hanoi, a fact we should emphasize as evidence of origin of this outrage, makes clear that Hanoi and VC are holding USG responsible for GVN action in executing three named terrorists. In our response to this outrage we should make clear we likewise hold Hanoi responsible. Announcement also makes clear that Sergeant Bennett was executed on orders of Hanoi cloaked as “orders of the NLFSV Central Committee” by the command of the South Viet-Nam Liberation Front, apparently without any pretext of a trial. Announcement also twice mentions policy of NLFSV toward “prisoners of war” as “humane and lenient” and as “correct and humane”. It mentions prisoners of war in three contexts: executed terrorists are referred to as prisoners of war and are equated with US detainees; “rebel soldiers” (RVNAF) are referred to as prisoners of war and in obvious appeal to Vietnamese opinion, offer is made to release those who have “repented”; US detainees are called US “war prisoners” but their lives are said to be dependent on actions of US “aggressors”. This is first use of term “prisoners of war” in any of these three contexts to our knowledge.

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We cannot permit ourselves to be placed in position of paying blackmail for lives of US prisoners in form of preventing GVN from executing terrorists who are tried and convicted of violating Vietnamese civil law. If not sternly repressed, terrorism is likely to become a VC tactic of increasing proportions. Even if we were willing to pay blackmail regardless of difficulties which it would cause internally for GVN and for our relations with GVN, we would soon find the price raised to some other even less acceptable level.

The US Mission takes the general position that (a) convicted VC terrorists must be punished in accordance with GVN law regardless of possible reprisal actions against US prisoners in VC hands; (b) must hold Hanoi responsible both for terrorism and for reprisals against our prisoners; and (c) we should obtain maximum propaganda effect in condemning the Bennett and My Canh incidents in combination as international murder (the toll of dead so far—27 Vietnamese, 13 US, 2 French, 1 Swiss, 1 Filipino; wounded—62 Vietnamese, 16 US, 1 Swiss, 2 Germans).

We therefore recommend

The immediate execution of a bombing attack in the Hanoi-Haiphong area with an appropriate statement of the reason for the departure from the Rolling Thunder pattern. This attack to be accompanied by major leaflet drops in NVN and by maximum exploitation by VOA and other media.
A Presidential statement voicing sense of outrage of American people at these wanton acts of murder and announcing that target in preceding paragraph was accordingly being attacked to show USG would not stand for blatant violation of all standards of humanity and international conduct.
A GVN statement similarly denouncing the My Canh atrocity and the wanton murder of Sergeant Bennett, contrasting latter with due process of law followed in trial of Tran Van Dang, who was caught redhanded preparing to blow up building in city of Saigon, charged, tried by competent court, and convicted under accepted standards of justice.
GVN protest to ICC.

We believe and intend that above steps would lead to heavy public denunciation of VC terrorism and execution of US prisoner. If handled properly this should have opposite effect to that intended by VC of stirring American public opinion in support of US policy in Viet-Nam.

We feel that the publicity campaign should get underway at once and the overall USG position should be established in the next few hours. We have asked GVN to make no statement for time being, but we will have difficulty keeping GVN quiet if matter drags. Taylor.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. XXXVI. Top Secret; Exdis. A note on the source text indicates that the telegram was received at the LBJ Ranch at 11:25 a.m. and that the President saw it.
  2. On June 24, the Viet Cong executed Sergeant Harold G. Bennett, and on June 25, a Viet Cong bomb exploded in the My Canh floating restaurant in Saigon, killing 44 persons, including 13 U.S. citizens.
  3. Dated June 26. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. XXXVI)