212. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson 1

This is a supplement to my memorandum to you dated November 3.2 This memorandum incorporates the implications of events since then and information gained on General Wheeler’s and my visit with Ambassador Lodge, Admiral Sharp and General Westmoreland in Vietnam on November 28-29.3

Introductory comments. Before giving my assessment of the situation and recommendations, I want to report that United States personnel in Vietnam are performing admirably. The massive Cam Ranh Bay complex has sprung into operation since our last visit in July; the troops that we visited (the 173d Airborne Brigade and the 1st Cavalry Division) have fought and are fighting well and their morale is high; and the team in Saigon is working harmoniously.

The situation. There has been no substantial change since my November 3 memorandum in the economic, political or pacification situation. There is a serious threat of inflation because of the mixture of US force build-up and GVN deficit on the one hand and the tightly stretched Vietnamese economy on the other; the Ky “government of generals” is surviving, but not acquiring wide support or generating actions; pacification is thoroughly stalled, with no guarantee that security anywhere is [Page 592] permanent and no indications that able and willing leadership will emerge in the absence of that permanent security. (Prime Minister Ky estimates his government controls only 25% of the population today and reports that his pacification chief hopes to increase that to 50% two years from now.)

The dramatic recent changes in the situation are on the military side. They are the increased infiltration from the North and the increased willingness of the Communist forces to stand and fight, even in large-scale engagements. The Ia Drang River Campaign of early November is an example. The Communists appear to have decided to increase their forces in South Vietnam both by heavy recruitment in the South (especially in the Delta) and by infiltration of regular North Vietnamese forces from the North. Nine regular North Vietnamese regiments (27 infantry battalions) have been infiltrated in the past year, joining the estimated 83 VC battalions in the South. The rate of infiltration has increased from three battalion equivalents a month in late 1964 to a high of 9 or 12 during one month this past fall. General Westmoreland estimates that through 1966 North Vietnam will have the capability to expand its armed forces in order to infiltrate three regiments (nine battalion equivalents, or 4500 men) a month, and that the VC in South Vietnam can train seven new battalion equivalents a month—together adding 16 battalion equivalents a month to the enemy forces. Communist casualties and desertions can be expected to go up if my recommendations for increased US, South Vietnamese and third country forces are accepted. Nevertheless, the enemy can be expected to enlarge his present strength of 110 battalion equivalents to more than 150 battalion equivalents by the end of calendar 1966, when hopefully his losses can be made to equal his input.

As for the Communist ability to supply this force, it is estimated that, even taking account of interdiction of routes by air and sea, more than 200 tons of supplies a day can be infiltrated—more than enough, allowing for the extent to which the enemy lives off the land, to support the likely PAVN/VC force at the likely level of operations.

To meet this possible—and in my view likely—Communist build-up, the presently contemplated Phase I forces will not be enough. Phase I forces, almost all in place by the end of this year, involve 130 South Vietnamese, 9 Korean, 1 Australian and 34 US combat battalions (approximately 220,000 Americans). Bearing in mind the nature of the war, the expected weighted combat force ratio of less than 2-to-1 will not be good enough. Nor will the originally contemplated Phase II addition of 28 more US battalions (112,000 men) be enough; the combat force ratio, even with 32 new South Vietnamese battalions, would still be little better than 2-to-1 at the end of 1966. The initiative which we have held since August would pass to the enemy; we would fall far short of what we expected to achieve in terms of population control and disruption of [Page 593] enemy bases and lines of communications. Indeed, it is estimated that, with the contemplated Phase II addition of 28 US battalions, we would be able only to hold our present geographical positions.

Military options and recommendations. We have but two options, it seems to me. One is to go now for a compromise solution (something substantially less than the “favorable outcome” I described in my memorandum of November 3), and hold further deployments to a minimum. The other is to stick with our stated objectives and with the war, and provide what it takes in men and materiel. If it is decided not to move now toward a compromise, I recommend that the United States both send a substantial number of additional troops and very gradually intensify the bombing of North Vietnam. Ambassador Lodge, General Wheeler, Admiral Sharp and General Westmoreland concur in this pronged course of action, although General Wheeler and Admiral Sharp would intensify the bombing of the North more quickly.
Troop deployments. With respect to additional forces in South Vietnam to maintain the initiative against the growing Communist forces, I recommend:
That the Republic of Korea be requested to increase their present deployment of nine combat battalions to 18 combat battalions (the addition of one division) before July 1966 and to 21 combat battalions (the addition of another brigade) before October 1966.
That the Government of Australia be requested to increase their present deployment of one combat battalion to two combat battalions before October 1966.
That the deployment of US ground troops be increased by the end of 1966 from 34 combat battalions to 74 combat battalions.

That the FY ’67 Budget for the Defense Department and the January Supplement to the FY ’66 Budget be revised to reflect the expansion of US forces required to support the additional deployments.

The 74 US battalions—together with increases in air squadrons, naval units, air defense, combat support, construction units and miscellaneous logistic support and advisory personnel which I also recommend—would bring the total US personnel in Vietnam to approximately 400,000 by the end of 1966. And it should be understood that further deployments (perhaps exceeding 200,000) may be needed in 1967.

Bombing of North Vietnam. With respect to the program of bombing North Vietnam, I recommend that we maintain present levels of activity in the three quadrants west and south of Hanoi, but that over a period of the next six months we gradually enlarge the target system in the northeast (Hanoi-Haiphong) quadrant until, at the end of the period, it includes “controlled” armed reconnaissance of lines of communication throughout the area, bombing of petroleum storage facilities and power plants, and mining of the harbors. (Left unstruck would be population targets, industrial plants, locks and dams.)
Pause in bombing North Vietnam. It is my belief that there should be a three-or four-week pause in the program of bombing the North before we either greatly increase our troop deployments to Vietnam or intensify our strikes against the North.4 The reasons for this belief are, first, that we must lay a foundation in the mind of the American public and in world opinion for such an enlarged phase of the war and, second, we should give North Vietnam a face-saving chance to stop the aggression. I am not seriously concerned about the risk of alienating the South Vietnamese, misleading Hanoi, or being “trapped” in a pause; if we take reasonable precautions, we can avoid these pitfalls. I am seriously concerned about embarking on a markedly higher level of war in Vietnam without having tried, through a pause, to end the war or at least having made it clear to our people that we did our best to end it.
Evaluation. We should be aware that deployments of the kind I have recommended will not guarantee success. US killed-in-action can be expected to reach 1000 a month, and the odds are even that we will be faced in early 1967 with a “no-decision” at an even higher level. My overall evaluation, nevertheless, is that the best chance of achieving our stated objectives lies in a pause followed, if it fails, by the deployments mentioned above.
Robert S. McNamara
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 2EE, Primarily McNamara’s Recommendations re Strategic Actions. Top Secret. There is an indication on the source text that the President saw the memorandum.
  2. Document 189.
  3. This visit lasted 1-1/2 days. A copy of the extensive briefing paper by MACV for the Secretary of Defense and General Wheeler, November 28, is in the National Defense University, Taylor Papers, T-324-69.
  4. My recommendation for a “pause” is not concurred in by Ambassador Lodge, General Wheeler, or Admiral Sharp. [Footnote in the source text.]