40. Paper by the Under Secretary of State (Ball)1
A COMPROMISE SOLUTION FOR SOUTH VIET-NAM
A Losing War: The South Vietnamese are losing the war to the Viet Cong. No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong or even force [Page 107] them to the conference table on our terms no matter how many hundred thousand white foreign (US) troops we deploy.
No one has demonstrated that a white ground force of whatever size can win a guerrilla war—which is at the same time a civil war between Asians—in jungle terrain in the midst of a population that refuses cooperation to the white forces (and the SVN) and thus provides a great intelligence advantage to the other side. Three recent incidents vividly illustrate this point:
- The sneak attack on the Danang Air Base which involved penetration of a defense perimeter guarded by 9,000 Marines. This raid was possible only because of the cooperation of the local inhabitants.
- The B-52 raid that failed to hit the Viet Cong who had obviously been tipped off.
- The search-and-destroy mission of the 173rd Airborne Brigade which spent three days looking for the Viet Cong, suffered 23 casualties, and never made contact with the enemy who had obviously gotten advance word of their assignment.
The Question to Decide: Should we limit our liabilities in South Viet-Nam and try to find a way out with minimal long-term costs?
The alternative—no matter what we may wish it to be—is almost certainly a protracted war involving an open-ended commitment of US forces, mounting US casualties, no assurance of a satisfactory solution, and a serious danger of escalation at the end of the road.
Need for a Decision Now: So long as our forces are restricted to advising and assisting the South Vietnamese, the struggle will remain a civil war between Asian peoples. Once we deploy substantial numbers of troops in combat it will become a war between the United States and a large part of the population of South Viet-Nam, organized and directed from North Viet-Nam and backed by the resources of both Moscow and Peiping.
The decision you face now, therefore, is crucial. Once large numbers of US troops are committed to direct combat they will begin to take heavy casualties in a war they are ill-equipped to fight in a non-cooperative if not downright hostile countryside.
Once we suffer large casualties we will have started a well-nigh irreversible process. Our involvement will be so great that we cannot—without national humiliation—stop short of achieving our complete objectives. Of the two possibilities I think humiliation would be more likely than the achievement of our objectives—even after we had paid terrible costs.
- A Compromise Solution: Should we commit US manpower and prestige to a terrain so unfavorable as to give a very large advantage to the enemy—or should we seek a compromise settlement which achieves less than our stated objectives and thus cut our losses while we still have the freedom of maneuver to do so?
- Costs of Compromise Solution: The answer involves a judgment as to the costs to the United States of such a compromise settlement in terms of our relations with the countries in the area of South Viet-Nam, the credibility of our commitments and our prestige around the world. In my judgment, if we act before we commit substantial US forces to combat in South Viet-Nam we can, by accepting some short-term costs, avoid what may well be a long-term catastrophe. I believe we have tended greatly to exaggerate the costs involved in a compromise settlement. An appreciation of probable costs is contained in the attached memorandum. (Tab A)
- With these considerations in mind, I strongly urge the following
- A. Military Program
- Complete all deployments already announced (15 battalions) but decide not to go beyond the total of 72,000 men represented by this figure.
- Restrict the combat role of American forces to the June 9 announcement,2 making it clear to General Westmoreland that this announcement is to be strictly construed.
- Continue bombing in the North but avoid the Hanoi-Haiphong area and any targets nearer to the Chinese border than those already struck.
- B. Political Program
- In any political approaches so far, we have been the prisoners of whatever South Vietnamese Government was momentarily in power. If we are ever to move toward a settlement it will probably be because the South Vietnamese Government pulls the rug out from under us and makes its own deal or because we go forward quietly without advance pre-arrangement with Saigon.
- So far we have not given the other side a reason to believe that there is any flexibility in our negotiating approach. And the other side has been unwilling to accept what in their terms is complete capitulation.
- Now is the time to start some serious diplomatic feelers, looking towards a solution based on some application of the self-determination principle.
- I would recommend approaching Hanoi rather than any of the other probable parties (the National Liberation Front, Moscow or Peiping). Hanoi is the only one that has given any signs of interest in discussion. Peiping has been rigidly opposed. Moscow has recommended that we negotiate with Hanoi. The National Liberation Front has been silent.
- There are several channels to the North Vietnamese but I think the best one is through their representative in Paris, Mai Van Bo. Initial feelers with Bo should be directed toward a discussion both of the four points we have put forward and the four points put forward by Hanoi as a basis for negotiation. We can accept all but one of Hanoi’s four points and hopefully we should be able to agree on some ground rules for serious negotiation—including no pre-conditions.
- If the initial feelers lead to further secret exploratory talks we can inject the concept of self-determination that would permit the Viet Cong some hope of achieving some of their political objectives through local elections or some other device.
- The contact on our side should be handled through a non-governmental cutout (possibly a reliable newspaperman who can be repudiated.)
- If progress can be made at this level the basis can be laid for a multi-national conference. At some point obviously the government of South Viet-Nam will have to be brought on board but I would postpone this step until after a substantial feeling out of Hanoi.
- Before moving to any formal conference we should be prepared to agree that once the conference is started (a) the United States will stand down its bombing of the North, (b) the South Vietnamese will initiate no offensive operations in the South, and (c) the DRV will stop terrorism and other aggressive acts in the South.
- Negotiations at the conference should aim at incorporating our understanding with Hanoi in the form of a multi-national agreement guaranteed by the United States, the Soviet Union and possibly other parties, and providing for an international mechanism to supervise its execution.
- A. Military Program
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. XXXVII, Memos (C). Top Secret. Sent by Ball to McGeorge Bundy on July 1, with a covering note indicating that the paper was “for inclusion in your book for the President.” Also printed in The Pentagon Papers: New York Times Edition, pp. 449-454.↩
- See vol. II, Document 339.↩
- Top Secret.↩