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


  • Recommendations of additional deployments to Vietnam
Introduction. Our object in Vietnam is to create conditions for a favorable outcome by demonstrating to the VC/DRV that the odds are against their winning. We want to create these conditions, if possible, without causing the war to expand into one with China or the Soviet Union and in a way which preserves support of the American people and, hopefully, of our allies and friends. The following assessments, made following my trip to Vietnam with Ambassador-designate Lodge and General Wheeler, are my own and are addressed to the achievement of that object. My specific recommendations appear in paragraph 5; they are concurred in by Ambassador Taylor, Ambassador-designate Lodge, Ambassador Johnson, General Wheeler, Admiral Sharp and General Westmoreland. I have neither asked for nor obtained their concurrence in other portions of the paper.2
Favorable outcome. In my view, a “favorable outcome” for purposes of these assessments and recommendations has nine fundamental elements:
VC stop attacks and drastically reduce incidents of terror and sabotage.
DRV reduces infiltration to a trickle, with some reasonably reliable method of our obtaining confirmation of this fact.
US/GVN stop bombing of North Vietnam.
GVN stays independent (hopefully pro-US, but possibly genuinely neutral).
GVN exercises governmental functions over substantially all of South Vietnam.
Communists remain quiescent in Laos and Thailand.
DRV withdraws PAVN forces and other North Vietnamese infiltrators (not regroupees) from South Vietnam.
VC/NLF transform from a military to a purely political organization.

US combat forces (not advisors or AID) withdraw.

A favorable outcome could include also arrangements regarding elections, relations between North and South Vietnam, participation in peace-keeping by international forces, membership for North and South Vietnam in the UN, and so on. The nine fundamental elements can evolve with or without an express agreement and, except for what might be negotiated incidental to a cease-fire, are more likely to evolve without an express agreement than with one. We do not need now to address the question whether ultimately we would settle for something less than the nine fundamentals; because deployment of the forces recommended in paragraph 5 is prerequisite to the achievement of any acceptable settlement, and a decision can be made later, when bargaining becomes a reality, whether to compromise in any particular.


Estimate of the situation. The situation in South Vietnam is worse than a year ago (when it was worse than a year before that). After a few months of stalemate, the tempo of the war has quickened. A hard VC push is now on to dismember the nation and to maul the army. The VC main and local forces, reinforced by militia and guerrillas, have the initiative and, with large attacks (some in regimental strength), are hurting ARVN forces badly. The main VC efforts have been in southern I Corps, northern and central II Corps and north of Saigon. The central highlands could well be lost to the National Liberation Front during this monsoon season. Since June 1, the GVN has been forced to abandon six district capitals; only one has been retaken. US combat troop deployments and US/VNAF strikes against the North have put to rest most South Vietnamese fears that the United States will foresake them, and US/VNAF air strikes in-country have probably shaken VC morale somewhat. Yet the government is able to provide security to fewer and fewer people in less and less territory as terrorism increases. Cities and towns are being isolated as [Page 173] fewer and fewer roads and railroads are usable and power and communications lines are cut.

The economy is deteriorating—the war is disrupting rubber production, rice distribution, Dalat vegetable production and the coastal fishing industry, causing the loss of jobs and income, displacement of people and frequent breakdown or suspension of vital means of transportation and communication; foreign exchange earnings have fallen; and severe inflation is threatened.

The odds are less than even that the Ky government will last out the year. Ky is “executive agent” for a directorate of generals. His government is youthful and inexperienced, but dedicated to a “revolutionary” program. His tenure depends upon unity of the armed forces behind him. If the directorate holds together and the downward trend of the war is halted, the religious and regional factions will probably remain quiescent; otherwise there will be political turbulence and possibly uncoordinated efforts to negotiate settlement with the DRV. The Buddhists, Catholics, out-politicians and business community are “wait-and-seeing;” the VC, while unable alone to generate effective unrest in the cities, can “piggy-back” on any anti-government demonstration or cause.

Rural reconstruction (pacification) even in the Hop Tac area around Saigon is making little progress. Gains in IV Corps are being held, but in I and II Corps and adjacent III Corps areas it has lost ground fast since the start of the VC monsoon offensive (300,000 people have been lost to the VC, and tens of thousands of refugees have poured out of these areas).

The Government-to-VC ratio over-all is now only a little better than 3-to-1, and in combat battalions little better than 1.5-to-1. Some ARVN units have been mauled; many are understrength and therefore “conservative.” Desertions are at a high rate, and the force build-up has slipped badly. The VC, who are undoubtedly suffering badly too (their losses are very high), now control a South Vietnamese manpower pool of 500,000 to 1 million fighting-age men and reportedly are trying to double their combat strength, largely by forced draft (down to 15-year-olds) in the increasing areas they control. They seem to be able more than to replace their losses.

There are no signs that we have throttled the inflow of supplies for the VC or can throttle the flow while their materiel needs are as low as they are; indeed more and better weapons have been observed in VC hands, and it is probable that there has been further build-up of North Vietnamese regular units in the I and II Corps areas, with at least three full regiments (all of the 325th Division) there. Nor have our air attacks in North Vietnam produced tangible evidence of willingness on the part of Hanoi to come to the conference table in a reasonable mood. The DRV/VC seem to believe that South Vietnam is on the run and near collapse; they show no signs of settling for less than a complete take-over.

Options open to us. We must choose among three courses of action with respect to Vietnam all of which involve different probabilities, outcomes and costs:
Cut our losses and withdraw under the best conditions that can be arranged—almost certainly conditions humiliating the United States and very damaging to our future effectiveness on the world scene.
Continue at about the present level, with the US forces limited to say 75,000, holding on and playing for the breaks—a course of action which, because our position would grow weaker, almost certainly would confront us later with a choice between withdrawal and an emergency expansion of forces, perhaps too late to do any good.

Expand promptly and substantially the US military pressure against the Viet Cong in the South and maintain the military pressure against the North Vietnamese in the North while launching a vigorous effort on the political side3 to lay the groundwork for a favorable outcome by clarifying our objectives and establishing channels of communication. This alternative would stave off defeat in the short run and offer a good chance of producing a favorable settlement in the longer run; at the same time it would imply a commitment to see a fighting war clear through at considerable cost in casualties and materiel and would make any later decision to withdraw even more difficult and even more costly than would be the case today.

My recommendations in paragraph 5 below are based on the choice of the third alternative (Option c) as the course of action involving the best odds of the best outcome with the most acceptable cost to the United States.

Military recommendations. There are now 15 US (and 1 Australian) combat battalions in Vietnam; they, together with other combat personnel and non-combat personnel, bring the total US personnel in Vietnam to approximately 75,000.
I recommend that the deployment of US ground troops in Vietnam be increased by October to 34 maneuver battalions (or, if the Koreans fail to provide the expected 9 battalions promptly, to 43 battalions). The battalions—together with increases in helicopter lift, air squadrons, naval units, air defense, combat support and miscellaneous log support and advisory personnel which I also recommend—would bring the total US personnel in Vietnam to approximately 175,000 (200,000 if we must make up for the Korean failure). It should be understood that the deployment of more men (an additional perhaps 100,000) [Page 175] may be necessary in early 1966, and that the deployment of additional forces thereafter is possible but will depend on developments.
I recommend that Congress be requested to authorize the call-up of approximately 235,000 men in the Reserve and National Guard. This number—approximately 125,000 Army, 75,000 Marines, 25,000 Air Force and 10,000 Navy—would provide approximately 36 maneuver battalions by the end of this year. The call-up would be for a two-year period; but the intention would be to release them after one year, by which time they could be relieved by regular forces if conditions permitted.
I recommend that the regular armed forces be increased by approximately 375,000 men (approximately 250,000 Army, 75,000 Marines, 25,000 Air Force and 25,000 Navy). This would provide approximately 27 additional maneuver battalions by the middle of 1966. The increase would be accomplished by increasing recruitment, increasing the draft and extending tours of duty of men already in the service.

I recommend that a supplemental appropriation of approximately $X for FY 1966 be sought from the Congress to cover the first part of the added costs attributable to the build-up in and for the war in Vietnam. A further supplemental appropriation might be required later in the fiscal year.

It should be noted that in mid-1966 the United States would, as a consequence of the above method of handling the build-up, have approximately 600,000 additional men (approximately 63 additional maneuver battalions) as protection against contingencies.

Use of forces. The forces will be used however they can be brought to bear most effectively. The US/third-country ground forces will operate in coordination with South Vietnamese forces. They will defend their own bases; they will assist in providing security in neighboring areas; they will augment Vietnamese forces, assuring retention of key logistic areas and population centers. Also, in the initial phase they will maintain a small reserve-reaction force, conducting nuisance raids and spoiling attacks, and opening and securing selected lines of communication; as in-country ground strength increases to a level permitting extended US and third-country offensive action, the forces will be available for more active combat missions when the Vietnamese Government and General Westmoreland agree that such active missions are needed. The strategy for winning this stage of the war will be to take the offensive—to take and hold the initiative. The concept of tactical operations will be to exploit the offensive, with the objects of putting the VC/DRV battalion forces out of operation and of destroying their morale. The South Vietnamese, US and third-country forces, by aggressive exploitation of superior military forces, are to gain and hold the initiative—keeping the enemy at a disadvantage, maintaining a tempo such as to deny them time to recuperate or regain their balance, and pressing the fight against VC/DRV main force [Page 176] units in South Vietnam to run them to ground and destroy them. The operations should combine to compel the VC/DRV to fight at a higher and more sustained intensity with resulting higher logistical consumption and, at the same time, to limit his capability to resupply forces in combat at that scale by attacking his LOC. The concept assumes vigorous prosecution of the air and sea anti-infiltration campaign and includes increased use of air in-country, including B-52s, night and day to harass VC in their havens. Following destruction of the VC main force units, the South Vietnamese must reinstitute the Program of Rural Reconstruction as an antidote to the continuing VC campaign of terror and subversion.
Actions against North Vietnam. We should continue the program of bombing military targets in North Vietnam. While avoiding striking population and industrial targets not closely related to the DRV’s supply of war materiel to the VC, we should announce to Hanoi and carry out actions to destroy such supplies and to interdict their flow. The number of strike sorties against North Vietnam—against fixed targets and for armed reconnaissance—should increase slowly from the present level of 2,500 a month to 4,000 or more a month. We should be prepared at any time to carry out a severe reprisal should the VC or DRV commit a particularly damaging or horrendous act (e.g., VC interdiction of the Saigon river could call for a quarantine of DRV harbors, or VC assassination of a high-ranking US official could call for destruction of all of the major power plants in North Vietnam); the chances of our reprisal action leading to escalation is not large in such an instance. After the 44 US/third-country battalions have been deployed and after some strong action has been taken in the program of bombing the North (e.g., after the key railroad bridges north of Hanoi have been dropped), we could, as part of a diplomatic initiative, consider introducing a 6-8 week pause in the program of bombing the North.
Other actions in South Vietnam. The military program cannot do the job alone. Among others, the following actions should also be taken in South Vietnam.
Continue doggedly to “strengthen the rear” by pressing forward with the rural reconstruction (pacification) program, realizing both that the program has little chance of meaningful success unless and until security can be provided, and that the program is fundamental to full success once security is provided.
Keep working with the government in Saigon to make it more stable. Consider using the deployment of the US troops as the occasion to lay down some terms—e.g., regarding the presence and use of a US-controlled rice reserve, an effective US veto on major GVN military commanders, statements about invading North Vietnam, and so on.
Take steps to meet the economic shortages and disruptions. Especially, the recurring threat of rice inflation should be countered by the provision of an in-country US-controlled rice reserve.
Take informational actions to undermine VC morale by reference to VC defeats, to GVN/US weapon superiority, to air attacks on their bases, etc., and by encouraging VC to defect either to the government or “back home.” In this connection, the Chieu Hoi program (to induce VC defections) must be revitalized immediately.
Expanded political moves. 4 Together with the above military moves, we should take political initiatives in order to lay a groundwork for a favorable political settlement by clarifying our objectives and establishing channels of communications. At the same time as we are taking steps to turn the tide in South Vietnam, we should make quiet moves through diplomatic channels (a) to open a dialogue with Moscow and Hanoi, and perhaps the VC, looking first toward disabusing them of any misconceptions as to our goals and second toward laying the groundwork for a settlement when the time is ripe; (b) to keep the Soviet Union from deepening its military involvement and support of North Vietnam and from generating crises elsewhere in the world until the time when settlement can be achieved; and (c) to cement support for US policy by the US public, allies and friends, and to keep international opposition at a manageable level. Our efforts may be unproductive until the tide begins to turn, but nevertheless they should be made.
South Vietnamese reaction to expansion of US forces. Three factors dominate the psychological situation in South Vietnam: (a) the military situation (i.e., the security problem), (b) the effectiveness of the government as a vehicle for dynamic leadership, and (c) the implications of the growing American presence. The deployments recommended in paragraph 5 run some risk of causing the Vietnamese to “turn the war over to us” and of generating an “anti-colonial” type resentment toward us. The GVN has requested the additional US forces urgently (indeed, they want 9 battalions more than the 44 recommended here). When Ky was asked about the popular reaction, he said, “We will explain it to our people.” Thieu agreed saying, “They know that you are not here to make us a colony.” Former Prime Minister Quat told me, “The only way to save Vietnam is to send a large number of troops.” He added, “The people of South Vietnam will not object.” The spectres of widespread adverse public reaction have been raised each time we deployed personnel in the past, and, while no deployment has been so massive as this one, no such reaction appeared. Furthermore, the key requirement for continued viability of the Vietnamese spirit in the short run is evidence that [Page 178] RVNAF/US/third-country forces can contain the VC/DRV monsoon offensive and reopen communications; in the longer run the requirement will be evidence of bringing the war to a satisfactory close.
Communist reaction to the expanded program. The Soviets can be expected to continue material assistance to North Vietnam and to lodge verbal complaints, but not to intervene otherwise. The Chinese—at least so long as we do not invade North Vietnam, do not sink a Chinese ship and, most important, do not strike China—will probably not send regular ground forces or aircraft into the war. The DRV, on the other hand, may well send up to several divisions of regular forces in South Vietnam to assist the VC if they see the tide turning and victory, once so near, being snatched away. This possible DRV action is the most ominous one, since it would lead to increased pressures on us to “counter-invade” North Vietnam and to extend air strikes to population targets in the North; acceding to these pressures could bring the Soviets and the Chinese in. The Viet Cong, especially if they continue to take high losses, can be expected to depend increasingly upon the PAVN forces as the war moves into a more conventional phase; but they may find ways to continue almost indefinitely their present intensive military, guerrilla and terror activities, particularly if reinforced by some regular PAVN units. A key question on the military side is whether POL, ammunition, and cadres can be cut off and, if they are cut off, whether this really renders the Viet Cong impotent.
Evaluation. ARVN overall is not capable of successfully resisting the VC initiatives without more active assistance from more US/third-country ground forces than those thus far committed. Without further outside help, the ARVN is faced with successive tactical reverses, loss of key communication and population centers particularly inn the high-lands, piecemeal destruction of ARVN units, attrition of RVNAF will to fight, and loss of civilian confidence. Early commitment of additional US/third-country forces in sufficient quantity, in general reserve and offensive roles, should stave off GVN defeat.

The success of the program from the military point of view turns on whether the Vietnamese hold their own in terms of numbers and fighting spirit, and on whether the US forces can be effective in a quick-reaction reserve role, a role in which they are only now being tested. The number of US troops is too small to make a significant difference in the traditional 10-1 government-guerrilla formula, but it is not too small to make a significant difference in the kind of war which seems to be evolving in Vietnam—a “Third Stage” or conventional war in which it is easier to identify, locate and attack the enemy.

The plan is such that the risk of escalation into war with China or the Soviet Union can be kept small. US and South Vietnamese casualties will increase—just how much cannot be predicted with confidence, but the US killed-in-action might be in the vicinity of 500 a month by the end of [Page 179] the year. The South Vietnamese under one government or another will probably see the thing through5 and the United States public will support the course of action because it is a sensible and courageous military-political program designed and likely to bring about a success in Vietnam.

It should be recognized, however, that success against the larger, more conventional VC/PAVN forces could merely drive the VC back into the trees and back to their 1960-64 pattern—a pattern against which US troops and aircraft would be of limited value but with which the GVN, with our help, could cope. The questions here would be whether the VC could maintain morale after such a set-back, and whether the South Vietnamese would have the will to hang on through another cycle. It should be recognized also that, even in “success,” it is not obvious how we will be able to disengage our forces from Vietnam. It is unlikely that a formal agreement good enough for the purpose could possibly be negotiated—because the arrangement can reflect little more than the power situation. A fairly large number of US (or perhaps “international”) forces may be required to stay in Vietnam.

The overall evaluation is that the course of action recommended in this memorandum—if the military and political moves are properly integrated and executed with continuing vigor and visible determination—stands a good chance of achieving an acceptable outcome within a reasonable time in Vietnam.

Robert S. McNamara
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, McGeorge Bundy, Vol. XII. Top Secret. The source text bears no drafting information. A list of comments on the memorandum, prepared by Lodge in Saigon on July 19, indicates that it was drafted by McNaughton on July 18. (Washington National Records Center, RG 330, McNamara Files: FRC 71 A 3470, Box 2) U. Alexis Johnson sent his comments on the July 18 draft to McNaughton on July 19. (Ibid.)
  2. William Bundy discussed the memorandum with the other members of the group that accompanied McNamara to Vietnam, and found that “to a man they shared his estimate.” After reading the report, Bundy noted that he also was forced to agree, “even though it meant accepting the chance that the war would be increasingly Americanized.” (Johnson Library, Papers of William P. Bundy, Ch. 27, p. 26)
  3. Ambassador Lodge states “any further initiative by us now [before we are strong] would simply harden the Communist resolve not to stop fighting.” Ambassadors Taylor and Johnson would maintain discreet contacts with the Soviets, but otherwise agree with Ambassador Lodge. [Footnote and brackets in the source text.]
  4. Note footnote to paragraph 4 (c). [Footnote in the source text.]
  5. Ambassador Lodge points out that we may face a neutralist government at some time in the future and that in those circumstances the US should be prepared to carry on alone. [Footnote in the source text.]