7. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State (Ball) to President Johnson1


  • Keeping the Power of Decision in the South Viet-Nam Crisis


The Need To Keep Control

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”

Your most difficult continuing problem in South Viet-Nam is to prevent “things” from getting into the saddle—or, in other words, to keep control of policy and prevent the momentum of events from taking command.

The best formula for maintaining freedom of decision is (a) to limit our commitments in time and magnitude and (b) to establish specific time schedules for the selection of optional courses of action on the basis of pre-established criteria.


Outline of Specific Proposals

The North Vietnamese are apparently using the monsoon season as a test period to determine whether they can impose enough local defeats to demoralize the South Vietnamese and discourage the United States.

I propose that we also treat the monsoon season as a test period since we do not yet have enough experience with the direct employment of American combat forces to appraise our chances for military success in the South.

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But in launching a vigorous effort to halt the Viet Cong offensive during the monsoon period you should at the same time make it clear to your key advisers that, at the conclusion of that period, we will take a serious look at our accumulated experience and decide whatever long-range course of policy or action is indicated.

For the fact is—and we can no longer avoid it—that, in spite of our intentions to the contrary, we are drifting toward a major war—that nobody wants.

I recommend, therefore, the following program:

Decide now to authorize an increase of American forces in South Viet-Nam to an aggregate level of 100,000—but no more—additional forces. These should be deployed as rapidly as possible in order to deal with the Viet Cong offensive during the rainy season.
Instruct your top advisers—limited in this case, for security reasons, to the Secretaries of State and Defense (and possibly also the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs):
  • (a) that you are not committing US forces on an open-ended basis to an all-out land war in South Viet-Nam;
  • (b) that instead you are making a controlled commitment for a trial period of three months;
  • (c) that on the basis of our experience during that trial period we will then appraise the costs and possibilities of waging a successful land war in South Viet-Nam and chart a clear course of action accordingly;
  • (d) that, during the test period, in publicly stating American aims and purposes, American spokesmen should emphasize our willingness to stay in South Viet-Nam so long as we are wanted (a qualification that has tended to become submerged in recent months); and
  • (e) that, in carrying out this limited decision, your advisers should—during the three-months period—press the war on the ground in South Viet-Nam as vigorously as possible, while seeking quietly and effectively to avoid those longer-term actions and commitments that would reduce your freedom of decision at the end of the period.
Direct your top advisers to prepare the following plans:
  • (a) A plan for continuing the land war in South Viet-Nam on a stepped-up basis;
  • (b) A plan for conducting a vigorous diplomatic offensive designed to bring about a political settlement; and
  • (c) Plans for bringing about a military or political solution—short of the ultimate US objectives—that can be attained without the substantial further commitment of US forces. These last should be regarded as plans for cutting losses and eventually disengaging from an untenable situation.

The reasoning underlying these proposals and the manner in which they might be carried out are elaborated in the balance of this memorandum.

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Where We Are Now—On the Threshold of a New War

In raising our commitment from 50,000 to 100,000 or more men and deploying most of the increment in combat roles we are beginning a new war—the United States directly against the Viet Cong.

Perhaps the large-scale introduction of American forces with their concentrated fire power will force Hanoi and the Viet Cong to the decision we are seeking. On the other hand, we may not be able to fight the war successfully enough—even with 500,000 Americans in South Viet-Nam—to achieve this purpose.

Before we commit an endless flow of forces to South Viet-Nam we must have more evidence than we now have that our troops will not bog down in the jungles and rice paddies—while we slowly blow the country to pieces.

A review of the French experience more than a decade ago may be helpful.

The French fought a war in Viet-Nam, and were finally defeated—after seven years of bloody struggle and when they still had 250,000 combat-hardened veterans in the field, supported by an army of 205,000 South Vietnamese.

To be sure, the French were fighting a colonial war while we are fighting to stop aggression. But when we have put enough Americans on the ground in South Viet-Nam to give the appearance of a white man's war, the distinction as to our ultimate purpose will have less and less practical effect.

Nor is our position in Viet-Nam without its historical ambiguities. From 1948-1954 we identified ourselves with the French by providing almost $4 billions of United States aid to help the French in Indochina wage war against the Viet Minh. As soon as our aid contributions began to mount, Ho Chi Minh denounced American “imperialism”.

This campaign of denunciation was continued over the radio and through other propaganda media after the French withdrew and we began to help President Diem.

Today no one can say for certain how many Vietnamese are for us or against us. We have trouble collecting intelligence because few Vietnamese are willing to risk their necks to aid the American effort. And our popularity will diminish even further as we are forced to indulge in more and more area bombing, crop burning, etc.

Ever since 1961—the beginning of our deep involvement in South Viet-Nam—we have met successive disappointments. We have tended to underestimate the strength and staying-power of the enemy. We have tended to overestimate the effectiveness of our sophisticated weapons under jungle conditions. We have watched the progressive loss of territory [Page 19]to Viet Cong control. We have been unable to bring about the creation of a stable political base in Saigon.

This is no one's fault. It is in the nature of the struggle.

The French had much the same experience.

They quoted the same kind of statistics that guide our opinions—statistics as to the number of Viet Minh killed, the number of enemy defectors, the rate of enemy desertions, etc. They fully believed that the Vietnamese people were on their side, and their hopes received intermittent shots of adrenaline from a succession of projects for winning the war—the De Lattre de Tassigny Plan, the Salan Plan, the Navarre Plan, etc.

This does not mean that we cannot succeed where the French did not; we have things running for us that the French did not have. But we cannot yet be sure—and that is the reason for the trial period.

For we have not so far seen enough evidence to be sure that the South Vietnamese forces will stand up under the heightening pressure—or, in fact, that the Vietnamese people really have a strong will to fight after twenty years of struggle. We cannot be sure how far the cancer has infected the whole body politic of South Viet-Nam and whether we can do more than administer a cobalt treatment to a terminal case.

Yet the more forces we deploy in South Viet-Nam—particularly in combat roles—the harder we shall find it to extricate ourselves without unacceptable costs if the war goes badly.

With large forces committed, the failure to turn the tide will generate pressures to escalate. There will be mounting domestic demands that we expand our air attacks on the North so as to destroy Hanoi and Haiphong. Yet if our air attacks threaten the total destruction of the North Vietnamese economy, Red China can hardly help but react. And our best Soviet experts do not believe that the Soviet Union could stand down in the event that we became involved directly with the Chinese.


Courses of Action To Be Followed Dependingon Results of Test Period

A. Actions if the Fight Goes Well.

If—on a careful appraisal of all the evidence accumulated during the test period—you are satisfied that United States military power can stop and throw back the Viet Cong without unacceptable United States losses, you are then in position to decide on a longer-term aggressive strategy, of which the elements would be:

to commit whatever force is needed to do the job in South Viet-Nam as quickly and cheaply as possible;
to continue our air attacks on North Viet-Nam but avoiding the Hanoi-Haiphong complex and keeping well south of the Chinese border;
to renew your assurances to the South Vietnamese and the world of our intention to stay the course; and
to initiate the Acheson plan and increase our diplomatic probes through third parties and a judicious use of pauses—while encouraging efforts of friendly countries to bring the North Vietnamese to the conference table.

All of this is, of course, contingent on the continued maintenance of a minimum level of political stability in Saigon.

B. Actions if the Fight Goes Badly.

If the evidence accumulated during the test period provides no reasonable assurance that the United States can conduct a successful land war in South Viet-Nam without a vast protracted effort, you should seek means of limiting the American commitment and finding a political solution at a level below the total achievement of our declared objectives.

There are several ways of achieving this—none fully satisfactory. But a good general picks his own terrain and is prepared to execute tactical redeployments when events require it. Similarly, it is a part of good statesmanship to cut losses when the pursuit of particular courses of action threaten (a) to lead to a costly and indeterminate result; or (b) to produce an escalation of violence that could result in a major war.

The technique of cutting our losses requires intensive study. No one has yet looked at the problem carefully since we have been unwilling to think in those terms. I would suggest, however, that there are several alternative possibilities which should be carefully examined.

(a) Reducing Our Military Commitment

The first is to devise a plan for limiting the defense perimeter within South Viet-Nam to the cities and major towns—particularly those having access to the sea. This would deny to the Viet Cong the administrative, commercial and industrial heart of the country.

(b) Letting Nature Take Its Course

A second approach is subtly to withdraw moral and political support from the Government in Saigon. In this way the non-Communist and neutralist forces might be encouraged to work out some sort of compromise with the Viet Cong.

Such an operation would require great finesse. However, the Saigon Government is becoming more and more a fiction—in real terms South Viet-Nam has an army but no government.

While putting in train any operation of disengagement we should, of course, simultaneously take steps to strengthen our position in Thailand and to create a diplomatic atmosphere around the world that would minimize the costs of US withdrawal. To do this, we would rely heavily [Page 21]on the qualified nature of our commitment—to help defend the South Vietnamese so long—but only so long—as they wished our help.

(c) Other Possibilities

As a third possibility, we might consider variant means by which there might emerge a South Vietnamese determination to go it alone. One approach might be to encourage our friends to call for elections in South Viet-Nam in order to permit self-determination by a people engaged in civil war. Another might be to let our friends crank up a fourteen-nation conference.

During the past weeks we have concentrated on seeking a political solution that would fully meet our stated objectives in South Viet-Nam. Such a solution will not be feasible so long as the Viet Cong are winning or believe they are winning. Since we cannot yet be sure that we will be able to beat the Viet Cong without unacceptable costs, we would be prudent to undertake an additional study of the political means to achieve less than a satisfactory solution—or, in other words, a solution involving concessions on our side as well as the Viet Cong.

The above suggestions are of the most preliminary kind. I am sure that other possibilities could be developed.

George W. Ball
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. XXXV, Memos (D). Top Secret. For President Johnson's reactions to this memorandum, see Document 11.