71. Notes of Meeting1


  • Viet Nam


  • McNamara
  • Rusk
  • Vance
  • Mac Bundy
  • Gen. Wheeler
  • Geo. Ball
  • Bill Bundy
  • Len Unger
  • Helms
  • Raborn
  • Lodge
  • Rowan
  • McNaughton
  • Moyers
  • Valenti

(McNamara passed Top Secret paper2 to all in room to read. The paper was returned to McNamara.)

McNamara made it clear that the paper was his own view of the situation—his specific recommendations had been concurred in by Lodge, [Page 190] Sharp, Taylor, Johnson, Westmoreland but the rest of the paper had not—he did not seek or receive their concurrence.

Lodge: If I thought a diplomatic move would be successful, I would be for it. Now, it would harden the enemy. This is not the time to do it. Clarifying objectives is good for the world public, but not necessary for governments. They understand it.

McNamara: Seems to me our call-up and increase in budget is evidence that we are not taking over North Vietnam.

M. Bundy: Our public utterances will make it clear that we are not trying to take over North Vietnam.

McNamara: Our public actions must do this. We must show that we are not in with Ky’s objective to invade NVN. We are building such a force that NVN might think that is what we are trying to do.

Lodge: Remember this “on to NVN” movement is part of a propaganda move and nothing more.

M. Bundy: Isn’t it true that most of the diplomatic moves come from other nations rather than the U.S. (in rebuttal to Lodge’s hard position).

McNamara: This is exactly what I am talking about.

Lodge: The President has done a remarkable job of forming public opinion so far. Very skillful.

M. Bundy: Are there divergences between GVN and US in troop use?

McNamara: GVN wants us to use troops in the highlands. This is unacceptable to us. While GVN originally recommended this, they are now in agreement with us.

Rusk: What is the capability of GVN to mobilize their own forces?

McNamara: They are trying to increase by 10,000 per month. Our country team is optimistic. I am not. Desertion rate is high. They say it is lessening, but I do not agree. We did not find any thread of discontent among our troops. U.S. morale is of the highest order. Proud of their dedication and devotion. It reflects the belief they are doing something worthwhile.

Wheeler: Agree. Advisors are pleased with Vietnamese. They speak very highly of Vietnamese common soldier. Officer corps very different. Some officers are not of highest quality. Not total however. Weakness in VN’s forces are lack of adequate officer corps—in their training and attitude—but they are getting better.

Rusk: Any summary of enemy troubles?

McNamara: No, nothing more than we already know. They are suffering heavy losses. They are well supplied with ammunition. I suspect much of inflow of supplies is water-borne. Only part of our action that is unsatisfactory is our patrol of the seashore. But even if we did have tight control, it should make little difference in the next six to nine months.

[Page 191]

Rusk: What is the timing on how we should proceed?

McNamara: There ought to be a statement to the American people no later than a week.

Bundy: It is quite possible the message to Congress will be a message to the public.

Rusk: We ought to get civilians in the Congressional testimony to abuse [disabuse] the feeling that the military is making the decisions.

Bundy: Perhaps Rusk should follow up the President’s speech with statement of total unanimity.

Ball: It is one thing to ready the country for this decision and another to face the realities of the decision. We can’t allow the country to wake up one morning and find heavy casualties. We need to be damn serious with the American public.

McNamara: We discussed the command arrangements—they are to be left as they are—parallel commands.

The President entered the meeting at 11:30 am

McNamara: To support an additional 200,000 troops in VN by first of the year the reserves in the US should be reconstituted by like amount. I recommend calling up 235,000 a year from now, replace the reserves with regulars.

In mid-1966 we would have approximately 600,000 additional men.

President: What has happened in recent past that requires this decision on my part? What are the alternatives? Also, I want more discussions on what we expect to flow from this decision. Discuss in detail.

Have we wrung every single soldier out of every country we can? Who else can help? Are we the sole defenders of freedom in the world? Have we done all we can in this direction? The reasons for the call up? The results we can expect? What are the alternatives? We must make no snap judgments. We must consider carefully all our options.

We know we can tell SVN “we’re coming home.” Is that the option we should take? What flows from that.

The negotiations, the pause, all the other approaches—have all been explored. It makes us look weak—with cup in hand. We have tried.

Let’s look at all our options so that every man at this table understands fully the total picture.

McNamara: This is our position a year ago (shows President a map3 of the country with legends). Estimated by country team that VC controls 25%—SVN 50%—rest in white area, VC in red areas.

VC tactics are terror, and sniping.

[Page 192]

President: Looks dangerous to put US forces in those red areas.

McNamara: You’re right. We’re placing our people with their backs to the sea—for protection. Our mission would be to seek out the VC in large scale units.

Wheeler: Big problem in Vietnam is good combat intelligence. The VC is a creature of habit. By continuing to probe we think we can make headway.

Ball: Isn’t it possible that the VC will do what they did against the French—stay away from confrontation and not accommodate us?

Wheeler: Yes, but by constantly harassing them, they will have to fight somewhere.

McNamara: If VC doesn’t fight in large units, it will give ARVN a chance to re-secure hostile areas.

We don’t know what VC tactics will be when VC is confronted by 175,000 Americans.

Raborn: We agree—by 1965, we expect NVN will increase their forces. They will attempt to gain a substantial victory before our build-up is complete.

President: Is anyone of the opinion we should not do what the memo says—If so, I’d like to hear from them.

Ball: I can foresee a perilous voyage—very dangerous—great apprehensions that we can win under these conditions. But, let me be clear, if the decision is to go ahead, I’m committed.

President: But is there another course in the national interest that is better than the McNamara course? We know it’s dangerous and perilous. But can it be avoided?

Ball: There is no course that will allow us to cut our losses. If we get bogged down, our cost might be substantially greater. The pressures to create a larger war would be irresistible. Qualifications I have are not due to the fact that I think we are in a bad moral position.

President: What other road can I go?

Ball: Take what precautions we can—take losses—let their government fall apart—negotiate—probable take over by Communists. This is disagreeable, I know.

President: Can we make a case for this—discuss it fully?

Ball: We have discussed it. I have had my day in court.

President: I don’t think we have made a full commitment. You have pointed out the danger, but you haven’t proposed an alternative course. We haven’t always been right. We have no mortgage on victory.

I feel we have very little alternative to what we are doing.

I want another meeting before we take this action. We should look at all other courses carefully. Right now I feel it would be more dangerous for us to lose this now, than endanger a greater number of troops.

[Page 193]

Rusk: What we have done since 1954-61 has not been good enough. We should have probably committed ourselves heavier in 1961.

Rowan: What bothers me most is the weakness of the Ky government. Unless we put the screws on the Ky government, 175,000 men will do us no good.

Lodge: There is no tradition of a national government in Saigon. There are no roots in the country. Not until there is tranquility can you have any stability. I don’t think we ought to take this government seriously. There is no one who can do anything. We have to do what we think we ought to do regardless of what the Saigon government does.

As we move ahead on a new phase—it gives us the right and duty to do certain things with or without the government’s approval.

President: George, do you think we have another course?

Ball: I would not recommend that you follow McNamara’s course.

President: Are you able to outline your doubts—and offer another course of action? I think it is desirable to hear you out—and determine if your suggestions are sound and ready to be followed.

Ball: Yes. I think I can present to you the least bad of two courses. What I would present is a course that is costly, but can be limited to short term costs.

President: Then, let’s meet at 2:30 this afternoon to discuss Ball’s proposals. Now let Bob tell us why we need to risk those 600,000 lives.

(McNamara and Wheeler outlined the reasons for more troops.) 75,000 now just enough to protect bases—it will let us lose slowly instead of rapidly. The extra men will stabilize the situation and improve it. It will give ARVN breathing room. We limit it to another 100,000 because VN can’t absorb any more. There is no major risk of catastrophe.

President: But you will lose greater number of men.

Wheeler: The more men we have the greater the likelihood of smaller losses.

President: What makes you think if we put in 100,000 men Ho Chi Minh won’t put in another 100,000?

Wheeler: This means greater bodies of men—which will allow us to cream them.

President: What are the chances of more NVN men coming?

Wheeler: 50-50 chance. He would be foolhardy to put 1/4 of his forces in SVN. It would expose him too greatly in NVN.

President: (to Raborn) Do you have people in NVN?

Raborn: Not enough. We think it is reliable.

President: Can’t we improve intelligence in NVN?

Raborn: We have a task force working on this.

[Page 194]

1:00 pm—Meeting adjourned until 2:30 pm. 4

Resume same meeting at 2:45 pm

Ball: We can’t win. Long protracted. The most we can hope for is messy conclusion. There remains a great danger of intrusion by Chicoms.

Problem of long war in US:

Korean experience was galling one. Correlation between Korean casualties and public opinion (Ball showed Pres. a chart)5 showed support stabilized at 50%. As casualties increase, pressure to strike at jugular of the NVN will become very great.
World opinion. If we could win in a year’s time—win decisively—world opinion would be alright. However, if long and protracted we will suffer because a great power cannot beat guerrillas.
National politics. Every great captain in history is not afraid to make a tactical withdrawal if conditions are unfavorable to him. The enemy cannot even be seen; he is indigenous to the country.

Have serious doubt if an army of westerners can fight orientals in Asian jungle and succeed.

President: This is important—can westerners, in absence of intelligence, successfully fight orientals in jungle rice-paddies? I want McNamara and Wheeler to seriously ponder this question.

Ball: I think we have all underestimated the seriousness of this situation. Like giving cobalt treatment to a terminal cancer case. I think a long protracted war will disclose our weakness, not our strength.

The least harmful way to cut losses in SVN is to let the government decide it doesn’t want us to stay there. Therefore, put such proposals to SVN government that they can’t accept, then it would move into a neutralist position—and I have no illusions that after we were asked to leave, SVN would be under Hanoi control.

What about Thailand? It would be our main problem. Thailand has proven a good ally so far—though history shows it has never been a staunch ally. If we wanted to make a stand in Thailand, we might be able to make it.

Another problem would be South Korea. We have two divisions there now. There would be a problem with Taiwan, but as long as Generalissimo is there, they have no place to go. Indonesia is a problem—insofar as Malaysia. There we might have to help the British in military way. [Page 195] Japan thinks we are propping up a lifeless government and are on a sticky wicket. Between long war and cutting our losses, the Japanese would go for the latter (all this on Japan according to Reischauer).

President: Wouldn’t all those countries say Uncle Sam is a paper tiger—wouldn’t we lose credibility breaking the word of three presidents—if we set it up as you proposed. It would seem to be an irreparable blow. But, I gather you don’t think so.

Ball: The worse blow would be that the mightiest power in the world is unable to defeat guerrillas.

President: Then you are not basically troubled by what the world would say about pulling out?

Ball: If we were actively helping a country with a stable, viable government, it would be a vastly different story. Western Europeans look at us as if we got ourselves into an imprudent fashion [situation].

President: But I believe that these people are trying to fight. They’re like Republicans who try to stay in power, but don’t stay there long.

(aside—amid laughter—“excuse me, Cabot”)

Ball: Thieu spoke the other day and said the Communists would win the election.

President: I don’t believe that. Does anyone believe that?

(There was no agreement from anyone—McNamara, Lodge, B. Bundy, Unger—all said they didn’t believe it.)

McNamara: Ky will fall soon. He is weak. We can’t have elections until there is physical security, and even then there will be no elections because as Cabot said, there is no democratic tradition. (Wheeler agreed about Ky—but said Thieu impressed him)

President: Two basic troublings:

That Westerners can ever win in Asia.
Don’t see how you can fight a war under direction of other people whose government changes every month.

Now go ahead, George, and make your other points.

Ball: The cost, as well as our Western European allies, is not relevant to their situation. What they are concerned about is their own security—troops in Berlin have real meaning, none in VN.

President: Are you saying pulling out of Korea would be akin to pulling out of Vietnam?

Bundy: It is not analogous. We had a status quo in Korea. It would not be that way in Vietnam.

Ball: We will pay a higher cost in Vietnam.

This is a decision one makes against an alternative.

[Page 196]

On one hand—long protracted war, costly, NVN is digging in for long term. This is their life and driving force. Chinese are taking long term view—ordering blood plasma from Japan.

On the other hand—short-term losses. On balance, come out ahead of McNamara plan. Distasteful on either hand.

Bundy: Two important questions to be raised—I agree with the main thrust of McNamara. It is the function of my staff to argue both sides.

To Ball’s argument: The difficulty in adopting it now would be a radical switch without evidence that it should be done. It goes in the face of all we have said and done.

His whole analytical argument gives no weight to loss suffered by other side. A great many elements in his argument are correct.

We need to make clear this is a somber matter—that it will not be quick—no single action will bring quick victory.

I think it is clear that we are not going to be thrown out.

Ball: My problem is not that we don’t get thrown out, but that we get bogged down and don’t win.

Bundy: I would sum up: The world, the country, and the VN would have alarming reactions if we got out.

Rusk: If the Communist world finds out we will not pursue our commitment to the end, I don’t know where they will stay their hand.

I am more optimistic than some of my colleagues. I don’t believe the VC have made large advances among the VN people.

We can’t worry about massive casualties when we say we can’t find the enemy. I don’t see great casualties unless the Chinese come in.

Lodge: There is a greater threat to World War III if we don’t go in. Similarity to our indolence at Munich.

I can’t be as pessimistic as Ball. We have great seaports in Vietnam. We don’t need to fight on roads. We have the sea. Visualize our meeting VC on our own terms. We don’t have to spend all our time in the jungles.

If we can secure their bases, the VN can secure, in time, a political movement to (1) apprehend the terrorist and (2) give intelligence to the government.

The procedures for this are known.

I agree that the Japanese agitators don’t like what we are doing but Sato is totally in agreement with our actions.

The VN have been dealt more casualties than, per capita, we suffered in the Civil War. The VN soldier is an uncomplaining soldier. He has ideas he will die for.

Unger: I agree this is what we have to do. We have spotted some things we want to pay attention to.

[Page 197]

President: How can we get everybody to compete with McNamara in the press? We are trying to do so many other things with our economic and health projects. Constantly remind the people that we are doing other things besides bombing.

Unger: Took this question up with Zorthian and press people.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Meeting Notes File, Box 1. No classification marking. The meeting was held in the Cabinet Room of the White House. The notes were originally handwritten by Valenti and later transcribed. They are quoted extensively in Valenti, A Very Human President, pp. 319-40. For another account of this meeting, see Document 72; more information on attendance is in footnote 1 thereto. For other first-hand accounts of the White House meetings on Vietnam on July 21 and July 22, see Johnson, Vantage Point, pp. 147-148; and Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern, pp. 399-403. William Bundy also wrote an account of the meetings. (Johnson Library, Papers of William P. Bundy, Ch. 27, pp. 30-33)
  2. Document 67.
  3. Not further identified.
  4. William Bundy later recalled that the President had a private meeting with McNamara and Rusk before the second full meeting convened at 2:30. (Johnson Library, Papers of William P. Bundy, Ch. 27, p. 31) No other record of this meeting has been found.
  5. Not further identified.