115. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

I drafted the attached comment on Sunday,2 in the midst of the worst of the Vietnam political crisis.

As a little light—only a little—breaks through,3 I would summarize its conclusions as follows:

If the Vietnamese work their way out of this—and a civil constitution-drafting group is born—we will have passed a great turning point; although there will be plenty of trouble before they actually find their political feet.
The Communists are serious and understand the importance of politics: they will take it as a major defeat.
Then will be the time to pour it on and see if we canʼt force, in the months ahead, a resolution of the conflict. The strain on our political and economic life and the strain on the South Vietnamese is all but intolerable. Specifically, as the memo suggests, we should on the military side:
  • —continue maximum effort to impose attrition on VC and PAVN forces in South Vietnam;
  • —work more effectively from the air on the supply routes from the North;
  • —increase the costs to Hanoi of continuing the war by going for oil or other precision target systems that hurt without killing an excessive number of civilians.
On the diplomatic side we should:
  • —keep close to the Russians, but not hope for too much until Hanoi and the VC are persuaded by the situation itself that the jig is up;
  • —keep lines open to Hanoi;
  • —begin to get word to the VC that their destiny is: to sit on the Hanoi delegation at the international conference; and to talk to Saigon about how to end the war and get back into the national life of South Vietnam.
  • —request Mr. Rusk to conduct a high level review of negotiating papers developed at the working level.
On the side of the Honolulu program the memo argues that the most critical dimension is political.
  • —We should, of course, continue our present program of concentrated effort in four areas of rural reconstruction—full blast;
  • —but we should concentrate more effort, once they hire a hall and begin to talk, on political development; how to keep the Directorate together; the political party clause in the constitution; how to balance majority and minority interests; the formation of a national wide-ranging party, etc.



Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson

You ask for comments on the attached.4 They follow:

1. The USSR and Negotiations.5

I believe Russian leverage on Hanoi depends mainly on our persuading Hanoi that negotiation is the best course. Aside from what we do militarily and politically in Vietnam, the Russians have little leverage.

They can keep a presence by assisting with arms—notably arms to defend Hanoi from the air.

Hanoi wants them as a presence: to balance Peking; to supply arms; and as an insurance policy, should negotiations be undertaken.

But only we—not Moscow—can push them over the hump into negotiations.

That means, in my view, that we must push harder on the second and third elements in the military equation.

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The first element, which is going quite well, is to impose heavy attrition on the VC and PAVN main force units.

The second element is harassment of their supply lines from the North. Here I would be prepared to take the risks of B–52 bombing of Mu Gia pass and other elements of that supply route in North Vietnam and Laos. I would press to the maximum production and use of special interdiction weapons.

The third military element is making the war more expensive in the North to Hanoi. There I prefer oil to bombing the Northeast supply lines. The latter justifies more and more Chinese engineering and logistical forces. Oil hits the over-all military logistical capacity in the North, as well as industrial and civil operations. Iʼm certainly not the last word on this; but I do believe we should lean harder on Hanoi, on a precision bombing basis.

It is not, Mr. President, that Iʼm bloody-minded or a hawk. But the strain of trying to do the job principally by attrition of main force units places almost intolerable burdens on the political life of our country and on the war-weary South Vietnamese. Weʼve got to try to shorten this war without doing unwise or desperate things.

I believe the Russians would fully understand and accept this course; although they are keeping their oar in Hanoi as a contingency whether we succeed (for negotiations) or whether we fail (to balance the Chinese).

In short, I would suggest that, if we survive the present political crisis, we do more about the supply line from the North and we increase Hanoiʼs costs for continuing the conflict.

Meanwhile, we should remain close to the Russians; because none of us is so smart—certainly not me—to be absolutely sure they wonʼt help end this earlier rather than later.

2. Peace Talks.6

The negotiating papers are pretty good.7 They move toward what I have called a “two-track” negotiating plan: an international negotiation, involving the Geneva Accord powers, with the NLF on the Hanoi delegation, dealing with the restoration and strengthening of the 1954 and 1962 agreements; an internal negotiation, between Saigon and NLF to end the war [Page 332] and create the conditions for absorbing the South Vietnamese now caught up in the VC insurrection into the life of the Country.

There is some fuzziness about this high in the government. Some of our public talk suggests we might settle internal South Vietnam affairs at an international conference; some suggests no one would ever talk to the VC—ever. The surfacing of a two-track policy is a delicate matter. But in the meanwhile what we say should be consistent with it. Incidentally, the Vietnamese portion of the Honolulu Communique was consistent with a two-track negotiation.

The reason for the fuzziness is that the preliminary papers have been developed at the working level; and you may wish Mr. Rusk to render you a personal judgment on existing plans, negotiating concepts, and ways of talking about the problem.

It follows from this line of thought that it may be wise to find some way of suggesting to the NLF that we think they ought to be talking with the government in Saigon.

3. Political Tutelage and Organization.8

Organization comes first. If there is one thing I regret about Honolulu it is that we didnʼt nail Ky down harder on a date for implementing the political side of his January 15th speech.

The unrest in Vietnam doesnʼt come from hungry people. The folks carrying banners and organizing all this eat regularly. And thatʼs the way it is in most political disruptions in developing countries—and even in our race troubles.

What they want is either personal power (Tri Quang and Thi) or participation in politics, which is the application of power. And the Communists are, of course, in there trying to make the most of it.

The most urgent non-military business is to cut the radicals out of the herd by getting the literate, urban leaders—and others—into a hall and around tables talking about the political future. Some force may well be necessary in this crisis; but essentially weʼre trying—and the Directorate is trying—to get the moderates off the streets and into a position where they have to think and talk responsibly about the future of their country.

Once they are there, we have a number of ways we can help them think along the right lines; Washington and Saigon are in pretty good shape, if and when we get over that historic hurdle which is what todayʼs crisis is about.

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There may be ways of beefing up Saigonʼs administrative capacity through a relatively few first-rate advisers working for the Vietnamese and acceptable to them; but we need a government with a bit of a future first.

4. The Four Key Areas.9

Bob Komer will report.

I donʼt need to tell you that I support increased economic and social development in South Vietnam as elsewhere.

And Iʼm sure that something like the Lodge Plan—and the four key areas—is the right way to proceed; by concentration of effort.

But I donʼt think this war is going to end by pacification of most of the country.

It will end—if we win it—when some combination of the following four things leads Hanoi to knock it off:

  • sufficient attrition on the main force units to break up structures, produce a marked deterioration of morale, and an enlarged flow of defectors—to our side and back home to their VC-controlled areas;
  • sufficient obstruction to the supply lines to make replacements expensive and, if possible, less than attrition of men, equipment, and ammunition;
  • sufficient cost to military, civil and economic life in the North to help tip the attrition-supply equation further in our direction;
  • sufficient order, unity, and stability in the South to rule out a Communist political takeover in the midst of chaos.

If this view is right, the war will not end when we have pacified every district, village, and province. When it ends there will still be a hell of a mess in South Vietnam—as there was in Greece, Malaya, and the Philippines.

There will probably still be some last-ditch VC to mop up; but, if other guerrilla wars carry any lesson, it is that when the organizational structure cracks, it cracks pretty well down the line. And the VC is the most tightly organized guerrilla structure weʼve seen except that of the Chinese Communists. For example, they are now feeding local guerrillas up to the main force units, in order to keep them up to strength. The main force and local guerrilla units are interlocked; if the main forces go, it will have a profound effect on the local forces.

In short, we should carry forward rural reconstruction on orderly concentrated lines; but we should not measure the probable length of the war by the rate of successful pacification.

The real job of rural reconstruction will be post-war.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President—Walt W. Rostow, vol. 1. Top Secret; Eyes Only. Copies were sent to Moyers and Valenti.
  2. April 3. Rostow gave his April 3 draft memorandum to Taylor, who commented on it in a memorandum of April 4 to Rostow. (Ibid., Country File, Vietnam, Box 260, Gen. Taylor)
  3. Valentiʼs notes for the Presidentʼs meeting with his advisers at 1 p.m. on April 5 include the following brief discussion of Vietnam: “Information from Vietnam seems unclear. Taylor thinks situation in Danang is better, but what will Buddhists do? Rostow feels this morning is much better than we anticipated last night.” The meeting mainly dealt with foreign policy issues other than Vietnam. (Ibid., Meeting Notes File)
  4. Attached but not printed are: 1) Valentiʼs memorandum to Komer, March 28, outlining four “non-military” questions, which Valenti had asked the President and which the President wanted Komer to comment on; and 2) Komerʼs March 29 memorandum to Valenti in reply, which the President asked Rostow to comment on.
  5. Valentiʼs first question was: “Are we pursuing the one key to settlement in Vietnam—the Soviet Union?”
  6. Valentiʼs second question was: “Have we really sorted out the sticky problems and issues of peace talks—so that we are absolutely clear on our objectives and trading points?”
  7. Presumably a reference to negotiating papers drafted during late 1965 and 1966 by the Vietnam Planning Group, chaired by Unger, and in particular to the groupʼs paper on “A Settlement in Vietnam,” to which Komer referred in his memorandum of March 29. A copy of the paper, together with Ungerʼs discussion of it in a memorandum to Ball, March 15, is in Department of State, EA/VN Files: Lot 75 D 167, Vietnam Coordinating Committee and Working Group, 1964–66.
  8. Valentiʼs third question was: “Why shouldnʼt we organize in Vietnam a highly skilled group of political professionals to work with the current government in teaching them how to become democratic leaders—and build a durable democratic party?”
  9. Valentiʼs fourth question was: “Are we keeping close tabs on the Lodge plan for pacifying four key areas in SVN?”