13. Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense McNamara1



  • Air Operations Against North Vietnam (U)
(C) This memorandum provides the views and recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on air strikes against North Vietnam (NVN). It reflects their conviction that continuation of the stand-down is placing our forces under serious and progressively increasing military disadvantage.
(S) Air strikes against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) are an essential complement to US/Free World military operations [Page 36] in South Vietnam (SVN). The direct pressure of these air strikes is a principal means of persuading the DRV to cease its support and direction of the insurgency in SVN. The present stand-down contravenes that purpose and greatly weakens US negotiating leverage. Increased military actions in Laos or in SVN do not compensate for the loss of this leverage on the DRV nor for cessation of interference with the lines of communication (LOCs) in the DRV.
(S) There is increasing evidence that considerable effort to repair damaged LOCs in NVN is now underway. Air defense capabilities are being improved, and a general recovery program is underway. While intelligence is lacking, DRV self-interest dictates that an increased flow of personnel and war material is moving to SVN. On the basis of past experience, confirming evidence may not become available until personnel and material are identified in SVN or until new units make contact with friendly forces. Of additional concern is the growing ability of the DRV, through reconstitution of its LOCs, to support overt aggression in the south. Thus, the results of our costly air effort against the north will have been negated unless operations of expanded scope are soon resumed. The decision to resume air strikes should be based on enemy capabilities to improve their posture. It should not be contingent upon obtaining hard evidence of infiltration and build-up in SVN.
(S) The Joint Chiefs of Staff recognize the merits of peace offensives, especially with respect to their impact on US and world opinion. However, experience cautions against the substantial risk in an all-out effort for negotiations during a stand-down. As time passes, it will become increasingly difficult to disengage from the stand-down. Protracted negotiations under these circumstances may, as in the Korean case, prove costly in American lives.
(S) The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider the early resumption of offensive air operations essential if we are to avoid a misinterpretation of US resolve in Southeast Asia, redress advantages accruing to the DRV from the stand-down, and enter into meaningful negotiations from a position of strength.
(TS) The Joint Chiefs of Staff therefore recommended that a policy decision be taken now to terminate the stand-down of offensive air operations against the DRV 48 hours subsequent to Shelepinʼs return to Moscow from Hanoi, by which time the Soviets would have had opportunity to communicate to us any substantive results of his visit.
For the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
Earle G. Wheeler2
Joint Chiefs of Staff
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret. McNamara forwarded the memorandum to Rusk on January 19. (Ibid.)
  2. Printed from a copy that indicates General Wheeler signed the original.