164. Editorial Note

At 7:59 a.m. on June 28, 1966, Secretary of Defense McNamara telephoned President Johnson and asked for authority to strike the two major POL storage installations in the Hanoi-Haiphong area that evening Washington time. The strikes had been decided upon earlier (see footnote 4, Document 161) but delayed several days due to bad weather and concern over press leaks. The President expressed hesitation about proceeding immediately rather than waiting until July 1, citing events scheduled for June 30 that might be impacted adversely, including his own trip to the midwest.

The President then queried McNamara about the possible repercussions of hitting a Soviet tanker in the Haiphong harbor. After noting that he thought the chances of hitting one were small, McNamara replied: “I think itʼs serious, Mr. President, but I think that we have told the Russians that this clearly is—and we put it in writing—that we have done everything possible to avoid antagonizing them in this military conflict; and I think while it would be serious and while we would have a very strong protest, I myself doubt that it would lead to any military action. As a matter of fact, the appraisals are that if we mined the harbor and stopped Soviet ships from coming in there it wonʼt lead to military action, so if we hit the tanker I doubt that it would lead to military action.”

After further discussion of this issue and of Secretary of State Ruskʼs position on the strikes, the following exchange took place:

“President: I think now what weʼve got to analyze very, very carefully and we have, but before we execute, I think weʼve got to say, do we get enough out of this for the price we pay. The Hartkes are all—theyʼre starting their campaign tomorrow on the Senate floor, theyʼre speaking.

McNamara: Well, Lippmannʼs got an article in this morningʼs paper, same thing, on exactly that point, and I think the answer is, this is just a minor incident in the war, and itʼs almost an incident that you canʼt avoid taking. I donʼt see how you can go on fighting out there, Mr. President, without doing this, to be absolutely frank with you. I donʼt think you can keep the morale of your troops up; I donʼt think you can keep the morale of the people in the country who support you up without doing this. About that point. Now in addition to that I myself believe it has military value, although I donʼt for the minute put the weight on it that the Chiefs do; but I donʼt put the cost on it that some in State do. I donʼt put the cost on that George Ball does, for example. I donʼt believe any Soviet experts, including Tommy Thompson, put the cost on it that George Ball does.”

During further discussion, McNamara recommended sending out an execute order and then canceling it later in the day if the President [Page 459] changed his mind. The President gave his assent. Subsequently the following discussion took place:

“President: Things are going reasonably well in the South, arenʼt they?

McNamara: Yes, I think so.

“President: What are these 6,000 men doing? Theyʼre trying to locate the enemy, I see, and theyʼve run ʼem into caves. Do you know anything about that?

McNamara: Yeah. Itʼs just so typical, Mr. President, itʼs a relatively small enemy force. We think weʼre taking a heavy toll of them. But it just scares me to see what weʼre doing there. Weʼre taking 6,000 U.S. soldiers with God knows how many airplanes and helicopters and fire power and going after a bunch of half-starved beggars of 2,000 at most, and probably less than that. And this is whatʼs going on in the South and the great danger, and itʼs not a certainty, but itʼs a danger we need to look at, is that they can keep that up almost indefinitely.

“President: Well Iʼd say with their manpower resources they have, they canʼt.

McNamara: Yeah. Thatʼs the point. The only thing that will prevent it, Mr. President, is their morale breaking. And if we hurt them enough—it isnʼt so much that they donʼt have more men as it is that they canʼt get the men to fight because the men know that once they get assigned to that task their chances of living are small. I, myself, believe thatʼs the only chance we have of winning this thing. And thatʼs one reason Iʼm in favor of this POL, because thereʼs no question but what the troops in the South—the VC and North Vietnamese troops in the South—ultimately become aware of whatʼs going on in the North. We see this through the interrogation and the prisoner reports. Iʼve been trying to watch those carefully to see what comes through those. And they know that weʼre bombing in the North. And they know we havenʼt destroyed the place, so that in a sense our bombing isnʼt fully effective, but they also know that nobody is protecting North Vietnam, and we just have a free rein. And when we bomb this POL, ultimately that will become known to the North Vietnamese soldiers and the Viet Cong in the South. And this is just one more foundation brick thatʼs knocked away from their support. And when they see theyʼre getting killed in such high rates in the South and they see that the supplies are less likely to come down from the North, I think itʼll just hurt their morale a little bit more. And, to me, thatʼs the only way to win. Because weʼre not killing enough of them to make it impossible for the North to continue to fight. But we are killing enough to destroy the morale of those people down there if they think this is gonna have to go on forever.

[Page 460]

“President: Go ahead, Bob.” (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation between Johnson and McNamara, Tape F66.17, Side A, PNO 2)

Between 1:10 and 2:27 a.m. on June 29, the President had 11 telephone conversations with Walt Rostow and Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance during which he was provided with reports on the air strikes. Recordings of 10 of the conversations are ibid., Tape 6606.06, PNO 1–PNO 10.