17. Telegram From the Commander in Chief, Pacific (Sharp) to the Joint Chiefs of Staff 1

JCS 46895. The Relationship of Military Operations Against NVN to the Overall Strategy of the War in SVN (U).

One of the key elements of the strategy in Vietnam has been the application of steadily increasing military pressure against North Vietnam to force cessation of support to the VC, and to bring NVN to the negotiating table. Surely a negotiated solution to the problem of peace and security for SVN is infinitely preferable to a long, bitter and costly war. We recognize that the effectiveness of military pressure depends partly on a significant combination of moves toward negotiation which clearly indicates to the DRV our continuing readiness to negotiate. The current pause is such a move, and it is to be hoped that it will be quickly successful.
Based on reactions so far, however, Hanoi has shown no inclination to negotiate and may continue to spurn all our efforts unless forced to take some other course. We should plan now to resume effective operations against NVN, as indeed we must if negotiations do not bring an early cease fire.

It is essential, therefore, that the vital relationship of military operations against NVN to a coherent overall strategy for Vietnam be recognized. This overall strategy is based on three undertakings. These are:

To deny to the Communists in SVN the effective direction and assistance from NVN so vital to their war making capability.
To assist the RVN in providing protection of the South Vietnamese people from Communist subversion and oppression, to liberate areas dominated by the VC, and to assist in the establishment of a stable economy and the continuation of an independent non-Communist government.
To defeat the VC and PAVN forces and destroy their base areas in the RVN.

Germane to the interdependent nature of these three elements of strategy is the necessity that success be achieved in each and that each of the three undertakings be subject to a simultaneous application of appropriate military force.

When we resume operations against NVN, the air campaign should be conducted in the most effective manner to accomplish sub para 3.A. above. This will require operations quite different from the pre-cease fire pattern. The vital external assistance to NVN required to sustain effective internal military operations and external aggression must be denied. Resources already in NVN most needed to support aggression should be destroyed in depth. All known military material and facil-ities should be destroyed and military activities and movements should be continuously harassed and disrupted.
It appears that the very foundation of the enemyʼs morale and resultant tenacity stands squarely on the belief that our patience will run out before his. Hanoi has publicly stated that the enormous costs of long lines of communications and the casualties they intend to inflict on U.S. forces will cause us to negotiate on their terms. We should consider the consequences of NVN secure from attack, supported by both Russia and China, infiltrating into SVN troops equipped with the latest weapons, fully trained, and continuously supplied. Of even greater importance would be the freedom of Hanoi to exercise unhampered direction of operations in SVN and the concomitant beneficial morale effects upon the PAVN/VC forces. Vietnam Communist history and doctrine and current experience lead only to the conclusion that they are willing to expend lives at a rate which we would consider unacceptable to achieve their objectives. Therefore, we must accept as reality that an exorbitant expenditure of lives by the enemy in SVN over a long period of time would be endured as long as success appeared possible. The implications of this fact are enormous. Viewed in this context then, Hanoi may not have been idly boasting when they claimed that Operation Starlite,2 near Chu Lai, and the battle of Ia Drang3 were actually victories for their side. Unfortunately, this could be true in a strategic sense unless our [Page 49] strategy makes full use of our superior air power to reduce casualties and foreshorten the time required to achieve our limited objectives.
Again, as they did in one phase of the war against the French when faced with superior regular military forces, the Communists are currently avoiding costly engagements at our initiative in SVN and are concentrating on terrorism and destructive attacks on small outposts and garrisons. This technique can be used any time success seems to elude them temporarily. A PAVN/VC force using this strategy and supported as visualized can extend the time period before we gain any real military successes or reconstruction progress. A long stand-down in air attacks against NVN while NVN continues to support PAVN/VC intensive operations in SVN would vitiate U.S. strategy for bringing the war in Vietnam to an acceptable conclusion. For political, economic and psychological reasons of great importance in both the U.S. and SVN there is an urgent need to make rapid progress toward security for the SVN people and the destruction of PAVN/VC forces and base areas. The adverse consequences, both in the U.S. and SVN of very slow progress in the war, could be incalculable.
The Communists have a total disregard for the human values held by the Western world. By our standards, they will endure staggering losses of human lives to achieve their objectives. They are keenly aware of our attitudes and have announced that U.S. troop casualties, rather than victory in battle, will govern their strategy in SVN. At the same time, they know that we would choose to exploit full use of air power as a technological alternative to human loss. To prevent this, they have staged a remarkable world-wide political and propaganda campaign. They anticipate that the VC, fully supported by NVN, can inflict sufficient casualties to generate internal U.S. pressures to end the war far short of the objectives we seek. They have correctly determined that a crucial battle of the war is the political battle. They are not fighting to attain a permanent stand-down. We must not permit them to win it.
With these thoughts in mind, a review of the changed situation since RT operations began is in order. We began RT with very limited objectives, at a time when PAVN infiltration was of less significance than it is now. Our build up in SVN was visualized as a moderate and sustainable assist to the ARVN in maintaining effective mobile reserve forces and in gaining and maintaining security for reconstruction. It was visualized that such assistance was politically and economically supportable for an indefinite period while the GVN made the required progress.
When RT began, there was considerable hope of causing Hanoi to cease aggression through an increasing pressure brought to bear through carefully timed destruction of selected resources, accompanied by threat of greater losses. Presumably this would cause Hanoi to decide to cease support of the VC. But in Feb of last year CINCPAC stated a view [Page 50] substantially as follows: We must face the fact that punitive attacks and the threat of destruction of the capital resources in NVN probably will not bring Hanoi to the conference table. Ho Chi Minh has never doubted ultimate victory. We said that from his point of view the prospect of eventual defeat in SVN would be the unacceptable threat to his long term objectives. Therefore, in order to win in SVN, the immediate objective of RT should be to make it as difficult and as costly as possible for NVN to continue effective support of the VC and Pathet Lao, thereby contributing directly to our ultimate objective of winning in SVN.
However, Rolling Thunder has been conducted with the primary objective of increasing pressure to cause Hanoi to “decide” to cease support of the VC and Pathet Lao and the objective of making it difficult to export aggression has been pursued in a very limited manner. On the credit side, there has been significant disruption upon which we can capitalize when operations are resumed. NVN has had to expend great effort to repair roads and bridges and to prepare defense of urban areas for possible attack. Necessary internal operations have been severely disrupted and military support to the VC and Pathet Lao has been somewhat slowed but not slowed enough. Reconstruction of communication links has been designated as a number one strategic problem and large numbers of people have been organized into repair gangs. The Army has been given supervision of reconstruction in Zone IV, no doubt detracting from their military duties. And as a reflection of the pressure the Vietnam news agency in Hanoi has been increasing the tempo of propaganda relating to U.S. air attacks. These facts and others indicate that Hanoi has felt the pressure and that we were presenting the government with growing internal problems. In light of the limited objectives of the air campaign, RT has done quite well.
On the other hand, RT operations have not been conducted in such a manner as to increase the pressure on Hanoi in recent months. Targets vital to effective military operations have not been struck in significant numbers; military and civilian activities have accommodated to the limited operations; and, in fact, the psychological pressure has decreased. But regardless of how RT has been conducted, the important fact now is that the nature of the war has changed since the air campaign began. RT has not forced Hanoi to the decision which we sought. There is now every indication that Ho Chi Minh intends to continue support of the VC until he is denied the capability to do so. He has the unstinting support of the ChiComs which has increased his obligation to that regime. This, together with the pressure from that direction to continue support probably leaves him little alternative. This resolve has caused a significant change in the complexion of NVN support to the VC, while U.S. commitments have dramatically increased. In the light of these greatly increased commitments and the factors already discussed, and [Page 51] with due regard to political realities and current resources, we must do all that we can to make it as difficult and costly as possible for Hanoi to continue direction and support of aggression. In good conscience, we should not long delay resumption of an RT program designed to meet the changed nature of the war.

In consonance with the overall concept, military operations against NVN should:

Deny to NVN assistance from external sources.
Destroy in depth those resources already in NVN that contribute most to the support of aggression; destroy or deny use of all known permanent military facilities; and harass and disrupt dispersed military operations.
Harass, disrupt, and impede movement of men and materials through Southern DRV into Laos and SVN.

Denial of external assistance requires interdiction of land LOCʼs from China and closing of the ports. Occasional attacks against bridges on the LOCʼs in the northeast quadrant has had only limited success in disrupting the flow. This area must be opened up for armed recce with authority to attack LOC targets as necessary. In initiating action to close the ports, particularly Haiphong, Hon Gay and Cam Pha, it is recognized that political considerations are involved. Highly selective strikes and political action on the international scene to indicate our intentions to continue to deny use of the ports should be undertaken. Reaction of ChiComs while the program gets underway should provide indications of their actual intentions. Nevertheless, if we are to realize our aims, we must take these steps, bold as they may seem. Destruction of resources within NVN should begin with POL. Every known POL facility and distribution activity should be destroyed and harassed until the war is concluded. Denial of electric power facilities should begin at an early date and continue until all plants are out of action. Complete destruction is not required. All large military facilities should be destroyed in Northern NVN as they have been in the Southern area.

We should mount an intensified armed reconnaissance program without sortie restriction, to harass, disrupt and attrit the dispersed and hidden military facilities and activities south of 20 deg which have been identified and are continuing to be identified as a result of detailed intelligence analysis. We should concentrate on LOC centers, attacking trans-shipment points, vehicle/boat concentrations, and LOC exits into Laos on a nite and day basis. The initial effort should be followed by sustained armed recce surveillance and attack against known and predicted traffic flow areas in order to maintain the harassment and disruption desired.
Paralleling an increased tempo of RT operations CINCPAC will maintain intensified photo reconnaissance with all available assets. Previous RT operations have forced the enemy to hide, disperse, and camouflage his military support base, and to take maximum advantage of [Page 52] darkness to move personnel, supplies and equipment over the infiltration routes. All available exploitation resources will be applied to detailed readout and analysis of the frequent coverage that must be obtained, but more may be required. When RT operations are resumed, security of our forces should be given the attention required. We must neither accept losses that could be prevented nor interference with operational flexibility. Plans have been drawn up for constant surveillance of the airfields and their destruction when required. Soon they should be authorized for attack. It will be far too costly to an intensive air campaign to permit the enemy to maintain a SAM capability. Operational commanders will require authority to deal with this threat wherever it jeopardizes operations.
In summary, we strongly believe that air operations against NVN should be resumed as one of the three main elements of our strategy in Vietnam. We should use all available force, with due regard to the Presidentʼs intention at this time not to destroy the NVN people and nation, to eliminate Hanoiʼs capability to support the VC. The complementary course in SVN is to employ the combined in-country military force to better protect the South Vietnamese people, liberate areas dominated by the Viet Cong, institute and maintain a pacification rural construction program, destroy enemy base areas, and defeat regular enemy military forces. Success in all three elements of this strategy promises the most rapid progress toward achieving our objectives. Viewing this prospect from both sides, and in consideration of factors discussed, these three tasks well done will bring the enemy to the conference table or cause the insurgency to wither from lack of support.4 The alternative appears to be a long and costly counterinsurgency—costly in U.S. and SVN lives and material resources.5
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, vol. XLV. Top Secret; Limdis. Repeated to CINCUSARPAC, CINCPACAF, CINCPACFLT, and COMUSMACV, and passed to the State Department and White House.
  2. In Operation Starlite, August 1965, U.S. Marines trapped a major portion of the 1st Viet Cong Regiment on a peninsula near Chu Lai, 100 kilometers southeast of Da Nang.
  3. The Battle of Ia Drang took place in November 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley of South Vietnamʼs Central Highlands.
  4. In a 12-page paper, “Viet Nam Prospects,” also dated January 12, Goldberg sought to convince the President that the “limited though considerable escalation now contemplated” would “probably achieve no significant results except to escalate casualties, destruction, costs, and political liabilities.” (Washington National Records Center, RG 330, McNamara Vietnam Files: FRC 77–0075, Vietnam, 1966)
  5. William Bundy responded to Admiral Sharp on January 14, concurring “on the importance of combining political moves toward negotiation with military pressures” but noting that “the key question which always faces us is that of timing.” As for denying assistance from the North to the enemy in the South, Bundy felt that the problem was “to find exactly the right combination of military measures and political initiatives to accomplish this result.” (Department of State, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, WPB Chron)