282. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1

Mr. President:

You asked me to go into more detail on General Westmorelandʼs views on bombing strategy. I thought the simplest way to proceed was to get him to put on paper his assessment of the value of bombing the North and what targets we ought to consider in the weeks and months ahead.

In para. 6 he lists seven further target systems. I believe you will wish to read this line by line. It is the sober assessment of the responsible commander on the spot. I would not agree with all of his seven suggestions; but I am convinced:

  • —bombing the North is a greater asset than our intelligence people recognize;
  • —we should consider, if they persist in the war, having some further target systems, but our first duty is to mop up more oil because there is now evidence that they are hurting; and
  • —I agree with his observation in para. 7 that we should, in any circumstances, “avoid any restriction on strikes in the extended battle area.”

W.W.R. 2


Memorandum From the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Westmoreland) to the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Rostow)


  • COMUSMACVʼs Comments on Rolling Thunder 3
The Rolling Thunder program (the bombing of North Vietnam) was designed to disrupt the movement of men and materiel from North Vietnam to South Vietnam and to influence the will of the leadership in Hanoi against further prosecution of the war.
Although the program has not stopped the flow of men and materiel to South Vietnam, it has had significant impact on the war effort by the communists. The enemy has been required to divert to his air defenses substantial quantities of his manpower and skills that are in short supply. Also, quantities of labor and materials have been diverted through necessity to the maintenance of his lines of communication. Prisoners testify to the debilitating effect of the long march south caused by circuitous routes and inability to move personnel by vehicle. In addition, the amount of materiel and munitions that has been destroyed, as evidenced by pilot reports, has been significant. In my opinion, one of the main reasons for the lack of success thus far of the enemyʼs massive effort across the Demilitarized Zone was the disruption by the intensified air interdiction program north of the DMZ and along his major arteries of communication.
To stop the bombing campaign to the North would adversely affect the war in the South in serious degree. The enemy would be able with impunity to move his men, materiel and supplies to the South. He would no doubt move numbers of anti-aircraft weapons and surface-to-air missiles south toward the Demilitarized Zone and along his routes of communication leading into Laos. Furthermore, he would probably prepare jet airfields further south to give himself an offensive air capability. The adverse psychological effect that the cessation of bombing would have on the Vietnamese and allied forces fighting in Vietnam would be of significance. Our troops would be placed at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the enemy, since the enemy would no doubt continue his shelling of airfields, his sabotage of lines of communication, his ambushes, and his terrorism.
Thus far our air campaign to the North has been characterized by creeping escalation. This strategy has not influenced the will of Hanoi. The strategy has used air power inefficiently and expensively, and has achieved results far short of potential. In addition, a considerable and growing risk factor has been injected into the situation. The enemy now has a comprehensive air defense system under centralized control with a three-fold effectiveness. First, it involves a great number of automatic weapons and anti-aircraft units for use against low flying aircraft. Second, there are surface-to-air missiles for use at medium altitudes. While their kill ratio has been less than the enemy would have hoped, the threat of these missiles drives our aircraft to the lower altitudes where they encounter heavy automatic weapons fire. Third, there is a growing MIG capability at the higher altitudes. Besides the actual effect of these weapons, they have caused a degradation of accuracy in our bombing. In some cases, the threat of MIG attack has forced our planes to jettison their loads prior to reaching their targets in order to maneuver. This very hostile environment will result in mounting casualties as the war goes on—[Page 779]perhaps more than we will be willing or even able to sustain, given the present limitation on targets.
The time for a change in strategy is at hand. Two courses of action appear open to us. The first involves giving consideration to moving to shock action by striking over a short period lucrative targets that will hurt the enemy and convince him that our power does not have to be restrained. The second course of action would involve elimination of these same targets on a well programmed but graduated campaign, as opposed to shock action, and would be followed by a level of operations we can sustain. In any case, even with the elimination of any initial group of lucrative targets, it is doubtful whether the required effort can be supported without greater flexibility in target selection. Following either of these two courses, we should maintain a given level of air effort against North Vietnam on a sustained basis, but with sufficient target flexibility that will serve to bring maximum pressure to bear on the war economy of North Vietnam with minimum risk to our planes.
Specifically, the following targets are recommended in the general priority listed:
Large motor maintenance facilities which support his transportation system regardless of their location. There is a particularly lucrative installation inside the Hanoi ring.
The SA-2 missile assembly area, also inside the Hanoi ring.
The Haiphong port with emphasis on the dock area. It is believed that this target could be destroyed without jeopardizing foreign bottoms in major degree.
The complex of thermal power plants which numbers approximately twelve installations. These are known, are vulnerable, and could be struck without unacceptable risk.
The steel plant which reportedly manufactures POL drums and has a direct role in supporting the war.
The MIG air bases, to include supporting facilities and fighter aircraft. This could be done in retaliation for attacks on our airfields in South Vietnam which has been and will continue to be a recurring action by the enemy.
If the situation dictates that there be some cessation of the bombing campaign, the above targets should be hit before any consideration is given to such action. Furthermore, any change in the bombing program should avoid any restriction on strikes in the extended battle area, that area of North Vietnam from Quang Tri Province north to Vinh. In consideration of his responsibility in fighting the ground war, the field commander on the ground should be permitted to bring military power to bear on the enemy along those lines of communication leading directly to the battlefield.
W. C. Westmoreland 4
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, vol. LX. Top Secret.
  2. Printed from a copy that bears these typed initials.
  3. In a telegram to Rostow in Manila, CAP 66803, October 25, Bromley Smith transmitted a message from Wheeler stating that he had read Westmorelandʼs comments, concurred heartily, and urged from a military point of view the earliest approval of his recommendations. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, vol. LX)
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.