31. Information Memorandum From the Legal Adviser of the Department of State (Meeker) to Secretary of State Rusk1


  • Length of the Pause in Air Attacks on North Viet Nam

There has been a background assumption lying behind the pause in air attacks on North Viet Nam: that a pause lasting through the period of the lunar New Year would allow sufficient time to pursue the US peace offensive to a conclusion, whether affirmative or negative. A reading of the current situation indicates to me that more time is required. I think we are not now in a position to decide that the pause should end. There are a number of efforts in train at the present time which need to be completed:

Ambassador Kohler has sent word to the DRV charge in Moscow requesting a discussion with the charge. The DRV Embassy is evidently now seeking instructions.
In Vientiane the DRV representative has undertaken a substantive discussion with Premier Souvanna Phouma, evidently on instructions from Hanoi. A cable has been sent to Bill Sullivan to prepare for further developments in this dialogue.2
We have not directly questioned the Soviet Government about the end results of the Shelepin visit to Hanoi, after Moscow would have had a chance to digest the outcome. Through Ambassador Kohler, we should put some questions to Premier Kosygin as soon as feasible.
Japanese Foreign Minister Shiina has been in Moscow since Saturday. He was to have another discussion on Viet Nam with Gromyko today. We need to talk with Shiina as soon as he has returned from Moscow.
Secretary General U Thant has discussed with Ambassador Goldberg some procedural ideas for launching an international discussion on Viet Nam. The Secretary General has now been given US comments. He is in the process of refining his thoughts and considering in what way his proposal should be launched—perhaps by someone other than the Secretary General.

A review of the available information does not disclose any military reason why the pause needs to be terminated now rather than sometime [Page 96] hence. The INR review of Viet Cong activity indicates that the level of activity has not changed materially since the Christmas truce. The level may have been somewhat higher in early January than the weekly average for 1965. It appears to have been a little lower than in the three or four weeks before Christmas. The locations and activity of PAVN units is unclear. There have been no confirmed PAVN attacks since November 1965, although a POW interrogation suggests that a PAVN battalion may have been involved in the January 17 attack in Binh Dinh province. We may assume that resupply and reinforcement of the Viet Cong from North Viet Nam has been proceeding during the period of the pause. Reconnaissance indicates that such activity has continued. During the same period, the United States has, of course, augmented its own forces in the South. The available evidence does not show that there are military reasons why we need to end the pause just now in order to prevent the Communist side from obtaining some marked advantage. Conversely, there is nothing to suggest that a prolongation of the pause would require us to forgo some significant military opportunity in the immediate or near future.

On the other hand, there are powerful political reasons for deferring, for the present, any decision to terminate the pause in air attacks on North Viet Nam:

While four weeks may seem to us a lengthy period in which to await an answer to our overtures, we should bear in mind the likelihood that the debate in Hanoi, and between Hanoi and Moscow and Hanoi and the Viet Cong, has probably been extensive. That debate may not yet have run its course. In this connection, we should remember that it took the United States nearly nine months—from the Presidentʼs Johns Hopkins speech last April until December 1965—to formulate its own statement of an approach to peaceful settlement. Now that we have been through this process, it may be unrealistic to expect the Communist side to coordinate fully with our timing and to respond promptly after the fourteen points have been communicated.
We want to know, ourselves, the answers that will be produced by the initiatives still in progress. If we do not wait to get these answers, our action may not only prevent the answers from being given, but also wipe out the practical possibilities of further efforts at peaceful settlement for quite some time to come. A whole new phase of escalation and much higher military costs would ensue.
Terminating the pause now would probably end the efforts at prisoner exchange which have been started in Berlin and Algiers,3 and thus also cut off whatever hopeful developments might flow collaterally from the prisoner discussions.
One of our great disabilities around the world in the Viet Nam situation has been a lack of agreement, and even understanding, on the part of many governments and large opinion groups, in regard to our policies and actions. President Johnsonʼs peace offensive has had major political impact in building both understanding and confidence for the United States. We ought not to jeopardize any of this gain, or fail to maximize it, by coming to a decision too quickly on the length of the pause. It is known around the world that the peace offensive is still actively in progress. It would be harmful to our political interests to end the pause before the returns are in and the result is plain to the rest of the world. We have been criticized in the past for impatience in regard to the pause of May 1965 and for lack of sufficient interest and responsiveness to earlier moves characterized at least by some as peace initiatives. We need to take special care this time.
It is greatly in our interest to have the onus for a failure of peace efforts placed on the Communist side. If we were at this moment to resume bombing of North Viet Nam, the United States would probably incur, justly or not, a large share of the onus for bringing peace efforts to an end.
Within the United States there is very strong support for the Presidentʼs peace offensive. In the interest of having the country united so far as possible behind him, the President would be well advised to carry the peace offensive a further distance before concluding that it has failed. People in this country also will want to be convinced that the possibilities of a reasonable peace settlement have been exhausted before the war is fully resumed and in all likelihood escalated.4

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27–14 VIET. Secret; Exdis; Pinta. Also sent to Ball.
  2. For a summary of the cable, see Document 29.
  3. See Document 47 for a summary of the negotiations through Algiers.
  4. On January 19 Sisco sent a similar memorandum to Rusk and Ball, outlining a number of “compelling” reasons “why the pause should continue at least a while longer.” (Department of State, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, WPB Chron) Meeker sent a supplemental memorandum to Rusk and Ball on January 22, arguing that public pressure to resume the bombing was slight and proposing eight steps to consider “before the peace offensive is judged to have run a full course.” (Ibid., Ball Files: Lot 74 D 272, Viet-Nam, Misc. Notebooks) In a January 25 memorandum to Ball, which Ball drew on in preparing Document 41, Meeker contended that resumption of the bombing entailed a high risk of Chinese intervention and rendered illusory “for a long time” any meaningful peace efforts. (Department of State, Ball Files: Lot 74 D 272, Misc. Viet-Nam, Vol. VI)