Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume IV, Vietnam, 1966
319. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1
You may be interested in the attached paper I wrote to clear my own mind and to share with my colleagues on the special committee you set up, chaired by Nick Katzenbach and including Cy Vance and Bob Komer along with myself.
It is a map of the problem with, I believe, the right action headings.
On reflection, we need three things to make it move:
- —Westmoreland must allocate more of his own military resources to pacification as well as press the ARVN forward into this task; and he should work up a plan for the military side of pacification for 1967.
- —We shall need in Saigon a vigorous Ambassador with great managerial skill, to drive forward hard this kind of program at that end.
- —As suggested on pages 24–25,2 we need to tighten the back-stopping of this whole program in Washington.
I am also considering, but did not put into this paper, further ways in which military power might be used in the course of 1967 to force a decision on the other side without excessive risk of escalating the war.
A STRATEGY FOR VIET NAM, 1967
Object. The object of the plan outlined below is to maximize the chance that we force a decision by Hanoi in the course of the calendar [Page 874] year 1967 to end the war in Viet Nam on terms compatible with our interests; that is, an end to hostilities in Laos as well as in Viet Nam; the accept-ance of the Geneva framework for Southeast Asia; acceptance of an essentially independent South Viet Nam that can determine its future on a one-man, one-vote basis or a reasonable approximation thereof.
The paper concludes with a discussion of the problem that will be posed for us if the war continues well into 1968.
- The problem: the Hanoi equation. We
must assume that Hanoi will accept something like our terms only
when a combination of factors makes it clear that it is more in
Hanoiʼs interest to end the war than to continue. Hanoi remains
in the war now because, on balance, each of the factors listed
below has not tipped far enough, individually or in combination,
to make it urgent and desirable to stop hostilities; the
advantages and costs of continuing the war still outweigh the
advantages and costs of getting out.
- The Situation in the South. The VC infrastructure in the South, although damaged, is still in being and capable of continuing to impose a heavy cost on South Viet Nam and to require the presence of massive allied forces to prevent a VC victory. In addition to this technical fact, Hanoi is thus far unwilling to take the decision to cut off support in men, supplies, and leadership to the South for reasons of ideology, self-respect, and, presumably, Chinese Communist pressure or threat. It does not now pretend to cherish the high hopes for early military victory of 1964 and 1965; but it clings to a position like that of 1962–63, when it believed that its staying power would be greater than that of the U.S.: “Americans do not like long, inconclusive wars—and this is going to be a long, inconclusive war. Thus we are sure to win” (Pham Van Dong, autumn 1962).4
- Damage in the North. There is no doubt that the bombing in the North constitutes a heavy burden on Hanoi. This is the principal difference between its view of the endurance doctrine of 1962–63 and its view in 1966–67. Thus far, however, with the support of other Communist nations it has been able to cushion the results of this bombing to some extent and has thus far accepted stagnation or decline in its over-all domestic development plus a massive diversion of manpower to fend off the most dangerous consequences of the bombing. What we do not know is whether the effects of the bombing are judged in Hanoi a major degenerative factor, with a time limit on what is endurable, or a stabilized factor, given the level of external assistance. Evidence runs both ways. What can be said is this: At its present level and targetting, bombing appears to [Page 875] involve the same kind of painful but endurable pressure on the North as small-scale guerrilla warfare in the South.
- Relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Just as Hanoi is unwilling to take the ideological and political decision of cutting off the VC in the South, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are unwilling to take the decision to cut off military and economic aid to Hanoi. This is true despite the fact that the costs of economic aid to Hanoi are rising rapidly and are an awkward marginal burden on economies where resource allocation is, in any case, a difficult matter. In part, this reluctance is due to the ideological competition with Communist China and the fear that Chinese Communist influence might become decisive in Hanoi if the Soviet Union were to cut off economic aid. Nevertheless, the net influence of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe on Hanoi is probably towards a negotiated end to the war: to counter Chinese Communist influence; to remove a situation which is both a demonstration of relative impotence and a threat of escalation; and to cut aid costs.
Communist China. Hanoi has already permitted a substantial number of Chinese Communist engineering and anti-aircraft forces to enter North Viet Nam. It wishes, for purposes of its own long-run future to maintain a relationship with Communist China which is supportive but not dominating. It does not feel free, probably because of geographical and logistical circumstances, to move toward the kind of independ-ence of Communist China which North Korea felt free to assert because of the proximity of the Soviet Union and the credibility of Moscowʼs security as well as economic guarantees. Nor does it now appear credible to Hanoi to seek greater independence of Communist China by an understanding with the other major power which might offer that guarantee; that is, the United States. Communist China has thus far thrown its weight in Hanoi towards continuing the war. It may, in addition, exercise some direct influence over the leadership of the VC—almost certainly more direct influence than Moscow and Eastern Europe.
It is probably true that Hanoi can make peace without risking a Chinese Communist invasion; but Chinese Communist influence is evidently an inhibiting factor of some importance.
- The Political Situation in the South. Although undoubtedly disappointed by the outcome of the I Corps crisis of April-May 1966 and by the outcome of the election for the Constituent Assembly, Hanoi may maintain hopes of either a political breakdown in the South which might permit it to join dissident non-Communist elements in the seizure of power, or the emergence of a civil government with which it could more easily negotiate a favorable solution than with the present military government in Saigon. Such hopes of a popular front or coalition government may be countered by fears that the potential VC role in South [Page 876] Vietnamese politics may progressively diminish if the constitutional process moves forward on present planned lines.
- Free World Diplomacy. With the assistance of other Communist nations, Hanoi has conducted a massive political and psychological campaign in the Free World with minimum and maximum objectives. The minimum objective is to restrain U.S. bombing of North Viet Nam to targets which constitute thus far livable levels of damage, given the outside assistance available to Hanoi. At the maximum, the objective has been to press the U.S. unilaterally to cease bombing the North and, even, unilaterally to withdraw from support of South Viet Nam. Although Hanoi has failed in its maximum objectives, it must judge that it has succeeded tolerably well in its minimum objectives and will continue the effort.
- The United States. Thus far Hanoi has avoided all direct negotiation with the U.S., while leaving many channels open for contact and negotiation should the equation shift in ways which made such negotiation desirable in Hanoiʼs interest. It may judge that knowledge of direct negotiation with the U.S. would leak and damage morale among the VC, notably at a time when the VC are on the defensive. Therefore, so long as the Communists are on the defensive, an indicated willingness to negotiate directly may signal a willingness to end the war soon.
In short, while it has suffered a profound setback from its hopeful position in 1964 and early 1965, Hanoi has found, thus far, a rationale for continuing the conflict and a domestic and foreign policy strategy which permits it to continue. The most important factors holding Hanoi in the war appear to be:
- —the continued existence of the VC infrastructure and the VC capacity to continue guerrilla operations;
- —the possibility of rendering bombing of the North with existing targetting endurable by its own measures and expanded external assistance;
- —Chinese Communist influence, pressure, and (conceivably) threat.
The other factors in the equation are either neutral or argue that the war should be ended.
The Situation: the United States Equation. The equation for U.S. policy is, essentially, the other side of the coin of the seven variables which enter the Hanoi equation. We have been operating and we shall have to continue to operate in such a way as to shift these variables to a point where Hanoi concludes that it is its interest to end the war rather than to continue it. It is not a question of simply “proving that they cannot win.” In a military sense that has already happened; and what follows assumes we shall continue to keep the initiative against and impose heavy attrition on VC and NVN main force units. It is a question of creating [Page 877] a situation in which they feel there is more to gain (or less to lose) by ending the war now than by continuing it on current and foreseeable terms.
In any situation as complex as this, the answer lies in acting on all of the variables available to the extent that one has a grip on them, rather than on any single variable; and, in any case, we can only guess at the weights attached to them in Hanoiʼs calculations. Some may prove more critical than others. Some may be more susceptible to our initiative and action than others. But if the picture of Hanoiʼs equation is correct, the object of U.S. policy is to produce in 1967 a sense that all the factors judged relevant by Hanoi are moving unfavorably—or as many of them as we can move.
The following action program is based on this judgment about our task plus the concluding assessment in paragraph III, H, above.
- The Proposed U.S. Program.
Action against the VC.
The relatively viable state of the VC infrastructure was judged in para. III to be a major factor keeping Hanoi in the war. Given Communist doctrines about guerrilla warfare—and especially the doctrine of superior endurance in protracted conflict—it is clear that perhaps the most important task in 1967 is to produce a setting in which the VC appear to be disintegrating. This would make the rationale for continuing to accept the costs of bombing in the North less persuasive. It would increase the leverage of Moscow and Eastern Europe over Hanoi. It would undercut the position of the Chinese Communists. The major headings for such a policy for accelerating the disintegration of the VC are familiar and appear to be the following.
- A dramatic and sustained
political and psychological appeal to the VC to join in the making
of a new South Vietnamese nation
- an amnesty offer in which the Constituent Assembly might be associated with the government
- enlarged and sustained efforts to defect VC leaders
- a radical expansion in Chieu Hoi efforts
- new organizational arrangements
- converting ARVN forces to pacification functions
- rapid pacification of certain key areas
- A workable land reform scheme
- Increasing the cost in the
North. The object of our bombing, against the
background of A, above, is to make Hanoi feel that it is
paying a higher and higher price to preserve a probably
diminishing asset. To do this, three measures should be
accelerated. [Page 878]
- The barrier. The coming in of the barrier would promise Hanoi that the cost of infiltration is likely to increase and that it might, even, find difficulty in withdrawing its regular forces now in the South. Since the barrier will come in slowly, it is to be assumed that Hanoi will seek and find limited countermeasures. The barrier will evidently not work 100%. It is, however, an important cost-increasing tool.
- Attrition against infiltration routes. We do not yet know the dispositions of Hanoi with respect to infiltration in 1967, either with respect to scale or routes. In particular, we do not know the extent to which the Laos routes will be used as opposed to direct crossing of the DMZ or various seaborne efforts. Given our experience with attacks on infiltration routes in 1966, it should be possible for us to mount in 1967 a more purposeful and effective attritional campaign against infiltration than we did last year, including the extension of close-in attack of coastal shipping in North Vietnamese waters.
The attack on high priority targets in Hanoi-Haiphong area. At various times we have already hit oil targets, power plants, SAM installations, docks, coal mines. Without drama or sudden escalation, we should gradually, steadily, hit more such targets where the problem of replacement requires time and expense, and the costs of the war economy are substantial. We should continue as an important insurance policy the attack on oil. Power plants appear particularly attractive because of the wide dependence on them.
So long as the situation remains as it is within Communist China, the mining of the sea approaches to Haiphong should be ruled out because of the dependence on Communist China that would result; but this judgment should be periodically reexamined in the light of all the circumstances.
In the meanwhile, ways of blocking access between Haiphong and Hanoi should be studied, including the possibility of systematic interdiction—the object being not to close off access to the USSR and Eastern Europe but to render the delivery of such supplies increasingly costly.
Diplomacy via the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It is a fact that Moscow and the Eastern European capitals have in recent months become more activist with respect to Hanoi and the ending of the war. We do not completely understand this shift. It may stem from some combination of these three elements:
- —A sense that the forces in Hanoi willing to end the war are gathering strength.
- —A sense that Hanoi is more willing to listen to Moscow due to the troubles inside Communist China.
- —Increased interest in peace (and increased leverage) due to the radical rise in aid to Hanoi required from the USSR and Eastern Europe because of our bombing the North.
It is also clear that the influence of Mosocw and its friends has its limits in Hanoi. We cannot count on this influence and leverage alone to bring peace. We have to operate on all the other elements in the equation which might bring Hanoi around. But we should maintain as close and direct a dialogue with the USSR and Eastern Europe as we can, and, especially, try to understand better the reasons for their recent activism.
In this connection, we should be prepared to discuss with Moscow, as soon and as explicitly as Moscow is prepared to discuss with us, the character of a Southeast Asian settlement, including what we believe our role and the role of the Soviet Union in that area might be over the long run. There are great inhibitions in discussing such matters explicitly. The Soviet Union has preferred to move in parallel and implicitly in similar circumstances; for example, the Indian subcontinent. Nevertheless, it is an area in which the Soviet Union evidently intends to maintain an influence in competition with both Communist China and the U.S.—an influence with which we can live to a certain degree.
Communist China. Chinese Communist policy towards the war in Viet Nam may be one consideration at stake in the struggle within Communist China. Our direct influence on the outcome of that struggle is exceedingly limited, although our indirect influence has been considerable via our policies in various parts of the world which have contributed to the failure of Maoʼs expansionist plans and tactics. We do not know enough about the so-called moderate forces inside Communist China to understand whether, if they gained the upper hand, they would join the Soviet Union in encouraging Hanoi to seek a settlement and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Viet Nam. Mao has clearly taken the view that the pinning down in Southeast Asia of massive U.S. forces was good for Communist China because it would lead to failure and a once-and-for-all withdrawal in humiliation of U.S. from the Asian mainland. It is conceivable that moderate forces might emerge which would settle for a negotiated withdrawal of the U.S. from its Viet Nam bases and the neutralization of South Viet Nam and Laos, implicit in the 1954 and 1962 Geneva Accords. This kind of shift is a matter to which we should be sensitive; but it is in the hands of domestic Chinese Communist politics rather than U.S. diplomacy or communication.
Of all the variables, the Chinese Communist policy towards the war in Viet Nam and the nature of its influence over Hanoi is least in our hands except to the extent that we and the Vietnamese succeeded in producing erosion and disintegration of the VC infrastructure—a fact which will undoubtedly impress Peiping, given the experience of its leaders and, indeed, the nature of its doctrines of protracted warfare.
Political situation in the South. Here we have two major tasks with minimum and maximum objectives. At the minimum we must assure that the political life of South Viet Nam moves forward on the constitutional [Page 880] path to which it is committed, without conflict and disorder which would leave major openings for the VC, or produce, through instability and recurrent crises, a sense of hopelessness within the U.S. As part of this effort, we must contain inflation at the minimum within limits that are tolerable and do not produce social and economic disruption in the life of the country.
At the maximum we must play for the emergence of a political and economic situation in South Viet Nam which is inherently attractive to the VC and projects to the world a vision of forward movement. On the political side, the key problem is clearly this: to develop a relationship between the military and civil politicians that would permit a constitutional government to emerge in 1967, which has legitimacy before the world and sufficient linkage to the military establishment; for the military will remain the heart of South Vietnamese organized nationhood for the foreseeable future. We must avoid either acute military-civil conflict or a military takeover which aborts the constitutional track.
In cases where these conditions have been met at similar stages of history (for example, Turkey in the inter-war years, Pakistan since 1958, Korea since 1961), the key to the transition has been the emergence of a political leader or leaders who have the confidence of both the armed forces and a sizeable proportion of the civilian politicians. This is so critical an issue that we cannot afford to be passive with respect to it.
A second maximum objective is to open the ports and roads at a pace which gives a short-run lift to the Vietnamese economy while pressing forward rapidly and dramatically with the formulation of a postwar development program.
Free World diplomacy. The two critical elements here are:
- —An expansion—even a modest expansion—in Free World forces fighting beside us in South Viet Nam.
- —Pressing out to the world systematically the dual concept; a new and vital Free Asia is emerging; it is with us in our intent to see the war in Viet Nam through to an honorable peace.
We have made progress with this doctrine as a result of the Presidentʼs trip to Asia. It must be systematically projected by every device of communication at our disposal.
- The United States base. The
outcome of the Congressional election of 1966 has given
us a base to pursue the strategy outlined above for
1967. The object of that strategy should be to shift the
variables during 1967 to the point where Hanoi is
willing to end the war. For 1967—and as a hedge against
a continuation of the war into 1968—we face,
nevertheless, certain fundamental, unsolved problems
with domestic opinion:
- —The need to give our citizens a better sense of how to measure progress in a war of this kind. All our people now have is a bewildering [Page 881] statement of daily and weekly casualty figures plus accounts of occasional pitched battles on the ground and of raids on the North. These are accompanied by evidence that the VC still have the capacity to shoot up U.S. installations, throw mortars into the center of Saigon, etc. We have not found a way to make clear, even, the character of our progress against main force units, let alone a way of showing what progress we may make in the countryside towards pacification and development. A special task force in the government should take this problem in hand, coordinating with Saigon, so that in 1967 we get more mature and shapely reporting of the war.
—We must drive home systematically the message of the Presidentʼs trip to Asia; that is, a new and vital Asia is emerging, which is determined to work together and is with us on Viet Nam.
This must be, again, a steady campaign in which we find and project all the concrete evidence of forward movement in Free Asia and evidence of Asian attitudes towards Viet Nam.
- —By every device we can conceive, we should make the war a bipartisan venture in domestic political terms, reaching out to the Republicans for advice and engaging them with the fullest possible briefings.
Negotiating with Hanoi. Our basic tactic with Hanoi has been to pick up their desire to have us stop bombing in the North and move them towards the conference table by asking them what compensatory de-escalation in the South they are prepared to undertake. Since various other nations, notably in Eastern Europe, are apparently prepared to talk to Hanoi along these lines, it should be pursued. But it should be pursued with a consciousness that it may have arisen not from an authentic desire of Hanoi to negotiate, but from a desire to lift from North Viet Nam and its allies the burden of bombing so that the war can be pursued in greater confidence with greater prospects of North Vietnamese success.
It is also possible that the de-escalation formula poses a great danger to Hanoi because a cutback or end to infiltration might produce very serious consequences for the VC, both technically, in terms of supplies, and psychologically, in terms of a conviction that Hanoi was deserting the VC and making terms at their expense. Therefore, we should mount a parallel line of communication with Hanoi directly. The object should be the discussion of the end position—a complete package deal—while the war goes on; with the object of ending the war briskly and completely when the end position is agreed.
Organization. The premium which attaches to ending the war in 1967 is obvious. The nature of the problem is such that if we are to maximize the chances that the war will be ended in 1967, we must force the pace of movement in a coordinated way along each of the lines of the program set out above. This requires:
- —A common understanding of the concept of working intensively on each of the elements of the equation, shared fully by Saigon and Washington.
- —The most vigorous possible leadership in Saigon, both by the Ambassador and MACV—and both in coordination.
- —Centralized drive and direction in Washington of all the elements of the program, cutting to the minimum normal delays in making decisions here.
Under Secretary Katzenbach and his committee should undertake the latter assignment; but it will only work if the Under Secretary himself can allocate the time to lead the enterprise.
It would be disastrous if present centers of initiative felt they were layered by such an undertaking—and the buck had passed somewhere else. The Under Secretaryʼs committee should:
- —spot delays in implementing the agreed plan and end them;
- —spot gaps in implementing the agreed plan and fill them;
- —re-survey the evolving situation and make recommendations for changes in the plan.
If the war cannot be ended in 1967 and runs through the election of 1968, the task will be:
- —to have achieved maximum progress;
- —to be able to demonstrate the reality of that progress persuasively to our people;
- —to achieve maximum bipartisan support for continuing our Viet Nam and Asian policies.
We must be able to hold a position of: donʼt throw away a winning effort and defeat a position of: donʼt throw good men and money after bad.
In seeking a decision in 1967 we must, as an insurance policy, lay the groundwork for such a stance in 1968.
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Rostow Files, Vietnam Strategy. Secret. On November 17 Rostow forwarded to the President a 9-page paper by Edward Lansdale, “The Battleground in 1967,” which presented Lansdaleʼs views on strategy in Vietnam for 1967. In his covering memorandum, Rostow called the paper “Lansdale at his best—worth reading.” (Ibid., Memos to the President—Walt W. Rostow, vol. 15)↩
- Part V. “Organization.”↩
- Under cover of a November 28 memorandum, Rostow sent copies of the paper, which is marked “Draft for discussion; Limited distribution,” to Katzenbach, Vance, and Komer. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)↩
- See Document 232 and footnote 3 thereto.↩