105. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

As you instructed, I shall find an occasion to talk with Sec. Rusk about Sec. McNamara’s views as expressed in his paper on Senator Kennedy’s proposal.2
Herewith the clearest view I can give you of Sec. McNamara’s thought, derived from many conversations over a considerable period of time.
First and above all, as I told you on the telephone, he is deeply troubled about the possibility that the war will run on into next year; and then political pressures will arise, in one form or another, that would force us into an unsatisfactory settlement unworthy of what the nation has put into the struggle. Therefore, he is in a great hurry—as are we all.
He is now even willing to contemplate the possibility of forcing a major crisis with the Soviet Union and Communist China by mining the Haiphong harbor and otherwise interdicting supplies from outside North Viet Nam. He has certainly not decided to propose this course of action to you. But he has talked to me about it at least three times as one possibility we should contemplate in the spring, after we have the Vietnamese constitution and the electoral slate settled. Like all of us, he hesitates to recommend this because of the risk of enlarging the war; although he keeps coming back to the CIA intelligence estimate that neither China nor Russia would go to war if we mined Haiphong.
But his main thrust is to seek a quick end to the war by action which does not run the risks involved in mining Haiphong. He has some hopes that the present high casualty rates being inflicted on the VC plus high levels of defection will force some kind of crack in the organizational and political structure of the NLF. But he is conscious that we have not sustained these high rates over a long enough period to give him confidence that the war will end in 1967 as a result of casualty and defection rates. He is frustrated but does not know what he can do from here about the slow pace of pacification.
Against this background—of one course of action which may be too dangerous and another which may be too slow—he is passionately interested in finding a way to negotiate an end to the war:
  • —He has pressed (and I have worked with him) to find a way of penetrating and making contact with the NLF. (I recently checked. This operation is being carried forward in a vigorous and imaginative way, although we don’t yet have any big fish on the hook.)
  • —He wants us to push hard on the KGB contact in New York as well as on U Thant’s approach.
  • —He is, as his memorandum to you of March 9 reveals, willing to cut down bombing in the North if it can induce a negotiation with Hanoi, notably bombing north of the 20th parallel.
This judgment, in turn, stems from a view that the positive effect of bombing in the northern part of North Viet Nam is not enough to outweigh its negative effects on public opinion here and abroad and on the leaders in Hanoi. He honestly believes—without independent evidence—that our bombing around Hanoi stiffens the resistance of the people in authority there and makes it harder for them to negotiate an end to the war. As his memorandum suggests, he tends to accept the theory that our bombing attacks of December 13–14 were damaging to negotiations.
In short, I don’t think Bob can be described as a “dove” in this matter. He wants the Viet Nam operation to succeed because of the nation’s stake in it; your stake in it; and—perhaps—his stake in it. He is afraid it is endangered by the passage of time. He is thrashing about for a short cut. Among the short cuts would be to use our bombing of the North—especially north of the 20th parallel—as a negotiating carrot since, in his judgment, it has very limited net value.
My main difference with him is that I am not sure his picture of the mind of the men in Hanoi is correct. I agree that they are probably split; but I cannot believe—until I see hard evidence—that our bombing in the northern part of Viet Nam is a decisive factor in determining when they would try seriously to get out of the war. Moreover, I do believe that if we are systematic about electric power we can do something significant about their war effort.
My advice would be to support Bob in his efforts to ensure that every possible negotiating track is explored; unleash his full energies—perhaps after the Guam meeting3—at trying to accelerate pacification; but exercise great caution in surrendering prematurely or without adequate compensation our bombing in the North. In addition, you may wish to look hard and afresh at a political-military diplomatic plan for forcing a major crisis some time late in the spring.

P.S. Since dictating this, Bob called and talked at length about the scenario stated briefly in his memo of March 9:

  • —take out all eight power plants and cement in the next two weeks;
  • —go to the Russians and tell them we’re cutting back to the 20th parallel for a while;
  • —see if the Russians can start secret talks between Tommy4 and a very high Hanoi official.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Sen. Robert Kennedy’s Position on VN—Analysis of. Literally Eyes Only. The notation “L” on the memorandum indicates that the President saw it.
  2. In light of the DRV’s public and private statements, on March 2 Kennedy had called for the administration to cease bombing and offer to open talks with the North Vietnamese, after which both sides could then work toward a comprehensive and inclusive settlement as an international presence replaced U.S. ground forces. Rostow derided Kennedy’s supposedly innovative proposal as a “conditional halt” that was “part of the same family of proposals we have made since the first bombing pause in May 1965.” (Memorandum from Rostow to the President, March 9; ibid.) In a March 9 memorandum to the President, McNamara included a summation of his own doubts about the search for peace and a recommendation of a reduction in bombing that could overcome the distrust generated in Hanoi by the December raids. (Ibid., Country File, Vietnam, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Speech 3/2/67 & the Today Show interview, 3/7/67) Rusk was opposed to the Kennedy plan, since North Vietnam had rejected all its stipulations numerous times. He advised implementing a temporary suspension when “a serious prospect of peace opens up.” (Letter from Rusk to the President, March 10; ibid.)
  3. See Documents 115 and 116.
  4. Llewellyn Thompson.