153. Telegram From the Consulate in Hong Kong to the Department of State1

7581. For Bundy From Rice. Ref: A. State 184833; B. Saigon 24361.2

I have no doubt whatever about validity of proposition that atmosphere of tension resulting from escalation of bombing in North Vietnam provides kind of climate in which Maoism tends to flourish, is useful to Mao in his efforts to control populace and armed forces, and bears unfavorably on prospects for emergence of more pragmatic regime in China.
The people of China have been told that Mao’s great Cultural Revolution is, among other things, preparation for war. Our ever-mounting attacks on contiguous territory of China’s Communist neighbor lends plausibility to the thesis that China itself is our ultimate target, and that preparation for war is national necessity. We see many reports testifying to resultant tension, which is particularly marked in coastal areas opposite Taiwan.
Mao is of course also carrying on his great Cultural Revolution in ways which themselves generate very great internal tensions. I think this is highly deliberate injection of adrenaline into blood streams of China’s 700 millions, designed release enormous energy which Mao seeks to direct and exploit for multiple, inter-related and mutually-supporting purposes of his great Cultural Revolution.
A businessman who has just returned from Canton tells me he came out depressed and apprehensive: environment into which he was plunged from moment train crossed border into China was one of incessant, noisy propaganda which built in him intolerable sense of pressure and tension. It was his conviction this current atmosphere of tension must surely lead to early explosion. My acquaintance may underestimate Chinese ability to live with noise and capacity to bend without breaking. But China today is in period which parallels in many ways that of 1900 and there is a mass hysteria like that which characterized the Boxers. Latter believed their mumbo-jumbo made them invulnerable [Page 359] much as Red Guards and other Chinese types of today believe that Mao’s sayings will enable them individually to achieve the impossible and that a China armed with Mao’s thought is invincible.
It is obvious that need to prepare for war can be used to justify and secure popular acceptance of austerity measures and personal sacrifices which regime imposes for multiple purposes of which war preparation is only one. It is similarly obvious that atmosphere of external danger and responsiveness of the military to their political masters are closely related. Even Mao’s purge of his opponents is being justified on grounds which include allegations they either have already engaged in traitorous activity or are persons who would do so—like Wang Ching-wei during World War II—if foreign invasion afforded them the opportunity to turn against Mao’s Communist state. If Mao succeeds in wholly discrediting or even killing off the pragmatists within what was the national leadership—and their ranks have taken heavy losses—the probable effect on prospects for emergence of more realistic top leadership seems clear. While things in China are not always what they seem, one would be unduly optimistic—in view of the way things have been going—confidently to expect emergence of a pragmatic regime in Peking while Mao is alive and in possession his faculties.
At the same time I am not confident that danger to U.S. posed by foregoing can be separated from contingency that escalation of our bombing will result in ChiCom military intervention in Vietnam, or—what seems to me more important—that latter contingency should be deemed remote in the sense of being an improbable final outcome. To deal with former point first: I think intentions of Chinese Communists under present circumstances are to engage our planes only when we approach or enter their air-space. But circumstances will not remain static and future Chinese decisions will be made against background of changes in overall situation and may be influenced also by the spirit of combativeness which is part of contagion carried by the Maoist revolution.
I realize that escalation of the bombing seems, given our basic assumptions, to have an inner logic: if one level of effort and range of targets does not achieve desired ends, we assume it did not do so because of insufficiency and we raise the level of our effort and increase the scope of our targets. The truth is that we probably cannot achieve through bombing the objectives we seem to be seeking, and that—paradoxical as that may seem—achieving them could in the end prove far more dangerous than failing to do so.
We can win against North Vietnam only by destroying either its will to fight or its ability to do so. What are our chances of doing either through bombing? First there is the matter of will. Some of the [Page 360] leading exponents of initiating the bombings believed the Vietnamese Communists were pragmatists who would draw back rather than see their modern industries destroyed. It is now clear that this assessment was wrong: the North Vietnamese leaders and people give much higher priority to other objectives than preservation of that modern sector, which is not vital to people’s livelihood. When this became apparent, continuation of the bombing was justified on the grounds we might be able to inflict a level of pain which might make North Vietnam throw in the towel. This is a false analogy which flies in the face of experience during World War II: pain is personal, and it cannot be inflicted on everybody at once on the acute level which makes it unendurable. Below that level pain only increases the will to fight.
[sic] What of North Vietnam’s ability to continue the war under the bombings? The most obvious aspects of the matter are in abilities to defend against air attack and to supply the effort in the South. Vietnam is shaped like a funnel and North Vietnam is serving as the mouth of the funnel. The Communist powers controlling the Asian land mass ought to be able at each stage to estimate how much they need to pour in the funnel, of matériel and if need be of manpower, to maintain air defense, to replace what we destroy, and to have enough left over for the South (ref B).
If such a situation continues we will feel increasing pressure to carry out strikes against port facilities and perhaps ships at Haiphong, as well as stockpiles and transport lines across the border in China. But if the present war frustrates us, the widened one we would thus be inviting could ruin us.
If the foregoing logic proved wrong and the North Vietnamese really felt themselves to be in dire straits, they would still have an ace in the hole. The Chinese Communists are publicly committed to sending their men if necessary and when requested. I hardly think the Chinese Communists could refuse to honor this blank check should the Vietnamese present it. Thus, it seems to me, the war against North Vietnam is one in which winning could be more dangerous than failing to achieve decisive results.
Does this mean we cannot win the war we set out to fight—that in the South? I do not think it necessarily does, provided we have the wisdom to reassess the situation in its total political context, of which military considerations are only one component, and make relevant changes in our plans for future action. I have seen reports indicating that bulk of people in North Vietnam largely equate their war with U.S. to air war which is the only part they see and in which they are engaged. If we de-escalated air war against North Vietnam, considerable steam might go out total popular effort. In addition, more of world would see our endeavor to help GVN bring security to its people [Page 361] as worthy of support if our efforts were concentrated there instead of being obscured by our bombing of North.
Our political aim should have been to achieve respect for right of South Vietnam to separate existence, whereas our military strategy has had effect of tending overtly merge all Vietnam into the unity which is one theater of war. Our total effort may have greater chance of success if we reverse our present course of ever-widening attacks against the wide part of the funnel which is North Vietnam and concentrate our efforts towards and in Vietnam’s narrow neck in the South. In any case I think the road we are now on cannot be followed to its end except at disproportionate cost and grave peril. It is this, I think, which should give us concern rather than the effect of bombings on possibility of negotiations which, I have always felt, could lead to settlement satisfactory to us only after it became evident our efforts in South Vietnam were going to succeed.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Exdis. Received at 6:38 a.m.
  2. Both dated April 29. (Ibid. and ibid., DEF 19–6 USSR-VIET N, respectively)