154. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Bundy) to the Under Secretary of State (Katzenbach)1


  • Thoughts on Strategy in Vietnam

This sets down the line of thought that I expressed orally to Secretary McNamara, at his request, on Saturday.2 It covers my present view on the questions you are considering. I submit it because I shall be necessarily absent from your meeting this afternoon, and you may wish to use this in any way you see fit.3

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I. Factors Affecting Possible Changes in Our Military Action


Force Increases. In terms of contribution to our strategy over the next nine months, I believe any increase directly related to meeting the threat in the northern part of SVN, and at the same time not reducing our effort in II and III Corps unacceptably, must be considered essential. (I have just lunched with Paul Nitze, who gives an off-the-cuff estimate that we may need a total increase of 50,000 to meet this specification.)

To the extent that any increase is related to needs in the Delta, I would be most skeptical of the total advantage of such action at least this year. The Delta does not lend itself to the most effective application of our forces, and the Viet Cong in the Delta are in key areas so deeply dug in that in the end they will be routed out only by a major change in the over-all situation, and particularly in the prestige and effectiveness of the GVN. (For example, this is already Colonel Wilson’s conclusion with respect to key areas in Long An.)

In sum, we should leave IV Corps basically to the GVN, trying to deny it as a source of food and men, but leaving it to be truly pacified more slowly and later.

Apart from the military merits, any force increase that reaches the “Plimsoll Line”—calling up the Reserves—involves a truly major debate in Congress. Under present circumstances, I believe such a debate could only encourage Hanoi, and might also lead to pressures to go beyond what is wise in the North, specifically mining Haiphong. Unless there are over-riding military reasons—which I do not myself see—we should not get into such a debate this summer.

Ground Action Against North Vietnam. I understand this to be only a contingency thought in any event. I would be totally against it, for the simple reason that I believe the chances are 75–25 that it would bring the Chinese truly into the war and, almost equally important, stabilize the internal Chinese situation at least temporarily.

Laos. Last Friday we went through General Starbird’s plans for more effective action against the Corridor in Laos.4 I think these make sense, although they cannot be expected to do more than make use of the Corridor somewhat more difficult. (We should at once get away from linking these with the true “Obstacle” planned in the eastern area of SVN next to the DMZ. The two are entirely different, and the words “obstacle” or “barrier” as related to Laos have very unfortunate political implications in both Laos and Thailand.) The small ground force teams Starbird needs in Laos can be handled, in Sullivan’s judgment.

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Beyond this point, Sullivan and I would both be strongly opposed to any such idea as sending a GVN division into Laos. It would almost certainly be ineffective, and the cry would at once go up to send more. Sullivan believes, and I agree, that Souvanna would object violently and feel that his whole position had been seriously compromised.

Cambodia. Evidence in the last ten days does indicate that the Sihanouk Trail out of northern Cambodia and across the southern tip of Laos is indeed a substantial source of supply. It may be that there are other supply routes from Cambodia that cross into SVN. Nonetheless, I doubt very much at this stage if any significant change in our actions in Cambodia would really affect these supply routes or be worth the broad political damage of appearing to attack Cambodia. Essentially, I think Sihanouk is slowly moving to a more truly neutral position and is doing about all he can to ease the problem. I do not think, as I understand Westmoreland may have argued, that Sihanouk is at all inclined to join the other side. He might, however, do so if he thought we were really attacking him for its own sake. (The Holt visit made clear that he accepts what we are doing now and is really only protesting for the record so long as we keep it within bounds).5
Additional Action in the North. Of the major targets still not hit, I would agree to the Hanoi power station, but then let it go at that, subject only to occasional re-strikes where absolutely required. In particular, on the airfields, I think we have gone far enough to hurt and not far enough to drive the aircraft to Chinese fields, which I think could be very dangerous.

I would strongly oppose the mining of Haiphong at any time in the next nine months, unless the Soviets categorically use it to send in combat weapons. (It may well be that we should warn them quietly but firmly that we are watching their traffic into Haiphong very closely, and particularly from this standpoint.) Mining of Haiphong, at any time, is bound to risk a confrontation with the Soviets and to throw Hanoi into greater dependence on Communist China. These in themselves would be very dangerous and adverse to the whole notion of getting Hanoi to change its attitude. Moreover, I think they would somehow manage to get the stuff in through China no matter what we did to Haiphong.

II. Over-All Assessment of the Situation

A Steady, Firm Course. Since roughly the first of December, I think we have given a very jerky and impatient impression to Hanoi. [Page 364] This is related more to the timing and suddenness of our bombing and negotiating actions than to the substance of what we have done. I think that Hanoi in any event believes that the 1968 elections could cause us to change our position or even lose heart completely. Our actions since early December may well have encouraged and greatly strengthened this belief that we wish to get the war over by 1968 at all costs. Our major thrust must be now to persuade them that we are prepared to stick it if necessary. This means a steady and considered program of action for the next nine months.

The Real Key Factors in the Situation. I believe we are making steady progress in the South, and that there are things we can do—notably effort with ARVN—to improve the present slow pace of pacification. Over-all progress in the South remains the key factor that could bring Hanoi to the right attitude and actions.

The really important element in the South over the next few months is political. There could be a tremendous gain if the elections are honest and widely participated in, and if the result is a balanced civilian/military government that commands real support in the South. Such a gain would do more than any marginal action, except for the essential job of countering the Communist thrust in I Corps.

At the same time, if the election process is thwarted by a military coup or if it is turned into a military steamroller, the results could be sharply negative. We might even be forced to re-assess our basic policy. This is simply a measure of the vital importance of the political front for this year.

In addition, we must consider at all times the effect of the Chinese internal situation. We cannot affect whether convulsion resumes, but we should certainly avoid actions that might tend to reduce the possibility of convulsion. (This is argued strenuously by Edward Rice in Hong Kong 7581, received today.)6

Argued in another way, I would now reckon that the odds are considerably better than 50–50 that there will be a renewal of convulsion in China in the next few months. In December and January, I think this was the added factor that caused Hanoi to give off a “tremor” and at least to make a significant tactical change in its position. If convulsion now occurs again, it will offset whatever encouragement Hanoi may have received from the apparent recent promise of additional Soviet aid and the easing of whatever transit [transient?] tensions may have existed between Moscow and Peking. In fact, renewed convulsion in China could at some point become a really major factor to Hanoi. This is a dubious effect on which we cannot and should not rely. But it serves [Page 365] to put into focus the relative importance of any additional military actions, particularly in the North. And it is a very strong argument indeed against any additional step-up in our bombing of the North, or mining Haiphong.

Over-All Estimate. If we go on as we are doing, if the political process in the South comes off well, and if the Chinese do not settle down, I myself would reckon that by the end of 1967 there is at least a 50–50 chance that a favorable tide will be running really strongly in the South, and that Hanoi will be very discouraged. Whether they will move to negotiate is of course a slightly different question, but we could be visibly and strongly on the way.

If China should go into a real convulsion, I would raise these odds slightly, and think it clearly more likely that Hanoi would choose a negotiating path to the conclusion.

III. Negotiating Strategy

While we need a thorough review of our whole objectives and negotiating position, I doubt very much if we shall find any points on which we now wish to change our public position or to take any new initiative vis-à-vis Hanoi.

Basically in line with the idea of conveying an impression of steady firmness to Hanoi, I think we should avoid new initiatives except as we have to respond to some significant third party such as U Thant or the Canadians. I would certainly not go into the UN or the World Court.

Behind this strategy lies the judgment that Hanoi is in all probability dug in at least until after the Vietnamese elections. After that, we could take another look, but I still doubt that any serious change will be indicated. If it is, some approach like the Ne Win one seems to me by far the most promising.

A key question is of course how we handle the Soviets. My own hunch is that Kosygin burned his fingers somewhat in February, but that they have built their position in Hanoi at least back to its former level. In the process, they will have almost certainly undertaken some additional aid. Knowing as they do all our peace moves, they may have a strong feeling that we are in a hurry and perhaps susceptible to change. This would argue against pressing them hard in the near future, as we did in early April in any event.

On the other hand, we certainly could impress upon them our belief that their own interest lies in getting the situation resolved, and that they should be exerting real influence to this end. But this should be coupled with a calm firmness in our own determination to go ahead and not to be thrown off by anything additional they may be doing or threaten to do. In the last analysis, they can judge whether they really have any leverage and how to exert it.

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At any rate, the next major contacts with the Soviets—Dobrynin’s return and Brown’s visit to Moscow in late May—should in my judgment be played in this measured but essentially low key unless they come up with something. Brown is not himself inclined to try something new at the moment, and we should do nothing to encourage him. (He has a full plate anyway of other issues.)

IV. International Factors

My negative feeling on serious additional bombing of the North and mining of Haiphong is based essentially on the belief that these actions will not change Hanoi’s position, or affect Hanoi’s capabilities in ways that counter-balance the risks and adverse reaction in China and with the Soviets alone.

Nonetheless, I cannot leave out the wider international factors, and particularly the British and Japanese as bell-wethers. Both the latter have accepted our recent bombings with much less outcry than I, frankly, would have anticipated. But if we keep it up at this pace, or step up the pace, I doubt if the British front will hold. Certainly we will be in a very bad Donnybrook next fall in the UN.

Whatever the wider implications of negative reactions on a major scale, the main point is that they would undoubtedly stiffen Hanoi, and this is always the gut question.

Note: I am sending you copies of this, and retaining one in a totally private file. This memorandum has been seen and discussed with no one except the typist.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, Top Secret WPB Chron, May 1967. Top Secret.
  2. April 28.
  3. No record of the meeting has been found.
  4. The section of the barrier that ran through Laos would include small teams used for reconnaissance and interdiction.
  5. Holt visited Washington and met with the President July 13–14, 1966, to discuss the war in Southeast Asia. For text of a joint communiqué that summarized their talks, see Department of State Bulletin, August 8, 1966, pp. 212–213. Holt visited Washington again June 1–2, 1967; for statements at his arrival ceremony, see ibid., June 26, 1967, pp. 960–963.
  6. Document 153.