157. Memorandum From McGeorge Bundy to President Johnson1

Dear Mr. President:

First let me thank you most warmly for your kindness in letting me come in the other day to talk about the possible East-West center on management science and my forthcoming trip to Moscow. The guidance you gave me was very clear, and I am getting myself up to date on all the diplomatic background just in case there should be any serious talk on Vietnam. I will be in Washington for this purpose and for an invisible task force meeting (one of Ben Heineman’s) on May 6, 7 and 8.

Meanwhile, I have been conscious of the fact that I did not give you much help when you asked what more I could suggest for us to do in Vietnam. I have now brooded over your question and done the attached memorandum. As you will see, it comes out pretty strong on the side of limiting the bombing in the North, but you know me too well to mistake this for a sudden switch to appeasement. I have been for bombing from the beginning and I am sure it has been and still is indispensable, but I just don’t believe the people who think that a lot more of it brings us nearer to solution today. I think a middle course is better, and the memorandum attempts to suggest one, as well as to show where you can get some unexpected (to me) support for it.

I think we are in a time not unlike the spring of 1965 when the Baltimore speech2 did so much to bring our policy into focus and balance, and it is in the spirit of our discussions of that time that this memo has been drafted. I am not on top of all the relevant information, of course, and I know better than anyone that I could be wrong—but I sensed in our last talk that you were interested in alternatives to think about, and these pages suggest one.

Bob McNamara knows my thinking a little, but no one else does, and even Bob has not seen this memo.


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American opinion is increasingly uneasy about Vietnam because there appear to be no defined limits to the levels of force and danger that may lie ahead. Anyone who knows the President and his principal advisers will be confident that they are keeping a very sharp eye on the real risks involved, and the record of the two years since Pleiku does not suggest that the prophets of gloom and doom have a very good batting average—in fact, both Russian and Chinese reactions have been well within the limits of national estimates in all cases known to me. (In this connection the especially good record of the CIA estimators deserves note.) But the caution and restraint of the top men are better known to the few than to the many.

Since the Communist turndown of our latest offers in February, there has been an intensification of bombing in the North, and press reports suggest that there will be further pressure for more attacks on targets heretofore immune. There is also obvious pressure from the military for further reinforcements in the South, although General Westmoreland has been a model of discipline in his public pronouncements. One may guess, therefore, that the President will soon be confronted with requests for 100,000–200,000 more troops and for authority to close the harbor in Haiphong. Such recommendations are inevitable, in the framework of strictly military analysis. It is the thesis of this paper that in the main they should be rejected, and that as a matter of high national policy there should be a publicly stated ceiling to the level of American participation in Vietnam, as long as there is no further marked escalation on the enemy side.

There are two major reasons for this recommendation: the situation in Vietnam and the situation in the United States. As to Vietnam, it seems very doubtful that further intensifications of bombing in the North or major increases in U. S. troops in the South are really a good way of bringing the war to a satisfactory conclusion. As to the United States, it seems clear that uncertainty about the future size of the war is now having destructive effects on the national will.

On the ineffectiveness of the bombing as a means to end the war, I think the evidence is plain—though I would defer to expert estimators. Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues simply are not going to change their policy on the basis of losses from the air in North Vietnam. No intelligence estimate that I have seen in the last two years has ever claimed that the bombing would have this effect. The President never claimed that it would. The notion that this was its purpose has been limited to one school of thought and has never been the official Government position, whatever critics may assert.

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I am very far indeed from suggesting that it would make sense now to stop the bombing of the North altogether. The argument for that course seems to me wholly unpersuasive at the present. To stop the bombing today would be to give the Communists something for nothing, and in a very short time all the doves in this country and around the world would be asking for some further unilateral concessions. (Doves and hawks are alike in their insatiable appetites; we can’t really keep the hawks happy by small increases in effort—they come right back for more.)

The real justification for the bombing, from the start, has been double—its value for Southern morale at a moment of great danger, and its relation to Northern infiltration. The first reason has disappeared but the second remains entirely legitimate. Tactical bombing of communications and of troop concentrations—and of airfields as necessary—seems to me sensible and practical. It is strategic bombing that seems both unproductive and unwise. It is true, of course, that all careful bombing does some damage to the enemy. But the net effect of this damage upon the military capability of a primitive country is almost sure to be slight. (The lights have not stayed off in Haiphong, and even if they had, electric lights are in no sense essential to the Communist war effort.)3 And against this distinctly marginal impact we have to weigh the fact that strategic bombing does tend to divide the U. S., to distract us all from the real struggle in the South, and to accentuate the unease and distemper which surround the war in Vietnam, both at home and abroad. It is true that careful polls show majority support for the bombing, but I believe this support rests upon an erroneous belief in its effectiveness as a means to end the war. Moreover, I think those against extension of the bombing are more passionate on balance than those who favor it. Finally, there is certainly a point at which such bombing does increase the risk of conflict with China or the Soviet Union, and I am sure there is no majority for that. In particular, I think it clear that the case against going after Haiphong harbor is so strong that a majority would back the Government in rejecting that course.

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So I think that with careful explanation there would be more approval than disapproval of an announced policy restricting the bombing closely to activities that support the war in the South. General Westmoreland’s speech to the Congress made this tie-in, but attacks on power plants really do not fit the picture very well. We are attacking them, I fear, mainly because we have “run out” of other targets. Is it a very good reason? Can anyone demonstrate that such targets have been very rewarding? Remembering the claims made for attacks on oil supplies, should we not be very skeptical of new promises?

The case against major troop reinforcement in the South is more complicated and I advance it with somewhat less conviction. In particular, the points I have to make do not say in any decisive way whether the limit should be set just where it is today or some tens of thousands higher. All that I can say is that I think there should be a limit and that it should be stated and understood fairly soon.

The American forces in Vietnam have been decisive in preventing defeat and in opening a hope of real success. They have been magnificently handled and their performance has been worthy of their leadership. Perhaps their most important achievement has been to buy time for the rehabilitation of the Vietnamese forces to which General Westmoreland paid such glowing tribute. But this war will have no end as long as it merely pits foreign troops against Communists. In the end, it is safety in the villages that is the object of the war. Cabot Lodge had it right when he quoted Ho Chi Minh on the decisiveness of the contest among the villagers of South Vietnam. I believe that a clearly defined limit on the American forces in South Vietnam would serve to focus the attention of all on this centrally Vietnamese task and on the continuing responsibility of the South Vietnamese themselves. The forces we have now on the scene can continue to give severe punishment to Communist main-force units, and even in the village war American troops can have a most constructive role, as some dispatches from the central area suggest. But where the requirement of 1965 was for proof of the American effort, the requirement of 1967 is for re-emphasis upon the role of the Vietnamese themselves, always with our advice and support.

Just as a recommendation against strategic bombing should not be confused with the “stop-the-bombing” campaign, so this suggestion of a troop ceiling should not be confused with the fatuous proposal that American troops be confined to “enclaves.” The “enclave” proposal is a good way of losing first the countryside and then the country. My point is simpler and more limited: in the absence of major Communist escalation, we are reaching the point of diminishing returns from U.S. troop buildups.

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So far I have been talking about the validity of limitation in relation to Vietnam. There is, I think, an equal validity when we look at the home front. The best observers agree that the only hope in Hanoi today is for American disunity and war weariness. On this point I think Westmoreland and Lodge are both right, and it seems to me the height of pettiness to criticize them for expressing these honest (and I think accurate) views. But their argument underlines the critical importance of holding the country together and giving it a solid basis for confident determination in its persistence. I believe that restriction of strategic bombing and a ceiling on troops are both entirely justified in terms of the overall situation in Vietnam itself; they are still more justified by their value in stabilizing American opinion. In April 1965, in his Baltimore speech, the President laid out a balanced program of military firmness and readiness for unconditional negotiation. In spite of all the costs and uncertainties of the last two years, that platform has worn well. Now we need a fresh and clear statement which will limit the fears of our own people and at the same time underline our national determination to stay the course.

It is true that some civil and military hawks would criticize any such policy of announced restraint. The criticism can be countered—in my judgment—by a powerful assembly of technical and expert opinion as to the lack of value of strategic bombing and the great importance of avoiding endless increases in American manpower. I am confident, on the basis of a recent conversation, that General Lauris Norstad would be willing to accept the task of rounding up senior Air Force heroes like Spaatz and Twining—and he thinks perhaps even Le May—to support a policy of bombing restraint.4 (Norstad himself would actually stop the bombing in the North—at least for a while—but I think he would gladly fall in with the present proposal to restrict ourselves to the “tactical.”) I suspect that a similar effort could be launched through General Bradley in favor of a policy of troop limitation. (Obviously, the position will be greatly reinforced as and when we are able to refer to a new and stronger military/technological barricade against infiltration.)

More generally, I think there is no one on earth who could win an argument that an active deployment of some 500,000 men, firmly supported by tactical bombing in both South and North Vietnam, represented an undercommitment at this time. I would not want to be the politician, or the general, who whined about such a limitation.

There is a major diplomatic scenario which could be developed to go along with a national decision of this sort. In essence, it would avoid any further public campaigns for negotiation, for the present, while [Page 375] maintaining every possible private diplomatic contact. It would anticipate a demonstration during the next 6 to 9 months that this kind of course—“steady as we go”—could be matched by political gains in the South and by increasing South Vietnamese self-reliance. It would be prepared to move dramatically once more in the field of negotiations sometime early in 1968. There is a great deal of underbrush that could be cleared away at the right time, so as to demonstrate plainly to all who will look that reasonable ways out are open for the taking to all who are fighting on the wrong side in Vietnam. There are also many unilateral steps that a more self-confident South Vietnamese government could take with the help of a man like Bunker.

It may seem queer that there should be room for such political action when we have said so much about our decent position on so many occasions. But there are more and busier lawyers among the doves—worldwide—than among ourselves, so that a strong new statement of our position—at the right time—could be helpful. Such a new statement, incidentally, need not contain any soft concessions of the sort Lodge fears; the fact is that we are—as we should be—ready to do anything at all that can really lead to free choice in the South.

A case can be made for a strong new diplomatic effort now. But my present view is that this effort should wait. I think we got a clear No in February and should wait a while before we go back to the well. I also think we ought to wait until after the South Vietnamese election. The present issue is not “negotiation.” It is “escalation.” What is undermining national unity now is the prospect of one more unrewarding debate between the advocates and the opponents of escalation, each shouting at the other against a backdrop of worldwide fear of a third war. The most valuable single step for all of us now would be a clear public demonstration, by a publicly proclaimed decision, of what the top of the government knows so well—that the President himself is a man of peace and determination, restraint and perseverance, who knows what the war is really about, and how to keep it in bounds while pressing it towards success. Above all we need a renewed demonstration that the President is in charge of the war, and not the other way around.

There is one further argument against major escalation in 1967 and 1968 which is worth stating separately, because on the surface it seems cynically political. It is that Hanoi is going to do everything it possibly can to keep its position intact until after our 1968 elections. Given their history, they are bound to hold out for a possible U. S. shift in 1969—that’s what they did against the French, and they got most of what they wanted when Mendes took power. Having held on so long this time, and having nothing much left to lose—compared to the chance of victory—they are bound to keep on fighting. Since only [Page 376] atomic bombs could really knock them out (an invasion of North Vietnam would not do it in two years, and is of course ruled out on other grounds), they have it in their power to “prove” that military escalation does not bring peace—at least over the next two years. They will surely do just that. However much they may be hurting, they are not going to do us any favors before November 1968. (And since this was drafted, they have been publicly advised by Walter Lippmann to wait for the Republicans—as if they needed the advice and as if it was his place to give it!)

It follows that escalation will not bring visible victory over Hanoi before the election. Therefore the election will have to be fought by the Administration on other grounds. I think those other grounds are clear and important, and that they will be obscured if our policy is thought to be one of increasing—and ineffective—military pressure.

If we assume that the war will still be going on in November 1968, and that Hanoi will not give us the pleasure of consenting to negotiations sometime before then, what we must plan to offer as a defense of Administration policy is not victory over Hanoi, but growing success—and self-reliance—in the South. This we can do, with luck, and on this side of the parallel the Vietnamese authorities should be prepared to help us out (though of course the VC will do their damnedest against us.) Large parts of Westy’s speech (if not quite all of it) were wholly consistent with this line of argument.5

Moreover, if we can avoid escalation-that-does-not-seem-to-work, we can focus attention on the great and central achievement of these last two years: on the defeat we have prevented. The fact that South Vietnam has not been lost and is not going to be lost is a fact of truly massive importance in the history of Asia, the Pacific, and the U. S. An articulate minority of “Eastern intellectuals” (like Bill Fulbright) may not believe in what they call the domino theory, but most Americans (along with nearly all Asians) know better. Under this Administration the United States has already saved the hope of freedom for hundreds of millions—in this sense, the largest part of the job is done. This critically important achievement is obscured by seeming to act as if we have to do much more lest we fail.

At some point—probably not in connection with any decision to limit the bombing to tactical targets—we ought to get Peace Corps volunteers into Vietnam. It makes no sense for all these decent and energetic youngsters to pass by on the other side of the street when there are literally hundreds of good things for them to do in Vietnam. This [Page 377] idea has been explored in the past, and it has always run into bureaucratic resistance. But what the bureaucrats overlook is the good it would do at home. Almost all U. S. volunteers in village work in Vietnam have come home strong supporters of the war. Instead of battering at the disaffected young, we could begin to convert them with such an effort in Vietnam.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Viet Nam—W.W. Rostow (1 of 2). Personal. Notations on the memorandum indicate that it was received at noon on May 4 and that the President saw it.
  2. Reference is to Johnson’s April 7, 1965, speech at Johns Hopkins University; see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. II, Document 245.
  3. The President asked McNamara to get the Joint Chiefs of Staff to respond to McGeorge Bundy. In a May 5 memorandum to the President, Wheeler noted that Bundy had failed to mention a third original reason for enacting the bombing campaign; namely, to ensure that the DRV would “pay a price for its continued aggression against South Vietnam.” The attacks on the electrical power system (at Haiphong), Wheeler countered, were not intended to deny lighting to major cities but to disrupt a power source needed for the North Vietnamese armament-supporting facilities. He also recommended tactical bombardment of the Hanoi Thermal Power Plant as well as Haiphong harbor. This memorandum was sent to the President at the LBJ Ranch as CAP 67398, May 6. (Johnsom Library, National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Viet Nam—W.W. Rostow (2 of 2)) The President was at his ranch May 4–8. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  4. Generals Carl Spaatz, Nathan Twining, and Curtis LeMay were all former Air Force Chiefs of Staff and architects of the doctrine of strategic bombing.
  5. A reference to Westmoreland’s April 28 speech before Congress; see footnote 1, Document 149.