169. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara and the Deputy Secretary of Defense (Vance) to President Johnson1


  • Proposed Bombing Program Against North Vietnam
We face the question whether to continue the program of air attacks in the Hanoi-Haiphong area or for an indefinite period to concentrate all attacks on the lines of communications in the lower half of North Vietnam (south of 20°).
In the northern areas, we have struck the POL targets, steel plant, cement plant, and (with one exception—which we recommend be attacked) all of the major thermal power plants. As General Wheeler said when General Westmoreland was here, “The bombing campaign is reaching the point where we will have struck all worthwhile fixed [Page 402]targets except the ports.”2 We do not believe ports now should be struck nor closed by mining because of the confrontation this might cause with the Soviet Union.
We have the alternative open to us of continuing to conduct attacks between 20–23°—that is, striking minor fixed targets (like battery, fertilizer, and rubber plants and barracks) while conducting armed reconnaissance against movement on roads, railroads, and waterways. This course, however, is costly in American lives and involves serious dangers of escalation: The loss rate in Hanoi-Haiphong Route Package 6, for example, is more than six times the loss rate in the southernmost Route Packages 1 and 2; and actions in the Hanoi-Haiphong area involve serious risks of generating confrontations with the Soviet Union and China, both because they involve destruction of MIGs on the ground and encounters with MIGs in the air and because they may be construed as a U.S. intention to crush the Hanoi regime.
The military gain from destruction of additional military targets north of 20° will be slight. If we believed that air attacks in that area would change Hanoi’s will, they might be worth the added loss of American life and the risks of expansion of the war. However, there is no evidence that this will be the case, while there is considerable evidence that such bombing will strengthen Hanoi’s will. In this connection, Consul-General Rice (in Hong Kong 7581 of May 1)3 said what we believe to be the case—that we cannot by bombing reach the critical level of pain in North Vietnam and that, “below that level, pain only increases the will to fight.” Sir Robert Thompson, who was a key officer in the British success in Malaya, said here on April 28 that our bombing—particularly in the Red River basin—“is unifying North Vietnam.”4
Nor is bombing in the northern area necessary to maintain the morale of the South Vietnamese or of the American fighting men. While General Westmoreland has fully supported attacks against targets in the Hanoi-Haiphong area and has said that he is “frankly dismayed at even the thought of stopping the bombing program,” his basic requirement has been continuation of attacks in what he calls the “extended battle zone” near the DMZ.
We, therefore, recommend that all of the sorties allocated to the Rolling Thunder program be concentrated on the lines of communications—the “funnel” through which men and supplies to the South must flow—between 17–20°, reserving the option and intention to strike (in the 20–23° area) as necessary to keep the enemy’s investment in defense and in repair crews high throughout the country.
This proposed policy would not be done for the purpose of getting Hanoi to change its ways or to negotiate. But to optimize the chances of a favorable Hanoi reaction, the scenario should be (a) to inform the Soviets quietly (on May 15) that within a few (5) days the policy would be implemented, stating no time limits and making no promises not to return to the Red River basin to attack targets which later acquired military importance, and then (b) to make an unhuckstered shift as predicted on May 20. We would expect Moscow to pass the May 15 information on to Hanoi, perhaps (but probably not) urging Hanoi to seize the opportunity to de-escalate the war by talks or otherwise. Hanoi, not having been asked a question by us and having no ultimatum-like time limit, might be in a better posture to react favorably than has been the case in the past. Nevertheless, no favorable response from Hanoi should be expected, and the change in policy is not based on any such expectation.
Publicly, when the shift had become obvious (May 21 or 22), we should explain (a) that as we have always said, the war must be won in the South, (b) that we have never said bombing of the North would produce a settlement by breaking Hanoi’s will or by shutting off the flow of supplies, (c) that the North must pay a price for its infiltration, (d) that the major northern military targets have been destroyed, (e) that now we are concentrating on the narrow neck through which supplies must flow, believing that the concentrated effort there, as compared with a dispersed effort throughout North Vietnam, under present circumstances will increase the efficiency of our interdiction effort, and (f) that we may have to return to targets further north if military considerations require it.
  • RSM
  • CRV
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, McNamara Files: FRC 71 A 3470, Service and JCS Recommendations re Bombing of DRV. Top Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by McNaughton. Rostow sent a copy of this memorandum, his earlier memorandum (Document 168), and Bundy’s memorandum (Document 170) to the President on the evening of May 9. The notation “L” indicates the President saw the memoranda. (Memorandum from Rostow to Johnson, May 9; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 2 EE Primarily McNamara Recommendations re Strategic Actions) McNaughton drafted an earlier version of this same memorandum on May 5. (Memorandum from McNamara to the President, May 5; ibid., Files of Walt Rostow, Viet Nam—W.W. Rostow)
  2. For the meeting with Westmoreland, see Document 149.
  3. Document 153.
  4. As reported in The New York Times, April 29, 1967.