172. Memorandum From the President’s Special Consultant (Taylor) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

I seem to sense a new wave of pessimism regarding Viet-Nam pervading official circles in Washington, apparently arising from renewed doubts about the bombing of the North and increased concern over future troop requirements to carry on the ground war in the South. For what they are worth, in this paper I would like to give you my current thoughts on the bombing.

I gather that some of your advisors, like Rice in Hong Kong,2 are beginning to feel that we are dangerously close to a collision with Peking or Moscow or both as a result of the escalation of our bombing. At the same time, while these risks are being run, we see no sign of “give” on the part of our opponents in Hanoi. Hence, they ask—where are we going with our bombing and where do we come out in the end?

These are, of course, old questions and old fears but always valid ones. Final answers are never possible since they must be based on estimates of future events and are inevitably influenced by subjective attitudes and biases. I have a lot of the latter and, hence, hold strong views on the subject.

We tend to forget our own words used in the past when we express doubts about the justification of our bombing of the North. We have said repeatedly that we have never expected the bombing to stop infiltration, only to limit it—yet in our private councils I hear the results criticized on the score that infiltration continues in spite of all our efforts and, hence, that the game really is not worth the risks and international heat which it generates.

As for the effectiveness of the bombing in restraining infiltration, I rest the case on the pictures of the Tet logistic activity showing the feverish efforts in North Viet-Nam to take advantage of a lull in the bombing. These pictures show what our bombing holds back. I do not see for the life of me how we could be justified in relaxing this brake which restrains the forces which can be brought against our men in the [Page 411] South. We should remind ourselves that General Westmoreland’s requirement for troops assumes a continuation of the bombing and would undoubtedly increase if the bombing stopped without a compensatory reduction of enemy action.

Having defended the need for continuing the bombing, I must say that I would be cautious in extending the target system much farther. Some of our bombing advocates still think in terms of World War II and forget another fact conceded in past discussions—that there is really no industrial target system in North Viet-Nam worthy of the name and no war-supporting industry which, if destroyed, will bear importantly on the outcome of the war. Similarly, the transportation system, though subject to intermittent interruption, can never be damaged to such a point that the minimum supply requirements of combat can not reach the South.

Under these conditions, I do not think that it is worth the lives of our pilots, the loss of our planes or such political risk as may be entailed to enter heavily defended areas and strike or restrike targets which do not have a clear relationship to our bombing objectives. It would be most timely to decide what targets are truly of that class and, hence, need to be put out of action and kept out of action.

But first we have to know our objectives. I assume them still to be the restraint of infiltration and the imposition of a mounting cost on Hanoi for the continuation of the aggression in the South. But while adhering to these objectives, rather than run unreasonable political risks and accept mounting losses in pilots and planes, I would be inclined to remain at about the present level of effort and seek to increase the pressure on the enemy more by the implacable duration of the pain rather than by raising its momentary intensity. One can “escalate” in a variety of ways—expansion of targets, employment of new weapons and tactics, the accumulative increased effect of repetition. The latter form is the one I favor as we run out of clearly remunerative targets—remunerative in the sense that they contribute to our objectives without too great a cost in men and planes.

In summary, I suggest a review of all targets, those struck and those still untouched, to determine which clearly contribute to our bombing objectives as defined above—then I would direct our efforts to this remunerative target system without further thought of pausing, relenting or turning back. We must pass this test of persistence—if we do not, we will be expected to give way at every other point on every other front in this conflict. It is concession which will make the enemy tougher—not the bombing, as some of the critics allege. If we yield on the bombing issue, we can be quite sure of no future “give” by Hanoi on any important point.

Maxwell D. Taylor
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Taylor Report on Overseas Operations & Misc. Memos. Secret. In a May 11 covering note to the President, Rostow wrote: “Herewith General Taylor volunteers in his own way views close to those now emerging from your other advisers.” There is an indication on Rostow’s note that the President saw the memorandum.
  2. For Rice’s comments, see Document 153.