174. Memorandum by the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Bundy)1


  • Immediate Bombing Decisions and Disclosure to the Russians

We face the immediate issue whether to carry out an attack on the Hanoi power station, and also the immediate issue whether our bombing program thereafter will be along the lines of concentration on supply routes south of the 20th parallel, with only limited re-strikes to the north.

[Page 414]

This memorandum deals with alternative situations or actions with or without hitting Hanoi Power.

A. If We Do Not Hit Hanoi Power

If we do not do this, but do decide to cut back along the lines stated above, we believe that word of our change in policy should be conveyed to the Russians at once.2 This word would both describe the general nature of the program we intend to follow and contain general language urging the Soviets to use their influence to peace over the next few months. (This appeal would not be in terms of immediate action, which we believe would be less effective and in any event extremely unlikely.)

As to the method of communicating to the Russians, the minimum would appear to be Thompson to Kuznetsov or Gromyko. But we might consider urgently a personal letter from the President to Kosygin, which we believe might be stronger and tend to fortify the position of those in Moscow who may be in a more moderate frame of mind. In either case, the action should be taken at once, so that it registers in Moscow during the deliberations of this week and prior to Dobrynin’s return, which we now understand will not be until early next week at the earliest.

B. If We Do Hit Hanoi Power

If this action stands alone during the Soviet deliberations of this week, we would have major concern that it would solidify the Kremlin in a harder line on Vietnam and perhaps other issues. Moreover, if this harder line is then registered here by Dobrynin, any subsequent change in policy would have the most undesirable effect in appearing to be a yielding to pressure. Finally, George Brown’s mission to Moscow would be seriously undercut, and the results could be serious on our relationship to Brown and the British, which must now be considered progressively more shaky and worrisome. (Brown arrives in Moscow Friday.)3

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To meet all these points, we urge the following actions to accompany any decision to hit Hanoi Power:

The attack should be carried out just as rapidly as possible, and indeed the authority might be limited to the next 2–3 nights.
Concurrent with the decision, the firm decision should be reached to cut back thereafter along the lines stated above.
Based on this pair of decisions, we should plan to notify the Soviets and Brown of our intended future course of action, not later than Friday.
Message to the Soviets. In the context of an immediately preceding attack on Hanoi Power, we do not believe that it would be useful to urge the Soviets in this message to take action toward peace. Such a message would be left to the conversations with Dobrynin on his return. The reason is that we believe a message immediately after the attack would contain an element of immediately preceding threat to the Soviets. Thus, the Friday message to the Soviets would be confined to a statement of the course of action we propose to follow, which we thought they should know for their information.
For Brown. For the more general purpose of keeping Brown and the British under control, we believe they should be informed of the two decisions either at once, or at least immediately after the Hanoi strike is executed. This could mean Brown being told of the second decision before the Soviets, and we would of course tell him that we were not giving him this information to pass to the Soviets, but expected to do this ourselves on Friday prior to his talks.
From a public standpoint, we have always considered that the new policy might be made clear and public in any event. On the timing of this, we must consider Senator Cooper’s line in the Senate yesterday, which may well be much reinforced once we hit Hanoi Power. Moreover, there is the further element that the Pacem in Terris meeting takes place in Geneva on May 28–31.4 If this meeting—with U Thant in a leading role—takes place against a backdrop of a Hanoi Power strike and no indication of change in our policy, it could result in really major noises, joined in by many responsible leaders present, to have us stop the bombing altogether. Hence, this argues strongly for a clear public disclosure of the new policy early next week at the latest.
If We Decide To Hit Hanoi Power, But Are Not Able To Do So May 17–19, Vietnam Time

The Brown visit and the Pacem in Terris meeting seem to us to present a truly serious political picture if we should hit Hanoi Power at [Page 416] any time between the 20th and the 31st, Vietnam time. These are not simply normal political events, but could involve repercussions having the most serious effect on our relations with the Soviets, with the British, and with wide circles in this country and abroad.

In a nutshell, if we hit Hanoi Power while Brown is in Moscow, without notice to him, he would regard his whole mission as nullified and destroyed, and the adverse British reaction generally would be doubled in volume and in its serious implications for the whole UK position. We have to reckon with possible dramatic psychological negative effects on British decisions East of Suez. The effect of the Hong Kong crisis is less clear, but it could add a further touch driving the British into a totally “hands-off” and even neutral position on Vietnam and Asia.

The danger from Pacem in Terris is more general, and if that factor stood alone it might not be decisive. But it adds a further element affecting the dates between the 28th and 31st. If we hit during that time, the Geneva meeting would undoubtedly turn into a boiling debate on our bombing, with sharply adverse judgments from U Thant and many others, under the klieg lights of the world press.

In short, we believe Hanoi Power simply must be deferred at least until after the 31st if it cannot be carried out between May 17 and May 19, Vietnam time. If the strike should be carried out after the 31st, we should by then have received Dobrynin’s message, and could then consider our disclosure to the Russians of the new policy in the light of that message. We would have lost the advantage of anticipating Dobrynin’s return, and the best we could do would be to say that Hanoi Power was part of a total package of attacks, long deferred while we thought there was some possibility of movement in Hanoi and the exercise of Russian influence. We could try to the maximum to depict our decisions as logical and consistent, and thus not in response to any hard tone in Dobrynin’s message. But the effect on the Soviets would certainly be more mixed, and any possibility of their taking constructive action in the next few months would be at least reduced.5

W. P. Bundy6
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret.
  2. In a May 15 memorandum to Rusk and the President, Harriman also strongly recommended informing the Soviets of the decision on the bombing proposal, since not to do so would undermine any incentive on the part of the Soviets to influence Hanoi toward accommodation. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Amb. Harriman-Negotiations Comm.) In a May 16 memorandum to Rusk, Kohler objected to the new round of aerial assault as he saw “no justification of this Hanoi target in which the disadvantages do not clearly outweigh the advantages” and thus advocated that the power plant be dropped permanently from the approved list. In addition, he opposed sending a “Pen Pal” letter to the Soviets explaining the motivation behind the bombing since their “immediate” reply would be a request to cease bombing. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)
  3. May 19.
  4. This convocation of leading international figures and scholars convened on May 29 in order to discuss the easing of international tensions and was especially concerned with the peaceful resolution of the Vietnam war. See Ashmore and Baggs, Mission to Hanoi, pp. 88–99.
  5. Presumably the decision to authorize the RT 56 bombings occurred at the regular Tuesday Luncheon held from 1:10 p.m. through 3:25 p.m. The President, Rusk, Rostow, McNamara, Humphrey, Helms, Wheeler, and Christian were in attendance. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) Notes of the meeting have not been found.
  6. Printed from a copy that indicates Bundy signed the original.