176. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

The bombing issue is item 3 at 5:00 p.m.2 It is, as you well know, both an emotional and technical issue. There are dangerously strong feelings in your official family which tend to overwhelm the strictly military factors.


Sect. Rusk feels the diplomatic cost of bombing Hanoi-Haiphong overwhelms whatever the military advantage might be; but has not devised—nor can he guarantee—a diplomatic payoff for moving the bombing pattern to the south.

Sect. McNamara feels the domestic and diplomatic cost is enormous; and believes Hanoi-Haiphong bombing is not cost-effective, if effectiveness is measured against Communist operations in the South. And that is how he thinks it should be measured.

General Wheeler feels a withdrawal from Hanoi-Haiphong bombing would stir deep resentment at home, among our troops, and be regarded [Page 421] by the Communists as an aerial Dien Bien Phu. He argues there is net military advantage in hitting Hanoi-Haiphong targets; but finds it hard to make a firm, lucid case because none of us really knows what the cumulative and indirect effects of the bombing are around Hanoi-Haiphong, except that they are making one hell of a military and political effort to try to make us stop. General Wheeler wants to keep the pressure up via armed recce in the North plus attacks on airfields.

In a curious way, all three are arguing negatively: Sect. Rusk to avoid diplomatic costs; Sect. McNamara to avoid (primarily) domestic political and psychological costs; Gen. Wheeler to avoid a different set of (primarily) domestic political and psychological costs.


So much for sentiments. The question is what kind of scenario can hold our family together in ways that look after the nation’s interests and make military sense.

I propose the following.

After we have taken out Hanoi TPP,3 we cut back radically on attacks in the Hanoi-Haiphong area for several weeks.
At that time, picking up from Soviet pressure on this issue (illustrated, for example, by Tommy’s lunch with Dobrynin, reported in the attached message),4 we tell Moscow:
  • —We shall not be doing Hanoi-Haiphong bombing for a little while, but we must, of course, continue bombing north of the DMZ;
  • —We shall enter no commitments about the future; but they have a matter of, say, 2 or 3 weeks to deliver something by way of negotiations.
We would do this in greatest confidence with the Soviet Union. At home we might say we are concentrating in support of the DMZ operation; but without attacking airfields, we might continue some armed recce outside the Hanoi-Haiphong circle (which Bus Wheeler is willing to accept), in order to keep down speculation.
In this interval we do careful planning and analysis, reexamining all the intelligence, and decide how we should continue to bomb most economically and effectively in the northern part of North Viet Nam, should nothing come of diplomacy in this interval.
We should include, in this period of study and reflection, both the mining of the ports (and attack on other import routes) at one extreme; and we should look also at the policy of not resuming attacks in the northern part of North Viet Nam. And, of course, we should also look at all the possibilities in between. At the minimum we must provide for sufficient pressure for them not to shift anti-aircraft South or to rebuild the power grid.
By that time we should be close to the period when Bob McNamara and Bus Wheeler return from Viet Nam with whatever manpower recommendations they may then have. We could then reexamine our future bombing policy in the light of the total policy you then adopt towards the next phase of the war in Viet Nam.
Comment: This scenario would give:
  • —Sect. Rusk and Sect. McNamara a break in what they feel is a dangerous pattern of progressive bombing escalation;
  • —Sect. Rusk and the State Department a chance to prove if they can buy anything important to us through diplomacy at this time.
  • —General Wheeler would get a temporary rather than a permanent change of bombing pattern, with the opportunity to refine his case and make it to you in, say, a month’s time.
It is at about that stage—when both manpower and bombing recommendations might be coming to you—that you might wish to call in McCloy, Bundy, etc., as you suggested the other day.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 2 EE Primarily McNamara Recommendations. Top Secret; Literally Eyes Only. An attached covering note indicates that the President wanted the memorandum placed into his night reading; the notation “L” on the note indicates that the President saw this memorandum.
  2. The President met with Rusk, McNamara, and Rostow (with Christian taking notes), 5:38–6:59 p.m., to discuss Vietnam. (Ibid., President’s Daily Dairy) No notes of the meeting have been found, but presumably a decision was reached to attack the Hanoi power station and the Van Dien Army Supply Depot.
  3. The Hanoi thermal power plant, the largest in North Vietnam producing 20 percent of national capacity and only a mile from Hanoi’s center, was bombed on May 19. The initial strike failed to destroy the facility. Within 3 days all strikes within the Hanoi restricted zone were prohibited; a day-long stand-down occurred on Buddha’s birthday (May 23). In addition to the air escalation, Operation Hickory, involving search-and-destroy operations into the southern side of the DMZ, began on this date. Additional documentation on Operation Hickory is in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Operation Hickory. Also, on May 18 U.S. and ARVN forces entered into the southern portion of the DMZ to conduct search-and-destroy operations.
  4. Thompson’s discussion with Dobrynin is reported in telegram 4590 from Moscow, April 25. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)