194. Draft Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson1

SUBJECT

  • Summary—Alternative Military Action against North Vietnam

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended a program for intensified US military actions against North Vietnam.2 Their program would have as its chief feature heavy attacks upon the Hanoi-Haiphong logistical base, and would include actions such as bombing and mining the ports.

The attached full memorandum analyzes three major alternatives: Alternative A—the JCS proposal to expand the present program to include mining of the ports and attacks on roads and bridges closer to Hanoi and Haiphong; Alternative B—which would continue the present level of attacks but generally restrict it to the neck of North Vietnam south of 20°; and Alternative C—a refinement of the currently approved program.

In the memorandum, Mr. Vance and I:

  • —Oppose the JCS program (Alternative A) on grounds that it would neither substantially reduce the flow of men and supplies to the South nor pressure Hanoi toward settlement, that it would be costly in American lives and in domestic and world opinion, and that it would run serious risks of enlarging the war into one with the Soviet Union and China, leaving us a few months from now more frustrated and with almost no choice but even further escalation.
  • —Oppose mere refinement of the present program (Alternative C) on grounds that it would involve most of the costs and some of the risks of Alternative A with less chance than Alternative A of either interdicting supplies or moving Hanoi toward settlement.
  • —Recommend concentration of the bulk of our efforts on infiltration routes south of 20° (Alternative B) because this course would interdict supplies as effectively as the other alternatives, would cost the least in pilots’ lives, and would be consistent with effort to move toward negotiations.

[Page 475]

Implicit in the recommendation is a conviction that nothing short of toppling the Hanoi regime will pressure North Vietnam to settle so long as they believe they have a chance to win the “war of attrition” in the South, a judgment that actions sufficient to topple the Hanoi regime will put us into war with the Soviet Union and China, and a belief that a shift to Alternative B can be timed and handled in such a way as to gain politically while not endangering the morale of our fighting men.

The Director of Central Intelligence and the Secretaries of the Air Force and Navy have each independently considered the alternative programs. No one of them recommends Alternative A. Mr. Nitze joins with Mr. Vance and me in recommending B; Dr. Brown prefers C; Mr. Helms does not make a specific recommendation, but states the CIA believes that none of the alternatives is capable of decreasing Hanoi’s determination to persist in the war or of reducing the flow of goods sufficiently to affect the war in the South.

Robert S. McNamara

Attachment

Draft Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson

SUBJECT

  • Alternative Military Actions Against North Vietnam

This memorandum analyzes three major alternatives: Alternative A—the JCS proposal to expand the present program to include mining of the ports and attacks on roads and bridges close to Hanoi and Haiphong; Alternative B—which would continue the present level of attacks but generally restrict it to the neck of North Vietnam south of 20°; and Alternative C—a refinement of the currently approved program.

I. THE THREE ALTERNATIVES

Alternative A. Intensified attack on the Hanoi-Haiphong logistical base. Under this Alternative, we would continue attacks on enemy installations and industry and would conduct an intensified, concurrent and sustained effort against all elements of land, sea and air lines of communication [Page 476]in North Vietnam—especially those entering and departing the Hanoi-Haiphong areas. Foreign shipping would be “shouldered out” of Haiphong by a series of air attacks that close in on the center of the port complex. The harbor and approaches would be mined, forcing foreign shipping out into the nearby estuaries for offloading by lighterage. Intensive and systematic armed reconnaissance would be carried out against the roads and railroads from China (especially the northeast railroad), against coastal shipping and coastal transshipment locations, and against all other land lines of communication. The eight major operational airfields would be systematically attacked, and the deep-water ports of Cam Pha and Hon Gai would be struck or mined as required. Alternative A could be pursued full-force between now and September (thereafter the onset of unfavorable weather conditions would seriously impair operations).

Alternative B: Emphasis on the infiltration routes south of the 20th Parallel. Under this alternative, the dominant emphasis would be, not on preventing matérial from flowing into North Vietnam (and thus not on “economic” pressure on the regime), but on preventing military men and matériel from flowing out of the North into the South. We would terminate bombing in the Red River basin except for occasional sorties (perhaps 3%)—those necessary to keep enemy air defenses and damage-repair crews positioned there and to keep important fixed targets knocked out. The same total number of sorties envisioned under Alternative A—together with naval gunfire at targets ashore and afloat and mining of inland waterways, estuaries and coastal waters—would be concentrated in the neck of North Vietnam, between 17° and 20°, through which all land infiltration must pass and in which the “extended battle zone” north of the DMZ lies. The effort would be intensive and sustained, designed especially to saturate choke points and to complement similar new intensive interdiction efforts in adjacent areas in Laos and near the 17th Parallel inside South Vietnam.

Alternative C. Extension of the current program. This alternative would be essentially a refinement of the currently approved program and therefore a compromise between Alternative A and Alternative B. Under it, while avoiding attacks within the 10-mile prohibited zone around Hanoi and strikes at or mining of the ports, we would conduct a heavy effort against all other land, sea, and air lines of communication. Important fixed targets would be kept knocked out; intensive, sustained and systematic armed reconnaissance would be carried out against the roads and railroads and coastal shipping throughout the country; and the eight major airfields would be systematically attacked. The total number of sorties would be the same as under the other two alternatives.

Mr. Vance and I recommend Alternative B.

[Page 477]

The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend Alternative A.3

The Secretary of the Navy recommends Alternative B.

The Secretary of the Air Force recommends Alternative C modified to add some targets (especially LOC targets) to the present list and to eliminate others.

The Director of the CIA does not make a recommendation. The CIA judgment is that none of the alternatives is capable of decreasing Hanoi’s determination to persist in the war or of reducing the flow of goods sufficiently to affect the war in the South.

II. GENERAL SITUATION IN VIETNAM

The alternative programs of military actions against the North must be viewed in their total context:

In South Vietnam, the combat operations have reached a high level of intensity with only slow progress by friendly forces, a situation which it is within the power of the enemy to perpetuate; likewise, the pacification campaign is making little progress; the government is still largely corrupt, incompetent and unresponsive to the needs and wishes of the people; and only first and halting steps toward national reconciliation have been taken. On the encouraging side, there is movement toward constitutional government, jeopardized somewhat by the military-civilian and Ky-Thieu conflicts. The attitude of the American public toward the Vietnam war, because of the rising US casualty rate and the increasing proportion of losses being suffered by US as compared with South Vietnamese forces, is one of substantial disfavor.

III. OVER-ALL US OBJECTIVE AND BOMBING SUB-OBJECTIVES

Any program of action against the North must be viewed, furthermore, in terms of its relation to the single, limited US over-all objective in Vietnam and to the sub-objectives underlying the US bombing program. The limited over-all US objective, in terms of the narrow US commitment and not of wider US preferences, is to take action (so long as they continue to help themselves) to see that the people of South Vietnam are permitted to determine their own future. Our commitment is to stop (or generously to offset when we cannot stop) North Vietnamese military intervention in the South, so that “the board will not be tilted” against Saigon in an internal South Vietnamese contest for [Page 478]control.4 The sub-objectives, at which our bombing campaign in the North has always been aimed, are these:

—(1)
To retaliate and to lift the morale of the people in the South, including Americans, who are being attacked by agents of the North;
—(2)
To add to the pressure on Hanoi to end the war;
—(3)
To reduce the flow and/or to increase the cost of infiltrating men and matériel from North to South.

The three alternative courses of action against North Vietnam must be compared on the basis of their respective contributions to (or detractions from) this US over-all objective and these US bombing sub-objectives.

IV. ANALYSIS OF ALTERNATIVE A

The present proposal of the JCS has its background in Rolling Thunder 56, the expansion of the bombing program over North Vietnam which was approved in early May. Before it was approved, General Wheeler said: “The bombing campaign is reaching the point where we will have struck all worthwhile fixed targets except the ports. At this time we will have to address the requirement to deny the DRV the use of the ports.” Except for the port areas and a few targets in heavily populated areas, all that remains are minor targets, restrikes of certain major targets, and armed reconnaissance of the lines of communication (LOCs). Against this background, the JCS have submitted their recommendation (Alternative A).

Although the three alternatives would each involve about the same number of sorties against the North, Alternative A, unlike the other [Page 479]two, would hit targets significantly different from, and more sensitive than, those at which the bombing campaign has heretofore been directed. It would be regarded as continuing the pattern of escalation in the air campaign. The proponents of Alternative A present it as designed to achieve all three of the bombing sub-objectives mentioned above.

[Here follows McNamara’s assessment of Alternative A, in which he argued first that an escalation in bombing would not improve the morale of the GVN. In addition, he did not believe that additional bombing would deter the DRV from its goal of unification. As for the increased interdiction impact that would arise under this alternative, McNamara denied that any level of increase would reduce the flow of arms and men southward to a level below that necessary to sustain the VC insurgency. As well, an escalation in bombing would have little impact on the war-making capacity of the North. Negative results would occur in terms of the cost to the United States of the lives of its pilots and troops, adverse domestic and world opinion, and the heightened risk of a strong reaction from the Communist bloc.]

V. ANALYSIS OF ALTERNATIVE B

Alternative B would shift most of the bombing away from the Red River basin and concentrate the bulk of our effort on infiltration routes in the southern neck of North Vietnam south of 20°.

It reflects a belief that the outcome of the war hinges on what happens in the South, that neither military defeat nor military victory is in the cards there no matter which alternative is chosen against the North, that the cost of both Alternatives A and C, especially in pilots’ lives, would be excessive, and that Alternative A would risk expanding the war dangerously, leaving us a few months from now more frustrated and with almost no choice but even further escalation. Alternative B is designed to improve the negotiating environment by combining continued progress in the South (attacks against VC/NVA main force units and slow improvements in pacification that may follow the new constitution, the national reconciliation proclamation, and the Vietnamese elections this fall) with a restrained program against the North.

Proponents of Alternative B believe that we are in a military situation that cannot be changed materially by expanding our military effort, that the politico-pacification situation in South Vietnam will improve only slowly, and that Hanoi will therefore persevere. These proponents favor a calm drive to settle the war—a deliberate process on four fronts: The Rolling Thunder front in the North, and the large-unit, politico-pacification, and diplomatic fronts in the South. The Alternative B approach against the North is to maximize interdiction [Page 480]while minimizing loss of life, risk of escalation, and impediments to negotiations; in the South, the approach is to maintain the initiative on the large-unit front, to move on with pacification efforts and with the national election in September, and to initiate periodic peace probes.

[Here follows McNamara’s evaluation of Alternative B, in which he contended that concentrating bombing near the DMZ would not impair in any significant way the enemy’s ability to continue to carry the war southward. Public reaction would be negative as long as the bombing continued. In addition, aircraft and pilot losses might still be high if the DRV shifted its air defense system to the area. The morale of U.S. troops, let alone the GVN and its soldiers, might be dampened and the Communist side might be encouraged by this scale-back.]

VI. ANALYSIS OF ALTERNATIVE C

Alternative C—essentially a continuation of the current program—serves none of our positive objectives.5 This alternative does not contain enough pressure to persuade Hanoi to settle the war (although some believe that it contains so much bombing that it will keep the North Vietnamese away from the conference table). This alternative does not put a meaningful ceiling on the flow of men and matériel into the South (although it diverts sorties from the infiltration routes in the funnel between 17¡ and 20°, where they could help the war in the South most). The cost of the program, in lost pilots, is high. And it lacks the political advantages of Alternative B.

Alternative C has but two arguments in its favor: It avoids the most serious risks in Alternative A of escalation into a larger war, and it avoids the risk in Alternative B of what may appear (if the shift is mishandled) to be a conspicuous admission of failure of the bombing program.

[Page 481]

The concern of our field commanders with bombing restrictions is well expressed by a message from Admiral Sharp after he received his instruction regarding the 10-mile prohibited area around Hanoi: “We have repeatedly sought to obtain authority for a systematic air campaign directed against carefully selected targets whose destruction and constant disruption would steadily increase the pressure on Hanoi. It seems unfortunate that just when the pressure is increasing by virtue of such an air campaign, and the weather is optimum over northern NVN, we must back off.” (CINCPAC 290506Z May 67)6

VII. RECOMMENDATION

I am convinced that, within the limits to which we can go with prudence, “strategic” bombing of North Vietnam will at best be unproductive. I am convinced that mining the ports would not only be unproductive but very costly in domestic and world support and very dangerous—running high risks of enlarging the war as the program is carried out and almost certainly leaving us, when it has been carried out, frustrated and with no choice but to escalate further. At the same time, I am doubtful that bombing the infiltration routes north or south of 20° will put a meaningful ceiling on men or matériel entering South Vietnam. Nevertheless, I recommend Alternative B (which emphasizes bombing the area between 17° and 20°) because (1) it holds highest promise of serving a military purpose, (2) it will cost the least in pilots’ lives, and (3) it is consistent with efforts to move toward negotiations.

Implicit in the recommendation is a conviction that nothing short of toppling the Hanoi regime will pressure North Vietnam to settle so long as they believe they have a chance to win the “war of attrition” in the South, a judgment that actions sufficient to topple the Hanoi regime will put us into war with the Soviet Union and China, and a belief that a shift to Alternative B can be timed and handled in such a way as to gain politically while not endangering the morale of our fighting men.

Robert S. McNamara
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 2EE Primarily McNamara Recommendations. Top Secret; Sensitive. The notations “L” on the summary and the draft memorandum indicate that the President saw them. This DPM is printed in part in The Pentagon Papers, The Senator Gravel Edition, pp. 189–191. An attached table of North Vietnamese import capabilities and a list of bombing targets are not printed.
  2. See Document 141.
  3. JCSM-286–67 20 May 1967. [Footnote in the source text. See Document 187.]
  4. Much of the disagreement in the US Government over courses of action stems from different views as to what the US objective, or commitment, is. The JCS, for example, call my statement of US commitment a “modification of present US objectives … [which] would undermine and no longer provide a complete rationale for our presence in South Vietnam or much of our effort over the past two years.” (JCSM-307–67 1 June 1967.) If the US commitment is as I have described it (which is essentially as it has been stated by you, Secretary Rusk, Ambassador Goldberg and me over the past few years), one has good grounds to question the rationale for even more US effort in Vietnam. Specifically, US efforts against the North should take account of the fact that the Viet Cong in the South now receive from North Vietnam perhaps 1/5th to 1/10th as much assistance in men and 1/1000th as much assistance in matériel as the Saigon Government receives from the US and other third countries. The approximately $17 billion of matériel sent by the US to Vietnam annually is 1000 times the estimated $15–20 million of matériel sent to the South from North Vietnam (and approximately 25 times as much as the $720 million the USSR and China are estimated to have given North Vietnam in 1966). The 54,000 third-nation troops in South Vietnam alone exceed the number of North Vietnamese soldiers in regular units in the South, while the 500,000 total of US plus third-country manpower is about 10 times the number in North Vietnamese regular units and at least five times the number of infiltrated North Vietnamese now in the South. [Footnote and brackets in the source text.]
  5. The Secretary of the Air Force argues for Alternative C (modified). He believes that our air interdiction effort has had some effect in reducing infiltration below what it otherwise would have been. He believes that Alternative A, from the purely military point of view, would be worth its extra cost in terms of reduced enemy abilities in South Vietnam; but he considers port closure too risky and believes that, with the ports open to handle diverted imports, attacks on the northeast and the northwest roads and railroads should be limited to harassment. At the same time, he opposes Alternative B on the ground that it would give Hanoi a “free ride” down to 20°; this, in his view, would more than offset the increased effectiveness to be expected from Alternative B’s added anti-infiltration effort south of 20°. He believes that US pilot-loss rates, after the enemy has been given 3–6 months to adjust his AAA, will not be significantly different under Alternatives B and C. He consequently recommends continuation of the present program—including strikes on airfields (except Gia Lam) as necessary to minimize over-all losses in the air campaign—with refinements to add some targets (especially LOC targets) to the present list and to eliminate others. [Footnote in the source text.]
  6. Not found.