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

Mr. President:

Last evening I had a long and fruitful talk with Clark Clifford about your instruction that I explore the setting up of a committee to examine the effects of our bombing of North Viet Nam.

Clark posed the following questions and made the following points.

What use does the President propose to make of the committee’s report: Is it for him? Is it for the public? Is it for the Congressional leadership?
Would the existence of the committee be known?
If the desire is to keep it secret, is this possible? He cited the success of the non-committee on foreign aid. He said secrecy was possible in that case because the subject matter was not controversial and it was not necessary to engage the various government departments very deeply. In this case, we would have to be seeking evidence and views from government departments where the issue was extremely controversial. He gravely doubted, therefore, whether we could count on keeping the existence of such a committee secret.
Would the committee make policy recommendations? He strongly believed that this is not a subject on which a committee should make recommendations to the President. There is no substitute, in a matter of this kind, for the President’s personal, lonely judgment. And the very fact that the President was asking for outside advice in this matter would indicate, to the public and the world, that the President was uncertain. Whatever recommendations the report made would complicate the President’s problems.
Specifically, if the committee were representative, and it came up with recommendations different from current policy, it would be very hard for the President to deal with it, as President Eisenhower found with the Killian Report, etc. On the other hand, if the committee is handpicked, it would be less than valueless, a millstone around the President’s neck, which would fool no one. The effect on the public would be the same; namely, an impression of Presidential indecision on a vital controversial issue.
In short, it is Clark’s strongly held view that this is not an issue on which a committee whose existence became publicly known, could be helpful to you.
Clark went on to say that if the President needs more information, a wider spectrum of views, then he should set out to get the data and the views quietly, with my (WWR) assistance.
If the President wished to have a fresh, clean look at the problem by men that he trusts, the prime requirement is that secrecy be maintained. If that is the way the President wishes to go, Clark recommends a very small group which would not be a committee at all. It might consist of three men—the fewer the better. I (WWR) could get them, on my own account, the materials from the bureaucracy to read them into the problem. They would not file a report. They might sit down with the President on a long evening and exchange impressions. If there were any leak, the President could then say truthfully: There was no committee. I talk to a great many people on a great many subjects.
If the problem is to deal with Vance Hartke’s ridiculous idea,2 the only advice Clark has is: ignore it. This one will go away, and Hartke will have another damn fool idea within a month which also should be ignored.
Clark asked me, finally, to tell you this:
  • —Of course he will serve in any capacity that you wish him to serve;
  • —But, before entering such an enterprise, he would welcome a chance to present directly to you his view.
Now my own reaction. On the committee I am, basically, in agreement with Clark. It would be most difficult to keep it secret. It would serve no political purpose if it were secret. It would be unsettling and possibly explosive, if made public—among other things, because it would appear you were not confident of JCS and Bob McNamara’s advice. But I do think you may face a problem to which we should address ourselves and on which a certain amount of wise guidance from people like Clark, Gruenther, etc., might be helpful at the right time.
The problem is this: If we do not get a diplomatic breakthrough in the next three weeks or so, it probably means that they plan to sweat us out down to the election of 1968. As you know, I share your view that we would then have to think hard about how to apply our military [Page 51] power against the North with maximum effect and minimum risk of enlarging the war as a whole.
Because of the way in which bombing policy has evolved in the North—with pulling and hauling on each target—there has been little systematic thought about a northern strategy as a whole. Because of this, I have stimulated Cy Vance (via the Katzenbach Committee) to take a fresh look, leaving no options out, setting out the pros and cons of the three major possible strategies against the North as if we had never heard of them before. I am doing the same.
In broad terms, the three strategies are:
  • —Cut off supplies coming from outside North Viet Nam (mining, etc.);
  • —Bomb so as to disrupt the whole North Vietnamese economy, without interdicting external supplies;
  • —Apply our military power with great concentration in the southern part of North Viet Nam—at the bottom of the funnel—in effect, to separate North and South Viet Nam.
Under each heading there are various lines of action; and we could do all three. But this is the problem to which I think we should address ourselves and the broad strategic approach with which we should begin.
In addressing that problem in mid-February, if necessary, I believe you should instruct your senior advisers and their departments to clear their minds and come up with a fresh appraisal of all the courses open and the pros and cons.3
In making up your own mind as to what course to pursue, something like Clark’s informal non-committee might be helpful to you.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. LXIV. Secret; Literally Eyes Only. A notation indicates that the memorandum was received in the President’s office at 3:03 p.m.
  2. Senator R. Vance Hartke (D–IN) proposed a halt to the bombing in both North and South Vietnam and a limitation of ground operations. See The New York Times, December 28, 1966.
  3. Point 16 is circled, with the following notation written by the President: “OK—I agree. L.”