228. Memorandum of Conversation Between the Ambassador at Large (Harriman) and Secretary of Defense McNamara 1

Bob McNamara said (1) it is impossible for us to win the war militarily; (2) that he hoped that the pressure on the President from the hawks wouldn’t be so great that the war would be expanded into confrontation with the Soviet Union or China; (3) he felt that the most hopeful way of ending the war through negotiations would be for Saigon to negotiate with the NLF. He said that Dean Rusk had asked him to lay off this until after the Vietnamese election, but he thought that after the first of September we ought to come down with all our influence to force Saigon to begin to negotiate seriously with the NLF.

I said that it might be with the North Vietnamese or the NLF. He said he didn’t care which, but he thought a solution would eventually require an agreement between the NLF and the Saigon Government.

He said Dean Rusk was much too optimistic over what could be achieved, much too rigid. He hoped that when negotiations started we could find some compromise. In his opinion, Rusk’s objective could not be achieved. Some arrangement would have to be made between the Saigon Government and the NLF for a way in which they could live together.

I told him that I felt it was necessary to have Soviet participation in order to underwrite Hanoi financially to be able to accept the deal, since they might have to break with Peking. He said he would accept that, but didn’t seem to understand its importance.

We did not discuss the Johnson/Kosygin conversations,2 but I stated that I was convinced the Russians wanted a neutral Southeast Asia as a buffer to Chinese expansion, and if we would leave North Vietnam alone they would give us a free hand in South Vietnam under our 14 Points,3 but unfortunately the Soviet Union couldn’t deliver Hanoi on such a sweeping agreement as that, but would try to be helpful if we stopped bombing the North. He said that the Saigon Government would have to come to some compromise with the NLF on how to live together.

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I asked him if there was any use in my talking to Dean Rusk. He said he thought it might perhaps be better to wait a bit. Rusk didn’t seem to understand that his position was asking for unconditional surrender of North Vietnam and the VC, but Bob didn’t believe at the moment it was worth arguing with him. It might be better to wait a bit later, because he agreed we would be in a stronger position after the elections.

We discussed the elections, and I urged him to insist with Bunker that if these two military were elected President and Vice President, that a civilian Prime Minister with other civilians in important Ministries be installed. Without that, the Government would be considered in world opinion a continuation of the status quo, a stooge of the U.S. He appeared to agree with this, and thought that Bunker would be able to handle the situation. He showed confidence in Bunker’s political judgments.

I mentioned the political problem the President would have if we didn’t make some progress in negotiation within a year. He didn’t seem to be as concerned as I am. I said the Democratic Party was split in a way I had never seen it. With that division, it was going to cause more trouble than now appears in the polls. Conservative Democrats have often said that the liberals have no place else to go. That isn’t true. It has always been my opinion that the Democrats could only be elected with the vigorous support of the liberals, who are the ones who really go out and work and bring out the voters. If the liberals are disaffected, they sit on their hands. He commented that if the fighting was ended, the Republicans need not bother to run a candidate.

W. Averell Harriman 4
  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Special Files, Public Service, Subject File, McNamara, Robert S. Top Secret; Personal; For Personal Files Only. A cover page includes the typed phrase: “Literally Eyes Only for Governor Harriman.”
  2. See Documents 216 and 217.
  3. For a restatement of the Fourteen Points, the basis of the U.S. Government for a settlement of the war, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1967, pp. 856–858.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.