395. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State (Katzenbach) to President Johnson1


  • Highest Priority Areas in Viet-Nam

Our group2 (Paul Nitze, Bus Wheeler, Walt Rostow, Dick Helms, Averell Harriman, Paul Warnke, Phil Habib, Bill Bundy and myself) addressed the question of what areas should receive the maximum attention and effort by the US in the next year in Viet-Nam.

The list we came up with, without dissent, concentrated on six main themes. They are chosen as themes with a potential short-term payoff, either here or in Viet-Nam. While we make an extra push on [Page 1018]them, we should continue our normal efforts, although I have a growing suspicion that we could make some cutbacks in some of our programs without damaging our over-all effort; this can only be done, however, with Ellsworth’s full backing and participation.

Our list is quite similar to the present Mission priorities, so I think you will find Ellsworth in basic agreement with us.3

These are the items:

Anti-corruption effort—There was unanimous agreement that a visible and credible anti-corruption effort would help a great deal in improving the Administration’s position, and in building a more effective GVN. (Bus Wheeler was particularly strong on this point.) Current efforts are still highly ambiguous; the quick trial and death sentence of one unfortunate ARVN officer is not the kind of sustained, serious campaign that is essential.
ARVN performance—Everything that can be done must be done to make the Vietnamese Army assume a greater portion of the war burden—visibly. While I do not think that we will be able to reduce the US troop role in the next year, we should be able to get more out of the ARVN, and we should have a better press policy to show that this is happening.
Anti-infrastructure efforts—This is probably the quickest payoff item around; while the CIA is going all out now on this effort, I think we can and should demand more from the GVN.
Building Political Institutions—We all agree that that is important, but unlike Walt Rostow, I tend to doubt that we can anticipate a really dramatic breakthrough on this one in the next year. The Vietnamese are feeling their way slowly in a world that is quite new to them, and while they learn—and write—the new rule book, they are not going to build great national parties. Any effort that Thieu made in that direction, as Ellsworth quoted Thieu as saying, would turn out to be a new version of the old secret parties which were so hated in Viet-Nam.

Economic Stability—I wish we didn’t have to put this item on our list, but after analyzing the economic situation we are anticipating a probable inflation of about 40%. At the very best we could reduce it to about 25%, but if things get out of hand there could be as much as a 75% increase.

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The projected inflation of 40%—which is about what we are experiencing in 1967—would not only wipe out the effects of any GVN wage increase that is granted, but it would also get the new government off on the wrong foot, and would make any serious anti-corruption campaign that much tougher. Incidentally, if there is a 50% inflation next year, plus a GVN wage increase, the real income of GVN officials and soldiers will be about half of the 1964 level—which itself was inadequate.

Efforts to get the GVN into contact with the VC—On this point, only Ellsworth can really make a dent. We can’t push the GVN too hard, or they will think we are asking them to commit suicide. But we can definitely push them harder than they have been pushed in the past. There is no reason why representatives of the GVN, or of the legislature, could not meet with representatives of the Front. I do not think that such meetings would leave the GVN divided and on the verge of collapse, as some people do. Furthermore, if the GVN made its willingness to entertain such contacts clear its position and image would be far stronger than at present. Finally, it would be a major GVN response to the growing desire of the South Vietnamese people for some end to the war.4

The Mission’s list is quite similar to our six items. It covered:

Mobilization measures.
Reorganization of RVNAF.
Reorganization of Civilian Administration.
Vital Pacification Measures in addition to above.
Attack on VC infrastructure.
Expanded detention centers and related judicial measures.
Attack on Corruption at all levels.
Economic stabilization measures.
Peace to include willingness to seek peaceful settlement, seek out members of NLF and move towards reintegration through national reconciliation."

Nicholas deB. Katzenbach
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 1 C(2), Revolutionary Development Cadre. Top Secret.
  2. Reference is to the so-called “Non-group,” which met periodically to discuss issues on an informal basis.
  3. Bunker returned to Washington on November 10 and met with the President on November 13 from 11:32 a.m. to 1 p.m. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) No notes of the meeting have been found, although an agenda prepared by Rostow indicates that four subjects were to be raised: the recent election, accelerated progress in various programs, the Buttercup initiative, and Bunker’s schedule of public appearances. (Memorandum from Rostow to the President, November 11; ibid., National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Post Inaugural Political Activity, 1 E(1))
  4. On November 11 Johnson included in his Veteran’s Day remarks an offer to meet with a North Vietnamese delegation: “The United States follows the dream of peace; so we include even the seas in our search,” the President asserted. “For us, the wardroom could easily be a conference room. A neutral ship on a neutral sea would be as good a meeting place as any.” The full text of the speech is in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967, Book II, pp. 1017–1019.