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

[Here follow the first three parts of the memorandum (13 pages), in which Katzenbach described the nature of the fighting in Vietnam as exacerbating domestic opposition. He argued that the President could strengthen the political center in the United States by stemming the escalation in Vietnam.]


Time is the crucial element at this stage of our involvement in Viet-Nam. Can the tortoise of progress in Viet-Nam stay ahead of the hare of dissent at home? All our present evidence points to the fact that [Page 1033] progress in Viet-Nam will be steady but undramatic over next year. Yet slow and steady progress may not be enough if, as I suspect, the rate of US disenchantment with the war is growing rapidly. We must, it seems, find a way to change the pace at which events move on the two fronts—Viet-Nam and the United States.

The hope that this change can be accomplished by a rapid acceleration of our progress in Viet-Nam is a slim one. Even if we progressively remove the limits we have imposed on how and where we fight, there is little reason to believe that the end of the road would be significantly nearer. But it is certain that taking such action would greatly increase the volume of dissent at home and thus further encourage North Vietnamese hopes for an early US withdrawal.

Winston Churchill, speaking of traditional frontal conflicts, once said that in war “nothing succeeds like excess.” Hanoi is relying on our following that strategy in the very different context of Viet-Nam—a war which has as a principal battleground the minds of the American and Vietnamese people and in which the enemy has the power to deny us the opportunity to show to the public an end to the struggle. In this situation, excessive expenditures of men and money—which will not measurably shorten the war—are the surest route to failure, not to success.

If we can’t speed up the tortoise of demonstrable success in the field we must concentrate on slowing down the hare of dissent at home. At pages 7–11 above I have set forth in some detail the five general ways in which we could move in this direction. By way of conclusion I want only to suggest five specific measures.


We should clarify our objective in South Viet-Nam by updating NSAM 288 of March, 1964.2 This NSAM, which is still used by our military commanders, states our objective in the following general terms: “We seek an independent non-Communist South Viet-Nam.” From this general statement the JCS and CINCPAC have derived the following specific mission and tasks for MACV:

“To make it as difficult and costly as possible for NVN to continue effective support of the Viet Cong and to cause NVN to cease direction of the Viet Cong insurgency.”
To defeat decisively the Viet Cong and NVN in South Viet-Nam and force the withdrawal of NVN forces.”
To extend GVN dominion, direction and control over South Viet-Nam.” (underlining added)3

[Page 1034]

If I were given this mission I would follow the same strategy as General Westmoreland. But this mission overshoots our real objectives in SEA: to provide the military cover and non-military assistance needed to enable the GVN to grow in capacity and popular support to the point where it can survive and, over a period of years, deal with what will remain a continuing and serious Communist problem.

Unless we help General Westmoreland off the hook by writing a statement of objectives from which a more realistic and attainable mission can be derived, we will continually be faced by “thin edge of the wedge” requests from the military for expansion of the war.


Instruct our field commanders, including Ambassador Bunker, to adjust their strategy and tactics to the revised objective.

No one in Washington can second-guess the field on the details of strategy, at least not successfully. Therefore, in the first instance, I think we should ask Ambassador Bunker and General Westmoreland for their proposals, which we could then review in Washington to make sure they meet our requirements.

In rough outline, I would anticipate that such a change in objective and mission should mean that MACV would deploy its forces so as to minimize their involvement with the population, and to reduce substantially American involvement in those measures which should be the GVN’s responsibility. It would probably mean:

  • —a rigorous review of free bombing zones,
  • —a policy on refugees which would sharply reduce our vulnerabilities at home and around the world on this festering sore point,
  • —dramatic new efforts to reduce civilian casualties,
  • —and an end to the continual military requests for incremental expansions of the war into Laos, Cambodia and North Viet-Nam.

These steps, while controversial with the military, are not radical departures, and would not prevent General Westmoreland from achieving the mission and objective which we have set forth.


Demand more of the GVN—not only in the traditional ways, but also in seeking contact and accommodation with the NLF.

I am, of course, wholeheartedly in favor of the current drive to get the ARVN to assume a larger part of the war, the anti-corruption drive, and our other efforts to improve the GVN across the board. I would go further than we have yet gone and tell Thieu and Ky frankly that there are time limits on our commitment at its present level and that they had better face up to that fact and plan accordingly.

At the same time, I would like to see Ellsworth intensify his efforts to get the GVN into contact with the NLF. The risks are obvious, and only Ellsworth can determine the exact pace at which to move. But I feel strongly that we should look toward an accommodation and that Ellsworth can prod the GVN harder in this direction. Both these actions [Page 1035] with regard to the GVN are implicit in the restatement of our objective which is discussed above.

Stop bombing targets in the Hanoi-Haiphong area. While, in the main body of this paper, I have advocated a qualified but indefinite halt in the bombing, I recognize that this is a special problem and not necessarily derivable from a restatement of objectives. I do feel, however, that we must at a minimum bring our target system into line with our objectives. Therefore, we should avoid targets which raise doubts as to our often stated position that we are not seeking to destroy the DRV.

To tie all these themes together, develop over a period of weeks a public posture which rebuilds the confidence of the American center in our objectives and methods in Viet-Nam.

Such a public policy would entail

  • —major but not dramatic statements by you and your principal deputies, including General Westmoreland, taking advantage of reports on recent progress;
  • —public statements by Thieu and Ky re-emphasizing their hope to see peace and the eventual control of South Viet-Nam by Southvietnamese without large numbers of Americans;
  • —and acts visible to the world showing that our rhetoric is matched by our deeds. The visible acts would be derived from points 2, 3 and 4 above.

Nicholas deB. Katzenbach
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, March 19, 1970 Memo to the President. Top Secret; Sensitive. In his November 16 covering memorandum to the President, Katzenbach wrote: “The enclosed memorandum on Viet-Nam represents my personal views which may not be shared by you or by my colleagues in the Administration. For this reason I am sending it directly to you for your consideration. Only Secretary Rusk, with whom I have not discussed this memorandum, has a copy.” Rostow’s memorandum transmitting Katzenbach’s memorandum to the President, November 17, reads: “Herewith Nick Katzenbach sets down his personal view on an appropriate strategy for Vietnam.” (Ibid.) The notation “ps” on the covering memorandum indicates that the President saw Katzenbach’s memorandum.
  2. For text of NSAM No. 288, March 17, 1964, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. I, Document 87.
  3. Printed here in italics.