403. Memorandum From Secretary of State Rusk to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

Here is a digest of my personal reactions to Secretary McNamara’s memorandum to you of November 1 on Vietnam.2 I have not discussed his memorandum with anyone in the Department of State and have not attempted, in this digest, a full argumentation. The organization of my comments follows the topical headings of Secretary McNamara’s memorandum.

I. Outlook if Present Course of Action is Continued

1. Expansion of Forces

I accept, as realistic, the prospect that U.S. forces will reach 525,000, other free world forces will reach 59–75,000, and that South Vietnamese forces can be increased by 60,000.

I do not agree that these increased forces cannot bring “the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces visibly closer to collapse during the next 15 months.” The indicators point in the other direction. Ambassador Bunker is convinced that progress “will accelerate.”

2. U.S. Ground Operations in South

I have no real disagreement on this point. For reasons expressed later, I strongly oppose U.S. ground operations against North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I would favor increased operations against infiltration routes through Laos, but not with U.S. combat units of significant size.

3. Bombing Operations in the North

I believe we must resist pressures to take direct action against foreign shipping entering Haiphong or to bomb irrigation dikes.

I strongly support intensive bombardment of infiltration routes in North Vietnam and Laos and sectors of the battlefield such as the DMZ and areas north of the DMZ.

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As for bombing in the Hanoi-Haiphong area, I believe that we should be guided by the following:

we should bomb sufficiently to hold in place the AA defenses of the area;
we should bomb sufficiently to require substantial diversions of manpower to repairs and to maintaining communications;
we should not permit a complete sanctuary in the northern part of North Vietnam and thereby eliminate this incentive for peace.

But, I believe that we should hit only major targets in the Hanoi-Haiphong area and not sustain losses in men and planes for targets of marginal utility from a military point of view.

I would reject the political judgment that a continuous escalation of the bombing will break the will of Hanoi.

In sum, I would be more selective about the targets in the Hanoi-Haiphong area—limiting them to targets which have a significant military value and which are worth the losses incurred.

4. Pacification

I generally concur.

5. Political Evolution

Ambassador Bunker and I are somewhat more optimistic about political developments. There seems to be little threat of a coup; groups like the extreme Buddhists are not catching on. High priority tasks for the next six months are agreed and promising. Hanoi is being deprived of the possibility of a political collapse in the South.

6. Probable Results of Present Course of Action

I am more optimistic than Secretary McNamara about whether progress will be “visible to the general public in the months ahead.” General Westmoreland’s estimate that only 60% of enemy battalions are combat effective is significant. Success is cumulative—and so is failure. The enemy has problems which are growing. Ambassador Bunker and General Westmoreland should be closely questioned on this point.

II. Possible Alternative Courses of Action

I agree strongly with Secretary McNamara that we should not extend ground operations into North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and should not go after foreign shipping, irrigation dikes or civilian centers.

There are large forces in North Vietnam which have not been committed to South Vietnam. If we cannot deal satisfactorily with forces now in South Vietnam, I do not see how we could improve the position by taking on more than 300,000 additional forces in North Vietnam.

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No one knows just where the “flash point” is which would change the present rules insofar as Peking and Moscow are concerned. There is a very high risk that ground action against North Vietnam would cross the “flash point.”


Complete Cessation of Bombing in the North

Purely from a political point of view in relation to Hanoi, we have two major cards to play: (i) growing success in the South and (ii) the bombing of the North. It seems to me that a cessation of the bombing of the North should be related to what will happen next. The Kissinger exercise did not even produce a discussion as to what your San Antonio formula means. They have never said that cessation will lead to talks. They resolutely resist any discussion of reciprocal military action or what we mean by “taking no military advantage.” I do not believe that we should cease the bombing before further probing on what the result would be. If Hanoi has any serious interest in peace, private contacts could move much further and much faster than has occurred to date.

I am sceptical of an extended pause in the bombing because I don’t know who would be persuaded. Hanoi would call any pause (i.e., not permanent) an ultimatum. We know of their “fight and negotiate” strategy discussions. For those in the outside world pressing for a halt in the bombing, no pause would be long enough. No one has said to me that his view would be changed if we had a prolonged pause in the bombing and there were no response from Hanoi.

I do think we should take the drama out of our bombing of the North by cutting back on our operations in the Hanoi-Haiphong area. Politically, we should avoid the impression of continuous escalation; militarily we should weigh military advantage against military losses.


Stabilization of Our Military Effort

I generally agree with the concept of stabilization—but I would not announce it. To do so would give the enemy a firm base upon which to plan and redispose his manpower and other assets. Over time, stabilization would become apparent to our own people, without giving guarantees to the other side.

III. Recommendations

I would stabilize, but not announce it. This is on the assumption that actual results in the South will continue to accelerate.
I would use the bombing of the North as a central card to play in connection with some interest on the part of Hanoi in a peaceful settlement. I would take some of the drama, and the losses, out of our present bombing effort in the Hanoi-Haiphong area. I would be prepared [Page 1040] to build upon cease fires at Christmas, New Year’s and Tet if the enemy shows any interest.
I agree with Secretary McNamara’s recommendation.
Dean Rusk
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Vietnam, Conduct of War. Top Secret; Sensitive. Another copy is ibid., Country File, Vietnam, March 19, 1970 Memo to the President.
  2. Document 375.