84. Notes of Meeting With President Johnson1


  • The President
  • Secretary Robert McNamara
  • General Earle Wheeler
  • General Maxwell D. Taylor
  • Walt W. Rostow

General Wheeler presented the case for bombing the following:

  • —The steel and cement plants in North Viet Nam;
  • —The interconnected North Viet Nam grid supplying 138,000 kilowatts.

The exact location of these plants was discussed and the estimated level of civilian casualties. The objective of the bombing was to exert pressure on the North Vietnamese economy and on the will of the North Vietnamese government to persist in the conduct of the war. General Wheeler did not expect a major direct military effect from the attacks.

There was considerable discussion of the power plant at Hanoi containing about 20% of residual electric capacity. The estimate was that an attack would inflict 19 civilian casualties, 5 in the plant, 14 outside.

The President asked how many casualties in all would be inflicted by the proposed program. General Wheeler thought at the most between 2 and 300, including those engaged in the plants attacked. The basis for these estimates was examined, it being pointed out that they flowed from an estimate that 90% of the bombs would fall within 3 [Page 183] CEP (probable civilian error) from the center of the target. It was difficult to estimate the number of casualties from the 10% that would fall outside the 3 CEP.

The President suggested that we analyze our records and try to find out where this 10% fell.

In general, it was pointed out by General Wheeler and Sec. McNamara that the bulk of the civilian casualties were not caused by attacks in North Viet Nam on fixed targets but by intensive bombing of logistical routes via armed reconnaissance. Civil casualties consisted mainly of those engaged in military or military support activities, whether in uniform or not.

After going through each of the electric power plants, in turn, the steel plant was analyzed. As a steel plant, it is only 25% complete and the open hearth furnace is not yet operational. It does, however, engage in shaping POL drums, barges, and girders, all of which relate to the military supply structure. With respect to the cement plant, it was pointed out that it produced materials directly relevant to the maintenance of the military supply structure and its destruction would throw heavy additional burden on the transport system.

General Wheeler again pointed out, in response to a question from the President, that taking out the whole electric power system would be a severe blow to the industrial capability and the will of the North to persist in the war; and that the capacity of the ports would be indirectly affected in a significant way.

General Wheeler also raised the question of cutting back the present 10-mile circle around Haiphong to 4 miles to permit aircraft to attack not ships but lighters offloading the ships.

When asked his views by the President, General Taylor said that it was timely to expand the air attack on the North. He recommended that all targets outside built-up urban areas be cleared for attack. General Wheeler then raised the question of attacking the mile-long railroad bridge linking Hanoi to the northeast and northwest, as well as certain major ammunition depots which have hitherto not been attacked because of their proximity to civilian areas.

Sec. McNamara then spoke, emphasizing he did not believe these attacks would affect the net flow of supplies into the South. The logistical capacity of the North was well beyond infiltration requirements. Air attacks actually required to reduce the flow of men and supplies to the South would have to include the following:

  • —Attack on cement plant;
  • —Mining of the harbors;
  • —The destruction of the dikes which would throw a burden of importing and distributing an extra million tons of rice;
  • —The mining of inland waterways;
  • —Expanded transport attacks, including attack on the Hanoi bridge.2

General Taylor expressed the view that the most effective military form of attack would be mining of Haiphong harbor; the key question, of course, was what the Soviet reaction would be and the effect on Hanoi’s dependence upon Communist China.

Sec. McNamara pointed out and underlined that we simply could not foresee the results of mining the Haiphong harbor; but we did know that this might push certain moderates on Viet Nam (e.g., Javits, Romney), into opposition. He said that if the President recommended attack on the power system, we should go all out and take out the whole system in as short a time as possible.

The President then asked for an evaluation of our attacks on POL. Sec. McNamara said there was no obvious net reduction in consumption; imports remained at about the same level; we had destroyed certain supplies; but they had successfully dispersed their stocks and evaded the loss of storage capacity by using barges to transship into dispersed storage points.

General Wheeler said that we had managed to disrupt the POL distribution system and impose strain and inconvenience, although we had not destroyed the petroleum base for their operations.

Sec. McNamara proposed one additional area which the President should consider, which is to expand our operations of surveillance and interdiction along the Laos trails. In this he would recommend that the President support Westmoreland’s strong recommendation for an expansion in these trail watching and interdiction activities.

The President said that he wished Sec. McNamara, General Wheeler, Under Sec. Katzenbach to come together on agreed recommendations, [Page 185] to be available by Wednesday, February 22.3 He would like to see all the alternatives laid before him with respect to accelerating the effort in the North, with the probable consequences of adopting each course.

With respect to the South, the President said he wanted every possibility for accelerating action in the South explored and recommendations made: more personnel, if necessary; more initiatives; more aggressiveness; additional efforts in Laos. Our Viet Nam policy was operating on borrowed time. We are confronted with an all-out psychological war against us by the Communists, which is making headway and eroding the political base in the U.S. We had been at this job in Viet Nam for 3 years. As the coach, he needed to get results. We had to solidify our support in the country by doing more militarily. In the country the support for more vigorous military action is at least 3–1, even if the war should get rougher and we face serious consequences. The President leaned to that side. We must get an agreed program and carry it forward in the next 9 months with maximum efficiency and with everything we have. We have probed for talks and found nothing substantial. Now we must act strongly.

The President then instructed that we take special measures to explain our bombing policy. The opposition has a strong hold on several of the networks and key newspapers. We must make our case and put to the country the central proposition: we shall back our men in the field.

W.W. Rostow4
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Bombing. Top Secret. The meeting lasted from 12:25 to 2:04 p.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) In a telephone conversation with the President on February 16, McNamara said that he and Wheeler would be able to meet with the President the next day in order “to review these bombing targets and evaluate the benefits of taking them out and perhaps propose a sequence of moves against them.” The President tentatively agreed to the meeting. (Ibid., Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and McNamara, February 16, 1967, 11:32 a.m., Tape 67.06, Side B, PNO 4)
  2. At a February 24 press conference, McNamara discussed the U.S. program of bombing in Vietnam. He described the objective of the bombing campaign as being the right of the South Vietnamese to self-determination without “pressure from external powers.” The bombardment of North Vietnam would bring about the achievement of this objective in three ways: 1) It would raise South Vietnamese morale. 2) It could be used “to either reduce the level of infiltration of men and equipment from North to South or to increase the cost of that infiltration.” He underscored the fact that the bombing of the North was only a “supplement” to the war against the Viet Cong insurgents in South Vietnam. 3) The bombing would “make clear to the political leaders of the North that they would pay a price so long as they continued to carry on in their aggression of the South.” He labeled the bombing program as “successful” in terms of achieving its objectives and pointed out that the bombardment would cease when the leaders in Hanoi agreed to a reciprocal de-escalation of military actions. For full text of the news conference, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1967, pp. 861–863.
  3. At a February 22 luncheon with the President, Rusk, Wheeler, and McNamara recommended an expansion of mining and naval bombardment up to the 20th parallel, increased artillery barrages into the DMZ and Laos, the extension of Shining Brass interdiction patrols further into Laos, continued weather manipulation and force build-up, as well as specific bombing targets in North Vietnam. Notes of the meeting have not been found. These recommendations were restated in a memorandum from Bromley Smith to President Johnson, February 22. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. LXVI) Presumably during the luncheon, the President approved an intensified yet still limited strike program for RT 54 attacks in Route Package VI (the Hanoi-Haiphong area) and an extension of Sea Dragon authority. The targets included several thermal power plants and the iron and steel works at Thai Nguyen.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.