108. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

Herewith some personal thoughts on the war.

Objective: The art of the next two or three months would be to produce a situation in which Hanoi decided to end the war. If that is impossible, the objective is to produce a situation in the second half of the year in which our side is clearly moving forward.

Present Situation: We are clearly in the midst of an unresolved critical battle. The enemy is committed—having taken stock of his immediate post-Tet situation—to continue to throw forces into the battle at a rate almost four times his average for 1967: he is losing about 1,000 KIA per day as opposed to 241 per day in 1967. He did increase his order of battle in the days before Tet—with several additional North Vietnamese divisions, North Vietnamese fillers for VC main force units, plus hasty recruiting for VC units. But there is no evidence he can sustain present rates for more than a matter of a few months.

At the moment the enemy appears to be trying to pin Delta and Saigon allied forces close to the cities; draw Westy’s reserves to the Western frontiers (Kontum-Pleiku); and strike a decisive blow in I Corps. The threat forming up around Hue is major (perhaps 5–6000 enemy troops). Westy is trying to put his Delta and Saigon forces on to the offensive; deal with the Western highlands economically; fight a decisive battle in I Corps.

To maximize the chance that we achieve our objective, these things should happen:

  • —the ARVN and the GVN should put on a performance which convinces Hanoi, the U.S., and Moscow that they are viable and must be considered a major factor in a settlement;
  • —above all, Westy must win as decisive a victory at Hue—and in I Corps—as he can;
  • —the U.S. must behave in the days ahead in a way to make clear we have the will and staying power to carry on;
  • —the supply prospects for North Viet Nam over the coming months and year must be worsened;
  • —the GVN—from a position of strength—must put forward a powerful new appeal and proposal for peace in the South.

The proper timing of this sequence is critical.

A Proposal for Consideration:

The best trigger point would be:

  • —a major battle around Hue, initiated either by the enemy or by Westy going out to get these forces before they are set;
  • —plus some success in the battles Westy tells us are about to begin as Thang moves to the offensive in the Delta and our forces move out simultaneously against the enemy’s Saigon divisions. This should happen in the next few days.

When the battle is joined we do two things:

  • —go for the Clifford package, beginning with a reserve call-up;2
  • —mine the North Vietnamese ports with delayed-action mines, telling international shipping to get out of North Vietnamese territorial waters.

At Tab A is a fresh analysis of the mining problem done by Bob Ginsburgh at my request.3 Mining by itself would not be decisive; but it will be costly to the enemy. The maximum predicted Soviet reaction would be to bring in mine-sweepers and shoot their way through. (This is what the Czech general, recently defected, has said; but since we’re not blockading, there is nothing to shoot except mines.)

Against this background—and assuming some tactical success in the forthcoming battles—we persuade Thieu to take the offensive for peace:

  • —appealing to all Vietnamese to stop the bloodshed;
  • —offering to talk to any Southerners on the basis of converting the war into politics under a constitutional one-man-one-vote system.

We could accompany the offer with a temporary stoppage of bombing.

The whole sequence hinges, of course, on some tactical success on the ground in coming days and, especially, one clear-cut victory—hopefully at Hue. Thieu must feel he is operating from some strength.

Not since the Civil War has quite so much hinged for our country on immediate battlefield events.

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As for Hanoi and the Russians: I do not believe a Communist takeover of South Viet Nam is regarded as a vital Soviet interest. The Chinese will oppose, but are not likely to occupy North Viet Nam. Hanoi may have entered the winter-spring offensive with the same judgment at high levels that they have conveyed to low levels; namely, 1968 must be the Year of Decision.

What happens if we fail in I Corps? I doubt that the North Vietnamese can drive Westy from I Corps; but a setback would not be a good occasion for a peace initiative. But we should proceed to lay the extra burden on the North Vietnamese supply system via mining.

This is a line of thought—not a firm recommendation. I believe it deserves some examination.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, Walt Rostow, Vol. 65. Secret; Sensitive; Literally Eyes Only. The notation “ps” on the memorandum indicates that the President saw it.
  2. The Reserve call-up may not be able to wait until the battle is joined; but the best time to mine the ports—should you decide to do so—would be at the height of battle. [Footnote in the source text.]
  3. Not printed.