137. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam1

131732. No distribution outside Department. Literally eyes only for Ambassador from Secretary.

In connection with our possible decisions as foreshadowed in State 131330,2 we have a number of staff proposals concerning our negotiating posture as we announce our actions. One would be simply to reiterate the San Antonio formula and take the same line that we have done in recent statements. However, two other possibilities have been raised on which we need your judgment as to the South Vietnamese reaction.
The first of these would be to treat the various Hanoi statements reported to us in recent weeks as indicating that Hanoi at least clearly understands our “no advantage” assumption, and hence to go ahead with stopping the bombing in the near future. We would of course need to consult with the GVN before taking such action, but now need your judgment as to the GVN reaction and the broad effect in South Vietnam of carrying out such a proposal. We would of course insist on prompt talks and on observance of the “no advantage” assumption if we did in fact stop.
The second proposal that has been put forward at staff level is more modest. Its essence would be for us to restrict our bombing actions against North Vietnam roughly to the area south of Vinh, accompanying this by the simplest and most open-ended announcement possible, along the following lines: “After consultation with our allies, the President has directed that US bombing attacks on North Vietnam be limited to those areas which are integrally related to the battlefield. No reasonable person could expect us to fail to provide maximum support to our men in combat. Whether this step can be a step toward peace is for Hanoi to determine. We shall watch the situation carefully.”
The timing of such an action/announcement could be prior to, concurrent with, or after the presentation of force increase proposals to the Congress. Among the considerations that we have in mind are the following tentative judgments:
For the next month or so the weather in the Hanoi-Haiphong area would mean that the proposal would not make a major difference from a military point of view.
Full bombing would be resumed if there were a major attack on Khe Sanh or a second round of attacks on the cities.
We would not send Ambassadors rushing all over the world to convert the bombing action into negotiations but would simply sit back and wait for Hanoi to respond.
It would shift away from theological debates about words and put the problem on the de facto level of action. If Hanoi took no corresponding military action, the bombing would be resumed.
It would be very important for us not to embroider the statement with all sorts of “conditions” or “assumptions.” Just take the action and see whether anybody is able to make anything out of it.
The “areas which are integrally related to the battlefield” would presumably be as far north as Vinh. Bombing below that area should be intensive and without wraps.
As I said at the outset, there would obviously be other elements in any final judgment, notably whether the effect on the Congress and the American public would be on balance favorable, and so on. We would also need the most thoughtful assessment of how Hanoi would respond; it would be our best judgment that they would not take any real step toward peace, but it is conceivable that they might hold their hand at Khe Sanh and against the cities for some time, and this would require at some point a military judgment whether this situation would be to our net advantage.
What we most need from you, though, apart from any general thoughts you may have, is whether such a proposal could be sold to Thieu (in conjunction with disclosure of plans for at least limited US force increases and also proposals for improving ARVN equipment), and whether the initiation of this action might—even if Thieu had agreed—have serious disturbing effects on South Vietnamese will and morale. We are of course well aware through your reporting of the deep rejection of any new negotiating approach or peace initiative at the present time, and the equally deep sensitivity to any implication that the US may be dealing separately. The question is whether this action would arouse these emotions and to what degree. We would like your thoughts on what sort of timing it might take to obtain GVN concurrence if you think it wise to see this.
May we have your judgment on the South Vietnamese aspects of these proposals at your earliest convenience, together with any comment you wish to make on their general wisdom at this time? If it is your conclusion that any change in our negotiating posture at the present moment would not be wise, we would like your general thoughts as to the possible future timing of any similar actions.3
I want to emphasize that the foregoing are among alternatives being considered at the staff level only. They have not been presented to higher authority for consideration. You may be sure that you will not be confronted with any sudden decisions and that you will be afforded full opportunity for consultations.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Priority; Nodis. Drafted by Bundy and approved by Rusk.
  2. Document 132.
  3. In telegram 22548 from Saigon, March 20, Bunker warned that many South Vietnamese were angered that a strong reaction against the DRV was not undertaken immediately after Tet; as a result, a U.S. move toward negotiations could cause a considerable anti-American outburst. Bunker advised delaying any peace initiative and consulting with Thieu and Ky at every step. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)