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

Mr. President:

I indicated briefly to you yesterday morning the sequence which I have come to believe we should follow in the months ahead with respect to Vietnam policy.2 I am putting it on paper so that you can consider it for what it may be worth.

A firm Thieu commitment to an additional 135,000 South Vietnamese plus other Vietnamese action to assume a greater proportionate responsibility in the war. His speech of today takes us some distance down that road, but of course it will require follow-up day by day.3
U.S. military offensive actions. I attach, to refresh your memory, Westy’s plan to go on the offensive in I Corps in April.4
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I believe he should be encouraged to move out, if anything, at an accelerated pace. You should be aware that at this particular time, enemy units seem to be pulling back in a number of places, including Khe Sanh. We do not know what their intention is:

  • —to regroup for later attacks?
  • —to avoid casualties which their forward positions have permitted us to impose upon them?
  • —to let McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy fight the war for them?

But the fact is there and, for the first time since the Tet offensive began, enemy casualties and ours are falling back toward the average levels of 1967.

I do not believe we should wait to see what their next move is: I believe Westy should go out and face them. In any case, it is important that over the next month or so the military news from Vietnam shows that we have the military initiative and they are not simply hunkered up waiting for another enemy blow.

3. As this new military position becomes more clear to our people, we should then shoot for a major peace offensive targeted for, say, May 1st. As you know, I believe that Thieu and the South Vietnamese should be the center of it; but we should play our part and we should bring the Pope, the Roumanians, the Russians, etc., into the game to the maximum.

4. Meanwhile, we should be using the time to develop a strategy for the next year on the assumption that Hanoi will not respond to the peace offensive of May. In particular, we should consider three strategies:

  • —a continuation of our strategy of 1966–67; that is, regaining our position in the countryside, extending pacification, and grinding along on the basis of slowly reducing the VC manpower base in the South, which we are doing at the rate of about one million per year through movement to the cities, plus refugees from VC areas, plus extended control in the countryside.
  • —a so-called population control strategy in which we would keep U.S. as well as Vietnamese forces in a position to give more regular and steady protection to the South Vietnamese population centers rather than grappling with the North Vietnamese units at the frontiers. Westy would defend his policy of 1966–67 as a population protection strategy in the face of North Vietnamese pressures across the frontiers. But it is conceivable that, after very careful analysis with Westy on the scene, some practical difference could be identified between the policy that he has been following and a policy of so-called population protection. As you know, I am skeptical of any abstract debate of this proposition until it is tested against actual force distributions and utilization on the spot in detail.
  • —a policy of forcing a decision from Hanoi and its allies.

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The latter strategy involves adopting one or more of the following three courses of action:

  • —mining the North Vietnamese harbors and trying to interdict the transport routes from China;
  • —invading the southern part of North Vietnam and blocking the transport routes from, say, Vinh, to both the Mugia pass into Laos and the roads to the DMZ; or
  • —moving into Laos on Route 9 and blocking on the ground the Laos transport routes into South Vietnam just south of the 17th parallel.

In different ways, any one of these three actions could put a very tough set of decisions to Hanoi and to its allies. I happen to believe that if the South Vietnamese government is on its feet and tolerably effective; we are moving forward militarily in the south, even if slowly; our terms for a settlement remain modest and legitimate; that neither the Soviet Union nor Communist China would escalate the war and that we would have a chance of bringing it more quickly to an end. I feel in my bones that after the Tet offensive, things can never be quite the same, and that a simple return to the 1966–67 strategy will not wash.

What I am recommending is simply that we carry out the most careful staff work on these alternatives from the present forward, so that you can make a rational judgment as to which way we go if the May peace offensive envisaged here should fail.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, March 19, 1970, Memo to the President, Decision to Halt the Bombing, 1967, 1968, [I]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Literally Eyes Only.
  2. From 10:15 to 10:44 a.m. on March 20, Rostow and Jorden met with the President to discuss a proposed draft of the President’s speech on Vietnam. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  3. See The New York Times, March 21, 1968.
  4. Attached but not printed.