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158. Notes of Meeting1


McGeorge Bundy: There is a very significant shift in our position. When we last met we saw reasons for hope.2

We hoped then there would be slow but steady progress. Last night and today the picture is not so hopeful particularly in the country side.

Dean Acheson summed up the majority feeling when he said that we can no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left and we must begin to take steps to disengage.

That view was shared by:

  • George Ball
  • Arthur Dean
  • Cy Vance
  • Douglas Dillon and myself (McGeorge Bundy)

We do think we should do everything possible to strengthen in a real and visible way the performance of the Government of South Vietnam.

There were three of us who took a different position:

  • General Bradley
  • General Taylor
  • Bob Murphy

They all feel that we should not act to weaken our position and we should do what our military commanders suggest.

General Ridgway has a special point of view. He wanted to so strengthen the Army of South Vietnam that we could complete the job in two years.3

[Page 472]

On negotiations, Ball, Goldberg and Vance strongly urged a cessation of the bombing now. Others wanted a halt at some point but not now while the situation is still unresolved in the I Corps area.

On troop reinforcements the dominant sentiment was that the burden of proof rests with those who are urging the increase. Most of us think there should be a substantial escalation. We all felt there should not be an extension of the conflict. This would be against our national interest.

The use of atomic weapons is unthinkable.

Summary: 4

Ridgway: I agree with the summary as presented by McGeorge Bundy.

Dean: I agree. All of us got the impression that there is no military conclusion in sight. We felt time is running out.

Dean Acheson: Agree with Bundy's presentation. Neither the effort of the Government of Vietnam or the effort of the U.S. government can succeed in the time we have left. Time is limited by reactions in this country. We cannot build an independent South Vietnam; therefore, we should do something by no later than late summer to establish something different.

Henry Cabot Lodge: We should shift from search and destroy strategy to a strategy of using our military power as a shield to permit the South Vietnamese society to develop as well as North Vietnamese society has been able to do. We need to organize South Vietnam on a block-by-block, precinct-by-precinct basis.5

[Page 473]

Douglas Dillon: We should change the emphasis. I agree with Acheson. The briefing last night led me to conclude we cannot achieve a military victory. I would agree with Lodge that we should cease search-and-destroy tactics and head toward an eventual disengagement. I would send only the troops necessary to support those there now.

George Ball: I share Acheson's view. I have felt that way since 1961—that our objectives are not attainable. In the U.S. there is a sharp division of opinion. In the world, we look very badly because of the bombing. That is the central defect in our position. The disadvantages of bombing outweigh the advantages. We need to stop the bombing in the next six weeks to test the will of the North Vietnamese. As long as we continue to bomb, we alienate ourselves from the civilized world. I would have the Pope or U Thant suggest the bombing halt. It cannot come from the President.

A bombing halt would quieten the situation here at home.

Cy Vance: McGeorge Bundy stated my views. I agree with George Ball.

Unless we do something quick, the mood in this country may lead us to withdrawal. On troops, we should send no more than the 13,000 support troops.

General Bradley: People in the country are dissatisfied. We do need to stop the bombing if we can get the suggestion to come from the Pope or U Thant, but let's not show them that we are in any way weakening. We should send only support troops.

Bob Murphy: I am shaken by the position of my associates. The interpretation given this action by Saigon would be bad. This is a “give-away” policy. I think it would weaken our position.

General Taylor: I am dismayed. The picture I get is a very different one from that you have. Let's not concede the home front; let's do something about it.6

Fortas: The U.S. has never had in mind winning a military victory out there; we always have wanted to reach an agreement or settle for [Page 474]the status quo between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. I agree with General Taylor and Bob Murphy. This is not the time for an overture on our part. I do not think a cessation of the bombing would do any good at this time. I do not believe in drama for the sake of drama.

Acheson: The issue is not that stated by Fortas. The issue is can we do what we are trying to do in Vietnam. I do not think we can. Fortas said we are not trying to win a military victory. The issue is can we by military means keep the North Vietnamese off the South Vietnamese. I do not think we can. They can slip around and end-run them and crack them up.7

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson's Notes of Meetings. No classification marking. Those attending the meeting, which lasted from 3:15 to 4:32 p.m., were the President, the Vice President, Clifford, Rusk, Taylor, Rostow, Goldberg, Bradley, Dillon, Lodge, Bundy, Acheson, Vance, Ridgway, Ball, Dean, Murphy, Fortas, Wheeler, Abrams, Harriman, Jones, Christian, and Tom Johnson. (Ibid., President's Daily Diary)
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. V, Document 377.
  3. Ridgway circulated a paper in which he called for the creation of a GVN “defense establishment capable of defending that political independence.” He added a final caveat: “Perhaps the serving of notice on the Vietnamese Government that we will give it a maximum of two years to accomplish this, at the end of which time we begin a phase-down of our forces, would serve as an adequate stimulus.” (“Random Thoughts on Vietnam,” March 26; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Special Files, Public Service, Kennedy-Johnson, Vietnam, General, April–Dec. 1968)
  4. In a March 27 memorandum for his personal files, Harriman recorded what Lodge had told him about the meeting: “Mac Bundy gave a summary which Lodge thought was pretty fair. The President said, ‘then all of you except Wheeler, Taylor, Bradley, Murphy want to disengage.’ Lodge said, ‘No, I don't want to disengage—I want to use our power differently than we have.’ (I commented to Lodge that ‘disengagement’ is not the right word. Many of us want to start negotiations for a peaceful settlement). Wheeler took the point of view this is the worst possible time that we have ever had to start negotiations. Lodge said he whispered to Acheson, ‘Yes, because we are in worse shape militarily than we ever have been.’ But the extraordinary thing is the President summed it up by saying, ‘You have been hearing things I haven't. I want to hear from the men you have.’ “ (Ibid., Chronological Files, March 1968)
  5. In a written statement of his proposal used at the March 26 meeting, Lodge wrote: “Less stress on ‘search and destroy’ would mean fewer casualties (U.S. and Vietnamese), less destruction, fewer refugees, less ill will, and more public support at home. More stress on organization of South Vietnamese society would make South Vietnamese truly competitive with Communism—not just on the conventional battlefield, but in every aspect of life.” He added: “If we had focused our past effort on population organization rather than search and destroy, we would, I believe, undoubtedly have been less badly hurt by the Tet raids.” (Washington National Records Center, Department of Defense, OSD Files: FRC 330 73 A 1304, 1968 Secretary of Defense Files) In a letter transmitting the statement to Clifford the next day, Lodge further noted: “It does not mean that our troops would be placed in static positions for the physical defense of the cities. In fact, our base camps would stay pretty much where they are now. It does mean that their mission would be the protection of Vietnamese efforts to organize the population (and root out the hard-core terrorists) instead of their mission being the ‘war of attrition.’” (Ibid.)
  6. According to transcripts of the recording of this meeting, the conversation at this point went: “General Taylor: Well, I have been somewhat amazed, Mr. President, by the views expressed here by some of my friends for whom I have the greatest respect. I look back on the briefings last night because the picture these gentlemen have in their minds is not the one I have developed over a period of time. President: I just want to observe—the first thing I am going to do when you all leave here is to get those briefers last night. [Laughter followed.] I want to hear what they said because I want to see—because I want to evaluate it. I haven't heard of that kind of pictures. [sic] Go ahead. General Taylor: Mr. President, first as Secretary Rusk pointed out, they had spoken in unison. I thought they bent over backwards to balance the good and bad. But I suspect we are all the victims of our environment. I know that I am, and I think my friends are too. I think that if you are accustomed to hearing the bad, the bad comes to view, and I listened to those same briefings and didn't come out any more discouraged than I was when I went in. But behind all this is concern about the election front which I am sure racks us all. But we didn't get around to discussing it. The last time, you will remember, that was the primary subject in November. What could we do about the home front? Now there seems to be a vigorous misconception as to the fact that this home front is going out this month or next. Well, that is not the impression I get when I go around the country. There is indeed more discouragement this year than this time last year, but I still have huge confidence that the people in the United States are willing to do those things that are necessary—and are demonstrated as being necessary. So I am not ready to sell out on the home front yet, but I would like to hear, and perhaps you may wish to—let's do something about it and see if we can't explain the need for doing these very tough things that are facing us in Southeast Asia. Now that's about my only overall comment except I dispute in my own mind the reasoning we must stop the bombing because we muffed the solution and then come to the table knowing that we are going to lose our shirt. I just don't see how success goes down that road. President: I haven't heard the men that reviewed the events since Tet—from them directly. I want to so I can evaluate it and may come to the very same conclusion that everybody else here has. I haven't heard some of these theories. Maybe I haven't gotten the whole story. I gather that it is different from what I have been getting top-side.” (Johnson Library, Transcripts of Meetings in the Cabinet Room)
  7. Following additional remarks by Dillon, Wheeler, Dean, Murphy, and Ball, the President concluded: “What we want to do is take what you have said and what we can produce here from the junior and senior people and what Congress may be able to approve, [which is] what we may need to do, and try to make our course here as effective as possible. I want to thank each of you for taking the time in giving it to me. I want to feel in reasonable limits I could call on you to give me your frank and honest opinions at any time. I would hope that you would be available as occasions arise periodically in the next few months—in the months to come and [thereafter], as you have on other occasions, particularly last November and now. All I believe were here then except General Ridgway and Mr. Vance, and I had them individually on other occasions on the same general subjects. I don't want to consider this a formal group. I don't want to consider it a restricted or restrained group. I want you to feel perfectly free to say anything whether the Secretary of State is here or not—whether or not the Secretary of Defense is here—because primarily I want to inform them myself. I didn't have the chance to spend last evening with you and I wanted to talk with you personally without any other people being present. I would like to ask you to keep your presence and the fact that you were at a meeting with a group like this to yourself and not discuss it. If it does go the way of some of our intelligence documents and some of our reports that are filed with the Defense Department and State Department do, they'll wind up in print. My general [explanation] will be that this represents a group that from time to time I talk to individuals in whom I have confidence and associations with the general problems. I don't want to get in the habit of making those public because I don't want—particularly in a political year—to have them appear or feel I am using them one way or the other. The fact that they advise with me implies that they are part of my policy. And so I would like to have each of you regard it as you have in the past and not let the public know about it. If they ask when I saw you last—I have asked Mr. Christian to say the President from time to time calls upon men who have served in the government and that's a manner calm and patient. Thank you.” (Ibid.)