161. Memorandum From the Postmaster General (O’Brien) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

During the last several days, I have had contacts with a large number of Democratic officials, leaders and workers around the country—both in person and by phone. Without exception, these people are your supporters and also without exception they express serious concerns about our current posture in Vietnam, both in political and in general terms.

The political aspect came through clearly in the conversations I have had. These people—loyal Administration Democrats—are fearful of the end result in terms of both the Chicago convention and the November election, if our present Vietnam posture is maintained.

I know that this is not news to you—that you have been getting the same reports—but it is apparent that these views are becoming more widespread. I have continued to review the problem in my own mind since sending you my memo of March 21, and now I would like to respectfully suggest some possibly dramatic moves that could allay the fears and buoy the spirit of the nation.

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As I suggested in my previous memo,2 I believe we should vigorously pursue the course of insisting upon greater responsibility by the Vietnamese people and Government in fighting the War. At the same time, we should publicly express our disappointment and unhappiness with the South Vietnamese failures, both in military terms and in terms of establishing a truly democratic governmental process.

The Government of South Vietnam could follow this up by making a tangible move toward a greater spirit of democracy: the granting of a general amnesty for political prisoners.

The next step would be for President Thieu to express his strong desire for peace and his willingness to negotiate with the enemy. President Thieu would specify that on a date certain the South Vietnamese Armed Forces and all allied troops would begin a cease fire. Our Government would support this effort and would announce a bombing pause to begin on the same date.

As a further effort to dramatize our sincerity, you would announce that you are sending a delegation of outstanding Americans to Geneva who will be sitting at the peace table along with representatives of the South Vietnamese Government—ready to negotiate with North Vietnam at the very hour that the cease fire and the bombing pause would be scheduled to start.

I realize that if we took the above steps or similar steps, the chances for meaningful negotiations and lasting peace would still be questionable. However, I think these moves would accomplish a great deal in making a large segment of the American people understand our sincerity and in convincing them that this Administration will go to the greatest possible lengths to achieve peace.

We all agree, Mr. President, that our problems in Vietnam transcend political considerations and our search for solutions must not be politically motivated. Nevertheless, the widespread anxieties I have found among our political friends and associates convince me that their fears reflect an ever deepening disenchantment among many segments of the population which have heretofore supported our actions in Vietnam.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, O’Brien, Lawrence—Vietnam. Confidential. The President wrote on the memorandum: “Rostow—ask Rusk to get Larry over here at once & explain.”
  2. In this March 21 memorandum to the President, O’Brien noted: “What I am suggesting is a phasing out of the tremendous American responsibility for the conduct of the war and a phasing in of far greater responsibility by the South Vietnamese themselves.” (Ibid.)