166. Memorandum for Record1


  • Meeting March 29, 11:00 AM


  • Mr. Clifford, Mr. Nitze and the JCS

Mr. Clifford reviewed the deliberations he and Mr. Rusk had had over the past days with the President concerning our course of action with respect to Vietnam. He emphasized the point that unanimous advice from all sides was that the American people and the Congress would no longer support a policy of merely more of the same. The President had therefore resolved to go before the people with a speech in which, among other things, he would announce that he was sending 13,500 men to Vietnam and calling up 62,000 Reserves. Included in the speech would be the announcement of a pause in bombing north of the 20th Parallel which, if followed by reciprocal action on the other side, could lead to a cessation of bombing of North Vietnam and negotiations.

Mr. Clifford emphasized that one could not estimate how long the pause in bombing would continue; that there were estimated only to be four good bombing days in April; and that the sorties not flown north of the 20th Parallel would then be available in southern North Vietnam and Laos closer to the battlefield. The principal object would be to broaden the base of domestic support for our policy and to put the monkey on the back of the other side. He recognizes that there might be an adverse effect on the morale of our troops but hoped that this would prove to be manageable. He said that it was Mr. Rusk’s view that this [Page 489] action could be explained to General Thieu and the GVN and that they would understand. He then asked General Wheeler for his views.

General Wheeler said that from the military point of view there was no point in lessening pressure on the enemy if one was winning, and he did not think that we were losing. He thought the effect on military capabilities would be negligible; that if the GVN could be brought along, he thought the effect on the morale of our side would be manageable; if the pause were not prolonged beyond an appropriate time, he was not bothered. What did bother him was the question of resumption after a pause. From the information coming to him he thought the situation in the country with respect to support for our current policy was perhaps even worse than Mr. Clifford had described.

General Johnson asked whether the effect on Korea and Thailand had been considered. Mr. Clifford said that it had and that it was Mr. Rusk’s view that this could be managed. General Johnson went on to say that he was not self-confident on what the effect might be on the morale on our side. The question at issue was that of the commitment of the middle level in South Vietnam; they were making up their minds as to which side to back in the long run. He also commented that in the last three years when we had backed away from full pressure on the enemy, opposition to our policy had grown. He feared that the announcement of the bombing pause would lead people to believe we had decided to leave the war. Mr. Clifford said that in a certain sense the proposed announcement would not go as far as the San Antonio formula. General Johnson thought there was less ambiguity in this announcement. Mr. Clifford did not agree with that appraisal.

Admiral Clarey said he agreed with General Wheeler that there was no purely military advantage in lessening pressure on the enemy. In view of the fact that the President is resolved to take this action he would support the decision. He did, however, think we should make up our minds what to do if the move fails to elicit a positive response from the other side; to go back and merely do more of the same would seem to him not to be enough. Mr. Clifford said he thought it would be a mistake to attempt to predict now a situation that might arise in the future. The important thing now is to strengthen the base from which the President can then act. Admiral Clarey said he did not believe we had done enough in the diplomatic field; enemy atrocities during the Tet offensive had not been sufficiently exploited in the press; and the restraint which we had exercised in not bombing dikes, rice fields, etc. were not known to the public. He did not believe we had taken strong enough action against our allies, particularly the British, with respect to shipping from Hong Kong. Mr. Clifford agreed that we did have a serious problem with the press. Photographs and moving picture film of [Page 490] the atrocities during the Tet offensive had been given to the press but had not been used.

General McConnell said that if the U.S. public had rallied to the cause, it was his belief that we should have gone harder against the North. In view of the situation as it is, he supports the President’s decision and will see to it that the Air Force as a whole does. He pointed out, however, that if the enemy does not respond positively, we are left with only two alternatives: either to go up in escalation or down. He thought it a fallacy to suppose that sorties not flown north of the 20th Parallel would make any significant difference south of there. If the pause were prolonged, he thought it could lead to tragedy.

General Chapman said he thought the military disadvantages might be real; particularly in their effect on the morale of the Marines at the DMZ. He recognized that we faced a battle for resolve—the resolve of the GVN, the NVN and the American people. He questioned whether the will of the Americans would be strengthened by a weaker position. His friends believe that the American people would react better to an escalatory approach. General Chapman asked Mr. Clifford whether he thought the diminution of U.S. support was temporary. Mr. Clifford said no, he thought it was solid; that it sprang from the situation in our cities, price inflation, concern over our gold cover, and a general disorientation of values.

Mr. Clifford asked the Chiefs whether a distinction could be made between support for the decision and opposition thereto. General Johnson said he would certainly support the decision. However, if asked in a Congressional hearing as to whether he had proposed the action, he would reply in the negative, and if asked for his personal views, he would have to express the doubts he had in his mind. All of the Chiefs agreed that they would support the President’s decision. General Wheeler, General McConnell and General Chapman felt that, in view of all the circumstances, the President’s position was an appropriate one.

It was agreed that Mr. Clifford would suggest to Mr. Rusk that he explain the reasons for the President’s decision to Admiral Sharp when he saw him at Wellington, New Zealand. General Wheeler said he would send a back-channel message to General Ryan explaining the reasons for the decision.

Mr. Clifford asked whether any of the Chiefs felt that they desired to express their views directly to the President or whether they would rely upon his, Mr. Clifford’s, presentation of their views to the President. They all agreed that they saw no necessity for their seeing the President.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Nitze Papers, Vietnam War—Miscellaneous Materials, 1968. Top Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Nitze.