21. Memorandum From the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler) to Secretary of Defense McNamara1



  • Tet Stand down
This responds to a request from Mr. Walt W. Rostow for General Westmoreland’s rationale behind his recommendation for a 36-hour Tet stand down. In requesting General Westmoreland’s views, I provided to him a summary of the rationale which the Joint Staff prepared for me on this question.2 This was provided to Mr. Steadman, OSD (ISA) and Department of State on 18 January. General Westmoreland agreed with that rationale and the logistical data therein. His comments are reflected below:
Holiday ceasefires have been unilaterally established, together with rules of conduct, by both the enemy and ourselves. However, our respective objectives are unrelated. The record is replete with documented evidence that the enemy’s intent and actions have been consistently contrary to any peaceful objectives. Hanoi has directed the truce periods be fully exploited for improving the communist military posture.
Free World casualties sustained during truce periods are but slightly less than during non-truce conflict. Hence, there can be no sense of security or safety for the people of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) for the enjoyment of holidays, whether ceasefire periods are established or not. On the other hand, the aggressor in this conflict and his people suffer no similar limitations while pursuing their mockery of our concessions.
For so long as Hanoi persists in its direction and support of the war in RVN, our air interdiction efforts in North Vietnam (NVN) are [Page 56] indispensable to both the defense of RVN and the achievement of an early and acceptable negotiations posture. The expense in men and planes has fallen very heavily on the United States. Bombing pauses, however brief, are capitalized on fully to rebuild the essential elements of the NVN logistics system which we have so painstakingly disrupted. It would be unfortunate if our costly, necessary, and yet restrained air interdiction program were nullified by the concession of unilateral privileges which can be accurately forecast as being unproductive.
The enemy is presently developing a threatening posture in several areas in order to seek victories essential to achieving prestige and bargaining power. He may exercise his initiatives prior to, during or after Tet. It is altogether possible that he has planned to complete his offensive preparations during the Free World ceasefire. He has used past truce periods for this purpose and can be expected to do so again. We shall do all possible to restrict the movement of men and materials by the enemy in RVN during the ceasefire through advance positioning of our forces.
President Thieu and General Vien do not question the advisability of keeping ceasefires to the shortest possible time periods, and they recognize the wholly unilateral aspect of the holiday truces. They do, nevertheless, feel bound to at least a token observance of this most important of Vietnam holidays. However, they do not propose standing down the war for the full run of the traditional Tet celebration; this out of frank recognition of the severe penalties of imposing unwarranted trust in an enemy whose duplicity in such actions is so well established.
In summary, the longer the truce the greater the cost to us and to our Allies in lives, material and probably the duration of the war. It has been conclusively demonstrated that holiday truces of whatever length will not have any mollifying effect upon the enemy. The additional 12 hours (to 48 hours) will offer the Vietnamese people nothing in the form of safety or respite from the communists. It would seem that the additional 12 hours will serve only the purpose of the enemy, with no reciprocal benefits to us.
Admiral Sharp, in response to my request for his views on this matter, strongly recommended that the Tet ceasefire period be of the shortest possible duration, no more than 36 hours, to permit the enemy the shortest possible period to refurbish and reposition his forces. The additional 12 hours permitted by a 48 hour stand down would allow a very considerable increase in supply movement south and can only result in additional casualties to friendly forces.
Copies of this memorandum are being provided to Deputy Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Mr. Walt W. Rostow, and OSD (ISA).
Earle G. Wheeler
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, Department of Defense, OSD Files: FRC 330 73 A 1304, VIET 092.2. Top Secret. A stamped notation on the memorandum reads: “Sec Def has seen.”
  2. Attached to a January 18 memorandum from Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense William Lang to McNamara was a draft Presidential memorandum recommending only a 36-hour Tet holiday truce, a paper arguing the military advantages of reducing the stand-down, and an undated estimate from the DIA which suggested that the North Vietnamese could infiltrate as much as an additional 10,000 tons of material southward during the 12-hour difference. (Ibid., OSD Files: FRC 330 72 A 1499, Vietnam 381, Jan-April 1968) In a memorandum for the record, January 16, Westmoreland discussed a conversation he had with Thieu the previous day in which they decided upon a 36-hour truce for the RVNAF (from 1800 on January 29 to 0600 on January 31). However, all U.S. troops would be on alert, as would 50 percent of the ARVN. (Johnson Library, William C. Westmoreland Papers, #28 History File) The truce was shortened the next day; 8 days later, the truce was canceled for CTZ I.