222. Notes of Meeting1

The President: Walt and Bus will explain what is happening.

General Wheeler: Starting at midnight their time, we had a number of attacks, mostly airfields, also city of Kontum.2

Information we have is that the attack in Danang area was light. But Chu Lai and Pleiku airfields were temporarily closed. Overall, attacks relatively light.

Could well be prelude to attack later this week. This was one of their objectives—air capability—in Tet offensive.

It will be tomorrow night before they renew attacks.

Hit 18 places.

President: Dean, what is the significance?

Secretary Rusk: I think we can expect pretty heavy fighting as we move into talks. Have no trouble going to 20th but rather the news carry their attacks good first. [sic]

General Wheeler: Have sent carrier command an alert message, he recommended no movement of his search and rescue vessels without their discovery.

Secretary Clifford: What is behind it? I believe it is their reaction to licking on Warsaw. I would be surprised if this is prelude to wide offensive. Too early in negotiations. We’re limited in retaliation. This not time to use retaliation—save Thanh Hoa for now. We’ll get a more dramatic opportunity.

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This attack of theirs will disconcert world opinion.

Secretary Clifford: Bus, I’d get ready for attack on Thanh Hoa, and maybe others. Psychological value of getting ships and planes in place. Keep in position for a while, even if we don’t use.

Secretary Rusk: I don’t think there will be indignation at Hanoi, only at us if we retaliate.

Mr. Rostow: I think their intention is to do more than slap our wrists over Warsaw.

The President: Don’t agree that Warsaw was a big victory. Think they wanted Paris.

Mr. Rostow: They have a fixed picture of negotiations. Think it would be easier for us to get back to the 20th now than after Harriman is in Paris. Proceed to selected target between 19th and 20th.

Justice Fortas: Perhaps they are testing to see if your hands are tied by dove sentiment. But have a hunch it is too soon for counter-reaction. Would wipe out great gain and make negotiation more difficult. You might issue a statement to help build up sentiment.

Secretary Rusk: I don’t think we should leave the impression that anybody’s hands are tied in the South.

President: I think we ought to background—

  • —35,000 infiltrated this month
  • —hit airfields today
  • —doesn’t look like they are very serious

Then authorize the ships to move and hold.

Justice Fortas: Think we have to get away from infiltration as only reason for concern. Been using vastly increased flow for purposes of attacking airfields; tie infiltration to their military actions.

General Wheeler: It would be fatal for us to be forced into de facto cease fire.

Secretary Rusk: What’s going on in Ashau?

General Wheeler: Finding caches of weapons, anti-aircraft guns, rice—not as many troops as thought. Believe he’s in Laos. Weather turning bad; Westmoreland will have to move out in next three or four days.3

Secretary Clifford: Get ships out. May have to get ready not only for Thanh Hoa, but also Hanoi and Haiphong.

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Secretary Rusk: I think we should look for bigger game. When I asked Dobrynin if he would be for return to Geneva Laos accords if we stop bombing, he said “Yes.” That means stopping infiltration.4

Background only on:

  • —80,000–100,000 last 4 months—
  • —April record month.

I will talk to Ball about “Meet the Press”.5

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Meeting Notes File. Top Secret. The meeting was held in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Those attending were the President, Rostow, Wheeler, Clifford, Rusk, Fortas, and Christian. Taylor joined the meeting at 5:07 p.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  2. A second NVA/VC offensive known as “mini-Tet” began on May 4. In a telephone conversation with Clifford that morning, the President noted that enemy infiltration figures had reached a new monthly high of 35,000 during April. He stressed the need for opponents in the Congress to be informed that “we have men right there that are about to get run over damn easy.” (Ibid., Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Clifford, May 4, 1968, 10:13 a.m., Tape F6805.01, PNO 1–3)
  3. Operation Delaware/Lam Son 216, which began on April 19, involved air-supported assaults against NVA staging areas in Thua Thien Province near the Laotian border. The operation ended on May 10.
  4. As reported in a memorandum of conversation between Rusk and Dobrynin, May 3. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL US–USSR)
  5. Ball appeared on this televised interview program on May 5 and discussed the increase in Communist infiltration into South Vietnam. See The New York Times, May 6, 1968.