232. Notes of Meeting1



  • The President
  • Secretary Rusk
  • Secretary Clifford
  • General Wheeler
  • CIA Director Helms
  • Walt Rostow
  • George Christian
  • Tom Johnson

The President: I do not know what we should do about conference report on taxes. Labor is completely against it. If we don’t do it, Congress will go for more than $6 billion. Mills has gotten by with an increase in debt limit without trouble in the past. Watson says he cannot live with the ceiling under this conference report. Nitze says he can’t live with it at Defense, but Budget tells me you can by substituting military for civilians in jobs.

Secretary Rusk: We do not have recommendations of our team about how to handle tomorrow’s Paris meeting. We either must speed up delegation or slow down talks. There was nothing new on the first day. We must not get too itchy to move on to new steps. We may want to repeat a few lines on Laos and Cambodia. I am concerned about time factors. We should tomorrow stick to opening statement—not push on to something new.2

The intervention by Trudeau in Canada is not good. It is like U Thant’s—it asks us to stop bombing; doesn’t ask Hanoi to do anything.3

The President: Are you concerned about Thieu’s problem in forming a new cabinet?

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Secretary Rusk: Yes, but Ky will go along if there are no changes in general.

Walt Rostow: The “deal” is that Ky will be main negotiator in “your side, our side” situation.

CIA Director Helms: It is troublesome until it settles down.

Secretary Rusk: Are you meeting with South Vietnam legislators?

The President: They are not on the schedule.

Secretary Rusk: They are volatile.

The President: I called Senator Fulbright Friday.4 He was going to Arkansas. What is the military situation in Vietnam?

General Wheeler: General Westmoreland says it is relatively optimistic. The enemy has taken heavy losses. Westmoreland is coming out of Ashau Valley because of the weather. I do not expect enemy successes.

Secretary Clifford: The breakdown is as follows: I Corps—94 U.S. Maneuver battalions vs. 47 enemy battalions, two to one in our favor. We are in good shape in the coastal areas.

  • II Corps—the U.S. has 61 Maneuver battalions vs. enemy 25–28.
  • III Corps—the U.S. has 90 battalions vs. enemy 14–17.
  • IV Corps—the U.S. has 48 battalions vs. enemy 11–13.

Hence, they are not going to run over us.

Secretary Rusk: Can we avoid massive destruction of housing as we did in Saigon?

General Wheeler: No, except house to house fighting.

Secretary Clifford: 20,000 dwellings were destroyed in Saigon. It was close to Tet figure of 27,000 dwellings destroyed.

The South Vietnamese are quick to call in artillery.

General Wheeler: That is true. They show less restraint than we do.

Secretary Clifford: We have had a good play on the role of South Vietnam. Life did a good story. South Vietnam did well in Ashau Valley.

Ambassador Bunker and General Westmoreland want our negotiations in Paris to have a man with recent Vietnamese experience. General Wheeler and the Pentagon favor it. Secretary Rusk and I think we must be careful that man is not too much brass. We think it would be good on a rotating basis available to them. We don’t want him to be of high rank.5

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Secretary Rusk: I would have no problem with rotating Colonels.

General Wheeler: It would be good to do it on a two-week basis.

Secretary Clifford: Let’s do it with no higher than Colonels sent.

Secretary Rusk: Is that okay with the President?

The President: Yes.

Bombing Targets Between 19th and 20th Parallels

General Wheeler: We propose extending armed reconnaissance to 19° 50’ to establish buffer zone.

(Jim Jones enters. President agrees to 3:00 p.m. Cabinet Meeting).6

General Wheeler: Showed the President a map with proposed targets. I also recommend seeding and rain-making in area.

The President: Are we together on this?

Secretary Rusk: I have no problems with seedings. The North Vietnamese representative in Paris used the 20th Parallel in his statement.

Secretary Clifford: Psychologically, it would be a bad time to expand our bombings. It would be difficult to ask them to phase down. The targets are not worth the political and psychological problems created. The product of our bombing will not be that important. General Wheeler and I will have to talk this out.

CIA Report

Secretary Rusk: I also am concerned that Hanoi thinks it can mobilize public opinion such that they can do anything and we must stop all our efforts. They must learn you did not withdraw in order to bend to their wishes. I would not oppose strikes between 19th and 20th.

The President: I want to hear both sides. I am sensitive that we do anything to hinder negotiations. I also worry that we kill some of our people by holding back to 19th.

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Study this document carefully and let’s meet on this tomorrow.

Secretary Clifford: I appear on Friday7 before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. They will want to get into sensitive areas.

Secretary Rusk: I would memorize the March 31 speech and not go beyond it.

Secretary Clifford: I cannot go into the San Antonio formula?

Secretary Rusk: I would say to them what I have said to newsmen: “I make no point in my negotiating with you. We are trying to negotiate with Hanoi in Paris.”

Walt Rostow: The rate of infiltration is one you must get down.

President: What are the latest figures?

General Wheeler: Starting in November through May, we show 113,400 infiltrees. (These are starts—not actual infiltrators into the South.) During March, April and May, there were 76,000 people on the move. They will start to arrive in June, extending into August for another round of attacks in July.

The President: I got the impression that since Tet there were 100,000 starting down.

CIA Director Helms: The figure was 80,000.

Walt Rostow: 100,000 since January 1.

CIA Director Helms: That’s right.

General Wheeler: Two Divisions in North Vietnam are starting to move.

[Omitted here is discussion of the situation in Czechoslovakia and postponement of the convening of the UN General Assembly.]

Walt Rostow: I have analyzed the North Vietnamese statement in Paris.8 It says again that the United States is the aggressor. “U Thant, DeGaulle, Senator Kennedy and Fulbright say you should stop bombing.” They want world opinion to sway us. The sooner we show we will do what is right, the better.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings. Top Secret. The President’s Daily Diary indicates the meeting lasted until 3:03 p.m. (Ibid.)
  2. That evening at 7:30 p.m., Rostow sent the President a copy of a proposed telegram written by Rusk and concurred in by Clifford, containing a redraft of the statement to be made by Harriman on May 15. (Ibid., National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Vol. 76) It was transmitted as telegram 164167 to Paris, May 15. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, IS/OIS Files: Lot 90 D 345, Paris Peace Conference, Todel Chron.)
  3. During a visit to Canada that weekend, Thant charged that the U.S. bombing was of “questionable morality and doubtful legality” and urged Johnson to enact an unconditional cessation of bombing. At the same time, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre-Elliot Trudeau issued a similar statement. See The New York Times, May 13–14, 1968.
  4. No record of the President’s call to Fulbright on Friday, May 10, is in his Daily Diary.
  5. In telegram 26832 from Saigon, May 9, for Rusk and Clifford, Bunker despaired that “no high level military officer from here thoroughly conversant with and up to date on the whole military situation has been added to the staff to help Averell and Cy interpret what is going on here.” He suggested that following a proposal by Westmoreland, a military officer could be sent to Paris from Vietnam every 2 weeks on a rotating basis. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET) In a May 9 note to Nitze, Read indicated that Rusk, Bundy, and Rostow concurred with the proposal, and he requested that Nitze likewise concur and note his acceptance in a transmission of the proposal to Clifford. There is no indication of concurrence from either Nitze or Clifford on the memorandum. (Ibid.)
  6. The President met with the Cabinet from 3:04 to 5 p.m. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) According to notes of the meeting, which was dominated by discussion of fiscal matters, Clifford reviewed the military situation in Vietnam, specifically noting the following: “there has been a change of tactics between the time of Tet and now. The wearing process is becoming too severe. They attacked 129 cities, following up only in Saigon. As Secretary Rusk said, that has not been successful. The status of our forces is good. We have superior forces in all for corps and sufficient strength in coastal areas to meet the enemy’s threat. Effort in May may be the first step with another step in June and July. The enemy has been engaged in a plan to get men down. 113,000 are passing down to South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In April and May there were 66,000. We can expect the enemy will maintain a tough military posture during the time of negotiations.” Rusk added: “We took major step of de-escalation—has been [bombing restrictions on] 70% of land and 90% of the population. They have done nothing.” (Ibid., Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings)
  7. May 17.
  8. See Document 230.