233. Notes of Meeting1



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

CIA Director Helms: There has been no use of airfield on May 13, 14 and 15 by MIG 21’s or forays south of the 20th Parallel. There has been an increase in SAM emplacements. They do try to knock everything out of the air down as far as Danang when they operate out of it, including B 52’s if they can.2

Secretary Rusk: UPI 88 is most unfortunate. (UPI 88 attached.)3

Secretary Clifford: The reasons why I think the President should delay a decision for a week are:4 [Page 668]

In Paris we have a posture based on the March 31 speech, and the fact that we have been bombing only up to the 19th. I do not think we should be the first to change our position.

Our hope is that we can persuade them to de-escalate, such as demilitarization of the DMZ. We are in a weak position if we take an escalatory step.

If you do the job on the airfield you hit it hard and pound it later.

They are negotiating while we bomb up to the 19th. They may have to ask for total cessation or no more conversations. There is a question of face involved.
Curious Oriental approach—this action could give them reason to break off negotiations. It is small chance, but I do not like to gamble on it.
The target is not important enough to warrant this. It will not affect the future of the war. The CIA says “it would hinder but not seriously impede” flow into the South.5

The President’s annual science advisory report says this type of bombing doesn’t seriously affect their movement.6 We might cut the flow down 25%, but it will not cut down much.

Therefore, it is not worth the risk. The talks are going well. They have not laid down any ultimatums. The polemics were expected.

They might take some action. If they did, I would not object to hitting the airfield. If they do not move within a week, you may want to reconsider this action.

Secretary Rusk: We have three proposals:

Challenge and pursuit between 19th and 20th by our aircraft.
Strike the airfield.

I do not think the “escalation” argument holds. They have taken advantage of our restraint. They have moved planes south of the 20th. They are negotiating expecting us to operate up to the 20th.

[Page 669]

I worry about UPI 88 very much. It confirms to Hanoi there is a 19th parallel confinement. We should not let MIG’s operate between 19th and 20th.

I would authorize air to engage MIG’s and use Talos missiles.

I suggest the JCS send a message on the gravity of this leak. It looks like an effort to put pressure on Washington.

I would put off until next week hitting the airfield.

Secretary Clifford: I would hope we wouldn’t do it. This is an overt act on our part. They will pick it up immediately. We do not want to give them that type of argument. Planes could get north of the 20th.

General Wheeler: The JCS suggests only VFR conditions on attack on the base. (Visual flight rules.) Control system would be for electronic planes warning them of the 20th penetration. There is a possibility of penetration.

From the military point of view, these are worthwhile targets. MIG’s can operate off sod field. It is a staging field. They can refuel, go down to the south and sooner or later try to knock off a B 52. It also gives them a chance to hit at our planes in Laos.

They have stacked up supplies. They are moving three times as much supply into the south, including PT boats. They pose a threat to naval forces. They have 76,000 men on the road south. They may move the 330th division and the 350th division. On the 19th of May—Ho has a birthday. We may have some surprises.

Military targets are worthwhile.

Secretary Rusk: We did not promise not to put U.S. aircraft north of the 20th. We promised not to bomb. If a plane veers over 20th in a turn, I have no problems.

We do not want steady erosion of our strength due to Joe Clark,7 U Thant, Trudeau of Canada, and others.

From a political point of view, we must let them know our position of March 31 cannot be steadily eroded by world opinion.

I would take it in stages. First, engage them in air.

Walt Rostow: World opinion we must consider, but we must remember they have shown an act of goodwill only by coming to the conference table and demanding a complete halt to bombing without any response by them.

The President: Jorden is doing an unusually good job in Paris. But all of us here should talk to opinion molders.

I consider UPI 88 rank insubordination. I am concerned.

[Page 670]

I did not like the story on the draft being the lowest in some time. This looks like a blueprint of deterioration.

You do not get any gains at a peace table by weakness.

Walt Rostow: We must show them they can’t push us back by this kind of pressure. They are taking our temperature. We are getting nowhere now with formal fencing.

I think we should bring aircraft in, both in the air and with route reconnaissance. Up to Route 7. We should move back in quietly.

Would they break up the negotiations? Nobody knows. The intensity of their movements give us a case that they aren’t interested in serious talks. They have not done much at all in Hanoi except conventional propaganda.

The President: We can’t win war or peace based on public opinion. We should show whatever strength we can. I do not think this will affect the negotiations. We should not go above the 20th parallel. All of Clark’s arguments will apply in a week. We will wait until next Tuesday,8 as Clark suggests.

We already have made an overly generous concession by taking Hanoi and Haiphong off the list.

After Tuesday, have a few planes up in that area very carefully.

General Wheeler: The recommendations came out of the Embassy.

Walt Rostow: It was signed Bunker.9

The President: We have got to do anything we can to nick them.

We ought to support our men or get out. I am not for this gradualism. If it busts up the meeting, they weren’t interested in serious talks anyway.

Go out with wire to Harriman.10

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings. Top Secret.
  2. In CM-3282–68 to Clifford, May 8, Harold Johnson noted that Sharp had requested authorization to pursue enemy planes and bomb enemy targets such as Bai Thuong Airfield, a major staging area for MiG attacks, and the Thanh Hoa bridge, actions with which the JCS concurred. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S) In a May 15 memorandum to Rusk, Read noted that both Bundy and Katzenbach had concurred in the request for authorization but wanted greater guarantees that the 20th parallel would not be crossed. (Ibid.)
  3. Not printed. United Press International news story 88, datelined Saigon, May 15, reported leaked information from “authoritative military sources” that permission for an attack on Bai Thuong Airfield was withheld because of its potential impact on the Paris talks and that this decision underscored the administration’s de facto limitation of the bombing to the 19th parallel.
  4. Clifford’s reasons for not expanding the bombing up to the 20th parallel are derived from two memoranda he received from Warnke. In the first, dated May 14, Warnke noted the disadvantageous position of the DRV by having to talk while bombing continued; therefore, “this geographic expansion of the bombing would enable the North Vietnamese to get off the hook on which they are now impaled” and lead to a hardening of their negotiating position or to the collapse of the Paris talks. (Washington National Records Center, Department of Defense, OSD Files: FRC 330 73 A 1304, VIET 385.1 (Jan-May 1968)) In his second memorandum, May 15, Warnke described analyses of several agencies regarding the air interdiction campaign, which demonstrated the “pointlessness” of expanding the bombing up to the 20th parallel. He cited the CIA’s assessment that a greater concentration of attacks would not significantly impact infiltration routes and noted the conclusion of the President’s Science Advisory Board (PSAB) “that we are at least as well off with our present campaign restricted to the southern area of the Panhandle of North Vietnam as we would be with any other bombing campaign which would involve the northern parts of that country.” (Ibid.)
  5. The CIA’s assessment is quoted in Warnke’s May 15 memorandum to Clifford.
  6. PSAB Chairman Donald Hornig had presented the Board’s findings during a May 3 meeting with Rostow, Wheeler, and McConnell. The report noted that infiltrated supplies stood only a 10 percent chance of interdiction while in North Vietnam but a 25 percent chance of being interdicted in Laos. It also concluded that an expansion of the bombing to the 20th parallel would not appreciably impact the enemy’s infiltrative capabilities, but conversely a halt to the bombing over the remaining territory of the DRV “would not result in an appreciable increase in the movement of supply.” (Memoranda from Rostow to the President, May 4 and May 6, memorandum from Ginsburgh to Rostow, May 6, and memorandum from Hornig to the President, May 6; all in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 3 F-Memos on Bombing in Vietnam, 3/67–10/68)
  7. Senator Joseph Clark.
  8. May 21.
  9. See Document 228.
  10. A possible reference to telegram 165857 to Paris, May 17. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, A/IM Files: Lot 93 D 82, HARVAN-(Outgoing)-May 1968)