241. Notes of Meeting1


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

Mr. Rostow: We have an urgent matter to decide with reference to tomorrow’s instructions to our representatives in Paris. The point is on total cessation vs. partial cessation.

Secretary Rusk. The word “cessation” means total. Harriman told Zorin in meetings and word may get around to NVA.2 I would not put [Page 691] it to the NVA in general meeting tomorrow and let it get around to NVA indirectly.

Secretary Clifford: I had not seen the cables before. This is a bad time to come out with a threat. I would do it privately first in any case.

Director Helms: Communists believe things said privately. They do not believe things said publicly.

General Wheeler: It could be taken as an ultimatum.

The President: It’s o.k. to say it privately. That’s o.k. with me if you want to. Where are we in Paris and Moscow?

Secretary Rusk: The NVA has three illusions they follow:

No NVA troops in South—fraudulent.

Crest of NVA military success in South—misinformed.

The President: Could it be true?

Secretary Rusk: They believe they are in strong position. They may be misinformed.

Third point is that world opinion will force us to accept major change in policy.
We do not have governmental pressure on us.
World opinion won’t make us change our course.

I do not think we should change our course. NVA has already discredited itself in Paris with contention they have no troops in the South.

We should see what they are willing to do if we will stop the bombing.

We may get something out of talks in Moscow, but we doubt it. Stewart goes there tomorrow night.

Bombing between 19th and 20th parallels—should we move in? Let’s hear the CIA paper on the situation between the 19th and 20th.

Director Helms:

Continued flow of supplies
Increase in flow of ammunition
No flights since 11 May of MIGs at airfield
AA situation is same
Infiltration continues as before

General Wheeler: All of North Vietnam show 97,000 North Vietnam on move into Laos or South Vietnam. [sic] Peak seems somewhere in July. High level of reconstruction—lines of communication and supply plants. South of the 20th parallel, 5 or 6 battalions of SAMs and light anti-aircraft extended.

Evidence bears out conclusion they are stepping up their capabilities, both in the South and defending itself in the North. Therefore, we [Page 692] should resume between 19th and 20th parallels. There are political considerations you must take into account.3

Secretary Clifford: I feel same as last week. We have had a good week. We had to go through this week. We are in a better posture in standpoint of world and domestic opinion. The opponents have been inflexible. Have not sought to seek means of agreement. We have given image of nation seeking peace. They have given impression of nation seeking only propaganda.

Second, they weakened themselves with ridiculous statement about not having troops in the South. We will continue to improve our position. I would not want to jeopardize our position just now by bombing between the 19th and 20th parallels.

San Antonio formula has been overtaken by events. We are in a sound position now. We must ask them to do something to match our restraint. If we were to extend bombing we might have problem of them insisting that we stop all our bombing. Negotiations have gone on for only 10 days. They may do something serious. They may find out their strategy is not working well. We must watch to make sure we do not change our position. We got North Vietnam to the bargaining table by the President’s offer of moderate restraint.4

There is no particular pressure on us at the present time. I know of no pressure to extend bombing by Congress, by public, by press.

Life Editors think the President is on the right track.

The next general approach—the targets are not worth it. They have not been using the airfield. It does not constitute clear and present danger to us now.

[Page 693]

South of the 19th parallel, there are 50 new trans-shipment points. Benefit of bombing is only temporary.

South of the 19th parallel our methods are effective. We had 3,000 sorties in February, 5,000 in March, 7,000 in April and 9,000 in May.

General Maxwell Taylor’s memo says resumption of bombing is available at any time.5 We should use this only when it would produce maximum effect in Paris.

The last point, as long as matters proceed this way, it is important to help keep talks going from political standpoint.

I urge us to keep talks going

  • —keep bombing off 19th and 20th parallels
  • —keep talks going

Secretary Rusk: I hate to freeze to the 19th ourselves. We should not have dramatic attack, but we could engage MIGs. I would recommend route reconnaissance across the 19th parallel.

We should not have rigid limits on the 19th. I would take two steps of route reconnaissance and engaging MIGs.

The President: I agree with you, Dean.

Secretary Clifford: We voluntarily limited ourselves to the 19th. We have made progress in Paris. I do not want to shift our positions. I think it is worth postponing for another week.

It doesn’t help us to do this. We are waiting for them to de-escalate. The heat is on them. If we go back in, we remove some of this heat.

The President: How long can we go on with 19th without getting trapped into never being able to do anything above the 19th?

I think our force brought them to table, not our eloquence of March 31. All we are doing now is to let them build it back up.

There are advantages to our bombing between the 19th and 20th.

Their terror hasn’t blown up the peace conference.

We have a duty to try to stop all we can from coming into the South.

I never thought we would stay out of 19th and 20th. I think we should do it if it’s to our military advantage.

I am under the impression military people feel very strongly that we should bomb up to the 20th. Isn’t that right?

Wheeler: (Nodded “yes”.)

Secretary Clifford: That is right. Military does feel that way. We haven’t had any incidents above the 20th which would upset the talks. I do not think it would substantially reduce the flow if we went up to [Page 694] the 20th more than 20% or 25%. We are doing a good job south of the 19th parallel.

The benefit does not warrant the chance or the risk; it will make it more difficult for him to take a step down.

The President: The longer we stay out, doesn’t that make it more difficult to go back?

Secretary Clifford: No.

Secretary Rusk: I think it does make it more difficult.

Secretary Clifford: I happen not to agree with that.

The President: Buzz, what do you think?

General Wheeler: Militarily, it is a hub of communications and trans-shipment points. You have heavy 1–A leading out.

I would dispute fact they could replace Than Hoa.

Between the 17th and 19th parallels, there are smaller trans-shipment points, POL facilities, etc. Rear depots are large (Haiphong and Hanoi).

Selected items shipped to forward depots. South of that, they have distribution points. There is a big concentration in Hanoi and Haiphong. Next biggest, Theu Huoi and Vien. Then the smallest ones are southward.

Militarily, you should go ahead.

Political factors may outweigh this.

The President: Do we suffer from this restraint?

General Wheeler: To a degree. It’s not quantifiable. The enemy gains when you permit him to put supplies close to the lines safely.

The President: How much do we suffer in Hanoi and Haiphong—not striking them?

General Wheeler: Military price is going up. Weather is clearing. From the 1st to the 15th monsoon changes. Good bombing until mid-September. We have had six clear days for bombing in May.

The President: Clark, how long would you wait?

Secretary Clifford: My approach is pragmatic. We made practical decision not to go above 19th to avoid incidents above 20th.

The President: I thought we decided to lay off for awhile until things cooled off. I thought we pulled back to appeal to Fulbright after first thing we did was to bomb right up to the 20th the day after the March 31 statement.

I think every day the clock is ticking.

Mr. Rostow: Issue in Paris is whether we can be pushed into another unilateral action toward total cessation of bombing.

[Page 695]

Second, Harriman told Soviet ambassador we cannot sit indefinitely. It would give us some credibility to move forward a bit.

Secretary Clifford: I think a sufficient answer to them is refusal to stop the bombing—we don’t need to move it forward.

I do not want to take action which will produce minimal results. Perhaps we will take only 1,000 of 4,000 tons out.

The President: I don’t want to go on doing this. Everything we do is not total. North Vietnam may misread this as a voluntary act of foolishness.

Secretary Clifford: I feel this deeply. I do not want to appear stubborn.

The President: Shouldn’t we stop what we can? What rewards have we gotten from this? Haven’t we let more men and ammunition get through because of this?

Secretary Clifford: It is entirely possible.

The President: When was the last strike on Hanoi?

General Wheeler: The last strike was on April 1.

Secretary Rusk: I would be against dramatic strike. I would be for planes doing something—route reconnaissance or air to air or hit coastal shipping.

Secretary Clifford: You can go up to the 20th when conditions warrant.

The tone of last week has been general support for your policy. Something will come out of Paris conference. I hope so. With limitations placed on the military, we have no real plans to win the war. If you limit—

  • —no invasion into the north
  • —no mining of harbors
  • —no invasion of sanctuaries

Then I do not believe you can win militarily.

Our hopes must go with Paris.

Enemy controls the situation in the South.

  • —they can hit and run
  • —they can attack cities
  • —they can control casualties

We can hope only for success in Paris. We are in a war we can’t win.

In the fall of 1967, the North Vietnamese decided earlier plans were no good. They put their stack in. That was Tet. They didn’t win. Now, they may have concluded it is a good time to have a political settlement.

They can’t win war militarily. We can’t win the war militarily.

The President: I disagree.

[Page 696]

General Wheeler: I disagree to some extent.

Secretary Rusk: We have sought to keep North Vietnam from overtaking South Vietnam by force. We have succeeded in that.

Secretary Clifford: Hanoi cannot win the war militarily. They know that. That doesn’t mean we have won it.

I do not believe they are going to give up that effort unless we reach some agreement in Paris. If Paris does not come off, we will be back where we were before. They are not running out of manpower. They can continue at rate indefinitely.

The Soviets and Chinese will continue to help them. We must settle at Paris. Otherwise, I do not see a conclusion ahead. I see it dragging on indefinitely.

We lost so many men. They don’t seem to be bothered by their loss of men. We had a rapid erosion in support. March 31 changed all that.

We will start another period of erosion. I want to bring about a good result in Paris. We should not do anything in Vietnam.

Secretary Rusk: We will not get a solution in Paris until we prove they can’t win in the South.

Secretary Clifford: They have already seen they can’t win in the South. They have turned to Paris hoping for a political deal.

Secretary Rusk: It is worth their sending men to Paris in return for no bombing of the North. That is a real bonus.

The President: I will put it off again against my judgment. Let’s wait until Wednesday. I think we should hit everything below the 20th parallel. Let’s wait until Wednesday.

I like Dean’s suggestion of planes out hitting certain targets.

[Omitted here is discussion of the Pueblo.]

On the Filipino engineering unit:

General Wheeler: They can’t support it until June.

Secretary Clifford: They want to go down from 1,800 to 1,400.

General Wheeler: 70 per week isn’t getting much attention.

The President: What is the progress with the Korean troops?

General Wheeler: South Korean Minister of Defense will be here next week.

Secretary Rusk: The Soviets want to sign NPT in Geneva.

The briefing of Presidential candidates was discussed.

On the state of the Strategic Reserves:

Secretary Clifford: We’ll come back to you on that one.

The President: How are the expenditures running in the Department of Defense?

[Page 697]

Secretary Clifford: About as expected.

Secretary Rusk: Are you saving any money by not bombing North Vietnam?

Secretary Clifford: Now, now—you can’t put it on a cost basis. The B–52s really do cost.

The President: What do you think of our military situation in Vietnam, Buzz?

General Wheeler: We are in a good position.

The President: Are we stronger or weaker?

General Wheeler: Stronger.

The President: Any problems with changes in South Vietnam government?

Secretary Rusk: I don’t think so. It will represent 60% of the votes.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings. Top Secret. The meeting lasted from 1:15 to 3:10 p.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) An agenda for the meeting, prepared on May 21 by John Walsh of S/S, was sent to Rusk prior to the meeting. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, S/S Files: Lot 74 D 164, Presidential Luncheon Memoranda)
  2. See Document 240.
  3. The basis for this recommendation was memorandum CMCM–28–68 to the JCS, May 16, in which Chapman argued for a bombing resumption on the basis that the North Vietnamese were not bargaining in good faith. (Department of Defense, Official Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 911/305 (16 May 68) IR 4060)
  4. In telegram 14355 from Paris, May 20, Harriman transmitted a draft of his statement for the session on May 22. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, IS/OIS Files: Lot 90 D 345, Paris Peace Conference, 1968–1969, Delto Chron.) According to a notation on a note from Rostow transmitting a copy of the telegram to the President, May 20, the President instructed that Harriman add “continue to” to an operative sentence describing the assumption of “great risks” of the bombing cessation. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Harvan Misc.& Memos,Vol.III)In a memorandum to the President, May 21, 11:30 a.m., Rostow noted Rusk’s concern that the phrase could “undercut Harriman’s warning to Zorin.” (Ibid.) In a memorandum to the President, May 21, 11:50 a.m., Rostow noted the delegation’s opposition to the wording on the following grounds: “They believe it implies that we cannot continue the present partial cessation of bombing indefinitely. It would be read as an overt threat that, unless they moved along the negotiations, we were going back to total bombing of North Vietnam.” (Ibid.) The statement Harriman made at the session is in telegram 14429/Delto 107 from Paris, May 21. (Ibid.) The delegation’s report on the meeting is in telegrams 14502/Delto 113 and 14503/Delto 114 from Paris, both May 22. (Ibid.)
  5. Document 231.