242. Information Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

You asked for my comments on Clark Clifford’s memorandum of May 20 relating to Amb. Bunker’s cable on an appropriate response in the North if Saigon is again attacked.2

Clark’s view is that: under the language of the March 31 speech an attack on Saigon does not fall under the category of matching restraint by Hanoi. He does not see a link between our cessation of bombing in [Page 698] the North and attack in the South on the cities. He believes that the restraint we should seek is a reduction in the flow of men and materiel from the North into the South.

He could have strengthened his formal argument, as others have done, by noting there is a certain danger in raising the question of how Hanoi uses its forces in the South, because on that basis they could try to restrict our military activities in the South.

What Clark does not deal with is the view—strongly felt in South Vietnam—that we could have serious morale problems among troops and civilian population in South Vietnam if two circumstances converge:

  • —A prolonged stalemate in Paris, with the bulk of North Vietnam a sanctuary;
  • —Another major attack on Saigon or Hue, or both.

In short, while Clark can make a perfectly good, logical and quasi-legal case, based on the language of the March 31 speech, he is not wrestling with a problem which could become more real with each passing day and which could become acute if, say, after another month of fruitless talks in Paris and another month of sanctuary in Hanoi-Haiphong, Saigon gets hit hard again with another 100,000 refugees, etc.

We must think about this problem very hard in the light of the two reports in the last day that Hanoi plans to stonewall in Paris until the Democratic nominee is chosen; and then stonewall further if that candidate is Sen. Robert Kennedy. The underlying postulate of Clark’s view, as presented at lunch yesterday,3 is, I believe, this: We can hold a tolerable basis of support for our policy in Vietnam indefinitely if there are some kind of talks in Paris and, I would add, if U.S. casualty figures are not excessive. If Paris breaks up, he fears an erosion of U.S. support for the war.

It follows logically that he wishes to take absolutely no risk that we trigger an end to the Paris talks—or even give the other side any kind of credible excuse for breaking them up.

In turn, he is very anxious, therefore, to keep the bombing between the 19th and 20th parallels available as a riposte to another attack on Saigon, or something equivalent. I would guess that he feels they would not walk out if we replied by bombing up to the 20th; they would walk out if we resumed operations against Hanoi-Haiphong.

What Clark’s analysis does not say, in my judgment, is what policy we should follow if there is no break in the Paris talks and if they continue [Page 699] to “read the telephone book” to us each time we meet. I doubt that we can sit still indefinitely under those circumstances.

But whatever I may think, the problem which should be systematically addressed is this: What are our alternatives if we face a telephone-book strategy in Paris until the Democratic convention plus a telephone-book strategy until November if Senator Kennedy is nominated in Chicago, plus a telephone-book strategy until the end of January 1969 if Sen. Kennedy should be elected in November. Our options are roughly these:

  • —to hold bombing to the 19th parallel;
  • —to move bombing to the 20th parallel;
  • —to resume bombing on the old pattern in Hanoi-Haiphong;
  • —to resume bombing in Hanoi-Haiphong plus other measures which might force Hanoi and its allies to an earlier decision.

I have in mind, for example, mining the North Vietnamese harbors and/or sending some of our forces northward across the DMZ.4

All the current indicators are that Hanoi does not now plan to negotiate seriously with us, on the basis of your March 31 speech; but these current indicators may not be correct. They may be putting out the Bobby Kennedy stories because they feel that we are so anxious to get a settlement soon that this might force us to soften our position on a further unilateral de-escalation. We might get something out of Stewart’s talks in Moscow.5

Nevertheless, I believe it appropriate that, on a contingency basis, we begin to examine the options open to us if they continue simply to stonewall in Paris.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Harvan Misc.&Memos, Vol.II. Secret. The notation “ps” on the memorandum indicates that the President saw it.
  2. Regarding Bunker’s cable, see footnote 2, Document 237. In his May 20 memorandum to the President, Clifford noted: “The thrust of Bunker’s cable is that Hanoi should be made to understand that attacks on Saigon or other centers of population are, in our view, ‘taking advantage’ of the San Antonio Formula and cannot be carried out with impunity and without fear of retaliation. I believe that this is a weak position. I believe that, at this stage of the negotiations, it is unwise for us to adhere to the San Antonio Formula. I think it is sounder for us to contend that that Formula has been superseded by the President’s March 31st speech and events that have occurred since then.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Harvan Misc & Memos, Vol. II)
  3. See Document 241.
  4. In a May 18 memorandum to Rostow, Ginsburgh recommended the following: the San Antonio formula not be explicitly disavowed; bombing be resumed when the enemy launched its next offensive; and any bombing over Hanoi and Haiphong be extensive and effective. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, Walt Rostow, Vol. 77)
  5. See Document 246.