249. Notes of Meeting1

ATTENDING THE LUNCHEON WERE

  • Secretary Rusk
  • Secretary Clifford
  • Director Helms
  • General Wheeler
  • Walt Rostow
  • Justice Fortas
  • General Taylor
  • George Christian

The President: We have received a wire from Ambassador Harriman.2

Secretary Rusk: Vance told me on the phone he was a little reluctant about route reconnaissance. Cy prefers pinpoint.

The President: What about their air activity, Bus?

[Page 716]

General Wheeler: They’re carrying out an unprecedented number of training flights north of the 20th parallel, both with IL–28’s and MIGs. They haven’t been south of the 20th parallel since May 11.

Mr. Rostow: They’re using Bonnie and Clyde pilots.

General Wheeler: They’re hoping to take Danang and hold it for a day.

The President: What are the respective strengths there?

General Wheeler: We’ve got more horses than they have.

General Taylor: When General Westmoreland is here, make the maximum public relations use of him.

Secretary Rusk: Will there be a strategy change under Abrams?

General Wheeler: The pattern will be about the same. He may consolidate forces.

Mr. Rostow: Who will keep an eye on the ARVN?

General Wheeler: One of his staff.

The President: How will the new Vietnam Cabinet be received in the court of public opinion?

Secretary Rusk: I believe it will be plus marks—be stronger in terms of political solidarity.

The President: I’m afraid they’re going to divide off Ky.

Secretary Rusk: He’s taking wait and see attitude.

Director Helms: It is dangerous—Ky keeping his generals close to see if Thieu goes too far.

The President: Should Ky come here with Thieu? Ask Bunker to think about it.3

Secretary Rusk: I don’t believe we should have a joint session for Thieu. It won’t do us any good.

The President: Clark, anything new to report?

Secretary Clifford: I was before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee.4 There was a good deal of discussion about Paris and the bombing. They have a good understanding of what the Communists are up to. They seem to be relaxed about things.

[Page 717]

(General Wheeler discussed the offensive action planned to disrupt enemy threat to Ben Het. It would involve some bombing and artillery in uninhabited area of Cambodia used for North Vietnam retreat.)5

Secretary Rusk: I need time to think about it—especially B–52s.

General Wheeler: I don’t need a decision for several days. I would like to have it Monday or Tuesday.6

Secretary Clifford: I see a military need, but concerned because of negotiations. Before we do it, let’s talk to our representatives in Paris. Maybe we should have Vance back after the Monday meeting. We also can discuss with Cy the bombing north of the 19th parallel, and clear up the North Vietnamese interpretations.

General Taylor: That is a reasonable proposition.

Mr. Rostow: General Westmoreland envisions doing this after an attack across the Cambodian border. I don’t think Hanoi would break up the talks.

Justice Fortas: Vance’s return will be big publicity.

The President: We’ve got to lay some predicates for resuming if we have to. We’ve got to prepare for the day of reckoning. We’re not informing people of what they’re doing. You wait till we have some military disaster—that’ll be it. They’d rather negotiate with Kennedy, McCarthy or Humphrey.

General Taylor: I’d go back to the 20th right now.

The President: Let’s set predicate—we can’t pop it all at once.

Secretary Clifford: The bombing sorties in North Vietnam are up from 3200 in February to 9100 in May.

The President: I want Rusk and Clifford to get together and figure out how to get back to the 20th parallel with little bombast.

[Page 718]

The President: Let’s have Vance come back.

To review:

1.
Clark and Dean lay out program to get back to the 20th parallel.
2.
Tell Cy to come back.
3.
Meet again Tuesday—I’ve made up my mind on the 20th.

The President: Dean, what is your prediction on Paris?

Secretary Rusk: Not going to change in Paris till they’ve carried out more attacks in South Vietnam. We’ve got to play these things out. I don’t think there’ll be anything until July at least—they may wait for the August convention. The Rumanian Foreign Minister expressed the same view.

Director Helms: We believe the objectives of fight and talk are to bring down the South Vietnam government. I don’t see any give in the North Vietnam position for some time.

Secretary Clifford: You made a generous offer in San Antonio to stop all bombing, yet they took the tougher offer on March 31. What happened in between? The big event was disappointment with Tet. I think they decided they couldn’t succeed militarily. I think they’re in Paris to seek a political settlement.

I believe something will come out of Paris. There’s hope now on the part of the American people. If we do anything to wreck Paris—Bobby shoots up—public opinion goes against us. We need to keep the talks going through August 26. We may get bits and scraps by then. We must maintain the talks.

The President: Bus, are we in good shape now as we were when talks began?

General Wheeler: Better. We haven’t lost much. It could worsen. They’ll try to drag talks out to keep bombing off their backs. You couldn’t get them out of Paris with a team of oxen and bullwhips.

The President: What should we do?

General Wheeler: Fight—keep the pressure on. If we get an opportunity to hit them in Cambodia, do it.7

General Taylor: They’re combining political and military fronts.

Mr. Rostow: I’d go back to 20th after we talk to Cy—I’d begin to think about the way to settle the war by the end of the year. We ought [Page 719]to be thinking about the possibility of forcing this to a crisis. Get things rougher.

Secretary Rusk: I think bombing south of the 20th parallel more effective.

General Wheeler: I disagree.

Secretary Clifford: In concentrating attacks, we’re doing a better job—In April 1967, 242 trucks; April 1968, 765 trucks knocked out. In Laos: April 1967, 138; April 1968, 1400.

General Wheeler: The 1967 figures do not reflect a better spotting and night vision this year.

Justice Fortas: The program you outlined seemed to be right. If it is important to move up to the 20th, move up. Should examine whether Paris platform is being used adequately for public education. For the moment, American people enraptured by the fact that talks are going on. I think both of us have to stay in Paris. But unless we react to the high casualty figures—in Paris, by Harriman—people will lose confidence.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Meeting Notes File. No classification marking. The meeting, which ended at 3:45 p.m., was held in the White House. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) These notes were taken by Christian. The previous day, Clifford sent a memorandum to Wheeler discussing alternative military actions in the event the Paris talks stalled or terminated. (Ibid., Alain Enthoven Papers, Strategy)
  2. See footnote 2, Document 248.
  3. A discussion of a possible visit by Thieu to the United States is attached to a May 28 memorandum from Rostow to the President. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Presidential Meetings and Trips, President’s Meeting w/Pres. Thieu-Honolulu, Memos & Misc. (2 of 2))
  4. In an appearance before this Committee on May 23, Clifford stressed that the DRV was pursuing a “fight and negotiate” strategy and that the United States had to be prepared to do the same. See The New York Times, May 24, 1968.
  5. In telegram 14986 to Sharp, May 25, Westmoreland noted that the NVA, operating out of its sanctuaries in Cambodia, was launching an attack, the principal objective of which was to seize Kontum City after eliminating fire support bases such as that at Ben Het. In response, Westmoreland had ordered pre-emptive B–52 strikes in Kontum province in order to force the NVA to withdraw to its border sanctuary areas. He now requested that advance authorization be given for hot pursuit of the enemy units into the Cambodian border areas. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Walt Rostow Files, Meetings with the President, May–June 1968 [1]) In telegram 28267 from Saigon, May 25, Bunker transmitted his endorsement of the action, which he considered a “maximum opportunity” to “inflict the maximum punishment on the enemy.” He added: “It seems to me that we must grasp this nettle firmly. Our forces have been taking heavy casualties, particularly in I Corps, since January, and part of the reason are the Cambodian and Laotian sanctuaries and the stepped-up Hanoi military effort. I believe that we should at this critical juncture of the war and negotiations let them know that we are no longer going to allow this uninhabited area to be used in this fashion.” (Ibid.)
  6. May 27 or 28.
  7. In an agenda for the meeting prepared for the President, which he saw beforehand, Rostow noted: “Gen. Westmoreland, strongly supported by Amb. Bunker, requests the right to attack with artillery and airpower enemy bases across the border in Cambodia after attacks in the Kontum-Pleiku area are turned back. The area is uninhabited. Gen. Westmoreland believes that the area meets the conditions mentioned by Sihanouk to Bowles in January 1968 for areas in which he would close his eyes to such operations.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Walt Rostow Files, Meetings with the President, May–June 1968 [2])