256. Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense Clifford1



  • Possible Courses of Action and Alternatives in Vietnam Under Certain Conditions (U)
(TS) Reference is made to your memorandum, dated 24 May 1968, subject: “Possible U.S. Courses of Action if Paris Talks Stall or Break Down,”2 which requested judgments on steps to be taken by the United States in the event that current talks in Paris fail to be productive in the near term or break down completely or are abandoned.
(TS) The Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that the military actions which are required to create favorable conditions for satisfactory negotiations are very nearly identical with those military actions which should be taken if the talks are broken off.
(TS) Currently, US/Free World/Government of Vietnam Forces are significantly stronger than enemy forces in South Vietnam (SVN). However, in view of the enemy’s lack of restraint in the face of our partial bombing cessation, the US/Government of Vietnam position in SVN may deteriorate with time, unless Hanoi deescalates or full bombardment is resumed.
(TS) The Joint Chiefs of Staff estimate that North Vietnam’s (NVN’s) objective in Paris is to gain by negotiations what it cannot gain through aggression in SVN. It is probable that NVN hopes for circumstances which would result in a withdrawal of US Forces from SVN and a weak South Vietnamese Government which would have to accept a coalition or ultimate defeat.
(TS) The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider it clearly undesirable and unnecessary to accept circumstances which would lead to precipitous withdrawal or negotiations from weakness. They believe that military actions, which are feasible in terms of forces, costs, time, and risks, can be undertaken which would either render the enemy incapable of continuing the war or cause him to recognize the inevitable destruction of his capability to continue the war.
(TS) The two situations provided in the reference are discussed in paragraphs 7 and 8, below. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that forceful action by the United States is necessary in each of the two situations proposed. The actions recommended are designed to influence NVN towards productive, meaningful negotiations or, in the event of their breakdown, to make it as costly and difficult as possible for NVN to continue its support of the war in SVN.

(TS) Policy if North Vietnam Remains Unresponsive in Paris Talks

A primary objective of NVN is, and has been, to force the United States into a unilateral cessation of bombing. Nevertheless, implicit in the President’s 31 March 1968 offer was the threat of resumption of prior bombardment if NVN took advantage of a bombing cessation or if prompt and productive talks did not follow such a cessation.
NVN intransigence at the negotiation table has been accompanied by a continued high level of offensive operations in SVN. Moreover, rather than restrictions by NVN, they have taken advantage of the bombing cessation by increasing the movement of men and materiel to the South. While US casualties have increased during this period, NVN has enjoyed immunity from attack in its heartland, its major cities, and its base of military aggression. Without reciprocal [Page 737] deescalation on the part of NVN and movement towards productive discussions, the military risks increase.
The five courses of action outlined in the reference are evaluated in Appendix A hereto.3
To move from partial to complete cessation of bombing in NVN entails a substantial increase in risk to the security of allied forces when compared to the risks accepted by the unilateral, though partial, cessation of 31 March 1968. Bombing directly supports allied forces in I CTZ and has an immediate capability to influence the course of the battle. Loss of this capability, which bombing affords, would, as the President’s statement on 31 March 1968 conveyed, “… immediately and directly endanger the lives of our men and our allies, …” unless there were rapid and visible comparable restraint by the enemy. Prompt reciprocal deescalatory acts must be identified and verified in order to lessen the military risks, alleviate mistrust by SVN, and help achieve US national objectives in Southeast Asia.
Cessation of the bombing without an agreed and effective deescalation of the war in the South would be difficult to reconcile with the increase in US casualties, which the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe would result from the cessation of bombing. Psychologically, the American people could well relate cessation of bombing with “unnecessary casualties.”
Without significant progress in negotiations, forceful action by the United States is necessary to redress the military disadvantages attributable to the partial bombing cessation. Expansion of target lists and areas of operation in the past on a gradual incremental basis did not prove effective in making it as difficult and costly as possible for NVN to continue its aggression in SVN. A concerted air and naval campaign capable of accomplishing US objectives must include action of such scope and timeliness as to exceed NVN’s ability to accommodate.
The extension of the bombardment limit from 19° N to 20°N would not bring significantly increased pressure on NVN nor seriously restrict the flow of men and materiel on the part of an enemy determined to “fight and talk.” US gradualism would invite continuation of unproductive talks, continuing high rates of infiltration, and increased fighting in SVN as part of the North Vietnamese process of attempting to wear down what they hope to be a war-weary divided enemy. Another option considered is that of a one-time, large-scale air strike north of the 20th parallel. However, such a strike beyond announced [Page 738] limits would be to the disadvantage of the United States because it could elicit unfavorable public reaction. Moreover, while a one-time strike could produce significant damage against a portion of the enemy strengths attacked, the benefits would probably not be sufficient to compensate for aircraft losses in the absence of authority for poststrike reconnaissance, restrike, and sustained pressures.

In the face of continued NVN intransigence, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that Course of Action IV, Option D (Expand Bombardment Beyond Authorities Existing Prior to 31 March 1968) be initiated and continued until Hanoi begins prompt and productive talks. This campaign, utilizing the good weather period extending into November, should consist of bombardment by air and naval forces against all of NVN, with specific exceptions related to the ChiCom buffer zone. A decision relative to expanded bombing of NVN is time sensitive and should be made soon enough to permit taking advantage of the good weather associated with the southwest monsoon (May–November).

(TS) Policy if Paris Talks Breakdown or are Abandoned
The three broad alternatives outlined in the reference in the event the current talks in Paris breakdown or are abandoned are set forth below and are evaluated more fully in Appendix B hereto.4
Alternative 1 (Continue Present Strategy) maintains the initiative and favorable US/Government of Vietnam negotiating position, should negotiations be resumed.
Major operations under Alternative 2 (Expand the Ground War into Laos, Cambodia, and/or North Vietnam) would be at least 6 months or more away and would require an additional Reserve callup and mobilization. Expanded covert operations and small-scale overt operations in these areas, as required, supported by airpower, would increase effectiveness of operations in SVN.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that the present strategy is designed to achieve the objectives of Alternative 3 (Revise Strategy To Achieve the Optimum Balance Between Maximum Security for South Vietnamese Population and Minimum US Casualties). They assume that this alternative is intended to represent a “demographic strategy”; i.e., a withdrawal of allied forces from selected areas of SVN temporarily or permanently. This alternative would assume current levels of forces and intensity of combat, with a change only in tactics to be executed in SVN. The change in tactics would unduly prolong the war through the adoption of a defensive posture and voluntarily surrendering [Page 739] to the enemy the tactical initiative, as well as some of the population and much of the territory of SVN. This would be tantamount to a military defeat for our forces. Moreover, the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that Free World casualties would increase. Therefore, of the three alternatives, this course of action is the least suitable.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that, should it become necessary to resume full-scale hostilities in Southeast Asia, such an undertaking should be free of the militarily confining restraints which have characterized the conduct of the war in the North to date. Specifically, authorities should be granted for closure of North Vietnamese ports by mining; for unrestricted air warfare against all targets of military and/or economic significance to and including Route 4, except that no approach closer than 2 nm to the ChiCom border would be made; and extension of normal naval surface operations to 21°-15N, 15 miles south of the ChiCom border.
Monetary cost for these three alternatives cannot be estimated without a determination of the extent of operations to be undertaken and forces required.
Recommendation. In the event talks breakdown or are abandoned, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend Alternative 1 (Continue Present Strategy) combined with:
An expanded air and naval campaign against NVN, as set forth in subparagraph 8e, above.
Expanded covert and small-scale overt operations in Laos, Cambodia, and the DMZ, as required, supported by air power, to increase the effectiveness of operations in SVN.
(U) Although the foregoing and Appendices A and B respond to the questions posed in the reference, the Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that the questions directly address specific courses of action rather than the broader problem of policy. Therefore, they are preparing additional comments and recommendations as a matter of urgency.
For the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
Earle G. Wheeler5

Joint Chiefs of Staff
  1. Source: Department of Defense, Official Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 911/305 (24 May 68) IR 4055–4057. Top Secret; Sensitive.
  2. In this memorandum, I–35539/68 to Wheeler, May 24, Clifford requested that the JCS respond to two “eventualities.” He outlined five options if the North Vietnamese remained “unresponsive” at Paris: A) continuation of the present restrictions; B) extension up to the 20th parallel; C) return to the campaign prior to March 31; D) expansion of the attacks to include all targets in the Hanoi and Haiphong area; or E) a complete cessation. If the talks broke down completely, there were three alternative courses of action: 1) continue with the present strategy; 2) expand the ground war into Laos, Cambodia, or North Vietnam; or 3) adopt a revised strategy that would “achieve the optimum balance between maximum security for the South Vietnamese population and minimum casualties.” (Washington National Records Center, Department of Defense, OSD Files: FRC 330 73 A 1304, 1968 Secretary of Defense Files, VIET 092.2)
  3. In the attached Appendix A, entitled “Alternative Courses of Action Under Certain Assumed Conditions,” undated, the JCS evaluated the various options and recommended that Option D be initiated.
  4. In the attached Appendix B, the JCS evaluated the three alternatives in Clifford’s memorandum.
  5. Printed from a copy that indicates General Westmoreland signed the original.