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

Mr. President:

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that it is likely that, if we are to preserve the talks in Paris, we shall have to take the risk of breaking them up—and so demonstrating to Hanoi.

The judgment is premature, since we do not know how the Russians will treat our reply; and that comes first.

But here is my reasoning:

Hanoi, on balance, regards our move of March 31st as taken from weakness—domestic political weakness.
They probably calculate that, above all, we don’t want to rock the boat in Paris. Our backing down to the 19th parallel has helped convince them.
Therefore, they can safely:
  • —take the fullest possible advantage of what we regard as an act of de-escalation by increasing rather than reducing their effort and attacking Saigon while Hanoi is a sanctuary;
  • —take their own sweet time in the Paris negotiations.
In short, I believe they are laughing at us and playing us for suckers on the diplomatic-military front, in the short run.
On the other hand, I am pretty sure that they regard their longer run, basic position as weak and requiring a negotiated settlement within, say, the next year:
  • —the evidence is now that they were about to take an initiative around March 31;
  • —as you know, I do not believe their intense military activity, with abnormally high casualties and North Vietnamese infiltration, is a stable military position;
  • —if Thieu-Huong keep coming forward, they may conclude time is not their friend in South Vietnamese politics;
  • —the Russians and Eastern Europeans may not be willing to keep them afloat at the cost of a billion dollars a year for long; and the Russians may even have exacted a commitment from them to wind up in 1968 in return for the billion dollar grubstake for the winter-spring offensive.
If this is so, Bus Wheeler may be right: we couldn’t get them out of Paris with a team of mules.
What follows from these tentative judgments:
  • —Sect. Rusk should see Kuznetsov in New York, after we despatch the letter to Kosygin, and talk more somberly to him than the tone of your letter to Kosygin. Specifically: we can’t live, in any case, with this level of infiltration; we can’t live with Saigon a target and Hanoi a sanctuary; we can’t live with this protracted telephone book strategy in Paris;2
  • —We should have some Senators speak to this theme: McGee, Brooke, Jackson, others;
  • —If Kosygin’s reply is not satisfactory we should continue the dialogue and then:
  • —move back to the 20th parallel;
  • —have Averell tell the North Vietnamese that we shall have to match every rocket on Saigon with, at least, a bomb on Hanoi.
This may move the negotiations off dead center. It will, if para. 5 above is correct. If para 5. is wrong, they will withdraw from Paris.
That would be a most serious situation; but what would it mean? It would mean they are not prepared for an honorable negotiation nor for an honorable settlement. If so, we’d better face it.

I understand—and with sympathy—Clark Clifford’s view that this could be a mortal blow to the Vice President’s political position. But where Clark is wrong is in believing that we—or the Vice President—can continue to live with the undignified and humiliating situation where:

  • —they respond to March 31 with escalation, not de-escalation;
  • —they refuse to negotiate seriously in Paris;
  • —they shell Saigon and weaken the GVN, while Hanoi goes scot-free.

It is a long time from June to August and August to November.

If they do not respond to our communications and actions, and if they walk out of Paris because we exact reprisals on Hanoi for the shelling of Saigon, I do not believe we can or should return to a simple status quo ante . We should do more against both Hanoi and Haiphong.
I set these thoughts down reluctantly. I hope that Kosygin’s reply will make them irrelevant. But, for what they may be worth, I thought you should have them.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Harvan Misc. & Memos, Vol. III. Secret; Sensitive. The notation “ps” on the memorandum indicates that the President saw it.
  2. Rusk met with Vasily Kuznetsov, First Deputy Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, in New York on June 14. (Memoranda of conversation, June 14; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, S/S-EX Files: Lot 79 D 247) Prior to this meeting, he met with U Thant to discuss Vietnam. Telegram 2244 from USUN, June 14, reported on this conversation. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Agency File, UN, Vol. 8) It is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XXXIII.