292. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1



  • Under-Secretary Nicholas Katzenbach
  • Ambassador Harriman (Paris)
  • Ambassador Bunker (Saigon)

I have been following with attention and fascination the exchanges on the appropriate no-bombing formula.

May I offer a wholly personal commentary, as viewed from a San Antonio motel, Air Force One, and the Salvadorian Fraternity House from which I am now operating.2

At the risk of caricature it looks like this.

Saigon draws a wholly persuasive picture of political and psychological catastrophe brought on by a talk-and-fight strategy in which we permit attacks on Saigon-Danang-Hue at a time when there are no attacks on North Vietnam. Presumably VC-NVA personnel in South Vietnam plus infiltrators through Laos would permit this.
Washington and Paris—with somewhat different emphasis—appear to believe that a version of the Zorin formula involving a closing down of the DMZ would have political-psychological-military effects strongly to our (U.S.-GVN) net advantage.
In part the correct judgment depends on a military assessment of:
  • —infiltration capabilities through Laos under weather likely over next several months;
  • —our capability to defend Hue, Danang, and Saigon.
I suspect it is precisely this obviously delicate political-psychological-military equation Hanoi is now assessing.

It may be clarifying, therefore, to pose the issue to which the equation on both sides is addressed:

  • —can the constitutional Thieu government survive?
  • —can it be destroyed by a combination of enemy action and U.S. diplomacy?

All the serious evidence outside the formal Paris changes is addressed, after all, to the question of the future political structure of South Vietnam of which the latest Kapitsa-French conversations are only the latest example.

Therefore, I draw this tentative conclusion: The critical issue in judging whether an honorable peace is now possible is not the exact terms for a bombing cessation but whether Hanoi has come to the point where it will accept the Thieu Government as interlocutor on both a southern political settlement and such issues as DMZ, future of Vietnam, etc.
If this judgment is correct the key issue for discussion is the issue raised by the Paris interpretation of Zorin; that is, Hanoi’s willingness to accept a your-side-our-side formula. I could easily be wrong at this distance, but my interpretation of Saigon’s anxiety is much less Hanoi’s military strength than it is U.S. and Hanoi negotiating the fate of South Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
This line of argument is obviously open to debate; but if it is right, it means that the GVN view of a no-bombing-for-DMZ deal would be one thing if the issue of GVN negotiating participation were settled satisfactorily: a quite different matter if the latter issue were still in contention—as it obviously now is.
I raise for your consideration then, the question of making central rather than peripheral Hanoi’s willingness to discuss a settlement with the GVN, either directly or through a cut-out. If they say: “Yes,” then the basis for peace may exist. If “No,” then peace is still far off.
In short I believe, tentatively:
  • —we should probe the Paris negotiators and Moscow hard on the structure of future southern politics.
  • —we should elevate the relative priority we are establishing for your-side-our-side.
The question for Saigon is: How much is the problem military; how much solved if the GVN is in the middle of a negotiation.
The question for Washington and Paris is whether it would not be wiser to try to settle the future negotiating structure before or concurrently with the negotiation of a Stage I-Stage II package.
Seen from a distance this emphasis makes sense since the point of the enterprise is not to find a way to stop bombing but to find a way to an honorable peace.
I repeat: This is in no sense a formal White House message.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Harvan Misc. & Memos, Vol. V(a), 7/68. Secret; Sensitive. This memorandum was transmitted as telegram SSWH 0007 from Rostow to Bromley Smith, July 7, with the request to forward it to both Paris and Saigon. (Ibid.) It was sent to Saigon as CAP 81557 to Bunker and to Paris as CAP 81558 to Harriman and Vance, both July 7. (Ibid.)
  2. Rostow stopped in Texas en route to the Organization of Central American States meeting at San Salvador, El Salvador, which began on July 5. The President left for El Salvador from the LBJ Ranch on July 6 and returned on July 8. He arrived back in Washington on July 10. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)