36. Notes of Meeting1


  • Secretary Rusk
  • Secretary McNamara
  • Clark Clifford
  • CIA Director Helms
  • Walt Rostow
  • George Christian
  • Tom Johnson

[Omitted here is discussion of the Pueblo crisis, printed in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XXIX, Part 1, Document 248.]

The President: What about Buttercup?2

Secretary Rusk: The last Buttercup messenger turned around because of particularly heavy activity around Hanoi. On his last report the message was not very clear. Ambassador Bunker wants it authenticated. Their people think we should release four additional prisoners. I think we should leave the details of this with Ambassador Bunker to work out with Thieu.

The President: What about Packers?3

Secretary Rusk: Our man is expected in Bucharest on February 1. I think Hanoi is waiting to see how they come out in this offensive.

The President: General Wheeler, will you give us the most up to date information about Khesanh.

General Wheeler: First reports indicate 700 enemy killed. U.S. and Vietnamese casualties are light. There have been rockets and mortars to [Page 80] hit Da Nang. The city of Da Nang was also attacked. Pleiku was attacked by a couple of hundred men. They terrorized the city and struck at the Pleiku air base. There have been at least two other acts, one against the 4th Infantry and one at Nha Trong and Kontum.

At Khesanh the situation is quiet and the weather is good. At 9:00 a. m. today EST General Westmoreland said that he had talked with his Commander at Khesanh and the situation is well in hand. At Tet it is customary for many people from the countryside to come into town. It is easy for the Viet Cong to infiltrate these groups. They can bring in a mortar and a rocket easily. They assemble it at a prearranged time and attack these installations. We caught four trying to blow up a bridge. The enemy has lost quite heavily. The 4th Infantry captured 200 Viet Cong, most of whom were Montagnard Tribesmen. Twenty of them had North Vietnamese money.

Secretary McNamara: There are three military actions we would like to bring up at this time. Two of them will require the President’s approval, and one is for the President’s information.

General Wheeler: We would like approval of the Talos anti-aircraft missile for use south of the 20 degree south latitude. We have noticed recently that the MIG’s are carrying wing tanks which give them greater range. They will be going after the B–52’s in South Vietnam. They have been trying to shoot down a B–52 for psychological purposes for some time. (The President approved this action upon the recommendation of General Wheeler, Secretary Rusk and Secretary McNamara.)

The second item on which the President’s approval is requested is the use of patrols in the DMZ. These patrols would be used to check on the disposition of supplies, troops and other developments inside the DMZ. Intelligence indicates a thickening of forces around Khesanh with a thinning in the Eastern end of the DMZ. As an alternative to use of U.S. patrols, we would suggest use of ARVN patrols with U.S. advisers.

Secretary Rusk: We will lose some men this way, but there is no political problem.

Secretary McNamara: I have no problem because of the Khesanh build-up. It is natural that we will want to know what is going on in the DMZ, particularly with Khesanh shaping up the way it is.

Secretary McNamara: The third action we proposed is to organize and mount a feint of a full scale landing above the DMZ. This would involve mounting naval gun fire, making air strikes along the coast and moving amphibious shipping north into the area.

The President: Is this about the same as the proposal I have heard once before?

[Page 81]

General Wheeler: Yes, sir. There are some disadvantages. If we made such a feint, North Vietnam would claim a victory, but we request the President’s approval to go ahead and prepare a plan. This plan would be submitted to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to the President for approval. We would pretend we were going to make a landing and we would let it leak to the South Vietnamese to make sure that the North Vietnamese would learn of it. We would use naval gunfire and marshal the shipping as though we were going to load troops. The objective of this would be to make them believe that we were about to have a major landing. This would, if its purpose is realized, get them to move troops and lessen the pressure in the Khesanh area.

One advantage of this is that if it does break publicly, we have never made such a move.

Secretary McNamara: We would plan this on the basis that it would be brought to the attention of the North Vietnamese and not to the American public.

CIA Director Helms: It is a great thing if you can keep it out of the hands of the press.

Secretary McNamara: I agree.

Walt Rostow: I would not leak it to the ARVN. Once you do it will become known to the press. I would make the cover through the use of the most sophisticated electronic equipment we have.

Clark Clifford: Here is my uninformed reaction. If we go ahead and plan on this and it should become known, people would say we used this as an excuse for the real thing.

The President: Go ahead and plan it. I want to give weight to the Field Commanders recommendation in this case.

[Omitted here is continuing discussion of the Pueblo crisis.]

Walt Rostow: What are we going to do about Ted Kennedy’s report?

Secretary Rusk: He has used figures we cannot legitimately attack. Corruption is a tough one to deal with.

Secretary McNamara: There is no excuse for the Vietnamese not lowering their draft age to below 20.

The President: We should sit down with these people who have been to Vietnam and talk to them before they are turned loose on an unsuspecting public.

(At 2:35 Walt Rostow returned from a call he had taken from Bromley Smith. He reported to the meeting that “we have just been informed we are being heavily mortared in Saigon. The Presidential [Page 82] Palace, our BOQ’s, the Embassy and the city itself have been hit. This flash was just received from the NMCC.)4

The President: This could be very bad.

Secretary Rusk: Yes, I hope it is not Ambassador Bunker’s residence.

The President: What can we do to shake them from this?

This looks like where we came in. Remember it was at Pleiku that they hit our barracks and that we began to strike them in the north.

What comes to mind in the way of retaliation?

General Wheeler: It was the same type of thing before. You will remember that during the inauguration that the MACV headquarters was hit. In a city like Saigon people can infiltrate easily. They carry in rounds of ammunition and mortars. They fire and run.

It is impossible to stop this in its entirety. This is about as tough to stop as it is to protect against an individual mugging in Washington, D.C.

We have got to pacify all of this area and get rid of the Viet Cong infrastructure.

They are making a major effort to mount a series of these actions to make a big splurge at Tet.

Secretary McNamara: I have two recommendations. This is a public relations problem not a military one. We need to keep General Loan in charge of the Saigon police. He should not be removed as some of our people in the State Department are suggesting. At least not until we find somebody better.

CIA Director Helms: I agree completely.

Secretary McNamara: He is the best security chief since Diem’s time. He has cleaned up Saigon well.

Secretary Rusk: He is a good police chief, but he has been rather uncooperative with some of our people.

Secretary McNamara: The answer to the mortar attacks is success at Khesanh. We must get our story across. Phil Goulding called General Sidle this morning in Saigon. We are inflicting very heavy casualties on the enemy and we are not unprepared for the encounter.

[Omitted here is discussion of clearing the Suez Canal.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings. Top Secret.
  2. See Document 6.
  3. See Document 18.
  4. During a meeting with Dirksen and Ford later that day, the President discussed the attack on the Embassy compound and other areas. The record of the meeting, “Notes of the President’s Meeting with Senator Dirksen and Congressman Ford,” January 30, is in the Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meeting.