4. Telegram From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson in Texas1

CAP 80092. 1. Jim Jones has asked me for comment on the Westinghouse interview with Bo in Paris.2 It must, of course, be combined with the Trinh formula presented at the Outer Mongolian banquet3 and combined with other evidence as well.

2. I shall, therefore, divide this report into three parts:

  • —analysis of Bo and Trinh statements;
  • —other evidence and analysis of it;
  • —conclusions and recommendations.

I. Trinh and Bo

3. On the face of it the Trinh and Bo statements meet all but one of the criteria—more or less—built into the San Antonio formula: [Page 7]

  • —“prompt”. The Westinghouse broadcast, for the first time, says “Hanoi is willing to open peace talks at once if the bombing etc., are halted.”
  • —“productive”. In both the Westinghouse and the Trinh statements Hanoi paraphrases productive as “conversations on problems interesting the two parties.” In line with the Buttercup formula,4 the Westinghouse interview sharply distinguishes those problems between the U.S. and the North (U.S. operations against North Vietnam plus anything reciprocal they would do with the South) from those matters appropriate to the NLF and Saigon in the South.
  • —“assuming”. There is no word in public at all, in either the Trinh or the Westinghouse statements, responding to your “assumption” that Hanoi would not “take advantage” of a bombing pause.

4. This is clearly the greatest gap between Hanoi’s apparent present position and San Antonio formula; that is they do not address themselves at all to the DMZ problem.

5. Now look at these formulae from Hanoi’s previous point of view:

—They have dropped “could” for “will”; they have dropped “permanently,” leaving only “unconditionally” which could be as much to our advantage as theirs, because it leaves us freedom of action to resume bombing if in our judgement they do not meet our “assumption.”

6. In short, Hanoi, so far as the public record is concerned, has left us in the position of having some kind of response to all the elements in the San Antonio formula except reciprocal restraint at the DMZ; since we can continue to bomb in Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail even during a pause.

II. Other Evidence

7. It is certain that these moves by Hanoi are, at least part—and perhaps wholly—an effort to exert increased political and psychological pressure on you to stop bombing the North. I say this for two reasons:

  • —We know for certain that various Eastern European friends of Hanoi have been urging them for some time to present a better face to the world by being “more flexible.”
  • —If they were one hundred percent serious about ending the war they would have used a secret channel to us, not the public prints, to shift their position and find accommodation with the San Antonio formula.

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8. Having said this, I must also say that I think we must keep our minds open to the possibility that they have decided it is more in their interest to end the war before the November 1968 election than after the election.

9. For at least a year we have known the object of their military operations was not victory in the field in Vietnam but political victory in the United States. We have generally believed they’re holding out until November 1968 in the hope that American political life would produce a Mendes-France who would accept defeat as the French did in 1954. But they may have decided now that a pre-election Johnson will give them a better deal than a post-election Johnson or a Nixon-Rockefeller-Reagan with four years to go.

10. Whether this transition in their thoughts has—or has not—taken place, the following are facts with which we must reckon:

  • —They have told the Viet Cong cadres all over South Vietnam that the purpose of the winter-spring offensive is to yield as soon as a coalition government which the NLF will dominate: they are now promising their long suffering cadres peace; and this is an important hostage to fortune.
  • —The new NLF program shifts the NLF from being “the sole legitimate representative of the South Vietnamese people” to being a participant in a coalition government.
  • —There is Buttercup, the most persuasive of all the approaches we have thus far had.
  • —In at least one South Vietnamese province (Long An) the Viet Cong province leader is promising peace by Tet to his people.
  • —The Russians have been denouncing Mao as having turned Asia over to the United States to organize by frightening the peoples of Southeast Asia with “Hitlerite” domination (Soviet speeches on this theme sound very much like our own speeches about the emergence of the new Asia).
  • —Hanoi has begun to spread the concept of a neutralized Southeast Asia—not dominated by any other major power; and Hanoi is also beginning to establish ties to France, Singapore, and elsewhere looking, apparently, to its postwar development.
  • —A Rumanian envoy is coming here on January 5th with a message from Hanoi;5 and we are returning Buttercup/2 to meet Buttercup/1 the same day.

III. Conclusions and Recommendations

11. Keep our powder dry: unless proved to the contrary we must plow ahead with our present plans in both South Vietnam and with respect to the bombing of the North. We are engaged in a test of nerve [Page 9] and will in which we are being measured every day. We should not draw back from our present dispositions and operations unless we have reasons of substance to do so.

12. We must accept that we are being subjected, at the minimum, to a major Hanoi psychological warfare offensive to get us to stop bombing in order to permit them more cheaply to prolong the war in the South.

13. We should make no move on the Trinh-Westinghouse formula until we hear out the Rumanian envoy on January 5th-6th. Then we must make clear to the envoy and to Hanoi that the San Antonio formula is rock-bottom. You meant every word that you said about the San Antonio formula in your TV interview.

14. But if the Rumanian message is reasonably forthcoming, we will face a very tough problem:

  • —should you have a bombing pause and talks “at once” even if you do not have prior assurance on the “assumption” of “no taking advantage”;
  • —or, should you first negotiate and insist on the assumption of reciprocal action from either side.

15. This is a matter of which, of course, you must judge in the light of all the evidence at the time. We have not heard the Rumanian yet. I would, however, make this observation: if there is any chance for peace, it is because they want it before 1968. Therefore, we should, if we get a reasonably forthcoming response from the Rumanians, take it slowly and carefully despite the pressures that are already building at home and abroad. To make it precise, I think we should send the Rumanians back to check out the “assumption” before we actually stop bombing—assuming that they confirm at a formal diplomatic level the Trinh and Westinghouse statements.

16. Finally, we must watch sensitively the Buttercup channel and other indicators of the possibility of a Southern negotiation. Both the Westinghouse broadcast and Buttercup have, as I noted initially, made the same sharp distinction:

  • —between a Southern negotiation to settle the political shape of South Vietnam;
  • —and a U.S.-Hanoi negotiation to stop the bombing (with NVN reciprocal action) and thus set the stage for the reinstallation of the Geneva Accords of 1954 and 1962—to which the Westinghouse interview refers explicitly.

17. In short, Mr. President, I am beginning to believe my judgement at the time of Ho’s letter to you a year ago6 could be wrong. I then said that [Page 10] peace was beyond our grasp until after the November 1968 election. I am now beginning to open my mind to the possibility that Hanoi may have decided that time is no longer its friend—either on the battle fields of Vietnam or the battle fields of U.S. politics. But, I repeat, a part of what we see is certainly not diplomacy but political pressure against us.

18. On both counts, therefore, we must be prepared to respond actively to what we hear from the Rumanians on January 5–6 and to what emerges from Buttercup. At a certain point you may wish to cease the initiative. Instead of counterpunching you may wish to hold their feet to the fire on both the San Antonio formula and your five points on TV. If you wish this scenario pursued I can continue; but that’s enough for tonight.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 3J-Bombing Mistakes. Secret; Sensitive; Literally Eyes Only. This telegram was received at the LBJ Ranch Communications Center at 1:05 a.m. on January 4. The notation “ps” on the telegram indicates that the President saw it. The President stayed at the Ranch from December 26, 1967, through January 13, 1968.
  2. In a January 3 interview with Bernard Redmont, a correspondent for the Westinghouse Broadcasting Corporation, Bo reportedly had “confirmed more clearly than ever that Hanoi is willing to open peace talks at once if the bombing and all other acts of war against North Vietnam are halted.” See The New York Times, January 4, 1968.
  3. See Document 1.
  4. See Document 6.
  5. See Document 5.
  6. For Ho Chi Minh’s February 1967 letter to President Johnson, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. V, Document 82.