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

Mr. President:

Responding to a question from Elspeth2 last night, I explained events in Vietnam as follows.

The war had been proceeding in 1967 on an attritional basis with our side gradually improving its position, the Communists gradually running down: like this

[Omitted here is Rostow’s hand-drawn graph with a line labeled “Allies” rising and a line labeled “Communists” falling.]

[Page 129]

Behind these curves were pools of military forces and fire power which represented the working capital available to the two sides.

As the documents forecast, the Communists decided to take a large part of their capital and put it into:

  • —an attack on the cities;
  • —a frontier attack at Khe Sanh and elsewhere.

In the one case their objective was the believed vulnerability of the GVN and the believed latent popular support for the Viet Cong.

In the other case, the believed vulnerability of the U.S. public opinion to discouragement about the war.

So the curves actually moved like this:

[Omitted here is Rostow’s hand-drawn graph with the top line, the right half of which is dotted, rising gradually and the bottom line falling slightly, rising sharply, then falling sharply to well below the beginning point, after which it rises again. At the point where the line falls, it is dotted, coinciding with the dotted line above it.]

The dotted portions indicate the potentiality if:

  • —the cities are cleared up and held against possible follow-on attacks;
  • —the GVN demonstrate effective political and relief capacity;
  • —we hold Khe Sanh;
  • —we keep U.S. opinion steady on course.

In short, if all on our side do their job well, the net effect could be a shortening of the war.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, NSC History of the March 31st Speech. No classification marking. The notation “ps” on the memorandum indicates that the President saw it.
  2. Rostow’s wife.