67. Notes of Meeting1

[Omitted here is discussion of the Pueblo crisis.]

The President: Reviewed General Westmoreland’s wire of February 9. (Attachment B).2

Secretary McNamara: General Wheeler will discuss Westmoreland’s wire and the current situation in Vietnam.

General Wheeler:

  • —Very little went on yesterday in Vietnam.
  • —There were some small actions around Khe Sanh.
  • —More people were evacuated from Khe Sanh.
  • —A defector was picked up. He said the plan of attack was first to hit Long Vie; then to hit Con Thien; then to hit Khe Sanh at a later time.
  • —We had a report of Frog Missiles being mounted on the front of enemy tanks. These missiles are similar to our Honest John. They carry an 800 pound warhead. These could pose problems.
  • —In Hue there is still fighting in the Citadel area. We hope to clean this up within a couple of days. The outskirts of the city are clear.
  • —In Da Nang, there has been a hell of a scrap. Units of the NVA are leaving.
  • —At Dalat there is continued sniping. The situation is in hand.
  • —Saigon fighting continues in Cholon. There was an attempted attack on Tan Son Nhut airport last night. Over 170 weapons were captured and 100 enemy left dead.
  • —In IV Corps there is some skirmishing around the towns.

The Joint Chiefs are looking at the entire situation. On Friday3 we had not seen the Westmoreland cable. His cable put a different light on the situation we discussed at the Friday morning meeting with the President. As you will recall, on Thursday I sent Westmoreland a cable that we had discussed additional matériel but he had said nothing about additional troops. The next day Westmoreland said that he could find use for additional troops like the 82nd and some Marine units. I talked to him again on Friday morning. He said he was then dictating a [Page 176] cable on the current situation. This cable came in Friday afternoon. I had DePuy go over the cable thoroughly to see what it means. The key paragraph says “needless to say I would welcome reinforcements if they became available.” He said he would use these reinforcements to do three things:

To contain the enemy offensive in the two northern provinces of I Corps.
To carry out his 1968 campaign plan.
To offset a weakened Vietnam armed forces.

The Joint Chiefs feel that we have taken several hard knocks. The situation can get worse. We do not know the ability of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to recycle and come back to attack. We know that the enemy committed virtually all of its Viet Cong units to these most recent actions. There have been heavy casualties inflicted.

We do not know what the ability of the ARVN is to withstand recycled attacks.

Secretary McNamara: I have doubts about the ARVN strength but many of them have returned after the Tet Holidays to bring the units back up in capability.

The President: What I am interested in is that line in the Westmoreland cable “shortage of strength in the ARVN units.”

General Wheeler: The ARVN are getting the men back to their units.

Walt Rostow: What about the RF and PF units.

General Wheeler: We do not know what the situation is on these units.

The President: As I see it, you have concluded that neither Bob’s plan or the JCS plan is workable now, and that we should look at this whole situation tomorrow.

General Wheeler: That is correct.

Secretary McNamara: Yes, we will talk about this tomorrow.

The President: What about the supply situation and the need for more helicopters?

Secretary McNamara: We are examining the helicopter production schedules. We are in good shape with fixed wing aircraft.

The President: What about Khe Sanh?

General Wheeler: The supplies at Khe Sanh are very adequate. There is plenty of anti-tank ammo and they have used Coraform only once. We may move more C-130’s in temporarily.

General Wheeler: The President may want to consider sending a small JCS staff group of intelligence, operations, and logistical advisers [Page 177] either with me to come back with a first-hand report of the situation. I have never found any substitute for getting first hand information.

The President: First let’s see what we can do with Cy Vance. If Westmoreland really does not need additional troops, let’s don’t plan any troops on the basis of what we have.

General Wheeler: The situation could deteriorate. The Joint Chiefs today do not feel the President should undertake the emergency actions we proposed on Friday. Of course this situation could change.

The President: Let’s meet tomorrow and see what happens.

Secretary Rusk: Should we plan on Cy Vance going on to Vietnam?

The President: Yes.

Does it concern anybody about those two divisions outside of Saigon?

General Wheeler: General Westmoreland thinks the situation is in hand.4

Secretary McNamara: It is not the two divisions that I am worried about. They may be recycling to undertake a second wave. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese may have the ability for a strong second attack.

The President: How many enemy do you estimate are available for new attacks.

Secretary McNamara: At least 60,000.

The President: Do you think they will bomb Khe Sanh?

General Wheeler: They may do one of three things:

Surprise us with the Frog Missiles.
Use MIG’s and SA–2’s to come south of the DMZ and try to shoot down the B–52’s.
Use the IL–28 bombers to attack us in the South.

The President: I want to be completely clear in my mind. Is it true that General Westmoreland is not recommending or requesting additional troops now?

General Wheeler: That is true.

Secretary McNamara: That is my reading of it.

The President: Is it your judgment not to send additional troops today?

[Page 178]

General Wheeler: Yes sir.

Secretary McNamara: Yes, that is my judgment.

Clark Clifford: How prepared are we for the second wave of attacks?

General Wheeler: The question is this. Is the government strong enough to withstand another wave of attacks? That I cannot say. Physically we are better prepared. The element of surprise is removed.

The President: What about the extent of desertions and the men on leave?

General Wheeler: We have nothing firm on desertions and on the number of men who have returned from leave.

The President: So you really don’t know the state of readiness.

General Wheeler: The only ARVN reported as non-effective are the 5 airborne battalions which were shot down in the heavy fighting around Hue.

Walt Rostow: I think we should be giving considerable attention to what is happening in the countryside. The RD Cadres moved to the cities as did the Viet Cong.

If the Viet Cong go back into the countryside they may be able to make very quick recruitment drives.

If we have a diplomatic offensive, it would be very bad for the Viet Cong to control more of the countryside than they did before this offensive. It would be good to find out what the RF and the PF are doing. We also need to determine how quickly the ARVN can get back into the countryside to take over that which was previously held. I expect a diplomatic push to pressure us to negotiate.

General Taylor: I am out of tune with this meeting. I read General Westmoreland’s cable differently from you.

As I read it, Westmoreland’s forces are tied down. He has no reserves except some units of the 101st. The offensive in the north is against him. The enemy has 35,000 men already in the area. Westmoreland does not say anything about how he would get reserves if he were to be met with a massive engagement there. It looks to me as if he is operating on a shoestring. I still feel we do not need to do anything today. But I strongly recommend sending General Wheeler out there to get information first hand.

Clark Clifford: Would it be unusual for General Wheeler to go out there? Have you been before recently on a mission of this type?

General Wheeler: I have been out there fourteen times.

General Taylor: It is a natural military mission.

Secretary Rusk: I do not think it unwise for Wheeler to go. I must say if General Westmoreland is requesting troops in this cable he has a poor Colonel doing the drafting for him.

[Page 179]

General Wheeler: We are not without reserves, General Taylor. He does have the First Cavalry Division up there. There are ARVN forces not committed. There are some Marines not committed.

General Taylor: What about the logistics of the situation?

General Wheeler: Westmoreland told me that he must get that road up. In bad weather he would have need of secure land LOC. Water LOC is not good this time of year.

The President: From my station, it looks as though we felt content with what was happening until the fire crackers started popping. We talked to General Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs on Friday and they felt we should send the 82nd Division and 6/9 of a Marine division.

Bob McNamara countered by saying we could pick up 12 battalions without using the 82nd by putting 4 battalions in South Vietnam and the others off the coast in LST’s and in Okinawa.

Westmoreland’s wire came in. I interpret it as a man who wanted 600,000 troops last year and was talked down to 525,000. Now he is saying he could use the 82nd and the portion of a Marine division because of all of the uncertainties which face him. He is concerned about the effective fighting capabilities of the ARVN.

I think we should send anything available to get the number up to the 525,000 limit. We should live up to our commitment. “Just before the battle Mother” the JCS is now recommending against deploying emergency troop units.

General Wheeler: At this time, yes sir.

The President: If the Joint Chiefs feel secure, if Secretary McNamara feels secure and if General Westmoreland doesn’t ask for them, I don’t feel so worried.

Secretary McNamara: I do not feel secure. But I do think it is not a shortage of U.S. battalions at issue. It is the stability of the political structure in Vietnam and a lack of motivation by the ARVN and the PF and RF.

The President: But when they are unable to do the job and when we are in a fight to the finish, then don’t you think we should give the troops as they are necessary?

Secretary McNamara: Emergency augmentation is not required. We could redeploy forces already in Vietnam such as those that are operating in the Delta.

The President: If Westmoreland asks for the 82nd Division would you give them?

Secretary McNamara: No, I would not. I read this as a permanent augmentation to forces. We are carrying too much of the war there now. [Page 180] All this would do is to shift more of the burden on us. There is no reason to have those battalions in the Delta.

Secretary Rusk: I do not believe that the deployment of additional forces would have the same effect on deployment as would the placement of 525,000 fresh forces. There may be reasons to redeploy some of the U.S. forces there.

There are no current responsibilities between ourselves and the Vietnamese. We are spread out all over the country. There are none of the advantages of a concentration of forces. I do not think we are really getting the full benefit of our 500,000 U.S. troops there now.

General Taylor: We may want to provide General Westmoreland with new strategic guidance. Let us not fight this war on the enemy’s terms. We need to do what we should to get reserves and wait for favorable weather.5

The President: Who deployed the U.S. troops in the Delta?

General Wheeler: This was part of General Westmoreland’s battle plans submitted last year.

General Taylor: I think that it may be necessary now to outline our objectives. We should ask General Westmoreland to get set for a major offensive in a particular area when the weather breaks.

The President: I would be glad to get from you any suggestions on redeployment or any other strategic advice.

Secretary Rusk: I tend to expect Westmoreland and our troops to do everything all at once. I think we need to get clearly in mind what our priorities are.

General Taylor: I think our objective should be to clear the cities first and to recruit forces there to put in reserve.

Clark Clifford: How many men of the 525,000 do we have out there now?

Secretary McNamara: 500,000.

The President: What about a reordering of our priorities at this time?

Secretary McNamara: Not now while we are in the middle of this.

Secretary Rusk: No I would not recommend it while we are in this situation.

[Page 181]

The President: It seems that Westmoreland has inherited this thing by stages. Let’s re-evaluate the overall strategy after this is over. The Joint Chiefs and you do not feel that you should recommend deployment of more men at this time? Is that correct?

Secretary McNamara: This is correct.

The President: What about the re-evaluation of supplies.

General Wheeler: The men are satisfied.

The President: Well, it looks like we are generally content with the situation today.

Secretary Rusk: We will meet tomorrow and see how this thing shapes up.

Secretary McNamara: Westmoreland has not asked for troops to avoid defeat. If he does, I recommend deployment of those there.

General Taylor: The function of an overall headquarters is to give strategic guidance. I think we need to give thought to what that new guidance should be.

The President: I am inclined to leave the situation as it is based on your judgments. I think we should tell Westmoreland that if he really isn’t asking for more troops and find out if that interpretation is correct. In my mind I think he really wants more troops. I would favor Cy Vance going out there and taking a hard look at all of this.

Secretary McNamara: I would also send Cy there. I think we could send General Wheeler out there if it weren’t for this being splattered all over the front page.

General Taylor: I will make one more plea. I think it is important to get a first hand report from General Wheeler after he gets first hand military judgment from his military commanders out there. There is no substitute for that.

Secretary Rusk: I received excellent response last night to a speech I made to a group of Secondary School Principals.6

Director Helms: I am not satisfied on our intelligence on RF, PF and ARVN units. I disagree with Bob McNamara about U.S. units being placed with ARVN units. My information is that ARVN fights better with U.S. units around them. The U.S. forces provide the ARVN with the courage they need.

The President: What is the real difference? What makes the North Vietnamese fight so well, with so much more determination than the South Vietnamese?

[Page 182]

Director Helms: I think it is a combination of good training and good brain washing. There is a certain heroism about dying for this cause. The North Vietnamese have been damn good fighters for fifteen years. They are well trained, well equipped and well disciplined. Their system eliminates all doubt from their mind.

The President: For a moment let us assume that the ARVN are not doing their part. What is the alternative?

Secretary McNamara: We should not do their job for them. Let them fight it out for themselves.

Secretary Rusk: I think you get better performance when the U.S. troops and the ARVN are billeted together.

The President: Buzz, what is the evaluation of the military effect of this wave?

General Wheeler: There are always pluses and minuses in anything like this. The ARVN has performed and behaved well. No unit defected. They took heavy casualties. Their morale seemed to improve because of the casualties. Destruction has been very bad. Many towns are in shambles and there was one completely flattened.

The President: Are you concerned about the refugees?

General Wheeler: Bob Komer has turned his entire effort into refugee care. Our people are working with the ARVN, sharing food with the Vietnamese and doing all they can.

I think the civilian populace of Vietnam was appalled by the destruction and the cruel, cruel atrocities caused by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. But we are not better off than we were on January 15.

Secretary McNamara: We need to get the Vietnamese to do more by insisting that they do what they should do. We should refuse to do what they must do. Their Congress has yet to pass a single bill.

The President: Get working on a combined authority by which General Westmoreland would take over responsibility for all allied units and then let’s address ourselves to the problem of the Vietnamese. Let’s go to work on them. I want them to live up to that decree of drafting 19 year olds.

The President: Should we still not say anything publicly (in the form of a Presidential speech)?

General Taylor: We do need to say that there has been a change of strategy on the part of the enemy brought about by losses inflicted on him by the old strategy.

(The issue of the Presidential message was left for consideration at a later time.)

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings. Top Secret. Those attending the meeting were the President, Rusk, McNamara, Wheeler, Taylor, Clifford, Helms, Rostow, and Tom Johnson. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  2. Not attached, but printed as Document 63.
  3. February 9.
  4. In telegram MAC 1901 to Wheeler, February 10, Westmoreland minimized the danger posed to Saigon by infiltration and main force attacks. Instead, he described Khe Sanh as the area where the NVA posed the major threat, since the enemy had “put too much effort into this buildup to support the diversion theory.” (U.S. Army Center of Military History, William C. Westmoreland Papers, Eyes Only Message File, 1 Feb.–29 Feb. 1968)
  5. In a memorandum to the President, and in a paper entitled “Enemy Scenario of the Future?”, both February 10, Taylor suggested that Westmoreland concentrate on the security of the urban areas, avoid major combat actions under disadvantageous conditions that might give the enemy an opportunity for “victory,” build up reserves for a counter-offensive beginning in March, and maintain Rolling Thunder operations at maximum levels. Johnson read the memorandum and asked Rostow to give copies to Clifford, Rusk, and McNamara for “their eyes only.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 8I, 1/67–12/68, Taylor Memos-General)
  6. The previous evening Rusk spoke at the 52d Annual Convention of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For text of the speech, which included comments on the Tet offensive, see Department of State Bulletin, March 4, 1968, pp. 301–304.