98. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

2983. Literally eyes only for Under Secretary from Ambassador. Ref: State 122443.2

Before addressing specific action alternatives I submit following general observations applicable to all. Much would depend upon general setting in which given action took place. If any of them come out of the blue or in situation which appeared to reflect U.S. decision to achieve clear military victory, Soviet reaction would be far stronger than if it appeared to be effort to offset military reserves. Important also would be current weight of opinion in Politburo between hawks and doves of which we know little. However Soviet frustrations at Budapest Conference, probable effect on Soviet leadership of their own propaganda which has been increasing in stridency recently and which has tended to strengthen Soviet commitment not only to NVN but also to NLF, and effect on leadership of other problems such as Middle East and Korea, all, it seems to me, have operated to make Soviet reactions more likely to be vigorous than was the case a year ago.
It should also be noted that the Soviet reactions would not necessarily be confined to Vietnam. They could increase tension in Germany, particularly in Berlin, in Korea and Middle East. They could revert to all-out cold war and in any event would step up diplomatic and propaganda activity.
In all of alternatives mentioned I would expect increased Soviet military aid which in some cases might go as far as use of volunteers if North Vietnam would accept them, although most likely in anti-aircraft and other defensive roles. In some cases they might ask for use of Chinese airfields. I should think supply of medium range rockets or other sophisticated equipment a real possibility.
Following are comments on specific cases although I must admit my crystal ball is very cloudy:
Mining of Haiphong Harbor would certainly provoke strong Soviet reaction. As a minimum would expect them to provide minesweepers, possibly with Soviet naval crews. Because of increased [Page 303] dependence of NVN on China for supplies as a result of such action, Soviets would read into this wider implications related to the Sino-Soviet quarrel.
Intensified bombing of Hanoi-Haiphong area might cause Soviets to arm their merchant ships or possibly even escort them if one were sunk. If heavy civilian casualties resulted they might persuade NVN to agree to bring matter to the UN and would at least organize worldwide propaganda campaign and possibly push for international boycott.
An Inchon-type landing would probably cause extremely grave reaction. Nature Soviet action would be affected by what Chinese Communists did. Soviets would not wish to be in a position of doing less. They would probably consider landing as prelude to full scale invasion and destruction NVN government regardless of how we described the operation.
I doubt that our activity in northern portion of DMZ would be regarded as very serious but raids beyond that would cause stronger reaction depending somewhat upon how it was reported in world press. They would be concerned that we might be launching trial balloon and that their failure to react strongly might invite actual invasion.
I am inclined to believe they would take US/GVN ground action in Laos less seriously than similar action in Cambodia, particularly if this followed further successful Pathet Lao/NVN offensives.
I think there would be very little Soviet reaction to increased U.S. deployments in SVN although there would probably be some increase in quantity and quality of military equipment supplied by Soviets. The same would be true of request for massive budget increase.
In sum, any serious escalation except in South Vietnam would trigger strong Soviet response although I believe they will endeavor to avoid direct confrontation with us in that area. A prior bombing pause would mitigate their reaction to alternatives discussed even though we might have to resume after short period because of increasing infiltration or clearly unacceptable demands put forward by NVN at start of negotiations. Anything we can do that would diminish picture Soviets have built up in their own minds of U.S. pursuit of worldwide offensive policy, as for example progress toward Middle East settlement, would probably make them more tolerant of our actions in Vietnam.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Priority; Nodis. Received at 2:11 p.m.
  2. In telegram 122443 to Moscow, February 29, Katzenbach requested that Thompson assess the Soviet reaction to more aggressive U.S. actions in Vietnam and whether any action could be taken to “offset or lessen” an adverse Soviet reaction. (Ibid.)