248. Notes of Meeting1



  • The President
  • Secretary Rusk
  • Secretary Clifford
  • Ambassador Harriman
  • General Wheeler
  • CIA Director Helms
  • Walt Rostow
  • George Christian
  • Tom Johnson

General Wheeler: Things are quiet in Vietnam today. It may be a repositioning in the War Zone D near Saigon.

The President: Anything to report something big may be planned?

General Wheeler: Yes, sir. There could be something big. We’re looking for them.

Secretary Rusk: I personally would not change directives in the DMZ now. We should get Cy to press the DMZ issue.

General Wheeler: General Abrams and I talked Tuesday.2 He said he needs to continue patrols in the DMZ. He wants to keep the enemy north of PMBL [demarcation line].

This would give friendly forces better security.

The President: Does he ask for more than he has now?

General Wheeler: He wants more authority. He wants to use up to a battalion (900 to 1200 men).

(General Wheeler showed maps showing the DMZ area. He said enemy platoon and company-size units had been seen.)

General Abrams wants to drive the enemy forces back north of the PMBL [demarcation line].

This does not have to be decided tonight.

North Vietnam has encroached on the southern half of the DMZ.

The President: Is this dangerous?

[Page 734]

General Wheeler: Yes, sir.

The President: Should we say to the North Vietnamese that they should get people out of the DMZ—give them warning?

General Wheeler: You have done that already. If this goes on for three weeks to a month I don’t know what will happen.

The President: Clark?

Secretary Clifford: We had one solid agreement—to get the GVN to the Conference table.

The President: What did we say at Paris?

Ambassador Harriman: We said “major cities”.

Secretary Clifford: Averell and Cy sought advance agreement on the DMZ and the cities.

We said talks couldn’t go on if the cities were attacked and the DMZ abused.

Talks haven’t started. They have not violated any agreement. It has been 35 days. Talks haven’t started. I do not attach as much importance to violations in the DMZ as the JCS.

Only on three separate occasions did they actually fire on us. To build up in the DMZ wouldn’t be good at this time.

We first went in to find prisoners. To increase the level of the forces sent in would heighten the level. They’ll move them in.

This is a bad time to increase the level.

First element in the talks is to take up a firm agreement in the DMZ.

Technically, we do not have any agreement on the DMZ until talks start.3

General Wheeler: If we have no agreement on the DMZ, there is no reason we can’t move in and clean these people out. This is South Vietnam territory.

Secretary Rusk: We want the enemy to perform on the understanding we had at the time the bombing halted.

The President: Let’s assume talks started and they still abuse the DMZ. What would you do?

Secretary Clifford: I would like to see what they had in mind. We were general—“abuse” the DMZ.

[Page 735]

Walt Rostow: It was much more specific.

Secretary Rusk: We had four points.

Secretary Clifford: I think we are moving in the direction of peace.4

Ambassador Harriman: We were specific that shelling from across the DMZ—massing of troops in the DMZ—infiltration of the DMZ would not be permitted.

I agree with Secretary Clifford. If they violate the understanding when the talks start that is a different matter. There was plenty of talk.

We need a method of verification.

The President: Let’s proceed on Clark’s theory that we can’t do anything until the talks start.

Ambassador Harriman: We must stress this even before the talks start.

The President: We must let them know we consider this an abuse.

Secretary Rusk: If we put in squad, then put in platoon—I don’t see why we put limitations on Abrams’ ability to rescue his own men.

I agree we shouldn’t occupy the DMZ.

Secretary Clifford: I would refrain from bringing about incidents in the DMZ.

We finally have Saigon in Paris. Why start this up?

General Wheeler: Only way to identify them.

[Page 736]

The President: If you Don’t do this we may be caught with our pants down.

General Wheeler: That’s right.

The President: Ask General Abrams to minimize incidents. If there are men involved and he needs superior force, you use it.

Secretary Clifford: When we talked about halting the bombing we were worried about an increase in danger to the men in I Corps.

We Don’t have any evidence of infiltration through the DMZ into South.

First Air Cavalry pulled out of the DMZ into the 3rd Corps.

Secretary Clifford: Sending men into the DMZ was a result of request from Paris. It is unwise to send our men in. We accomplish this through aerial reconnaissance.

The President: Do you agree with that, Bus?

General Wheeler: I do not, sir.

Secretary Rusk: We asked do they understand three facts of life—DMZ, cities, GVN.

If the enemy gets away with the DMZ, what else do we let them get away with?5

Ambassador Harriman: I don’t want an argument, but I was surprised they pulled out enemy troops from the DMZ.

The President: I do not want to endanger our men. I want my military commander to do this probing if it’s necessary.

If he needs bigger force to help them he has it.

The President: Let’s do one thing at a time.

Secretary Clifford: In November of ‘67 there were 4399 sorties against Laos. In November of ‘68, 12,803 sorties against Laos.

Total: In November ‘67 28,000—In November ‘68 31,000 sorties.

B52’s hit them in November ‘67 816 times, in November ‘68 1786 times.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings. No classification marking. The meeting was held in the Cabinet Room. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  2. December 3.
  3. In a December 5 memorandum to Clifford, Warnke noted: “Activity in the DMZ or against the population centers can hardly be said to be inconsistent with productive talks when the absence of such talks is our responsibility, rather than Hanoi’s. It is thus imperative that we engage Hanoi in substantive talks in the immediate future so that we can nail down firm agreements on observance of the DMZ and seek to find some solution to the highly dangerous reconnaissance issue.” (Johnson Library, Clark Clifford Papers, Cabinet-Cabinet Meetings)
  4. In an addendum to a memorandum of conversation, December 10, Harriman noted his observations about the December 5 meeting: “The sharp conflict between Rusk and Clifford was completely obvious. Clifford was for deescalation, disengagement of American forces, as rapidly as possible. Rusk was for a policy of all-out pressure on the enemy which he contends is the manner in which we can establish best results in the negotiations. I disputed this position, and although I did not have the time to explain in sufficient detail, my belief that if we continued to hit the enemy hard they would bring down more men and the fighting would be resumed at its old level.” Harriman further noted that the President had “reversed himself” and authorized that, in dealings with the North Vietnamese, the Paris delegation could “go ahead and talk to them about anything you want.” Harriman also summarized remarks Clifford made to him after the meeting: “Clifford emphasized to me that when we next talked to the North Vietnamese, we should tell them clearly of the fact that there was a strong element in Washington that wanted to start bombing again, and that we should make real progress as rapidly as possible in mutual steps to deescalate the war, such as reestablishment of the DMZ and agreement on mutual withdrawal. He underlined that we should make clear to the North Vietnamese if they continue to violate the DMZ and shoot at our planes, it might have very serious consequences. I didn’t ask him where the pressure came from, but I gather it was among the Chiefs of Staff, and I don’t think he excluded Rusk and Rostow as jumping on this bandwagon if adequate reasons could be built up. Clark feels very much that he has been isolated in the inner circle, [and] recognizes that Cy Vance and I feel as he does.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Special Files, Public Service, Kennedy-Johnson, Trips and Mission, Paris Peace Talks, 1968-69, Memoranda of Conversations)
  5. In a personal memorandum of December 14, Harriman discussed Rusk’s hard-line position. He commented: “Murrey Marder told me that Rusk had said to him in a very impetuous tone that he shouldn’t bother to go to Paris because nothing would happen there as long as he was Secretary of State and Johnson was President. He would see that nothing was done there. The only thing I can gather about Rusk is that he wants to end his career as the strong Cold War warrior, with all the guns firing, with Nixon giving in and being the appeaser. Of course I believe in loyalty to President Johnson that we should start the negotiations for mutual reduction of violence, for reduction in American casualties and begin movement of troops home. His historic position will then be justified as the man who was primarily responsible for bringing this unhappy conflict to a close.” (Ibid., Subject File, Rusk, Dean, 1968-69) Murrey Marder was a Washington Post reporter.