253. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1

Mr. President:

Secretary Rusk, Secretary Clifford and I met in the Cabinet Room from 6 to 7 p.m. The meeting broke up because Sect. Rusk had to go home to dress for the Kuwaiti dinner tonight.2


There was extended discussion of the evidence in Abrams’ cable.3 The general view was that, while we had had other false alarms, this evidence looked pretty solid, coming from many sources. The “unusually reliable agent” who was the source of the first page of evidence is, indeed, well placed and has furnished good information in the past. We all agreed that Abrams was right to take every precaution as a matter of prudence and we should assume that the attack will take place. Sect. Clifford raised some questions about:

  • —whether the enemy might be planting false intelligence on us; and
  • —on the scale of the attack.

We all agreed that we would just have to see, monitoring things closely in the days ahead.

It was agreed that Gen. Wheeler would dispatch, at Sect. Rusk’s request, a copy of Abrams’ cable to Paris requesting that Harriman and Vance be briefed on it first thing tomorrow morning Paris time. That was the only action taken.
With respect to hot pursuit back into Cambodia, there was an extended discussion. Sect. Rusk suggested that Wheeler might, on a contingency basis, prepare orders which would permit hot pursuit up to 5 kilometers on the ground, and air attacks up to 10 kilometers. This would be not pre-emptive attacks but, strictly, hot pursuit.
Sect. Clifford, on the other hand, thought that this would be a bad time to broaden the war and that hot pursuit would not provide much [Page 752] military advantage since the units would be broken up and dispersed. He summarized that the military return would not warrant opening up “a new phase of the war” with possible consequences for the Paris talks, the Soviet attitude, etc.
Sect. Clifford added that if the President decided to go, he would much prefer that the action be taken without explicit orders from the President—but rather as a local matter. There was considerable discussion of the kind of language that might go into an order that would protect the government from the charge of ordering our troops into Cambodia and leaving us free to regard the incidents as a by-product of the melee of battle. It was agreed that Gen. Wheeler would give some thought to how such orders might be drafted if the President were to receive from Abrams a request for this authority and should grant the authority.4
With respect to an attack on Saigon, Sect. Rusk said that if Saigon were attacked, it was absolutely essential that we respond, or our credibility with Hanoi and Moscow would be finished.
Sect. Clifford sought clarification on what we mean by: “an attack on Saigon.” Attacks on towns in the direction of Saigon? Attacks in the suburbs? Shelling of Saigon? Ground force attacks into the city? No action was, of course, taken on this point.

Sect. Rusk initiated some discussion of a Summit. He was much concerned with the problem of:

  • —bringing the new Administration aboard;
  • —briefing our allies.

Perhaps the job could be done if the meeting were about Christmas time; but he comes back to the notion of exchanging principles and papers at a lower level.5

Sect. Clifford thought that there was danger, if we did not get started now, that the talks would be postponed for a very long time since the new President, Sect. of State, and Sect. of Defense would be dealing with exigencies and would not be able to put themselves soon in a position to launch such talks.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Memos to the President/Bombing Halt Decision, Vol. VII. Top Secret; Literally Eyes Only.
  2. The State dinner, which began at 8 p.m., honored Kuwaiti Amir Sabah Al-Salim Al-Sabah. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  3. A copy of Abrams’ telegram is ibid., National Security File, Memos to the President, Walt Rostow, Vol. 110. Rostow summarized and assessed the telegram in a December 11 covering memorandum, and in telegram CAP 82954 to the President, December 30. (Ibid., National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Vol. 110 and Vol. 112, respectively)
  4. In memorandum JCSM-742-68 to Clifford, December 13, Wheeler, on behalf of the Joint Chiefs, recommended that authority be granted for pursuit of enemy forces into Cambodia if the NVA and VC began offensive operations from base areas located there. (Department of Defense, Official Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 880/520 (11 December 1968), IR 6154) In a December 21 memorandum to the Joint Chiefs, Clifford deferred a decision on granting such authority pending receipt from the JCS of a risk assessment, as well any other proposals for military operations against enemy forces inside Cambodian territory. He noted: “This broad spectrum of possible military actions against enemy forces in Cambodia and your appraisal of the military effects and risks thereof will provide a basis for a review of the objectives of our military operations in Cambodia and their possible relation to the broader question of our diplomatic objectives in Southeast Asia.” (Ibid.) In the Tuesday Luncheon of December 10, Wheeler noted: “There is a strong possibility that General Abrams will review his recommendation that we move on base areas.” (Notes of Meeting, December 10; Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings)
  5. At the end of this paragraph, Rostow wrote: “(Sect. Rusk will talk to you tonight about this. I put your position to him over the phone.)”