35. Notes of the 591st Meeting of the National Security Council1

[Omitted here is discussion of issues before the United Nations involving Czechoslovakia, the Middle East, and Biafra.]

Secretary Rusk: Major votes on major questions will not take place before the election.

Ambassador Ball: U Thant meddled too much in affairs with the Vietnam statement.2 All except the Communists see it that way. I do not expect a vote on this.

Assistant Secretary of State Sisco: That is the way most all nations see it.

The President: The President does not know of any plans for a withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. I read Clifford and Wheeler’s testimony.3 It doesn’t say that.

Secretary Clifford: A Marine RLT is coming back, but it is being replaced by other troops. Congressman Lipscomb4 asked about the decrease in troops. We have no plan to reduce the troops in Vietnam. I cannot predict the return of any troops.

Secretary Clifford: We are preparing a statement to clarify this. There is no sort of plan to bring the number down.

General Wheeler: The examination of forces in Vietnam by Abrams was of logistic and administrative troops. We won’t pull down—we are able to knock this story down flatly.

Secretary Rusk: The prospects for peace in Paris are still dim.

The President: What does “other acts of war” include in the Hanoi demand?

CIA Director Helms: Overflights.

Secretary Rusk: Reconnaissance.

[Omitted here is discussion of the Spanish base agreement.]

[Page 87]

Ambassador Ball: General debate in the U.N. starts October 2.

The President: I would like us to review the following areas precisely:

Instructions to U.S. negotiators in Paris.
Their position on the bombing halt.
Their reaction to our instructions.

Secretary Rusk: The United States is in Paris on the basis of the March 31 speech. There is no agreed agenda. Our purpose—peace in Southeast Asia (Laos, Thailand, Cambodia). We want to determine how the bombing can be stopped so it can lead us toward peace?—So we want to know what will happen if we stop the bombing.

The Liberation Front can sit at the table. North Vietnam won’t let South Vietnam sit at the table.
An agreement on Laos is important to us.
The territorial neutrality of Cambodia also is important.

Hanoi’s delegation comes back with:

  • —stop bombing.
  • —get out of South Vietnam.
  • U.S. is the aggressor, they are the “victim.”

There are three important points if the bombing is halted:

We could not keep up the halt if North Vietnam flooded across the DMZ.
If there were attacks on cities.
If talks proceeded without the South Vietnamese at the table.

North Vietnam still refuses to say what will happen if the bombing halts.

Therefore, what would happen if we stopped the bombing?

The President: If we stopped the bombing, nobody knows whether or not:

The DMZ would be respected.
South Vietnam could come to the table.
The attacks on the cities would halt.5

The President: What effect would this have on the morale of the men? (Referring to a bombing pause)

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General Wheeler: It would have an adverse effect on:

  • —our troops
  • —South Vietnamese troops
  • —South Vietnamese people.6

The President: What will the United Nations do on Vietnam?

Ambassador Ball: It will be mentioned. U Thant believes the bombing will be halted. He is intoxicated by microphone.

Secretary Clifford: Of the three items mentioned by Dean (Secretary Rusk), the shelling of cities can be a condition. Make it a “serious matter.”

The DMZ and GVN—presence of the GVN at the table should be an absolute condition.

The demilitarization at the DMZ—proceed on an assumption of if we stop the bombing, they will not take advantage of it. It goes back to the San Antonio speech.7 I think the President should assume they will not take advantage of the pause.

(Bombing between 19th and 17th parallels constitutes 5000 men in effort. 95% of our force is preserved.)

I think the President can give up 5% to take whatever risk—to get substantive talks going. We could risk it. I think this is a minimal risk. I think there is a 65% chance this will pay off. The bombing could restart if it had to.

The morale of the troops could go down if nothing results. The troops want peace, I want peace.

We preserve 95% of our forces. We gamble with 5%. I think it will be successful.

Secretary Rusk: The incentives of North Vietnam would be affected—what it takes to move us. They would move on to another point.

The President: They would move on to reconnaissance.

Ambassador Ball: I share Clark’s (Secretary Clifford) view emphatically.

We are each “dug in” to doctrinal position, like Arabs and Israelis. There always are risks in war and peace. I do not think the risks are great. You can make assumptions on these points. We have blown the importance of this part of North Vietnam far out of proportion. We were [Page 89] told earlier that this is not very significant. Only 5% of our assets to damage the enemy would be at stake. I quarrel with Dean. There is an element of “face.”

Secretary Rusk: What about “face” of other Orientals in the area—Koreans, Thais, and others?

Ambassador Ball: We are doing the most in the war. The Communist theory of war is that they are helping out a revolution in the South. When they are attacked they are outraged. I think the Soviets want to help. They can’t until war is reduced to war in the South.

Time pressures are on them to do something. We will kill a lot of American boys rather needlessly.

Secretary Rusk: Would you restart the bombing?

Ambassador Ball: I would ask for demilitarization at DMZ, bombing of cities. I would stop bombing to test their “good faith.” I would stop it for a couple of weeks. The position of the United States will be infinitely better.

We are in a box. I believe they want a peace. They are scared to hell of Nixon—afraid of his use of nuclear weapons.

Secretary Fowler: What happens if we threaten to stop talk if they Don’t move?

Ambassador Ball: That would be terrible. I have spoken very indiscreetly here.

Secretary Rusk: There would be a lot of votes for Nixon if we get nothing for the bombing pause.

Ambassador Ball: He’ll get them anyway.

The President: I am not hell-bent on agreement. We have done things before on assumptions. We have been disappointed. When I make an assumption, I want a reason to make it. I doubt if all three things are sufficient to get us to stop it—shelling, DMZ, South Vietnam.

Ambassador Ball: The situation is changed now. These tests haven’t cost us that much. They give us strength in the eyes of the world.

The President: It will not be done now unless they indicate something.

General Wheeler: 1. We are in a strong position in Vietnam. There is good hard evidence of that. 2. The offensive operations against the North are far higher than 5%.

Secretary Clifford: I would place it about 5%.

General Wheeler: Naval and air campaigns are the only pressure we put on the North.

Ambassador Ball: The pressure is the men they are losing in the South.

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General Wheeler: Giap says they can go on losing men. Our operations are hurting him. The enemy can move forces and supplies right down to the combat area. War is nothing more than pressure. We can’t resume bombing easily once we stop it. The morale of our forces would suffer.

Friends and enemies would interpret this as victory for Hanoi.

In summary, I cannot agree. 60% of the people think we should get concessions before. It is wrong militarily to stop pressure on the enemy who is increasingly weak.

I think it unwise politically. The Joint Chiefs of Staff agree on what I have said.

Under Secretary Nitze: The alternatives are:

Proceed as we do now.
Ambassador Ball’s alternative, but
  • —continue reconnaissance
  • —bring South Vietnamese to table on Day 1.

I don’t think they would shoot down reconnaissance planes. I Don’t think they would appear with the South Vietnamese on Day 1. They would appear later.

USIA Director Marks: What would be military costs for two weeks if Ball’s suggestion is adopted?

General Wheeler: It would take two or three weeks to mount up force. They could move artillery in two weeks.

USIA Director Marks: Reinforcements, but not offensive?

General Wheeler: Not a large attack.

Director Marks: How about casualties?

General Wheeler: There might be a large increase in casualties.

Secretary Rusk: Holding South Vietnam together would be the big problem.

USIA Director Marks: You would not have high costs for two weeks.

The President: If I thought they would do something I would jump at it.

USIA Director Marks: I would take the risk if Harriman and Vance thought it would pay off.

Secretary Clifford: This would be a test. We could raise three points. The Soviets think benefits would follow. Bus’ points are academic.

We stop the bombing.
We sit down to negotiate.
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If they build up, they Don’t intend to negotiate. We then have done everything. We restart bombing and you can go as far as you want to.

The President: No, we will debate it as we did before. They will move all the time.

The President: We will not take this course if they Don’t.

Secretary Clifford: If they agree GVN can come in to the table, I would pursue it.

The President: I want negotiators to pursue all three points.

  • —cities not attacked.
  • DMZ re-established.
  • GVN sit at table.

Those present voiced opinions as follows:

For Against
Clifford Rusk
Ball Wheeler
Marks The President

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings. No classification marking. The meeting was held in the Cabinet Room. Those attending were the President, Rostow, Rusk, Clifford, Nitze, Ball, Wheeler, Helms, Fowler, Marks, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Joseph Sisco, Christian, Bromley Smith and Nathaniel Davis of the NSC Staff, and Tom Johnson. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) A full transcript of this meeting is ibid., Transcripts of Meetings in the Cabinet Room. For Smith’s notes of this meeting, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XXXIII, Document 432.
  2. On September 24 U Thant stated that if a resolution calling for the end to the bombing of North Vietnam was introduced into the UN General Assembly, it would pass overwhelmingly. See The New York Times, September 24, 1968.
  3. Reference is to their testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
  4. Representative Glenard Lipscomb.
  5. In a telephone conversation with Rusk on September 23, the President expressed concern that Harriman and Vance had backed away from a firm insistence on these three points. (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Rusk, September 23, 1968, 9:37 a.m., Tape 6800.24, Side B, PNO 10 and Tape 6800.25, Side A, PNO 2)
  6. In a September 25 memorandum to the President, Wheeler noted that while Abrams regarded GVN participation in talks as the most important stipulation, he did not recommend proceeding on the basis of mere assumptions or of dropping the other two preconditions. (Ibid., National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, HARVAN Misc. & Memos, Vol. VI)
  7. In his San Antonio speech on September 29, 1967, President Johnson pledged to halt the bombing of North Vietnam provided the cessation would be followed by prompt and productive discussions and the North Vietnamese would not take military advantage of it. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. V, Document 340.