59. Information Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

I have been in and out of government for 27 years, in the intelligence-foreign policy business.

I have learned this rule: if something unexpected happens, stop in your tracks and ask this question:

What has been wrong in my picture of the situation which led to the unexpected event?

I told you the chances were 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 that we would get the kind of exchange we did in Paris today. I was wrong.

There was an additional element I did not report: Tho said at the end: “with a positive response we can move rapidly to peace.”

We must now face the possibility—even likelihood—that they wish to wind up the war fast. No matter how sugar-coated, the DMZ and city deals and GVN participation mean, they are probably prepared for a quick settlement on, roughly, our terms.

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Why is this possible?

  • First, the military situation. It is very bad for them. After their experience with the August offensive (preceded by 60,000 infiltrators) they may have concluded that even another 100,000 warm North Vietnamese bodies brought in during November-January would not get them anywhere on the ground in the face of Abrams and the expanding, more confident ARVN. (You should know that a good many North Vietnamese units in South Vietnam are now either:
    • —outside the country;
    • —at the border;
    • —or moving towards the border.)
  • Second, the political situation. They may have concluded that Thieu-Huong could not be unseated by them; would not be unseated by us; and that a Ky coup was not enough to count on.
  • Third, possibly the desire for a settlement with you rather than Nixon played a part.

In short, it is now more likely rather than less likely (but, of course, not sure) that they have decided:

  • —to accept an unsatisfactory political settlement in the South;
  • —to negotiate U.S. troops out rapidly;
  • —to save face, as an intelligence report I sent you this morning2 suggests, by claiming they forced the aggressive U.S. imperialists out of Vietnam;
  • —and then to turn vigorously to trying to win in South Vietnam by political means.

If this is so, we have a monumental job of fast negotiation ahead, in which the most critical job will be to help Thieu keep his country stable as the new situation unfolds.

Two major caveats:

Until the next session, when we put the final proposition loud and clear, we shall not know the full meaning of this morning’s exchange.
We must keep our eyes on Laos where the military-political position is dangerous and a cave-in could take away a high proportion of what we have gained in South Vietnam.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Memos to the President/Bombing Halt Decision, Vol. I [3 of 3]. Top Secret; Literally Eyes Only. The notation “ps” on the memorandum indicates that the President saw it.
  2. Not found.