66. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in France1

254719/Todel 1263. 1. Your comments are requested urgently on the following exchange with Bunker and Abrams:


Literally eyes only for Amb Bunker and Gen Abrams from Walt Rostow.2

[Page 171]

You should know that one of the major concerns of the President at the moment is that we examine with utmost care the loop-holes and contingencies in the deal we are considering to make sure it is as copper-plated as we can make it.

For example, he wishes you to examine the possibility that Hanoi is simply seeking a respite to prepare for a later offensive, creating ad interim an atmosphere of hopeful expectations and euphoria which would make it difficult for us to resume bombing of the North and otherwise maintain the remarkable momentum on the ground you have achieved and which explains so much of what may now be hopeful in the current situation.



Taking into account the enemy’s weather and supply situation and prospects and taking into account the complexity of the diplomatic problems that may lie ahead, what would be a reasonable and secure interval in which to assess whether Hanoi is seriously interested in making peace, once “serious” negotiations start?

For example, it took only a month to wind up the 1954 Geneva negotiation once it became serious about June 20. Would thirty days now be a reasonable interval before we seriously considered a bombing resumption? Please give us your joint assessment.

Are you confident you can maintain the morale, fighting spirit, and momentum of the ARVN and our own forces once serious negotiations start?
You may wish to consider on a contingency basis the standing rules of engagement you would recommend required to protect the security and morale of our forces and those of our allies in the face of minor DMZ violations, to which the field commander would have the authority to respond without recourse to Washington and the level of infraction, involving more substantial violation and retaliation, which would require and justify recourse to Washington.
In view of your judgment that the enemy may move promptly after a bombing cessation for a cease-fire, we trust you are designing and preparing to recommend a cease-fire proposal highly advantageous to our side which we would put into negotiation if such a proposition were put to us.


Fm: Ambassador Bunker and General Abrams 284.3

To: The White House, eyes only Walt Rostow.

Ref: CAP 82572.

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We have, of course, been examining this latest move of Hanoi and the Soviets from every conceivable point of view, including the four question areas posed in your message. Some of our views are in Saigon’s 40117,4 but we have taken another close look as a result of your telegram.

Hanoi’s intentions

It is impossible to say in advance whether Hanoi wants seriously to negotiate a compromise, or is using this latest move only as a means of getting the bombing stopped knowing that it will be difficult to resume later, either by the President or his successor. One can argue that Hanoi may have both these objectives in mind, and they will move in whichever direction they think holds out the greatest hope of gain for them.
We think Hanoi’s decision to agree to the GVN entering the discussions is of the greatest significance. It suggests that Hanoi has abandoned all hope of a military victory or of a unilateral US withdrawal by the next administration. If this is so, Hanoi’s alternatives are to try to negotiate a settlement on a basis most favorable to them, or to return to protracted guerrilla warfare. On balance we think that at the outset at least Hanoi will enter these negotiations with serious purpose.
We think their negotiating objectives will be:
Cease-fire in place;
Mutual withdrawal of forces; and
Coalition government.
We think they will put these forward early in the negotiations. All three are simple conceptions with strong propaganda features from their point of view, and each is designed to give us trouble. Since we are not going to agree on simple conceptions such as these, we must expect extended negotiations while we hammer out solutions which are acceptable to us and the GVN. We will be working up proposals to handle each of these, and assume Washington and Paris are doing likewise.
Our relative bargaining positions, assuming the wider talks start in a week or so, will be important. Both our short and long term bargaining positions are strong. The VC/NVA can do little damage with their regular forces during the next two or three months which they need for rest and resupply. As for the long term Hanoi threw everything they could into this year’s offensives, and failed. We do not see how they can make a greater effort or even a comparable one again.
On the other hand they are strongly entrenched in the VC controlled areas, where they control about 3700 hamlets, and another 3900 hamlets are contested. We will have to pay a price to extend our power into these areas, for the VC are good at guerrilla and irregular force fighting [Page 173] on their home grounds. However it is what we must now do. Fighting defensively, they will try to make any extension of our control as costly as possible for us. This is where they will concentrate their military effort as the wider negotiations start. As we push against them in these areas, which we mean to do, they will resist and there will be heavy fighting of the ambush and guerrilla type. We must also expect sabotage and guerrilla type activity in the cities.
Meantime they will be negotiating in all seriousness for as much as possible of the three objectives listed in para 4.
We do not think it possible to fix in advance, even in rough terms, the length of the interval that should be allowed before we consider whether Hanoi is serious or whether a bombing resumption is called for. We think we should have a pretty clear picture of Hanoi’s intentions in a month or two, particularly if the negotiating meetings are frequent. By the end of the year, we should also have a pretty good idea of the morale of VC/NVA forces as well as our ability to move into and establish ourselves in the contested areas.
Our main problems as we see them will be to justify to the Congress and the American people our unwillingness to agree to a cease-fire in place and our opposition to a coalition, or, to put it in another way, justifying to the American public further casualties while we negotiate for a successful outcome of our enormous effort here.
We believe here that 1968—however difficult it was for us—has been a disaster for Hanoi. We must convince the American people that the tide has turned in our favor, and we can only do this if we can show progress in moving into contested areas, rising defections from the Communist ranks, heavy Communist casualties, comparatively light casualties on our side, withdrawal of some American units, the takeover of more and more of the war by ARVN, etc. That will also be convincing to Hanoi, and will determine their negotiating tactics.
When the GVN joins the talks, we must insist on closed sessions, or closed along with open sessions, otherwise we cannot regard the talks as serious. Given the complexity of the problems and the strong bargaining cards that each side holds, with the best will in the world, we think it is likely to take some months to produce solutions and agreements, and indeed we may be in negotiations for a very long time.
Following is our reply to your question 2.
Maintaining the morale, fighting spirit and momentum of US and ARVN forces is absolutely essential. Directives have gone out on the US and GVN side to intensify our offensive operations against infrastructure, guerrillas and local forces in order to extend government control, at the same time maintaining unrelenting pressure against his main forces. It is an offensive against the enemy “system.”
We are planning now the form and shape of a message to the troops if an announcement is made. This message will be critically important to establishing a positive atmosphere. It will be tied to the results of our operations so far and the offensive described above. We will disseminate it in a massive effort.
We are completely confident that the morale, fighting spirit and momentum can be sustained.
Following is General Abrams’ reply to your third question on the contingency of enemy violation of the DMZ. The basic rules of engagement should include the following:
Every commander will retain the inherent right and responsibility to conduct operations for the self-defense of his forces.
In case of attack by fire or ground attacks by small units (up to a battalion in size) across the demarcation line, COMUSMACV should have the authority to conduct a timely and adequate response against the attacking force, to include destruction of enemy forces penetrating across the line. No US ground forces would cross the line without specific orders from the highest authority. (Comment: It is envisaged that small ground probes would be counteracted by response in kind, but of decisive superiority.)
Enemy artillery fire would be responded to with heavy counter-battery fire and air attack until enemy weapons are silenced. In case SAM’s are fired at our aircraft we would destroy his SAM installations and immediate supporting facilities.
In case of substantial or general attacks across the demarcation line by ground (including artillery) or air action requiring response going beyond local action, authorization of highest authority would be sought immediately for such action, including resumption of the bombardment of NVN.

2. Request also your best estimate, already given us preliminarily by phone, of meaning of the Tho departure for Hanoi?5

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, A/IM Files: Lot 93 D 82, HARVAN-(Outgoing)-October 1968. Top Secret; Eyes Only. Text as received from the White House and approved by Read.
  2. Telegram CAP 82572 from Rostow to Abrams and Bunker via the CIA Saigon Station, October 14, 0248Z.
  3. Telegram CAS 284 from Bunker and Abrams to Rostow via the CIA Saigon Station, October 14, 1425Z.
  4. Document 61.
  5. In telegram 22391/Delto 825 from Paris, October 14, 2115Z, Harriman and Vance wrote: “We are in general agreement with the constructive and thoughtful comments of Ambassador Bunker and General Abrams. We have no information on which to base a meaningful estimate as to the reasons for Tho’s departure for Hanoi. Our best present guess is that (A) He had given us the DRV rock bottom position on cessation of the bombing and he could contribute nothing further to this phase of the negotiations; (B) He is needed in Hanoi to participate in formulation of positions to be taken in negotiations which would follow cessation of bombing.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Memos to the President/Bombing Halt Decision, Vol. I [3 of 3]) In an attached covering note transmitting a copy of telegram 22391 to the President, October 14, 6:30 p.m., Rostow wrote: “Herewith Paris: Agree with Bunker and Abrams’ message and, therefore, his proposed rules of engagement. Present their best guess as to the reason for Tho’s departure.”