24. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam1

28314. Todel 2196. For Ambassador and Gen Abrams. Ref: Saigon 3402.2

We have considered reftel carefully here and appreciate its timely analysis and recommendations. Contingency plans have been under urgent discussion here, and have laid out a wide variety of possible actions. These have taken account of the various comments from [Page 76] both Paris and Saigon on the DRV and GVN interpretations of the pre-October communications. However, because of the great difficulty in identifying any possible situation with precision, we cannot at this time specify exactly what we might do if there is offensive action.
This planning includes the question of any statement or statements to the American public. Insofar as there is a need to alert the public to the current indications, we believe this has been met by wise backgrounding which is resulting in stories here that stop short of crying wolf but make clear we are very much on the alert. In the event of attack, on whatever scale, we would need to consult urgently on how to characterize it. However, our experience last year in the Tet offensive leaves us in considerable doubt that it would be wise at the outset to proclaim that what was taking place was or was sure to be a Communist defeat. We are inclined to think statements to this effect, before the real outcome was apparent, did us little good last year, and that it is on the whole preferable to await events speaking for themselves.
This leaves the question of an urgent message to the Soviet Union. By telecon, we have instructed Paris to see Zorin, or if he is not available, Oberemko, as soon as possible to convey the following:
We are concerned on the basis of cumulative indications that a substantial step-up in offensive action may be under way on orders from Hanoi;
If this occurs it could affect the understanding which made possible our bombing halt. We believe the North Vietnamese clearly understand that indiscriminate attacks on major population centers such as Saigon, Danang, and Hue, would create a situation which could affect the continuation of serious negotiations and the maintenance of the bombing cessation. Thus, if there were to be such attacks, we could only conclude that Hanoi was acting deliberately and had decided to ignore the consequences.3
We are communicating this to Ambassador Zorin because he and his government were helpful in bringing about the negotiations and bombing halt understanding in the first place.

We have chosen deliver this message in Paris in order to relate any attacks, in the most direct possible way, to the Paris talks. In addition, however, Secretary spoke to Dobrynin at about noon today, pointing out potentially serious consequences of indiscriminate attacks on the cities. Dobrynin said he would inform his government immediately.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Drafted by Bundy, cleared by Moor, and approved for transmission by Richardson. Repeated to Paris for Vietnam Mission and CINCPAC for POLAD.
  2. In telegram 3402, February 22, Bunker and Abrams informed the Department of State that MACV had concluded at 1025Z on February 21 and the CIA reached the same conclusion that evening that “widespread Communist attacks are expected to take place on February 22 or 23.” Bunker and Abrams stated that “the main purpose of these attacks is to try to produce another shock in the US as took place last year at Tet.” The enemy’s motivation, according to Bunker and Abrams, was “to show how tough, determined and capable they are,” to inflict heavy US casualties, and to alienate American support for the war. A second objective was to disrupt South Vietnam’s pacification program, and to time the offensive during President Nixon’s trip in the hopes that he would be too preoccupied to order retaliation. Bunker and Abrams asked for “decisions to be readied to retaliate.” (Ibid.)
  3. On February 23 the Director of Central Intelligence’s Special Assistant for Vietnamese Affairs, George A. Carver, Jr., sent Rogers a memorandum stating that “at approximately 0100 hours on Sunday, February 23 (Vietnam local time), the Communist initiated an obviously coordinated series of over 160 attacks against province capitals, district towns, allied military bases and lines of communication throughout South Vietnam.” Carver estimated that “the Communist effort will almost certainly continue over the next 48 to 72 hours,” but warned that “the full range of Communist objectives cannot be discerned until we see the full scope of their intended offensive.” (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 63, Vietnam Subject Files, 2–C, General Military Activity) In telegram MAC 2372 to Wheeler and McCain, February 23, Abrams wrote: “I consider it imperative that we launch convincing attacks on the enemy in NVN.” He added, “a failure to reply positively merely invites further provocation as enemy probes to ascertain what the traffic will bear.” Abrams specifically requested permission to launch a 96-hour air and naval bombardment campaign between the DMZ and 19th parallel and Arc Light strikes against the DMZ and 17 degrees, 10 minutes, north latitude. (Ibid.)