26. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the United Kingdom 1

28475/Tosec 32. For Secretary from Acting Secretary. Deliver earliest in morning after normal waking hour.

Ref: A. Saigon 3429;2 B. Saigon 3508.3

Subject: Actions in Response to Current Enemy Offensive.

We appreciate factors which led to Saigon’s recommendation contained ref A that we take military action in NVN in response to the current coordinated attacks throughout South Viet-Nam. There are, however, obvious considerations which lead us to defer consideration any such response for the time being. A US military response would, in our view, have to be based on a degree of seriousness of the enemy attacks on population centers such as to require the conclusion that the understandings which preceded the October 31 bombing halt should be invoked. Any such military response would have to be defended on this basis before public opinion both here and abroad. Events thus far have not produced unequivocal evidence we would need.4
Since military action seems inadvisable at the present moment, it is all the more important that we make some diplomatic response [Page 80] beyond what we have already done with the Soviets. We did, after all, protest the Hue attack to the DRV delegation on February 5. Present attacks are so much more important and destructive, failure on our part to protest privately to Lau in Paris might well suggest to Hanoi that our threshold of pain is considerably higher than even they estimated. I recommend therefore that we authorize Walsh to seek an early appointment with Lau (certainly before Thursday),5 in order to clearly warn DRV that present shellings are, in our view, indiscriminate and that their continuation would call into question DRV’s sincere desire to seek peace through the Paris talks. We should of course inform GVN both in Saigon and Paris that we are taking this action. We should also keep open whether we should publicize this démarche prior to Thursday meeting in Paris.
We should also follow up démarche to Lau with an opening statement at Thursday’s plenary session protesting these new attacks, laying emphasis on the heavy civilian casualties they have already caused. (We should by that time have a fairly accurate record of the number of dead and wounded civilians these attacks have caused as well as a rough over-all figure of the damage to civilian property.)
Our failure to do at least this much at this stage could accelerate incipient doubts within GVN and Vietnamese public regarding the strength of our commitment. One of the goals of the present series of attacks seems to be to drive an entering wedge between ourselves and the Vietnamese. Hanoi may be bent on sustaining these attacks at a level which is low enough to inhibit the execution of a military retaliation or stronger diplomatic response but high enough to cause the Vietnamese serious suffering and thus to generate US/GVN misunderstandings.
If you agree with foregoing action, we will instruct Paris and Saigon accordingly. It seems to me that there is a significant timing factor involved, and that we should make every effort to act Wednesday. If we hold back on raising this issue until Thursday’s meeting, we run a major risk that the other side will immediately take the position that the NLF is the true party in interest—and the setting at the Majestic will make it very difficult for us to get away from a degree of appearance that we accept this. If, however, the majestic meeting takes place against the backdrop of our having seen the DRV separately—and perhaps letting this be known publicly—then we stand a much better chance of maintaining our position of DRV responsibility and of avoiding any step that could cause concern in the GVN.6
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Repeated Immediate to Paris for Lodge. Drafted by John R. Burke (EA/VN) February 24, cleared by Archibald Calhoun (EA) and Bundy, and approved by Richardson. Rogers and Nixon were in London for meetings with British Prime Minister Wilson.
  2. In telegram 3429 from Saigon, February 23, Bunker informed Rogers that, “I have just concurred in Gen. Abrams’ request for authority to mount a 96-hour retaliatory air and naval strike against the north between the DMZ and the 19th parallel.” Bunker suggested that, “the Communists are probing to see whether we retaliate or not. If we fail to do so promptly, they will be emboldened to continue these attacks, some of which are clear violations of the understanding with Hanoi.” Bunker then suggested that, “I think it highly important to get the message to Hanoi that while we are ready to reach reasonable agreements in Paris, there should be no doubt that we will react firmly and speedily to this kind of attack.” (Ibid.)
  3. In telegram 3508 from Saigon, February 24, Bunker responded to a request from Acting Secretary Richardson for additional information on the attacks so that Rogers and Nixon, en route to Brussels on Air Force One, could make a decision about retaliation. (Ibid.) The request from Richardson was transmitted in telegram 28343 to Saigon, February 23. (Ibid.)
  4. In telegram 2732 from Paris/Delto 1382, February 25, Lodge agreed with the conclusions in paragraph 1. As for the diplomatic protest, Lodge preferred not to make it. He considered that the U.S. position had already been made clear to the DRV, it was more important to remain flexible, and Lau would reject the protest anyway on the grounds that the NLF was the proper interlocutor. (Ibid., POL 27–14 VIET)
  5. February 27.
  6. Printed from an unsigned copy.