30. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam 1

35449/Todel 2289. For Bunker and Lodge from the Secretary.

We have reviewed with great care the thoughtful and well argued recommendations in Saigon 4320 and Paris 3229.2 We agree, of course, that the latest rocketings make the problem significantly more acute.
At the same time, we have concluded that we should not authorize a retaliatory strike against the North at this time.3 We recognize the arguments for such action in terms of the danger of adverse South Vietnamese reactions if we do not strike back at some point, and [Page 89] in terms of bringing home to the North that the understandings must be observed and that there are limits to what we will tolerate. Plainly, we shall need to have the most careful and continuing readings of the South Vietnamese temperature.
At the same time, the negative factors seem to us for the time being to have greater weight. Specifically:
US public reactions are simply not at the point where we could strike back without a significant agitating effect that might tend to shorten the period of full public support of the whole war effort. At least to this point—and even in the face of the latest action—we may be gaining somewhat by our moderation, in these terms, and we believe that an immediate response would throw large and significant segments of public and congressional opinion into a critical and impatient posture that would make our whole play of the hand, both militarily and in Paris, more difficult. On the other hand, if we appear to be going “the last mile,” we would hope to gain additional support in US public opinion for whatever action is eventually deemed to be required.
We believe we must accept that any retaliatory action, at any time, stands only a fair chance of operating to deter at least further rockets, on the scale of these last three occurrences, against Saigon or the other key cities. We of course agree that any retaliation should be against a military target, and we accept that its actual military importance is secondary to the demonstrative effect. What we must weigh carefully is the possibility that the other side would simply continue some form of rocketing—even though its capabilities may not extend to any substantial increase in number or scale—and that we would move into the position of a sterile set of exchanges which to many here would appear to be significant escalation and in any event to be unproductive.
Although we would not have in mind that we or the GVN should pull out of the Paris talks as we conducted retaliatory action, we must weigh the possibility that the other side might suspend the talks and appear to many elements here and abroad to have some justification for doing so.
Nonetheless, we fully recognize the force of both Saigon’s and Paris’ arguments that if action of this type continues we shall have to weigh a military response at some point, and the weight of the factors could then have shifted. Moreover, we are entirely persuaded by the argument that we should now make a direct and private approach to the DRV in Paris—and indeed should supplement this by my having another firm discussion with Dobrynin. We believe that a Lodge/Xuan Thuy meeting should be sought by Paris at once, aiming at tomorrow night Paris time. This would give us the opportunity for Bunker to see [Page 90] Thieu on March 7 Saigon time and to inform him that we are taking these two steps—getting such advice as he may wish to add to what we might say. I leave it to Bunker how far he should go in explaining to Thieu, at the same time, our present views on the wisdom of actually conducting a retaliatory strike. It does seem to me clear that we should acknowledge to him that the making of a direct private protest to the DRV does carry us one notch further toward a military reply if there is another action—even though of course the President’s very firm remarks of Tuesday4 night have already laid out our position clearly, and to a large extent done this in a public sense.
We believe that Lodge’s conversation with Xuan Thuy should be verbal, since any written message of the type contained in paragraph 3 of Paris 3229 both commits us categorically, and will be most likely to be made public. As to the elements of our oral presentation, we believe that it should include the following:
Since this is Lodge’s first personal meeting, it should start with a careful review of the exact exchanges that preceded the stopping of the bombing. Material for this purpose is well summarized in State 16522,5 and Paris has more detailed files on which it can draw as desired to prepare a talking paper.
Lodge must be totally firm in insisting on North Vietnamese responsibility, and in rejecting any argument that this is the business of the NLF or that we should discuss it with the NLF.
Lodge should review public statements we have made, leading up to the key point that these actions are in clear violation of our stated understanding, and that any continuation of them must call forth appropriate response of which the President has spoken. As we have repeatedly said, such consequences will be entirely the responsibility of the DRV.
Lodge should of course be prepared to meet the argument that these actions are a justified response to our own military pressures in recent months, and perhaps—it would be argued—particularly since January 20. Here the line should be to state frankly that what we cannot accept, and made clear in October that we would not accept, are violations of the DMZ and indiscriminate attacks against the major cities. And there can be no question that the attacks now at issue have [Page 91] been precisely the kind of attacks which we discussed with the DRV at great length in the period from July through October.
In addition, Lodge might say frankly that Xuan Thuy must be aware that a continuation of the shelling will make it very difficult to consider private talks.
As suggested in paragraph 5 of Paris 3268,6 the reaction of American public opinion should certainly be brought to bear as fully as possible in support of the key element in the message.
Finally, Lodge should make clear that we do not intend to make the fact of the meeting public, nor do we intend to characterize the message that we have given.
Based on these guidelines, we would appreciate a full script from Paris as soon as possible tomorrow, for final review here. If any of the above presents difficulty, please let us know frankly and fully.
For purposes of Bunker’s talk with Thieu, he may indicate that we are well aware of the possibility Thieu has raised in paragraph 2.B. of Saigon 43287—that the other side may be seeking to exact a new quid pro quo from our side. You may assure him that we have no intention of moving in this direction. You may make clear that we fully appreciate the statesmanship with which Thieu has been approaching this whole issue. You should continue to present the matter in such a way as to discourage any official GVN request that would force our hand. Bunker should of course share this cable fully with Secretary Laird, and we would welcome additional comments.8
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, East Asia Bureau, Office of Asian Communist Affairs Files: Lot 70 D 47. Secret; Immediate; Nodis; Paris Meetings; Plus. Also sent to Paris. Drafted by Bundy on March 6, cleared by Kissinger and Walsh, and approved by Rogers.
  2. Both dated March 6. (Ibid., EAP/ACA Files: Lot 70 D 28, March 1–6, 1969)
  3. In MACV telegram 2836 from Abrams to Wheeler, March 6, Abrams recommended a “1–2 punch” against North Vietnam to signal U.S. resolve to stand on the understandings of the bombing halt, but to strike a strategic blow against the North. The first phase of the retaliation included resumption of air and naval gunfire up to the 19th parallel against the ports, key passes, and storage areas, and other strategic areas. The second phase consisted of air and artillery attacks against Cambodian and Lao sanctuaries followed by pursuit of the enemy forces in Cambodia and Laos. (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 67, Vietnam Subject Files, Retaliation for Attacks on Saigon) In a memorandum to Kissinger, March 6, Sneider of the Operations Staff of the NSC argued against retaliation on the grounds that it would have little effect on North Vietnam.
  4. Reference is to comments made by the President on March 4 at the White House where he discussed, among other subjects, the overall situation regarding the Vietnam war, the recent Communist offensive in Vietnam, probable U.S. responses to the offensive, possible new approaches to the Vietnam conflict, and the withdrawal of American troops. (Public Papers: Nixon, 1969, pp. 179–194)
  5. Telegram 16522 to Paris, January 31, summarized what the United States had previously told North Vietnam about the consequences of major attacks on South Vietnamese cities. (National Archives, RG 59, A/IM Files: Lot 93 D 82, Paris Meetings, Outgoing, Jan. 1969)
  6. In paragraph 5 of telegram 3268 from Paris, March 6, Lodge suggested that a private meeting with Xuan Thuy “might also give me the chance to explain that American public opinion, though anxious for peace, is outraged by these indiscriminate shellings of population centers in defiance of the understanding which brought about the total cessation of bombing of the North.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 187, Paris Cables, Vol. III, Paris Meetings/Nodis and Nodis/Plus, April–May 1969)
  7. Not found.
  8. In a telephone conversation on March 8 at 10:10 a.m., Kissinger told Haldeman that “Packard went thru the roof” when he learned that morning that retaliation had been cancelled. Kissinger told Haldeman that “Packard feels very strongly that we are making Laird the fall guy; that we are looking terribly weak; that it is not such a big thing to do; that after the next attack it will be too little.” Although “the Pres has heard all the arguments,” Kissinger admitted that the President should know how Packard felt. He asked Haldeman to tell Nixon. Haldeman asked Kissinger, “Does the President know how the sides are drawn? In other words, the only opposition is Rogers—the rest of you are in agreement to go ahead?” Kissinger stated: “I can see some merit in Rogers’ argument,” but what was really important was “would the war be wound up in 15 months?” Kissinger concluded by stating that “My feeling is we ought to consider where we will be a year from now, rather than next week. In terms of immediate reaction, there is no question that Rogers is right, but we can let it slip for a week.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 359, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)