8. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • NSC Meeting of January 25 on Vietnam2

At Tab A are proposed talking points3 for the NSC meeting on Saturday.

At Tab C is the paper on Vietnam Alternatives.4 (You will recall that you saw and approved it for distribution while at Key Biscayne.) The members of the NSC have had the paper since Tuesday5 and I understand that each has a number of comments.

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Since the paper was prepared by the NSC staff prior to January 20, it was not coordinated with the agencies. It is designed to be an initial cut at broad alternative objectives and courses of action. It will have served its purpose if it stimulates a discussion of basic issues. Following the discussion on Saturday6 and next Wednesday,7 it would probably be most useful to draft a completely new inter-agency paper which focuses more sharply on the real choices in objectives, negotiating strategy and U.S. troop levels and the major points of disagreement among your advisers.

You may wish to re-read the five-page summary paper at Tab B before the meeting.

Tab B


To choose among military and negotiating strategies for Vietnam, the U.S. needs to determine what its objectives are. In turn, the choice of objectives depends on an estimate of the costs and risks of alternative military strategies and the probabilities of their success.

This memorandum first describes alternative outcomes that the U.S. might seek, and then alternative military strategies. Third, combinations of military and negotiating strategies in pursuit of various outcomes are described and their implications evaluated.

I. Alternative Outcomes (Tab I)8

A. Assured GVN Control of All of South Vietnam

U.S. would seek to bring all of SVN under complete and assured GVN control. U.S. forces would remain until either the NVA had been withdrawn and the VC forces and structure eliminated, or until Hanoi had negotiated a settlement for such withdrawals including assured GVN control and perhaps international supervision and guarantees.

B. Mutual Withdrawal Without Political Accommodation

U.S. would seek the withdrawal of NVA forces from South Vietnam and the end of infiltration. In return, U.S. would phase out the withdrawal of its own forces with those of the NVA, tacitly or by agreement, even in the absence of political accommodation in SVN. (The U.S. will have to decide whether to insist upon a withdrawal of NVA forces from the Laotian panhandle and from Cambodia.) With U.S. military and economic assistance, the GVN could confront the indigenous [Page 19] communist forces; or agreement could be reached between the GVN and the groups opposing it during the withdrawal process on a political or territorial accommodation.

C. Political Accommodation (with Mutual Troop Withdrawal)

The U.S. would seek a political accommodation which would end the military conflict in South Vietnam in a manner acceptable to both sides. The U.S. could seek to participate in the negotiation of this accommodation or it could leave such negotiations to the South Vietnamese. U.S. forces would be withdrawn from SVN only after an agreement acceptable to the GVN and the NLF had been negotiated. International forces might play a role in the election arrangements or in support of a coalition government.

D. Territorial Accommodation

The U.S. would accept or even encourage a division of South Vietnam into several large Vietcong and GVN regions, and seek to terminate the war through a ceasefire, explicit or tacit. U.S. forces could be reduced or perhaps completely withdrawn as the threat from the NVA could be handled by RVNAF, or as the NVA withdrew.

II. Alternative Military Strategies (Tab II)

The two basic approaches in selecting a military strategy are:

to continue pressures on Hanoi through the current strategy, threats of escalation, or actual escalation; or
to reduce the U.S. presence in South Vietnam which, by making U.S. presence more sustainable, could be another form of pressure.

A. Escalation

Expanded military operations, from resumption of bombing or ground operations into Cambodia, to limited or full invasion of North Vietnam and Laos.
Alternatively we could threaten such escalation.

B. Current Military Posture

Continue current force levels and current military operations, i.e., emphasis on defense of Saigon and other cities, wide-spread intensive patrolling, sweeps, and operations into communist base areas. (A variant would involve restructuring of U.S. ARVN into small units, deployed throughout populated areas.)

C. Substantial Reduction in U.S. Presence with RVNAF Assuming Increasing Responsibility

To reduce costs and fatalities and to increase credibility of the U.S. remaining as long as necessary, a substantial number of U.S. forces [Page 20] would be withdrawn in the first year and more in the second year, to reach a level that can be sustained. U.S. would continue programs to modernize RVNAF and expect South Vietnamese to carry an increasing share of the burden.

III. Negotiating and Military Strategies To Attain Alternative Outcomes

A. Assured GVN Control of All of South Vietnam

This objective could be obtained either through a “fade away” of all North Vietnamese forces (hence requiring only a tacit agreement by Hanoi), or through a more formal agreement. The latter might be harder to obtain since Hanoi would have to acknowledge defeat, but it could include international guarantees against renewed infiltration. (Yet, this has proven of little help in the past.)

Advocates of the current military strategy argue the NVA could be destroyed or driven out and the VC defeated (sufficiently for RVNAF to cope with them) within 1–2 years. Assuming this military outcome can be achieved, how can Hanoi then be induced to give up? Is it possible that with the VC eliminated, NVA attacks could be handled by an improved RVNAF and U.S. forces small enough to maintain indefinitely?

If not, or if the NVA cannot be driven out, threats of escalation or actual escalation might be used. However, it is possible that Hanoi might not give in because, (1) it withstood previous escalation and might believe it can withstand more, and (2) it might expect to receive aid from Russia and China which would at least offset the effects of U.S. escalation.

Arguments against seeking this objective are: (1) that U.S. objectives in South Vietnam could be achieved with other outcomes; and (2) that because of VC/NVA strength and limitations in GVN/RVNAF improvements, it would require prolonged fighting, unacceptable to U.S. public.

B. Mutual U.S.–NVA Withdrawal Without Political Accommodation

The objective would be the withdrawing of NVA forces, at the price of U.S. withdrawal, giving the GVN a fair chance of overcoming the VC insurgency. Should the GVN nonetheless be defeated eventually by the VC, it would be the result of a primarily indigenous conflict. Such a withdrawal by outside forces might lead quickly to agreement on political or territorial accommodation. Withdrawal might result from formal agreement or it might be tacitly coordinated. (The U.S. would continue economic and military aid to the GVN.)

The reason for not seeking an overall political accommodation as part of mutual withdrawal is that (1) the GVN would oppose it, (2) it would probably require protracted negotiations, and (3) might deeply involve the U.S. in a settlement that results in a Communist takeover.

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The U.S. could seek to press Hanoi to agree to mutual withdrawal with the current military strategy or even through threats of escalation or actual escalation. By thus confronting Hanoi with a more complete defeat (perhaps leading to assured GVN control of all of the South), it might be easier to obtain a compromise settlement and Hanoi would be prevented from dragging out negotiations.

On the other hand, the U.S. could seek the mutual withdrawal outcome by reducing its own forces, so as to (1) avoid the risk of having a new military commitment fail, (2) make it less costly for the U.S. to engage in prolonged bargaining and hence convince Hanoi of its staying power, and (3) perhaps stimulate the GVN to better performance. (Indeed, if the GVN and RVNAF really improved, assured GVN control of all of South Vietnam might then still be possible.)

With mutual U.S.–NVA withdrawal, the GVN could keep the VC from over-running population centers and could probably extend its control in the countryside. (However, some believe that, under VC pressure, RVNAF might be forced to consolidate its strength and to abandon some districts to VC control.) If Hanoi refuses military withdrawal, the U.S. could keep its forces in Vietnam, while building up RVNAF. If NVA forces were reintroduced later, the U.S. could reintroduce troops or escalate in other ways.

C. Political Accommodation (and Mutual Withdrawal)

The argument is made that there is sufficient common interest among South Vietnamese to make possible an independent noncommunist state even if the NLF participated in the political process. Alternatively, this could lead to the Communists coming to power by peaceful means, but the U.S. would still have fulfilled its commitments. And given the enemy’s costs of continuing the war, he might accept the uncertainty of a political contest. Some argue that the NVA would withdraw only if there is first a political settlement.

Should the U.S. participate in negotiating a political settlement? An argument in favor is that it would lead to a more satisfactory and perhaps speedier agreement. An argument against is that it would make the U.S. more responsible for the outcome.

The pros and cons here of alternate military strategies are essentially the same as those for the mutual withdrawal outcome discussed above.

D. Territorial Accommodation

While there are few if any direct advocates of partition, some degree of territorial accommodation exists and any tacit de-escalation or stand-down during negotiations might further solidify it. The VC and GVN, in default of a political compromise, may evolve a greater acquiescence in a territorial status quo.

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For this outcome to emerge by an evolutionary process, rather than by negotiated agreement, there probably has to be a progressive lessening of hostilities. A modified version of the present military posture is probably compatible with territorial accommodation. Some reduction of troops, a deliberate concentration of counter-insurgency in certain areas, and a reduction of offensive sweeps (except against large-unit enemy concentrations), would probably contribute to this outcome.

A substantial reduction of U.S. troops is compatible with such an accommodation, and would probably contribute to it if the VC wished such an accommodation. But substantial reduction undoubtedly would raise the VC temptation to enlarge its control and to demoralize the GVN, i.e. to upset the status quo; U.S. troop reduction probably increases GVN willingness to accept a territorial status quo.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 74, Vietnam Subject Files, Vietnam, Memos to the President for NSC, 1969. Secret. Nixon wrote the following notes on the first page of the memorandum: “1. Helms should stay. 2. Police forces. 3. V. Nam training.”
  2. See Document 10.
  3. Attached but not printed.
  4. Tab C was a 27-page undated paper consisting of two parts: I, a more detailed version of the summary provided in Tab B, and II, “Alternative Military Strategies,” that contained three options with analysis: “A. Escalation, B. Current Military Posture, C. Substantial Reduction in U.S. Presence with RVNAF Assuming Increased Responsibility.”
  5. January 21.
  6. January 25, at the NSC meeting.
  7. January 29.
  8. The tab cited here and under II below are the two parts of Tab C referred to in footnote 4 above.