199. Memorandum From William Smyser of the National Security Council Staff to Secretary of State Kissinger 1

SUBJECT

  • The Next Steps on Vietnam

The first purpose of this memorandum is to review what we have done about Vietnam over the last few weeks, to assay its impact, and to consider what we do next.

Its second purpose is to relate our actions to the President’s upcoming speech2 and to tie it all together with the domino theory. We need to think of all these things together if we are to have a good idea of what the President should say and of how we should prepare for his remarks.

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As you know, we have done and said relatively little about the current NVA offensive, for three principal reasons:

1.
We got started slowly because of: uncertainty about Thieu’s policy, the widespread view (buttressed by the CIA estimate) that Danang would hold;3 and, general bureaucratic resistance (shown in the WSAG meetings).
2.
We have let our inability to act frustrate our power to speak. Since Congress has imposed a number of restrictions upon the exercise of American power in Indochina, we have hesitated even to say anything to other countries or—for that matter—to the American public. You have made a positive statement in your press conference, as has the President.4 But there has been no speech and no declaration that would bring home that we regard this as an item of potentially major consequence.
3.
We have considered each possible action in a separate context and have not always looked at the total impact of all actions in Vietnam and here. For example, we have sent no messages to Hanoi and to its major allies because we could not follow them up with actions; for the same reason, we have had no Asian or other diplomatic campaign; because of the economic message,5 there has not yet been a Presidential speech on Vietnam; there is so far no public Presidential letter to Thieu because the ones we did send, largely under Graham Martin’s influence, were designed for internal impact. Charity compels me not to comment on the U.S. Navy’s effort to help move the refugees but I know nobody who is impressed. Even the Presidential statement issued last weekend about aid to the Vietnamese refugees contained no appeal to the American people or to the world community for refugee relief. Neither have we had any military gestures to warn Hanoi, because of concern about Congress. The total effect of these decisions, each of which was made for what appeared to be sensible reasons, is different from the total effect that I think you would have wanted to achieve.

Because of all this, many Vietnamese and other foreigners believe that the U.S. Administration, like the Congress, does not care what happens to Vietnam. Many Americans are probably beginning to believe the same thing. This presents grave problems in terms of preparing the public for the Presidential speech.

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It will not take long for people in Vietnam and here to say, partly from North Vietnamese inspiration and partly for domestic political reasons, that this is the “decent interval” theory at work. As I have written to you earlier, I do not believe there is a “decent interval.” There is no way we can wash our hands of Indochina and act as if nothing had happened.

Our next actions must be considered in the light of three purposes we want to accomplish, if possible.

1. To try to have some impact on the North Vietnamese offensive.

I do not believe the intelligence community’s assessment that the North Vietnamese will consolidate before they continue their offensive. This is a little like the earlier intelligence assessment (which I also challenged) that the North Vietnamese would only go for limited gains this year. The NVA will keep rolling until it has to stop or until it gets concerned about our reaction, and we should remember that there is a lot of material in place for the NVA to use as it goes on. As I wrote you in recommending messages to Hanoi’s allies, the North Vietnamese know the military and political value of shock. This does not mean they will take Saigon, though it does not exclude their having a crack at it. But it does mean that we cannot expect them to stop in order to give us time to get sorted out. I think that Habib and his group should take a look at this issue and urgently consider our next steps in that context, reviewing everything we have so far decided not to do.

We now have evidence that Hanoi regarded Phuoc Long as a test case for the Russian notion that we would not react to an offensive. When the Russians were proven right, the North Vietnamese reserve divisions began to move. We do not know what else is in the wind, though intervention of North Vietnamese naval and air forces remains possible.

2. To try to present the Weyand report in a way that will not undercut its purpose.

I do not know what the Weyand report will say, but I am sure it will ask for considerable aid, of which we have not forwarned the American people. We risk repeating 1968, when Westmoreland’s request for 200,000 troops caused the collapse of Johnson’s policy (and had to, because we did not need those 200,000 troops when we said that Hanoi had just destroyed its own best forces, as indeed at had). If the American people think that we are using the current South Vietnamese setback as an effort to get unjustifiable amounts of assistance, they will not respond, especially in the present economic context and, more important, with the lack of earlier evidence of our concern. Some forms of aid, like advisors, are simply not good ideas anyway, as I [Page 722]wrote you earlier (Tab A).6 You can imagine how the Congress will react to the President’s speech, since many Congressmen will believe that it will represent an effort to pin the monkey on their backs once again after the poor performance of the ARVN has taken it off.

I do not know of any group that can formally consider this issue, since the President’s speech will be prepared at a very high level, but I recommend it for your attention in the discussions in which you will participate over the next week or two. My personal view is that it calls for some action or some further expression of concern before the President actually makes the speech.

I would urge you, however, to act as soon as possible on the two State memos now on your desk regarding a Public Information Program (Tab B)7 and Congressional Strategy (Tab C).8

3. To try to minimize the “domino” impact.

We can see, in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere that the domino theory still holds despite its detractors. But we cannot just blame everything on that theory and on whoever started the dominos falling. We must think about what we can do, in Vietnam and elsewhere, to minimize the domino effect. Our aid request can, for example, have an impact. So can a decision to look away. But, though I am doing a separate memo on Asian impact, I cannot give the urgent judgment on global effect that you will need. I suggest that a small group, perhaps under Joe Sisco’s chairmanship, should take an urgent look at this. Larry Eagleburger, Win Lord, Phil Habib, Hal Sonnenfeldt and Bill Hyland might be good State candidates for the group, and we could get several NSC people if you agree.

Recommendations 9

1.
That I be authorized, on your behalf, to ask Phil Habib and the Ad Hoc group to review again all recommendations or possible actions we might take to counter the North Vietnamese offensive and to help South Vietnam’s refugees.
2.
That you convene, under Joe Sisco’s chairmanship, a small group to report to you on the kind of U.S. position regarding Vietnam that is least likely to collapse the dominos.
  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for East Asia and the Pacific, Box 19, Vietnam (11). Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Sent for urgent action.
  2. See Document 217.
  3. See Documents 128, 155, and 195.
  4. Apparent reference to Kissinger’s news conference on March 26 and President Ford’s news conference on March 6; see, respectively, footnote 3, Document 191, and footnote 2, Document 183.
  5. The President’s annual international economic report was transmitted to Congress on March 20.
  6. In his memorandum, “Item in Yesterday’s WSAG,” March 28, attached but not printed, Smyser wrote: “I was taken aback at yesterday’s meeting by Colby’s suggestion to return U.S. advisors to Vietnam. I am not sure whether Colby meant military or civilian advisors. Either way, I think it is a bad idea.” The minutes of the WSAG meeting, March 27, were not found. A briefing book for the session is in Ford Library, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box 19, WSAG Meeting, Indochina, 3/27/1975. In “Volunteers for Vietnam,” March 28, Colby outlined a proposal for a volunteer civilian force to “assist the GVN to regain and retain control over the situation.” (Central Intelligence Agency, Executive Registry Subject Files, Job 80–M01066A, Box 11, Folder 8)
  7. “Indochina: A Public Information Program,” March 27, attached but not printed.
  8. “Congressional Options on Vietnam Aid,” March 19, attached but not printed.
  9. Kissinger initialed his approval of both recommendations. He handwrote the instructions, “same group as above.”