Cable from State to Saigon, Vientiane, CINCPAC, giving Key Points to a Tentative High Level Paper on Next Courses of Action in Southeast Asia, 14 August 1964

Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 3, pp. 529

Date: 14 August 1964

FM: State

TO: Saigon 439
Vientiane 157

Following are key points tentative high level paper on next courses of action in Southeast Asia. Request addressee comments by Tuesday morning for further review and refinement.



The next ten days to two weeks should be short holding phase in which we would avoid actions that would in any way take onus off Communist side for escalation.

We will not send DESOTO patrol back, will hold up on new 34A operations (continuing only essential re-supply of air-dropped missions, plus relatively safe leaflets drops), but will continue intensive reconnaissance of DRV and Panhandle (PDJ if necessary). Within Laos, attempt secure Phou Kout would continue (napalm use discretion of Unger) as would T-28 operations and consolidation Triangle gains, but no further military action would be done or indicated. In view possible Communist moves in Laos, road watch and other intelligence efforts should be intensified accepting some greater risks.

We not yet sure what Communist side may do in this period. They have introduced aircraft into North Viet Nam and may well send in at least token ground forces. VC activity could step up markedly any moment. Although volume Chicom propaganda and demonstrations ominous, it does not yet clearly suggest any further moves; if they were made, we would act accordingly. This paper assumes Communist side does not go beyond above.


A. South Viet Nam not (rpt not) going well. Mission's monthly report (Saigon 377) expresses hope significant gains by end of year. But also says Khanh's chances of staying in power are only 50-50, that leadership (though not so much people or army) has symptoms defeatism and hates prospect of slugging it out within country, that there will be mounting pressures for wider action "which, if resisted, will create frictions and irritations which could lead local politicians to serious consideration negotiated solution or local soldiers to military adventure without US consent."

In other words, even if situation in our view does go bit better, we have major problem maintaining morale. Our actions of last week lifted that morale temporarily, but also aroused expectations, and morale could easily sag back again if VC have successes and we do nothing further.

B. Laos on other hand has shown real military progress-so much so that Communist retaliatory move is real possibility. If Phou Kout can be secured, present military areas of control are if anything better for Souvanna than line of last April. T-28 operations have been major factor and really hurt PL morale. Souvanna's internal position also stronger, though right-wing generals and colonels could make fools of themselves any time.

C. Laos negotiations may start to move in near future whatever we do. Souvanna has accepted tripartite meeting in Paris, and suggested August 24. With gains in hand, he already indicated he likely not insist on previous precondition of Communist withdrawal from PDJ before agreeing to 14-nation conference. USSR (at least publicly), India, and France--and UK and Canada only slightly less so--pressing for conference or at least clear motion toward one. Souvanouvong's silence and other indicators suggest Communist side may still not accept early tripartite meeting or push for conference but we must recognize that, if they do accept tripartite, it will be real step toward eventual conference. We can and will urge Souvanna go slow, but our control limited.

D. Hanoi and Peiping as of now certainly not persuaded they must abandon efforts in South Viet Nam and Laos. US response to North Vietnamese naval attacks undoubtedly convinced Communist side we will act strongly when US force units directly involved-as they have previously seen in our handling Laos reconnaissance. But in other respects Communist side may not be so persuaded we prepared take stronger actions, either in response infiltration into SVN or VC activity. Communists probably believe we might counter air action in Laos quite firmly but we would not wish be drawn into ground action there.


A. South Viet Nam still main theater. Morale and momentum there must be maintained. This means:

1. There advantage devising best possible means of action that for minimum risks get maximum results in terms of SVN morale and pressure on DRV.

2. We must continue oppose any Viet Nam conference and must play prospect of Laos confernce very carefully. We must particularly avoid any impression rushing to Laos conference and must show posture general firmness into which eventual Laos conference might fit without serious loss.

3. We particularly need keep our hands free for at least limited measures against Laos infiltration areas.

B. It is in our interest stabilize Laos situation as between Government forces and Communist side, and reduce chances of Communist escalating move on this front. (If such move comes, we must meet it firmly. We should also be stepping up Thai support deter and prevent any Communist nibbles.) However, Souvanna should not give up his strong cards, particularly T-28 operations, without getting full price for them. Moreover, we must seek reduce as much as possible inhibiting effect any Laos talks on actions against Panhandle.

C. Basically solution in both South Viet Nam and Laos will require combination military pressure and some form of communication under which Hanoi (and Peiping) eventually accept idea of getting out. Negotiation without continued military action will not achieve our objectives in foreseeable future. But military pressures could be accompanied by attempts communicate with Hanoi and perhaps Peiping-through third-country channels, through side conversations around Laos negotiations of any sort-provided always that we make clear both to Communists and South Viet Nam that military pressure will continue until we have achieved our objectives. After, but only after, we have established clear pattern pressure hurting DRV and leaving no doubts in South Viet Nam of our resolve, we could even accept conference broadened to include Viet Nam issue. (UN now looks to be out as communication forum though this could conceivably change.)


A. Limited Pressures (late August tentatively through December)

There are a number of limited actions we could take that would tend to maintain our initiative and morale of GVN and Khanh, but that would not involve major risks of escalation. Such actions could be such as to foreshadow stronger measures to come, though they would not in themselves go far to change Hanoi's basic actions.

1. 34A Operations could be overtly acknowledged and justified by GVN. Marine operations could be strongly defended on basis of continued DRV sea infiltration, and successes could be publicized. Leaflet operations could also be admitted and defended, again on grounds of meeting DRV efforts in South, and their impunity (we hope) would tend to have its own morale value in both Vietnams. Air-drop operations are more doubtful; their justification is good but less clear than other operations, and successes have been few. With the others admitted, they could be left to speak for themselves-and of course security would forbid any mention of specific operations before they succeeded.

2. Joint US/GVN planning already covers possible actions against DRV and the Panhandle. It can be used in itself to maintain morale of GVN leadership, as well as to control and inhibit any unilateral GVN moves. With 34A surfaced, it could be put right into same planning framework. We would not ourselves publicize this planning, but it could be leaked (as it probably would anyway) with desirable effects in Hanoi and elsewhere.

3. Stepped-up training of Vietnamese on jet aircraft should now be undertaken in any event in light of presence of MIG's in North Viet Nam. JCS are preparing a plan, and existence of this training could be publicized both for its morale effect in GVN and as a signal to Hanoi of possible future action.

4. Cross-border operations into Panhandle could be conducted on a limited scale. To be successful, ground operations would have to be so large in scale as to be beyond what GVN can spare, and we should not at this time consider major US or Thai ground action from Thai side. But for air operations there are at least a few worthwhile targets in infiltration areas, and these could be hit by GVN air US reconnaissance missions in Panhandle would of course continue in any event; suppressive missions might be considered at some point, but not until after GVN has acted in this area. (Our Panhandle reconnaissance does not have the justification of a request from Souvanna, as our PDJ operations do.) Probably we should avoid publicity on air operations so as not to embarrass Souvanna; Communist side might squawk, but in past they have been silent on this area.

5. DESOTO patrols could be reintroduced at some point. Both for present purposes and to maintain credibility of our account of events of last week, they must be clearly dissociated from 34A operations both in fact and in physical appearance. In terms of course patterns, we should probably avoid penetrations of 11 miles or so and stay at least 20 miles off; whatever the importance of asserting our view of territorial waters, it is less than international drawbacks of appearing to provoke attack unduly. The 20-mile distance would not appreciably change chances of a North Vietnamese reaction, while it would deprive them of a propaganda argument (since a great many other countries also assert a 12-mile territorial waters limit).

6. Specific tit-for-tat actions of opportunity could be undertaken for any special VC or DRV activity. As Saigon 377 points out, VC have "unused dirty tricks" such as mining (or attacks) in Saigon River, sabotage of major POL stocks, and terrorist attacks on US dependents. First two, at least, would lend themselves to prompt and precise reprisal, e.g., by mining Haiphong channel and attacking Haiphong POL storage.

7. US Dependents. This has two aspects. If there were substantial terrorism against our dependents, we should consider some specific reprisal against DRV; however, this has disadvantages in that it might appear that we were reacting only when US nationals were hit, and ignoring regular pattern of terrorism against South Vietnamese. Second aspect, whether or not there are terrorist attacks, is possible withdrawal of our dependents. If situation should reach another intense point, withdrawal might be useful in itself as signal to Hanoi that we were really getting ready for business.

8. Sequence and mix of US and GVN actions needs careful thought. At this point, we should emphasize both the GVN role in actions and rationales directly relating actions to what is being done to GVN. Overt 34A actions should be the first moves, and GVN would go first in air attacks against Panhandle. But there are advantages in other respects to actions related to US forces. If we lost an aircraft in Panhandle, we could act hard and fast, and of course similarly for any attack on DESOTO patrols. Probably sequence should be played somewhat by ear, with aim of producing a slightly increased tempo but one that does not commit us prematurely to even stronger actions.

Summary. Above actions are in general limited and controllable. However, if we accept--as of course we must--necessity of prompt retaliation especially for attacks on our own forces, they could amount to at least a pretty high noise level that might stimulate some pressures for a conference. New DRV air and AA capability may also produce incidents.

These actions are not in themselves a truly coherent program of strong enough pressure either to bring Hanoi around or to sustain a pressure posture into some kind of discussion. Hence, we should continue absolutely opposed to any conference.

B. More Serious Pressures

All above actions would be foreshadowing systematic military action against DRy, and we might at some point conclude such action was required either because of incidents arising from above actions or because of deterioration in SVN situation, particularly if there were to be clear evidence of greatly increased infiltration from the north. However, in absence of such major new developments, we should be thinking of a contingency date for planning purposes, as suggested by Ambassador Taylor, of 1 January 1965.

End Summary

Among key questions above program are:

1. What is Saigon's best judgment whether it would maintain morale GVN leadership?

2. What is Vientiane's judgment how much Panhandle action Souvanna could accept without danger right-wing problems or his general position? Would it help to establish early pattern suppressive strikes and GVN air operations so that noise from this area became familiar background music, or would such early actions impair Souvanna's position? How much would Saigon like to see done in Panhandle to help GVN morale and achieve useful military results?

3. CINCPAC views on military aspects and specific action sequence should be conveyed JCS. Your general comments also welcome.

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