Memorandum by William H. Sullivan to William Bundy on "Courses of Action in Viet Nam," 6 November 1964

Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 3, pp. 594-596

November 6, 1964

SUBJECT: Courses of Action in Viet Nam

I have read your memorandum outlining the options open to us in Viet Nam. It seems to me of the complete catalogue of the possibilities facing the President at this moment. I would offer the following comments derived from the recent perspective of Saigon.

First, I think it highly important that we recognize the anticipation which has built up in Viet Nam concerning the nature of the first U.S. actions after the election. All Vietnamese and other interested observers as well will be watching very closely to see what posture the newly mandated Johnson Administration will assume. I feel that the character, therefore, of our first action, no matter how limited that action in itself may be, will produce exaggerated reactions in many quarters.

Given this state of affairs, I think it is imperative that our first action be a positive one and one which gives the appearance of a determination to take risks if necessary to maintain our position in Southeast Asia. This posture is essential no matter which option the President chooses since we must indicate an attitude of strength if we are to take any of the steps open to us.

Secondly, I feel that it is important not only in terms of national policies but in terms of international attitudes that the Administration go on record fairly soon placing our policy in Viet Nam within the larger perspective of our policies in the Western Pacific, especially as they involve confrontation with Communist China. I have done a paper (attached as Tab A) which indicates the sort of statement that I feel is necessary. This paper was drafted as a possible article to be issued with authoritative anonymity in some mass circulation medium, such as the New York Times Magazine. It is a first draft and contains a number of statements which would probably give trouble to our "specialists" but which ought to be able to be said, with some editing, as a political document.

Having made these two generalized observations, I would move on to the following specific suggestions. For self-evident reasons, I have broken them into those matters which need immediate decision and those which have a somewhat longer time fuze.


1. The Viet Cong maintain an ability to repeat the Bien Hoa performance at any one of a number of installations. Danang, the major communications in-
stallation at Nha Trang, and the facility at Phi Bai are only three of those which could be successfully damaged by the Viet Cong in the same sort of hit and run mortar attack. I believe a decision should be taken now that any action of this type meets with an immediate response tailored to an appropriate target of retaliation, taking into account such variable factors as the poor weather in North Viet Nam during the month or so ahead.

2. The build up of supplies coming in on Route 7 and the increase in infiltration units observed in the Panhandle indicate the need for a more active Yankee Team operation. As it is now we fly photo reconnaissance with armed escort. I think a decision should be made to convert these operations to genuine armed reconnaissance flights which will have the authority to destroy targets of opportunity, particularly truck convoys when sighted.

3. If we are to maintain our position in the Tonkin Gulf, we should renew de Soto patrols soonest. This introduces the prospect of a torpedo boat attack against the destroyers. (CINCPAC, at JCS direction, has developed a FRAGORDER for a retaliatory attack in the event of torpedo boat action against the destroyers.) In my opinion, the retaliation strike is of magnitude which would not be politically viable unless the destroyers were actually sunk or severely damaged. Since either of these is an unlikely possibility, it seems to me that the retaliation action ought to be reviewed on this side of the River to make it measure somewhat closer to political realities.


All of the foregoing suggestions are actions which seem required by the immediate nature of the Viet Cong/North Viet Nam current operations. None of them crosses any particular threshold of decision beyond the level that we have generally taken in the past. However, if we are to contemplate actions designed to reverse the pattern of current difficulties in Viet Nam we ought to lay the ground work for longer-range actions moving toward a more decisive resolution. In this sense, it seems to me that the time has come for us to begin briefing responsible newspaper people on a background basis concerning both the degree of control which the North Vietnamese exercise over the Viet Cong and the nature of the infiltration process as derived from recent intelligence. I think both of these actions could be taken without breaching ultra-sensitive security information. Both of them, however, are essential if we are to make our case clearly understood that North Viet Nam is the responsible element in the Viet Cong campaign.

Once these facts have been better established in the public record, we can begin harassing action against the infiltration structure not only in Laos but more particularly in its operational roots in North Viet Nam. I am convinced that air attacks up and down this structure will produce a tremendous uproar but probably not anything in the way of a major military confrontation. Indeed, it is doubtful whether they will produce international political pressures of such a level that we would feel compelled to take responsive action.

Pressures mounted along this channel have two distinct advantages: 1) they are clearly reactions to an established and persistent threat; and 2) their intensity can be controlled at our discretion and initiative and doesn't rest upon Communist initiatives. Moreover, their nature would be such that for the moment all options continue to be preserved by the President. We do not need to stipulate our ultimate intentions in beginning this particular course of action.

I think this latter observation is important because of current variables. First, there is the quality of the new government in Viet Nam. While it is true that our own actions and our own decisions will have distinct effects upon the nature and determination of that Government, we do also need some assurances that the Government itself will be able to survive before we make definitive commitments beyond our current involvement. Secondly, there is the question of SinoSoviet relations. We should know better in the next few weeks whether these are moving toward a rapprochement or whether the national and institutional factors of the dispute will persist.

This state of affairs, of course, decidedly effects the timing of any deliberate pressures we may undertake. The most important aspect of timing it seems to me is for us to maintain the appearance of a steady deliberative approach. Therefore, I would recommend that the set of decisions above be put into effect immediately so that their signal will reach the Communists soonest. At the same time, I believe an authoritative exposition of our position is needed in the immediate future.

As for movement toward the more deliberative pressure campaign, I would recommend that a meeting on this subject be held in Washington a couple of weeks from now, ostentatiously bringing in Ambassador Taylor and Admiral Sharp. (In this connection, the timing has to be fixed so as not to interfere with the CINCPAC weapons demonstration.) By the time that meeting is held, we should not only have been able to observe the effects of our initial and immediate attacks but also we should have a better reading of both the ability of the Saigon Government and the relations in the Sino-Soviet campaign.

William H. Sullivan

Tab A--Draft Article

Return to Vinnie's Home Page

Return to Vietnam War Page