The Pentagon Papers
Gravel Edition
Volume 3
Chapter 3, "The Air War in North Vietnam: Rolling Thunder Begins, February-June, 1965," pp. 269-388
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)

Section 1, pp. 269-332

Summary and Analysis

The United States decisions, in the early months of 1965, to launch a program of reprisal air strikes against North Vietnam, evolving progressively into a sustained bombing campaign of rising intensity, were made against a background of anguished concern over the threat of imminent collapse of the Government of South Vietnam and of its military effort against the Viet Cong. The air war against the North was launched in the hope that it would strengthen GVN confidence and cohesion, and that it would deter or restrain the DRV from continuing its support of the revolutionary war in the South. There was hope also that a quite modest bombing effort would be sufficient; that the demonstration of US determination and the potential risks and costs to the North implicit in the early air strikes would provide the US with substantial bargaining leverage; and that it would redress the "equation of advantage" so that a political settlement might be negotiated on acceptable terms.

Once set in motion, however, the bombing effort seemed to stiffen rather than soften Hanoi's backbone, as well as to lessen the willingness of Hanoi's allies, particularly the Soviet Union, to work toward compromise. Moreover, compromise was ruled out in any event, since the negotiating terms that the US proposed were not "compromise" terms, but more akin to a "cease and desist" order that, from the DRV/VC point of view, was tantamount to a demand for their surrender.

As Hanoi remained intractable in the face of a mere token demonstration of U.S. capability and resolve, U.S. policy shifted to a more deliberate combination of intensified military pressures and modest diplomatic enticements. The carrot was added to the stick in the form of an economic development gesture, but the coercive element remained by far the more tangible and visible component of J.S. policy. To the slowly but relentlessly rising air pressures against the North was added the deployment of US combat forces to the South. In response to public pressures, a major diplomatic opportunity was provided Hanoi for a quiet backdown through a brief bombing pause called in mid-May, but the pause seemed to be aimed more at clearing the decks for a subsequent intensified resumption than it was at evoking a reciprocal act of de-escalation by Hanoi. The U.S. initiative, in any event, was unmistakably rebuffed by North Vietnam and by its Communist allies, and the opposing positions were more hopelessly deadlocked than ever before.

It is the purpose of this study to reconstruct the immediate circumstances that led up to the U.S. reprisal decision of February 1965, to retrace the changes in rationale that progressively transformed the reprisal concept into a sustained graduated bombing effort, and to chronicle the relationship between that effort and the military-political moves to shore up Saigon and the military-diplomatic signals to dissuade Hanoi, during the crucial early months of February through May of 1965.

* * * *

Background to Pleiku. The growing realization, throughout 1964, that the final consolidation of VC power in South Vietnam was a distinct possibility, had led to a protracted US policy reassessment and a determined search for forceful military alternatives in the North that might help salvage the deteriorating situation in the South. The proposed program of graduated military pressures against North Vietnam that emerged from this reassessment in late 1964 had three major objectives: (1) to signal to the Communist enemy the firmness of U.S. resolve, (2) to boost the sagging morale of the GVN in the South, and (3) to impose increased costs and strains upon the DRV in the North. Underlying the rationale of the program was the hope that it might restore some equilibrium to the balance of forces, hopefully increasing the moment of US/GVN bargaining leverage sufficiently to permit an approach to a negotiated solution on something other than surrender terms.

Throughout the planning process (and even after the initiation of the program) the President's principal advisors differed widely in their views as to the intensity of the bombing effort that would be desirable or required, and as to its likely effectiveness in influencing Hanoi's will to continue its aggression. The JCS, for example, consistently argued that only a most dramatic and forceful application of military power would exert significant pressure on North Vietnam, but firmly believed that such application could and would affect the enemy's will. Most civilian officials in State, OSD, and the White House, on the other hand, tended to favor a more gradual, restrained approach, "progressively mounting in scope and intensity," in which the prospect of greater pressure to come was at least as important as any damage actually inflicted. But these officials also tended, for the most part, to have much less confidence that such pressures would have much impact on Hanoi's course, making such equivocal assessments as: "on balance we believe that such action would have some faint hope of really improving the Vietnamese situation."

Reprisal Planning. In spite of these rather hesitant judgments, the graduated approach was adopted and a program of relatively mild military actions aimed at North Vietnam was set in motion beginning in December 1964. At the same time, detailed preparations were made to carry out bombing strikes against targets in North Vietnam in reprisal for any future attacks on U.S. forces. These preparations were made chiefly in connection with the occasional DESOTO Patrols that the US Navy conducted in the Gulf of Tonkin which had been fired upon or menaced by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on several previous occasions during 1964. In order to be prepared for an attack on any future patrol, a pre-packaged set of reprisal targets was worked up by CINCPAC on instructions from the JCS, and pre-assigned forces were maintained in a high state of readiness to strike these targets in accordance with a detailed strike plan that provided a range of retaliatory options.

In late January, a DESOTO Patrol was authorized to begin on Feb. 3 (later postponed to Feb. 7) and Operation Order FLAMING DART was issued by CINCPAC, providing for a number of alternative US air strike reprisal actions in the eventuality that the DESOTO Patrol were to be attacked or that any other provocation were to occur, such as a spectacular VC incident in South Vietnam. At the last moment, however, the Patrol was called off in deference to Soviet Premier Kosygin's imminent visit to Hanoi. U.S. officials hoped that the USSR might find it in its interest to act as an agent of moderation vis a vis Hanoi in the Vietnam conflict, and wished to avoid any act that might be interpreted as deliberately provocative. Nevertheless, it was precisely at the beginning of the Kosygin visit, during the early morning hours of February 7, that the VC launched their spectacular attack on US installations at Pleiku, thus triggering FLAMING DART I, the first of the new carefully programmed US/GVN reprisal strikes.

Imperceptible Transition. By contrast with the earlier Tonkin strikes of August, 1964 which had been presented as a one-time demonstration that North Vietnam could not flagrantly attack US forces with impunity, the February 1965 raids were explicitly linked with the "larger pattern of aggression" by North Vietnam, and were a reprisal against North Vietnam for an offense committed by the VC in South Vietnam. When the VC staged another dramatic attack on Qui Nhon on Feb. 10, the combined US/GVN response, named FLAMING DART II, was not characterized as an event-associated reprisal but as a generalized response to "continued acts of aggression." The new terminology reflected a conscious U.S. decision to broaden the reprisal concept as gradually and imperceptibly as possible to accommodate a much wider policy of sustained, steadily intensifying air attacks against North Vietnam, at a rate and on a scale to be determined by the U.S. Although discussed publicly in very muted tones, the second FLAMING DART operation constituted a sharp break with past US policy and set the stage for the continuing bombing program that was now to be launched in earnest.

Diflerences in Advocacy. While all but one or two of the President's principal Vietnam advisors favored the initiation of a sustained bombing program, there were significant differences among them. McGeorge Bundy and Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, for example, both advocated a measured, controlled sequence of raids, carried out jointly with the GVN and directed solely against DRV military targets and infiltration routes. In their view, the intensity of the attacks was to be varied with the level of VC outrages in SVN or might be progressively raised. But whereas McGeorge Bundy's objective was to influence the course of the struggle in the South (boosting GVN morale, improving US bargaining power with the GVN, exerting a depressing effect on VC cadre), Ambassador Taylor's principal aim was "to bring increasing pressure on the DRV to cease its intervention." It was coercion of the North, rather than a rededication of the GVN to the struggle in the South that Taylor regarded as the real benefit of a reprisal policy. CINCPAC, on the other hand, insisted that the program would have to be a very forceful one--a "graduated pressures" rather than a "graduated reprisal" philosophy--if the DRV were to be persuaded to accede to a cessation on U.S. terms. The Joint Chiefs, in turn (and especially Air Force Chief of Staff General McConnell), believed that the much heavier air strike recomendations repeatedly made by the JCS during the preceding six months were more appropriate than the mild actions proposed by Taylor and Bundy.

Initiating ROLLING THUNDER. A firm decision to adopt "a program of measured and limited air action jointly with the GVN against selected military targets in the DRV" was made by the President on February 13, and communicated to Ambassador Taylor in Saigon. Details of the program were deliberately left vague, as the President wished to preserve maximum flexibility. The first strike was set for February 20 and Taylor was directed to obtain GVN concurrence. A semi-coup in Saigon, however, compelled postponement and cancellation of this and several subsequent strikes. Political clearance was not given until the turbulence was calmed with the departure of General Nguyen Khanh from Vietnam on Feb 25. U.S. reluctance to launch air attacks during this time was further reinforced by a UK-USSR diplomatic initiative to reactivate the Cochairmanship of the 1954 Geneva Conference with a view to involving the members of that conference in a consideration of the Vietnam crisis. Air strikes executed at that moment, it was feared, might sabotage that diplomatic gambit, which Washington looked upon not as a potential negotiating opportunity, but as a convenient vehicle for public expression of a tough U.S. position. The CoChairmen gambit, however, languished--and eventually came to naught. The first ROLLING THUNDER strike was finally rescheduled for Feb 26. This time adverse weather forced its cancellation and it was not until March 2 that the first of the new program strikes, dubbed ROLLING THUNDER V, was actually carried out.

In the closing days of February and during early March, the Administration undertook publicly and privately to defend and propound its rationale for the air strikes, stressing its determination to stand by the GVN, but reaffirming the limited nature of its objectives toward North Vietnam. Secretary Rusk conducted a marathon public information campaign to signal a seemingly reasonable but in fact quite tough US position on negotiations, demanding that Hanoi "stop doing what it is doing against its neighbors" before any negotiations could prove fruitful. Rusk's disinterest in negotiations at this time was in concert with the view of virtually all the President's key advisors, that the path to peace was not then open. Hanoi held sway over more than half of South Vietnam and could see the Saigon Government crumbling before her very eyes. The balance of power at this time simply did not furnish the U.S. with a basis for bargaining and Hanoi had not reason to accede to the hard terms the U.S. had in mind. Until military pressures on North Vietnam could tilt the balance of forces the other way, talk of negotiation could he little more than a hollow exercise.

Evolving a Continuing Program. Immediately after the launching of the first ROLLING THUNDER strike, efforts were set in motion to increase the effectiveness, forcefulness and regularity of the program. US aircraft loss rates came under McNamara's scrutiny, with the result that many restrictions on the use of U.S. aircraft and special ordnance were lifted, and the air strike technology improved. Sharp annoyance was expressed by Ambassador Taylor over what he considered an unnecessarily timid and ambivalent US stance regarding the frequency and weight of U.S. air attacks. He called for a more dynamic schedule of strikes, a several week program, relentlessly marching North, to break the will of the DRV. Army Chief of Staff General Johnson, returning from a Presidential survey mission to Vietnam in mid-March, supported Taylor's view and recommended increasing the scope and tempo of the air strikes as well as their effectiveness. The President accepted these recommendations and, beginning with ROLLING THUNDER VII (March 19), air action against the North was transformed from a sporadic, halting effort into a regular and determined program.

Shift to interdiction. In the initial U.S. reprisal strikes and the first ROLLING THUNDER actions, target selection had been completely dominated by political and psychological considerations. With the gradual acceptance, beginning in March, of the need for a militarily more significant sustained bombing program, a refocusing of target emphasis occurred, stressing interdiction of the DRV's lines of communication (LOC's)--the visible manifestations of North Vietnamese aggression. The JCS had called the SecDef's attention to this infiltration target complex as early as mid-February, and an integrated counter-infiltration attack plan against LOC targets south of the 20th parallel began to be developed by CINCPAC, culminating at the end of March in the submission of the JCS 12-week bombing program. This program was built around the "LOC-cut" concept developed by the Pacific Command and was strongly endorsed by General Westmoreland and Ambassador Taylor. The JCS recommended that only the first phase (third through fifth weeks) of the 12-week program be adopted, as they had not reached agreement on the later phases. The JCS submission, however, was not accepted as a program, although it strongly influenced the new interdiction-oriented focus of the attacks that were to follow. But neither the SecDef nor the President was willing to approve a multi-week program in advance. They preferred to retain continual personal control over attack concepts and individual target selection and to communicate their decisions through weekly guidance provided by the SecDef's ROLLING THUNDER planning messages.

April 1 Reassessment. By the end of March, in Saigon's view, the situation in South Vietnam appeared to have rebounded somewhat. Morale seemed to have been boosted, at least temporarily, by the air strikes, and Vietnamese forces had not recently suffered any major defeats. Washington, on the other hand, continued to regard the situation as "bad and deteriorating," and could see no signs of "give" on the part of Hanoi. None of the several diplomatic initiatives that had been launched looked promising, and VC terrorism continued unabated, with the March 29 bombing of the US embassy in Saigon being by far the boldest provocation.

Ambassador Taylor returned to Washington to participate in a Presidential policy review on April 1 and 2, in which a wide range of possible military and non-military actions in South and North Vietnam were examined. The discussions, however, did not deal principally with the air war, but focused mainly on the prospect of major deployments of US and Third Country combat forces to South Vietnam. As a result of the discussions, the far-reaching decision was made, at least conceptually, to permit US troops to engage in offensive ground operations against Asian insurgents. With respect to future air pressures policy, the actions adopted amounted to little more than a continuation of "roughly the present slowly ascending tempo of ROLLING THUNDER operations," directed mainly at the LOC targets that were then beginning to be struck. The Director of Central Intelligence John McCone demurred, arguing that a change in the US ground force role in the South also demanded comparably more forceful action against the North. He felt that the ground force decision was correct only "if our air strikes against the North are sufficiently heavy and damaging really to hurt the North Vietnamese."

A "Carrot" at Johns Hopkins. Although devoting much effort to public explanation and private persuasion, the President could not quiet his critics. Condemnation of the bombing spread and the President was being pressed from many directions to make a major public statement welcoming negotiations. He found an opportunity to dramatize his peaceful intent in his renowned Johns Hopkins address of April 7, in which he (1) accepted the spirit of the 17-nation Appeal of March 15 to start negotiations "without posing any preconditions," (2) offered the vision of a "billion dollar American investment" in a regional Mekong River basin development effort in which North Vietnam might also participate, and (3) appointed the illustrious Eugene Black to head up the effort and to lend it credibility and prestige. The President's speech evoked much favorable public reaction throughout the world, but it failed to silence the Peace Bloc and it failed to move Hanoi. Premier Pham Van Dong responded to the President's speech by proposing his famous Four Points as the only correct way to resolve the Vietnam problem and, two days later, denounced the President's proposal as simply a "carrot" offered to offset the "stick" of aggression and to allay public criticism of his Vietnam policy. But this is as far as the President was willing to go in his concessions to the Peace Bloc. To the clamor for a bombing pause at this time, the Administration responded with a resounding "No."

Consensus at Honolulu. By mid-April, communication between Washington and Saigon had become badly strained as a result of Ambassador Taylor's resentment of what he regarded as Washington's excessive eagerness to introduce US combat forces into South Vietnam, far beyond anything that had been approved in the April 1-2 review. To iron out differences, a conference was convened by Secretary McNamara at Honolulu on April 20. Its main concern was to reach specific agreement on troop deployments, but it also sought to reaffirm the existing scope and tempo of ROLLING THUNDER. The conferees agreed that sufficient pressure was provided by repetition and continuation of the strikes, and that it was important not to "kill the hostage" by destroying the valuable assets inside the "Hanoi do-not." Their strategy for victory was to "break the will of the DRV/VC by denying them victory." Honolulu apparently succeeded in restoring consensus between Washington and Saigon. It also marked the relative downgrading of pressures against the North, in favor of more intensive activity in the South. The decision, at this point, was to "plateau" the air strikes more or less at the prevailing level, rather than to pursue the relentless dynamic course ardently advocated by Ambassador Taylor and Admiral Sharp in February and March, or the massive destruction of the North Vietnamese target complex consistently pressed by the Joint Chiefs.

Following Honolulu, it was decided to publicize the fact that "interdiction" was now the major objective of the bombing, and Secretary McNamara devoted a special Pentagon briefing for the press corps to that issue.

First Bombing Pause. Pressure for some form of bombing halt had mounted steadily throughout April and early May and, although the President did not believe that such a gesture would evoke any response from Hanoi he did order a brief halt effective May 13, "to begin" as he expressed it "to clear a path either toward restoration of peace or toward increased military action, depending on the reaction of the Communists." The political purpose of the pause-to test Hanoi's reaction-was kept under very tight wraps, and the project was given the code name MAYFLOWER. A great effort was made to inform Hanoi of the fact of the pause and of its political intent. Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin was given an oral explanation by Secretary Rusk, confirmed by a tough written statement, reasserting Rusk's public position that the cessation of the DRV's attacks upon South Vietnam was the only road to peace and that the US would be watchful, during the pause, for any signs of a reduction in such attacks. A similar statement was sent to U.S. Ambassador Kohier in Moscow, for personal transmittal to the DRV Ambassador there. Kohier, however, met with refusal both from the DRV Ambassador to receive, and from the Soviet Foreign Office to transmit, the message. A written note, sent to the DRV embassy, was returned ostensibly unopened. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Hanoi was more than adequately advised of the contents of the U.S. message through the various diplomatic channels that were involved.

Given the "rather strenuous nature" of the U.S. note to Hanoi and the briefness of the pause, it is hardly surprising that the initiative encountered no re
ceptivity from the Soviet government and evoked no positive response from Hanoi. The latter denounced the bombing halt as "a worn out trick of deceit and threat . . ." and the former, in the person of Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko in a conversation with Rusk in Vienna, branded the U.S. note to Hanoi as "insulting."
Having thus been unmistakably rebuffed, the President ordered the resumption of the bombing raids effective May 18. The entire pause was handled with a minimum of public information, and no announcement was made of the suspension or of the resumption. But prime ministers or chiefs of state of a half dozen key friendly governments were briefed fully after the event. A still somewhat ambiguous diplomatic move was made by Hanoi in Paris on May 18, a few hours after the bombing had been resumed, in which Mai Van Bo, the DRV economic delegate there seemed to imply a significant softening of Hanoi's position on the Four Points as "prior conditions." But subsequent attempts at clarification left that issue as ambiguous as it had been before.

End of Summary and Analysis


6 Jan 1965 William Bundy Memorandum for Rusk

Taking note of the continued political deterioration in SVN, Bundy concludes that, even though it will get worse, the US should probably proceed with Phase II of the December pressures plan, the escalating air strikes against the North.

8 Jan 1965 2,000 Korean troops arrive in SVN

South Korea sends 2,000 military advisors to SVN, the first such non-US support.

27 Jan 1965 Huong Government ousted

General Khanh ousts the civilian government headed by Huong and assumes powers of government himself.

McNaughton Memorandum for Secretary of Defense

McNaughton is as pessimistic as William Bundy about prospects in the South. He feels the US should evacuate dependents and respond promptly at the next reprisal opportunity. McNamara's pencilled notes reveal more optimism about the results of air strikes than McNaughton.

28 Jan 1965 JCS message 4244 to CINCPAC

A resumption of the DESOTO Patrols on or about 3 February is authorized.

29 Jan 1965 JCSM-70-65

The JCS urge again that a strong reprisal action be taken immediately after the next DRV/VC provocation. In particular, they propose targets and readiness to strike should the forthcoming resumption of the DESOTO Patrols be challenged.

Feb 1965 CJCS message 4612 to CINCPAC

In view of Kosygin's impending visit to Hanoi, authority for the DESOTO Patrol is cancelled.

SNJE 53-65 "Short Term Prospects in South Vietnam"

The intelligence community does not see the conditions of political instability in SVN improving in the months ahead. The political base for counterinsurgency will remain weak.

6 Feb 1965 Kosygin arrives in Hanoi

Soviet Premier Kosygin arrives in Hanoi for a state visit that will deepen Soviet commitment to the DRy, and expand Soviet economic and military assistance.

7 Feb 1965 VC attack US base at Pleiku

Well-coordinated VC attacks hit the US advisors' barracks at Pleiku and the helicopter base at Camp Holloway.

President decides to retaliate

The NSC is convened in the evening (6 Feb. Washington time) and with the recommendation of McGeorge Bundy, Ambassador Taylor and General Westmoreland from Saigon, decides on a reprisal strike against the North in spite of Kosygin's presence in Hanoi.

McGeorge Bundy Memorandum to the President: "The Situation in South Vietnam"

Completing a fact-gathering trip to SVN on the very day of the Pleiku attack, Bundy acknowledges the bad state of the GVN both politically and militarily, but nevertheless recommends that the US adopt a policy of "sustained reprisal" against the North and that we evacuate US dependents from Saigon. The reprisal policy should begin from specific VC attacks but gradually escalate into sustained attacks as a form of pressure on the DRV to end its support of the VC and/or come to terms with the US.


49 US Navy jets conduct the first FLAMING DART reprisal attack on the Dong Hoi army barracks; a scheduled VNAF attack is cancelled because of bad weather.

13 Feb 1965 B-52s sent to area

Approval is given for the dispatch of 30 B-52s to Guam and 30 KC-135s to Okinawa for contingency use in Vietnam.

ROLLING THUNDER approved by President; DEPTEL to Saigon 1718

The President decides to inaugurate ROLLING THUNDER sustained bombing of the North under strict limitations with programs approved on a week-by-week basis.

17 Feb 1965 CINCPAC message 170217 February to JCS

Admiral Sharp urges that the strikes be conceived as "pressures" not "reprisals" and that any premature discussions or negotiations with the DRV be avoided. We must convince them that the cost of their aggression is prohibitive.

UK reports Soviet interest in Geneva Talks

The UK Ambassador, Lord Harlech, informs Rusk that the Soviets have approached the UK about reactivating the 1954 Geneva Conference in the current Vietnam crisis. After an initial US interest, the Soviets back off and the matter dies.

18 Feb 1965 President schedules ROLLING THUNDER

President Johnson sets February 20 as the date for the beginning of ROLLING THUNDER and informs US Ambassadors in Asia.

SNIE 10-3/1-65

The intelligence community gives its view that sustained attacks on the DRV would probably cause it to seek a respite rather than to intensify the struggle in the South.

19 Feb 1965 Thao "semi-coup"

Colonel Thao, a longtime conspirator, launches a "semi-coup" against Khanh, designed to remove him but not the Armed Forces Council. He is quickly defeated but the AFC decides to use the incident to remove Khanh itself. The events drag on for several days.

Embassy Saigon message 2665

Taylor recommends urgently that the ROLLING THUNDER strike be cancelled until the political situation in Saigon has clarified. The President agrees.


In a memo to McNamara, Wheeler proposes a systematic attack on the DRV rail system as the most vulnerable link in the transportation system. Military as opposed to psychological value of targets is already beginning to enter discussions.

21 Feb 1965 Khanh resigns

Unable to rally support in the Armed Forces Council, Khanh resigns.

24 Feb 1965 U.S. reassures Peking

In a meeting in Warsaw the Chinese are informed that while the U.S. will continue to take those actions required to defend itself and South Vietnam, it has no aggressive intentions toward the DRV.

27 Feb 1965 State Dept. issues "White Paper" on DRV aggression

The State Department issues a "White Paper" detailing its charges of aggression against North Vietnam.

28 Feb 1965 ROLLING THUNDER announced

U.S. and GVN make simultaneous announcement of decision to open a continuous limited air campaign against the North in order to bring about a negotiated settlement on favorable terms.

2 Mar 1965 First ROLLING THUNDER strike

104 USAF planes attack Xom Bang ammo depot and 19 VNAF aircraft hit the Quang Khe Naval Base in the first attacks of ROLLING THUNDER.

President decides to send CSA, H.K. Johnson, to Vietnam

The President decides to send Army Chief of Staff, Gen. H. K. Johnson, to Saigon to explore with Taylor and Westmoreland what additional efforts can be made to improve the situation in the South, complementarily to the strikes against the North.

3 Mar 1965 Tito letter to Johnson

Yugoslav President Tito, in a letter to Johnson, urges immediate negotiation on Vietnam without conditions on either side.

5-12 Mar 1965 Gen. Johnson trip to Vietnam

Army Chief of Staff, Gen. H. K. Johnson, tours Vietnam on a mission for the President.

6 Mar 1965 Marines sent to Da Nang

Two Marine Battalion Landing Teams are ordered to Da Nang by the President to take up base security functions in the Da Nang perimeter.

8 Mar 1965 Marines land at Da Nang

The two Marine battalions land at Da Nang and set up defensive positions.

Embassy Saigon msgs. 2888, and 2889

Taylor expresses sharp annoyance at what seems to him an unnecessarily timid and ambivalent U.S. stance on air strikes. The long delay between strikes, the marginal weight of the attacks, and the great ado about diplomatic feelers were weakening our signal to the North. He calls for a more dynamic schedule of strikes, a multiple week program relentlessly marching North to break Hanoi's will.

U Thant proposes big power conference

U Thant proposes a conference of the big powers with North and South Vietnam to start preliminary negotiations.

9 Mar 1965 U.S. rejects Thant proposal

The U.S. rejects Thant's proposal until the DRV stops its aggression.

Some bombing restrictions lifted

The President lifts the restriction on the use of napalm in strikes on the North, and eliminates the requirement for Vietnamese copilots in FARMGATE missions.

10 Mar 1965 CJCS memo to SecDef CM-469-65

In a memo to SecDef with preliminary reports on U.S. aircraft losses in hostile action, Wheeler requests better ordnance, more recce, and greater field command flexibility in alternate target selection for weather problems.

12 Mar 1965 State msg. 1975 to Saigon

ROLLING THUNDER VI is authorized for the next day; it is subsequently delayed until the 14th because of weather.

President replies to Tito

In his reply to Tito the President indicates the only bar to peace is DRV aggression which must stop before talks can begin.

13 Mar 1965 Embassy Saigon msg. 2949

Taylor complains about the postponement of RT VI, stating that too much attention is being paid to the specific target, any target will do since the important thing is to keep up the momentum of the attacks.

13-18 Mar 1965 Conference of non-aligned nations in Belgrade

Tito calls a meeting of 15 non-aligned nations in Belgrade. The declaration calls for negotiations and blames "foreign intervention" for the aggravation of the situation.


The delayed RT VI is carried out and is the heaviest attack thus far with over 100 U.S. aircraft and 24 VNAF planes hitting two targets.

14 Mar 1965 Gen. Johnson submits his report to SecDef

Gen. Johnson submits a 21-recommendation report including a request that the scope and tempo of strikes against the North be increased and that many of the restrictions on the strikes be lifted.

15 Mar 1965 President approves most of Johnson report

Having reviewed the Johnson report, the President approves most of his recommendations including those for expanding and regularizing the campaign against the North. The new guidelines apply to RT VII on 19 Mar.


The first week's program of sustained bombing under the name ROLLING THUNDER VII begins.

20 Mar 1965 STEEL TIGER Begins

Acting on a CINCPAC recommendation the Administration had approved the separation of the anti-infiltration bombing in the Laotian panhandle from the BARREL ROLL strikes in support of Laotian forces. The former are now called STEEL TIGER.

21 Mar 1965 CJNCPAC msg. to JCS 210525 Mar.

In a long cable, CINCPAC proposes a program for cutting, in depth, the DRV logistical network, especially below the 20th parallel. The plan calls for initial intensive strikes to cut the system and then regular armed recce to eliminate any residual capacity, or repair efforts.

24 Mar 1965 McNaughton memo "Plan of Action for South Vietnam"

McNaughton concludes that the situation in SVN probably cannot be improved without extreme measures against the DRV and/ or the intervention of US ground forces. He gives a thorough treatment to the alternatives and risks with particular attention to the strong air campaign on the North. He takes note of the various escalation points and tries to assess the risks at each level. He evaluates the introduction of US troops and a negotiations alternative in the same manner.

27 Mar 1965 JCSM-221-65

The JCS formally propose to SecDef a plan already discussed with him for an escalating 12-week air campaign against the North with a primarily military-physical destruction orientation. Interdiction is the objective rather than will-breaking.

29 Mar 1965 VC bomb US Embassy

In a daring bomb attack on the US Embassy, the VC kill many Americans and Vietnamese and cause extensive damage. Taylor leaves almost simultaneously for talks in Washington.

31 Mar 1965 CINCPAC msg. to JCS 310407 Mar.

CINCPAC recommends a spectacular attack against the North to retaliate for the bombing of the Embassy. The President rejects the idea.

NSC meeting with Taylor

The President meets with Taylor and the NSC to begin a major policy review.

1 Apr 1965 McGeorge Bundy memo

Bundy recommends little more than a continuation of the ongoing modest RT program, gradually hitting the LOC choke points. He does, however, recommend removing the restriction on the Marines to static defense. Focus is on winning in SVN.

NSC meeting

The White House policy review continued with another meeting of the principals.

Rostow memo to SecState

In a memo to Rusk, Walt Rostow proposes knocking out the DRV electric power grid as a means of bringing her whole urban industrial sector to a halt.

2 Apr 1965 NSC meeting

At the NSC meeting the President approves the Bundy recommendations including the proposal to allow US troops in Vietnam a combat role.

McCone dissents from Presidential decision

CIA director McCone circulates a memo dissenting from the Presidential decision to have US troops take part in active combat. He feels that such action is not justified and wise unless the air attacks on the North are increased sufficiently to really be physically damaging to the DRV and to put real pressure on her.

Canadian Prime Minister suggests pause

Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson in a speech in Philadelphia suggests that the US call a halt to the bombing in the interests of getting negotiations started.

5 Apr 1965 JCSM-265-65

The JCS report confirmation of the construction of a SAM missile site near Hanoi and request authority to strike it before it becomes operational. Their request is not acted on at the time.

6 Apr 1965 NSAM 328

The Presidential decisions of April 2 are promulgated using the verbatim language of the Bundy memo.

7 Apr 1965 President's Johns Hopkins Speech

In a major speech at Johns Hopkins University, the President outlines his hope for a peaceful, negotiated settlement in Vietnam. He names Eugene Black as the US negotiator and offers to assist both North and South Vietnam on a regional basis to the tune of $1 billion in the post-war reconstruction and economic development of SEA.

8 Apr 1965 Pham Van Dong's "Four Points"

Rejecting the President's initiative, the DRV Foreign Minister, Pham Van Dong announces his famous "Four Points" for the settlement of the war. Each side sees settlement in the capitulation of the other. Peking denounces the President's speech also.

17 Apr 1965 Presidential press conference

In a press conference the President acknowledges the failure of his most recent peace overtures.

Rusk press conference

Secretary Rusk rejects suggestions from Canada and others to suspend the bombing in order to get peace talks started. He reiterates the President's view that Hanoi does not want peace.

18 Apr 1965 Taylor opposes the ground build-up

Having been bombarded with cables from Washington about a build-up in ground forces to carry out NSAM 328, Taylor reacts opposing the idea in a cable to McGeorge Bundy.

19 Apr 1965 Hanoi rejects 17-nation appeal

Hanoi rejects the proposal of the 17 non-aligned nations for a peace conference without pre-conditions by either side.

20 Apr 1965 Honolulu Conference

Secretary McNamara meets with Taylor, Westmoreland, Sharp, Wm. Bundy, and McNaughton in Honolulu to review the implementation and interpretation of NSAM 328. A plateau on air strikes, more effort in the South, and the specifics of force deployments are agreed to.

21 Apr 1965 SecDef memo to the President

Secretary McNamara reports the results of the Honolulu Conference to the President and indicates that harmony has been restored among the views of the various advisors.

22 Apr 1965 Intelligence assessment TS #185843-c

The intelligence community indicates that without either a massive increase in the air campaign or the introduction of US combat troops, the DRV would stick to its goal of military victory.

23 Apr 1965 Rusk Speech

In a speech before the American Society of International Law, Rusk makes first public mention of interdiction and punishment as the purposes of the US bombing rather than breaking Hanoi's will.

24 Apr 1965 U Thant calls for pause

U Thant asks the US to suspend the bombing for three months in an effort to get negotiations. The proposal is rejected in Washington.

25 Apr 1965 McGeorge Bundy memo

In an effort to clarify internal government thinking about negotiations, Bundy outlines his view of US goals. His exposition is a maximum US position whose acceptance would amount to surrender by the other side.

26 Apr 1965 McNamara press briefing

In a special briefing for the press complete with maps and charts, McNamara goes into considerable depth in explaining the interdiction purposes of the US strikes against the North.

28 Apr 1965 McCone resigns and submits last memo

McCone who is leaving his post as CIA Director (to be replaced by Admiral Raborn) submits a last memo to the President opposing the build-up of ground forces in the absence of a greatly intensified campaign against the North.

4 May 1965 President denies DRV willingness to negotiate

In a speech at the White House, the President indicates that the DRV has turned back all peace initiatives, either from the US or from neutral parties.

Embassy Saigon msg. 3632

Taylor confirms the President's view about the DRV by noting that in Hanoi's estimates they are still expecting to achieve a clear-cut victory and see no reason to negotiate.

6 May 1965 CIA Director Raborn assessment

Commenting, at the President's request, on McCone's parting memo on Vietnam, Raborn agrees with the assessment that the bombing had thus far not hurt the North and that much more would be needed to force them to the negotiating table. He suggests a pause to test DRV intentions and gain support of world opinion before beginning the intensive air campaign that he believes will be required.


The Chairman of the JCS recommends to the Secretary that the SAM sites already identified be attacked.

10 May State Department msg. 2553

The President informs Taylor of his intention to call a temporary halt to the bombing and asks Taylor to get PM Quat's concurrence. The purpose of the pause is to gain flexibility either to negotiate if the DRV shows interest, or to intensify the air strikes if they do not. He does not intend to announce the pause but rather to communicate it privately to Moscow and Hanoi and await a reply.

11 May 1965 Embassy Saigon msg. 3731

Taylor reports Quat's agreement but preference not to have the pause linked to Buddha's birthday.

State Department msg. 2557

State confirms the decision, agrees to avoid reference to the Buddhist holiday, and indicates that the pause will begin on May 13 and last for 5-7 days.

Department of State msg. 3101

Kohier in Moscow is instructed to contact the DRV Ambassador urgently and convey a message announcing the pause. Simultaneously, Rusk was transmitting the message to the Soviet Ambassador in Washington.

12 May 1965 Embassy Moscow msg. 3391

In Moscow, the DRV Ambassador refuses to see Kohier or receive the message. A subsequent attempt to transmit the message through the Soviet Foreign Office also fails when the Soviets decline their assistance.

13 May 1965 Presidential speech

The President avoids reference to the pause in a major public speech, but does call on Hanoi to consider a "political solution" of the war.

14 May 1965 Embassy Moscow msg. 3425

Kohler suggests that the language of the message be softened before it is transmitted to Hanoi via the British Consul in the DRV capital.

British Consul-Hanoi transmits the pause msg.

Having rejected Kohier's suggestion, State has the British Consul in Hanoi transmit the message. The DRV refuses to accept it.

MACV msg. 16006

Westmoreland, with Taylor's concurrence, recommends the use of B-52s for patterned saturation bombing of VC headquarters and other area targets in South Vietnam.

15 May 1965 Rusk-Gromyko meet in Vienna

In a meeting between the two men in Vienna, Gromyko informs Rusk that the Soviet Union will give firm and full support to the DRV as a "fraternal socialist state."

16 May 1965 Embassy Saigon msg. 3781

Taylor suggests that the DRV's cold response to our initiative warrants a resumption of the bombing. The level should be linked directly to the intensity of VC activity in the South during the pause.

President decides to resume bombing

The President decides that Hanoi's response can be regarded as negative and orders the bombing to resume on May 18.

17 May 1965 Allies informed of impending resumption

US Asian and European allies are forewarned of the impending resumption of bombing. In a separate msg. the President authorizes the radar recce by B-52s of potential SEA targets.

18 May 1965 Bombing resumes

After five days of "pause" the bombing resumes in the North.

Hanoi denounces the pause

On the evening of the resumption, the DRV Foreign Ministry issues a statement describing the pause as a "deceitful maneuver" to pave the way for further US acts of war.

Hanoi's Paris demarche

Somewhat belatedly the DRV representative in Paris, Mai Van Bo discusses the "four points" with the Quai somewhat softening their interpretation and indicating that they are not necessarily preliminary conditions to negotiations.

20 May 1965 Rostow memo "Victory and Defeat in Guerilla Wars"

In a memo for the Secretary of State Rostow argues that a clear-cut US victory in SVN is possible. It requires mainly more pressure on the North and effective conduct of the battle in the South.

21 May 1965 Peking denounces the pause

Declaring its support for the DRV, Peking denounces the President's bombing pause as a fraud.

2 June 1965 SNIE 10-6-65

The intelligence community gives a pessimistic analysis of the likelihood that Hanoi will seek a respite from the bombing through negotiation.

3 Jun 1965 ICC Commissioner Seaborn sees Pham Van Dong

In a meeting in Hanoi with DRV Foreign Minister Pham Van Dong, ICC Commissioner Seaborn (Canada) confirms Hanoi's rejection of current US peace initiatives.

12 Jun 1965 SVN Premier Quat resigns

SVN Premier Quat hands his resignation to the Armed Forces Council.

15 Jun 1965 SecDef memo to JCS

McNamara disapproves the JCS recommendation for air strikes against the SAM sites and IL 28s at DRV air bases since these might directly challenge the Soviet Union.

24 Jun 1965 Ky assumes power

Brig. Gen. Nguyen Cao Ky assumes power and decrees new measures to strengthen GVN prosecution of the war.


* Based on information in JCS compilations and ROLLING THUNDER execute messages.

ROLLING THUNDER 1 was scheduled on 20 February 1965 as a one-day reprisal strike by U.S. and VNAF forces, against Quang Khe Naval Base and Vu Con Barracks. Two barracks and an airfield were authorized as weather alternates. ROLLING THUNDER 1 was cancelled because of a coup in Saigon and diplomatic moves between London and Moscow. ROLLING THUNDER 2, 3, and 4 were planned as reprisal actions, but subsequently cancelled because of continued political instability in Saigon, during which VNAF forces were on "coup alert." Joint participation with VNAF was desired for political reasons.

The first actual ROLLING THUNDER strike was ROLLING THUNDER 5, a one-day, no recycle strike on 2 March 1965. Targets were one ammo depot and one naval base as primary U.S. and VNAF targets. Four barracks were authorized as weather alternates. VNAF participation was mandatory. The approved effort for the week was substantially below the level recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

ROLLING THUNDER 6 (14-15 March) was a far more forceful one-day fixed-target program representing a week's weight of attack. Napalm was authorized for the first time, but aircraft recycle was prohibited.

ROLLING THUNDER 7 (19-25 March) relaxed the mandatory one-day strike execution to a week's period, with precise timing being left to field commanders. It included five primary targets with weather alternates. The requirement for concurrent timing of U.S. and VNAF strikes was removed. One U.S. and two VNAF armed recce missions were authorized during the seven-day period. Specified route segments were selected in southern North Vietnam. Authority was given to strike three fixed radar sites located one each route. The strikes were no longer to be specifically related to VC atrocities and publicity on them was to be progressively reduced.

ROLLING THUNDER 8 (26 March-i April) included nine radar sites for U.S. strike, and a barracks for VNAF. The radar targets reflected primarily policy-level interest in additional purely military targets in southern NVN. Three armed recce missions were again authorized, against specified route segments with U.S. armed recce conducted against NVN patrol craft, along the coast from Tiger Island north to 20° and authority granted to restrike operational radar sites. VNAF armed recce was conducted along Route 12 from Ha Tinh to two miles east of Mu Gia Pass.

ROLLING THUNDER 9 (2-8 April) inaugurated a planned LOC interdiction campaign against NVN south of latitude 20°. The Dong Phuong (JCS target No. 18.8) and Thanh Hoa bridges (JCS target No. 14) were the northernmost fixed-target strikes in this campaign to be followed by additional armed reconnaissance strikes to sustain the interdiction. ROLLING THUNDER 9 (2-8 April) through ROLLING THUNDER 12 (23-29 April) completed the fixed-target strikes against 26 bridges and seven ferries.

a. ROLLING THUNDER 9 permitted three armed recce missions on specified route segments. Sorties were increased to not more than 24 armed recce strike sorties per 24-hour period in ROLLING THUNDER 10 through ROLLING THUNDER 12. This effort was still far short of the level considered by the JCS to be "required for significant effectiveness."
b. Prior to ROLLING THUNDER 10, armed recce targets were limited to locomotives, rolling stock, vehicles, and hostile NVN craft. For ROLLING THUNDER 10 through ROLLING THUNDER 12 the rules were changed to provide day and night armed recce missions to obtain a high level of damage to military movement facilities, ferries, radar sites, secondary bridges, and railroad rolling stock. It also included interdiction of the LOC by cratering, restriking and seeding choke-points as necessary.
c. From the beginning, armed recce geographical coverage was limited to specified segments of designated routes. By ROLLING THUNDER 9 it had increased to one-time coverage of Routes 1 (DMZ to 19-58-36N), 7, 8, 15, 101, and lateral roads between these routes.
d. The dropping of unexpended ordnance on Tiger Island was authorized in this period. Prior to this time, ordnance was jettisoned in the sea.

ROLLING THUNDER 13 (30 April-May 1965) through ROLLING THUNDER 18 (11-17 June) continued U.S. and VNAF strikes against 52 fixed military targets (five restrikes) as follows: six ammo depots, five supply depots, 21 barracks, two airfields, two POL storages, two radio facilities, seven bridges, two naval bases, one railroad yard, two thermal power plants, one port facility, rnd one ferry. It was argued by the JCS that, as some barracks and depots had )een vacated, political insistence on hitting only military targets south of latitude 20° was "constraining the program substantially short of optimum military effectiveness."

a. During this six-week period armed recce sorties were expanded to a maximum allowable rate of 40 per day and a maximum of 200 per week (60 additional armed recce sorties were authorized for ROLLING THUNDER 17). Although this period saw a significant increase in armed recce, the new level was well below existing capabilities and, so the JCS argued, "the increase was authorized too late to achieve tactical surprise."
b. With ROLLING THUNDER 13 armed recce authorizations changed from stated routes, etc., to more broadly defined geographical areas, in this case the area south of 20°.
c. Air strikes against fixed targets and armed recce were suspended over NVN during the five-day and twenty-hour bombing pause of 13-17 May.
d. Authority was requested to strike the first SAM site during the ROLLING THUNDER 15 period (immediately following the bombing pause) but it was denied.
e. Armed recce targets were expanded during this six-week period to include railroad rolling stock, trucks, ferries, lighters, barges, radar sites, secondary bridges, road repair equipment, NVN naval craft, bivouac and maintenance areas. Emphasis was placed on armed recce of routes emanating from Vinh in order to restrict traffic in and out of this important LOC hub. ROLLING THUNDER 18 added the provision that authorized day armed route recce sorties could include selected missions to conduct small precise attacks against prebriefed military targets not in the JCS target list, and thereafter conduct armed route recce with residual capability.
f. ROLLING THUNDER 14 added authority for returning aircraft to use unexpended ordnance on Hon Nieu Island Radar Site, Hon Matt Island Radar Site, Dong Hoi Barracks, or rail and highway LOC's targets, in addition to Tiger Island previously authorized for this purpose.


At 2:00 a.m. on the morning of February 7, 1965, at the end of five days of Tet celebrations and only hours after Kosygin had told a cheering crowd in Hanoi that the Soviet Union would "not remain indifferent" if "acts of war" were committed against North Vietnam, Viet Cong guerrillas carried out well-coordinated raids upon a U.S. advisers' barracks in Pleiku and upon a U.S. helicopter base at Camp Holloway, some four miles away. Of the 137 American soldiers hit in the two attacks, nine eventually died and 76 had to be evacuated; the losses in equipment were also severe: 16 helicopters damaged or destroyed and six fixed-wing aircraft damaged, making this the heaviest communist assault up to that time against American installations in South Vietnam.

The first flash from Saigon about the assault came on the ticker at the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon at 2:38 p.m. Saturday, February 6, Washington time. It triggered a swift, though long-contemplated Presidential decision to give an "appropriate and fitting" response. Within less than 14 hours, by 4:00 p.m. Sunday, Vietnam time, 49 U.S. Navy jets-A-4 Skyhawks and F-8 Crusaders from the Seventh Fleet carriers USS Coral Sea and USS Hancock--had penetrated a heavy layer of monsoon clouds to deliver their bombs and rockets upon North Vietnamese barracks and staging areas at Dong Hoi, a guerrilla training garrison 40 miles north of the 17th parallel. On the following afternoon, a flight of 24 VNAF (A-1H Skyraiders, cancelled the previous day because of poor weather, followed up the attack by striking a military communications center in the Vinh Linh area just north of the border.

Though conceived and executed as a limited one-shot tit-for-tat reprisal, the dramatic U.S. action, long on the military planners' drawing boards under the operational code name FLAMING DART, precipitated a rapidly moving sequence of events that transformed the character of the Vietnam war and the U.S. role in it. It was also the opening move in what soon developed into an entirely new phase of that war: the sustained U.S. bombing effort against North Vietnam. It is the purpose of this paper to reconstruct the immediate circumstances that led up to the FLAMING DART decision, to retrace the changes in rationale that progressively transformed the reprisal concept into a sustained graduated bombing effort, and to chronicle the relationship between that effort and the military-political moves to shore up Saigon and the military-diplomatic signals to dissuade Hanoi, during the crucial early months of February through May of 1965.



The year 1964 was marked by a gradual American awakening to the fact that the Viet Cong were winning the war in South Vietnam. Almost uninterrupted political upheaval in Saigon was spawning progressive military dissolution in the countryside. Constant changes within the Vietnamese leadership were bringing GVN civil administration into a state of disarray and GVN military activities to a near-standstill. ARVN forces were becoming more and more defensive and demoralized. At the same time, the communists were visibly strengthening their support base in Laos, stepping up the rate of infiltration of men and supplies into South Vietnam, and mounting larger and more aggressive attacks. The GVN was still predominant, though not unchallenged, in the urban population centers; there were also a few areas where traditional local power structures (the Hoa Hao, the Cao Dai, etc.) continued to exercise effective authority. But the rest of the country was slipping, largely by default, under VC control. By the end of 1964, all evidence pointed to a situation in which a final collapse of the GVN appeared probable and a victorious consolidation of VC power a distinct possibility.

Ironically, it was left to Senator Fulbright to state the harsh realities in terms which set the tone for much of Administration thinking as it was to emerge in the months to come-though his views then were hardly consistent with the opposition role he was increasingly to take later on. As early as March 1964, in a celebrated speech entitled "Old Myths and New Realities" he observed that "the hard fact of the matter is that our bargaining position is at present a weak one; and until the equation of advantage between the two sides has been substantially altered in our favor, there can be little prospect of a negotiated settlement."


With the growing realization that the ally on whose behalf the United States had steadily deepened its commitment in Southeast Asia was in a near state of dissolution, Washington launched a protracted reassessment of the future American role in the war and began a determined search for new pressures to be mounted against the communist enemy, both within and outside of South Vietnam. High level deliberations on alternative U.S. courses of action in Southeast Asia were started as early as March 1964, and a military planning process was set in motion in which much attention was given to the possibility of implementing some sort of pressures or reprisal policy against North Vietnam.

The first of these planning efforts, authorized by the President on 17 March 1964 (NSAM 288), led to the development of CINCPAC OPLAN 37-64, a three-phase plan covering operations against VC infiltration routes in Laos and Cambodia and against targets in North Vietnam. Phase I provided for air and ground strikes against targets in South Vietnam and hot pursuit actions into Laotian and Cambodian border areas. Phase II provided for "tit-for-tat" air strikes, airborne/amphibious raids, and aerial mining operations against targets in North Vietnam. Phase III provided for increasingly severe air strikes and other actions against North Vietnam, going beyond the "tit-for-tat" concept. According to the plan, air strikes would be conducted primarily by GVN forces, assisted by U.S. aircraft.

As part of OPLAN 37-64, a detailed list of specific targets for air attack in North Vietnam was drawn up, selected on the basis of three criteria: (a) reducing North Vietnamese support of communist operations in Laos and South Vietnam, (b) limiting North Vietnamese capabilities to take direct action against Laos and South Vietnam, and finally (c) impairing North Vietnam's capacity to continue as an industrially viable state. Detailed characteristics were provided for each target, together with damage effects that could be achieved by various scales of attack against them. This target list, informally called the "94 Target List," became the basic reference for much of the subsequent planning for air strikes against North Vietnam, when target selection was involved.

The Tonkin Gulf incident of 4-5 August, which precipitated the first U.S. reprisal action against North Vietnam, had enabled the Administration to obtain a broad Congressional Resolution of support and had brought with it a prompt and substantial forward deployment of U.S. military forces in Southeast Asia, to deter or deal with possible communist reactions to the U.S. reprisal strike. Encouraged somewhat by the fact that no such reaction occurred, U.S. officials began to look more hopefully toward forceful military alternatives that might help salvage the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. A new wave of disorders and governmental eruptions in Saigon gave added impetus to a succession of JCS proposals for intensified harassing and other punitive operations against North Vietnam. Their recommendations included retaliatory actions for stepped up VC incidents, should they occur, and initiation of continuing air strikes by GVN and U.S. forces against North Vietnamese targets.

A Presidential decision was issued on 10 September. Besides some modest additional pressures in the Lao panhandle and covert actions against North Vietnam, it authorized only preparations for retaliatory actions against North Vietnam in the event of any attack on U.S. units or any extraordinary North Vietnamese/VC action against South Vietnam. The forward deployments that had been carried out in connection with the Tonkin incident and in accordance with OPLAN 3 7-64 were kept in place, but the forces involved were precluded from action in South Vietnam and no decision was made to utilize them in operations in Laos or North Vietnam.

Throughout September and October, the JCS continued to urge stronger U.S. action not only in North Vietnam, but also in Laos, where infiltration was clearly on the increase, and in South Vietnam, where GVN survival was becoming precarious and time seemed to be running out.

These urgings reached a crescendo on 1 November 1964 when, just three days prior to the U.S. Presidential elections, the VC executed a daring and dramatic mortar attack on the U.S. air base at Bien Hoa, killing five Americans, wounding 76, and damaging or destroying 27 of the 30 B-57's that had been deployed to South Vietnam to serve notice upon Hanoi that the United States had readily at hand the capacity to deliver a crushing air attack on the North. The attack was the most spectacular anti-American incident to date and was viewed by the JCS as warranting a severe punitive response. Their recommendation, accordingly, went far beyond a mere reprisal action. It called for an initial 24-36 hour period of air strikes in Laos and low-level air reconnaissance south of the 19th parallel in North Vietnam, designed to provide a cover for the introduction of U.S. security forces to protect key U.S. installations, and for the evacuation of U.S. dependents from Saigon. This would be followed, in the next three days, by a B-52 strike against Phuc Yen, the principal airfield near Hanoi, and by strikes against other airfields and major POL facilities in the Hanoi/Haiphong area; and subsequently by armed reconnaissance against infiltration routes in Laos, air strikes against infiltration routes and targets in North Vietnam, and progressive PACOM and SAC strikes against remaining military and industrial targets in the 94 Target List.

That the JCS recommendations were not accepted is hardly surprising, considering the magnitude and radical nature of the proposed actions and the fact that these actions would have had to be initiated on the eve of the election by a President who in his campaign had plainly made manifest his disinclination to lead the United States into a wider war in Vietnam, repeatedly employing the slogan "we are not going North." In any event, as subsequent developments indicate, the President was not ready to approve a program of air strikes against North Vietnam, at least until the available alternatives could be carefully and thoroughly re-examined.

Such a re-examination was initiated immediately following the election, under the aegis of a NSC interagency working group chaired by Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy. After a month of intensive study of various options, ranging from an intensification of existing programs to the initiation of large-scale hostilities against North Vietnam, the working group recommended a graduated program of controlled military pressures designed to signal U.S. determination, to boost morale in the South and to increase the costs and strains upon the North. A basic aim of the program was to build a stronger bargaining position, to restore an "equilibrium" in the balance of forces, looking toward a negotiated settlement.

The recommended program was in two phases: Phase I, which was to last about 30 days, consisted of little more than an intensification of earlier "signals" to Hanoi that it should cease supporting the insurgency in the South or face progressively higher costs and penalties. Coupled with these military measures was to be a continuous declaratory policy communicating our willingness to negotiate on the basis of the Geneva accords. It was recommended that successive actions would be undertaken only after waiting to discern Hanoi's reactions to previous actions, with the commitment to later stages, such as initiation of air strikes against infiltration targets across the 17th parallel, kept unspecific and dependent upon enemy reactions.

The recommended program also included a Phase II, a continuous program of rogressively more serious air strikes possibly running from two to six months. 'he attacks would at first be limited to infiltration targets south of the 19th arallel, but would gradually work northward, and could eventually encompass 11 major military-related targets, aerial mining of ports, and a naval blockade, iith the weight and tempo of the action being adjusted to the situation as it eveloped. The approach would be steady and deliberate, "progressively mountig in scope and intensity," with the U.S. retaining the option to proceed or not, scalate or not, or quicken the pace or not, at any time. It was agreed, howver, that this second phase would not be considered for implementation until fter the GVN had demonstrated considerable stability and effectiveness.

As part of this "progressive squeeze," the working group recommended that the U.S. be willing to pause to explore negotiated solutions, should North Vietnam show any signs of yielding, while maintaining a credible threat of still further pressures. In the view of the working group, the prospect of greater pressures to come was at least as important as any damage actually inflicted, since the real target was the will of the North Vietnamese government to continue the aggression in the South rather than its capability to do so. Even if it retained the capability, North Vietnam might elect to discontinue the aggression if it anticipated future costs and risks greater than it had bargained for.

The JCS dissented from the working group's program on the grounds that it did not clearly provide for the kinds and forms of military pressures that might achieve U.S. objectives. They recommended instead a more accelerated program of intensive air strikes from the outset, along lines similar to the actions they had urged in response to the Bien Hoa incident. Their program was in consonance with the consistent JCS view that the way to exert significant military pressure on North Vietnam was to bring to bear the maximum practicable conventional military power in a short time.

The working group's proposals for a graduated approach were hammered out in a series of policy conferences with Ambassador Taylor, who had returned to Washington for this purpose at the end of November, and were then presented to the President, who approved them conditionally on 1 December, without, however, setting a timetable or specifying precise implementing actions. Allies had to be brought in line, and certain other diplomatic preliminaries had to be arranged, before the program could be launched. More important, it was feared that possible enemy reactions to the program might subject the GVN to severe counter-pressures which, in its then enfeebled state, might be more than it could bear. Thus securing some GVN leadership commitment to improved performance was made a prerequisite to mounting the more intensive actions contemplated. In fact, Ambassador Taylor returned to Saigon with instructions to hold out the prospect of these more intensive actions as an incentive to the GVN to "pull itself together" and, indeed, as a quid pro quo, for achieving, in some manner, greater stability and effectiveness. The instructions, however, contained no reference to U.S. intentions with respect to negotiations. Any mention of U.S. interest in a negotiated settlement before the initiation of military operations against North Vietnam was regarded as likely to have the opposite effect from the desired bolstering of GVN morale and stamina, as well as being premature in terms of the hoped-for improvement in the U.S. bargaining position vis-a-vis Hanoi that might result from the actions.

The President's 1 December decisions were extremely closely held during the ensuing months. The draft NSAM that had been prepared by the working group was never issued and the decisions were only informally communicated. Ambassador Taylor, upon returning to Saigon, began his discussions of the proposed actions with the GVN, and received certain assurances. Several allies, including the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, were given a fairly complete description of U.S. intentions. Others, such as Thailand and Laos, were informed about Phase I only. Still others, like Nationalist China, Korea, and the Philippines, were simply given a vague outline of the projected course of action.

The first intensified military pressures in the program--more high level reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam, more extensive 34A maritime operations with VNAF cover south of the 18th parallel, and RLAF air strikes against PL/ NVA forces in Laos--were begun on 14 December, along with a new program of limited USAF-Navy armed reconnaissance missions against infiltration routes and facilities in Northern Laos under the code name BARREL ROLE. The strikes were not publicized and were not expected to have a significant military interdiction effect. They were considered useful primarily for their political value as another of a long series of signals to Hanoi to the effect that the U.S. was prepared to use much greater force to frustrate a communist take-over in South Vietnam.


Throughout 1964, a basic U.S. policy in Vietnam was to severely restrain any expansion of the direct U.S. combat involvement, but to carry out an essentially psychological campaign to convince Hanoi that the United States meant business. The campaign included repeated reaffirmations of the U.S. commitment to the defense of Southeast Asia, made both in public and in diplomatic channels; hints and warnings that the U.S. might escalate the war with countermeasures against North Vietnam, such as guerrilla raids, air attacks, naval blockade, or even land invasion, if the aggression persisted; and a number of overt military actions of a precautionary nature, intended more to demonstrate U.S. resolve than to affect the military situation. Taken together, however, the signals were somewhat ambiguous.

Among the more important military-political actions, carried out with considerable publicity, were the accelerated military construction effort in Thailand and South Vietnam, the prepositioning of contingency stockpiles in Thailand and the Philippines, the forward deployment of a carrier task force and land-based tactical aircraft within close striking distance of relevant enemy targets, and the assignment of an unprecedentedly high-level "first team" to man the U.S. Diplonatic Mission in Saigon. These measures were intended both to convince Hanoi and to reassure the GVN of the seriousness and durability of the U.S. commitment.

In addition, the U.S. undertook a number of unpublicized and more provocative actions, primarily as low-key indications to the enemy of the U.S. willingness and capability to employ increased force if necessary. Chief among these were the occasional DE SOTO Patrols (U.S. destroyer patrols conducted deep into the Gulf of Tonkin along the cost of North Vietnam), both as a "show of strength" and as an intelligence gathering device; Laotian air strikes and limited GVN cross-border operations against VC infiltration routes in Laos; GVN maritime raids and other harassing actions against North Vietnam; YANKEE TEAM, low-level photo reconnaissance missions over Laos, conducted by U.S. jet aircraft with fighter escorts for suppressive or retaliatory action against enemy ground fire; and finally, the initiation at the very end of 1964 of BARREL ROLL, armed reconnaissance missions by U.S. jet fighters against VC infiltration routes and facilities in Laos.

The fact that these actions were not publicized--although most of them ventually became public knowledge--stemmed in part from a desire to communicate an implicit threat of "more to come" for Hanoi's benefit, without arousing undue anxieties domestically in the United States in a Presidential election year in which escalation of the war became a significant campaign issue.

Within this general pattern of subtle and not-so-subtle warning signals, the U.S. reprisal strike, following the controversial Gulf of Tonkin incident of 4-5 August, stands out as a single forceful U.S. reaction, the portent of which could hardly have escaped Hanoi. Its effect, however, may have been gradually diluted, first by the care that was taken to allay public fears that it represented anything more than an isolated event, and subsequently by the failure of the U.S. to react to the November 1 attack at Bien Hoa or to the Christmas Eve bombing of the Brink BOQ. Even this signal, therefore, may not have been, in Hanoi's reading, entirely unambiguous.

For Hanoi, the U.S. public declaratory policy during most of 1964 must have been a major source of confusion. Presidential statements alternated between hawk-like cries and dove-like coos. Thus, in February 1964, in a University of California speech, the President issued the thinly veiled threat that "those engaged in external direction and supply would do well to be reminded and to remember that this type of aggression is a deeply dangerous game." But for the rest of the year and particularly during the election campaign, the President was saying, emphatically and repeatedly, that he did not intend to lead the United States into a wider war in Vietnam. He ridiculed the pugnacious chauvinism of Barry Goldwater and contrasted it with his own restraint. "There are those that say I ought to go north and drop bombs, to try to wipe out the supply lines, and they think that would escalate the war," he said in a speech on September 25. "But we don't want to get involved in a nation with seven hundred million people and get tied down in a land war in Asia."

But if there was reason for confusion in Hanoi's reading of the public declaratory signals, there was no shortage of opportunities for transmitting more unequivocal signals through quiet diplomatic channels. The clearest explanations of U.S. policy, and warnings of U.S. intent, were communicated to Hanoi on June 18, 1964, by the Canadian International Control Commissioner Seaborn. In a long meeting with Premier Pham Van Dong, Seaborn presented a carefully prepared statement of U.S. views and intentions to the North Vietnamese Premier, clearly warning him of the destructive consequences for the DRV of a continuation of its present course. Pham Van Dong fully understood the seriousness and import of the warning conveyed by Seaborn. But in this, as in a subsequent meeting with Seaborn on August 15, Pham Van Dong showed himself utterly unintimidated and calmly resolved to pursue the course upon which the DRV was embarked to what he confidently expected would be its successful conclusion.

On balance, while U.S. words and actions were not always in consonance, while public and private declarations were much in conflict, and while U.S. reactions fluctuated between the unexpectedly forceful and the mystifyingly hesitant, the action-signals were sufficiently numerous and the warnings sufficiently explicit to have given Hanoi a fair awareness that the U.S. was likely to respond to the deteriorating situation by intensifying the conflict. How far this intensification would go, neither Hanoi nor the U.S. could have foreseen.


The first of the new military pressures against the North--BARREL ROLL air strikes in Laos--authorized in the 1 December decision, went into effect on 14 December. The hoped-for improvement in GVN stability, however, did not materialize. To the contrary, on 20 December the erratic SVN Premier Lt. Gen. Nguyen Khanh abruptly dissolved the High National Council.

The crisis of confidence that developed was one reason for the lack of a U.S. response to the bombing of the Brink BOQ in Saigon on Christmas Eve. As pointed out earlier, it was the kind of incident which had been contemplated in the approved Phase I guidelines as warranting a U.S. reprisal action, and the JCS did recommend such an action. They proposed an immediate air strike against Vit Thu Lu army barracks just north of the 17th parallel, employing up to 40 aircraft sorties, with Vietnamese participation if feasible. It was to be a one-day strike, on a much smaller scale than those recommended by the JCS on earlier occasions. However, both because of the unsettled situation in Vietnam and because of the Christmas Season--which caught the President and the Secretary of Defense out of town and Congress in recess--Washington was hesitant and reluctant to press for a prompt reaction. By the time the issue was discussed with the President on 29 December, it seemed too late for an event-associated reprisal and the decision was negative.

In the meantime, GVN forces had experienced major reverses. ARVN as well as the Regional and Popular Forces had been seriously weakened by defeat and desertions in the last few months of 1964. A highly visible setback occurred from 26 December to 2 January 1965 at Binh Gia, where the VC virtually destroyed two Vietnamese Marine battalions. Viet Cong strength, augmented by infiltrating combat forces from North Vietnam, increased, and their hit-and-run tactics were increasingly successful.

The government of Tran Van Huong came to an abrupt end on 27 January 1965 when the Vietnamese Armed Forces Council ousted him, leaving only a facade of civilian government. The continuing power struggle clearly impeded military operations. Large elements of VNAF, for example, were maintained on constant "coup alert."

Washington reacted to these developments with considerable anguish. "I think we must accept that Saigon morale in all quarters is now very shaky indeed wrote Assistant Secretary of State William P. Bundy on January 6, and he continued:

We have not yet been able to assess the overall impact of the continuing political crisis and of the Binh Gia military defeat, but there are already ample indications that they have had a sharp discouraging effect just in the last two weeks. By the same token, it is apparent that Hanoi is extremely confident, and that the Soviets are being somewhat tougher and the Chinese Communists are consolidating their ties with Hanoi . . . they see Vietnam falling into their laps in the fairly near future. . . . The sum total of the above seems to us to point . . . to a prognosis that the situation in Vietnam is now likely to come apart more rapidly than we had anticipated in November.

A similarly gloomy view was taken by Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton. In a February 1965 memorandum (no exact date), he characterized the situation as "deteriorating":

The new government will probably be unstable and ineffectual, and the VC will probably continue to extend their hold over the population and territory. It can be expected that soon (6 months? two years?) (a) government officials at all levels will adjust their behavior to an eventual VC take-over, (b) defections of significant military forces will take place, (c) while integrated regions of the country will be totally denied to the GVN, (d) neutral and/'or left-wing elements will enter the government, (e) a popular-front regime will emerge which will invite the US out, and (f) fundamental concessions to the VC and accommodations to the DRV will put South Vietnam behind the Curtain.

These views were fully consistent with USIB-approved national intelligence estimates which, as early as October 1964, predicted:

. . . a further decay of GVN will and effectiveness. The likely pattern of this decay will be increasing defeatism, paralysis of leadership, friction with Americans, exploration of possible lines of political accommodation with the other side, and a general petering out of the war effort. . .

By February 1965, the intelligence community saw "the present political arrangements in Saigon [as] avowedly temporary" and detected no more than "a faint chance that the scenario announced for the ensuing weeks [would] hold promise for improved political stability in SVN." It judged the odds as "considerably less than even . . . [that] the spring and summer might see the evolution of a stronger base for prosecuting the counter-insurgency effort than has heretofore existed."

These views were most authoritatively endorsed by the President's highest national security staff advisor, McGeorge Bundy, who undertook an urgent fact-finding trip to South Vietnam at the beginning of February. In a pivotal memorandum to the President (which will be referred to in greater detail subsequently) he characterized the general situation as follows:

For the last year--and perhaps for longer--the overall situation in Vietnam has been deteriorating. The Communists have been gaining and the anti-Communist forces have been losing. As a result there is now great uncertainty among Vietnamese as well as Americans as to whether Communist victory can be prevented. There is nervousness about the determination of the U.S. Government. There is recrimination and fear among Vietnamese political leaders. There is an appearance of weariness among some military leaders. There is a worrisome lassitude among the Vietnamese generally. There is a distressing absence of positive commitment to any serious social or political purpose. Outside observers are ready to write the patient off. All of this tends to bring latent anti-Americanism dangerously near to the surface.

To be an American in Saigon today is to have a gnawing feeling that time is against us. Junior officers in all services are able, zealous and effective within the limits of their means. Their morale is sustained by the fact that they know that they are doing their jobs well and that they will not have to accept the responsibility for defeat. But near the top, where responsibility is heavy and accountability real, one can sense the inner doubts of men whose outward behavior remains determined.

Interestingly, McGeorge Bundy saw the military situation as moderately encouraging and the Vietnamese people still remarkably tough and resilient, though the social and political fabric was stretched thin. "Nevertheless," he warned, ". . . extremely unpleasant surprises are increasingly possible--both political and military."


In the face of these uniformly discouraging appraisals, both Saigon and Washington continued their long debate over ways and means of mounting new or more intensive pressures against the enemy--and most notably over the desirability and likely effectiveness of reprisal strikes and "Phase II operations" against the DRV. But enthusiasm for these operations was far from boundless.

The intelligence community, for example, had expressed, ever since May of 1964, very little confidence that such added pressures would have much impact on Hanoi's course. The 9 October 1964 national estimate considered probable communist reactions to "a systematic program of gradually intensifying US/ GVN [air] attacks against targets in the DRV The estimate tended only very hesitantly to the judgment that such a program of air attasks, if protracted, might "on balance" cause the DRV to stop its military attacks in SVN, to press for a negotiated cease-fire in the South, and to try to promote an international conference to pursue their ends, expecting, however, to fight another day. State dissented from even this ambivalent judgment, believing that the DRV would carry on the fight regardless of air attacks.
In February 1965, they reiterated this hesitant view, again with State dissenting:

If the United States vigorously continued in its attacks and damaged some important economic or military assets, the DRV . . . might decide to intensify the struggle, but . . . it seems to us somewhat more likely that they would decide to make some effort to secure a respite from US attack. . .

Parenthetically, even this equivocal judgment was reversed in effect, though not explicitly, in a June, 1965 estimate, this time with USAF ACS/I dissenting:

Our present estimate is that the odds are against the postulated US attacks leading the DRV to make conciliatory gestures to secure a respite from the bombing; rather, we believe that the DRV would persevere in supporting the insurgency in the South.

On top of these by no means reassuring estimates, Ambassador Taylor's hopes for a more stable GVN had been badly shaken by his abrasive experiences with General Khanh during the late-December episode. The Ambassador-Premier relationship was now ruptured beyond repair, and highest-level contacts between the USG and the GVN had to be carried on through Deputy Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson. For the first time Maxwell Taylor talked seriously of possible U.S. disengagement, and even suggested a new role for air attacks on the North in such a context.

In a year-end joint Taylor-Johnson cable to the Secretary of State, the Mission leadership actually suggested, as one possible alternative, "disengaging from the present intimacy of relationship with the GVN, withdrawing the bulk of our advisers . . . while continuing sufficient economic and MAP aid to keep the GVN going." In such a situation, they would shrink MACV to the status of a MAAG and USOM to that of an economic-budgetary advisory group, but continue to accept responsibility for air and maritime defense of South Vietnam against the DRV. The danger in such a course, however, would be that "panicked by what would be interpreted as abandonment, the [GVN] leaders here would rush to compete with each other in making deals with the NLF." Taylor and Johnson, however, believed that this danger could be offset by an energetic U.S. program of reprisal attacks and Phase II operations against the DRV.

Thus, in the Taylor/Johnson view, there were now three conditions in which reprisal attacks and Phase II operations might be conducted:

(i) In association with the GVN after the latter had proven a reasonably stable government "able to control its armed forces"-the condition originally laid down in the President's 1 December decision, but which now appeared unlikely to be attained.
(ii) Under the prevailing acutely unstable conditions "as an emergency stimulant hopefully to create unity at home and restore failing morale."
(iii) As a unilateral U.S. action "to compensate for reduced in-country U.S. presence," if such reduction were to be undertaken.

A similarly unprepossessing view of "stronger [words illegible] was probably presented to the President by Rusk. There is no direct record of the Secretary's presentation to the President during this period, but a set of notes put together in preparation for a Rusk meeting with the President on January 6 by Assistant Secretary William Bundy, Special Assistant Michael Forrestal and Deputy Assistant Secretary Leonard Unger, laid out the alternatives in some detail. Recognizing that a "coming apart" of the GVN would most likely take the form of covert negotiations by key governmental groups with the NLF, leading eventually to the U.S. being invited out, Rusk's principal Vietnam advisers argued that this was one possible "Vietnamese solution," but hardly a desirable one:

It would still be virtually certain that Laos would then become untenable and that Cambodia would accommodate in some way. Most seriously, there is grave question whether the Thai in these circumstances would retain any confidence at all in our continued support. In short, the outcome would be regarded in Asia, and particularly among our friends, as just as humiliating a defeat as any other form. As events have developed, the American public would probably not be too sharply critical, but the real question would be whether Thailand and other nations were weakened and taken over thereafter.

The alternative of stronger action obviously has grave difficulties. It commits the US more deeply, at a time when the picture of South Vietnamese will is extremely weak. To the extent that it included actions against North Vietnam, it would be vigorously attacked by many nations and disapproved initially even by such nations as Japan and India, on present indications. Most basically, its stiffening effect on the Saigon political situation would not be at all sure to bring about a more effective government, nor would limited actions against the southern DRV in fact sharply reduce infiltration or, in present circumstances, be at all likely to induce Hanoi to call it off.

Nonetheless, on balance we believe that such action would have some faint hope of really improving the Vietnamese situation, and, above all, would put us in a much stronger position to hold the next line of defense, namely Thailand. Accepting the present situation-or any negotiation on the basis of it-would be far weaker from this latter key standpoint. If we moved into stronger actions, we should have in mind that negotiations would be likely to emerge from some quarter in any event, and that under existing circumstances, even with the additional element of pressure, we could not expect to get an outcome that would really secure an independent South Vietnam. Yet even on an outcome that produced a progressive deterioration in South Vietnam and an eventual Communist takeover, we would still have appeared to Asians to have done a lot more about it.

Turning then to specific alternatives, Bundy and his colleagues envisioned five proposals:

a. An early occasion for reprisal action against the DRV.
b. Possibly beginning low-level reconnaissance of the DRV at once.
c. Concurrently with a or b, an early orderly withdrawal of our dependents. We all think this would be a grave mistake in the absence of stronger action, and if taken in isolation would tremendously increase the pace of deterioration in Saigon. If we are to clear our decks in this way-and we are more and more inclined to think we should-it simply must be, for this reason alone, in the context of some stronger action.
d. Intensified air operations in Laos may have some use, but they will not meet the problem of Saigon morale and, if continued at a high level, may raise significant possibilities of Communist intervention on a substantial scale in Laos with some plausible justification. We have gone about as far as we can go in Laos by the existing limiting actions, and, apart from cutting Route 7, we would not be accomplishing much militarily by intensifying US air actions there. This form of action thus has little further to gain in the Laos context, and has no real bearing at this point on the South Vietnamese context.
e. Introduction of limited US ground forces into the northern area of South Vietnam still has great appeal to many of us, concurrently with the first air attacks into the DRV. It would have a real stiffening effect in Saigon, and a strong signal effect to Hanoi. On the disadvantage side, such forces would be possible attrition targets for the Viet Cong. For your information, the Australians have clearly indicated (most recently yesterday) that they might be disposed to participate in such an operation. The New Zealanders are more negative and a proposal for Philippine participation would be an interesting test.

Whether and how these alternatives were posed for the President is not recorded, but at least two of the actions-getting the U.S. dependents out of Vietnam and reacting promptly and firmly to the next reprisal opportunity-were also recommended to another top presidential advisor, namely to Secretary McNamara, by Assistant Secretary John McNaughton, in a McNaughton memorandum that he discussed with McNamara on January 27. The memorandum contains McNaughton's pencil notations of McNamara's comments on various points, which suggest that the Secretary of Defense was dissatisfied with the way U.S. Vietnam policy was "drifting" and seemed a good deal less dubious than was McNaughton about the potential benefits to be derived from initiating air strikes against the DRV.

In the meantime, a 7 January 1965 conference of SEACORD (the coordinating mechanism of the U.S. ambassadors and military commanders in Southeast Asia) had reviewed the accomplishments of the first few weeks of Phase I-the 30-day program of mild BARREL ROLL, YANKEE TEAM and other operations-and had concluded that the results were militarily negligible. SEACORD recommended an extension of the operations for another 30 days, and their intensification as "an effective tonic [for the GVN], particularly if accompanied by serious joint preparations and timely initiation of retaliatory and Phase II operations against the DRV."

The most forceful restatement of the reprisal policy, however, came from the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the end of January, in the form of a memorandum to the Secretary of Defense reviewing earlier JCS recommendations on reprisals and noting that the continued lack of a U.S. response to major enemy provocations risked inviting more such actions. They urged that the next significant provocation be met with a "positive, timely, and appropriate response. . . undertaken preferably within twenty-four hours, against selected targets in the DRV." They appended to their memorandum a resume of possible reprisal actions of varying intensities, for which plans were available and the strike forces at hand to carry out these actions. The most intensive preparations had already been made, particularly in connection with the forthcoming resumption of the DESOTO Patrols, to which a reprisal operation was explicitly linked as a contingency option, under the code name FLAMING DART. These preparations and the evolution of the readiness posture associated with this and other potential reprisal actions is reviewed briefly in the next section.


Detailed and specific reprisal preparations had been under way for many months prior to February 1965, most prominently in connection with the periodic DESOTO Patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin. The patrols were suspended after the August 2 and 4, 1964 incidents, when the destroyer patrol group had been fired upon, giving rise to the first U.S. retaliatory strikes. They were resumed on 12 September, and at that time were believed to have been again attacked, or at least "menaced," by unfriendly vessels on the night of 18 September. That incident, however, was considered as too ambiguous by Washington officials to justify a reprisal action. The patrol was once more suspended on 20 September.

In order to be properly prepared for an attack on any future patrol, military authorities began to work up a pre-packaged set of reprisal targets that might be politically acceptable, with pre-assigned forces that would be in a high state of readiness to strike these targets, and with a detailed strike plan that would provide a range of retaliatory options. Accordingly, CINCPAC, on instructions from the JCS, developed appropriate plans and issued a series of Fragmentary Operations Orders under the colorful caption, "Punitive and Crippling Reprisal Actions on Targets in NVN." The orders provided for air strikes to be conducted against selected targets in North Vietnam in retaliation for DRV attacks against the DESOTO Patrol, if the patrol were resumed and attacked. Two levels of retaliation response were prescribed, with two target options each (all located south of the 19th parallel), with the various options scaled to the extent and severity of damage inflicted upon the patrol. A high alert posture was to be maintained during the days the patrol was in progress, such that the strikes could be launched within one hour after receipt of the execution order. The retaliatory forces were to be carefully prepositioned and rules of engagement were meticulously spelled out.

While theseo preparations were initially associated exclusively with the DESOTO Patrol, it was recognized that reprisals might also be called for in retaliation for any type of serious provocation which could occur without warning, could be caused by the DRV or by the VC, and might be directed against US or GVN forces. But the high alert status ordered in connection with the DESOTO Patrols could be maintained for only short periods of time. A more sustained capability was also needed, and the JCS prepared an outline plan for further elaboration by CINCPAC, calling for a more limited reprisal action that could be launched with the least possible delay with forces in place and with a readiness posture normally maintained. The forces expected to be available for such strikes were one CVA air wing, two squadrons of B-57, two squadrons of F-lOS, three squadrons of F-100, and approximately one squadron of VNAF A-1H; and the targets considered most suitable were:

Target No. 33-Dong Hoi Barracks
36-Vit Thu Lu Army Barracks
39-Chap Le Army Barracks
52-Vinh Army Supply Depot E
71-Ben Thuy Port Facilities

All of these preparations came to a head at the end of January, when a tentative decision had evidently been reached in Washington to authorize resumption of the DESOTO Patrols on or about 3 February. A JCS directive to that effect went out to CINCPAC on 28 January, requesting CINCPAC to issue the necessary Operational Plan, covering a two destroyer Patrol Group with on-line Crypto RATT and Star Shell illumination capabilities. Interestingly, the instructions were explicit to the effect that the "Patrol track shall not be provocative with the Patrol Group remaining 30 nautical miles from both NVN mainland and Hainan Island and South of 20 degrees North latitude." The Patrol was to be continued for a period of three days, during which time SP-2 aircraft with searchlight and flare capability were to support the Patrol Group during hours of darkness by assisting in contact investigation and clarification, and a Combat Air Patrol was to be airborne in the vicinity of the Patrol during daylight and to be on immediate call during darkness. Instructions also called for carefully dissociating the Patrol from OPLAN 34A operations in and over the Gulf of Tonkin 48 hours before, during, and 48 hours following completion of the Patrol.

Rules of engagement, in the event of attack, were as follows:

a. The Patrol ships and aircraft are authorized to attack with the objective of insuring destruction of any vessel or aircraft which attacks, or gives positive indication of intent to attack, US forces operating in international waters or airspace over international waters.
b. In event of hostile attack, the Patrol ships and aircraft are directed to fire upon the hostile attacker with the objective of insuring destruction. Ships are authorized to pursue the enemy to the recognized three mile territorial limit. Aircraft are authorized hot pursuit inside territorial waters (three miles) against surface vessels and into hostile air space (includes DRV, Hainan Island and Mainland China) against attack aircraft when necessary to achieve destruction of identified attack forces. Ships and aircraft will confine their actions to the attacking ships and/or aircraft.

In the days following, attention centered on plans for the reprisal strike. A number of last-minute changes were made in the targets that had been recommended by CINCPAC and the JCS, in order to reduce the risk of aircraft losses and to reduce sortie requirements. The launching date for the DESOTO Patrol was postponed from the 3rd to the 7th of February, and the JCS asked CINCPAC to re-order its reprisal raids into three attack options, consisting respectively of three, five, and seven specified targets, and to plan to conduct the air strikes against them, as directed, by option or by target, in any combination. The options and targets, together with estimated sorties, were as follows:

Strike Flak CAP Total
Option One        
Tgts 33 Dong Hoi Barracks 24 8 8 40
36 Vit Thu Lu Barracks 24 8 4 36
39 Chap Le Barracks 40 12 4 56
Total 80 28 16 132
Option Two        
Tgts 33, 36, 39 of Option One, plus:        
24 Chanh Hoa Barracks 28 12 12 52
32 Vo Con Barracks 10 8 4 22
Total 126 48 32 206
Option Three        
Tgts 33, 36, 39, 24, 32 of Option Two, plus:        
14 Thanh Hoa Bridge 32 12 4 48
74 Quant Khe Naval Base 22 4 2 28
Total 180 64 38 282

Of these seven targets, six were south of the 19th parallel, and on the November working group's reprisal target list; one, the Thanh Hoa Bridge, Target 14 in Option Three, was north of the 19th parallel.

The strikes against these targets were to employ the US forces then in mainland Southeast Asia in their alerted and augmented state (with an additional Fl05 squadron from the Philippines at Da Nang), plus up to 3 CVAs; but they would also provide for strikes from a non-alert status, i.e., with US forces normally in-country, plus CVA normally on station. Strikes from a non-alert status, if ordered, would be simultaneous, launched within the minimum feasible reaction time, and as near as practicable to first light following the reprisal incident. CINCPAC was also asked to make "preliminary provisions" for a strike at Target 32--Vu Con Barracks in Option Two above--to be conducted by VNAF, with assistance from US flak suppression, CAP, pathfinder, and SAR. These provisions were not to be revealed to the GVN at that time, since the inclusion of this VNAF strike might or might not be ordered, depending on the circumstances.

CINCPAC responded the following day by issuing Operation Order FLAMING DART, directing its Air Force and Navy Component Commands to be H prepared to conduct air strikes when directed, against the above targets by option, or against any combination of the above targets within or between options, in retaliation for attacks on the DESOTO Patrol. CINCPACFLT was assigned Targets 33 and 36 of Option One, 24 of Option Two, and 74 of Option Three. CINCPACAF was assigned Targets 39 of Option One, 32 of Option Two, and 14 of Option Three. Aircraft would be armed with optimum conventional ordnance for the target to be attacked, excluding napalm.

Operation Order FLAMING DART placed the US in a highly flexible position. It provided a vehicle for a quick reprisal decision in the eventuality of an attack on the DESOTO Patrol or of any other provocation, such as a dramatic VC incident in South Vietnam. The particular targets involved had been briefed to the principal decision-makers, had the virtue of being known and understood by them, and even had their tentative approval. Moreover, nearly all the targets were in the far south of North Vietnam and all could be associated with infiltration, which were two of the conditions laid down in the guidelines for retaliating against the North for spectacular incidents in the South. The Operation Order therefore served well as a generalized pre-planned reprisal target package, offering a wide spectrum of choices.

The DESOTO Patrol, however, which had been the major focus for the reprisal planning, was never to carry out its assigned role. On 4 February, three
days before the Patrol was to begin its operation, the Chairman of the JCS informed CINCPAC and all interested posts and commands that authority to execute DESOTO was cancelled, in view of Soviet Premier Kosygin's imminent four-day visit to Hanoi that was to begin on 6 February. "DESOTO patrol concurrent with Kosygin visit or immediately thereafter," wrote the CJCS, "could be interpreted as reaction to visit, thereby impairing and complicating US-Soviet relations."

The decision to call off the Patrol in deference to Kosygin's visit, reflected a growing feeling in some parts of the Administration that the renewed involvement of the Soviet Union in Southeast Asia, after its hands-off policy of almost three years' standing, might, on balance, be a good thing for the U.S. While some American experts interpreted Moscow's November, 1964 pledge of military assistance to Hanoi and Kosygin's visit in February 1965 as a sure sign that the Soviet Union saw the collapse of the US venture in SVN as imminent and wanted merely to stake its claim in apposition to Peking before it was too late, others believed that the USSR might well find it in its interest to act as an agent of moderation and compromise, providing the U.S. with an avenue of graceful retreat from a seemingly irretrievable situation.

This view was certainly held by some State Department experts, particularly in the Office of Asian Communist Affairs (ACA) and in the Office of Intelligence and Research (INR). In an interesting memorandum of February 5, 1965 to William Bundy, Lindsay Grant of ACA saw the implications for American policy of the Kosygin visit to Hanoi as "enormous."

It is possible to hypothesize that the Soviet initiative may be intended to present the United States with an acceptable, albeit difficult, choice. They may presume that the situation in the South would deteriorate to the point where we could foresee ourselves confronted with the possibility of:

1) a series of defeats on the ground and/or total collapse of authority in Saigon, or
2) a rapid movement in the direction of neutralism, leading to our being invited out, or
3) some kind of negotiated settlement which would permit us to reduce our commitment to the bare bones, and thereby at least minimize a generally distasteful loss. The last prospect, which would represent the best of a bad choice, could possibly result from an increased Soviet presence in North Viet-Nam.

Thus, the Soviets might find it in their own interest to propose to Hanoi a solution of the war in Viet-Nam along the following lines:

1) North Viet-Nam would remain untouched, with the Soviet Union guaranteeing to provide major economic and other help;
2) South Viet-Nam would be neutralized, with some sort of paper guarantee offered by outside powers, including the Soviet Union;
3) The National Front for the Liberation of South Viet-Nam would participate in a neutralist coalition government.

(The Soviet Union would, presumably, give North Viet-Nam private assurances that it would not stand in the way of further Front and Viet Cong efforts to gain a complete political victory in the South.)

The author of the memorandum, of course, recognized that it would be only Under the prospect of a collapse of the GVN or of being requested to leave that the U.S. would be willing to accede to the solutions suggested. But he stressed, as the major benefit of this course, that:

. . . the Soviet presence would represent [words missing]

A somewhat similar view was echoed subsequently in a SEACORD conference, the sense of which was reported in a Saigon message to the Secretary of State. The relevant arguments were to the effect that:

(1) The DRV is almost entirely dependent both economically and militarily upon the Chinese Communists who see great value in having the DRV continue this exclusive dependence;
(2) The Soviet Union is the only alternative source of economic and military support to Hanoi which would enable the DRV to remain viable if it decided to cease its aggression;
(3) It is therefore important that the Soviets receive accurate indications that we would not oppose a continuing Soviet role in the DRV, although this is not a matter on which the U.S. can take an initiative.

Subsequent events on the negotiating front, and the role we believed the USSR could play on that front, also lend support to the view that, at least in the early part of 1965, there was a fairly widespread belief among U.S. policy-makers that the Soviet Union could and probably would exert a benign influence upon Hanoi.

There is, indeed, some evidence that the USSR itself had some such thought in mind in connection with Kosygin's February visit. Peking, at least, has charged that Kosygin had tried at that time to persuade both Hanoi and Peking to negotiate some kind of settlement with the United States, reportedly involving a "face-saving" U.S. withdrawal.

In any event, there seems little doubt that the decision to forego the DESOTO Patrol was inspired by the hope, if not expectation, that Kosygin would, from the US point of view, weigh in constructively in the Vietnam struggle.



The long months of contingency planning, hesitation, and agonized debate were suddenly cut short on February 7th, when the VC struck the American installations at Pleiku and Camp Holloway. This time the President showed the same decisiveness and swift reaction that he had displayed six months earlier in the Gulf of Tonkin. The decision to strike back was reached in a 75 minute meeting of the National Security Council on the evening of February 6 (Washington time) in the Cabinet Room of the White House, and in the presence of Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and House Speaker John McCorrnack. McGeorge Bundy, on his mission to Saigon at the time, had joined Ambassador Taylor and General Westmoreland in recommending prompt retaliation in telecorns with the President from the communications center in Saigon.

The strike, carried out during the early morning hours of the 7th (Washington time) was, at least militarily, something of a fizzle. The mildest of the three attack options was selected for the strike, but when the executive order was flashed, only one of the three CVA's (USS Ranger) was on station at Point Yankee. The other two (Hancock and Coral Sea) had been stood down to a 96-hour alert after the cancellation of the DESOTO Patrol and were enroute to assignments elsewhere. They were urgently recalled by CINCPAC to participate in the strike, which had to be delayed until the CVA's returned to points from which their aircraft could reach the assigned targets. The weather, however, was very adverse, causing a large number of sorties to abort, with the result that only one of the three assigned targets was struck in force. In order to stiffen the reprisal and to make it clearly a joint US-GVN response, the target was restruck the following day (February 8) by the US carrier aircraft that had aborted the previous day, and a VNAF strike by 24 A-1H's supported by USAF pathfinder, flak suppression and CAP aircraft, was carried out against target 32 (Vu Con Barracks) concurrently.


As was indicated earlier, the U.S. had put off the DESOTO Patrol that had been scheduled for February 7 so as to avoid any appearance of provocativeness vis-a-vis Kosygin, who was to arrive in Hanoi on February 6. And yet it was precisely then, at the very beginning of the Kosygin visit, that the VC launched their spectacular attack on the US installations. This had led many to conjecture that the raid was deliberately organized and timed by the hardliners in Hanoi so as to nip in the bud any possible Soviet peace initiative or in other ways to put Kosygin on the spot.

Whether Hanoi specifically ordered the Pleiku attack or whether the VC merely received Hanoi's blessing for the attack remains speculative. There can be little doubt, however, that Hanoi had full [words missing] ample reason to favor the notion [words missing]

. . . it had more to gain than lose by having the attack take place while Kosygin was present, even though it might embarrass him, as it very likely did. If the Americans failed to respond, the North Vietnamese could argue that the United States was indeed a paper tiger, and that all that was needed for the war to be brought to a successful conclusion in the south was some additional military assistance. If the United States did respond, the North Vietnamese could claim that more aid was necessary to prosecute the war under more difficult circumstances, and they could then reasonably ask for planes and defensive missiles with which to protect their own cities, too. Since Kosygin was wooing North Vietnam for Russia's own purposes as much as Hanoi was wooing him to help it regain some balance between Moscow and Peking, the Russian Premier was hardly in a position to leave Hanoi in a huff, which besides would have made him look foolish.

Although the onset of the bombing no doubt took the Russians by surprise, they probably viewed it as a futile last-ditch effort by Washington to strengthen its bargaining position rather than as a prelude to new escalation. In any event, Kosygin's reaction in Hanoi was restrained. He pointed out that the situation was "fraught with serious complications" and seemed to be favoring a negotiated termination. In any event, in keeping with the view held in several influential Administration quarters that the USSR might be a valuable moderating influence upon Hanoi, Washington took pains to assure Moscow that Kosygin's presence in Hanoi during the US reprisal strikes of February 7-8 was an unfortunate coincidence and no affront to the Soviet Union was intended.


On the morning after the reprisal order had been issued (February 7), a second NSC meeting was convened at the White House to agree on an appropriate text for the White House statement and to discuss the content of a McNamara press briefing at the Pentagon, called for that afternoon. The public handling of the raids was of crucial importance in conveying to Hanoi some inkling of what the implications of the reprisal action were for future U.S. responses and for the future U.S. role in the Vietnamese war, without at the same time arousing undue anxieties at home and in the rest of the world.

It is worth noting that there were important differences between the February 7-8 raids and the earlier strikes in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The August Tonkin strikes had clearly been presented as a one-time retaliatory action in response to a North Vietnamese attack on US naval power in international waters.

Publicly, the Tonkin strikes had ben depicted as a "positive reply"--one which was "limited but fitting"--to an unprovoked attack on US vessels operating within their rights on the high seas. The "one-shot" nature of the strikes was stressed, and it was explicitly stated that, provided there were no further enemy attacks, the US considered the incident closed. Together with declarations that the US strikes were not intended to expand or escalate the guerrilla war in Southeast Asia, this tended to make the strikes appear as an isolated action, bearing only incidental relationship to the war itself. The war continued to be officially pictured as one being fought by the South Vietnamese, with the US in a strictly limited supporting role. It is true that stiff warnings were sent to Hanoi through discrete diplomatic channels (ICC Commissioner Seaborne's August visit), stressing that US patience was wearing thin and that the DRV could expect to suffer the consequences if it persisted in its aggressive course, but U.S. public statements made it clear that the strikes were not intended to change the basic ground rules of the conflict at that time. The strikes were intended primarily to demonstrate that North Vietnam could not flagrantly attack U.S. forces with impunity; but nothing was said publicly to imply that the North could not continue its activities in the South without fear that its own territory would be placed in jeopardy.

By contrast with the Tonkin strikes, the February 1965 raids, while also initiated as reprisals, were intended to be explicitly linked with the "larger pattern of aggression" by North Vietnam, and were designed to signal a change in the ground rules of the conflict in the South. By retaliating against North Vietnam for a VC incident in the South, the US consciously made its first open break with self-imposed ground rules which had permitted the North to direct and support the war in the South, but which had precluded direct US countermeasures against the North's territory. The strikes thus were to serve clear notice upon all concerned that the US would not abide by such rules in the future.

But the change in ground rules also posed serious public information and stage managing problems for the President. Until the February raids, and especially throughout the election campaign of 1964, the case had regularly been made that the insurrection in the South was essentially a home-grown affair and largely self-supporting; now the argument had to be turned around and public opinion persuaded that there really wouldn't be much difficulty cleaning up the South if infiltrators from the North would just go home and "leave their neighbors alone."

In the White House press release immediately following the reprisal, therefore, major emphasis was placed on Hanoi's role in the South:

. . . these attacks were only made possible by the continuing infiltration of personnel and equipment from North Vietnam . . . infiltration markedly increased during 1964 and continues to increase The key to the situation remains the cessation of infiltration from North Vietnam and the clear indication that it is prepared to cease aggression against its neighbors."

Another major new departure of the 7-8 February strikes was that they were intended to be at least a first step in more directly and actively associating the US with the South Vietnamese in "their" war. Thus while the retaliation was precipitated by the Pleiku incident, it was considered essential to justify it in broader terms--not merely as a response to a single outrage committed against Americans, but as a response to a series of outrages, committed against South Vietnamese as well as Americans.
Thus, the White House press release and, even more explicitly, the McNamara press briefing of February 7 spoke of three VC attacks, all "ordered and directed by the Hanoi regime," but only one of these was the Pleiku-Camp Holloway raid against U.S. installation. The two others cited in justification of the reprisal were attacks on Vietnamese villages in which, it was carefully pointed out, no American casualties were sustained.

This effort to link the reprisal to VC offenses against both parties was rein:orced by having the reprisal strikes conducted by both South Vietnamese and US forces. McNamara's statement heavily stressed the fact that "elements of he U.S. and South Vietnamese Air Forces were directed to launch joint retaliatory attacks . . ."

By demonstrating that the US was prepared to join with the South Vietnamese in military reprisals against North Vietnam for actions committed against either or both parties in the South, the strikes tended to weaken the policy line, assiduously adhered to up to that time, that the war was essentially a Vietnamese war vith US involvement confined to advice and support. Once the US began participating in such military reprisals on a regular basis, it would unavoidably begin to appear as more of a co-belligerent, along with South Vietnam, against the VC and their sponsors in North Vietnam.

The practical significance of this point is obvious. As long as the U.S. maintained the policy line that it was not really directly engaged in the war, it had to deny its forces many proposed military actions in Southeast Asia, and had to impose on itself severe political constraints in its military operations. The abandonment of this policy line as a result of reprisal actions like FLAMING DART would open the way to a much wider range of politically acceptable US military options in Vietnam.

The 7-8 February strikes, however, were only a limited and tentative first step, and far from an irrevocable commitment to a broader course of action. US action was still "tit-for-tat." The White House statement stressed the phrase "appropriate reprisal action" and, likening it to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, characterized the response as similarly "appropriate and fitting."

The idea of equivalent punishment was conveyed by confining the strikes to quite limited number of targets plausibly associated with infiltration. Thus the possibility was left open that these reprisals were strictly one-shot operations that would be carried out only in the event of spectacular enemy actions. But the public language was both ominous and ambiguous: "As the U.S. Government has frequently stated, we seek no wider war. Whether or not this course can be maintained lies with the North Vietnamese aggressors." In fact, however, there was little expectation, that the North Vietnamese would "cease their aggression," and every expectation that the U.S. would go beyond a policy of event-associated reprisals. For immediately following the first press release, the White House issued another significant presidential statement, ordering what had long been recommended:

. . . I have directed the orderly withdrawal of American dependents from South Vietnam . . . We have no choice now but to clear the decks and make absolutely clear our continued determination to back South Vietnam

And as further indication that much more than a mere occasional reprisal was in the offing, McNamara met with the JCS on the following day to request that they prepare and submit to him their recommendations for an eight-week air strike campaign against infiltration-associated targets in the lower portion of North Vietnam as a sustained reply to any further provocations.


The flashing red warning signals--if that is what they were--were not heeded by Hanoi. On the contrary, in what was regarded by some observers as a calculated act of defiance, the VC staged another dramatic attack on 10 February, this one against a US enlisted men's billet in Qui Nhon, inflicting the heaviest single loss of American personnel yet. Within 24 hours, US and South Vietnamese aircraft executed the largest retaliatory air strike of the war up to that time. Named FLAMING DART II, 28 VNAF A-1H's and 20 USAF F-100's hit Chap Le. Simultaneously, Navy aircraft struck Chanh Hoa not far from Dong Hoi, just north of the DMZ.

This time, significantly, the strikes were not characterized as a reprisal linked to the immediate incident. Instead, the White House release of February 11, listed a long series of VC incidents and attacks that had occurred since February 8, most of which were not "spectacular" but quite normal features of the Vietnam war. The statements moreover characterized the US air strikes as a response to these "further direct provocations by the Hanoi regime," and to these "continued acts of aggression." The words "retaliation" and "reprisal" were carefully avoided and the joint US/GVN statement released in Saigon the same day actually characterized the air attack action for the first time as "air operations."

The change in terminology from "retaliation" or "reprisal" to "response," from a specific set of incidents to "continued aggression," and from a single attack to "air operations" was clearly deliberate. A strict reprisal policy, although permitting the US to strike the North, would have left the initiative in the enemy's hands and would have restricted the US to the kinds of responses that could be represented as equivalent or "fitting." But, more important, the new terminology reflected a conscious U.S. decision to broaden the reprisal concept as gradually and as imperceptibly as possible to accommodate a much wider policy of sustained, steadily intensifying air attacks against North Vietnam, at a rate and on a scale to be determined by the U.S. As will be discussed further in the next section, that decision was being forcefully pressed upon the President by his principal advisers immediately after FLAMING DART I (February 7). Whether the President had tacitly or explicitly accepted this course before FLAMING DART II (February 11), is not recorded. But it would have been important to him politically in any event to play it with a minimum of drama and to preserve maximum flexibility. It seemed sensible to make it all appear as a logical sequence of almost unavoidable steps, to avoid portraying any single move as a watershed or any single decision as irreversible. The February 11 strikes did constitute a much sharper break with past policy than any previous US action in Vietnam; they set the stage for the continuing bombing program that was now to be launched in earnest; but they were presented and discussed publicly in very muted tones.

Some of the President's private comments on the attacks are reported by one of his more perceptive biographers, Philip Geyelin, in the following terms:

His discussion of the first two retaliatory attacks, following Pleiku and Qui Nhon, was almost offhand. To one visitor, he lampooned the "crisis" tones of the television broadcasters, the long faces, and the grim talk of big, black limousines assembled for weighty policy-making.

They woke us up in the middle of the night, and we woke them up in the middle of the night. Then they did it again, and we did it again, was the way he described it. If he suspected he was on the front edge of a major plunge into a fair-sized ground war in Asia, he hid his concern masterfully, dismissing all the excitement as the sort of thing that happens periodically.

Geyelin gives the President very high marks for his performance:

. . . his handling of Vietnam in the early months of 1965 was more than skillful, it was a triumph of international and domestic politics. For if one accepts the need to right the "equilibrium," then it cannot be denied that Lyndon Johnson moved to do so with a bare minimum of dissent at home and less foreign opposition than might have been expected. And he did it, at least for a good many months, without giving the Communist Chinese or the Russians provocation in such intolerable degree that they felt obliged to move in any drastic way to the defense of Hanoi.


Official and public reactions to the retaliatory strikes were fairly predictable. In the U.S., as Newsweek put it, the decision "touched off a wave of national concern and international jitters unequalled since the US-Soviet confrontation over the Cuban missile build-up." Much of the US press expressed serious doubts about where the US was heading in Vietnam. A great majority of the nation's newspapers regarded the strikes as necessary and justified and the notion that Pleiku was a deliberate VC provocation was widely accepted. But many admitted to confusion as to just what U.S. policy in Vietnam was: (e.g., Kansas City Star: "Do we have a specific, unwavering policy or are we improvising from Crisis to crisis?" St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "A strike for strike strategy . . . without any ultimate objective except to hang on in Vietnam, is not much of a policy." New York Times (James Reston): "We do not know what the President has in mind . . . For the moment we seem to be standing mute in Washington, paralyzed before a great issue and merely digging our thought deeper into the accustomed military rut.")

In Western Europe reactions were less uniform. To the dismay of leftist members of his own Labor Party, the U.K.'s Harold Wilson phoned a message of solid support to President Johnson. Moreover, the London Economist saw the bombing as part of a drama acted out for the benefit of Mr. Kosygin as a warning to all communist countries "that there are limits beyond which the Viet Cong cannot push things in the South without bringing down American reprisals on the North. There is no call to specify exactly what these limits are; but to make it clear that they exist, the shot across Mr. Kosygin's bow was essential." By contrast, de Gaulle issued a cool statement that the Southeast Asia crisis "cannot be settled by force of arms" and called again for a new Geneva conference to end the war--a recommendation that was echoed by India's Prime Minister Shastri and U.N. Secretary General U Thant.

The pro-Western nations in Southeast Asia that live in the shadow of Communist China were visibly cheered. In South Vietnam, General Nguyen Khanh proclaimed that the VNAF reprisal strike after Pleiku marked "the happiest day of my life."

The most interesting reactions, of course, were those of the Bloc countries. As predicted in CIA's October 1964 estimate, the reactions of the three principal Communist powers to the limited US reprisal strikes were relatively restrained, with both Moscow and Peking promptly and publicly pledging unspecified support and assistance to Hanoi. Beneath the verbiage of condemnation of the U.S. "provocation," however, there was a measure of caution in both pledges. Neither raised the specter of a broad conflict or portrayed the U.S. actions as a threat to "world" peace. Peking's propaganda, though full of bellicosity and bluster, and publicizing huge anti-U.S. rallies organized in China's major cities, carefully avoided threatening any direct Chinese intervention. Thus it warned that, if the U.S. spread the flames of war to the DRV, "the Vietnamese people will, most assuredly, destroy the U.S. aggressors lock, stock, and barrel on their own soil." The propaganda line also suggested that only actual U.S. invasion of North Vietnam would precipitate direct Chinese intervention in the war.

Moscow's response was even more restrained. "In the face of U.S. actions" the Soviet statement said, the USSR "will be forced, together with its allies and friends, to take further measures to safeguard the security and strengthen the defense capability of the DRV." And it added that "no one should doubt that the Soviet people will fulfill its international duty to the fraternal socialist country." Like Peking, however, it derided U.S. statements that the air strikes were retaliatory, and Soviet media widely publicized international expressions of indignation and popular protests in the USSR. While indicating that "DRV defenses" would be strengthened, some Moscow broadcasts took note of growing interest in the United States and elsewhere for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam.

Hanoi's voluble, heated propaganda reaction to the air strikes pictured the incident as a sequel to previous air and naval "provocations" against the DRV rather than as a move which essentially altered either America's or North Vietnam's positions in the conflict. DRV propaganda hailed the "heroic exploit" of the antiaircraft units and claimed that, in the first raid, 12 planes were downed.

Officially, Hanoi responded in a more carefully worded fashion. A Defense Ministry statement on the 7th warned that the United States must "bear the responsibility" for the "consequences" of its "aggression" and demanded an end to "provocative and war-seeking acts against the DRV and the aggressive war in South Vietnam." Implying that the air raids would not deter future rebel aggression in the South, the DRV Government declared that "the Vietnamese people will never shrink before any threat of the United States" and will "further increase their forces and step up their struggle."



Pleiku, and the first FLAMING DART reprisal, caught the McGeorge Bundy group (which also included Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, White House Aide Chester Cooper, and Chairman of the Vietnam Coordinating Group Leonard Unger) in the midst of intensive discussions with the US Mission in Saigon. These discussions covered the whole range of US-Vietnam policy options, particularly the complex issue of future pressures on the North. Immediately following the reprisal decision of February 7, the group returned to Washington via Air Force One. Enroute and airborne, they drafted a memorandum to the President which was intended to reflect in some degree the consensus reached among the Bundy group and with the U.S. Mission in Saigon. But in an unmistakable way, the memorandum also represents a highly personal Bundy assessment and point of view. For this reason, and because of its unique articulation of a rationale for the ROLLING THUNDER policy, it is reproduced here in considerable detail.

The Summary Conclusions, presented at the very outset of the memorandum, set the tone of the more detailed elaboration that is to follow:

The situation in Vietnam is deteriorating, and without new U.S. action defeat appears inevitable--probably not in a matter of weeks or perhaps even months, but within the next year or so. There is still time to turn it around, but not much.

The stakes in Vietnam are extremely high. The American investment is very large, and American responsibility is a fact of life which is palpable in the atmosphere of Asia, and even elsewhere. The international prestige of the United States, and a substantial part of our influence, are directly at risk in Vietnam. There is no way of unloading the burden on the Vietnamese themselves, and there is no way of negotiating ourselves out of Vietnam which offers any serious promise at present. It is possible that at some future time a neutral non-Communist force may emerge, perhaps under Buddhist leadership, but no such force currently exists, and any negotiated U.S. withdrawal today would mean surrender on the installment plan.

The policy of graduated and continuing reprisal outlined in Annex A is the most promising course available, in my judgment. That judgment is shared by all who accompanied me from Washington, and I think by all members of the country team.

The events of the last twenty-four hours have produced a practicable point of departure for this policy of reprisal, and for the removal of U.S. dependents. They may also have catalyzed the formation of a new Vietnamese government. If so, the situation may be at a turning point.

There is much that can and should be done to support and to supplement our present effort, while adding sustained reprisals. But I want to stress one important general conclusion which again is shared by all members of my party: the U.S. mission is composed of outstanding men, and U.S. policy within Vietnam is mainly right and well directed. None of the special solutions or criticisms put forward with zeal by individual reformers in government or in the press is of major importance, and many of them are flatly wrong. No man is perfect, and not every tactical step of recent months has been perfectly chosen, but when you described the Americans in Vietnam as your first team, you were right.

After a brief description of the general situation in Vietnam as the Bundy group found it, the memorandum explains the crucial question of whether and to what degree a stable government is a necessity for the successful prosecution of U.S. policy in Vietnam. It is well to bear in mind that the achievement of considerable government stability had been made, in all previous "pressure guidance," a sine qua non of any transition to Phase II action against the North. And yet GVN stability continued to be a most elusive goal. Bundy now seemed to be arguing that the U.S. may have been insisting on a more perfect government than was really necessary, at least in the short run:

For immediate purposes-and especially for the initiation of reprisal policy, we believe that the government need be no stronger than it is today with General Khanh as the focus of raw power while a weak caretaker government goes through the motions. Such a government can execute military decisions and it can give formal political support to joint US/GVN policy. That is about all it can do.

In the longer run, it is necessary that a government be established which will in one way or another be able to maintain its political authority against all challenges over a longer time than the governments of the last year and a half.

The composition and direction of such a government is a most difficult problem, and we do not wholly agree with the mission in our estimate of its nature. . .

We believe that General Khanh, with all his faults, is by long odds the outstanding military man currently in sight--and the most impressive personality generally. We do not share the conclusion of Ambassador Taylor that he must somehow be removed from the military and political scene.

There are strong reasons for the Ambassador's total lack of confidence in Khanh. At least twice Khanh has acted in ways that directly spoiled Ambassador Taylor's high hopes for December. When he abolished the High National Council he undercut the prospect of the stable government needed for Phase II action against the North. In January he overthrew Huong just when the latter, in the Embassy's view, was about to succeed in putting the bonzes in their place.

. . . our principal reasons for opposing any sharp break with Khanh is that we see no one else in sight with anything like his ability to combine military authority with some sense of politics.

Bundy also differed from the Embassy on the necessity of "facing down" the Buddhist leaders, believing instead that they should be "incorporated" into GVN affairs rather than being "confronted." He stressed the significance of these differences, but then generously endorsed the Mission's overall relationship to and handling of the GVN.

Having registered these two immediate and important differences of emphasis, we should add that in our judgment the mission has acted at about the right level of general involvement in the problem of Vietnamese government-making. American advice is sought by all elements, and all try to bend it to their own ends. The mission attempts to keep before all elements the importance of stable government, and it quietly presses the value of those who are known to be good, solid, able ministerial timber. . .

. . . It is important that the mission maintain a constant and active concern with the politics of government-making. This it is doing.

Bundy then went on to pay obeisance to the need for a stronger pacification program and for greater recognition that the Vietnamese need "a sense of positive hope":

If we suppose that new hopes are raised--at least temporarily--by a reprisal program, and we suppose further that a government somewhat better than the bare minimum is established, the most urgent order of business will then be the improvement and broadening of the pacification program, especially in its non-military elements. . .

. . . there is plainly a deep and strong yearning among the young and the unprivileged for a new and better social order. This is what the Buddhist leaders are groping toward; this is what the students and young Turk generals are seeking. This yearning does not find an adequate response in American policy as Vietnamese see it. This is one cause of latent anti-American feeling. We only perceived this problem toward the end of our visit. We think it needs urgent further attention. We make no present recommendations. We do believe that over the long pull our military and political firmness must be matched by our political and economic support for the hopes that are embodied to Vietnamese in the word "revolution."

Bundy harbored no illusions concerning the enemy's ability and determination:

The prospect in Vietnam is grim. The energy and persistence of the Viet Cong are astonishing. They can appear anywhere--and at almost any time. They have accepted extraordinary losses and they come back for more. They show skill in their sneak attacks and ferocity when cornered. Yet the weary country does not want them to win.

There are a host of things the Vietnamese need to do better and areas in which we need to help them. The place where we can help most is in the clarity and firmness of our own commitment to what is in fact as well as in rhetoric a common cause.

Finally, Bundy explained the central rationale of his recommendations:

There is one grave weakness in our posture in Vietnam which is within our own power to fix--and that is a widespread belief that we do not have the will and force and patience and determination to take the necessary action and stay the course.

This is the overriding reason for our present recommendation of a policy of sustained reprisal. Once such a policy is put in force, we shall be able to speak in Vietnam on many topics and in many ways, with growing force and effectiveness.

One final word. At its very best the struggle in Vietnam will be long. It seems to us important that this fundamental fact be made clear and our understanding of it be made clear to our own people and to the people of Vietnam. Too often in the past we have conveyed the impression that we expect an early solution when those who live with this war know that no early solution is possible. It is our own belief that the people of the United States have the necessary will to accept and to execute a policy that rests upon the reality that there is no short cut to success in South Vietnam.

Appended to the Bundy memorandum as Annex A [Doc. 250] is a detailed, carefully formulated explanation of his "sustained reprisal" policy, including specific action recommendations. Because of its explicitness and clarity, it is reproduced in full:


I. Introductory

We believe that the best available way of increasing our chance of success in Vietnam is the development and execution of a policy of sustained reprisal against North Vietnam--a policy in which air and naval action against the North is justified by and related to the whole Viet Cong campaign of violence and terror in the South.

While we believe that the risks of such a policy are acceptable, we emphasize that its costs are real. It implies significant U.S. air losses even if no full air war is joined, and it seems likely that it would eventually require an extensive and costly effort against the whole air defense system of North Vietnam. U.S. casualties would be higher--and more visible to American feelings--than those sustained in the struggle in South Vietnam.

Yet measured against the costs of defeat in Vietnam, this program seems cheap. And even if it fails to turn the tide--as it may--the value of the effort seems to us to exceed its cost.

II. Outline of the Policy

1. In partnership with the Government of Vietnam, we should develop and exercise the option to retaliate against any VC act of violence to persons or property.

2. In practice, we may wish at the outset to relate our reprisals to those acts of relatively high visibility such as the Pleiku incident. Later, we might retaliate against the assassination of a province chief, but not necessarily the murder of a hamlet official; we might retaliate against a grenade thrown into a crowded cafe in Saigon, but not necessarily to a shot fired in a small shop in the countryside.

3. Once a program of reprisals is clearly underway, it should not be necessary to conect each specific act against North Vietnam to a particular outrage in the South. It should be possible, for example, to publish weekly lists of outrages in the South and to have it clearly understood that these outrages are the cause of such action against the North as may be occurring in the current period. Such a more generalized pattern of reprisal would remove much of the difficulty involved in finding precisely matching targets in response to specific atrocities. Even in such a more general pattern, however, it would be important to insure that the general level of reprisal action remained in close correspondence with the level of outrages in the South. We must keep it clear at every stage both to Hanoi and to the world, that our reprisals will be reduced or stopped when outrages in the South are reduced or stopped-and that we are not attempting to destroy or conquer North Vietnam.

4. In the early stages of such a course, we should take the appropriate occasion to make clear our firm intent to undertake reprisals on any further acts, major or minor, that appear to us and the GVN as indicating Hanoi's support. We would announce that our two governments have been patient and forbearing in the hope that Hanoi would come to its senses without the necessity of our having to take further action; but the outrages continue and now we must react against those who are responsible; we will not provoke; we will not use our force indiscriminately; but we can no longer sit by in the face of repeated acts of terror and violence for which the DRV is responsible.

5. Having once made this announcement, we should execute our reprisal policy with as low a level of public noise as possible. It is to our interest that our acts should be seen--but we do not wish to boast about them in ways that make it hard for Hanoi to shift its ground. We should instead direct maximum attention to the continuing acts of violence which are the cause of our continuing reprisals.

6. This reprisal policy should begin at a low level. Its level of force and pressure should be increased only gradually--and as indicated above it should be decreased if VC terror visibly decreases. The object would not be to "win" an air war against Hanoi, but rather to influence the course of the struggle in the South.

7. At the same time it should be recognized that in order to maintain the power of reprisal without risk of excessive loss, an "air war" may in fact be necessary. We should therefore be ready to develop a separate justification for energetic flak suppression and if necessary for the destruction of Communist air power. The essence of such an explanation should be that these actions are intended solely to insure the effectiveness of a policy of reprisal, and in no sense represent any intent to wage offensive war against the North. These distinctions should not be difficult to develop.

8. It remains quite possible, however, that this reprisal policy would get us quickly into the level of military activity contemplated in the so-called Phase II of our December planning. It may even get us beyond this level with Hanoi and Peiping, if there is a Communist counteraction. We and the GVN should also be prepared for a spurt of VC terrorism, especially in urban areas, that would dwarf anything yet experienced. These are the risks of any action. They should be carefully reviewed-but we believe them to be acceptable.

9. We are convinced that the political values of reprisal require a continuous operation. Episodic responses geared on a one-for-one basis to "spectacular" outrages would lack the persuasive force of sustained pressure. More important still, they would leave it open to the Communists to avoid reprisals entirely by giving up only a small element of their own program. The Gulf of Tonkin affair produced a sharp upturn in morale in South Vietnam. When it remained an isolated episode, however, there was a severe relapse. It is the great merit of the proposed scheme that to stop it the Communists would have to stop enough of their activity in the South to permit the probable success of a determined pacification effort.

III. Expected Effect of Sustained Reprisal Policy

1. We emphasize that our primary target in advocating a reprisal policy is the improvement of the situation in South Vietnam. Action against the North is usually urged as a means of affecting the will of Hanoi to direct and support the VC. We consider this an important but longer-range purpose. The immediate and critical targets are in the South--in the minds of the South Vietnamese and in the minds of the Viet Cong cadres.

2. Predictions of the effect of any given course of action upon the states of mind of people are difficult. It seems very clear that if the United States and the Government of Vietnam join in a policy of reprisal, there will be a sharp immediate increase in optimism in the South, among nearly all articulate groups. The Mission believes and our own conversations confirm--that in all sectors of Vietnamese opinion there is a strong belief that the United States could do much more if it would, and that they are suspicious of our failure to use more of our obviously enormous power. At least in the short run, the reaction to reprisal policy would be very favorable.

3. This favorable reaction should offer opportunity for increased American influence in pressing for a more effective government--at least in the short run. Joint reprisals would imply military planning in which the American role would necessarily be controlling, and this new relation should add to our bargaining power in other military efforts--and conceivably on a wider plane as well if a more stable government is formed. We have the whip hand in reprisals as we do not in other fields

4. The Vietnamese increase in hope could well increase the readiness of Vietnamese factions themselves to join together in forming a more effective government.

5. We think it plausible that effective and sustained reprisals, even in a low key, would have a substantial depressing effect upon the morale of Viet Cong cadres in South Vietnam. This is the strong opinion of CIA Saigon. It is based upon reliable reports of the initial Viet Cong reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin episode, and also upon the solid general assessment that the determination of Hanoi and the apparent timidity of the mighty United States are both major items in Viet Cong confidence.

6. The long-run effect of reprisals in the South is far less clear. It may be that like other stimulants, the value of this one would decline over time. Indeed the risk of this result is large enough so that we ourselves believe that a very major effort all along the line should be made in South Vietnam to take full advantage of the immediate stimulus of reprisal policy in its early stages. Our object should be to use this new policy to effect a visible upward turn in paciflcation, in governmental effectiveness, in operations against the Viet Cong, and in the whole US/GVN relationship. It is changes in these areas that can have enduring long-term effects.

7. While emphasizing the importance of reprisals in the South, we do not exclude the impact on Hanoi. We believe, indeed, that it is of great importance that the level of reprisal be adjusted rapidly and visibly to both upward and downward shifts in the level of Viet Cong offenses. We want to keep before Hanoi the carrot of our desisting as well as the stick of continued pressure. We also need to conduct the application of the force so that there is always a prospect of worse to come.

8. We cannot assert that a policy of sustained reprisal will succeed in changing the course of the contest in Vietnam. It may fail, and we cannot estimate the odds of success with any accuracy--they may be somewhere between 25% and 75%. What we can say is that even if it fails, the policy will be worth it. At a minimum it will damp down the charge that we did not do all that we could have done, and this charge will be important in many countries, including our own. Beyond that, a reprisal policy--to the extent that it demonstrates U.S. willingness to employ this new norm in counter-insurgency--will set a higher price for the future upon all adventures of guerrilla warfare, and it should therefore somewhat increase our ability to deter such adventures. We must recognize, however, that that ability will be gravely weakened if there is failure for any reason in Vietnam.

IV. Present Action Recommendations

1. This general recommendation was developed in intensive discussions in the days just before the attacks on Pleiku. These attacks and our reaction to them have created an ideal opportunity for the prompt development and execution of sustained reprisals. Conversely if no such policy is now developed, we face the grave danger that Pleiku, like the Gulf of Tonkin, may be a short-run stimulant and a long-term depressant. We therefore recommend that the necessary preparations be made for continuing reprisals. The major necessary steps to be taken appear to us to be the following:

1) We should complete the evacuation of dependents.

2) We should quietly start the necessary westward deployments of back-up contingency forces.

3) We should develop and refine a running catalogue of Viet Cong offenses which can be published regularly and related clearly to our own reprisals. Such a
catalogue should perhaps build on the foundation of an initial White Paper.

(4) We should initiate joint planning with the GVN on both the civil and military level. Specifically, we should give a clear and strong signal to those now forming a government that we will be ready for this policy when they are.

(5) We should develop the necessary public and diplomatic statements to accompany the initiation and continuation of this program.

(6) We should insure that a reprisal program is matched by renewed public commitment to our family of programs in the South, so that the central importance of the southern struggle may never be neglected.

(7) We should plan quiet diplomatic communications of the precise meaning of what we are and are not doing, to Hanoi, to Peking and to Moscow.

(8) We should be prepared to defend and to justify this new policy by concentrating attention in every forum upon its cause--the aggression in the South.

(9) We should accept discussion on these terms in any forum, but we should not now accept the idea of negotiations of any sort except on the basis of a stand down of Viet Cong violence. A program of sustained reprisal, with its direct link to Hanoi's continuing aggressive actions in the South will not involve us in nearly the level of international recrimination which would be precipitated by a go-North program which was not so connected. For this reason the international pressures for negotiation should be quite manageable.


At about the same time that the McGeorge Bundy memorandum was being ;ubmitted to the President, Ambassador Taylor in Saigon conveyed his own views concerning a future reprisal program to Washington. Not surprisingly (since they had exchanged ideas extensively in Saigon) Taylor's concept closely paralleled Bundy's in many of its features. But in at least one significant respect it diverged sharply. Whereas Bundy's main objective was to influence the course of the struggle in the South (providing a boost to GVN morale and cohesion, affording an opportunity for increased American influence upon and bargaining power with the GVN, and exerting a depressing effect upon VC cadres), Taylor's principal aim was "to bring increasing pressure on the DRV to cease its intervention."

The areas of agreement between Taylor and Bundy were considerable. Like Bundy, he recommended "a measured, controlled sequence of actions against the DRV taken in reprisal for DRV-inspired actions in South Vietnam . . . carried out jointly with the GVN and . . . directed solely against DRV military targets and infiltration routes. . ." The reprisals could be "initiated on the basis of a general catalogue or package of VC outrages, no one particularly grave Itself and could be varied "with the general level of VC outrages in SVN or, if we so desired, progressively raised. . . . Thus it would be tantamount to the so-called Phase II escalation, but justified on the basis of retaliation." Like Bundy, he believed "that we should limit US/GVN publicity to the bare minimum . . ." and he also cautioned that "we should attempt to avoid in the present situation a general letdown in morale and spirit which followed our action in the Tonkin Gulf."

But Taylor's concept was much more directly aimed at bringing pressures to bear against the DRV, to give them "serious doubts as to their chances for ultimate success" and to cause them to cease their aggression and to accede to a rigorously enforced 1954/1962 Geneva-type settlement. It was this focus on the North, rather than a rededication of the GVN to the struggle in the South, that Taylor considered to be the real benefit of a reprisal policy. Integrating the Vietnamese in a program against the DRV, he believed, would have an exhilarating effect which, if exploited early "could lead to a greater sense of purpose and direction both in the government and the military and awaken new hope for eventual victory on the part of the Vietnamese people."

In a subsequent cable, Taylor spelled out his "graduated reprisal" concept in a more orderly fashion:

In review of the rationale for concept of graduated reprisals we are of the opinion that, in order of importance, it should have the following objectives:

(a) The will of Hanoi leaders;
(b) GVN morale; and
(c) Physical destruction to reduce the DRV ability to support the VC.

Of these three, the first appears to us by far the most imporant, since our effectiveness in influencing Hanoi leadership will, in the long run, determine the success or failure of our efforts in both North and South Vietnam. Second objective, effect on GVN morale, is also important and fortunately the requirements for building morale in the South are roughly the same as those for impressing Hanoi leaders with the rising costs of their support of the VC. In this case, what is bad for Hanoi is generally good for Saigon.

Effect of the physical destruction of material objects and infliction of casualties will not, in our judgment, have a decisive bearing upon the ability of DRV to support VC. However, degree of damage and number of casualties inflicted gauge the impact of our operations on Hanoi leadership and hence are important as a measure of their discomfort.

. . .We should keep our response actions controllable and optional to maximum degree possible so that we can act or withhold action when and as we choose. This need for flexibility argues strongly for vagueness in defining criteria for situations justifying retaliation and for retention of freedom of action to make ad hoc decisions in light of our interests at the moment. But in any case, complete flexibility will not be possible. . .

Assuming that we have achieved control and flexibility, we will then need to think of the tempo which we wish to communicate to the retaliatory program, with primary consideration given to effect of the program on Hanoi leadership. It seems clear to us that there should be a gradual, orchestrated acceleration of tempo measured in terms of frequency, size, number and/or geographical location of the reprisal strikes and of related activities such as BARREL ROLL and 34-A. An upward trend in any or all of these forms of intensity will convey signals which, in combination, should present to the DRV leaders a vision of inevitable, ultimate destruction if they do not change their ways. The exact rate of acceleration is a matter of judgment but we consider, roughly speaking, that each successive week should include some new act on our part to increase pressure on Hanoi. . .

We do not believe that our reprisal program will lead the GVN to believe that we have taken over their war and that they can reduce their anti-VC activities. We hope that the opposite will be the effect and the retaliatory actions in the North will give impulsion to the defensive efforts in the South. However, the Dept's fear can certainly not be ruled out and we shall watch closely the GVN reaction to the program.

One of Ambassador Taylor's major concerns was that, if a graduated reprisals program were adopted, it would be necessary to begin discussions with the GVN to seek agreement on mutually acceptable terms for the ultimate settlement of the conflict. Taylor thought of this as a process of education by which he would guide the GVN towards formulating a "framework of demands to be made on the DRV as well as the general negotiating procedures." He outlined his proposed "terms for cessation of our reprisal attacks" as follows:

A. Demands

1. DRV return to strict observance of 1954 accords with respect SVN and the 1962 agreement with respect to Laos--that is, stop infiltration, and bring about a cessation of VC armed insurgency. (With respect to Laos strictly observe the 1962 accords with respect to Laos, including the withdrawal of all Viet Minh forces and personnel from Laos and recognize that the freedom of movement granted therein in Laos under those accords is not subject to veto or interference by any of the parties in Laos.)

B. In return and subject in each instance to a judgment that DRV is complying faithfully and effectively:

1. U.S. will return to 1954 accords with respect to military personnel in SVN and GVN would be willing to enter into trade talks looking toward normalization of economic relations between DRV and GVN.
2. Subject to faithful compliances by DRV with 1954 accords, U.S. and GVN would give assurances that they would not use force or support the use of force by any other party to upset the accords with respect to the DRy.
3. Within the framework of the 1954 accords, the GVN would permit VC desiring to do so to return to the DRV without their arms and would grant amnesty to those peacefully laying down their arms and desiring to remain in SVN.

C. If and when Hanoi indicates its acceptance of foregoing conditions, careful consideration must be given to immediate subsequent procedures which will avoid danger of: (a) becoming involved in a cease fire vis-a-vis the DRV and/or the VC accompanied by strung-out negotiations; (b) making conditions so stringent as to be unworkable from practical point of view. Probably best procedure would be to have the GVN and DRV meet in the DMZ at the military level under ICC auspices with U.S. observers to reach agreement mechanics of carrying out understanding while action against the VC and DRV continues at least in principle. RLG would have to be associated with these negotiations at some point.

It is evident from these and similar tough settlement terms and cessation "demands" that were being discussed between Saigon and Washington at that time that there was a real expectation that the kinds of reprisal pressures contemplated would inflict such pain or threat of pain upon the DRV that it would be compelled to order a stand-down of Viet Cong violence and accept conditions that, from their point of view, were tantamount to surrender. Such a view is even more clearly implicit in the comments and proposals on reprisal programs emanating from the U.S. military leadership.


Admiral Sharp, commenting on Ambassador Taylor's reprisal and negotiating concepts, called attention to the need to make the reprisal program a very forceful one, if the DRY was to be persuaded to accede to a cessation on US terms:

While it may be politically desirable to speak publicly in terms of a "graduated reprisal" program, I would hope that we are thinking, and will act, in terms of a "graduated pressures" philosophy which has more of a connotation of steady, relentless movement toward our objective of convincing Hanoi and Peiping of the prohibitive cost of them of their program of subversion, insurgency and aggression in SEAsia.

If a firm decision is made to embark upon a graduated pressures program, the recommendation contained in [Taylor's Feb 11 message] to undertake discussions with the RVN reference joint US/GVN military actions is most necessary. Failure to develop firm arrangements concerning roles and responsibilities could result in over reliance on the U.S. contribution to the war effort, and perhaps GVN resorting to rash military actions from which we would have to bail them out.

There is no question of the desirability of concurrently educating the GVN, as also proposed in Ref b, toward formulation of war objectives, demands and negotiating procedures to be employed against the DRY. I believe that such an educational process, combined with a graduated military pressures program will further contribute to GVN stability.

We must be certain that we are dealing from a posture of strength before we sit down at the bargaining table. Successful direct increasing military pressures against NVN must be complemented by a reversal of the trend toward VC success within RVN. We must also exhibit complete confidence in ability to win in Vietnam and so indicate by our willingness to rely on our military superiority if need be.

We must not be driven to premature discussions with the DRY in our eagerness to find a solution to the Southeast Asian problem. We should continue our military pressures, making (our) general objectives publicly known, while awaiting some sign that the DRV is ready to negotiate towards achievement of those objectives

Finally, any political program which is designed to formulate terms and procedures for reaching agreement on cessation of a graduated military pressures program, will be successful in proportion to the effectiveness of the military pressures program itself.


As these discussions continued, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responding to a McNamara request of 8 February, sent to the Secretary of Defense their recommendations for an initial program of military actions against the DRY, extending over a period of eight weeks. In accordance with McNamara's instructions, the program was to be confined generally to targets along Route 7 and south of the 19th parallel, was to employ both RVN and US forces, and was to be primarily a plan for air strikes. Since it was so constrained, the JCS program does not fully reflect the preferences of the Joint Chiefs. But it does reveal something of their thinking. The context in which the program would be undertaken is described as follows:

It is visualized that the initial overt air strikes of this program will have been undertaken as a retaliation in response to a provocative act by Viet Cong or DRV forces against US or RVN personnel or installations. Successive overt operations to provide sustained pressures and progressive destruction will be continued on the plausible justification of further provocations, which on the basis of recent past experience seem quite likely to exist. As this program continues the realistic need for precise event-association in this reprisal context will progressively diminish. A wide range of activities are within the scope of what may be stated to be provocations justifying reprisal.

The program called for two to four US-VNAF strikes per week, initially ainst targets along Route 7 south of the 19th parallel and near the Laos border. Specifically, the program was conceived as follows:

The air attacks are scheduled for the first eight weeks at the rate of four fixed targets a week . . . These initial targets are located South of the 19th parallel with the exception of Target 89, an Armed Route Reconnaissance of Route 7, in the DRV close to the Laos border. BARREL ROLL missions in Laos will be coordinated with air strikes in the DRV near the Laos border to ensure maximum effectiveness.

a. The targets are attacked in the order of ascending risk to attacking forces and are attacked at a frequency that assures that continuous and regular pressure is maintained against the DRV. Authority should be delegated to CINCPAC to select alternate weather targets from the list of previously approved targets for the eight weeks program. Subsequent weekly operations would be adjusted as appropriate when alternate targets are attacked.

b. Airfields north of the 19th parallel are not scheduled for attack in the first eight weeks. However, if, during the scheduled attacks in this program, DRY or CHICOM aircraft attempt intercept of US/RVN forces, the communist air threat involved should be eliminated. The program of graduated pressures would then have reached a higher scale of escalation and would require reorientation.

The program also provided for naval gunfire bombardment and for continuation of already ongoing activity, including 34A operations, resumption of DESOTO Patrols, and authorization for ground cross border operations.

To carry out this program, the JCS wished to deploy about 325 more aircraft to the Western Pacific to deter or cope with any escalation that might result. This would include dispatch of 30 B-52's to Guam, deployment of 9 more USAF tactical fighter squadrons and a fourth aircraft carrier. Some Marine and Army units would go to Thailand, and other units would be alerted.

As for the risks of escalation, the JCS considered these as manageable:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that the DRV, Communist China, and the Soviet Union will make every effort through propaganda and diplomatic moves to halt the US attacks. The DRV also will take all actions to defend itself, and open, overt aggression in South Vietnam and Laos by the DRV might occur. In addition, the mere initiation of the new US policy almost certainly would not lead Hanoi to restrain the Viet Cong; Hanoi would probably elect to maintain the very intense levels of activity of the past few days. However, if the United States persevered in the face of threats and international pressures, and as the degree of damage inflicted on North Vietnam increased, the chances of a reduction in Viet Cong activity would rise. They further believe that the Chinese communists would be reluctant to become directly involved in the fighting in Southeast Asia; however, as the number and severity of US attacks against the DRV increase, they probably would feel an increased compulsion to take some dramatic action to counter the impact of US pressures. There is a fair chance that Peiping would introduce limited numbers of Chinese ground forces as "volunteers" into North Vietnam, and/or northern Laos, intending to raise the specter of further escalation, to underline its commitment to assist the North Vietnamese, and to challenge the Soviets to extend corresponding support. They also believe that the probable Soviet response to these US courses of action would consist both of a vigorous diplomatic and propaganda effort to bring the United States to the conference table and the provision of military support to North Vietnam. While the extent and nature of the latter are difficult to predict, it almost certainly would include anti-aircraft artillery and radars. In order to provide a more effective defense against the US air attacks, North Vietnam would probably press for surface-to-air missiles. The chances are about even that the Soviets would agree to provide some SA-2 defenses, but they would do so in ways calculated to minimize the initial risks to them. By providing the necessary Soviet personnel in the guise of "technicians," the USSR could preserve the option of ignoring any Soviet casualties. In the event the DRV and Communist Chinese openly undertake aggressive actions, the United States and its allies can deal with them adequately. . .

It is the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the program herein proposed will demonstrate to the DRV that continuation of its direction and support of insurgencies will lead progressively to more serious punishment. If the insurgency continues with active DRV support, strikes against the DRV will be extended with intensified efforts against targets north of the 19th parallel.

While the Joint Chiefs recommended approval of the recommendations, not all considered them adequate. General McConnell, Air Force Chief of Staff, believed that the much heavier air strike recommendations made by the JCS in late 1964 were more appropriate than the mild actions now proposed. General Wheeler backed deployment of more USAF and other air units but pressed for an integrated air program against the North's transportation system, especially railroads. He also believed, along with General Harold K. Johnson, Army Chief of Staff, that three U.S. ground divisions might have to be sent to Southeast Asia. The JCS chairman directed the Joint Staff to examine the possibility of placing one or two of these divisions in northeast Thailand and a third, augmented by allied personnel, south of the demilitarized zone in South Vietnam.

Some of these JCS recommendations were quickly accepted, particularly those having to do with Air Force deployments. Thus the Administration approved the dispatch, from 11 to 13 February, of 30 B-52's to Guam and 30 KC-1 35's to Okinawa. Designated Arc Light, these bombers and tankers of the Strategic Air
Command (SAC) initially were earmarked (though never used) for high-altitude, all-weather bombing of important targets in the North.

The particular JCS air strike program, on the other hand, was never adopted. he detailed JCS target proposals did figure prominently in the intensive highest',el reprisal and pressures planning that continued during the succeeding weeks d months, but that planning was conducted essentially on an ad hoc basis, ike by strike, and did not at this stage embrace a multi-week program.



The formal Presidential decision to inaugurate what eventually emerged as the ROLLING THUNDER program was made on Sunday, February 13. It was reported to Ambassador Taylor in a NODIS cable drafted in the White House and transmitted to Saigon late that afternoon. The full text of the message follows:

The President today approved the following program for immediate future actions in follow-up decision he reported to you in Deptel 1653. [The first FLAMING DART reprisal decision.]

1. We will intensify by all available means the program of pacification within SVN.

2. We will execute a program of measured and limited air action jointly with GVN against selected military targets in DRV remaining south of 19th parallel until further notice.

FYI. Our current expectation is that these attacks might come about once or twice a week and involve two or three targets on each day of operation.

3. We will announce this policy of measured action in general terms and at the same time, we will go to UN Security Council to make clear case that aggressor is Hanoi. We will also make it plain that we are ready and eager for "talks" to bring aggression to an end.

4. We believe this 3-part program must be concerted with GVN, and we currently expect to announce it by Presidential statement directly after next authorized air action. We believe this action should take place as early as possible next week.

5. You are accordingly instructed to seek immediate GVN agreement on this program. You are authorized to emphasize our conviction that announcement of readiness to talk is stronger diplomatic position than awaiting inevitable summons to Security Council by third parties. We would hope to have appropriate GVN concurrence by Monday [Feb 14th] if possible here.

In presenting above to GVN, you should draw fully, as you see fit, on following arguments:

a. We are determined to continue with military actions regardless of Security Council deliberations and any "talks" or negotiations that may ensue, unless and until North Vietnam [words missing] its aggression to an end. Our demand would be that they cease infiltration and all forms of support and also the activity they are directing in the south.

b. We consider the UN Security Council initiative, following another strike, essential if we are to avoid being faced with really damaging initiatives by the USSR or perhaps by such powers as India, France, or even the UN.

c. At an early point in the UN Security Council initiative, we would expect to see calls for the DRV to appear in the UN. If they failed to appear, as in August, this will make doubly clear that it is they who are refusing to desist, and our position in pursuing military actions against the DRV would be strengthened. For same reason we would now hope GVN itself would appear at UN and work closely with US.

d. With or without Hanoi, we have every expectation that any "talks" that may result from our Security Council initiative would in fact go on for many weeks or perhaps months and would above all focus constantly on the cessation of Hanoi's aggression as the precondition to any cessation of military action against the DRV. We further anticipate that any detailed discussions about any possible eventual form of agreement returning to the essentials of the 1954 Accords would be postponed and would be subordinated to the central issue.

For your private guidance, the following draft language is under consideration for Presidential announcement:


The aggression has continued. It has continued against the Vietnamese, and it has continued against Americans. In support of the independence of Vietnam, in the service of our nation, and in fulfillment of the solemn public obligation of our nation, and in our individual and collective self-defense, the Government of the United States, with the Government of Vietnam, has now decided that further action must be taken.

The actions we have agreed upon are three:

First and most important, we will continue and will intensify still further our campaign against terror and violence in South Vietnam itself. The establishment of civil peace and the disarming of the Communist forces are the first order of business for both our Governments. Our military and police actions will be increasingly energetic and effective. We will also strengthen and enlarge our efforts to move forward with the peaceful development of a society set free from [words illegible] the mistake of assuming that there is any substitute for victory against aggression where it shows its open face--inside the borders of South Vietnam itself.

Second--and at the same time--we will carry out measured but effective actions against military targets in North Vietnam. These actions will be reported to the United Nations Security Council under the Provisions of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter--and each such report will include a full account of the continuing acts of aggression which make our actions necessary. These actions will stop when the aggression stops.

Third, we will press with urgency for talks designed to bring an end to the aggression and its threat to peace. I have today instructed Ambassador Stevenson to seek such action urgently, in the Security Council of the United Nations, and if that body should be hamstrung by any veto, we shall then press for talks in another appropriate forum. We believe that in any such talks the first object must be an end of aggression, and we believe that the government in Hanoi must be brought to the conference room. Our common purpose--and our only purpose--is to restore the peace and domestic tranquility which others have so savagely attacked. END QUOTE

Several aspects of the message are of interest. First, it features intensified pacification as the first order of business and as a major point in the contemplated Presidential announcement. This stress on action in the South reflected a serious concern at high levels in the White House and the State Department at that time, that a growing preoccupation with action against the North would be likely to cause the US Mission and the GVN leadership to neglect the all-important struggle within the borders of South Vietnam. Second, the description of the air strike program in the message is extremely cursory, suggesting that the President at this time still wished to preserve as much flexibility as possible concerning the future scope and character of the program. And third, the message reveals the President's intention, as of that date, to take the DRV aggression issue and the US bombing response promptly before the UN Security Council--an intention that was dropped several days later in favor of a quite different approach, namely the UK/USSR Co-Chairmen initiative recounted below. In actuality, instead of mounting a major UN approach, the President contented himself initially with a brief public statement of US objectives in Vietnam, which formed the keynote of the official line, and was to be frequently quoted by Administration officials in subsequent weeks:

As I have said so many, many times, and other Presidents ahead of me have said, our purpose, our objective there is clear. That purpose and that objective is to join in the defense and protection of freedom. . .

We have no ambition there for ourselves. We seek no dominion. We seek no conquest. We seek no wider war. But we must all understand that we will persist in the defense of freedom and our continuing actions will be those which are justified and those that are made necessary by the continuing aggression of others.

These actions will be measured and fitting and adequate. Our stamina and the stamina of the American people is equal to the task.

Ambassador Taylor received the news of the President's new program with enthusiasm. In his response, however, he explained the difficulties he faced in obtaining authentic GVN concurrence "in the condition of virtual non-government" which existed in Saigon at that moment. The Vietnamese Armed Forces Council had arrogated unto itself the authority of appointing the Chief of State and the Premier, and had left him to his own devices in trying to form a cabinet. Any GVN concurrence that Taylor could obtain would have to be a consensus of a lame-duck acting prime minister, a widely mistrusted military commander-in-chief, a prime-minister-designate with uncertain prospects, and assorted other power figures in a foundering caretaker government. This Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere notwithstanding, Taylor was undaunted:

It will be interesting to observe the effect of our proposal on the internal political situation here. I will use the occasion to emphasize that a dramatic change is occurring in U.S. policy, one highly favorable to GVN interests but demanding a parallel dramatic change of attitude on the part of the GVN. Now is the time to install the best possible government as we are clearly approaching a climax in the next few months. The U.S. Mission and the GVN will have serious problems to work out together, many of them complicated matters in the field of foreign affairs where the GVN must strengthen its professional representation. We need the first team and we need it fast.

There is just a chance that the vision of possible victory may decide Khanh to take over the government at this juncture. Alternately, it may create some measure of national unity which will facilitate the task of Quat or of any other Prime Minister who succeeds in forming a new government.

Quat's chances for creating national unity--even with the assist of an imminent "dramatic change in US policy"--were slim indeed. Quat's government was the ninth attempt to form a viable structure since the overthrow of Diem. It was obvious from the outset that it would be under the domination of the Armed Forces Council which had publicly declared that it would "act as a mediator until the government [words illegible]. The mediator himself, however, was to be rent asunder within days of Quat's assumption of office in one of these explosions that had become so typical in Vietnam since Diem's demise. That political explosion was particularly unfortunate in its timing in relation to the "dramatic" new ROLLING THUNDER program just then set to get under way.


A refinement of the February 13 decision on ROLLING THUNDER, including determination of the timing and character of the first air strike, was evidently made by the President on February 18. A NODIS cable of that date informed nine American posts in the Far East of the decisions in the following words:

Policy on Viet-Nam adopted today calls for following:

1. Joint program with GVN of continuing air and naval action against North Viet-Nam whenever and wherever necessary. Such action to be against selected military targets and to be limited and fitting and adequate as response to continuous aggression in South Viet-Nam directed in Hanoi. Air strikes will be jointly planned and agreed with GVN and carried out on joint basis.

2. Intensification by all available means of pacification program within South Viet-Nam, including every possible step to find and attack VC concentrations and headquarters within SVN by all conventional means available to GVN and US.

3. Early detailed presentation to nations of world and to public of documented case against DRV as aggressor. Forum and form this presentation not yet decided, but we do not repeat not expect to touch upon readiness for talks or negotiations at this time. We are considering reaffirmation our objectives in some form in near future.

4. Careful public statements of USG, combined with fact of continuing air action, are expected to make it clear that military action will continue while aggression continues. But focus of public attention will be kept as far as possible on DRV aggression; not on joint GVN/US military operations. There will be no comment of any sort on future actions except that all such actions will be adequate and measured and fitting to aggression. (You will have noted President's statement of yesterday, which we will probably allow to stand.)

Addressees should inform head of government or State (as appropriate) of above in strictest confidence and report reactions. . .

You may indicate that we will seek to keep governments informed, subject to security considerations, of each operation as it occurs; as we did with respect to operations of February 7 and 11.

Although the cable does not indicate it, the first air action under the new program was set for February 20th. Dubbed ROLLING THUNDER I, it called for US strikes against Quang Khe Naval Base and concurrent VNAF strikes against Vu Con Barracks, with appropriate weather alternates provided. The above cable was sent from Washington at 8:00 p.m. on February 18th. Five hours later, at 1:00 p.m., February 19 (Saigon time), Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, a conspiratorial revolutionary figure who had been active in the coup against Diem, began his infamous semi-coup to oust General Khanh--but not to overthrow the Armed Forces Council. Aided by General Phat, his forces succeeded in occupying the ARVN military headquarters and other key government buildings in Saigon, including the radio station. Until the coup was defeated and Khanh's resignation submitted some 40 hours later, pandemonium reigned in Saigon. Ambassador Taylor promptly recommended cancellation of the February 20 air strike and his recommendation was equally promptly accepted. In a FLASH message to all recipients of the cable quoted above, Washington rescinded the instructions to notify respective heads of state until further notice "in view of the disturbed situation in Saigon."

The "disturbed situation" was not to settle down completely for almost a week. Even though the semi-coup failed quickly and the Armed Forces Council reasserted its full authority, the AFC continued the anti-Khanh momentum of the coup-plotters by adopting a "vote of no confidence" in Khanh. The latter made frantic but unsuccessful efforts to rally his supporters. Literally running out of gas in Nha Trang shortly before dawn on February 21, he submitted his resignation, claiming that a "foreign hand" was behind the coup. No one, however, could be quite certain that Khanh might not "re-coup" once again, unless he were physically removed from the scene. This took three more days to accomplish. On the afternoon of February 25, after some mock farewell performances designed to enable Khanh to save face, he left Vietnam to become an Ambassador-at-Large. At the airport to see him off and to make sure that he was safely dispatched from the country, was Ambassador Taylor, glassily polite. It was only then that Taylor was able to issue, and Washington would accept, clearance for the long postponed and frequently rescheduled first ROLLING THUNDER strike.


Political turbulence in Saigon was not the only reason for delaying the air action. Even before the semi-coup broke out, forcing cancellation of the February 20 strike, a diplomatic initiative was taken by the Soviet Foreign Office in Moscow that was eagerly picked up by London and Washington. . .

On February 7, the UK Ambassador to Washington, Lord Harlech, informed Secretary Rusk that the Soviet Foreign Office had approached the British with the suggestion that the UK-USSR Co-Chairmanship of the 1954 Geneva Conference might be reactivated in connection with the current Vietnam crisis. Secretary Rusk described the possibilities of such a gambit in a message to Ambassador Taylor as follows:

British apparently expect that next Soviet step might be to propose a joint statement by two Co-Chairmen on bombings in North Viet-Nam as reported to Co-Chairmen by regime in Hanoi. Interest of Soviet Government in co-chairmanship, though not yet confirmed, might also reflect some relief for Moscow regarding dilemma in which they may find themselves in dealing with Hanoi, Peiping and Southeast Asia issues. It may prove desirable for us to provide to UK and USSR full statement of facts as we see them, US purposes in Southeast Asia and our concept of necessary solution . . . We would stop short of ourselves proposing formal systematic negotiations but assumption of 1954 co-chairmanship by two governments would imply that they might themselves explore with interested governments possibilities of solution, which we could encourage or otherwise as we see fit. If message is made to two Co-Chairmen, which would be made public, it may mean that better procedure would be to present full documentation on North Viet-Namese aggression to [U.N. Secretary General] in writing for circulation to members rather than make oral presentation in meeting of Security Council which might require Soviets to act as defense counsel for Hanoi.

Obviously, this has bearing on timing of next strike. Hope to be in touch with you within next several hours on our further reflection on this problem. Do not believe a Thursday [February 18] strike therefore feasible because of this time factor and because these possibilities have not been explored here at highest level.

With encouragement from Rusk, the British Foreign Office showed itself eager to pick up the Soviet hint. London proposed to make a formal approach to the Soviet Government, through UK Ambassador Trevelyan in Moscow. Specifically, they wished to instruct the Ambassador to propose to the Soviet Government that the Co-Chairmen of the 1954 Geneva Conference request the Governments which were members of that Conference and those represented on the International Control Commission "to furnish the Co-Chairmen without delay with a statement of their views on the situation in Viet-Nam and, in particular, on the circumstances in which they consider that a peaceful settlement could be reached.

In a further discussion with Lord Harlech on February 19, Secretary Rusk agreed to the proposed British action and Ambassador Trevelyan was duly instructed to approach the Soviet Foreign Office on February 20.

[material missing]

What were US expectations with respect to this initiative, and how did it relate to the new policy of pressures against the DRV? An excellent indication of State Department thinking on these matters at that moment is contained in an unfinished draft memorandum dated February 18, prepared by William P. Bundy and entitled "Where Are We Heading?" Because it is addressed to the relevant issues of that moment and surveys the political-diplomatic scene, it is reproduced here in full:

This memorandum examines possible developments and problems if the US pursues the following policy with respect to South Viet-Nam:

a. Intensified pacification within South Vietnam. To meet the security problem, this might include a significant increase in present US force strength.

b. A program of measured, limited, and spaced air attacks, jointly with the GVN, against the infiltration complex in the DRV. Such attacks would take place at the rate of about one a week, unless spectacular Viet Cong action dictated an immediate response out of sequence. The normal pattern of such attacks would comprise one GVN and one US strike on each occasion, confined to targets south of the 19th parallel, with variations in severity depending on the tempo of VC action, but with a slow upward trend in severity as the weeks went by.

c. That the US itself would take no initiative for talks, but would agree to cooperate in consultations--not a conference--undertaken by the UK and USSR as Co-Chairmen of the Geneva Conferences. As an opening move, the British would request an expression of our views, and we would use this occasion to spell out our position fully, including our purposes and what we regard as essential to the restoration of peace. We would further present our case against the DRV in the form of a long written document to be sent to the President of the United Nations Security Council and to be circulated to members of the UN.

* * * *

1. Communist responses.

a. Hanoi would almost certainly not feel itself under pressure at any early point to enter into fruitful negotiations or to call off its activity in any way. They would denounce the continued air attacks and seek to whip up maximum world opposition to them. Within South Viet-Nam, they might avoid spectacular actions, but would certainly continue a substantial pattern of activity along past lines, probably with incidents we have seen this week, in which Communist agents stirred up a village protest against government air attacks, and against the US. Basically, they would see the situation in South Viet-Nam as likely to deteriorate further (crumble, as they have put it), and would be expecting that at some point someone in the GVN will start secret talks with them behind our backs.

b. Communist China might supply additional air defense equipment to the DRy, but we do not believe they would engage in air operations from Communist China, at least up to the point where the MIGs in the DRV were engaged and we had found it necessary to attack Fukien or possibly--if the MIGs had been moved there--Vinh.

c. The Soviet would supply air defense equipment to the DRV and would continue to protest our air attacks in strong terms. However, we do not believe they would make any new commitment at this stage, and they would probably not do so even if the Chicoms became even more deeply involved-provided that we were not ourselves attacking Communist China. At that point, the heat might get awfully great on them, and they would be in a very difficult position to continue actively working as Co-Chairmen. However, their approach to the British on the Co-Chairmanship certainly suggests that they would find some relief in starting to act in that role, and might use it as a hedge against further involvement, perhaps pointing out to Hanoi that the Co-Chairman exercise serves to prevent us from taking extreme action and that Hanoi will get the same result in the end if a political track is operating and if, in fact, South Viet-Nam keeps crumbling. They might also argue to Hanoi that the existence of the political track tends to reduce the chances of the Chicoms having to become deeply involved--which we believe Hanoi does not want unless it is compelled to accept it.

2. Within South Viet-Nam the new government is a somewhat better one, [Note: this was written one day before the semi-coup] but the cohesive effects of the strikes to date have at most helped things a bit. The latest MACV report indicates a deteriorating situation except in the extreme south, and it is unlikely that this can be arrested in any short period of time even if the government does hold together well and the military go about their business. We shall be very lucky to see a leveling off, much less any significant improvement, in the next two months. In short, we may have to hang on quite a long time before we can hope to see an improving situation in South Viet-Nam--and this in turn is really the key to any negotiating position we could have at any time.

3. On the political track we believe the British will undertake their role with vigor, and that the Soviets will be more reserved. The Soviets can hardly hope to influence Hanoi much at this point, and they certainly have no leverage with Communist China. In the opening rounds, the Soviets will probably fire off some fairly sharp statements that the real key to the situation is for us to get out and to stop our attacks, and the opposing positions are so far apart that it is hard to see any useful movement for some time to come. We might well find the Soviets--or even the Canadians--sounding us out on whether we would stop our attacks in return for some moderation in VC activity. This is clearly unacceptable, and the very least we should hold out on is a verified cessation of infiltration (and radio silence) before we stop our attacks. Our stress on the cessation of infiltration may conceivably lead to the Indians coming forward to offer policing forces-a suggestion they have made before-and this would be a constructive move we could pick up. But, as noted above, Hanoi is most unlikely to trade on this basis for a long time to come.

4. In sum--the most likely prospect is for a prolonged period without major risks of escalation but equally without any give by Hanoi.

In retrospect, Bundy's expectations appear appropriately sober and realistic in comparison with more euphoric views held by some of his contemporaries. Particularly with respect to the Co-Chairmen gambit; his predictions were strikingly close to the mark. The British did in fact "undertake their role with vigor" and, as it turned out, the Soviets were indeed "more reserved." So much so, that the Co-Chairman initiative eventually came to naught.

At this point in time, however (in the days following February 20th), the Co-Chairman proposal was in orbit and real hopes were held out for it. Trevelyan had approached Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Lapin with the proposal and the Soviet officials had agreed to take it under advisement, warning Trevelyan that absolute secrecy was essential. U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Foy Kohler, upon learning of the UK/Soviet undertaking, expressed his concern that the air strikes on the DRV planned for February 20 would put the Soviets on the spot, and would cause them to reject the British proposal.

Washington reassured Kohler by advising him that the scheduled strikes were being postponed and also informed him that, when rescheduled, the strikes would be tied to a major DRV aggressive act which had just come to light. It appears that, on February 16, an armed ocean-going North Vietnamese vessel, carrying large quantities of arms and ammunition, was intercepted and captured as it was infiltrating into Vung Ro Bay in South Vietnam, to deliver its cargo to the VC. By pegging the strikes primarily to that boat incident, and by directing the strikes in part against a DRV naval base, the risk of an adverse Soviet reaction would be minimized.

During the next several days, Washington was in almost continuous communication (1) with Taylor in Saigon--to ascertain whether the political situation had stabilized sufficiently to permit rescheduling the postponed air strikes; 2) with Kohler in Moscow--to feel the pulse of the Soviet government and likely reaction to the upcoming air operation; and (3) with Ambassador Bruce in London--to monitor the progress of the Trevelyan approach to the Soviet Foreign Office concerning the Co-Chairman process. Throughout this time Secretary Rusk was visibly torn on the question of whether or not to proceed with the air strikes. He wanted very much to push ahead immediately, in order to exploit promptly the DRV arms ship incident which seemed to beg for some response. But he hesitated to launch a strike on behalf of and in concert with a government that was teetering and whose Commander-in-Chief was in the process of being deposed; he also wished to avoid angering the Soviets, thus possibly sabotaging their Co-Chairmen effort. On the other hand, he wanted to make it clear that the U.S. would not indefinitely accept a "unilateral ceasefire" while the Co-Chairman effort dragged on.

It is important to note that the Co-Chairmen gambit was not viewed by anyone involved on the US side as a negotiating initiative. On the contrary, every effort was made to avoid giving such an impression. Instead, the gambit was intended to provide a vehicle for the public expression of a tough U.S. position. This was clearly implied in Washington messages to Saigon and London on this issue, as, for example, in a cable from Unger to Taylor:

You should not reveal possibility this UK/USSR gambit to GVN for time being. We naturally wish have it appear entirely as their initiative, so that our reply would not be any kind of initiative on our part and would, in its content, make clear how stiff our views are.

Finally, by February 24th, since no reply had as yet been received from Moscow and the situation in Saigon had begun to settle down, Secretary Rusk felt
he could hold off no longer. In a message to Bruce in London, he wrote:

We have decided that we must go ahead with next operation Feb. 26 unless there should be further political difficulties in Saigon. Taylor will be seeking political clearance afternoon Feb. 25 Saigon time once Khanh is off the scene.

We told Harlech this decision today stating that while we recognized British concern and possibly some Soviet reaction we cannot even by implication get into [words illegible] continuation of program. We may hear further from London following his report but would now expect to maintain decision and indeed Taylor would probably have gone ahead on political side. If matter comes up you may of course note that we have held off five days but that British have not had any indication of Soviet response so that further delay now appeared unwise. We continue of course attach major importance to UK/Soviet gambit. . .

Confidence that the Co-Chairman initiative would pay off was beginning to wane, and the air strikes were indeed being rescheduled for February 26. A continuous readiness to launch had in fact been maintained ever since February 20, by simply postponing the strikes for 24 hours at a time and laying on new strikes whenever a change in targets or in operating rules had been decided upon. The February 26 operation was the fourth reprogramming of the strikes and thus went by the code designation ROLLING THUNDER IV, even though RT's I through III had been scratched.

Fully expecting that the February 26 air operation would go off as planned, State sent out a cable to thirteen posts, quoting the probable text of a joint GVN/US announcement that was to be made at about 2:00 a.m. Washington time on February 26, and instructing all addressees to contact their respective host governments as soon as FLASH notification was received that the mission had in fact been executed. The execution messages however, never came. Weather over the entire target area in North Vietnam had closed in, forcing another postponement and, ultimately, cancellation of the strikes. The weather remained adverse for four more days. It was not until March 2 that the first of the new program strikes, dubbed ROLLING THUNDER V was actually carried out.


The need to communicate the new policy promptly and persuasively to the public had been recognized throughout the 1964 planning process as an essential ingredient of any graduated pressures campaign. Now the time had come to put the information and education plans into effect.

Over the weekend of February 12, serious work was begun in the State Department on the preparation of a "White Paper" on the infiltration of men and supplies from the North. Such a public report was considered essential to justifying any program of U.S. military operations against North Vietnam. The compilers of the exhibits for the public record were handicapped however, by the fact that the most persuasive evidence on DRV infiltration and support was derived from Special Intelligence sources which could not be revealed without embarrassment and detriment to other U.S. security interests. The White Paper that was submitted to the U.S. public and to the United Nations on February 27, therefore, did not make as strong a case as it might have of the extent and nature of DRV involvement in the war in the South.
Concurrently, the Administration undertook to communicate to both foreign and domestic audiences its determination to prevent Communist destruction of the Government of South Vietnam and to underline the limited character of its objectives in Southeast Asia. A series of "leaked" press analyses suggested that the most recent and the anticipated air strikes constituted a clear threat of extensive future destruction of North Vietnam's military assets and economic investments. They inferred that such consequences could be avoided if Hanoi would agree to cease its direct support of the insurgency in the South.

At the same time, privately the State Department asked the Canadian ICC representative Blair Seaborn again to act as a discreet intermediary with Hanoi, conveying to the DRV leadership the same statement on Vietnam that had been handed by U.S. Ambassador Cabot to Chicom Ambassador Wang Kuo-chuan in Warsaw on February 24, reaffirming that the United States had no designs on the territory of North Vietnam, nor any desire to destroy the DRV. On his March visit to Hanoi, Seaborn sought an appointment with Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, but was forced to settle for a meeting with the chief of the North Vietnamese Foreign Liaison Section, to whom he read the statement. This officer commented that it contained nothing new and that the North Vietnamese had already received a briefing on the Warsaw meeting from the Chicoms. The Canadian Government publicly noted in April that Seaborn had two important conversations with DRV officials in recent months, but did not go into details.

In the closing days of February and continuing through the first week of March, Secretary Rusk conducted a marathon public information campaign to explain and justify the new U.S. policy and to signal a seemingly reasonable but in fact quite tough U.S. position on negotiations. In part, the Rusk campaign was precipitated by a press conference comment by U Thant at the United Nations on February 24, implying that the U.S. had perhaps not been as zealous in its quest for peace as it might have been. Thant went so far as to assert that "the great American people, if they only knew the true facts and the background to the developments in South Vietnam, will agree with me that further bloodshed is unnecessary." The suggestion that the U.S. Government wasn't leveling with the U.S. public produced a sharp retort from Secretary Rusk:

We have talked over the past 2 years informally and on a number of occasions with the Secretary-General . . . as well as with many governments in various parts of the world . . . But the proposals that I know about thus far have been procedural in nature. The missing piece continues to be the absence of any indication that Hanoi is prepared to stop doing what it is doing against its neighbors. . . . This question of calling a conference, under what circumstances-these are procedural matters. What we are interested in, what is needed to restore peace to Southeast Asia, is substance, content, and indication that peace is possible .

This and similar themes were endlessly reiterated in the ensuing days:

The key to peace in Southeast Asia is the readiness of all in that area to live at peace and to leave their neighbors alone. . . . A negotiation aimed at the confirmation of aggression is not possible. And a negotiation which simply ends in bitterness and hostility merely adds to the danger.

South Viet-Nam is being subjected to an aggression from the North, an aggression which is organized and directed and supplied with key personnel and equipment by Hanoi. The hard core of the Viet Cong were trained in the North and have been reinforced by North Vietnamese from the North Vietnamese army . . . Our troops would come home tomorrow if the aggressors would go north--go back home, and stay at home . . . The missing piece is the lack of an indication that Hanoi is prepared to stop doing what it is doing, and what it knows that it is doing, to its neighbors.

But when asked under what circumstances the U.S. might sit down to talk to Hanoi, Rusk was clearly as yet unwilling to appear publicly receptive:

I am not getting into the details of what are called preconditions, because we are not at that point-we are not at that point. Almost every postwar negotiation that has managed to settle in some fashion some difficult and dangerous question has been preceded by some private indication behind the scenes that such a negotiation might be possible. That is missing here--that is missing here.

Rusk's disinterest in negotiation--except on "absolutist" terms--was, of course, in concert with the view of virtually all the President's key advisors, that the path to peace was not open. Hanoi, at about that time, held sway over more than half of her southern neighbor and could see the Saigon Government crumbling before her very eyes. The balance of power in South Vietnam simply did not urnish the United States with a reasonable basis for bargaining and the signals rom Hanoi and Moscow--or lack thereof--did not encourage optimism about the sort of hard settlement the U.S. had in mind. All this pointed directly to military pressures on North Vietnam and to other urgent measures to tilt the balance of forces the other way. Until these measures could have some visible and tangible effect, talk of negotiation could be little more than a hollow exercise. At the same time, while neither Moscow nor Hanoi seemed in the least interested in U.S. style "conciliation," the likelihood of explosive escalation also seemed remote. So far there were no signs of ominous enemy countermoves. An assessment of probable Soviet responses to the evolving U.S. "pressures" policy, cabled to the Department by Foy Kohler in Moscow, was moderately reassuring and indeed quite perceptive:

1. Soviets will make noises but not take decisive action in response to specific retaliatory strikes in southern areas DRV, probably including--after publication "White Paper"--strike against DRV sealift capabilities in this area. Indeed, Soviets likely to read our failure to continue carry out such strikes as confirmation their estimates re weakness our basic position in SVN.

2. Soviet military aid program in DRV is probably defensive in nature and Soviets would wish to keep it that way. However, if attacks on DRV become general, particularly if they are extended to industrial or urban targets and areas beyond border zone. Soviets will reassess our intent as well as basic politico-military situation. If reassessment leads them to see U.S. aim as ending existence of DRV as socialist state, Soviets will not only step up defensive aid but supply means of counterattack, e.g., aircraft for raids on SVN cities and heavy ground equipment. While aware of risk that this might bring Peiping actively into picture, Soviets will not hold back if existence of DRV seems threatened.

3. There seems no possibility of change in present hard Soviet posture at least until after March 1 CP meeting and its aftermath or until they somehow convinced of real danger of major escalation and direct confrontation.

4. Major factor underlying Soviet position is conviction that in Vietnam situation, unlike Cuban crisis, we are almost alone among allies and even U.S. public opinion seriously divided; any real and publicized improvement in this picture would correspondingly influence Soviet policy.

5. Apart their estimate as to our relative isolation, Soviet failure move toward negotiations on any basis conceivably acceptable to USG also reflects DRV and CPR posture and Moscow's unwillingness or inability to impel DRV to call off activities in SVN or yield control of territory they now hold. To extent Soviets can influence communist attitude toward negotiations, they might in face of increasingly dangerous situation decide to work toward settlement based on coalition Govt in SVN, convincing own allies that this only temporary situation.

6. Major Soviet Dilemma--[words illegible] If they consider necessary to protect position in own camp, Soviets are probably prepared to see relations with US suffer for indefinite period.

With the immediate fear of escalation thus somewhat allayed and the public concern temporarily pacified, attention began to shift toward developing ROLLING THUNDER into a more forceful continuous program.

Go on to the Next Section of Volume 3, Chapter 3 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Air War in North Vietnam, February-June 1965," pp. 269-388

Glossary of Acronyms and Terms

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "Background to the Conflict, 1940-1950." pp. 1-52

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Involvement in the Franco-Viet Minh War, 1950-1954," pp. 53-107

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 3 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Geneva Conference, May-July, 1954," pp. 108-178.

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 4 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. and France in Indochina, 1950-56," pp. 179-241

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Papers, "Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960," pp. 242-314

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Kennedy Commitments and Programs, 1961,"pp. 1-127

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963," pp. 128-159.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 3, of the Pentagon Papers, "Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Forces, 1962-1964," pp. 160-200.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 4, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November, 1963," pp. 201-276.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Papers, "US-GVN Relations, 1964-1967," pp. 277-407.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 6 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Advisory Build-up, 1961-67," pp. 408-514

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 7 of the Pentagon Papers, "Re-Emphasis on Pacification: 1965-1967," pp. 515-623.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Programs in South Vietnam, Nov. 1963-Apr. 1965," pp. 1-105.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "Military Pressures Against North Vietnam, February 1964-January 1965," pp. 106-268.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 3, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Air War in North Vietnam: Rolling Thunder Begins, February-June, 1965," pp. 269-388

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 4, of the Pentagon Papers, "American Troops Enter the Ground War, March-July 1965," pp. 389-485

Go to Volume 4, Chapter 1, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Air War in North Vietnam, 1965-1968," pp. 1-276.

Go to Volume 4, Chapter 2, of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1968," pp. 277-604.

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