Memo from W. Bundy, "Holding On in South Vietnam," 30 June 1965


Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 4, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), pp. 610-615


Memo: 30 June 1965--Holding on in South Vietnam--W. Bundy

This memo examines a course of action roughly similar to (2, on the first page of the McNamara memorandum) moving to ground deployment levels of 75- 85,000 in the fairly near future, employing these forces on a fairly strict interpretation of the reserve reaction concept, increasing the pressures on the DRV through selected air strikes and the categories included in the McNamara memorandum but avoiding Hanoi. In essence, this would be a policy to test how the situation develops in the summer while avoiding the extremes of ultimatums/ withdrawal (Ball memorandum) or the far greater, early ground deployments and extensive actions against the DRV proposed in the McNamara memorandum.

The argument for "holding on"--the middle way--starts with the rejection of the other two possibilities for the following reasons:

(a) Ultimatum/withdrawal would be an abandonment of the South Vietnamese at a time when the fight is not, and certainly does not appear to the world and to Asian countries to be, going all that badly. Such an abandonment would leave us almost no leverage as to South Vietnam, and would create an immediate and maximum shock wave for Thailand and the rest of Asia. The rationale that it was all the fault of the South Vietnamese, in these circumstances, where we ourselves had pulled the plug, would have almost no offsetting effect. The American public would not understand such a quick reversal of our position, and the political effects at home would be most serious. There might also be serious adverse effects on our whole leadership position. In short, while there may come a time when the South Vietnamese really have shown they have abandoned the struggle, that time is by no means here now. [Comment: This argument did have a good deal of weight in June, 1965. It had much less by late November, 1965, as McNamara's reversal from his early November, or his July, position indicated. At any rate, it would have very much less weight now, if we had been and were being realistic in presentations to the U.S. public about the true and perspective situation in South Vietnam. Unfortunately, as things stand at this moment, it would still be true that a quick withdrawal based on an ultimatum or other approach would appear to the U.S. public as being made in face of considerable prospects of success: precisely because we have so represented the situation to the U.S. public, misleadingly. If a shock wave, of the sort predicted by - - - - - - - is indeed to be avoided from a policy of cutting our losses in Vietnam, it would take a conditioning of the U.S. public in the world in the direction of realism. The most discouraging aspect of our current approach is that this is not taking place: rather the contrary. Can the present administration, based on a new appreciation of the situation, change its public stance? Or is there no alternative to an opposition--either Democratic or Republican--taking the contrary position and establishing a basis for a change in policy upon taking office? Could LBJ--in the face of such a challenge--be encouraged to preempt this approach?]

(b) Major further deployments and pressures on the DRV. There is a case for increased pressures on the DRV including selective bombings in the Hanoi area at the proper time--when Hanoi is beginning to find the going hard in the South. But again, that time is not yet. As long as Hanoi thinks it is winning in the South, such pressures will not affect their determination, or in any significant way, their capacity. They will lose us a lot of support in the world, including such important elements as the backing of the British government. These are risks we may have to take at some point, but not when the gains are just not there. As for major additional ground deployments, the first argument is simply whether they would be militarily effective. As the Ball papers point out, Hanoi is by no means committed to a really conventional type of war, and they could easily go on making significant gains while giving us precious few opportunities to hit them. We just do not know at this point how effective our forces will be in the reserve role. More basically, none of us can now judge the extent to which major U.S. combat forces would cause the Vietnamese government and army to think we were going to do the job for them. Nor can we judge the extent to which the people in the countryside, who have been exposed constantly to VC propaganda, the fight is against the American successors to the French, would start really to buy this time when they saw U.S. forces engaged in the countryside, and hence flock to the VC banner.

. . . . In short, we have to make our own judgment based on the present reading of popular feeling in South Vietnam, and based above all on the French experience.

From these factors, I would judge there is a point of sharply diminishing returns and adverse consequences that may lie somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 U.S. forces in total, and a fairly limited number of combat battalions that will actually get into the countryside to fight in case of need. If the Saigon government and its army perform better, U.S. forces fighting alongside a strong Vietnamese army might have little if any of these adverse effects. Until we have tested the water much further than at present, the odds favor a considerably more negative view of the actual effectiveness over any extended period of major added U.S. forces. In short, whatever we think the chances are now of making the effort in the South really costly to Hanoi, the present deployment of major added U.S. forces gives no real promise of helping the chances for this kind of success. If the South Vietnamese government and army perform well, the role and need of U.S. forces will become clear, and political liabilities may be less than we anticipate in the future. If the South Vietnamese government and army encounter a series of reverses in the next two months, the odds will rise that our own intervention would appear to be turning the conflict into a white man's war with the U.S. in the shoes of the French. In the first case, we can afford to wait at least in degree. In the second case, the added chances of success seem very small.

There is one further factor relating to the consequences of defeat, if we had made major U.S. deployments and have still been unable to turn the tide, largely because the South Vietnamese army ceases to perform well and the people turn against it. This would not be much worse in other forms of defeat in some Asian quarters, but it would be substantially worse in the impact on Japan, on Korea if Korea had likewise become involved on a major scale, and on our major allies in Europe. It will appear a significantly worse outcome on the American people.

(c) "The middle way" course of action.

1) We should have enough ground combat forces to give the reserve/reaction concept a fair test, but at the same time not to exceed significantly whatever the current Plimsoll line may be. This would appear to mean carrying through present decisions up to about 75,000 in total and possibly the early additional Marine deployments of an additional 8,000-10,000. We would then hold the air-mobile division for decision during the summer, realizing it would take roughly four weeks to deploy after a decision.
2) Our air actions against the South should be carried on a maximum effective rate. This could include substantial use of B-52s against VC havens, recognizing that we look silly and arouse criticism if these do not show significant results.

Possible Deployments Under the Proposed Course of Action

A. We believe there is a fair chance still that the Viet Cong tide could be stemmed by this course of action, and that over a period of 4-6 months we might confront Hanoi with a situation of military stalemate, where the costs of the effort would cause some decline in Viet Cong morale and lead Hanoi itself to consider political settlements that would still be very risky, but there would involve at least delay in any Communist takeover of South Vietnam, and some real chance that a new type of non-Communists in South Vietnam would emerge.

B. There is the possibility that neither Hanoi nor Saigon would weaken, and we would be carrying on an inclusive fight for a period of many months or even far longer.

C. The chances are greater that the Viet Cong tide would not be stemmed, that Hanoi would not come to terms, and that at some time--on the order of two- four months--Saigon would in effect throw in the sponge and make a deal with the liberation front, and Hanoi.

This favorable turn of events would still require a carefully developed political plan that would present Hanoi with what it would regard as an acceptable alternative to continue the war. And it would, at the same time, offer a good chance of bringing about a non-Communist South Vietnam with a real chance to hold on for some time. Such a political plan should also be designed to appeal to the large number of individuals in the Viet Cong who have strong, southern, regional sentiments and can be lured away from the present high degree of Communist control of the Viet Cong.

The essentials of such a political plan have been developed by a State Department working group in the last two months. The plan calls for the Vietnamese government taking the lead and laying out a major program to extend government administration, with reform measures, with progressive local elections, and with an amnesty to members of the Viet Cong who do not resist the extension of government authority province by province. . . . Such a political program would fall short of our present objectives of getting Hanoi formerly to desist from all aid to the South. It would not call for the turning in of Viet Cong arms as an absolute condition, although much might be accomplished by the appeal of the program itself. It would leave the Hanoi dominated, political apparatus in existence on a covert basis, and thus a major long-term problem for South Vietnam to handle. We believe these concessions are essential if Viet Cong members are to be attracted into the program and if Hanoi itself is to accept it in practice and not continue the fight to the finish. It should be emphasized that such a program would have to be timed very carefully. It must come when the government is really starting to make progress, or at least if the situation leveled out somewhat, so that the offering of the program does not appear as some kind of weakness. That is must come just as soon as the trend has been established, so that Hanoi is deflected from massive reinforcements on its own side.

In short, such a program would have tremendous problems. It appears to us the only avenue which offers real promise of obtaining an ultimate, non-Communist South Vietnam, without Hanoi feeling it must go all out in a military context.

Problems in the Rest of Asia

Plain, the first key pressure point is Thailand. There is much superficial plausibilities in the thesis that the loss of Vietnam however cushioned and delayed would cause Thailand in particular to lose all confidence in the American commitment to its support. Moreover, we can be virtually certain that Communist China with Vietnamese support would be intensifying its present small-scale subversive effort in Thailand and would be preparing to move in on Thailand as rapidly as a subversive method permitted. Yet again the question of timing and pace is all important. After Dien Bien Phu in 1954 there was a Washington slogan in many circles, that "the Tonkin Delta was the key to Southeast Asia"--in other words that the rest of the area could not possibly then be helped. Unquestionably, major elements in the present assumed situation would differ: 1) 1954 was seen as a French defeat, and U.S. power had not yet been fully used or even significantly interposed; 2) the Communists themselves undoubtedly thought that the 1956 elections would give them all of Vietnam and that they could afford to take their time. In the current present circumstances, the defeat would be an American defeat even though we had not committed our full power, and the Communists would see us already established in Thailand with every incentive to turn on the pressure as high as they could. . . .

Thai Discussion--Ball's

If we fail, even under circumstances where the Saigon government made the first move to a defeat, the Thai will see it as a failure of U.S. will. It is ironic, but true, that the Thai simply do not understand our difficulties in Vietnam, and they're extraordinarily ignorant at the basic military and political problems we have faced there, and this ignorance extends even to our staunch friends such as Tenot. The Thai view of the Vietnam War has been seriously in error in fundamental respects. They believe that American power can do anything both militarily and in terms of showing up a Saigon government. They now assume on all reports we really could take over in Saigon and end the war if we felt we had to.

Earlier--On the other hand, the Thai have a long tradition of accommodation to the prevailing power. They have been a tributary state to China in past history, and many of them suppose they could somehow survive in that status in the future . . . And that this is all Communist China would seek.

. . . . In short, the picture of the loss of South Vietnam is really the fault of the South Vietnamese as one that at present would find few takers in Bangkok. Though the Thai be easily persuaded that their situation if they came under attack would be much more like Korea both to the U.S. and the world, and that we could afford to be a lot tougher in their defense and will also probably be able to get a lot more third country in generalized world-support in defending them. Thus, it must be admitted that the odds are not good that there would be a basic will to resist in Bangkok.

. . . . Japan is a much more complex case. If its confidence in the basic wisdom of the American policy can be retained, Japan may now be in the mood to take an increasingly active and constructive part in Asia. If, on the other hand, the Japanese think that we have basically misjudged and mishandled the whole Vietnam situation, they may turn sharply in the direction of neutralism, and even of accommodation and really extensive relationships with Communist China. Such action would not only drastically weaken Japan's ties with the U.S. and with the West, but would render the situation, particularly in Korea, extremely precarious. . . . It is Ambassador Ray Showers judgment that Japanese would be highly sensitive--partly on Asian racial grounds--to any bombing of Hanoi and presumably Haiphong. He concludes that such bombing would "have very damaging effects on the U.S./Japan relationship."

As to the quest of the extent of U.S. ground forces, Ray Shower believes that from the standpoint of Japanese reaction, "We could further increase them even on a massive scale without too much further deterioration of public attitudes toward us. However, if this were to lead to a slackening of the South Vietnamese effort and a growing hostility on the part of the local population toward us, this would have catastrophic repercussions here in Japan. This is exactly what the Japanese fear may already be the situation, and if their fears were borne out in reality, there would be greatly increased public condemnation of our position. Even the Government and other supporters here would feel we had indeed got bogged down in a hopeless war against 'nationalism' in Asia. Under such circumstances it would be difficult for the government to resist demands that Japan cut itself loose as far as possible from a sinking ship of American policy in Asia."

Conclusion: Despite its obvious difficulty and the uncertainty of success in South Vietnam under this or any other program, this middle way program seems to us to avoid the clear pitfalls of either of the major alternatives. It may not give us quite as much chance of a successful outcome as the major military actions proposed in the McNamara memorandum, but it avoids to a major extent the very serious risks involved in this program in any case, and the far more disastrous outcome that would eventuate if we acted along the lines of the McNamara memorandum and still lost in South Vietnam.

Above all, we must think of our South Vietnamese effort as giving us the best chance we can reasonably have of bringing Hanoi to terms, but also as an essential effort sustained to sustain the credibility of U.S. action in Asia and world wide-and right alongside this, an effort to play for time and to give us the chance to line up a different kind of non-Communist structure in Southeast Asia if the worst should happen in South Vietnam.

Finally, an essential point of in this memorandum is that we must start now to consider South Vietnam, our action in the possible outcome, in the wider context to preserving the free countries of Asia, and the U.S. position in Asia. This dictates immediate attention to Thailand, possibly some change in our view of Korea, and a particular focus on our relations with Japan.


Return to Vinnie's Home Page

Return to Vietnam War Page