The War in Vietnam: Escalation Phase   
 

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140 - Memorandum of Discussion at the 549th Meeting of the National Security Council1
February 18th, 1965

Washington, February 18, 1965, 5:20-6:05 p.m.

1Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, NSC Meetings File, Vol. III. Top Secret. Prepared by Cooper. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room.

PARTICIPANTS

The President

The Vice President

State

Secretary Rusk

Under Secretary Ball

Ambassador Thompson

Assistant Secretary Bundy

Ambassador Unger

Defense

Secretary McNamara

Deputy Secretary Vance

Assistant Secretary McNaughton

JCS

General Wheeler

CIA

General Carter

Treasury

Secretary Dillon

USIA

Director Rowan

White House

McGeorge Bundy

Chester L. Cooper

The President indicated that the purpose of the meeting was to review developments since the last meeting (February 8),2 and to up-date our information. He indicated that his statement to the National Industrial Conference Board on February 173 attempted to state U.S. goals in Vietnam. He reviewed these goals: we have one major objective--to save South Vietnam and to help the South Vietnamese to preserve their freedom. We seek no bases or territory there, and when we have responsible assurance that the terrorism has stopped, we will bring our troops home immediately; and until then, we will do everything we think wise to help the South Vietnamese do what is necessary. The President said that we must expect an increase in Viet Cong aggressive tactics and that we must recognize that our own responses are likely to increase as well. He wants to make it clear that the U.S. is going to continue its efforts to meet and stop this aggression. Our Mission in Saigon should have no doubts whatsoever as to U.S. intent and objectives.

2The previous NSC meeting was on February 10 (see Document 98) rather than February 8 (see Document 87).

3See footnote 3, Document 136.

Secretary McNamara briefed the Council on the increasing tempo of the conflict. The Saigon Mission and the GVN (Khanh) want to undertake attacks on certain targets in the southern part of North Vietnam, and he agreed this should be done.

Secretary Rusk pointed out that there were daily evidences of an increase in Viet Cong activity in the central and southern part of South Vietnam. He pointed to the Communist "war vessel" that was brought into a South Vietnam port.4 He said there may well be an increase in North Vietnamese forces in the northern part of South Vietnam. He agreed that strikes this weekend against the North should take place. Secretary Rusk went on to review the international reaction to our strikes. He said that those Asian countries that had a great stake in the security of the area (e.g., Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia, UK, Philippines) are with us; some countries (e.g., France and Pakistan) are luke warm; some "unaligned" countries are flatly opposed.

4A report of this event was transmitted in telegram 2462 from Saigon, February 18. In telegram 2710 from Saigon, February 22, the event was described as the discovery off the coast of South Vietnam on February 16 of "an armed ocean-going, steel ship carrying large quantities of Communist bloc arms and ammunition." (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)

The Secretary indicated his misgivings with respect to an approach to the UN at this time. He doubted that a debate in the Security Council would be the best way to deal with the situation. The USSR is the only Communist country represented there, and would have a special responsibility to defend the DRV actions and thus might adopt a less forthcoming stance than it might in another forum. The Secretary felt that we should make our White Paper5 available as soon as possible. He felt the ICC may be able to play a useful role, but we are still investigating how best to use the ICC machinery.

5This paper was released on February 27 and entitled "Aggression from the North: The Record of North Viet-Nam's Campaign to Conquer South Viet-Nam"; see Document 171.

The Secretary felt that, in the course of the next week, it may be necessary to make another strong statement on our aims and objectives, stating that we will move our troops as soon as we know the aggression has stopped. He said there are many who think "negotiation" is a magic word, but felt it would be a mistake to indicate prematurely our desire to enter into negotiation; unless there was some prospect that negotiations would be meaningful, it would be a very dangerous situation. A negotiation that failed would indicate that we had taken the case to the higher court and it was unable to deal with it. This would be the worst possible situation.

The Secretary indicated that "political antennae" all over the world are waiting for signals that the Communists are ready to engage in meaningful negotiation. Thus far no significant signals have been received. It is extremely important, in this respect, that the GVN itself is ready to stand up against this aggression.

The President said that he would rather talk than fight, but nonetheless it was terribly important that the GVN not get the wrong impression that the U.S is seeking negotiations prematurely. Under these circumstances Saigon might begin its own negotiations very quickly and without our knowledge or participation.

The President read the text of an outgoing message, from Secretary Rusk to Ambassador Bruce, which spelled out our proposed policy.6 He asked the members of the Council for their reaction. All agreed.

6See Documents 131 and 149.

The meeting adjourned at 6:05.

CLC