McGeorge Bundy was the National Security Advisor to President Kennedy, and President Johnson until 1966. It was the same position held now by Stephen Hadley and previously by Condoleezza Rice. In February 1965 he laid out a strategy of ‘Sustained Reprisal’. This strategy would morph into what we now know as the Vietnam War. I want you to examine his assumptions and think about how they compare to the assumptions of Bush’s current plan.
McGeorge Bundy, “A Policy of Sustained Reprisal,” 7 February 1965
Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 3, pp. 687-691
7 Feb 1965
A POLICY OF SUSTAINED REPRISAL
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 into a small
shop in the countryside.
3. Once a program of reprisals is clearly underway, it should not be necessary
to connect 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
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
both Hanoi and Peiping, if there is Communist counter-action. 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 pacification, in governmental effectiveness, in operations against the
Viet Cong, and in the whole U.S./ 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
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
(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
(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 communication 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.
In my opinion, Bundy’s plan has considerably more realism and greater chances for success than Hadley’s plan.