McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara

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McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara

Excerpt from "A Policy of Sustained Reprisal"
Memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson written by McGeorge Bundy, February 7, 1965
Reprinted from The Pentagon Papers.
Published in 1971.

Excerpt from "Recommendations of Additional Deployments to Vietnam"
Memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson written by Robert McNamara, July 20, 1965.
Reprinted from Our Nation's Archive.
Published in 1999.

"Our object in Vietnam is to create conditions for a favorable outcome by demonstrating to the VC/DRV that the odds are against their winning. We want to create these conditions, if possible, without causing the war to expand into one with China or the Soviet Union and in a way which preserves support of the American people and, hopefully, of our allies and friends."

When President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress to authorize his use of force in North Vietnam in August of 1964, he declared that the United States "seeks no wider war" (see "Message to Congress" excerpt, page 113). In fact, he hoped that the mere threat of American military force would convince North Vietnam to stop its efforts to topple the government of South Vietnam and reunite the country under communist leadership. Instead, North Vietnam stepped up its attacks in late 1964 and early 1965, creating further instability in a country where a majority of the population opposed the American-backed government. Having very publicly pledged the United States to preserving a non-communist government in South Vietnam, the United States could not now stand by and watch the South Vietnamese government collapse. But what could it do?

Some both within and outside the Johnson administration argued that the right thing to do was withdraw right away, while there was still an intact government in South Vietnam. These people, nicknamed "doves" because they preferred peace, felt that any further involvement would cost numerous American lives with little chance of real gain. One dove, George Ball, had suggested as early as 1961 that it would take 300,000 American soldiers to prop up an independent government in South Vietnam. His estimate—which would later come true—was laughed off. At the other extreme were the "hawks," so-called because they preferred military aggression, who argued that the only way to achieve American goals in Vietnam was to send an overwhelming military force. Senator Barry Goldwater even suggested that the United States drop an atomic bomb on North Vietnam.

In the end, the policy that emerged in 1965 was somewhere between these two extremes. The United States, policy makers explained, did not want to conquer North Vietnam or even topple the North Vietnamese government. All it really wanted was to preserve what it described as the legitimate government in South Vietnam (though many doubted that the South Vietnamese government was legitimate at all). To achieve this goal, the United States began a series of incremental increases in its engagement in Vietnam. The two documents excerpted in this section spell out how those increases would work. The first was written by McGeorge Bundy (1919–1996), a foreign policy advisor in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It was the most elaborate explanation of the policy known as "sustained reprisal." The second document was authored by secretary of defense Robert McNamara (1916–). He gives specific advice about how to increase the U.S. military presence in Vietnam and suggests the likely results of such increases. These documents explain the gradual way the United States entered into all-out war in Vietnam.

Things to remember while reading the excerpts of "A Policy of Sustained Reprisal" and "Recommendation of Additional Deployments":

  • The Pleiku incident of February 7, 1965, mentioned by Bundy was a Vietcong attack on a U.S. helicopter base in the South Vietnamese city of Pleiku. The attack killed eight Americans and destroyed ten aircraft—and prompted the United States to consider more violent attacks of its own.
  • The U. S. and South Vietnamese armies were fighting against two different though very closely linked forces: the North Vietnamese Army, the official fighting forces of the Republic of Vietnam; and the Vietcong, an unofficial army composed of South Vietnamese supporters of the communist north.
  • Both authors use acronyms, or initials, to refer to key players in the conflict. VC stands for Vietcong. NLF stands for National Liberation Front. DRV stands for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam. PAVN stands for the People's Army of Vietnam, or the North Vietnamese Army. GVN stands for the Government of Vietnam, or South Vietnam. ARVN stands for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or the South Vietnamese Army. VNAF stands for (South) Vietnamese Air Force.

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 sustainedreprisal against North Vietnam—a policy in which air and naval action against the North is justified by and related to the whole Vietcong 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 thewhole 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.


  1. In partnership with the Government of Vietnam, we should develop and exercise the option to retaliate against anyVC 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 thePleiku incident . Later, we might retaliate against the assassination of a province chief, but not necessarily the murder of ahamlet official; we might retaliate against a grenade thrown into a crowded cafe inSaigon , 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.…We must keep it clear at every stage both toHanoi 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 theGVN 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 theDRV 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 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 Vietcongcadres .…
  • 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 incounter-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.

Excerpt of "Recommendations of additional deployments to Vietnam"



20 July 1965


SUBJECT: Recommendations of additional deployments to Vietnam

1. Introduction. Our object in Vietnam is to create conditions for a favorable outcome by demonstrating to the VC/DRV that the odds are against their winning. We want to create these conditions, if possible, without causing the war to expand into one with China or the Soviet Union and in a way which preserves support of the American people and, hopefully, of our allies and friends. The following assessments…are my own and are addressed to the achievement of that object.…

2. Favorable outcome. In my view, a favorable "outcome" for purposes of these assessments and recommendations has nine fundamental elements:

  1. VC stop attacks and drastically reduce incidents of terror and sabotage.
  2. DRV reduces infiltration to a trickle, with some reasonably reliable method of our obtaining confirmation of this fact.
  3. US/GVN stop bombing of North Vietnam.
  4. GVN stays independent (hopefully pro-US, but possibly genuinely neutral).
  5. GVN exercises governmental functions over substantially all of South Vietnam.
  6. Communists remainquiescent in Laos and Thailand.
  7. DRV withdrawsPAVN forces and other North Vietnameseinfiltrators … from South Vietnam.
  8. VC/NLF transform from a military to a purely political organization.
  9. US combat forces (not advisors orAID ) withdraw.

A favorable outcome could also include arrangements regarding elections, relations between North and South Vietnam, participation in peace-keeping by international forces, membership for North and South Vietnam in theUN , and so on.…

3. Estimate of the situation. The situation in South Vietnam is worse than a year ago (when it was worse than a year before that). After a few months ofstalemate , the tempo of the war has quickened. A hard VC push is now on todismember the nation and to maul the army. The initiative and, with large attacks (some inregimental strength) are hurtingARVN forces badly.…US combat troops deployments and US/VNAF strikes against the North have put to rest most South Vietnamese fears that the United States will forsake them, and US/VNAF air strikes in-country have probably shaken VC morale somewhat. Yet the government is able to provide security tofewer and fewer people in less and less territory as terrorism increases. Cities and towns are being isolated as fewer and fewer roads and railroads are usable and power and communications lines are cut.

The economy is deteriorating—the war is disrupting rubber production, rice distribution…vegetable production, and coastal fishing industry, causing the loss of jobs and income, displacement of people and frequent breakdown or suspension of vital means of transportation and communication; foreign exchange earnings have fallen; and severe inflation is threatened.

The odds are less than even that theKy government will last out the year. Ky is "executive agent" for adirectorate of generals . His government is youthful and inexperienced, but dedicated to a "revolutionary" program. His tenure depends upon the unity of the armed forces behind him.…

The Government-to-VC ratio over-all is now only a little better than 3-to-1, and in combat battalions little better than 1.5-to-1. Some ARVN units have been mauled; many are under strength and therefore "conservative." Desertions are at a high rate, and the force build-up has slipped badly. The VC, who are undoubtedly suffering badly too (their losses are very high), now control a South Vietnamese manpower pool of 500,000 to 1 million fighting-age men and reportedly are trying to double their combat strength, largely by forced draft (down to 15-year-olds) in the increasing areas they control. They seem to be more than able to replace their losses.

There are no signs that we havethrottled the inflow of supplies for the VC or can throttle the flow while their material needs are as low as they are; indeed more and better weapons have been observed in VC hands, and it is probable that there has been further build-up of North Vietnamese regular units in the I and II Corps areas, with at least three full regiments (all of the 325th Division) there. Nor have our air strikes in North Vietnam produced tangible evidence of willingness on the part of Hanoi to come to the conference table in a reasonable mood. The DRV/VC seem to believe that South Vietnam is on the run and near collapse; they show no signs of settling for less than a complete take-over.

4. Options open to us. We must choose among three courses of action with respect to Vietnam all of which involve different probabilities, outcomes, and costs:

  1. Cut our losses and withdraw under the best conditions that can be arranged—almost certainly conditions humiliating the United States and very damaging to our future effectiveness on the world scene.
  2. Continue at about the present level, with the US forces limited to say 75,000, holding on and playing for the breaks—a course of action which, because our position would grow weaker, almost certainly would confront us later with a choice between withdrawal and an emergency expansion of forces, perhaps too late to do any good.
  3. Expand promptly and substantially the US military pressure against the Vietcong in the South and maintain the military pressure against the North Vietnamese in the North while launching a vigorous effort on the political side to lay the groundwork for a favorable outcome by clarifying our objectives and establishing channels of communication. This alternative wouldstave off defeat in the short run and offer a good chance of producing a favorable settlement in the longer run; at the same time it would imply a commitment to see a fighting war clear through at considerable cost in casualties and material and would make any later decision to withdraw even more difficult and even more costly than would be the case today.

My recommendations in paragraph 5 below are based on the choice of the third alternative (Option c) as the course of action involving the best odds of the best outcome with the most acceptable cost to the United States.

5. Military recommendations. There are now 15 US (and 1 Australian) combat battalion in Vietnam; they, together with other combat personnel and non-combat personnel, bring the total US personnel in Vietnam to approximately 75,000.

I recommend that the deployment of US ground troops in Vietnam be increased by October to 34 maneuver battalions (or, if the Koreans fail to provide the expected 9 battalions promptly, to 43 battalions). The battalions—together with increases in helicopter lift, air squadrons, naval units, air defense, combat support and miscellaneous log support and advisory personnel which I also recommend—would bring the total US personnel in Vietnam to approximately 175,000 (200,000 if we must make up for the Korean failure). It should be understood that the deployment of more men (perhaps 100,000) may be necessary in early 1966, and that the deployment of additional forces thereafter is possible but will depend on developments.

I recommend the Congress be requested to authorize the call-up of approximately 235,000 men in the Reserve and National Guard. This number—approximately 125,000 Army, 75,000 Marines, 25,000 Air Force and 10,000 Navy—would provide approximately 36 maneuver battalions by the end of this year. The call-up would be for a two-year period; but the intention would be to release them after one year, by which time they could be relieved by regular forces if conditions permitted.

I recommend that the regular armed forces be increased by approximately 375,000 men (approximately 250,000 Army, 75,000 Marines, 25,000 Air Force and 25,000 Navy). This would provide approximately 27 additional maneuver battalions by the middle of 1966. The increases would be accomplished by increasing recruitment, increasing the draft and extending tours of duty of men already in the service.…

7. Actions against North Vietnam. We should continue the program of bombing military targets in North Vietnam. While avoiding striking population and industrial targets not closely related to the DRV's supply of war material to the VC, we should announce to Hanoi and carry out actions to destroy such supplies and tointerdict their flow. The number of strikesorties against North Vietnam—should increase slowly from the present level of 2,500 a month to 4,000 or more a month. We should be prepared at any time to carry out a severe reprisal should the VC or DRV commit a particularly damaging or horrendous act (e.g., VC interdiction of the Saigon river could call for a quarantine of DRV harbors, or VC assassination of a high-ranking US official could call for a destruction of all the major power plants in North Vietnam).…

9. Expanded political moves. Together with the above military moves, we should take political initiatives in order to lay a groundwork for a favorable political settlement by clarifying our objectives and establishing channels of communications. At the same time as we are taking steps to turn the tide in South Vietnam, we should make quiet moves through diplomatic channels (a) to open a dialogue withMoscow and Hanoi, and perhaps the VC, looking first towarddisabusing them of any misconceptions as to our goals and second toward laying the groundwork for a settlement when the time is ripe; (b) to keep the Soviet Union from deepening its military involvement and support of North Vietnam and from generating crises elsewhere in the world until the time when settlement can be achieved; and (c) to cement support for US policy by the US public, allies and friends, and to keep international opposition at a manageable level. Our efforts may be unproductive until the tide begins to turn, but nevertheless they should be made.…

11. Communist reaction to the expanded program. The Soviets can be expected to continue material assistance to North Vietnam and to lodge verbal complaints, but not to intervene otherwise. The Chinese—at least so long as we do not invade North Vietnam, do not sink a Chinese ship and, most important, do not strike China—will probably not send regular ground forces or aircraft into the war. The DRV, on the other hand, may well send up to several divisions of regular forces in South Vietnam to assist the VC if they see the tide turning and victory, once so near, being snatched away. This possible DRV action is the most ominous one, since it would lead to increased pressure on us to "counter-invade" North Vietnam and to extend air strikes to population targets in the North; acceding to these pressures could bring the Soviets and the Chinese in. The Vietcong, especially if they continue to take high losses, can be expected to depend increasingly upon the PAVN forces as the war moves into a more conventional phase; but they may find ways to continue almost indefinitely their present intensive military, guerrilla and terror activities, particularly if reinforced by some regular PAVN units. A key question on the military side is whether POL, ammunition, and cadres can be cut off and, if they are cut off, whether this really renders the Vietcong impotent.

12. Evaluation. ARVN overall is not capable of successfully resisting the VC initiatives with more active assistance from more US/third-country ground forces than those thus far committed.…The success of the program from the military point of view turns on whether the Vietnamese hold their own in terms of numbers and fighting spirit, and on whether the US forces can be effective in a quick-reaction reserve role in which they are only being tested. The number of US troops is too small to make a significant difference in the traditional 10-1 government-guerrilla formula, but it is not too small to make a significant difference in the kind of war which seems to be evolving in Vietnam—a "Third Stage" or conventional war in which it is easier to identify, locate, and attack the enemy.

The plan is such that the risk of escalation into war with China or the Soviet Union can be kept small. US and South Vietnamese casualties will increase—just how much cannot be predicted with confidence, but the US killed-in-action might be in the vicinity of 500 a month by the end of the year. The South Vietnamese under one government or another will probably see the thing through and the United States public will support the course of action because it is a sensible and courageous military-political program designed and likely to bring about a success in Vietnam.…

The overall evaluation is that the course of action recommended in this memorandum—if the military and political moves are properly integrated and executed with continuing vigor and visible determination—stands a good chance of achieving an acceptable outcome within a reasonable time in Vietnam.

Robert S. McNamara

What happened next…

In the end, both Bundy's and McNamara's policies were adopted as the guide to increasing U.S. military involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. Following Bundy's advice, U.S. forces reacted to North Vietnamese and Vietcong attacks with attacks of their own. And following McNamara's advice, President Johnson ordered a steady increase in the number of American troops stationed in Vietnam. In 1964 there was a total of 23,300 troops in Vietnam, most classified as military advisors. But in March of 1965 the first contingent of 3,500 combat troops arrived. By the end of 1965 the numbers had risen dramatically, to 184,300 troops. A year later the number had nearly doubled, to 385,300. American troop strength in Vietnam topped out at 536,100 in 1968.

Most U.S. political and military strategists believed that following these policies would quickly lead to the desired outcomes in Vietnam. General William Westmoreland (1914–), the American military commander in Vietnam, boasted that powerful American forces would soon achieve the objectives that had seemed impossible to the South Vietnamese army. As quoted in David Farber's The Age of GreatDreams: America in the 1960s, Westmoreland said in 1965: "We're going to out-guerrilla the guerilla and out-ambush the ambush…because we're smarter, we have greater mobility and firepower; we have endurance and more to fight for…and we've got more guts."

Though the United States implemented its policies as planned, the results were hardly what had been intended. American troops went after the enemy—and could not find him. The Vietcong were an elusive enemy, organizing in small bands and disappearing into the jungle when confronted by units of American soldiers. Because the Vietcong lived among the South Vietnamese population, it was often impossible to tell soldiers from civilians. In 1968, the Central Intelligence Agency estimated that only one in ten American combat patrols actually located the enemy. When they found the enemy and met in conventional battles, the Americans dominated. But most of the time Vietcong and North Vietnamese patrols caught Americans by surprise and slowly drove higher the death toll among Americans.

The Americans did not achieve the successes they had hoped for, and so they tried harder. They increased the number of bombs they dropped, hoping to knock out enemy targets in North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Soon they dropped bombs on Vietcong positions in the neighboring countries on Cambodia and Laos. By war's end they had dropped over seven million tons of bombs—five million more than they had dropped during all of World War II (1939–45)—and had destroyed nearly every important target. Yet the enemy kept on fighting, sending lightly armed soldiers scurrying into the jungle to launch guerrilla raids on unsuspecting targets.

The United States found itself in a war unlike any it had known before, and it did not know how to get out. Eventually, politicians and generals would realize that they were supporting a South Vietnamese government that was so unpopular that its own people turned against it in massive numbers. They also realized that they were fighting an enemy who was willing to endure any cost, in property and in human life, to achieve its ultimate goal: the reunification of Vietnam under communist rule. By the end of the 1960s, pressured by military defeat and by intense political pressure at home, U.S. leaders were looking for any reasonable way out of Vietnam.

Did you know…

  • Between 1964 and 1975, the United States spent $140 billion fighting the Vietnam War.
  • According to the Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s, the total number of U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam was 45,941. The total number of South Vietnamese combat deaths was estimated at 223,750, while the North Vietnamese and Vietcong combat deaths topped 830,000. Altogether, it is estimated that nearly 500,000 Vietnamese civilians also lost their lives, most of these in the South.
  • From 1962 to 1970, it is estimated that over 5,100,000 acres of land in Vietnam were defoliated, or stripped of all vegetable matter, by bombs and herbicides dropped by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. The defoliation agents were later found to be responsible for thousands of birth defects among the Vietnamese living in combat areas.
  • Robert McNamara, one of the principal architects of early American policy in Vietnam, came to believe after 1966 that the United States should work for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Consider the following…

  • Imagine that you are President Johnson and that your top military advisors are urging you to commit more troops to the war in Vietnam. What are some of the factors you will consider in making your decision? You might break your list down into economic, political, and economic factors.
  • Pretend that you are one of President Johnson's advisors in 1965. What advice would you give the president? Would you have agreed with Bundy and McNamara, or would you have argued for a different plan?
  • The documents that you have just read did not become public until the early 1970s. Would it have made a difference if the private governmental debate for going to war and increasing troops was made public in 1965? Explain your reasoning.

For More Information


Barr, Roger. The Vietnam War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1991.

Bruun, Erik, and Jay Crosby, eds. Our Nation's Archive: The History of the United States in Documents. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1999.

Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Kutler, Stanley, I. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996.

McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

The Pentagon Papers. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1971.

Wormser, Richard. Three Faces of Vietnam. New York: F. Watts, 1993.

Wright, David K. Causes and Consequences of the Vietnam War. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1996.

Wright, David K. War in Vietnam. 4 vols. Chicago, IL: Children's Press, 1989.

Web sites

Battlefield: (accessed on August 1, 2004).

"Sixties Project: Primary Document Archive," The Sixties Project. (accessed on August 1, 2004).

Vietnam (accessed on August 1, 2004).

Reprisal: An act of retaliation or revenge.

VC: Vietcong, the communist-backed army that fought within South Vietnam.

Pleiku incident : A 1965 Vietcong attack on American forces.

Hamlet: A small village.

Saigon: The capital of South Vietnam.

Hanoi: The capital of North Vietnam.

GVN: Government of South Vietnam.

DRV: Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam.

Cadres: Small groups of communist leaders.

Counter-insurgency: Military efforts to put down a revolt against a government.

Quiescent: Quiet; causing no trouble.

PAVN: People's Army of Vietnam, the North Vietnamese army.

Infiltrators : North Vietnamese guerrillas who had entered South Vietnam.

NLF: National Liberation Front, the political branch of the Vietcong.

AID: Agency for International Development, an international aid agency.

UN: United Nations.

Stalemate : A condition of deadlock in which neither side can gain an advantage.

Dismember : Tear apart or destroy.

Regimental : Relating to a regiment, a military unit of between 500 and 1000 soldiers.

ARVN: South Vietnamese Army.

Ky government: The government of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, led by Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky.

Directorate of generals : A group of generals acting as a board of directors.

Throttled : Cut off, stopped.

Stave off : Hold off.

Interdict: To destroy, damage, or cut off by force.

Sorties : Single-plane attacks.

Moscow: The capital of the Soviet Union.

Disabusing : Freeing from error.

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McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara

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