to Exploration 3: The Decision to Escalate, 1964-1965
17: Paper Prepared by the Under Secretary of State (Ball)
Washington, May 13, 1965.
A PLAN FOR A POLITICAL RESOLUTION IN SOUTH VIET-NAM
I. Principal Features of the Plan
This memorandum proposes a plan for achieving
our objectives in South Vietnam by shifting the struggle from
the military to the political arena. The plan has two principal
The promulgation by the South Vietnamese Government of a Program
for Social and Political Reconstruction. This Program is designed
to invite the peaceful participation of Viet Cong adherents
in the national life of South Viet-N am. It should make it possible
for political activity to be substituted for a shooting war
in one after another of the provinces of South Vietnam.
A temporary halt of offensive military operations for a stated
period to permit full dissemination and consideration of the
Government's program throughout the country. These offensive
operations would be resumed if the program meets substantial
Viet Cong resistance.
II. The Case for Transforming the Struggle
We have, from the beginning, made clear that our
objective in Southeast Asia is to bring about a political solution
that would assure the independence of South Vietnam. We have so
far assumed that we could achieve an acceptable political settlement
only when our military pressure had reached the point where the
North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were ready to give up the struggle.
Yet now--or in the near future--we may well be
facing a situation where each side will be led to accept more
dangerous and onerous expedients in an effort to achieve its major
Presumably the North Vietnamese are worried about
the costs imposed by our continued air strikes and the danger
that those air strikes will be extended to urban and industrial
areas. Hanoi may also fear the long-range consequences if it is
forced to accept increased dependence on Peiping. But the experience
of the French from 1945 to 1954 vividly testifies to Viet Cong
willingness to submit to heavy punishment rather than give up
their long-sought objective of a Communist State covering the
whole of Vietnam.
The United States, on its part, cannot accept
a Viet Cong victory. But continuance of the war on the assumption
that--by military pressure--we can force Hanoi to say "uncle"
may lead to a gradual escalation of the conflict and a progressively
larger involvement of both the Chinese Communists and the Soviet
Under these circumstances each side may find advantage
in moving the conflict from the military to the political arena.
Given the present balance of relative military
effectiveness, such a move is possible only under arrangements
that would enable each side to conclude that it has substantially
as good a chance of achieving its long-range goals in the political
arena as by continuing military action.
A. Attractions of the Plan for the United States
and South Vietnam.
The United States and South Vietnam would have
a sound basis for concluding that the arrangements contemplated
by the plan proposed in this memorandum would provide them with
a reasonable chance of success through political action--at least
as good as the chance of success through military action alone.
The United States has the resources to move South Vietnam toward
rapid economic development. We know that we will stay
the course and not lose interest. The history of other former
colonial nations in the post-war period has shown that, given
the resources and opportunity to evolve their own political institutions,
they will be likely to steer a non-Communist course.
B. Attractions for North Vietnam
Analyzing the plan in terms of their own doctrinal
convictions, the North Vietnamese could also conclude that it
offered them an adequate chance to achieve their long-range objectives.
Ho Chi Minh demonstrated in 1954 that he was not in a hurry. The
Vietnamese Communists have repeatedly shown their willingness
to work within long time spans. While they would be prepared to
absorb enormous punishment before abandoning the purpose they
have sought for four decades, they might well be prepared to wait
a few years longer to achieve that purpose--sustained by the conviction
that the United States would lose interest in South Vietnam, that
they could subvert any government that could be established in
that country, and that over the
long pull Communist success was inevitable.
It might take ten years or more to determine which
judgment was right, but ten years is a long time in the present-day
world. Within the next decades new elements could enter the equation
that would fundamentally change the whole situation.
III. Purposes of Plan
Briefly stated, the purposes of the plan are:
To enable us to probe for a less dangerous means than military
force alone - at present or higher levels - for preserving an
independent, non-Communist South Vietnam.
To supplement the continuing military effort by offering the
prospect of political and economic progress for the South Vietnamese
To provide a program having substantial positive propaganda
value both in South Vietnam and throughout the world.
IV. Advantages of Plan
The major advantages of the Plan are these:
It offers the chance to halt offensive military operations by
both sides. Yet it at all times reserves to us the option of
resuming full military operations if the plan is not achieving
It does not require the Government of South Vietnam to enter
into "negotiations" with the North Vietnamese Government
or the National Liberation Front, but it would not preclude
formal negotiations at other levels. We could and should maintain
our posture of willingness to hold discussions with any "government
concerned" and to participate in a formal negotiating conference
if one should be called under suitable conditions.
It avoids any implication that the United States lacks confidence
in the South Vietnamese Government or in the ultimate success
of our cooperative military effort.
It would be offered by the South Vietnamese Government as that
Government's own political act--an act made possible by the
political and military achievements of recent months. It would
not be presented as a bargaining proposal to be withdrawn if
rejected by the Communists, but as the Government's considered
plan for improving the lot of its people, to be pursued whether
or not the Communists approve it.
It should help to unite differing factions in urban areas while
giving the Vietnamese peasantry positive inducements for identifying
themselves with Saigon's political fortunes.
As a display of political initiative, it should enhance the
strength and effectiveness of the South Vietnamese Government,
whatever the reactions on the other side.
V. Substance and Execution of Plan
A. Consultation and Coordination with the Vietnamese
Once the plan is approved by the President, Ambassador Johnson
would be recalled to Washington. After he had reviewed the plan,
he and Ambassador Unger would proceed to Saigon to explain it
to Ambassador Taylor and other key officials in the United States
The outlines of the plan would be discussed with the Prime Minister
of South Vietnam, one or two key generals (e.g., Ky and Thi)
and perhaps a small number of Vietnamese officials. The Vietnamese
Government would be encouraged to put forward the plan as its
own with the fewest possible
B. Private Communication to Hanoi and Moscow
Just before the public announcement of the plan,
Hanoi and Moscow would be informed through secret channels of
its essential provisions. This would provide direct, clear and
credible evidence of our serious desire to move from a military
to a political solution. Peiping would be left out of this consultation.
Comment: Although the North Vietnamese and the
Soviets would inform the Chinese in due course, it seems preferable
for the first reactions to be those of the North Vietnamese and
the Soviets. This would leave Peiping last man in and, hopefully,
odd man out. The risk of rubbing salt in Chinese wounds may be
The private word to the Soviets would come directly
from us. The message to North Vietnam would go through a trusted
intermediary speaking for us and for South Vietnam.
The timing of the private communication should
precede the public announcement by just enough to give the other
side a little time to decide its first reaction but not enough
time to anticipate us by a political or military move of its own,
such as recognizing a puppet Front Government or launching a large
attack. Twenty-four hours would seem about right.
C. Announcement of the Plan
The Prime Minister of South Vietnam would make
a speech or issue a proclamation that would--
Review the history of the Viet Cong insurgency emphasizing its
instigation and direction by the North.
Describe recent military actions taken by the South Vietnamese
and United States forces and their success.
State the Government's fundamental objectives--to achieve peace
and reconciliation under a government free of foreign control,
representing the Vietnamese people and capable of meeting their
Outline the Program for the Social and Political Reconstruction
of South Vietnam (as described in section VI).
Announce a limited pause in certain military operations in order
to assure serious attention (as described in section VII).
Announce--in general terms--that once civil insurrection had
ended, the Government would expect to establish trade and other
forms of peaceful intercourse with the North and to examine
other matters of common interest.
Comment: First announcement must be made by the
head of the South Vietnam Government, rather than by any United
States official. As soon as the announcement is made, the United
States could express its full support, including concurrence in
the military pause, and its willingness to withdraw forces on
a phased basis (assuming proper response on the other side) and
to furnish assistance for the economic and social aspects of the
The initial formal announcement should be followed
by a saturation information effort employing radio broadcasts,
speaker planes, leaflets, etc., to ensure wide dissemination of
the South Vietnamese Government's program even in Viet Cong-held
areas. Furthermore, there must be a continuing saturation campaign--keyed
to local areas--advising of the success of the program and, especially,
fixing the blame squarely on the Viet Cong in any areas where
the program fails or cannot be put into effect.
VI. Key Elements of the Program for the Social
and Political Reconstruction of South Vietnam
A. First Element: An offer of amnesty to all Viet
Cong adherents who cease fighting
This offer (which could be portrayed as an expansion
of the current Chieu Hoi Program) would be addressed to the Viet
Cong members in the South rather than to its Northern commanders.
This would permit the Government in Saigon to maintain the posture
that it was not "negotiating" with the North or with
the National Liberation Front.
The offer might appeal, most of all, to the Viet
Cong local and district forces and sympathizers and to those provincial
or main-force elements whose military position may be precarious.
Amnesty would imply the delivery of arms. But
very few of the Viet Cong would be likely to come in and lay down
their arms since that would involve their public admission of
Viet Cong activities.
Since many of the Viet Cong adherents cannot be
identified, amnesty in practice might consist merely of a halt
in individual military participation and a return to civilian
life by peasants who would never concede their past Viet Cong
B. Second Element: A phased schedule for establishing
a Constitutional Government based on an electoral process in which
all peaceful citizens, including peaceful Viet Cong adherents,
would take part
Village council elections are already scheduled
for May 30 in secure areas. The Program would provide for similar
elections at later dates throughout the country. The Premier would
promise--as soon as local elections had been held in areas containing
a substantial majority of the population--to call together a constitutional
assembly to draft and adopt a new constitution for South Vietnam.
Former Viet Cong adherents who had qualified for
amnesty would be eligible to participate as voters and candidates.
They would participate in the political life of the country as
would the representatives of any political party that did not
advocate the overthrow of the Government by force.
Comment: The 1956 Diem Constitution was modified
in an authoritarian direction in 1962 and nullified in 1965. A
"Provisional Charter" has since been drafted by the
High National Council appointed by General "Big" Minh
in the fall of 1964, but it has never been put into full effect.
It is essential to this Plan that a constitution be approved by
some representative body in which peaceful elements of the Viet
Cong may participate.
C. Third Element: Pending the local elections,
the Government would seek to establish its presence with a minimum
of disruption to local administrative arrangements currently acceptable
to the local populace
In Viet Cong base areas, this would involve leaving
local administration more or less in present hands, but on the
explicit condition that these administrators did not resist the
right of Central Government officials to move freely and carry
out limited functions within their areas.
In marginal or contested areas a delicate balance
would have to be struck on a case-by-case basis. In areas where
Viet Cong local administrations were operating by stealth and
terror, the process of redress would proceed gradually as the
power of the Government presence increased and inspired public
Where the actual authority is now exercised by
Viet Cong adherents and there is no government authority, incumbents
would not be disturbed until after village council elections.
Future local administrative arrangements would depend on the results
of the elections.
D. Fourth Element: Social and Economic Programs
The Government would immediately launch economic
and social reconstruction programs with special emphasis on education,
medical care, the provision of seeds and fertilizers, land tenure
reform and debt cancellations or moratoria. The last feature would
be particularly attractive to the Vietnamese peasantry.
The immediate launching of such a program is an
urgent political necessity to match the land reform and other
social programs of the National Liberation Front.
Obviously, substantial United States financial
and technical assistance would be required to assure a prompt
start and visible progress.
E. Fifth Element: Phased withdrawal of all foreign
The Prime Minister would announce he had arranged
for the withdrawal of foreign troops, to begin when the insurgency
stops and the Government has effectively extended its authority
throughout the country. The withdrawal might begin when resistance
ceases in all but the hard-core Viet Cong strongholds. The withdrawal
could be completed when the Vietnamese forces are able to move
so freely as to be able to certify that no large caches, camps,
VII. Announcement of Pause in Military Operations
The pause in military operations to be announced
by the Prime Minister would (1) be limited in time; and (2) apply
only to offensive military operations such as target bombing in
North Vietnam and search-and kill operations in the South. It
would not include suspension of the sea blockade, the bombing
of supply routes in Laos, or full response to any Viet Cong incidents
in South Vietnam.
A. Purpose of the Pause
The pause would serve the purpose of assuring
that the other side gave serious attention to the Plan. It would
also help both North Viet-N am and the Viet Cong to save face
by providing an action to which they could more easily respond.
And the pause would have propaganda value throughout the world.
The pause would be more effective if United States
reinforcements were not introduced during the period but no promise
should be made to this effect.
B. Duration of the Pause
In the Prime Minister's announcement he would
that the pause would last for a limited period--say two weeks--to
permit full consideration of the Program for Social and Political
that at the end of the two-week period the Program would be
put into effect;
that offensive military measures would immediately be resumed
wherever the Program was resisted by Viet Cong forces; and
that, if resistance was wide-spread, military pressure on the
North would also be resumed.
C. Public Announcement of the Pause
On balance we believe there are advantages in
announcing the pause publicly rather that in communicating it
Its announcement in connection with the Program for Social and
Political Reconstruction would help draw the attention of Viet
Cong adherents to a future political path that would include
a role for them.
It would avoid any inference of weakness that might be drawn
from a secret proposal for a military pause by the South Viet-N
am Government to the North.
It would relieve the North of the embarrassment implicit in
responding to such a secret proposal, and thus demonstrating
to the world that it controls the Viet Cong.
D. Communist Response
Obviously, there would be difficulties in determining
the Viet Cong response. Statistical analysis may not give reliable
quantitative or qualitative measurements to show significant increases
or decreases in the scale of Viet Cong operations. We must also
decide whether our willingness to continue the pause should (1)
be made dependent on no increase above the present level of Viet
Cong activity, or (2) upon some further decrease below the present
Any public statement concerning the pause would
probably have to list--as one of the expected responses--a halt
of infiltration from the North. But we must recognize that such
infiltration is not readily measurable in the short term. It is
also--in a sense--irrelevant, since, if the Plan is succeeding,
that itself implies North Vietnamese acquiescence--and thus presumably
an end to infiltration. If we should detect substantial infiltration
while the pause continues and other elements of the Plan are proceeding,
we can consider responding by military reinforcements of our own.
The recent improvements in South Vietnamese military
and political performance furnish our first opportunity to probe
deeply for the return of the contest of wills in Viet-N am primarily
to the political forum. If this opportunity is seized, great hazards
may be avoided and lives saved in achieving our ends. Even if
it fails--and the contest continues as primarily a military one--the
Government of South Viet-N am will have strengthened its political
base, and confidence in the leadership of the United States in
this cause will be greatly enhanced.
Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File,
Vietnam, Vol. XXXIV. Top Secret. The source text is undated but
was circulated under a covering memorandum of May 13 to McNamara,
McGeorge Bundy, and William Bundy for discussion at 11 a.m. on
May 15. Shortly before that time Ball told President Johnson that
he was meeting that day with McNamara, "Bundy," and
Acheson to discuss the plan. (Johnson Library, Papers of George
Ball, Vietnam I) No record of a discussion of this plan on May
15 has been found, but see Document 304 for the discussion of
the plan at the White House on May 16. Regarding the background
on the plan, see Document 287.