A New Approach to Retaliation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Today we know that many of escalation's greatest champions within the United States government, secretly harbored doubts about America's chances at victory in Vietnam, chief among them McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor to both presidents Kennedy and Johnson. An influential policy maker, often referred to as one of the “wise men” of the White House, Bundy was one of the staunchest hawks in both administrations. He pushed relentlessly for greater action against North Vietnam, all the while realizing fully that greater engagement might mean disaster. For this reason, Bundy's memo of February 1965 is especially illuminating. Outlining a strategy of sustained military reprisals against North Vietnam, Bundy all but confirms that the war in Vietnam is not about Vietnam at all, but greater gains internationally and domestically. American lives could be and would be lost, but, on the whole, those losses were acceptable, even beneficial. The memorandum stands as a shocking indictment of not just the war, but the men who conceived it.

Summary Overview

Today we know that many of escalation's greatest champions within the United States government, secretly harbored doubts about America's chances at victory in Vietnam, chief among them McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor to both presidents Kennedy and Johnson. An influential policy maker, often referred to as one of the “wise men” of the White House, Bundy was one of the staunchest hawks in both administrations. He pushed relentlessly for greater action against North Vietnam, all the while realizing fully that greater engagement might mean disaster. For this reason, Bundy's memo of February 1965 is especially illuminating. Outlining a strategy of sustained military reprisals against North Vietnam, Bundy all but confirms that the war in Vietnam is not about Vietnam at all, but greater gains internationally and domestically. American lives could be and would be lost, but, on the whole, those losses were acceptable, even beneficial. The memorandum stands as a shocking indictment of not just the war, but the men who conceived it.

Defining Moment

By the latter half of 1964, thousands of American “military advisors” had already been deployed in South Vietnam, and the United States Navy patrolled the waters beyond. As violence in the south spread, spurred on by an ever more repressive government, and as tension with North Vietnam increased, policy makers within the White House, led primarily by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, were putting greater and greater pressure on President Lyndon Baines Johnson to act. The longtime Texas Democrat, although committed to keeping America's pledge to preserve a communist-free South Vietnam, was apprehensive about sending American troops into Southeast Asia. Johnson's fear was that, like the French, American forces would be unable to adequately fight against an entrenched guerrilla force, resulting in a prolonged quagmire and the loss of thousands of American lives. Then, in August 1964, the USS Maddox, on an intelligence mission in the Gulf of Tonkin, reportedly fired on North Vietnamese torpedo boats that had allegedly fired upon the Maddox first. A second report of attack and counterattack came in two days later. Although it became clear within military and intelligence circles that no outright North Vietnamese attack had occurred, the hawks in the Johnson administration used the event, which came to be known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, to rally the nation to war.

Some evidence suggests that even Johnson himself was misled, although to what extent remains unclear. Nonetheless, within days, Congress passed a resolution empowering the president to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia. The authorization, left purposefully vague, allowed foreign policy planners to essentially wage war without a declaration of war. Within months, memos and policy statements started circulating throughout the White House, recommending various kinds of military operations, including a sharp increase in ground troops and a prolonged bombing campaign against the North. Among the memos that were produced that winter, was a call to action from National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. Bundy argued for what he called sustained reprisals against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces operating in the South. Memos such as this one not only helped to push Johnson to action, but also defined the uneven, at times counterproductive American policy. More importantly, these memos helped demonstrate that policy makers working within the White House were very willing to sacrifice American lives for the sake of political achievements.

Author Biography

McGeorge “Mac” Bundy was born in Boston in 1919. The second son of a wealthy and politically well-connected family, Bundy attended two prestigious prep schools before going on to Yale, where he received a degree in mathematics. After World War II, Bundy went to work for the Council of Foreign Relations, where he was involved in various intelligence related programs focused on anti-Soviet efforts. After a stint as dean at Harvard University, Bundy was appointed national security advisor by John F. Kennedy in 1961. In his role at the White House, Bundy was crucial to events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and of course the Vietnam War. In 1966, Bundy became president of the Ford Foundation and, in 1979, returned to teaching at New York University. In his later years, Bundy became an influential in helping to mold American nuclear policy. He died in 1996.

Historical Document


I. Introductory

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

The Vietnamese increase in hope could well increase the readiness of Vietnamese factions themselves to join together in forming a more effective government.

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.

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.

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.

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 Vietnam.

IV. Present Action Recommendations

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:

We should complete the evacuation of dependents.

We should quietly start the necessary westward deployments of back-up contingency forces.

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 Paper.

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.

We should develop the necessary public and diplomatic statements to accompany the initiation and continuation of this program.

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.

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.

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.

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.


counter-insurgency: action taken against guerillas

Hanoi: capital of North Vietnam

pacification: to forcibly eliminate hostile population

Viet Cong: Vietnamese communist guerrillas

White Paper: a government report

Document Analysis

The main thrust of Bundy's memo is a strategy he outlines for “sustained reprisal against North Vietnam.” In some way loosely based on the perceived events surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the notion is that American military forces will only respond to the hostile actions of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. This was in some ways also reflective of Johnson's insistence on achieving, rather paradoxically, peace through force. The policy as outlined would be adopted in cooperation with the government of South Vietnam. In practice, the sustained reprisal would essentially force American military planners to grade hostile incidents, thus determining which ones required a response and which ones did not. The assassination of a South Vietnamese official might garner retaliation, for example, while the indiscriminant killing of villagers might not. Propaganda would serve a necessary function, as every act of reprisal would have to be closely linked with an act of violence perpetrated by the North Vietnamese. The idea would be that the general public, both within and outside of Vietnam, would be able to perceive clear linkages between action and reaction.

Bundy points out that the best possible way to justify reprisal is to stress the strategy as one of last resort. It is the North Vietnamese who have forced the United States into this position. Reprisal would most often take the form of strategic bombing of the North, thus it is also vital to destroy whatever air combat capabilities the North Vietnamese might possess as quickly as possible. To work effectively, reprisal would need to go on without pause. Sustained, deliberate, military action must be maintained. The results of this policy? The immediate effect would be a shift in perception and loyalty toward the American side. The South Vietnamese people, having had few options outside the Viet Cong, would recognize that they now had a powerful ally on their side. For the United States, the payoff would be even greater. Win or lose, Bundy stresses, the effect for the United States would be ultimately positive, as America would demonstrate both its strength and resolve to the larger international community. Even if the military failed in pacifying the enemy, the political gains are simply too good to abandon. In the best case scenario, communist forces would become demoralized and eventually give up the fight, but again, this is a perk, rather than a clear objective. In the end, Bundy proposes nine action recommendations to be carried out immediately in order to begin implementation of the policy. Most of these, tellingly, emphasize the need to shape perception.

Essential Themes

Was the war in Vietnam inevitable? No, but if anything is clear from the memos and policy statements circling throughout the White House during the first years of the Johnson administration, it is that some of the smartest men in the nation were determined to see it happen, despite their own very real doubts about final victory. In his memo of February 1965, former mathematician turned national security advisor McGeorge Bundy outlines a strategy of attack against North Vietnam, founded heavily in a plan to shift world opinion, which turned real human death and suffering into cold calculation. If the North Vietnamese do x, we respond with y. But even more striking is Bundy's acceptance that his strategy may fail. Yes, he concedes, sustained retaliation might not help achieve military objectives, the United States might lose the war, American troops will, most likely, suffer many casualties; but the political gains, in Bundy's opinion, outweigh the risks. Here the conflict in Vietnam is presented not as war, but as a political chess match. The loss of human life, both Vietnamese and American, is little more than a means to an end: the growth of American prestige.

In the weeks following this memo, President Johnson launched Operation Flaming Dart, Operation Rolling Thunder, and Operation Arc Light. All told the three bombing campaigns lasted for three years, devastating parts of North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos and resulting in innumerable deaths and casualties. By December of that year, over 200,000 ground troops were sent in to protect the air bases launching the attacks. At every step, McGeorge Bundy advocated for greater and greater escalation. By the time Johnson left office, troop numbers had doubled, and American casualties were climbing into the tens of thousands. And as for Bundy's long-term goal of growing American prestige? The war in Vietnam had very much the opposite effect. Once seen as a champion of freedom and liberation, the United States was transformed in the eyes of many to an oversized empire no better than the communist forces it hoped to defeat.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bird, Kai. McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.
  • Herring, George. America's Longest War. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996. Print.
  • McNamara, Robert & Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1995. Print.
  • VanDeMark, Brian. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
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