A Recommendation for Troop Increases Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although President Lyndon Baines Johnson shouldered much of the blame for the war in Vietnam, it was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who holds the most responsibility. A brilliant statistician and manager, McNamara has often been described as the architect of the Vietnam War. It was his insistence throughout the 1960s that escalation would bring about ultimate American victory, which led first to the sustained bombing campaign of the north and, later, to the deployment of over half a million troops in the south. Unlike many of the other hawks advising Johnson, McNamara was, at least for a time, a true believer in both his mission and his strategy. The United States would win, he insisted, if only enough American troops were sent into the fight. His strategy is best exemplified in a memo he penned in November 1965, which became the overall strategy for the first phase of the war in Vietnam.

Summary Overview

Although President Lyndon Baines Johnson shouldered much of the blame for the war in Vietnam, it was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who holds the most responsibility. A brilliant statistician and manager, McNamara has often been described as the architect of the Vietnam War. It was his insistence throughout the 1960s that escalation would bring about ultimate American victory, which led first to the sustained bombing campaign of the north and, later, to the deployment of over half a million troops in the south. Unlike many of the other hawks advising Johnson, McNamara was, at least for a time, a true believer in both his mission and his strategy. The United States would win, he insisted, if only enough American troops were sent into the fight. His strategy is best exemplified in a memo he penned in November 1965, which became the overall strategy for the first phase of the war in Vietnam.

Defining Moment

After initially refusing to commit American military forces to the growing conflict in Vietnam, in early 1965, President Johnson launched a series of bombing operations against the north. Following a strategy of “sustained retaliation” as outlined by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, the United States Air Force began bombing North Vietnam, along with parts of Cambodia and Laos, as a means by which to demoralize the enemy and force them into surrender. As part of the strategy, bombing operations would halt for days or weeks at a time as a means to give the North Vietnamese time to negotiate (a fact that was not communicated to the North Vietnamese).

Soon after, as Viet Cong forces began launching attacks on American air force bases, Johnson sent 3,500 Marines to defend American personnel. This was the first time American troops were introduced into Vietnam in a non-advisory capacity. As throughout the summer of 1965, South Vietnamese forces were repeatedly defeated by military elements from the north, and with American ground forces already having been introduced in the south, the military leadership began to press the White House for ever larger troop commitments. The argument coming from most in the military, especially General William Westmoreland, commander of all American military forces in Vietnam, was that only through offensive measures could the United States hope to achieve victory in Southeast Asia. The American military, it was argued, could not sustain a solely defensive position for long. Westmoreland favored a strategy by which the United States would push the South Vietnamese back and take the lead in combat operations, thus putting the unmatched power of the United States directly against North Vietnamese forces. He was so convinced of the soundness of this strategy that he predicted total victory by the end of 1967.

Perhaps the biggest advocate of this approach within the cabinet was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Long a proponent of using military strength as a means by which to defeat communism, McNamara used the same kind of statistical analysis in his approach to Vietnam, as he had used in his capacity to plan bombing operations against the Japanese in World War II. Creating several mathematical models, he concluded that if American forces were able to inflict a significant amount of casualties on the North Vietnamese, which he believed had a very limited number of troops, the war could be won in a matter of two to three years. To add weight to his argument, McNamara travelled to Southeast Asia in late 1965. Upon his return he set out his strategy in a memo to the president, which would, eventually, become the primary plan by which the United States would fight a ground war in Vietnam.

Author Biography

Robert S. McNamara was born in California in 1916. After attending the University of California at Berkeley, he went on to get an MBA from Harvard Business School. During World War II, he worked under Major General Curtis LeMay in the Office of Statistical Control, analyzing the effectiveness of Allied bombing on enemy cities. After the war, McNamara joined the Ford Motor Company as one of the ten so-called “whiz kids” and eventually rose to become the youngest CEO in the company's history. In 1960, he was appointed secretary of defense, first under Kennedy and then under Johnson, and made great efforts to restructure the military. McNamara was instrumental in some of the most important events of the Cold War, including the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and of course the Vietnam War, of which he was considered to be the chief architect. McNamara eventually resigned his post as the war soon proved unwinnable. In 1968, he was appointed to the World Bank, where he served as President until 1981. He died in 2009.

Historical Document

Washington, November 30, 1965.

This is a supplement to my memorandum to you dated November 3. This memorandum incorporates the implications of events since then and information gained on General Wheeler's and my visit with Ambassador Lodge, Admiral Sharp and General Westmoreland in Vietnam on November 28–29.

1. Introductory comments. Before giving my assessment of the situation and recommendations, I want to report that United States personnel in Vietnam are performing admirably. The massive Cam Ranh Bay complex has sprung into operation since our last visit in July; the troops that we visited (the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 1st Cavalry Division) have fought and are fighting well and their morale is high; and the team in Saigon is working harmoniously.

2. The situation. There has been no substantial change since my November 3 memorandum in the economic, political or pacification situation. There is a serious threat of inflation because of the mixture of US force build-up and GVN deficit on the one hand and the tightly stretched Vietnamese economy on the other; the Ky “government of generals” is surviving, but not acquiring wide support or generating actions; pacification is thoroughly stalled, with no guarantee that security anywhere is permanent and no indications that able and willing leadership will emerge in the absence of that permanent security. (Prime Minister Ky estimates his government controls only 25% of the population today and reports that his pacification chief hopes to increase that to 50% two years from now.)

The dramatic recent changes in the situation are on the military side. They are the increased infiltration from the North and the increased willingness of the Communist forces to stand and fight, even in large-scale engagements. The Ia Drang River Campaign of early November is an example. The Communists appear to have decided to increase their forces in South Vietnam both by heavy recruitment in the South (especially in the Delta) and by infiltration of regular North Vietnamese forces from the North. Nine regular North Vietnamese regiments (27 infantry battalions) have been infiltrated in the past year, joining the estimated 83 VC battalions in the South. The rate of infiltration has increased from three battalion equivalents a month in late 1964 to a high of 9 or 12 during one month this past fall. General Westmoreland estimates that through 1966 North Vietnam will have the capability to expand its armed forces in order to infiltrate three regiments (nine battalion equivalents, or 4500 men) a month, and that the VC in South Vietnam can train seven new battalion equivalents a month—together adding 16 battalion equivalents a month to the enemy forces. Communist casualties and desertions can be expected to go up if my recommendations for increased US, South Vietnamese and third country forces are accepted. Nevertheless, the enemy can be expected to enlarge his present strength of 110 battalion equivalents to more than 150 battalion equivalents by the end of calendar 1966, when hopefully his losses can be made to equal his input.

As for the Communist ability to supply this force, it is estimated that, even taking account of interdiction of routes by air and sea, more than 200 tons of supplies a day can be infiltrated—more than enough, allowing for the extent to which the enemy lives off the land, to support the likely PAVN/VC force at the likely level of operations.

To meet this possible—and in my view likely—Communist build-up, the presently contemplated Phase I forces will not be enough. Phase I forces, almost all in place by the end of this year, involve 130 South Vietnamese, 9 Korean, 1 Australian and 34 US combat battalions (approximately 220,000 Americans). Bearing in mind the nature of the war, the expected weighted combat force ratio of less than 2-to-1 will not be good enough. Nor will the originally contemplated Phase II addition of 28 more US battalions (112,000 men) be enough; the combat force ratio, even with 32 new South Vietnamese battalions, would still be little better than 2-to-1 at the end of 1966. The initiative which we have held since August would pass to the enemy; we would fall far short of what we expected to achieve in terms of population control and disruption of enemy bases and lines of communications. Indeed, it is estimated that, with the contemplated Phase II addition of 28 US battalions, we would be able only to hold our present geographical positions.

3. Military options and recommendations. We have but two options, it seems to me. One is to go now for a compromise solution (something substantially less than the “favorable outcome” I described in my memorandum of November 3), and hold further deployments to a minimum. The other is to stick with our stated objectives and with the war, and provide what it takes in men and materiel. If it is decided not to move now toward a compromise, I recommend that the United States both send a substantial number of additional troops and very gradually intensify the bombing of North Vietnam. Ambassador Lodge, General Wheeler, Admiral Sharp and General Westmoreland concur in this pronged course of action, although General Wheeler and Admiral Sharp would intensify the bombing of the North more quickly.

a. Troop deployments. With respect to additional forces in South Vietnam to maintain the initiative against the growing Communist forces, I recommend:

That the Republic of Korea be requested to increase their present deployment of nine combat battalions to 18 combat battalions (the addition of one division) before July 1966 and to 21 combat battalions (the addition of another brigade) before October 1966.

That the Government of Australia be requested to increase their present deployment of one combat battalion to two combat battalions before October 1966.

That the deployment of US ground troops be increased by the end of 1966 from 34 combat battalions to 74 combat battalions.

That the FY ‘67 Budget for the Defense Department and the January Supplement to the FY ‘66 Budget be revised to reflect the expansion of US forces required to support the additional deployments.

The 74 US battalions—together with increases in air squadrons, naval units, air defense, combat support, construction units and miscellaneous logistic support and advisory personnel which I also recommend—would bring the total US personnel in Vietnam to approximately 400,000 by the end of 1966. And it should be understood that further deployments (perhaps exceeding 200,000) may be needed in 1967.

b. Bombing of North Vietnam. With respect to the program of bombing North Vietnam, I recommend that we maintain present levels of activity in the three quadrants west and south of Hanoi, but that over a period of the next six months we gradually enlarge the target system in the northeast (Hanoi-Haiphong) quadrant until, at the end of the period, it includes “controlled” armed reconnaissance of lines of communication throughout the area, bombing of petroleum storage facilities and power plants, and mining of the harbors. (Left unstruck would be population targets, industrial plants, locks and dams.)

4. Pause in bombing North Vietnam. It is my belief that there should be a three- or four-week pause in the program of bombing the North before we either greatly increase our troop deployments to Vietnam or intensify our strikes against the North. The reasons for this belief are, first, that we must lay a foundation in the mind of the American public and in world opinion for such an enlarged phase of the war and, second, we should give North Vietnam a face-saving chance to stop the aggression. I am not seriously concerned about the risk of alienating the South Vietnamese, misleading Hanoi, or being “trapped” in a pause; if we take reasonable precautions, we can avoid these pitfalls. I am seriously concerned about embarking on a markedly higher level of war in Vietnam without having tried, through a pause, to end the war or at least having made it clear to our people that we did our best to end it.

5. Evaluation. We should be aware that deployments of the kind I have recommended will not guarantee success. US killed-in-action can be expected to reach 1000 a month, and the odds are even that we will be faced in early 1967 with a “no-decision” at an even higher level. My overall evaluation, nevertheless, is that the best chance of achieving our stated objectives lies in a pause followed, if it fails, by the deployments mentioned above.

Robert S. McNamara


battalion: a large body of troops

GVN: Government of North Vietnam

pacification: the forcible eliminate of a hostile population

Saigon: capital of South Vietnam

VC: Viet Cong, or communist forces in the south

Document Analysis

McNamara begins by stating that American forces in South Vietnam are performing well. Operations conducted by the United States military have been successful. However, the South Vietnamese government and military apparatus are unequal to the task before them. McNamara cites several examples of poor decisions and poor performance. The South Vietnamese government, he informs Johnson, only has the support of some 25 percent of the population. The North Vietnamese, he reports, are launching successful attacks on the south and have greatly increased the size of their army. In addition, Viet Cong forces operating throughout the south have continued to grow. Unless the American presence in Vietnam is expanded, North Vietnam's power will continue to grow unchecked. McNamara makes it clear: if the North Vietnamese build-up is to be stopped, and if the United States is to hold the momentum, additional American troops must be sent to Vietnam at once.

His recommendation is for a substantial troop increase and an escalation of the bombing campaigns already underway. By the end of 1966, McNamara estimates, American ground troops should number 400,000, with an additional 200,000 to come the following year. Bombing should be escalated and additional targets, including civilian targets, should be identified. The United States Air Force would first halt all operations for a number of weeks, as a means to allow North Vietnam to possibly seek peace and for the American public to accept the escalation, followed by an intensification of attack.

Primary in all of this, McNamara emphasizes, is public opinion both at home and abroad. A pause would also give people the perception that the United States government was making a good faith effort toward peace. However, it is the last part of McNamara's memo that is most interesting. In his final evaluation, he states that extra deployments will not guarantee success and that American casualties might reach 1,000 a month. However, in the end, he reasons, there is no greater strategy for success. Will sending ground troops be risky? Yes. Will it guarantee victory? No. But, in McNamara's mind, the potential benefits outweigh the risks. The United States must win in Vietnam, and troop escalation is the only definite way to achieve it.

Essential Themes

In the mid-1960s, Robert McNamara was a true believer. A seasoned Cold War warrior, who had stared down the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he traveled to Vietnam and weighed all the options. Escalation was, in his mind, the only option. Using the same dehumanizing statistical models that perfected bombing runs on Japanese cities in World War II, the secretary of defense came to agree with the military leadership that the best way to achieve victory in Southeast Asia was through a war of attrition. When faced with the unchecked spread of communism, a thousand dead Americans every month was a small price to pay. In 1965, he lay out his strategy recommendations in a memo to President Johnson, a series of initiatives that were approved in the weeks and months to come: 400,000 troops by the end of 1966 and more to follow after.

As several thousand American troops became several hundred thousand, the cost of the war became ever bloodier, and withdraw became ever more difficult. The year 1965 gave way to 1966, then on to 1967, with no end in sight. As the number of American dead increased, McNamara became ever more disillusioned with the war he helped to create. More and more, he began to countermand the orders of the generals on the ground and, privately and publically, began to doubt America's chances for victory. In late 1967, he recommended a freeze on more American troop increases and a complete stop to all bombing operations against North Vietnam. It was too little too late. President Johnson rejected the recommendations. Not even McNamara, it seemed, could stop the machine he helped start. Increasingly criticized by the media, and marginalized in the White House for his shift, McNamara resigned his post as secretary of defense in November of that year. He would go on to serve as president of the World Bank and transform international nuclear policy; but until the end of his days, it would be the Vietnam War that would remain his greatest and most enduring legacy.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • 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.
Categories: History