“No Attractive Course of Action” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Six years into his tenure as secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, one of the main architects of the Vietnam War, sent this memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson. It details a request by US military commanders for more troops before it moves to an argument arguing such a proposal. While acknowledging recent military successes, the memo's author takes a pessimistic view with respect to a troop surge, holding that it will not have any real effect on American prospects in Vietnam. Ultimately, Johnson failed to heed his secretary of defense's advice, and McNamara went on to announce his resignation by the end of that year. The momentum of the war continued to rise, and the conflict, in the end, lasted for eight more years.

Summary Overview

Six years into his tenure as secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, one of the main architects of the Vietnam War, sent this memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson. It details a request by US military commanders for more troops before it moves to an argument arguing such a proposal. While acknowledging recent military successes, the memo's author takes a pessimistic view with respect to a troop surge, holding that it will not have any real effect on American prospects in Vietnam. Ultimately, Johnson failed to heed his secretary of defense's advice, and McNamara went on to announce his resignation by the end of that year. The momentum of the war continued to rise, and the conflict, in the end, lasted for eight more years.

Defining Moment

In the spring of 1967, American's involvement in Vietnam was still on the ascent. The growth of a US military presence in the region began under the Kennedy administration and vastly escalated under Lyndon B. Johnson. On August 7, 1964, five days after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, awarding the president the military power “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” In early 1965, President Johnson began the long-term bombing campaign known as Operation Rolling Thunder. That year also saw the first purely offensive actions into enemy territory and the first major battle of the war. American troops continued to increase until reaching over 385,000 men on the ground by the end of 1966, more than ten times the amount at the end of 1964.

Even at this relatively early stage, the war was becoming unpopular among many in the American public. McNamara's enthusiasm likewise had begun to wane. As secretary of defense, he ushered in the escalation of the American engagement in Vietnam, and yet in this memorandum, we see evidence of his increasing skepticism. Later, in November 1967, he sent another memorandum calling for a more drastic (and more specific) reversal of military policy. Johnson rejected the proposals outright, and McNamara resigned shortly thereafter. As for the American public, by 1968 both the Tet Offensive (a major communist surge in South Vietnam) and the My Lai Massacre (the slaughter of civilians there) only increased antiwar sentiments.

Author Biography

Robert S. McNamara was born June 9, 1916 in San Francisco, California. He obtained a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of California in Berkeley in 1937 and a master's degree from the Harvard Business School in 1939. In early 1943, he entered the United State Air Force. Disqualified from combat duty owing to his poor eyesight, he served the majority of the war's remainder in the Office of Statistical Control. Ford Motor Company hired him as one of the so-called “whiz kids,” and he rose in the ranks until becoming president in 1960, the first president of the company from outside the Ford family. Shortly thereafter, John F. Kennedy appointed him as secretary of defense. He served seven years in that post, the longest tenure of any secretary of defense to date. He oversaw the escalation of America's military engagement in Vietnam before growing skeptical of the war, as attested to in this memorandum. At the end of 1967, following President Johnson's refusal of another memorandum, McNamara announced his resignation. He became president of the World Bank, a position that he held until 1981. He died in 2009 at the age of 93.

Historical Document

General Westmoreland and Admiral Sharp have requested 200,000 additional men (100,000 as soon as possible with the remainder probably required in FY 1969) and 13 additional tactical air squadrons for South Vietnam. The program they propose would require Congressional action authorizing a call-up of the Reserves, the addition of approximately 500,000 men to our military forces, and an increase of approximately $10 billion in the FY 68 Defense budget. It would involve the virtual certainty of irresistible pressures for ground actions against “sanctuaries” in Cambodia and Laos; for intensification of the air campaign against North Vietnam; for the blockage of rail, road, and sea imports into North Vietnam; and ultimately for invasion of North Vietnam to control infiltration routes. The Joint Chiefs of Staff recognize that these operations may cause the Soviet Union and/or Red China to apply military pressure against us in other places of the world, such as in Korea or Western Europe. They therefore believe it essential that we also take steps to prepare to face such hostile military pressures. The purpose of this paper is to examine the recommendations of our military commanders and to consider alternative courses of action.

This memorandum is written at a time when there appears to be no attractive course of action. The probabilities are that Hanoi has decided not to negotiate until the American electorate has been heard in November 1968. Continuation of our present moderate policy, while avoiding a larger war, will not change Hanoi's mind, so is not enough to satisfy the American people; increased force levels and actions against the North are likewise unlikely to change Hanoi's mind, and are likely to get us in even deeper in Southeast Asia and into a serious confrontation, if not war, with China and Russia; and we are not willing to yield. So we must choose among imperfect alternatives….

The Vietnam war is unpopular in this country. It is becoming increasingly unpopular as it escalates—causing more American casualties, more fear of its growing into a wider war, more privation of the domestic sector, and more distress at the amount of suffering being visited on the non-combatants in Vietnam, South and North. Most Americans do not know how we got where we are, and most, without knowing why, but taking advantage of hindsight, are convinced that somehow we should not have gotten this deeply in. All want the war ended and expect their President to end it. Successfully. Or else.

This state of mind in the US generates impatience in the political structure of the United States. It unfortunately also generates patience in Hanoi. (It is commonly supposed that Hanoi will not give anything away pending the trial of the US elections in November 1968.)

The “big war” in the South between the US and the North Vietnamese military units (NVA) is going well. We staved off military defeat in 1965; we gained the military initiative in 1966; and since then we have been hurting the enemy badly, spoiling some of his ability to strike. “In the final analysis,” General Westmoreland said, “we are fighting a war of attrition.” In that connection, the enemy has been losing between 1500 and 2000 killed-in-action a week, while we and the South Vietnamese have been losing 175 and 250 respectively. The VC/NVA 287,000-man order of battle is leveling off, and General Westmoreland believes that, as of March, we “reached the cross-over point”—we began attriting more men than Hanoi can recruit or infiltrate each month. The concentration of NVA forces across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the enemy use of long-range artillery are matters of concern. There are now four NVA divisions in the DMZ area. The men infiltrate directly across the western part of the DMZ, and supplies swing around through the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The NVA apparently plans to nibble at our forces, seeking to inflict heavy casualties, perhaps to stage a “spectacular” (perhaps against Quang Tri City or Hue), and/or to try a major thrust into the Western Highlands. They are forcing us to transfer some forces from elsewhere in Vietnam to the I Corps area.

Throughout South Vietnam, supplies continue to flow in ample quantities, with Cambodia becoming more and more important as a supply base—now of food and medicines, perhaps ammunition later. The enemy retains the ability to initiate both large- and small-scale attacks. Small-scale attacks in the first quarter of 1967 are running at double the 1966 average; larger-scale attacks are again on the increase after falling off substantially in 1966. Acts of terrorism and harassment have continued at about the same rate.

The over-all troop strengths of friendly and VC/NVA forces by Corps Area are shown in Attachments I and II.

All things considered, there is consensus that we are no longer in danger of losing this war militarily.

Regrettably, the “other war” against the VC is still not going well. Corruption is widespread. Real government control is confined to enclaves. There is rot in the fabric. Our efforts to enliven the moribund political infrastructure have been matched by VC efforts—more now through coercion than was formerly the case. So the VC are hurting badly too. In the Delta, because of the redeployment of some VC/NVA troops to the area north of Saigon, the VC have lost their momentum and appear to be conducting essentially a holding operation. On the government side there, the tempo of operations has been correspondingly low. The population remains apathetic, and many local government officials seem to have working arrangements with the VC which they are reluctant to disturb.

The National Liberation Front (NLF) continues to control large parts of South Vietnam, and there is little evidence that the revolutionary development program is gaining any momentum. The Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) is tired, passive and accommodation-prone, and is moving too slowly if at all into pacification work.

The enemy no doubt continues to believe that we will not be able to translate our military success in the “big war” into the desired “end products”—namely, broken enemy morale and political achievements by the Government of Vietnam (GVN). At the same time, the VC must be concerned about decline in morale among their ranks. Defections, which averaged 400 per week last year, have, until a slump near the end of April, been running at more than 1000 a week; very few defectors, however, are important people.

Hanoi's attitude towards negotiations has never been soft nor open-minded. Any concession on their part would involve an enormous loss of face. Whether or not the Polish and Burchett-Kosygin initiatives had much substance to them, it is clear that Hanoi's attitude currently is hard and rigid. They seem uninterested in a political settlement and determined to match US military expansion of the conflict. This change probably reflects these factors: (1) increased assurances of help from the Soviets received during Pham Van Dong's April trip to Moscow; (2) arrangements providing for the unhindered passage of matériel from the Soviet Union through China; and (3) a decision to wait for the results of the US elections in 1968. Hanoi appears to have concluded that she cannot secure her objectives at the conference table and has reaffirmed her strategy of seeking to erode our ability to remain in the South. The Hanoi leadership has apparently decided that it has no choice but to submit to the increased bombing. There continues to be no sign that the bombing has reduced Hanoi's will to resist or her ability to ship the necessary supplies south. Hanoi shows no signs of ending the large war and advising the VC to melt into the jungles. The North Vietnamese believe they are right; they consider the Ky regime to be puppets; they believe the world is with them and that the American public will not have staying power against them. Thus, although they may have factions in the regime favoring different approaches, they believe that, in the long run, they are stronger than we are for the purpose. They probably do not want to make significant concessions, and could not do so without serious loss of face.

Most interested governments and individuals appear to assume that the possibility of initiating negotiations has declined over the last several months. Following the failure of Kosygin's efforts while in London, the Soviets apparently have been unwilling to use whatever influence they may have in Hanoi to persuade North Vietnam to come to the conference table while the bombing continues.

The dominant Soviet objectives seem to continue to be to avoid direct involvement in the military conflict and to prevent Vietnam from interfering with other aspects of Soviet-American relations, while supporting Hanoi to an extent sufficient to maintain Soviet prestige in International Communism.

China remains largely preoccupied with its own Cultural Revolution. The Peking Government continues to advise Hanoi not to negotiate and continues to resist Soviet efforts to forge a united front in defense of North Vietnam. There is no reason to doubt that China would honor its commitment to intervene at Hanoi's request, and it remains likely that Peking would intervene on her own initiative if she believed that the existence of the Hanoi regime was at stake….

The war in Vietnam is acquiring a momentum of its own that must be stopped. Dramatic increases in US troop deployments, in attacks on the North, or in ground actions in Laos or Cambodia are not necessary and are not the answer. The enemy can absorb them or counter them, bogging us down further and risking even more serious escalation of the war.

Glossary

attriting/attrit: to wear down an adversary by constant opposition

Delta: the Mekong Delta, also known as the Western Region, the southernmost and westernmost part of South Vietnam

FY: fiscal year, or financial year

VC: Viet Cong, a South Vietnamese military and political organization that opposed the South Vietnamese government and the United States

Document Analysis

McNamara begins with the requests of General Westmoreland and Admiral Sharp for more troops. Their requests stand as a foil against which he frames the rest of his argument. At the bottom of the first paragraph, McNamara offers his programmatic statement, observing that his purpose “is to examine the recommendations of our military commanders and to consider alternative courses of action.” He follows through on the first half of this statement, extensively scrutinizing the recommendations in their larger context. Tellingly, however, he does not fulfill the second half of this proposal, offering no feasible alternatives to the commanders' plans. Instead, in order to steer the president away from the commanders' proposal for a troop surge, he paints the circumstances in bleak terms. Two years earlier, in 1965, journalist David Halberstam famously called American involvement in Vietnam a quagmire. McNamara does not use that term in this memorandum, but the atmosphere that he details and the fact that he offers no feasible course of action implicitly lend weight to Halberstam's label.

As part of his pessimistic portrayal, McNamara contrasts the American public's growing distaste for the war with the resolve of the North Vietnamese. Yet his depiction of the American public proves more complex than a simple comparison would allow. Elaborating on their distaste for war, he goes as far as to say “All [Americans] want the war ended and expect their President to end it. Successfully. Or else.” This is unmistakably direct language, particularly considering that it is addressed to a sitting president. While outlining the different, unfavorable courses of action, he states that the “present moderate policy” would not change Hanoi's firm stance and, therefore, “is not enough to satisfy the American people.” This implies that the American people would be satisfied only with an outcome that altered North Vietnam's hardline approach (achieving, that is, a form of “success”). Seemingly speaking for all Americans, including those in the administration, he adds “we are not willing to yield.” But is that a good thing or a bad thing in the eyes of the writer? He seems, perhaps, ambivalent about it.

The bulk of McNamara's examination consists of his description of two different wars. The first he labels the “big war.” This is the more conventional war against the NVA, or North Vietnamese Army. According to McNamara, America has the upper-hand in this war. He is able to support this view with objective numbers. He quotes General Westmoreland, who says that they are fighting and winning a war of attrition. After detailing the positive state of this “big war,” McNamara ends on a positive note: “All things considered, there is consensus that we are no longer in danger of losing this war militarily.”

The “other war,” which is not being fought militarily and which America is in danger of losing, is against the more localized VC, or Viet Cong. The VC are sometimes backed by and/or fight alongside the NVA. However, they are autonomous from the North and are able to fight against the Americans and South Vietnamese government both militarily and in other ways. They are corrupting the infrastructure of the government. Although McNamara usually sticks to straightforward prose befitting a government document, he is not above the occasional dramatic flourish, as witnessed by the vivid metaphor: “There is rot in the fabric.” According to McNamara, this rot cannot be conquered by additional troops.

Although the programmatic statement near the beginning claims, with an air of neutrality, that the paper will “examine the recommendations of our military commanders,” McNamara's opposition to these recommendations is apparent throughout and increases over the course of his account. While outlining the recommendations themselves, he details the additional, major steps necessary for them to be met with success and identifies the reaction that these actions could provoke from the Soviet Union or China. His opposition becomes clearer with each unfavorable circumstance he details. By the final paragraph, he succinctly states that “The war in Vietnam is acquiring a momentum of its own that must be stopped.” The commanders' proposals, therefore, “are not necessary and are not the answer.” They would only add to the momentum.

Essential Themes

David Halberstam called American intervention in Vietnam a quagmire two years before this memorandum. Robert McNamara paints a picture that supports that view. Another term that might be used in such a situation is aporia, meaning “baffling,” “impassable”—a situation with no escape. Though it is more common in a philosophical or rhetorical setting, the term fittingly describes McNamara's outlook.

McNamara uses contrasting pairs—Hanoi's steadfastness and the American public's weariness— to make his point. Yet these contrasts fulfill different functions in his memorandum. He uses the “hard and rigid” attitude in North Vietnam to define the inverse of the sentiment in America, and vice versa. He also contrasts the “big war” with the “other war,” as outlined above, but this pairing proves more nuanced. Though American success differs in the two wars, the wars come across not as opposites but as merely different. The distinction allows McNamara to concede the general's assessment of the military situation, while still depicting American prospects as unfavorable.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Barrett, David M. Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and His Vietnam Advisors. Lawrence, KS: U of Kansas P, 1993. Print.
  • Halberstam, David & Daniel Joseph Singal. The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. Print.
  • McNamara, Robert S. The Essence of Security: Reflections in Office. New York: Harper & Row, 1968. Print.
  • __________. & Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Print.
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