NSAM 273 and the creation of OPLAN 34-A
At least two sorts of covert operations against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had been in place since President Kennedy’s term. Sometime in 1962, Kennedy approved what was known as the DeSoto Patrols in the Tonkin Gulf. In a DeSoto mission, a Navy destroyer, “equipped with specialized electronic gear… [and] manned by personnel from the National Security Agency” cruised off the coast of North Vietnam. Their objective was to gather intelligence generally, but also specifically on the radar systems and capabilities of the North Vietnamese. They were also a show of American force in the gulf. These missions also collected intelligence off the coasts of the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. While the destroyers generally operated in international waters, though they occasionally flouted North Vietnam’s irregularly expansive claim of territorial waters.
The other sorts of covert action that dated from the Kennedy term were referred to as “hit-and-run” actions. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC) designed them in May 1963. The operations were run by the South Vietnamese, but with covert assistance from the US military. The American hopes for these hit and run operations wee that they would frighten the Hanoi regime into ending its support for the Viet Cong.
Two days after taking the Oath of Office, November 24, 1963, Johnson met with McNamara, Henry Cabot Lodge, Dean Rusk, George Ball, John McCone, and McGeorge Bundy to discuss Vietnam. National Security Action Memo 273 (NSAM 273) was the result of this meeting. NSAM 273 affirmed Johnson’s commitment to Kennedy’s policies.
It remains the central object of the United States in South Vietnam to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy. The test of all U.S. decisions and actions in this area should be the effectiveness of their contribution to this purpose.Additionally, NSAM 273 codified plans for increasing the scope and frequency of the hit-and-run operations:
Planning should include different levels of possible increased
activity, and in each instance there should be estimates
of such factors as:
A. Resulting damage to North Vietnam;
B. The plausibility of denial;
C. Possible North Vietnamese retaliation;
D. Other international reaction.
Given the need to answer Goldwater’s criticisms and find traction against the Viet Cong without committing combat troops, expanding these covert operations must have seemed practical and attractive to Johnson.
The following January this revised plan, now known as OPLAN 34-A, was endorsed by the 303 Committee. The committee, named for its meeting room in the Executive Office Building, was headed by Bundy and comprised of “senior State Department, Pentagon and CIA representatives.” Among the committee’s jobs were clearing the CIA’s covert plans around the world as well as reviewing “the schedules of the clandestine operations.” The catalog of 34-A operations included a list of broadly themed activities including,
- Political pressures;
- Capture of prisoners;
- Physical destruction;
- Acquisition of intelligence;
- Generation of intelligence; and
- Diversion of GRV resources intended to convince them to stop supporting insurgencies in the south and in Laos.
Johnson directed that the “least risk” plans begin February 1, 1964. Day-to-day oversight and coordination of the 34-A operations was delegated by the Pentagon to a US military command unit based in Saigon known as the “studies and operations group.” The studies and operations group worked closely with CIA advisers. The plan was to terminate at the end of May.