Operations Plan 34A (OPLAN 34A)

Operations Plan 34A (OPLAN 34A), which the Pentagon documents call "an elaborate program of covert military operations against the state of North Vietnam," was conceived by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and began on February 1, 1964. President Johnson ordered the implementation of the program based on McNamara's recommendation, though without the support of the intelligence community, in the hope that progressively escalating pressure from the clandestine attacks might eventually force Hanoi to order the Viet Cong guerrillas in Vietnam and the Pathet Lao in Laos to halt their insurrections. McNamara directed the clandestine operations through a section of the Joint Chiefs organization called the Office of Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities.

A second major segment of the Johnson administration's covert war against North Vietnam was air operations in Laos, where a force of propeller-driven North American T-28 fighter-bombers had been organized. The planes bore Laotian air force markings, but only some belonged to Laos. The remainder were manned by pilots of Air America, financed and controlled by the CIA under the control of Ambassador Leonard Unger.

Throughout 1964, OPLAN 34A operations ranged from flights over North Vietnam by Lockheed U-2 spy planes to kidnappings of North Vietnamese citizens for intelligence information, parachuting sabotage and psychological warfare teams into the North, commando raids from the sea to blow up rail and highway bridges, and bombardment of North Vietnamese coastal installations by PT-boats. The Pentagon delegated day-to-day direction to a studies and operations group (SOG), which enlisted CIA advisers.

In August 1964, a memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy outlined the September schedule for OPLAN 34A. The memorandum noted that the method of attack had been changed in some instances from destruction by infiltration of demolition teams to standoff bombardments by PTFs (patrol boats, fast). Other actions in September 1964 detailed in the memorandum included intelligence collection activities. Two junk capture missions were planned, during which time the captives were to be removed for 36 to 48 hours of interrogation. The junks were to be booby-trapped with anti-disturbance devices, then the junks and captives were to be released.

In conjunction with approved overflights and maritime operations, psychological operations included delivering propaganda leaflets and gift kits, and deception techniques such as simulating the resupply of phantom teams. Approximately 200 letters featuring various propaganda themes were to be sent through third-country mail channels to North Vietnam. Thirty-minute "black" radio programs purported to voice the views of dissident elements in North Vietnam, while "white" radio broadcasts of one-half to eight hours broadcast the "Voice of Freedom" daily.

Maritime operations included the demolition of Route 1 bridges; bombardment of the Cape Mui Dao observation post, the San Son radar station, Cape Mui Ron, the Tiger Island barracks, the Cape Falaise gun positions, Hon Ngu, the Hon Matt barracks and the Hon Me islands; and destruction of a section of the Hanoi-Vinh railroad.

Airborne operations between September 16 and 28 included four missions for resupply and reinforcement of in-place teams, four missions for reinforcement of in-place teams and four missions to airdrop new psychological operations/sabotage teams, depending upon the availability of drop zone and target information.

A State Department aide recorded that the following missions were completed in October 1964:

Maritime operations included a recon probe to within 12 miles of Ninh Sor, a failed attempt to capture a junk, and the bombardment of the Vinh Son radar station and the Mui Dai observation post.

In airborne operations, five teams and a single agent were in place at the beginning of October. One of the teams was resupplied and reinforced. The remaining four were scheduled to be resupplied and reinforced, but bad weather prevented flights. Those operations, plus the dropping of an additional team, would appear on the November schedule. Two of the teams carried out successful actions during October. One demolished a bridge, the other ambushed a North Vietnamese patrol. Both teams suffered casualties--in numbers sufficient to cast doubt on the wisdom of the missions.

In psychological operations, both black and white radio broadcasts were made daily. Black broadcasts averaged eight to 10 hours weekly, white broadcasts 60 hours weekly. During September and October only one leaflet delivery was made by air, in conjunction with a resupply mission. Letters posted from Hong Kong averaged 50 to 100 mailed weekly. The November schedule called for a large number of leaflet and deception operations.

The same report outlines completed cross-border and covert operations in Laos. Earlier in 1964, several eight-man reconnaissance teams had been parachuted into Laos as part of Operation Leaping Lena (the code name for an allied operation in Vietnam not further identified). All of those teams were located by the enemy, and only four survivors returned to South Vietnam. As a result of Leaping Lena, cross-border ground operations were carefully reviewed, and the commander of MACV stated that he believed no effective cross-border ground operations could be implemented prior to January 1, 1965, at the earliest.

Meanwhile, consideration was being given to improving Hardnose--the code name for a Laos covert project not further identified in the document. Options under consideration included greater Thai involvement and getting Hardnose missions to operate more effectively in the corridor infiltration areas.

Excerpts from Ambassador Maxwell Taylor's first 1964 mission report in Saigon, sent to McNamara by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provide considerable insight into the Viet Cong (VC) situation at that time. Taylor divided his analysis of the circumstances into three sections:

Strategy: "The communist strategy as defined by North Vietnam and the puppet National Liberation Front is to seek a political settlement favorable to the communists. This political objective is to be achieved by stages, passing first through 'neutralism' using the National Liberation Front machinery and then the technique of coalition government."

Tactics: "The VC tactics are to harass, erode and terrorize the VN [Vietnam] population and its leadership into a state of demobilization without an attempt to defeat the RVNAF [Republic of South Vietnam Armed Forces] or seize and conquer terrain by military means. US/GVN [government of South Vietnam] progress should be measured against this strategy and these tactics."

Status: "In terms of equipment and training, the VC are better armed and led today than ever in the past. VC infiltration continues from Laos and Cambodia. [There is] no indication that the VC are experiencing any difficulty, [and] no reason to believe the VC will risk their gains in an overt military confrontation with GVN forces, although they have a sizable force with considerable offensive capability in the central highlands."

Was the clandestine war of 1964 outlined in the Pentagon Papers successful? Apparently not, for in February 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder--the sustained air war--was ordered to begin. According to the Pentagon Papers, the intelligence panel within the National Security Council working group, composed of representatives from the leading intelligence agencies--the CIA, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency--"did not concede very strong chances for breaking the will of Hanoi" with Operation Rolling Thunder. Once set in motion, however, the massive bombing effort seemed to stiffen rather than soften Hanoi's will to resist, which would lead to the decision to escalate the war by sending American ground troops to Vietnam.