35. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • After-Action Report on the Korean Shootdown Incident2

Now that the Korean shootdown incident has come and gone, I thought you might be interested in a brief appraisal of the manner in which it was handled within the bureaucracy, with the view toward drawing upon these experiences in the event of future contingencies.

In general, I believe the bureaucracy functioned well, especially during the initial stages of the crisis. The following steps were taken:

Establishment of a small working group from each of the Departments/Agencies directly concerned (State, Defense, JCS, CIA, White House).
This method made it possible to bring about a rapid and intimate exchange of views and maximum security in the development of highly sensitive options for your consideration. It is significant that there has been no leak of the range of options you considered.
The result was the preparation of a master game plan which meshed the political, diplomatic and military actions under each option and which could have been executed with minimum confusion.

The exercise revealed the following shortcomings:

Military planning proved generally unresponsive, pedantic and slow. It took more than 72 hours for the JCS to develop a plan for an attack on a single airfield. Part of the problem was interservice rivalry: the Airforce and the Navy could never agree on whether to attack with B–52s or A–6s.
We disbanded the Committee too early. As a result, the windup of the operation produced some uncertainty expressed in the slow restarting of reconnaissance operations and some confusion over what force should be left behind in the Korean area. This was remedied by reassembling the Committee.
The incident showed the degree to which Vietnam reduces our military options. We would have had difficulty conducting major operations without drawing on our Vietnam deployment. In fairness, it must be pointed out that Vietnam enabled us to envisage a massive concentration of power that would have been unavailable otherwise.

I have asked each agency represented to prepare a critique. Their comments are attached (Tab A).3


The emergency machinery should be institutionalized. Every participant agreed that it worked well. It should have been started earlier and kept in being longer.
Military contingency planning should be tightened up. This would be accomplished by a series of Presidential directives which can be prepared for you if you agree with the basic concept.




Tab A

Paper Prepared by the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Johnson)

Reflections on EC–121 Incident5

From my viewpoint the substantive difficulty that we faced with respect to this incident was that our freedom of choice was very limited by the absence of a military capability quickly to respond. Apart from the other problems involved with retaliation, the passage of time required to generate the capability made this a less and less feasible course of action. The only flexible capability in a situation of this kind, entirely subject to our own control, and involving the minimum of political complications with third countries, is a carrier. While recognizing the importance of carrier operations to the conflict in Viet-Nam, I feel that we should balance the need in Viet-Nam against the importance of having some carrier capability available for contingency operations [Page 87] in critical areas, such as Korea has been during the past year and now appears will continue to be for at least sometime to come.

Two problems inherent in any proposed military operation for which full contingency plans do not already exist are the collegial nature of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the inherent competition among the Services to “get in on the action.” In this case, as in others, the first problem results in a delay in obtaining authoritative military views and recommendations except insofar as the Chairman of the JCS can, by the force of personality, impose his views on the other chiefs. The second problem results in a tendency to overstate capabilities and to minimize problems and difficulties. It is thus difficult to obtain entirely unprejudiced and thoroughly staff military advice, particularly in a short-time frame.

These comments in no way reflect upon the individual competence of our military leadership, but rather are inherent in the present system. Under our present executive organization there is no answer to this problem except that there be on the civilian staff of the Secretary of Defense (ISA is the logical point) and in State a sufficient knowledge of military affairs blended with political competence to ask the right questions and obtain the answers. It is also only in this way that international political considerations can be fed into the process at an early enough stage to assure that military planning is blended with international political considerations in such a way as to assure the optimum blend of each, and thus assure that the President, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense have the best possible and most realistic alternative courses of action presented to them.

My observation in this case, as well as in other crises in which I have participated, confirmed my conviction that in today’s world there can be no purely military planning nor purely political planning but that the two must be integrated right from the beginning. It is my experience that only when they are integrated and examined in detail in the form of a single plan of action that the problem areas best emerge. It is also my observation that presentation in such a succinct integrated plan of action form is most useful for the decision makers as for the operators when decisions are made.

In addition to such a plan of action, it is also my observation that problem areas emerge and can best be dealt with when there is a detailed examination and consideration of what is to be said publicly. Normally this will be a statement or a speech by the President. With these two elements determined, that is the plan of action and the public statement, all other actions readily flow therefrom. I feel that this was well done in this case, and my only comment being that I think that it might have been useful to have started this part of the process somewhat earlier, preparing integrated plans and outlines of statements for various [Page 88] courses of action. The NSC staff should, of course, be deeply involved in this planning process.

On the other hand, when the President has made decisions it is important that there be an exceptional interdepartmental mechanism for promptly coordinating and assuring their implementation and that this be focused at a single point within the Executive Departments responsible for their execution. This will always involve State, DOD and the JCS, and the CIA should also be involved. This can and should be done by the establishment of what has in the past been called a “Task Force” usually, and I believe logically, chaired by State with participation of the agencies concerned, including, of course, to the extent desired, the NSC staff. Such a Task Force working out of the Operations Center in State can provide to the decision makers a single point of information, a single channel for instructions and assure that decisions are carried out in a coordinated and most effective manner. (This, of course, does not preclude the President from issuing instructions to or through anyone he may desire, it simply assures that when instructions are issued they are promptly disseminated and that there is a common understanding on how they are being implemented.) Such a Task Force should be involved in and expected also to make a major contribution to the planning process.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–070, Washington Special Actions Group Meetings, May 1969–1971. Secret. Sent for action.
  2. A U.S. Navy EC–121 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down on April 14 by North Korean MiG aircraft. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIX, Japan and Korea.
  3. Attached are a paper by U. Alexis Johnson, which is printed below, and three memoranda to Kissinger, which are not printed, from Nels C. Johnson, Director of the Joint Staff; Thomas Karamessines, CIA’s Deputy Director for Plans; and Warren Nutter, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.
  4. The President initialed the approval option. Written below in an unidentified hand is the following: “Set up as Permanent Comm./HAK.” In a May 8 telephone conversation with John Getz, Johnson’s Special Assistant, Haig stated: “Just wanted to get message to Amb. Johnson concerning the ‘Korean Group’ that functioned during the crisis. The President has looked at all the after-action reports on this, including Amb. Johnson’s & the ones from Defense, JCS, and CIA, and he told Kissinger he wants to institutionalize this outfit, for better or for worse, but in so doing he wants also to maintain at the State operational level a group dealing with the coordination of the problem at hand— in other words, this ad hoc group would be ‘permanentized’ for crises to deal with broader issues, and State would orchestrate the implementation—cables, dispatches, etc., which is, he thought, consistent with what Amb Johnson had in mind.” (Notes of Telephone Conversation; National Archives, RG 59, U. Alexis Johnson Files: Lot 96 D 695, Telcons, Personal)
  5. Johnson also discussed the administration’s response to the shootdown and the resulting formation of WSAG in his memoir, The Right Hand of Power, pp. 524–525.