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


  • JCS Concept for Air and Naval Operations Against North Vietnam

On Saturday morning, you will be meeting with Secretary Laird and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the JCS concept plan for air and naval operations against North Vietnam.2

[Page 447]

Description of the JCS Plan

The JCS have developed “a concept plan for high intensity air and naval operations against North Vietnam [which]3 emphasizes the use of surprise and concentration of effort to achieve maximum practicable psychological and military impact.” (See Tab A.)4

The plan is divided into two phases:

  • —During Phase I, U.S. attack forces will
  • —“neutralize the North Vietnamese air force,”
  • —“close the ports through which North Vietnam receives the bulk of its war supporting materials,”
  • —“destroy various high value economic and war supporting facilities in North Vietnam, including interdiction efforts against the northeast rail line.”

Phase I will require five days of full operations. Because of the probability of bad weather and curtailed operations during any five day period in November, the JCS estimate that Phase I would require 9–21 calendar days to complete.

  • —Phase II is designed “to have an additional impact on Hanoi’s will and ability to carry on the war” through
  • —destruction of war supporting facilities, e.g. supplies, vehicles, coastal craft and port facilities,
  • —interdiction of the northeast railroad line from China.
  • In summary, the JCS state that “the combination of Phase I and Phase II operations will achieve meaningful military as well as psychological impact by
  • —reducing the availability of imported materials into North Vietnam, and
  • —exacting attrition of North Vietnam’s war-making capacity and its ability to support aggression in South Vietnam.”

The JCS recommend that their concept plan “be approved for continuing planning.”

Discussion of the Plan

The JCS concept and implementing plan have several serious shortcomings:

  • —They fail to reflect the strategic criteria essential to the success of such an effort, i.e.
  • —that the priority targets should be strategic in nature, the destruction of which will achieve sudden and significant disruption of the economy;
  • —that restoration of the targets should be costly and time-consuming, so that their destruction achieves a lasting military and economic effect and continuous follow up bombing is unnecessary;
  • —that the operation should involve a series of short, sharp military blows of increasing severity, holding out to Hanoi the prospect of a long and increasingly disabling siege if they fail to come to an agreement.

They are not responsive to political requirements.

  • —The JCS propose to strike a large number of sensitive targets in Hanoi, such as the Ministry of Defense, the Hanoi Telephone and Telegraph Office, the airfield handling Hanoi’s civilian air traffic, and the Air Force and Army Air Defense Command Headquarters.
  • —Striking such targets will maximize adverse domestic and foreign reactions to the operation: (a) Hanoi is where the press, the diplomatic corps and foreign business interests are concentrated. (b) There will be heavy civilian casualties. (c) Because Hanoi is the most heavily defended part of the country, we risk disproportionately heavy U.S. aircraft and crew losses in hitting these targets.
  • —By striking directly at the offices of Government officials, we may convey that our goal is the destruction of the country and the regime, thus inviting major outside intervention.
  • —The plan appears to call for only routine use of our attack resources (e.g., Thai based aircraft are assumed to fly only one sortie per day). Also by extending Phase I over five operational days, we increase the likelihood that the duration of the operation will have to be stretched out to well over a week and possibly two or three weeks because of bad weather, thus dissipating the advantages of a sharp, sudden, quick blow.

Secretary of Defense Evaluation

In transmitting this plan to you, Secretary Laird has provided a detailed critique (at Tab B)5 which he believes “casts grave doubt on the validity and efficacy of the JCS concept plan.” He concludes, “…the plan would involve the U.S. in expanded costs and risks with no clear resultant military or political benefits.”

His critique, supported in part by CIA analysis, includes inter alia the following points:

  • —We would be unable to prevent North Vietnam from sustaining essential imports by bringing goods in overland and through the minefields.
  • —We risk confrontations with Russia and Red China and critical reactions from Free World maritime states.
  • —Aircraft losses would exceed 100; “losses of major U.S. ships would have to be considered;” civilian casualties would be high.
  • —We might face pressures to seal off Cambodia, make B–52 raids over North Vietnam, and make ground incursions into Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam.

In my judgment, Secretary Laird’s critique is inadequate for three reasons:

  • —He does not address the fundamental issues associated with what we are trying to do.
  • —Since the purpose of the operation is not to stop supplies flowing into South Vietnam, Laird’s concerns about sealing off Cambodia and sending allied ground troops into the sanctuaries are not relevant; such actions are not part of the concept.
  • —The risk of a confrontation with Russia, which he cites as a disadvantage, may be essential if we are to get Russia’s help in ending the war.
  • —He doesn’t compare the risks he sees in the proposed plan with the risks of continuing on the present course.
  • —He makes a series of debating points of doubtful significance. In my judgment, they add up to an impression of treating the JCS proposal unfairly.
  • —Civilian casualties could be easily reduced by changing the targets.
  • —The use of lighters to circumvent the minefields, operation of North Vietnam’s aircraft from Red China, and relatively quick and painless reorientation of imports, for example, are of doubtful likelihood and significance.

The Issues

This analysis suggests that we are up against a serious and potentially explosive problem:

  • —The JCS Concept Plan is in effect the first step toward what they hope will be a sustained and unrestricted bombing campaign. If we proceed in their way, the logic of events will probably impel us towards continuous, no-holds-barred attacks. If the plan fails, the alibi will be that the nation’s leaders failed to take all required military steps to make it succeed.
  • —Secretary Laird has used the JCS premises together with a smorgasbord of speculations, assertions and evidence to argue that nothing at all of this nature will work.
  • Neither the JCS nor Secretary Laird had addressed our problem, which is to develop and assess a military concept involving
  • —a mining operation sufficient to seal off the sea approaches to North Vietnam thereby stopping her supply of waterborne imports,
  • —collateral bombing designed to destroy or damage supplies, industrial capacity, and critical parts of the transportation system, thereby intensifying the economic strains brought about by the mining,
  • —all of this toward the objective of persuading the North Vietnamese that they face the prospect of increasing economic and industrial deprivation if they do not come to a settlement.

However, though the JCS plan is not responsive to this concept, it is not so egregious that it can be rejected out of hand.

Recommendation: I believe the meeting Saturday must be conducted with great care to avoid explosive confrontations. Talking points, which will set the context and are designed to elicit constructive responses from the participants, will be furnished separately.

During your Saturday discussions of the concept you should hear out all sides. However, I recommend against your making any decisions until a more satisfactory plan and assessment can be prepared.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 245, Agency Files, JCS, Vol. 1, 1969–1971. Top Secret; Sensitive. On October 10 Lynn sent Kissinger a memorandum critiquing the JCS plan and Laird’s assessment of it. (Ibid.) Lynn also drafted this memorandum for the President and recommended that Kissinger sign it. Kissinger also sent Nixon a memorandum on October 10 attached to which were talking points for his meeting with Laird and the JCS. (Ibid.)
  2. October 11, see Document 136.
  3. Brackets in the source text.
  4. Tab A, attached but not printed, is JCSM–600–69, October 1, revised October 7, and sent to Laird.
  5. Tab B, attached but not printed, is an October 8 memorandum from Laird to Nixon.