136. Memorandum for the Record1


  • JCS Meeting with the President, Saturday, 11 October 1969 (U)
Present: President Nixon, SecDef, Mitchell, Kissinger, CJCS, CNO, CSA, CSAF, CMC.
The President began by stating that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss Vietnam and “evaluate what we could do if it became necessary to take more military action against North Vietnam.”
CJCS responded by first reporting his observations during his recent visit to South Vietnam.2 He reported that Vietnamization was going well as was the Pacification Program. The number of enemy defectors is steadily increasing with a rising rate since Ho Chi Minh’s death. The Vietnamization Program is on or ahead of schedule which is: Army and Navy, June 1970—Air Force, June 1972. CJCS reported that leadership in the lower and middle ranks is a prime problem for the South Vietnamese. With respect to infiltration, CJCS reported that the total for 1968 was 245,000. This year, to date, the number is estimated at 110,000 plus at least 5,000 in the pipeline.

CJCS then described COSVN Resolution Number 9 and stated as the North Vietnamese objectives:

Force rapid US withdrawal,
Stop Vietnamization,
Break up Pacification,
Prepare for Coalition.

The rural areas were described as the prime objective with major efforts to be directed against Vietnamization. COSVN Number 8 called for victory. COSVN Number 9 called for a “high point” strategy. The North Vietnamese have shifted to the Delta which contains 34% of the people and produces two-thirds of the rice in South Vietnam. Resolution Number 9 urged that the Americans be forced to withdraw before Vietnamization succeeded. Forces were directed to reduce the tempo [Page 455] because of losses and gear objectives to capabilities. In order to achieve maximum flexibility the North Vietnamese have increased the number of battalions but have reduced their manning level.

The North Vietnamese movement into the Delta may be an effort to establish Rach Gia in IV Corps as a capitol for a Provisional Government.
The President then inquired about the effectiveness of Menu (B52 strikes in Cambodia). CJCS described the methods of bomb assessment, and SecDef said the program had been effective.
The President then inquired about the use of aircraft in Laos, and asked, jokingly, if we should get permission from Symington. He stated he had talked to Souvanna about the use of B52s and Souvanna had said that he had preferred the Dakota. The President said with respect to the B52s that we must face the fact that little will cause the same criticism as a lot. He said we cannot let Laos be overrun because we have a treaty with Thailand. We must watch Souvanna’s requests. He said we must look at the long term as well as the short term, and we could get involved in something worse than what we face at the moment.
SecDef said that his point with respect to the B52s was that there are no good targets. If we can find good targets, then we will take a look.
Mention was made of the fact that State is preparing a letter to the Control Commission.
The President then again stated that he did not want to borrow trouble, but we must watch Thailand. In addition, we must know what’s going on and must watch the situation in Laos. He said that in evaluating the situation remember we must keep the Laotian situation where it is. We must keep a government in Vientiane and noted that the Ambassador is still trying to support the Harriman Agreement.
Doctor Kissinger then commented to the effect that the US cannot let the North Vietnamese get away with overrunning Laos, since Laos is tied directly to North Vietnam.
A discussion of the meaning of “lull” then followed. SecDef then said that SecState would probably get into this on “Meet the Press” the forthcoming Sunday.
The President noted that our casualties were also low last October and November. He stated that we should look at the lull in the political context and that the enemy was deliberately effecting the lull for political reasons. Doctor Kissinger stated that the North Vietnamese were trying to put us into a position where we cannot act. Mr. Mitchell stated that SecState should not take a soft line on “Meet the Press.” The President stated that he must preserve hope but, at the same time, must [Page 456] not let the enemy take credit for reducing the tempo of operations. The President asked what would we do if we have to go other than the long road. He said he was convinced that if we hold the line politically Vietnamization will work, provided we have time to do it deliberately. The President is quite aware of the fact that a large amount of American presence will be necessary for a long term. He feels that, despite the flak that we may take, the people will stand still for support, but will not stand still for a long drawn out ground action. The President stated that, in terms of decisions he will make, he will not be affected by the public or Congress. He stated he was in a different position than that held by President Johnson since he has a “purse problem.” If the Congress cuts appropriations then we are finished.
The President then mentioned certain discussions he had had with Congressmen. Congressman Mahon said we could “catch hell” from the Hawks as well as the Doves if we followed the long road.
The President said that we have a very grave political problem. What he sees is that the student uprising will get more violent and that this will actually work against the students. He also commented that the polls are loaded as to the nature of the questions.

The President said that the real question is whether the US, after all this effort, should make a withdrawal and accept a coalition. It will be very detrimental to our long-range interests. He said we could:

Get out now,
Negotiate a settlement,
Go the long road, which also carries with it a risk of failing.

He stated, “Now this is a problem, Mel. Do you think we can hold that long?” “Are we going to lose 10,000 men this year for nothing and then have a new Congress stop the appropriations?”

SecDef replied that the problem is interpretation in the US of what’s going on. He stated that we should get a vote now from the Congress, and that he believes that 18 months from now no US forces will actually be engaged.
SecDef said that anything done in North Vietnam will take at least a year and that we should game plan progress for Vietnamization. SecDef is confident that it will work if we stick to it. He stated that Senators Russell and Stennis say we should figure “how to get the hell out.”
The President stated that if the election results in Doves coming in we are in trouble, and what is really on the line is the maintenance of Congressional support. The President said that if we rule out escalation then we should remember the outcry that would follow another Tet. If that happens, the US must react. He said the same thing goes in Korea and that the next incident generated by the North Koreans [Page 457] will result in a suitable retaliation. He then came back to the point that in Vietnam the real question is how long can we hold public opinion. The President said we could sustain current efforts for a year and take a look. If between now and next September we haven’t made progress then we must act—we cannot sit still.
I told the President I would like to comment further on the lull. When the US ceased bombing North Vietnam, we played our last trump card and lost all leverage which might be used to force concessions on their part. The North Vietnamese are now fighting from the sanctuaries of North Vietnam and Cambodia and, hence, they can control the tempo of operations. (When we withdraw 10,000 miles the NVA withdraw less than a hundred miles.) In short, the NVN have the initiative and, as a result, are able to operate in the way calculated to best affect public opinion in the United States. I believe, therefore, that the lull is a political move and not a military one, and that the tempo of operations can be increased by the NVN at will.
The President said he would now like to hear from CJCS.
CJCS gave a brief of Pruning Knife,3 the attack plan prepared by the Joint Staff. He stated he did not think it was a sound military plan—that there were problem areas. He first mentioned the weather, and stated it would take at least a week to get five days of operations. He pointed up the problem of the Air Force tankers and the necessity to move the aircraft carrier from the Korean area to the Tonkin Gulf. CJCS then stated that surprise during the first 36 hours will help. He noted other problem areas. The capabilities of the new North Vietnamese missiles, including the radar frequency changes. CJCS said that the Chiefs thought that the plan was militarily unsound because it was too short. (This was a political and not a military plan and was not intended to have full-scale military objectives.)
The President then asked, “What can we do in two weeks?” He went on to request that the plan be refined in terms of maximum shock impact, with limited civilian casualties. He stated that maximum shock effect should be measured in terms of capacity to wage war. He said we will be hitting to impair economy—POL, power, dikes, railroads, interdiction points, etc. Doctor Kissinger said we should use as target criteria high economic value targets and bottleneck areas and noted that it doesn’t mean much to strike at supplies distributed on trails. The President repeated that we should refine the plan and noted that the objective was not to stop support of the war in the South. The President wants two plans of 7 and 14 days duration for both the wet and dry seasons with reduced follow on sorties to reseed minefields [Page 458] and hit Northeast railroad. He stated we should not be concerned about degrading SIOP.
The President said that here is what may happen. The North Vietnamese may waddle along until the campaign starts and then make a provocation. There is a chance it will go in April. CJCS said that during a discussion in July President Thieu said that the North Vietnamese would continue the “high point-low point” strategy and then attack in January to embarrass the President.
I stated that it must be recognized that in the Pruning Knife plan the target list and the allocation of sorties were illustrative only. We still had much refining to do and the target studies combined with inputs from the field would require changes. Some discussion followed concerning the interdiction of the Northeast rail lines and mining of Haiphong. It was suggested that we had previously tried to interdict the rail lines, bombing targets all the way up to the Chinese border, and had not succeeded in stopping the operation. This I felt gives a wrong impression of what we are trying to do with Pruning Knife. I told the President that the current plan presents a different situation than that encountered before. I said that the current input into Haiphong was about 165,000 tons a month which it has been for a long time. This constituted about 90% of North Vietnamese requirements while about 10% was being brought in by rail. The railroads throughout this war have been operating at about 10–15% capacity. Consequently, if we mine Haiphong and throw the entire load on the railroad then it presents an entirely different target system. Traffic on the railroad is increased 7–10 times its present rate. Therefore, breaks in the rail line will generate large numbers of lucrative targets. Furthermore, with such heavy traffic the railroad must run night and day and it becomes more difficult to repair. There is also the initial problem of rerouting the traffic and finding enough rolling stock to meet such a tremendous expansion of effort. I do not think we could compare the railroad as a target system without mining to what it would be with mining.
SecDef then asked me to explain the mining problem in Sihanoukville. I said that the mining of Sihanoukville was very simple and it would have an impact on the operations of the enemy in the IV Corps area since we feel now that practically all military supplies for these areas are coming from Cambodia. In reply to a question by the President I repeated that the mining of Sihanoukville would pose no problem and no military risk and that the port facilities in Sihanoukville were very, very limited relative to those in Haiphong. Consequently, except for military requirements in the southern part of Vietnam, Sihanoukville could in no way take over the import load from Haiphong. Furthermore, it is not feasible to carry supplies overland from Sihanoukville back into North Vietnam.
The President told SecDef that we must keep the Air and Navy forces available. The North Vietnamese may decide to talk now and fight later. CSA mentioned the possibility of a preemptive buy of Cambodian supplies. Doctor Kissinger said that we must look at the CIA operations in Cambodia. In reply to a request from the President for comment, Attorney General Mitchell said that his remarks would be related to the domestic side. He said the question is whether or not the American public will stand for Vietnamization or escalation. The President said that Prime Minister Wilson will give his support, and commented in general that support overseas for the US was increasing.
Doctor Kissinger stated that if North Vietnam’s economy is crippled then this should accelerate Vietnamization (I agree).
CMC stated that if we attack the North Vietnamese then they will be compelled to react in South Vietnam with a large-scale attack since this is the reaction one could expect from Orientals.
Doctor Kissinger said that this all depends on whether or not they want to take the risk and, if they fight in the open, they will be finished. He said he was not prejudging but we should give them a very hard choice.
The President asked CSAF how long it would take to destroy the airfields in North Vietnam. The President appeared a little surprised when CSAF answered: “three weeks.” Therefore, I hastened to add that CSAF was talking about total destruction of all runways, POL, facilities, etc. I said that the destruction of aircraft themselves could be done in a much shorter time, and that after the first attack I expected many of the aircraft to be evacuated into China as they had done before.
The President noted that next September we must elect those that will support our action, and then went on to say that he is prepared to take a public relations shock if the goal can be reached. The President then discussed with the SecDef the duration of budgetary support, and was told that we were okay for Fiscal ’69 and that, due to the Continuation Resolution, we probably were okay until at least October of next year. Further discussion was held on the nature of polls and the need to explain our position.
The President said our line should be at this time: “We have a plan to bring the war to an end to get the Vietnamese in and the US out. The only ingredient missing is support of public opinion. The question is do we end the war achieving our objective, or let the Communists take over. If the Communists take over, this will encourage Communists and discourage our friends worldwide.”
The SecDef said that the new plan is working and that we should continue along the present plan. He stated that a date on withdrawal should not be given since it, in effect, stops negotiations.
A discussion followed on the nature of speeches to be given to the public.
The President stated that there was one option he rules out—that is, that we are going to get out because of public opinion. This is attractive politically since the previous Administration could be blamed and those that do not support the present course would be happy. However, if there is a chance that Vietnamization will work we must take this chance. The President stated that if we fail we have had it. We cannot sit still without an option to do more. If the North Vietnamese try to break us with an offensive then we must hit them—and I do not mean tit for tat. He stated that he wants the military to think differently than the previous policy of tit for tat. (The JCS have always thought differently and have never agreed with the previous tit for tat policy.) The President stated that a great power must go on this basis of: “Don’t strike a king unless you intend to kill him.”
T.H. Moorer 4
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1008, Haig’s Special File, Haig’s Vietnam File—Vol. 2 (Apr–Oct 1969) [1 of 2]. Top Secret; Sensitive. Drafted on October 13 by Moorer. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Nixon met with Wheeler, Ryan, Chapman, Moorer, Laird, and Kissinger; Mitchell was not listed as a participant. The time of the meeting is also from the President’s Daily Diary. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  2. Wheeler returned from an inspection trip to Vietnam on October 9.
  3. Summarized in Document 134.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.