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183. Memorandum From the President's Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • B–52's in Laos

You will recall Ambassador Godley's request in late January to use B–52's against North Vietnamese troops massing east of the Plain of Jars, preparatory to attacking the Plain.2 The decision at that time was not to use B–52's, largely at the urging of State which argued:

  • (a) that North Vietnamese intentions were still unclear;
  • (b) that it would represent escalation, and
  • (c) that it should be reserved for after the offensive has started.3
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Since then the offensive has started with the North Vietnamese troops' advance across the Plain of Jars.

Ambassador Godley has relayed a formal request from Souvanna, the first of it kind, for B–52 strikes.4 This request was triggered by the deteriorating situation in the Plain. Since your earlier decision, the North Vietnamese have cleared the supply route to the eastern edge of the Plain, and government guerrillas have been ordered to withdraw from that area. This retreat had been planned, and no major friendly losses have occurred to date, but forward elements are in a dangerous situation. One assault on the guerrillas' main forward base in the Plain was repulsed, but others are expected shortly. Weather in the Plain is unseasonably cloudy and has hampered the use of tactical air. The purpose of B–52 strikes would be to harass Vietnamese supply lines, particularly Route 7.

Ambassador Godley supported Souvanna's request by back channel,5 but did not comment on his formal request.

Secretary Laird believes that B–52 strikes should go forward at the time that suitable targets can be developed. He raises some question as to whether such targets are presently identified.6

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Admiral Moorer, Acting Chairman of the JCS, proposes that we go ahead with blanket authorization for B–52 strikes for a two-week period, and that suitable targets be hit as they are developed.7

Secretary Rogers has taken a very strong stand against the use of B–52's at the present time. He points to the continuing availability of tactical air to support the guerrillas and urges that you consult with Messrs. Richardson and Packard before making a decision.8

Arguments favoring the immediate use of B–52's are these:

(a)
B–52's can do more against lines of communications than tactical air, particularly if the cloudy weather continues;
(b)
the greater damage we can do now to NVA logistics, the less momentum they will have to go beyond the Plain this dry season, or to whittle down guerrilla forces which are the only really effective troops on our side;
(c)
the psychological boost to the guerrillas and the RLG, and
(d)
most importantly, the psychological effect on Hanoi. At this point, the Vietnam outcome may depend on Hanoi's estimate of your resolution.

Arguments against are these:

(a)
Congress and the press are watching closely (and have been inquiring regularly at Defense and State), and a major domestic Donnybrook is to be expected if decision is made to use B–52's;
(b)
The RLG knows it cannot expect to hold the Plain; we have forewarned them to have retreat lines prepared, and believe they have done so; the real psychological crisis will come if the NVA goes beyond the Plain;
(c)
the use of B–52's will tend to undercut efforts we have been making to signal to the North Vietnamese our willingness to stick to 1962 lines of territorial control, and
(d)
the use of B–52's now will deprive us of a useful signal which we could use later if the NVA goes beyond the 1962 informal lines and it could encourage the RLG to fight disastrously to hold the Plain, which was in Communist hands from 1961 until last summer.

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Recommendation:9

A.
To temporize with Souvanna, explaining that targets and timing are not yet appropriate to play the B–52 card, but that we are seriously considering their use if the NVA appears intent on going beyond the 1962 lines of territorial control;
B.
That, at the meeting on Monday you authorize B–52 strikes as suitable targets are developed if the enemy goes beyond Muong Soui, west of the Plain, or a major effort is made to destroy the principal Meo stronghold at Long Tieng.
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 102, Vietnam Subject Files, B–52 Strikes in Laos. Top Secret; Sensitive. Sent for action. This memorandum was discussed at a meeting on February 16; see Document 184.
  2. Godley made the request in telegram 557 from Vientiane, January 23. (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 LAOS)
  3. In a January 26 memorandum to the President, Rogers argued against the strikes for these and the following additional reasons: such deliberate escalation would detract from efforts to find a peaceful solution in both Vietnam and Laos, it would suggest more aggressive U.S. posture and undermine the “political track” in Laos, it would imply an open ended commitment in north Laos, it would send the wrong signal to Hanoi forcing the North Vietnamese to escalate, and it would only give a temporary military advantage and not change the fact that North Vietnam could take Laos when they decide it was in their interest. (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 102, Vietnam Subject Files, B–52 Strikes in Laos) Nixon wrote the following responses next to the Department of State's arguments above: (a), “no”, (b), “yes,” and (c), “no.”
  4. In telegram 1063 from Vientiane, February 13, Godley reported that he had received the following letter from Souvanna on February 12: “I have the honor to inform you that the situation on the PDJ has become more serious as of today. The arrival of fresh NVA troops testify to this. As the action of ordinary attack aircraft has been insufficient, I ask you to consider the utilization of B–52 bombers during enemy offensive. I would be grateful if you would intervene with Washington in this sense.” (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 LAOS)
  5. In backchannel message 1211044Z, February 12, Godley described the course of the battle and stated that there were two lucrative targets for B–52s. If the targets were attacked by B–52s, Godley suggested that it “might well contribute appreciably delaying further enemy advance into the PDJ.” He added that while “TACAIR [tactical aircraft] is doing a superb job, now may be time for the Sunday punch.” (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 546, Country Files, Far East, Laos, Vol. IV, 1 February 1970–31 March 1970)
  6. In backchannel message 140241Z to Rogers, February 14, Laird informed Rogers (who was in Nairobi) that: “It is possible that targets which are susceptible to B–52 strikes may develop in the next few days. If such targets, i.e., mass or area targets, do develop, I intend to authorize appropriate strikes.” (Ibid.)
  7. Moore's advice has not been found.
  8. In backchannel message 141040Z from Nairobi to Laird, February 14, Rogers stated that the “military utility of the strikes is questionable and the political liabilities are clear.” Rogers recalled that the President had assured him that no decision would be taken until the President met with Rogers and Laird. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 LAOS) In backchannel message 142500Z, February 14, Laird stated that, “Consideration should be given to the immediate objectives of keeping enough stability in the north Laos situation to preclude the North Vietnamese from using the situation there (north Laos) from becoming available bargaining point against our interdiction in southern Laos.” Laird concluded that “while the distinction between B–52's and massive tactical air strikes is not always clear,” there are occasional targets which are more adaptable to B–52s. (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 102, Vietnam Subject Files, B–52 Strikes in Laos)
  9. The President did not check either option, but for the decision, see Document 184.