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

SUBJECT

  • Consideration of B–52 Options Against COSVN Headquarters

Background:

1.
On February 9, 1969, COMUSMACV (General Abrams) recommended approval of a proposal to conduct B–52 raids against the reported [Page 69]location of COSVN Headquarters within Cambodian territory (map, Tab A),2 the attack to be a contingency response in the event the enemy initiates a major attack in South Vietnam in the near future (Tab B).3
2.
On February 12, 1969, Ambassador Bunker, in a message to Secretary of State, referred to the Abrams' message and concurred in the proposal to conduct the strike (Tab C).4
3.
On February 14, 1969, at our request, Secretary of State advised Ambassador Bunker that the matter should be dropped in view of Presidential trip to Europe (Tab D).5 Concurrently, a back channel, eyes only, message was sent to General Abrams advising him to continue planning for the strike strictly within military channels and to dispatch a briefing team to Washington cognizant of the details of the proposed operation.6
4.
On February 18, 1969, Mr. H.A. Kissinger, Secretary of Defense Laird, Deputy Secretary of Defense Packard, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Wheeler, and Colonels Pursley and Haig met in the Secretary of Defense's conference room and were briefed by a two-officer team from Saigon on the conduct of the proposed Arc Light strike against the reported location of COSVN Headquarters.7 The intelligence on the target area appeared to be very accurate and the strike plans sound. There is every reason to believe there would be no Cambodians in the target area. More complete strike data is at Tab E.8
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Discussion:

Two attack options, with associated alternatives were discussed:

a.
Option 1: An overtly deliberate strike.
b.
Option 2: A covert strike officially categorized as a mistake.

Under both of these attack options, three alternatives were discussed:

a.
An attack without provocation.
b.
An attack in response to a strategic provocation—a large scale enemy attack against a major South Vietnamese population center not near the area of COSVN Headquarters.
c.
An attack in response to a tactical provocation within the III Corps Tactical Zone in the vicinity of the Cambodian border.

The pros and cons of each attack option and their alternatives were discussed and a consensus arrived at with respect to each. The results of this consensus are summarized below:

Option 1, Alternative 1 (an overt deliberate strike initiated without provocation):

Pros Cons
1. Complete honesty throughout the bureaucracy and with public, with no risk of creating credibility gap. 1. Major risks of exposing President to war expansion charges domestically and abroad.
2. A strong indicator of the new Administration's willingness to escalate military operations to achieve a settlement. 2. Blatant overt escalation risks forcing Soviets to react strongly.
3. Ease of planning and execution. 3. Major provocation against Sihanouk which could not be ignored by Cambodian Government, despite nature of target.

Option 1, Alternative 2 (an overt deliberate strike initiated in response to a strategic provocation):

Pros Cons
1. Direct manifestation to Hanoi of new Administration's determination to retaliate sharply against violations of U.S.-NorthVietnamese understanding. 1. Risk of exposing President to war expansion charges, domestically and abroad.
2. Strong signal to the Soviets of new Administration's determination to settle war, despite cost. 2. Lacks precision and credible justification in that retaliation is focused on a third party rather than North Vietnam.
3. Direct demonstration to world at large of new Administration's determination. 3. Blatant overt escalation risks forcing Soviets to react strongly, but to a lesser degree than Alternative #1.
4. Major provocation against Sihanouk which could not be ignored by Cambodian Government, despite nature of target.
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Option 1, Alternative 3 (an overt deliberate strike initiated in response to a local enemy attack):

Pros Cons
1. Direct manifestation of new Administration's determination to retaliate against violations of U.S.-North Vietnamese understanding. 1. Risk of exposing President to war expansion charges, domestically and abroad.
2. Strong signal to the Soviets of new Administration's determination to settle war, despite cost. 2. Lacks precision in that retaliation is focused on a third party rather than North Vietnam but to a lesser degree than Alternative 2, Option 1.
3. Could be justified as a measure taken to protect U.S. forces in immediate danger and be attributed to enemy initiative and utilization of Cambodian sanctuary. 3. Blatant overt escalation risks forcing Soviets to react strongly, but to a lesser degree than Alternative 1.

Option 2, Alternative 1 (a covert strike officially categorized as a mistake and initiated without provocation):

Pros Cons
1. Could minimize Soviet reaction by providing Soviets option of accepting U.S. explanation publicly. 1. In view of exchange of messages between Ambassador Bunker and Secretary of State, creates high risk that State personnel will claim deception, thereby creating early credibility gap for new Administration.
2. Should lessen Cambodian and international unfavorable reaction. 2. High likelihood of reduced U.S. confidence in professional reliability of Strategic Air Forces.
3. Offers most reasonable and credible circumstances internationally for acceptance of U.S. cover story. 3. Create demands for punishment of military scapegoat.
4. Major risk of interdepartmental loss of confidence with some long-term overtone and possible Congressional investigation.
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Option 2, Alternative 2 (covert strike officially categorized as a mistake in retaliation for a large scale enemy attack against a major South Vietnam population center):

Pros Cons
1. Could minimize Soviet reaction by providing Soviets option of accepting U.S. explanation publicly. 1. In view of exchange of messages between Ambassador Bunker and Secretary of State, creates some risk that State personnel will claim deception, thereby creating early credibility gap for Administration (in view of local provocation this risk should be reduced in direct measure to the seriousness of the provocation).
2. Would lessen Cambodian unfavorable action. 2. High likelihood of reduced U.S. confidence in professional reliability of Strategic Air Forces.
3. Improves likelihood that both new Soviets and Cambodians will interpret action as indication of U.S. unwillingness to accept violations of Paris agreement or continued utilization of Cambodian sanctuary. 3. Create demands for punishment of military scapegoat.
4. Could reduce somewhat Soviet reaction in that U.S. attack could be better justified as a retaliation against a North Vietnamese violation of U.S.-North Vietnamese understanding. 4. Major risk of interdepartmental loss of confidence with some long-term overtones and possible Congressional investigation.
5. Interdepartmental resentment should be ameliorated by the knowledge that attack was justified by enemy's violation of U.S.-North Vietnamese understanding.
6. Due to obvious enemy provocation, U.S. cover story would lose large measure of its credibility, both [Page 73]domestically and abroad, thus intensifying claims at home that the new Administration has used a pretext to escalate and enlarge war in Vietnam.

Option 2, Alternative 3 (covert strike officially categorized as a mistake in retaliation for a tactical provocation):

Pros Cons
1. Could minimize Soviet reaction by providing Soviets option of accepting U.S. explanation publicly. 1. In view of exchange of messages between Ambassador Bunker and Secretary of State, creates high risk that State personnel will claim deception, thereby creating credibility gap.
2. Would lessen Cambodian and international unfavorable reaction. 2. Likelihood of reduced U.S. confidence in professional reliability of Strategic Air Forces.
3. Offers most reasonable and credible circumstances internationally for acceptance of U.S. cover story. 3. Create demands for punishment of military scapegoat.
4. Improves likelihood that both Soviets and Cambodians will interpret action as indication of U.S. unwillingness to accept violations of Paris agreement or continued utilization of Cambodian sanctuary. 4. Major risk of interdepartmental loss of confidence with some long-term overtones and possible Congressional investigation.

Conclusions:

1.
The BunkerRogers exchange has deprived us of undertaking a covert “accidental” strike during the next few weeks without unacceptable risk of compromise.
2.
A covert attack on COSVN Headquarters is not an acceptable course of action in retaliation for a large scale enemy attack against a major population center since it would risk charges of “unjustified escalation” against a third party not involved in the provocation. An overt attack against COSVN without provocation would be even more unacceptable.
3.
A covert “accidental” strike against COSVN Headquarters has the advantage of showing the Soviets that we are serious about the war, without forcing them to take a public stance against our attack.
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Recommendations:

1.
In order to set the stage for a possible covert attack, and clear the books on this matter within the Bureaucracy, we should send a message to General Abrams authorizing him to bomb right up to the Cambodian border in the Fish-hook area of III Corps Tactical Zone.
2.
General Abrams be authorized to continue planning for execution of the strike on a contingency basis.
3.
If a suitable local action develops in the III Corps Tactical Zone in the vicinity of the Fish-hook, that with your approval at the time we use it as a pretext to strike COSVN Headquarters.
4.
If no suitable local action develops, that we again consider the proposal toward the end of March.9
  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 12, Geopolitical File, Cambodia Bombings, 1969. Top Secret; Sensitive.
  2. The map at Tab A was not attached.
  3. Tab B was apparently MACV telegram 1782 to Chairman of the JCS, February 9. It was not found attached, but is in JCS Files, OCJCS File Operation Breakfast, as cited in Historical Division, Joint Secretariat, Joint Chiefs of Staff, The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the War in Vietnam, 1969–1970, p. 221. See also Hearings, Bombing in Cambodia, Senate Committee on Armed Services, 93d Cong, 1st Sess., pp. 131–132.
  4. In telegram 2830 from Saigon, February 12 (Tab C), Bunker informed Rogers that he had seen a message from Abrams to Wheeler (Tab B) that showed the location of COSVN headquarters as just over the Cambodian border and which requested authority to use B–52's to attack it without hitting the nearby Cambodian villages or army outposts. Bunker added, “I realize fully the political implications of such a strike on Cambodian soil, but notwithstanding I support General Abrams in his request for authority to mount a strike. If Sihanouk complains, our rejoinder must be that COSVN is located on his territory and has been for years. He has done nothing about it although his forces in the area are fully aware of COSVN's presence. Preparations are being made for new attacks on South Vietnam and Saigon and we cannot permit these attacks to be planned and mounted from Cambodia; and finally that virtually no Cambodians live in immediate area.” Tab C is attached but not printed.
  5. Tab D, telegram 023875 to Saigon, February 14, is attached but not printed.
  6. The backchannel message has not been found.
  7. No other record of this meeting has been found.
  8. Tab E has not been found.
  9. Nixon initialed the approve option.