132. Editorial Note

After the National Security Council meeting on May 8, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon, Treasury Secretary John B. Connally, and the President’s Assistant for National Security, Henry A. Kissinger, and later Assistant to the President H.R. Haldeman met in the Oval Office and continued to discuss the arguments for and against mining. Portions of the conversation are printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 205. During the conversation the following exchange took place:

Nixon: “I think if we do it—I mean, I think the decision is to either do it today or to not do it at all. Well, or at least not do it this week. [chuckles] And that probably means we’re not going to hit at all. But let’s, say, let’s get your evaluation, John. After listening to the whole thing [the NSC meeting], you just be as cold and deliberate as you can. Tell me what you think.”

After additional discussion as to exactly what the President wanted to know, Connally said:

“The safest thing is always to, basically, let the status quo remain the status quo. Whatever the ultimate result, that’s the safest thing. That’s the basic bureaucratic approach, that you never want to disturb things. That, somewhat, is reflected in both Mel and Bill’s attitude. Secondly, I think you have to assume that Bill really would not like to see the summit come off, the Russian Summit. He would like to see it postponed—”

Nixon: [laughs]

Connally: “—for whatever reason, but he’d just like to see it go by the boards. Third, I think there’s—I think there’s some argument there to be made, on behalf of Mel’s argument, that, well, you know, it’s costing us a hell of a lot, but, dear God—”

Nixon: [unclear]

Connally: “This doesn’t—this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Nixon: “No, no. That, that, that argument—”

[unclear exchange]

Kissinger: “That has nothing to do with the operation, because if you follow that argument, you have to stop the air—”

Connally: “Sure.”

Kissinger: “—because we—”

Connally: “We’d have to get out completely.”

Later in the conversation, Connally returned to the question of the cost of the war and its relation to policy, referring to an earlier conversation with Secretary of Defense Laird and Secretary of State Rogers after the National Security Council meeting on May 8:

[Page 502]

Connally: “Mel said: ‘Now, there’s a real problem on these finances.’ And I said: ‘Mel, I know that,’ but I said, ‘hell, if you’re going to take that argument, you ought to pull out all your air forces and all your, all your navy ships. Save some money. Or, you’ve got to go for broke, get it over with.’ And then, Bill said: ‘Well,’ he says, ‘as a matter of fact, I would probably go for just complete devastation of Hanoi and Haiphong. Just bomb them.’ He said: ‘I just think we ought to raze them.’ He said: ‘I’d probably support the option of razing them to the ground.’ And Mel then said, he said, ‘Well, the thing that kills us, are these pinpointing these damn targets. That if we didn’t have these restrictive targets placed on us,’ he said, ‘that’s why we have to make so many sorties trying to just pinpoint particular targets.’”

Kissinger: “That’s a lie, too.”

Connally: “And he said—I said, ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I might support, strongly support, razing Haiphong and Hanoi and just devastating them.’ I said: ‘I might do that.’ ‘On the other hand,’ I said, ‘I might well support a move by the President, right now, to go and undertake this action and then, at the same time, withdraw the 69,000 troops.’ ‘But,’ I said, ‘the thing I cannot support is just the continual degradation of our position and the position of the South Vietnamese, and leaving in the hands of the South Vietnamese the viability of the whole foreign policy of the United States.’ And, I said: ‘That, that I just can’t, I can’t go for.” He said, ‘Well, we’ll support—’”

[unclear exchange]

Connally: “I’m sorry.”

Nixon: “Excuse me. Then they said what?”

Connally: “They said: ‘Well, we’ll, we’ll sure support whatever decision is made.’ And I said: ‘Well, that’s the important thing, that we all support it.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care what.’ I said, ‘I have strong feelings, but whatever the President’s decision is, I’m going to be for it.’ And that’s the way we broke up. Now, I—”

Nixon: “What is your—how do you balance that [unclear] question that was raised—? And I’d like to get Henry’s judgment on that, too. I mean, let us assume that South Vietnam is gonna—all right, then the question is: are we better off for having done this, or worse off? And it’s, frankly, I think if South Vietnam goes down, we ought to go down, the U.S. and our foreign policy has suffered a shattering blow in any event. But, is our foreign policy—is our position better, if we have tried—done this, or worse? Rogers says it’s worse if we’ve done this and it goes down. And you think maybe it’s better if we’ve—”

Connally: “Yes.”

Nixon: “—done this and it goes down.”

Connally: “Yes, sir.”

[Page 503]

Nixon: “What’s your argument for that?”

Connally: “Well, the argument is that, at least, we, we have sent a message to other aggressor nations that they’re going to suffer some damage. And this is one of the great weaknesses that we have in the American position, always, that we have constantly been on the defensive. We bomb North Vietnam, yes, but it’s been targets of—highly selective targets, and so forth. There’s been no devastation. People in Viet—in North Vietnam have been relatively free of these fears of retribution.”

Nixon: “[unclear] civilians, that’s right.”

Connally: “Civilians. And fear of retribution is a powerful motivating force. And we’ve let them go ten years without it. And at the same time, these poor bastards, the South Vietnamese, everybody says that they stay there, that they’ve got stay so many rounds, just to make it—”

[unclear exchange]

Connally: “—and then, they may break, it’s just the sheer—the fear that they’re going to get killed. And I don’t blame them for evacuating civilians. But, you see, at least, you would accomplish that much by sending a message to other countries around the world that you just can’t be an aggressor with complete impunity.”

Nixon: “Um-hmm. Um-hmm.”

Connally: “That you’re going to suffer some damage.”

Nixon: “Also, I think—and I’d like to get Henry’s view on that—but on that critical question, alone, you know, let’s assume it goes. Let’s—let’s assume. Are we better off from having done this, or worse off? What’s your view, Henry?”

Kissinger: “My view is that we’re, we’re better off.”

Nixon: “Why?”

Kissinger: “Because, if this thing—”

Nixon: “The reason he mentions, and what else?”

Kissinger: “Well, because if this thing goes without our having done something, we’ll have 60,000 Americans in their hands without any card to play at all.”

Nixon: “You mean, you really think there’s a chance they could be captured?”

Kissinger: “I think if—when this thing goes, if it goes—”

Nixon: “It’s gonna go bad—”

Kissinger: “—there’ll be a massive disintegration—”

Nixon: “[unclear] You think—you agree with the Agnew theory, rather than the Laird theory? Do you—”

Kissinger: “Absolutely.”

[Page 504]

Nixon: “Do you agree with Laird’s evaluation of the military situation?”

Kissinger: “No. I—remember, Mr. President, when I came back from the Soviet Union, up in Camp David I told you the whole thing is misconceived in terms of the North Vietnamese objective. I do not believe they were after provincial capitals. I believed they were after the disintegration of ARVN, and that they’re going to chew up one division at a time, until the remaining divisions are so demoralized that you get a massive collapse.”

Nixon: “Um-hmm.”

Kissinger: “Or an upheaval in Saigon.”

Nixon: “And then?”

Kissinger: “And then you can get all kinds of situations. You could get some of these ARVN commanders turning on Americans—”

Nixon: “Yeah.”

Kissinger: “—in order to prove to the Communists that they’re really nationalists.”

Nixon: “Yeah. Yup. Yup.”

Kissinger: “What you can then get is quite unpredictable. You might get a guy in, in Saigon forming a coalition government, and—”

Nixon: “Well, not to mention, but, I still get back to the point that, if I may—I still—I do think that this POW issue is a terribly moving, emotional issue among the Americans. At the present time, we’ve got no card to get the POWs. The problem—”

Kissinger: “You—”

Nixon: “—is getting a card.”

Kissinger: “You’ll—”

Nixon: “Do you feel that—?”

Kissinger: “You’ll be in the position, then, if the thing disintegrates in the South, of having Americans—that you have to go, practically on your knees, to this bastardly little country. And if you then do a blockade, it looks like total—”

Nixon: “Yup.”

Kissinger: “—peevishness, and then, then they might really stick a blockade, because they don’t have any drain on their supplies, anymore.”

Nixon: “Yeah. Well, let’s wait this thing, through. Let’s look down the road. If we do the bombing, and the ARVN contingent still collapses, then where are we? That’s what I’m getting at—”

Kissinger: “Well, Mr. President, if you do the blockade, and the ARVN still collapses, then you trade the blockade for the prisoners. And, at least, you’ve got a halfway reasonable negotiation. What you [Page 505] also have to consider is the degree to which this reduces the possibility that ARVN collapses, because—”

Nixon: “Oh, yes. I know.”

Kissinger: “—what will happen, at least in the short term, as a result of the blockade in Saigon, is that the opponents of Thieu will be discredited, because, after all, Thieu did deliver the Americans. I’m just looking at it cold-bloodedly.”

Nixon: “Yeah. I know.”

Kissinger: “And—and for a month or so, at least, they’re going to get a big shot in the arm. Now, I also believe—I—that the fact that all these measures will do nothing is absurd. That is just insane—”

Nixon: “That’s the funny thing. Mel’s point is that they don’t accomplish anything.”

Kissinger: “That just isn’t rational. Now, whether they’ll do as much as Moorer says is questionable. But, if you were a prudent leader in Hanoi, and you have four months of POL supplies, and for you to get them overland from the Soviet Union, you’d have—or China—you’d have to get an agreement between those two countries. You’d have to see how this thing works. You’d have to know how your railway system can handle the bombing attack that’s going on. You don’t just go balls out for four months and wait ’til you get to, to zero.”

Nixon: “Of course you don’t—”

Kissinger: “That just is insane.”

Nixon: “Of course you don’t—”

Kissinger: “You’d have to be irrational to do this. Now, what decision they make, whether they’ll say we go balls out for a month and then settle—that is—that’s a conceivable strategy, that they’ll just chew their words for a month and then settle. But, it will have an impact. It’s got to have an impact. My expert thinks that they were pretty closely divided before they went into this operation. Now, you also have to look at that leadership problem. They’ve got 15 divisions in the South. They’ve got to keep that southern front supplied. That’s a major undertaking all by itself. Now, you close the port, tonight, or whenever, that means 90 percent of their supplies have to be redirected, their whole logistics system has to be changed, new depots have to be created, new, new storage facilities. Even assuming that it’s possible to do all of this, that’s a massive undertaking. Have they got the manpower? Have they got the command and control facilities? Can they do all of that and still plan an unlimited operation in the South? It’s hard to believe.”

Near the end of the conversation, Nixon declared:

“Well, let me say this, if I could go into it, the thing that I—the thing that I just, on the military side, I think there’s now—I would—I [Page 506] don’t know how much—I think there’s a 40 to 50 percent chance that the South Vietnamese will go down the tube if we do nothing. On the military side, I believe that doing something gives us a bargaining position for the POWs, and a bargaining position for the balance of the Americans there; where we would have none, if they went down the tube the other way. Also on the military side—that’s the diplomatic side—but on the military side, I believe there is a chance that it will discourage the North Vietnamese, hamper their military operations. I said in there for their benefit, four or five months from now, we could hammer them within a month or two—”

Connally: “That’s right.”

Nixon: “—if they start thinking, and that, from a military side, it will give some immediate encouragement to the South Vietnamese—”

Kissinger: “I—I would think if it hampers them at all, it will begin within two months. They’re not going to the end of their POL supplies. They’d—”

Nixon: “Well—”

Kissinger: “They’d be insane to do that.”

Connally: “Not only that, but if our bombing is at all effective, if we start knocking out their utilities, it begins to affect them within 24 hours, because when you—”

Nixon: “Those power plants gotta go now—”

Connally: “You knock out utilities, and knock out the communications, and it has to affect them adversely. Now, I don’t care how they fight a war, but you just have to affect them.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 721–11)

Following that conversation, which ended at 1:15 p.m., Kissinger was to bring to Nixon, before the 2 p.m. deadline, papers to sign to authorize the mining. The deadline, established by Admiral Moorer, was the last moment that the military could issue the “execute” order so that the mining would take place, as planned, at the same time as the President’s speech scheduled for that evening. At the appointed moment, Nixon said: “Well, it’s 2, the time’s up. We go.” ( Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition, May 8, 1972)

At 2:16 p.m. Haig called Moorer and told him: “it is a go.” (Moorer Diary, May 8; National Archives, RG 218, Records of the Chairman) Twelve minutes later, Moorer called Admiral John S. McCain, Commander in Chief, Pacific, at his Honolulu headquarters informing him the operation was on and promising a cable authorizing “Pocket Money,” the operation to mine Haiphong and other North Vietnamese ports. (Ibid.)

The cable left the Pentagon at 2:39 p.m. Its first sentence reads:

[Page 507]

“This is execute repeat execute message.” The rest of the short message told McCain to carry out the mining plan in accordance with earlier developed instructions—namely, to lay the first mine in Haiphong Harbor at 9 a.m., Saigon time, May 9, as the President began to address the nation at 9 p.m., May 8. (Message 98253 from Moorer to McCain, May 8; ibid., Records of Thomas Moorer, Box 68, JCS Out General Service Messages, 1–15 May 1972)

At 3:30 p.m., May 8, Henry A. Kissinger convened a meeting of the Washington Special Actions Group to review the several military and political scenarios the United States might take consequent to the mining of Haiphong Harbor. U. Alexis Johnson, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, discussed the letters he had drafted to foreign heads of state and to the United Nations Security Council as well the President’s speech to be delivered at 9 p.m. that evening. Johnson emphasized that critical information provided earlier by the Joint Chiefs of Staff—that the mines would activate in 72 hours—had to be absolutely accurate. (Johnson, The Right Hand of Power, page 536) As Moorer later explained to the Chief of Naval Operations, however, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, the 72-hour figure was not precise:

CJCS: I got really embarrassed up there a while ago, we finally got Ken [Captain McKee] to get digging into this thing and we found that statistically time of 72 hours could vary anywhere from 58 to something like 80. Of course, we put 72 hours in President speech and everything and I finally came down with why don’t you just say we gave them three daylight periods of activity, sunset on third afternoon actually happens assuming worse case and they laughed and laughed, people like Helms and Nutter who didn’t want to do this in the first place said, ‘HAK, I told you so, etc.’ Anyway that’s the first, put in 58 hours HAK said we can’t put in 58 hours, that doesn’t make any sense, it is sunset I said the third daylight day and we gave them three days, fact is not going to come out that night anyway.

CNO: Just astonished our guys didn’t bump into it sooner, holding so close that they couldn’t talk to all the experts. They did have in there the guy in charge of mining and interrogated him but I’m surprised didn’t come up with that.” (Moorer Diary, May 8, 5:39 p.m.; National Archives, RG 218, Records of the Chairman)

Kissinger informed the President during a 5:24 p.m. telephone conversation: “We found incidentally, Mr. President, that some of these mines are going to go off in 58 hours so we’ve had to change a sentence of yours. And since 58 hours sounds like such a nutty period,” Kissinger told the President, the language was changed to “three daylight periods.” (Transcript of telephone conversation; ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Box 14, Chronological File) Moorer observed in his Diary that day: “This almost was [Page 508] a disaster.” (Moorer Diary, May 8, 5:39 p.m.; ibid., RG 218, Records of the Chairman)