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

It is vitally important that we not psychologically downgrade the firmness of our action by protesting that it is not a blockade. People understand what a blockade is. They don’t understand what mining is.

The way everybody in the Administration should handle this question is to say that the order of the President’s action has the purpose and effect of a blockade—to completely stop the delivery of all seaborne supplies to North Vietnam. We find that we are able to accomplish this goal through mining and through naval and other activities against shipping within the 12-mile limit claimed by Hanoi. This means that we have not found it necessary, in order to accomplish our goal of stopping all deliveries of supplies by sea, to stop ships in the high seas.

In other words, from a technical legal standpoint there is a blockade only when ships are stopped in the high seas. This we are not doing at this time—but only because it is not necessary to accomplish our goal of completely cutting off seaborne delivery of supplies to North Vietnam.

What must be emphasized is that the action the President has ordered, both on sea and on land, has as its purpose completely denying to the enemy the supplies it needs to wage aggressive war. We will order those actions that are necessary to accomplish this goal. The fact that the initial order does not include stopping ships on the high seas—which in the parlance of international law is a blockade—in no way should be indicated as a sign of weakness or firmness of resolve. We are not doing that only because we find it is not necessary and that there is a more effective way to accomplish our goal—mining and naval and air actions within the 12-mile limit claimed by North Vietnam.

I want you to make this point strongly in your briefing, and I want it circulated to all Administration spokesmen so that our action, both by the enemy and by the American people, does not run the risk of being considered so restrained as to be ineffective. [Page 520] With regard to bombing strikes in the North I have decided that it is imperative that they be at the highest limit that Abrams can spare from the battle area in the next few days.

I mentioned that our primary target, except for the rail lines, should be POL. This, of course, should be our long-term goal. But over the next few days I also want some targets hit which will have maximum psychological effect on morale in North Vietnam. That is why it is so important to take out the power plants. If your operational group thinks of any other targets of this type hit them and hit them hard.

Remember that we will have more support for strong action than we will in the days ahead. As each day goes by criticism will reduce support for our action and also the failure to get results will reduce the enthusiasm of our supporters.

You have often mentioned the necessity of creating the impression in the enemy’s mind that I am absolutely determined to end the war and will take whatever steps are necessary to accomplish this goal.

The time to take those steps is now.

That is why some extensive B–52 strikes in the North should if at all possible be directed against military targets in North Vietnam this week.

I am concerned by the military’s plan of allocating 200 sorties for North Vietnam for the dreary “milk runs” which characterized the Johnson Administration’s bombing in the 1965–68 period.

I cannot emphasize too strongly that I have determined that we should go for broke. What we have got to get across to the enemy is the impression that we are doing exactly that. Our words will help some. But our actions in the next few days will speak infinitely louder than our words.

I am totally unsatisfied at this time at the plans the military have suggested as far as air activities are concerned. On an urgent basis I want on my desk late this afternoon (Tuesday) recommendations to carry out this directive which I am now dictating. I intend to give the directive directly to Abrams in the field and I will inform Laird and bring him into line if there is any question in that direction.

Our greatest failure now would be to do too little too late. It is far more important to do too much at a time that we will have maximum public support for what we do.

What all of us must have in mind is that we must punish the enemy in ways that he will really hurt at this time. Over a longer period of time we can be more methodical in directing our air strikes to two specific targets—the rail lines, highways and POL supply areas. I have an uneasy feeling that your present plans are simply too restrained and too much in the pattern of the 1965–1968 debacle.

[Page 521]

Now that I have made this very tough water shed decision I intend to stop at nothing to bring the enemy to his knees. I want you to get this spirit inculcated in all hands and particularly I want the military to get off its back side and give me some recommendations as to how we can accomplish that goal.

Needless to say, indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas is not what I have in mind. On the other hand, if the target is important enough, I will approve a plan that goes after it even if there is a risk of some civilian casualties.

I think we have had too much of a tendency to talk big and act little. This was certainly the weakness of the Johnson Administration. To an extent it may have been our weakness where we have warned the enemy time and time again and then have acted in a rather mild way when the enemy has tested us. He has now gone over the brink and so have we. We have the power to destroy his war making capacity. The only question is whether we have the will to use that power. What distinguishes me from Johnson is that I have the will in spades. If we now fail it will be because the bureaucrats and the bureaucracy and particularly those in the Defense Department, who will of course be vigorously assisted by their allies in State, will find ways to erode the strong, decisive action that I have indicated we are going to take. For once, I want the military and I want the NSC staff to come up with some ideas on their own which will recommend action which is very strong, threatening and effective.

I want as part of the plan this week, on an urgent basis, making strikes on all air fields in North Vietnam, particularly in the Hanoi–Haiphong area. I realize that they can be put back into operation a few days after a strike, but the psychological effect could be considerable. On this score, I particularly want to hit the international airfield where civilian planes land.

Also, this week I want one major strike. Get Abrams to collect his assets and have one 500 plane strike by Thursday2 or Friday of this week so that the enemy will know that we mean business all the way.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 45, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Easter Offensive, 9 May 1972. Top Secret; Eyes Only. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. On June 4, while at Key Biscayne, Nixon wrote the following comment on the memorandum: “K reread—& Haig also—before filing.” On the same day Haig forwarded the memorandum to Kissinger with a note that reads: “Henry—The President sent this in via Alex Butterfield this morning (Sunday) and asked that we both reread it. I am afraid that Rebozo will rekindle the fire over the weekend and we must all be ready for the ritual.” (Ibid.)
  2. May 11.