14. Conversation Among President Nixon, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger), and the Ambassador to South Vietnam (Bunker)1
[Omitted here is discussion of U.S.-Indian relations, Senator Muskie’s speech about Vietnam, and South Vietnamese morale.]
Nixon: One thing we’re hitting on, I think you should know, the—this—don’t say this to anybody—
Nixon: —beyond this meeting.
Nixon: But, we’ve ordered the extra carrier in.
Bunker: Oh, good.
Nixon: In our briefing. We’ve ordered more B–52s in.
Bunker: No, I was going to—
Nixon: We’ve ordered A–1—A–1s, and everything. Now, incidentally, I just want to—I think you’ve got to put it toughly. Well, I’ll see Moorer today. I would just double the number of ’52s if necessary, whatever is necessary, so there’s one hell of a show. We’ve got 400. I know a lot of them have to be refitted, or whatever we have to do, but get them the hell over there, right now. Let’s have an awesome show of strength. Now, between now and the time we return from China, we cannot hit the North.
Nixon: Nor will I. On the other hand, we can dump everything we’ve got on the South.
Nixon: And I think that—that it seemed to me [unclear] when Moorer came in, from a military standpoint, if they hit in there, our [MR–] 3 area, or whatever it’s called, that this saturation bombing over there is bound to kill a hell of a lot of people.
Kissinger: Well, Mr. President, a lot of this argument about targets is phoney, because when they know they have X number of sorties, they gear the targets to the sorties. When they have more planes, they’ll find—they’ll waste a few bombs. If they—[Page 72]
Kissinger: There’s got to be somewhere in a definable area they’re going to attack.
Bunker: Yes. Sure.
Nixon: You mean, in other words, having them be—I’d like to see—
Kissinger: If you have more B–52s—
Nixon: I’d like to see Moorer and Abrams concentrate on just bombing. [unclear] If they’re going to have a battle in a certain area, and they know where the North Vietnamese are, saturate it. Just saturate it. Remember that personnel bomb? Don’t you think so?
Kissinger: I think so.
Nixon: Instead of screwing around trying to hit a milk truck one time, or, oh, a buffalo the next time, or—you know, some of this bombing is silly. Utterly silly.
Bunker: Yes, sir. Yes. And the—this B–52 bombing, you know, affects the enemy morale tremendously.
Nixon: Yeah, that’s what I understand.
Bunker: Yeah, oh yes. And also, Mr. President, as I said yesterday, they’ve done a increasingly good job on this interdiction.
Bunker: The trucks they get in, the input—the throughput, it’s a small proportion of the input. They’ve done a fine job on this. This—on this question of bombing with more B–52s, the bombing of these SAM sites becomes important. And one thing that both General Abrams and I—
Bunker: —we could get authority to bomb these SAM sites. Now, the authority is for—to bomb them when they fire at aircraft—
Nixon: I saw that.
Bunker: —when the radar’s locked on. But, the problem is that’s, that’s late to start attacking them.
Bunker: And the other problem is weather. You’ve got to see them. Now, you’ll sometimes only get an hour a day—
Nixon: Well, my point is, Henry, I think protection and reaction should include the right of the—and Abrams is not going to do something, do something utterly stupid—the right to hit the SAM sites.
Nixon: Nothing—protective–reaction should include preventive-reaction.[Page 73]
Kissinger: I think—
Kissinger: I think the way to handle it, Mr. President—I haven’t had a chance to talk to Ellsworth, yet—is that, one, is to give them a blanket authority. That has the disadvantage—
Nixon: It’ll get out.
Kissinger: —of getting out and also—
Kissinger: —of—it’s doing that, something when we are in China. The other is, right now they can only hit when the radar is locked on—
Kissinger: —and that’s very restrictive because that means that the plane which is in trouble also has to fire. The third possibility is to say that Abrams can hit any SAM site that has locked on, even if it is no longer locked on. In other words, if a—and—
Nixon: Would that broaden it up—?
Kissinger: —and use high explosives, too. Right now they can use only Shrikes.
Bunker: It—this is one thing we would like to do.
Bunker: Here are these locations of the SAM sites here.2
Nixon: Have all of these fired at some time on our planes?
Bunker: No. Now, but they’ve—but we’ve located it.
Bunker: That mean is their range. So, the B–52s have got to keep out of this.
Nixon: Yeah, I see.
Bunker: And what, what Abrams would like to have is authority to bomb these SAM sites within the 19 nautical miles of the border.
Bunker: You see? [unclear]
Kissinger: Could he knock it off while we’re in China? And not to hit [unclear]—
Bunker: Oh, yes. Yes.[Page 74]
Nixon: Could he do it now, though?
Bunker: He could do it now, and he can stop.
Nixon: I don’t think they should be doing it while we’re in China.
Bunker: No, no.
Nixon: The only thing in China, it should only be protective reaction—
Kissinger: But couldn’t—?
Nixon: —in the technical sense, but right now, counteractions are to be stopped—
Kissinger: But couldn’t we stage it, as long as we in this room agree, and on the grounds that they have fired, rather than—
Nixon: I want him to say—no. No. What he [unclear]—
Kissinger: Or that they have—
Nixon: He is to say, we—he is to call all of these things “protective reaction.”
Nixon: Just call it “protective reaction.”
Bunker: That’s what it is, really.
Nixon: Tell that to him, because preventive reaction—
Nixon: I am simply saying that we expand the definition of protective reaction to mean preventive reaction, where a SAM site is concerned. And I think that, but let’s be sure that anything that is done there it’s best to call an ordinary protective reaction. Who the hell’s going to say that they didn’t fire?
Kissinger: No, but could they stop from blabbing it at every bloody briefing?
Bunker: Yes, absolutely—
Nixon: Yeah. Why do we have to put—? You tell him I don’t want it put out any more.
Nixon: Tell him—I want you to tell Abrams when you get back, he is to tell the military not to put out extensive briefings with regard to our military activities from now ’til we get back from China. Do it, but don’t say it.
Nixon: Goddamnit, he can do that.
Nixon: Because, goddamnit, these PRO officers blab.
[unclear exchange][Page 75]
Bunker: Yeah, sure, and, you see, Mr. President, there are about—the enemy has about 168 SAM sites. They’ve got some in southern Laos, three in southern Laos, now. Now, they’ve got about 28 of them manned, but they can move these anywhere within six hours from one site to another, and that’s what they do.
Nixon: Henry, we need—
Bunker: The B–52s are very vulnerable.
Nixon: If we lose a ’52, I’ll never forgive myself for not knocking those sites out. [unclear]
Kissinger: I have no problem with it.
Nixon: All right. Your problem is you don’t want it done while we’re in China? Is that it?
Kissinger: I don’t want it done—
Kissinger: —from the 17th, from the time you leave—
Bunker: Yup, until you get back.
Kissinger: —until you get back.
Nixon: All right, between now and the 17th—
Nixon: —you work out the authority.
Nixon: He can hit SAM sites, period. Okay?
Nixon: But he is not to build it up publicly for the duration [unclear]. And, if it does get out, to the extent it does, he says it’s a protective reaction strike.
Nixon: He is to describe it as protective reaction, and he doesn’t have to spell out that they’ve struck. After all, it is a SAM site, a protective reaction strike against a SAM site. As you know, when we were hitting the [Mu] Gia Pass and the rest, we’d call that protective reaction—
Nixon: —and then bomb the hell out of a lot of other stuff.
Nixon: So what we want is protective reaction. Fair enough?[Page 76]
Kissinger: Fair enough.
Nixon: So he’s got about two weeks—about ten days, now—
Nixon: —to [unclear]. From the 17th until the first of March, he’s dead—
Nixon: —as far as North Vietnam is concerned. But then tell him to get those damn bombers and start hitting something in South Vietnam, and hit it good. Yeah?
Bunker: Yeah, sure. In the B–3 Front, and, of course, in Laos, too.
Nixon: Yeah. In the B–3 Front, and Laos, and don’t forget Cambodia. There’s something to hit there—
Bunker: Yeah. Yeah.
Nixon: Knock the bejeezus out of it.
Bunker: Yeah. Right.
Nixon: Now, the other thing, Henry, that we have to remember when we talk to Moorer about the DMZ: we are not going to hit across the DMZ until after we get back from China.
Nixon: That’s a silly thing to have—
Kissinger: No, I think—
Nixon: —we bomb the road [unclear]—
Kissinger: I have no problem with hitting on the northern side of the DMZ.
Nixon: Will you—
Kissinger: I mean—
Kissinger: —short of the border.
Nixon: That’s what I meant. I think we should cover the whole DMZ. Now, would you make that in our—in the talk with Moorer this afternoon?
Nixon: And, at least, let’s blunt that offensive a bit. You know? They’ve said, “Well, we can hit the road, but [unclear].” It’s a lot—I agree they can fix the road up quickly, but it’s more difficult if you hit it all the time.
Kissinger: Well, yeah. It’s—that’s—
Nixon: Also, if the enemy knows you’re only going to hit south of that dividing line, they can all be in a perfect sanctuary north of it. So hit it.[Page 77]
Kissinger: I don’t think—I don’t know what Ellsworth believes—that they will attack in I Corps before the middle of March.
Bunker: I think, I think that’s about it, yes. Maybe the first of March on. The weather gets better then.
Nixon: Well, we’re going to be back—
Bunker: Sometime in March. No, I think that’s—oh, sure. Yeah. Sure. Well, that’ll be fine, I think. It’s great.
Nixon: We will see that the authorities are adequate. I can assure you that the authorities will be adequate. We will see that more planes are put in there, and carriers. Goddamm it, they should have asked for more planes and carriers. Henry, I don’t understand the military.
Kissinger: Mr. President, if you hadn’t been at the briefing yesterday, that thing was sort of fixed to lead you to the opposite conclusion, but—
Nixon: Oh, I know that we were doing everything we could.
Bunker: Now, I thought it was great. I got tremendously encouraged from—when you moved in on it, I must say.
Nixon: Well, they have to do it. Now we—but I’m just concerned that we haven’t—well, the one carrier, it’s got to be on its way now, you know. [unclear]
Kissinger: It will be there before the end of the month.
Kissinger: Which is about as fast as they can get it there—
Nixon: Full speed.
Nixon: Because they go out there and get ready, then boy. And those little Naval pilots can hit better than the Air Force pilots, too, you know. They really know how to target—
Bunker: They’re good. Yes.
Nixon: They’re fantastic.
Kissinger: And they discover targets once you—once they’ve got the plane. That’s the question of priorities.
Nixon: Explain that again.
Kissinger: Right now, they’ll always tell you they’re hitting every target they get. But, they also know that they have certain limitations.
Nixon: Oh, I see.
Nixon: So, if they’ve got more planes, they’ll find more targets?
Kissinger: That’s my guess—[Page 78]
Kissinger: —what do you think?
Bunker: Yeah, that’s for sure.
Kissinger: And for the next three months, we are better off wasting bombs—
Kissinger: —than we—
Nixon: Well, I would very much like to have in the B–3 Front—if that’s what it’s called—I’d really like to have some saturation bombing now. I mean, just take—take it off of everything else, and for a couple of nights, just bomb the bejeezus out of where they’d invade. There are two or three divisions there.
Nixon: They’ve pinned them. We ought to be able to just frighten the hell out of them—
[Omitted here is discussion of the use of B–52s in Laos to defend Long Tieng, the effect of B–52 bombing on enemy morale, improvements in South Vietnamese combat effectiveness, the achievement of the Lam Son operation of 1971, and a residual U.S. force in South Vietnam.]
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 665–3. No classification marking. The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. The transcript is part of a larger conversation, 10:53–11:33 a.m.↩
- Bunker was apparently pointing to a map.↩