147. Memorandum From President Nixon to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) and the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig)1

I know that both of you, Moorer and, undoubtedly, Abrams, think I am sticking my nose into business I have no knowledge on when I suggest a massing of what tanks we have left for at least one surprise offensive against the enemy in some area where they can effectively be used.

I do not pretend to have any knowledge or experience whatever in military matters. But I do know that military men generally are noted for the courage and loyalty of their character and notorious for the plodding mediocrity of their strategy and tactics. Particularly where American military men are concerned, all they seem to be obsessed with is superior numbers (with even quality a secondary consideration) and with doing things the way they have been taught to do them in the book. The element of surprise is practically unknown in top American military circles and has been with rare exceptions throughout the period since World War II and, as a matter of fact, through much of World War II this was the case also. That is why a Patton and a MacArthur were never favorably looked upon by the top military strategists. They didn’t do things by the book. As a result, they incurred the wrath of those who followed the way to success in any organization, and particularly in a military organization—“The way to get ahead is not to make mistakes. Don’t try anything that hasn’t been approved or tried before because if it fails you will get a bad fitness report. Ergo, do things by the book with total loyalty, dedication—and blindness and you will eventually get to the top.”

I do not mean to suggest that Abrams from to time did not fit this mold, particularly when he was under Patton in World War II. Haig certainly is an exception. But we will have to admit that while the bravery of our forces in Vietnam has been far beyond the call of duty, our military leadership has been a sad chapter in the proud military history of this country. I know that the military make the politicians the scapegoat—and in some instances with pretty good reason. But during the past three and a half years when we have begged them to come up with new initiatives, they have invariably failed to do so and when [Page 548] we have come up with new initiatives they have dragged their feet or even openly blocked them. The excuse that Laird was opposed to such initiatives is totally unacceptable. After all, every military commander from Moorer down knows that the President is the Commander-in-Chief and my views have been expressed orally and in writing so often that they can have no doubt as to what I expect them to do and also no doubt that I will back them up to the hilt, win or lose. You will recall in this instance, the memo I wrote before My Lai. I was just pleased that they had come up with a daring idea. I was prepared to take, as I did take, the sole responsibility for the failure of the idea. And then after that we haven’t heard a peep out of them as to any new ideas.

This brings me back to my suggestions about the more effective use of tanks. I accept all the military arguments that this is not like World War I or even World War II, that the South Vietnamese aren’t very good at using tanks, that we don’t have many left, and that we ought to play things by the book.

I would only respond by pointing out that in the first four weeks of the enemy offensive, they made an enormously effective use of tanks primarily because they used surprise and mass numbers. Using big headlights on tanks and using them at night is an idea which, of course, would never have occurred to any of our present group of timid (as far as their strategy is concerned) tank commanders.

In order for you to get the flavor of my thinking I am sending with this memo a copy of Churchill’s “The World Crisis, Part II, 1916–1918” which we have gotten from the Library of Congress. I would like you to go to the appendix and pick out and read all the pages that have to do with tanks—particularly read pages 342 to 346 on the Battle of Cambrai. As you read it, start with the assumption that nothing at all in Vietnam is similar to the situation that existed at Cambrai in the period of French warfare during World War I. However, what does stand out is that tanks when used massively as a unit and with surprise can have a massive demoralizing effect on an enemy dug in for an attack.

The purpose of this memorandum is not to order a tank attack unless there is at least some chance of it succeeding. My purpose is to try to get the military off their duffs and to come up with some new ideas like the landing of the helicopter troops behind the North Vietnamese lines over the weekend. Remember, as you push Moorer and Abrams to come up with something, that all of MacArthur’s top command opposed the Inchon landing!

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 341, Subject Files, HAK/President Memos, 1971. Personal and Confidential.