16. Editorial Note

On April 15, 1969, after a North Korean aircraft shot down a USAF EC–121 reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird unilaterally suspended the flights and then failed to inform the White House. According to the memoirs of the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs, Brigadier General Alexander M. Haig:

“The White House learned about Laird’s unfathomable action only by breaking down, with great difficulty, a Pentagon stone wall composed of delays, excuses, and obfuscation. Finally, we learned the truth. Nixon ordered the immediate resumption of the flights, but three weeks elapsed before the EC–121s were flying again. A vivid and probably ineradicable impression of presidential indecision and vacillation had been planted in the minds of our adversaries.” (Haig, Inner Circles, page 208)

Rather than bringing Laird in and, as Haig put it, “reading him the riot act,” President Richard M. Nixon instead told his Assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry A. Kissinger, to see Laird. The President said: “I don’t want to see Laird. You talk to him. Tell him there’ll be no more of this.” Haig believed that Laird took from this incident the following lesson: “Laird was a worldly man, and he knew who had won this round and who had lost, and he knew that he did not have to listen to mere messengers.” (Ibid., page 209)

Secretary Laird’s quasi-independent power base, rooted in his years of service in the House of Representatives, combined with Nixon’s non-confrontational style of leadership (according to Kissinger, the President “was almost physically unable to confront people who disagreed with him; and he shunned persuading or inspiring his subordinates”; White House Years, page 482), made it necessary for the President’s senior advisers on national security issues to find ways to work around the Secretary. Perhaps anticipating such an approach, Laird established a bureaucratic defense against it as early as September 12, 1969. On that day, he sent a memorandum on “Processing White House Requests” to all senior officials in the Department of Defense. It reads as follows:

“From time to time requests bearing the ostensible imprimatur of the President will be transmitted from the White House to officials in the Department of Defense. No execution of such orders will be initiated until a check has been made with the Secretary of Defense or the Deputy Secretary of Defense. I would be pleased if you take those steps necessary to insure that such a procedure is followed.” (Memorandum from Laird to Secretaries of the Military Departments, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Director of Defense Research and Engineering, Assistant Secretaries of Defense, and Directors of Defense Agencies, September [Page 81] 12, 1969, attached to Moorer Diary, April 3, 1972; National Archives, RG 218, Records of the Chairman)

Although the memorandum, and later amendments to it, made things difficult for Kissinger and Haig, they were able to work around Laird on most Vietnam issues. In large measure, this was because of the attitude and approach of Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

On February 1, 1972, in a telephone conversation, Moorer related to Haig the substance of an exchange he had had with Kissinger on January 24:

“I told him about my conversation with HAK on our channel of communications and that Laird has issued a directive and said nothing would go out of the Pentagon to the White House without going through him or Rush or Pursley. I said I am caught in the middle, the President does not like it, he is going to have to talk to Laird. This is an identical directive to the one he gave to Wheeler just before I relieved him and Wheeler told me it was going to be a problem. I told him that I talked to HAK and my first loyalty is to the President and the orders he gives me are obeyed immediately. Laird just has to have a directive. I told HAK that we could have a conversation between you (Haig) and I every day on the secure telephone. I said I will not let anything fall through the crack. Ehrlichman and Mitchell both told me that the President wanted the channel kept open. I understand the feelings over there but the feelings are the problems over here are pretty tight also. The long-term implications are disastrous for the President and the military. No doubt that the President is going to have to talk to Laird about it.

“I said that any order from the President, of course, will be obeyed from me regardless of Laird. Laird keeps saying things like ‘no wonder I get scooped all the time, the White House knows more than I do.’ I think though that between us we can use our heads and work out something until this storm passes.” (Moorer Diary, February 1, 6:29 p.m.; ibid.)

At a late afternoon White House meeting on February 3, attended by the President, Kissinger, Assistant to the President H.R. Haldeman, Moorer, and Deputy Assistant to the President Alexander Butterfield, Admiral Moorer received permission to communicate directly with the White House when necessary, especially on Vietnam war related issues. Moorer drafted the following memorandum for the record the next day, February 4:

  • “1. The President called me in to discuss the communications channel between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the White House and emphasized that this frank exchange between the Commander-in-Chief and the military forces must be in operation at all times.
  • “2. He emphasized that we must provide the resources to MACV in order to get over the difficult period facing us at this time. He said that he recognized that there were influences in the OSD that wanted to go in the other direction, but he was the Commander-in-Chief—he had been elected whereas the others were not and, consequently, he was going to take actions as necessary.
  • “3. He repeated what he said in the NSC meeting [February 2], namely, he did not intend to lose in South Vietnam.
  • “4. At the conclusion of our discussion he asked me to submit proposals for ensuring that we did have adequate military capability and went on to say that he would like to see me frequently in order to be kept up-to-date.” (Memorandum for the record, CJCS M–8–72, February 4, attached to Moorer Diary, February 4; ibid.)

Henceforth, Moorer and the White House frequently used this confidential channel of communications, apparently without Laird’s knowledge.