42. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon1


  • Request for Operating Authorities to Counter the North Vietnamese Threat

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has forwarded a request for additional authorities to assist in countering the enemy threat in Southeast Asia. He has requested permission to conduct air and naval gunfire attacks against North Vietnam south of 18°N latitude until 1 May 1972. I have earlier provided the Chairman’s request, as well as General Abrams’ message initiating the request.2 In this memorandum I shall provide my judgments on the proposed action. Recognizing the difficulties and pressures under which our field commanders and units are operating, I conclude nonetheless that, on balance, it would not be wise now to accede to the request. I prefer the course of (a) continuing the extensive operating authorities now in existence and (b) authorizing the three twenty-four (24) hour strikes requested earlier against occupied SAM sites in the limited L-shaped area closest to the DMZ and Laotian border passes.

Situation in SEA

The Chairman’s assessment of the current enemy dispositions is consistent with other available intelligence. The NVA have concentrated their forces so that they are capable of launching multiregimental assaults simultaneously in northern Military Region (MR) 1, the Central Highlands, western MR 3, and at Long Tieng in northern Laos. It is entirely possible that the NVA may be able to achieve a short-term victory on one or more of these potential battlefields. On the other hand, I do not foresee, on the basis of information now available, the North Vietnamese being able to overwhelm friendly forces to the extent that the progress of Vietnamization is reversed.

The enemy has apparently strengthened his air defense capability in southern North Vietnam with a buildup of MIGs, Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), and Anti-aircraft Artillery (AAA). This air defense provides protection for his long-range artillery, tanks, and ground forces [Page 140] located adjacent to the DMZ, and is a threat to friendly air forces operating in northern MR 1 of South Vietnam and the Laotian panhandle. Our losses to NVA air defenses over recent weeks and months have been light, especially in relation to the large numbers of sorties flown. In January 1972 the US lost two aircraft to hostile causes while flying nearly 19,000 sorties of all types (attack, recce, etc.). The resulting loss rate to hostile causes was less than one-fourth that experienced by US forces in the CY 1966–68 period and was less than half that experienced in CY 1971. In the last full year of operations, CY 1971, we flew nearly 260,000 sorties of all types in Southeast Asia, losing 72 aircraft to hostile causes. It is clear the enemy poses a threat to our air operations. It is equally clear we are able to continue effective air operations. The existence of the growing NVA air defenses does require the occasional diversion of US air missions from primary targets. The NVA air defenses also require the assignment of escort aircraft dedicated to suppression of the defenses. The authorities and measures now in effect for US forces dilute partially the weight of effort we might otherwise put against NVA non-air defense targets. That dilution is not, in my judgment, of major proportions. We have dropped in excess of 150,000 tons of air ordnance on key targets in Southeast Asia since 1 January. The freedom to execute these air operations has in no small part, I believe, accounted for Hanoi’s inability to date to generate the expected major offensive operations.

Implications of the Chairman’s Request for Expanded Authorities

The Chairman’s 9 March memorandum emphasized that short one-time strikes, as we have used since November 1968, do not permit using our full potential to counter the enemy. The Chairman does not contend, however, there is no military value in the limited duration, limited area strikes.

The thrust of the Chairman’s request for additional authorities is to reopen the bombing campaign, which was terminated by the 1968 bombing halt, against North Vietnam. A prolonged and widespread resumption of air attacks against NVN south of 18°N has serious implications for the eventual shape of events in Southeast Asia. Such bombing would terminate our adherence to the November 1968 Understandings. I agree that enemy provocation to terminate recognition of the Understandings is great. It is true, however, that Hanoi has abided by the Understandings in a relative sense. In particular, the NVA forces—for whatever reasons—have used the DMZ and shelled populated areas less since November 1968 than before that date. The Understandings have served as a constraint which, if lifted, would have significant negative impacts for the Republic of Vietnam. I do not agree that we should abandon lightly the hope they hold for restraint on the war and the precedent they offer for future negotiations.

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A second matter which should be weighed in your consideration of the new authority is that there has been no flagrant provocation for renewed air attacks. He has not moved major forces directly across the DMZ. The military activity in Southeast Asia is still low. Resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam now would heighten the controversy over the war. The resultant widely publicized escalation, as contrasted with the unpublicized enemy provocation, could result in criticism for enlarging the scope of the war.

I am not convinced, moreover, that the reported enemy preparations for an offensive would be thwarted by extending our air strikes to the 18th parallel or by placing munitions in the northern half of the DMZ. The majority of threatening forces are now concentrated in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I have described to you in earlier memoranda the measures we have taken to delay the expected enemy offensive. I have expressed the belief that our extensive air operations are inflicting a substantial, though indefinite, toll on the enemy. We should continue to direct our effort to attacking these concentrations. Should the enemy launch a major attack through the DMZ, or offer a clear provocation by massive support of an attack from immediately north of the DMZ, we could then reassess the Chairman’s request.


I do not believe that executing the measures which the Chairman has recommended is warranted now. Of the measures proposed, standing authorities permit engagement of enemy aircraft airborne below 18°N; strikes against active GCI sites when enemy aircraft are airborne and indicate hostile intent; and engagement of AAA and long-range artillery when fired upon friendly forces. I have separately recommended that you authorize limited-duration strikes against occupied SAM sites in North Vietnam within 19NM of the PMDL and the NVN/Laotian border as far north as 19NM above Mu Gia Pass.4 Current measures fulfill your responsibilities to protect the lives of our servicemen. The additional authority requested for three 24-hour strikes against SAM sites would help to alleviate a specific part of the enemy threat; but that authority is not, in my judgment, critical to the outcome of the so-called dry-season activity.

I recommend we stay with existing authorities, with the exception that you allow me to authorize at a relatively early date the twenty-four (24) hour anti-SAM missions requested earlier.

Melvin R. Laird
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–77–0095, 385.1, Viet. Top Secret; Sensitive.
  2. See Document 35 and footnote 3 thereto.
  3. See Document 34.