44. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • Request for Operating Authorities to Counter the North Vietnamese Threat

On March 8, 1972, the Secretary of Defense sent you a memorandum advising that General Abrams, CINCPAC, and the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff had asked for additional operating authorities to counter the increasing North Vietnamese air defense threat (Tab C).2 Specifically, they wanted authority to attack any occupied SAM sites and associated equipment in the area of the south North Vietnamese panhandle which had previously been conveyed by NSDM 1493 subject to your final approval. Secretary Laird alternatively proposed that authority be given for three 24-hour strikes against such sites on the ground that more extensive strikes over an indefinite period entailed high risks and costs.

General Abrams subsequently reiterated his request and, in addition, asked for authority for naval gunfire attacks against SAM targets in North Vietnam south of 18 degrees, citing the serious buildup of enemy air defense capabilities. General Abrams also requested authority to employ area denial munitions in the northern portion of the DMZ. Admiral McCain and Admiral Moorer support General Abrams’ request. (Tab D)4

By memorandum dated March 14, 1972, Secretary Laird has again reviewed these requests (Tab B).5 He has again concluded that it would be unwise to accede to the requests. He proposes instead that the extensive existing authorities which you have approved be continued and that three 24-hour strikes against occupied SAM sites in the limited L-shaped area closest to the DMZ and the Laotian border passes be approved as he had earlier recommended.

—Mr. Laird believes that the authorities requested by the military commanders would, in effect, reinstitute a major bombing campaign with attendant high political cost unjustified at this time by either the nature of the threat or the likely result. He argues that the effect could be [Page 149] the removal of the last vestiges of constraint arising from bombing understandings of November 1968. Because the enemy has not yet moved major forces directly across the DMZ and the level of the military activity continues low despite the enemy’s buildup, he believes that the authorities requested, if exercised, would be widely publicized as a major escalation with resulting criticism for enlarging the scope of the war.

—Moreover, Mr. Laird argues that our air campaign thus far has helped to delay the expected enemy offensive and that broadening the authorities at this time, as requested by the military commanders, would not further thwart the enemy’s preparations.

Secretary Laird believes, therefore, that we should not grant these additional authorities now but be prepared to reassess the request 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.

I agree with Secretary Laird’s appraisal. I do not believe that you should at this time grant either the requested authorities for unlimited air attacks or for naval gunfire attacks on SAM sites north of the DMZ. I also recommend against granting the authority which Mr. Laird has proposed for three 24-hour attacks at this time. The costs and risks outweigh the advantages which might be gained by such strikes in the current circumstances.

I recommend, however, that you grant the authority for aerial emplacement of area denial munitions in the northern portions of the DMZ. The risks of this course are low and their emplacement now could seriously delay any enemy attack through the DMZ should he choose to mount one.

At Tab A is a memorandum for Secretary Laird which reaffirms the existing air authorities which you have already approved, denies the requests at this time for the additional air and naval gunfire authorities, and authorizes the mining of the northern portion of the DMZ.6 It also informs Secretary Laird that should an enemy offensive begin the requests for additional authorities will be reassessed.


That you sign the memorandum to Secretary Laird at Tab A.7

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 97, Vietnam Subject Files, Air Activity in Southeast Asia, Vol. IV, Sep–Dec 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Sent for action. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.
  2. Printed as Document 34.
  3. Document 15.
  4. Attached but not printed; dated March 10. For General Abrams’s request, see Document 35.
  5. Printed as Document 42.
  6. Attached but not printed; dated March 18.
  7. The memorandum was signed by Nixon and sent to Laird on March 18. (Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–77–0095, 385.1, Viet) A note on the Department of Defense copy reads: “Sec Def has seen.” On March 22, Laird informed Moorer of the President’s decision (National Archives, RG 218, Records of the Chairman, Records of Thomas Moorer, Box 28, Vietnam, March 1972) and on March 24, Moorer informed McCain and Abrams in message JCS 6432. (Ibid.)