47. Editorial Note

On the morning of March 30, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon and his Assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry A. Kissinger, were discussing the latter’s forthcoming trip to New York to meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and a proposed trip to China by Senators Michael J. Mansfield and Hugh D. Scott. In the midst of their discussion, one of Kissinger’s aides entered and handed him a note. Kissinger then said to the President: “It looks as if they are attacking in Vietnam.” The conversation continued:

Nixon: “The battle has begun?”

Kissinger: “Yeah, right at the DMZ. And the sons-of-bitches again, I made them check whether the—of course, the weather is too bad for us to bomb.”

Nixon: “Hmm.”

Kissinger: “We must have the world’s worst air force.”

Nixon: “What’s the situation? They—is this the—this is an attack on a broad front?”

Kissinger: “It looks that way. It’s—they have attacked eight fire support bases, which is usually the way these things start. And—”

Nixon: “How—?”

Kissinger: “And they are attacking within range of the SAMs in North—”

Nixon: “How are they doing?”

Kissinger: “It says they’re doing fairly well, but, you know, the first six hours of an attack, you know, who can tell?”

Nixon: “How’s the ARVN doing? It’s done fairly well?”

Kissinger: “Yeah. That’s what they say. It says they’re reacting well, but—”

Nixon: “Yeah.”

Kissinger: “—but you can’t really believe them. I think if this is a real attack, we should hit the SAMs in North Vietnam—”

Nixon: “Sure.”

Kissinger: “—that are protecting—and we told them we were going to do it.”

Nixon: “That’s right.”

Kissinger: “And—”

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Nixon: “Well, I don’t see why we don’t do it right now. Is it—it’s weather?”

Kissinger: “Well, let’s wait until the end of the day to see whether it’s a real attack or just a blip.”

A few minutes further into the exchange, the two began to discuss in more detail a possible immediate response:

Nixon: “Well, now, let me ask—what the hell is the situation here?”

Kissinger: “Well, I, Mr. President, before I—”

Nixon: “Should we start bombing right now? I mean, [unclear]—”

Kissinger: “I think it is infinitely better for us that the attack is coming now. My nightmare—”

Nixon: “I understand that.”

Kissinger: “My nightmare was—”

Nixon: “September—”

Kissinger: “—that they’d do it in September and October.”

Nixon: “That’s right.”

Kissinger: “If—we’ll either win or lose. And I don’t think we’ll lose because, as I watched them in Laos, for example, there’s no reason why they haven’t been able to take Long Tieng yet.”

Nixon: “They haven’t done that—?”

Kissinger: “And—except the fact that they’re a lot weaker than they used to be. And if we—they’ll use up their supplies this way and we know when this is over there isn’t going to be anything the rest of the year. I think it’s a hell of a lot better—”

Nixon: “I agree. Oh, I’m not concerned about the attack, but I am concerned about the counterattack. By God, you’ve got the Air Force there. Now, get them off their ass and get them up there and hit everything that moves—”

Kissinger: “Well, I think if this attack continues 24 hours, then we should hit them by Sunday or Monday [April 2 or 3]—”

Nixon: “I want you to call Moorer and tell him that I want a plan ready, and they are to meet and agree—”

Kissinger: “I think a 48-hour attack.”

Nixon: “48-hour attack? Great.”

Kissinger: “And that—”

Nixon: “Fine, but, but don’t scatter it around. Hit—hit in ways that are going to affect this thing.”

Kissinger: “That’s right. Well, just north of the DMZ is the place to do it—”

Nixon: “Is that where it is?”

Kissinger: “Yeah.”

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Nixon: “Like within—like the B–3 strike there? [Nixon had ordered a massive airstrike in the Highlands (the B–3 Front) in early February; see Document 17 and footnote 3 thereto.] Is that what you think?—”

Kissinger: “Yes, sir. And that would get rid of the—we could take out the SAMs there, plus the supplies. And then they can go in with gunships against this attack.”

Nixon: “Is that right?”

Kissinger: “Yeah.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 697–2)

In the wake of this conversation, Brigadier General Alexander Haig, the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs, called Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to find out what was happening. Haig’s call compelled Moorer to make a series of calls of his own and to hold conferences with his senior JCS subordinates throughout the day. Moorer recorded in his diary on March 30, the substance of the calls and meetings.

Regarding Haig’s call at 9:57 a.m., Moorer wrote: “He asked if there was any additional activity indicated in South Vietnam. I briefed him on what I knew, that there was not much new, a MIG crossed into South Vietnam (the first time), tried to get back to Vinh and could not make it, was fogged in and finally bailed out. We had a MIG engagement over Mu Gia Pass and our F–4s claim they shot down one MIG. They are building two fields in the southern part of North Vietnam. They have sent down more aircraft, there are 12 planes south of 20 degrees now.

Haig indicated they had a report about 8 ARVN FSB under ground attacks. That they may be an indication that the NVN are moving South. I told him I would check on it right away, I knew there was some firings but not ground attacks. I told him about the [C–]130 being shot down and although this was not the first time they have been fired upon, it is the first time they have been hit by SAMs.

“The President told HAK he may want to hit them hard up North. We need to go after the SAMs and their supply points. We have a request to strike SAM sites and we will watch it closely.” (Moorer Diary, March 30; National Archives, RG 218, Records of the Chairman)

In a series of telephone calls that worked up the chain of command in the J–3 (Operations) section of JCS, Moorer spoke with the Assistant Deputy Director for Operations, Colonel Jack N. Butts; the Deputy Director for Operations, Brigadier General Harold F. Knowles; and the Director for Operations, Lieutenant General Melvin Zais. Of the first call, made at 10:01 a.m. to Butts, Moorer wrote: “I asked if he had any word of major ground attacks along the DMZ. He said yes, they had an item that the enemy launched coordinated attacks. I asked why I was not told. He said they sent it in to the [JCS] briefers to brief, and at the same time they LDX’d it to the White House.” (Ibid.)

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Next, Moorer contacted Knowles at 10:06 a.m.: “I asked about the attacks on the Fire Support Bases and said I found out about it from a call from the White House.

“The DDO passed it to DIA and the J–3 Briefer and expected that it was to be briefed. Somehow it was not. I said it is very embarrassing; do not send anything to the White House unless SecDef, me and General Vogt know about it. They think we do not know what is going on. I asked them to call MACV and check on the activity.” (Ibid.)

At 10:11 a.m., he called Zais: “I asked Zais if he knew about the enemy launching the coordinated attacks against 8 FSB’s south of the DMZ. He said attacks by fire he was aware of. No, I said these were ground attacks. The SVN had withdrawn from defensive positions in three places. Zais had not seen it either. I said the DDO sent it to the White House and did not send it to me and now they are running in circles over there. I told Zais to be sure that if it was important enough for the White House that I should get it.”

At 10:18 a.m. on a secure line, Moorer spoke to Haig and brought him up to date on the latest message from General Abrams in Saigon: “He refers to the three FSB’s being attacked by ground probes. 8 were attacked by fire. He may have to divert Arc Light over to the area on a case by case basis. Abe does not think the situation is critical, however, it is developing with increased pressure.” (Ibid.)

At 3:33 p.m., Moorer and Haig talked for the third time that day when the latter called with White House directives: “Haig understands they are going to hit the Highlands tonight. HAK wants a 48-hour plan over to the White House tonight, at least a conceptual plan. He is asking SecDef for this plan. Haig says he sent the question over 4 hours ago. I said I have not seen the request yet but we can respond quickly when we get it. HAK asked where the four carriers were. I said three can get there but one is pretty far away. The President is building up a head of steam to hit the NVN up North.” (Ibid.)

Moorer then met with senior subordinates at 3:40 p.m. to pass on the orders and discuss what should be done: “I described to them what the situation was and told them to prepare the authority request for our strikes in the North. I said dust off a 48-hour plan and give me some options for South of 19, South of 18, and South of 20, primarily against SAM sites, logistic targets, and military targets with airfields included. I told them to draw up the plan and have it available with the execute messages so I could talk to SecDef about it.” (Ibid.)

At 6:38 p.m., Moorer had a last conversation with Haig: “I told Al I had the watch set up and should be able to handle anything. I asked if he had in mind a general strike against supplies and missile sites. He said that was the general idea but it must be made clear to HAK [Page 157] that if the battle is underway the air may need to support the battle and not be striking up North. We will have instant replay in our Situation Room with the information we get from MACV, CINCPAC, Godley, CIA, and NSA.” (Ibid.)