49. Editorial Note
On April 1, 1972, the Commander in Chief, Pacific, Admiral John S. McCain, sent a message to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer. In it he wrote:
“For the past two and one half months, General Abrams and I have consistently requested the authority to conduct those operations deemed necessary to preclude generation of the critical enemy threat which was predicted and now has developed. Many of the requests either have been denied, or approved with seriously limiting provisions. The effect of the current constraints on the field commander are clearly evidenced by the serious battlefield situation now existing in northern RVN MR–1.
“Reevaluation of Washington policies with respect to the freedom of action allowed our tactical commander on the battlefield is imperative. He has the overall mission of taking those actions necessary to help ensure success of the Vietnamization program. Forces are available which are capable of far more effective employment in support of that mission. The missing element is the authority to use those forces as required by the enemy threat, operations and the changing situation. This means the authority to take the right act at the right place at the right time.”
McCain’s analysis led him to this conclusion: “Failure to provide recommended authorities will place at unacceptable risk the achievement of United States’ objectives in Vietnam and invite physical and eventual political occupation of a portion of South Vietnam by North Vietnamese force of arms.” Therefore: “In view of the extraordinary implications of the current situation in MR–1 and MR–2 to our total national investment in Southeast Asia, I request the foregoing views be brought to the attention of highest authority.” (Message from McCain to Moorer, April 1, attached to Moorer Diary, April 1; National Archives, RG 218, Records of the Chairman)
On the following day, at 10:30 a.m., President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry A. Kissinger called Moorer:
“HAK: I talked to SecDef but wanted to repeat to you what the authorities are because we will be looking for you to be sure they are carried out and if you are told anything different you will check with us and wouldn’t accept any different orders unless you get them confirmed by us. During the battle Abrams has authority to hit north of the 25 miles north of the DMZ, and he needs no additional authority for that.
“Ans [Moorer]: International of the battle. [“International” is likely a transcriber’s mistake.]
“HAK: Keep that area cleaned out. Second, we want 48 hours strike on top of that with maximum effort south of 19° route packages and [Page 160] SAM and other things since he has authority for SAM concentrate more on logistics. The other thing, we are suggesting, that since we are going to take the same heat for one plane as for 400 when it finally does get going that he shouldn’t do it until we can really do something.
“Ans: We will go in this 25 mile belt as soon as they are in position and we will go on the other one when conditions are right.
“HAK: As soon as possible you say that’s right I agree with you on this, we sent someone one SAM sites attacked and it’ll make tremendous headlines in The New York Times.
“Ans: I know what you are saying if they say that in fact it was a massive raid that’s what it should be.” (Moorer Diary, April 2; ibid.)
Almost two hours later, at 12:15 p.m., Kissinger called Moorer again:
“HAK: I am just checking and want to be . . .
“Ans: We got the order out all right on the 25 mile zone and that was sent out okay but limited to 1 May but we can correct that later. That is what they wanted.
“HAK: What about the 48-hour one?
“Ans: Haven’t put that one out yet he [Laird] wants to talk to me about it I have got the message written his argument . . .
“HAK: I don’t give a darn about his argument. The President is the Commander Chief. I have never heard of a SecDef countermanding an order of the President.
“Ans: I haven’t either. I put out my strongest argument with Field Marshal Pursley and I wanted to give then the authority we required for the weather and the resources available would provide optimum results and message is written all you got to do is initial it and that message has not gone out. Laird, he [sent] Pursley down to talk to me.
“HAK: He’s got an Execute Order.
“Ans: Exactly, it’s always the case. He hasn’t initialed it but if you want me to I’ll go ahead and send it, although I don’t think I should be put in that position. I will do anything the President orders me to do, anything. I don’t know why they are argumentative. But he says they can’t do it any way and said let’s talk about it in the morning. I have written the message precisely like you passed on the President’s instructions and one of them is done and the other not done because of . . .” (Ibid.)
In a 12:48 p.m. telephone call to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kenneth Rush, Moorer described the precarious tactical situation of the South Vietnamese in Quang Tri Province near the DMZ and how Laird had signed off on the first order but not the second one:
“Laird has agreed to the 25 mile zone but he wants to talk to me Monday about the other thing and so I am kind of caught in the middle [Page 161] again having one instruction from HAK and other set from SecDef. HAK says he would call SecDef and call me at 1500 this afternoon and straighten it out, unless that [they?] get that settled we’re in a mess.
“Ans [Rush]: Mel will see the light.
“CJCS: These are the specific instructions in light of what we talked about. I told HAK if the President ordered me directly to do something I assured him I would do it immediately but if you pass it through a third person then I have to clear it with my boss. I think that’s the problem and the position for me to do that’s the way it stands right now.” (Ibid.)
Moorer and Kissinger talked again at 2:50 p.m.:
“HAK: Where are you.
“Ans [Moorer]: Home.
“HAK: I talked to Mel right after we talked.
“Ans: He called me. We are going to have a meeting tonight.
“HAK: I understand the second order will go out at 1500 this afternoon.
“Ans: We are going to have a meeting at 2200 as I understand it and he asked me to get over to the Pentagon and we will put out then and we are setting up a little briefing on it again.
“HAK: I talked to the President and want to repeat again his . . . I talked to the President and whether we were going to have to review the whole outfit—we want a 48 hour strike starting when the weather is good and to be done at Abrams’ discretion and that there should be no misunderstanding about that.
“Ans: Not from me.
“HAK: He wanted to be sure that they understand the risk and that there are no contradictory orders and we don’t mind waiting to pull out but he will not accept a misunderstanding on it.
“Ans: I will see to it the way it goes I’ll let you know.
“HAK: He was afraid you would get them to fly immediately (Laird), then the 48 hours would lapse.
“Ans: We aren’t children. He is not going to do anything that degrades from the number one effort; of course, and it would depend on the weather and resources. We will do what is right. We know how these things are done.
“HAK: We are assuming everything is okay so I am assuming it is going out at 2200 tonight and that this will not impose any restrictions and [on] our plan. You can alert Abrams that it is coming so that he can put it in his thinking.
“Ans: Abrams and McCain have been made aware of your thinking.”[Page 162]
At the end of this conversation, Kissinger returned to the issue of approving the authority for the 48-hour strike:
“HAK: I don’t want to better the President but I have talked to him 3 times since we last talked and just checking his understanding, he thinks order has been issued and I am not in the business of telling him that his orders are not being obeyed but if you say it is going to go at 2200 that’s the way I’ll leave it.
“Ans: I’ll let you know when you get back. I assure you, Henry, I understand the orders perfectly and so does Abrams.” (Ibid.)
Once Moorer determined, by way of the telephone conversations with Kissinger, the President’s desires on the bombing authorities, he instructed his staff to draft the necessary implementing messages. However, until they received the signature of the Secretary of Defense, these remained drafts rather than execute messages. As it turned out, Laird signed off quickly on the authority to attack 25 miles north of the DMZ, but delayed approving the 48-hour strike. At first, Laird wanted to wait until the next morning, Monday, April 3, to make the decision, but he agreed to attend a briefing on the 48-hour strike at the JCS at 10 p.m. Sunday evening. At the meeting he approved the authority but limited its duration until May 1. In an 11:35 p.m. telephone conversation, Kissinger told Moorer that they could live with this restriction because the date could be revised if necessary. Although inclement weather prevailed in southern North Vietnam at the moment, the requisite authority to effectively carry out a 48-hour strike—an execute order—was now in hand. (Moorer Diary, April 2; National Archives, RG 218, Records of the Chairman)