154. Memorandum From Jonathan T. Howe of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig)1


  • Strike Plan for North Vietnam

Attached at Tab A is the initial-cut of the JCS strike plan for North Vietnam.2 The packaging of targets is more area than category oriented, but the types of targets you wanted struck in sequence are a manageable total of 34. Seven of these 34 are included in the buffer zone group. Under this concept first priority would be given to the group of power generation and transportation targets in the Hanoi area. These attacks would be followed by a Haiphong package, four power plants not in the Hanoi/Haiphong area, and a buffer zone group. All of the targets are in a quadrant North of 20° North latitude.

This approach has some important military and psychological advantages. In actuality, all 34 of the targets would probably be struck nearly simultaneously. It is estimated that under good weather conditions the 34 targets could be destroyed within seven days by making maximum use of the full-range of air assets in theater. The plan calls for 825 attack sorties a day. By way of contrast, concentrating on target categories in a series of steps would involve a much smaller daily effort. The six power plants in northern North Vietnam, for example, could be destroyed by twelve sorties for two days using guided bombs. A massive effort would have greater impact, and give the enemy more pause about what would follow. It also would better saturate air defenses in a given area and keep the North Vietnamese defenses off balance. The drawback of this concept is that a systematic, stepped type, category [Page 553] oriented escalation would have the advantage of giving the North Vietnamese more opportunities in which to respond on the negotiating front. Each failure to move in negotiations could be followed by the elimination of another vital North Vietnamese target category. Thus, there would be greater control within the limits of what we are willing to do militarily.

On balance, I believe it is better to complete the initial package as quickly and intensively as possible and take the heat all at once, domestically and internationally, for moving to this new level of bombing. This is particularly relevant to the buffer zone targets which have high potential for inadvertent overflight of China. Our response to the Chinese protests will ultimately be an expression of dismay and a commitment to reinstate the previous restrictions. On the other hand, once we have hit new targets in the Hanoi/Haiphong area the follow-up attacks should not cause a great storm domestically since the public will be conditioned. This approach also means that by the time the North Vietnamese have a chance to respond on the ground in the South, many of our air assets will be free to turn to blunting their counterattack, while a smaller force keeps the pressure on the North by insuring that all of these targets and selected others stay permanently out of commission.

Considering the merits of a maximum versus a minimum package may be academic in any case. Given the weather problems during December and the first quarter of 1973, we will be lucky to find a seven-day window of acceptable flying conditions and therefore some delay in completing the package is inevitable.

If it is desired to develop this plan further, the following refinements could be made:

  • —With this large a commitment of air assets, there should be provision to cover essential battle needs in South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and just north of the DMZ. (Only four of the six carriers are involved and inevitable weather diverts from the North can be used to good effect in keeping the ground situation under control. In any case, there is no major activity at the present time although the enemy might try a counter-offensive in northern Military Region I and a limited high point period of activity throughout the country is conceivable since they have been husbanding their resources during the pre-ceasefire period.)
  • —The target list could be increased to include such categories as POL pumping stations, steel and machine tool plants, and other important categories. In addition, there are probably a few more power plants in the country which should be knocked out to insure that electric power becomes extremely scarce. There are also more radio and communications stations than the Radio Hanoi complex listed on the present target list. In addition, there are other key targets throughout [Page 554] North Vietnam which should be struck periodically at places like Thanh Hoa and Vinh. We, however, should guard against expanding the list so much that the current targets are not all destroyed and kept in that condition.

If we adopt this plan, there should be a major complementary military and psychological effort.

  • —At Tab B3 are some special military actions, which we had considered previously, and are primarily designed to draw more North Vietnamese forces back home to defend their country.
  • —Tab C lists some additional psychological operations4 designed to increase internal tension and help create the impression that a major invasion of the North is likely.

If there is any intention of adopting this plan, it should probably be discussed with Admiral Moorer. We can then follow up with Admiral Weinel on detailed improvements. You may want to take it to Saigon for review there. The command and control problem, of course, will be a difficult issue. If in fact MACV is given complete control of the allocation of air assets, we will have to guard against the tendency to devote air assets to the ground situation in South Vietnam and logistics targets just above the DMZ at the expense of targets which support our political strategy.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1133, Jon Howe Vietnam Subject Files, Project Folder re Vietnam. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. A handwritten note by Kissinger at the top of the first page reads: “Jon[,] Hold.”
  2. Tab A, an undated memorandum from Laird to Nixon, is attached but not printed. On December 6, Haig in Paris ordered Kennedy to direct Murphy to plan for major airstrikes against North Vietnam, concentrating on the Hanoi–Haiphong area and the formerly restricted buffer area on the China–North Vietnam border (see Document 143). Kennedy carried out the order at 3:30 p.m., informing Murphy: “The plan should be so configured to produce a mass shock effect in a psychological context. No dissipation of effort through scattered attacks against a number of varied targets, but rather clear concentration of effort against essential national assets designed to achieve psychological as well as strategic results.” (Transcript of telephone conversation; Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–77–0095, 385.1, Viet) On December 8 the President met with Moorer to discuss the strike plan; see Document 149.
  3. Tab B is not attached.
  4. Tab C, an unattributed list of psychological warfare operations, undated, is attached but not printed.