245. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • President Richard M. Nixon
  • William P. Rogers, Secretary of State
  • Melvin R. Laird, Secretary of Defense
  • Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Richard T. Kennedy, NSC Staff

President: Al Haig is going over to Defense soon.

I thought it would be useful to review the situation. Many people are away. The Congress is scattered at the moment.

Kissinger: I called ten of them from Key Biscayne.

President: We called many of the leaders, to keep as many as possible aware of what we are doing.

Laird: I also talked to many of them. I gave them briefings on the air operations.

President: Many said we hadn’t talked to them, but we tried to contact as many as possible. We wanted not to escalate discussion.

I wanted to have a chat in this group. This is really an NSC meeting. Everyone is here except the Vice President, who is at the Memorial Service [for Truman]. Bill [Rogers] is close to this because of Sullivan. He’s been doing an excellent job. He met with the North Vietnamese for eight hours yesterday.

We should talk about what will happen next week. I have some ideas on the public posture. All of you are doing well on the public posture.

We will announce this meeting after we meet—to keep it low-key—as a meeting in preparation for Henry’s meeting next week, to indicate government consultation.

The format this morning should be, first, that Mel and Admiral Moorer will give a brief rundown on the bombing. Let me say that if anyone is punished for the hitting of that hospital, I’ll fire someone.2

[Page 896]

Some of our material has to be developed, like how many civilians were killed in South Vietnam by the enemy, and how many were assassinated. And in terms of destruction—city by city—how many South Vietnamese cities were almost wiped out. And we should get out the details on the hospitals, orphanages, and so on, and schools that were destroyed by the enemy.

It’s a double standard, and hypocritical. American airmen risk their lives and do their damndest to avoid civilian targets, and we get these complaints, but not on the other side. Get this done. Get copies of this stuff to Rogers, Laird, and Colson.

I was there in 1957. I went down to the Delta and visited anAmerican-Vietnamese Hospital with both Americans and Vietnamese shot up. I saw the children’s ward—the little Vietnamese children—a beautiful child of 12 who lost one leg and one arm. The next day the doctor was going to amputate the other leg. I’ve thought of that often. The point is that killing children and women is a deliberate policy for them.

Rogers: I saw a hospital ship the same way, with the children.

President: Let’s have a military briefing and then Henry will review the situation in Paris. We’ll want to speak of developments, not a breakthrough or an impasse on the talks.

Laird: It’s quiet now in all four Military Regions, though there’s some build-up in Laos. We’re doing the maximum air operations. There were 152 B–52 sorties yesterday. We’re hitting any military targets we can get.

Moorer: We had left Vinh and the passes free while we were working in the North. Now we have good targets there—also in North Laos. We’ll keep Buom Long from falling.

President: Laos and Cambodia are part of the deal. If we can get a ceasefire in both it’s an excellent deal.

Laird: I don’t believe we have presented what we have done. I’d like to brief on the positive points of the bombing activity. I don’t want to be on the defensive. We’ll show the targets hit and destroyed. The only thing we’re reading about is the B–52 shot down and the destruction of civilian areas. On the hospital, there was one bomb crater. Some few are bound not to be on target. But the only questions we get are responding to negative propositions.

Moorer: We have pictures of all the POW camps. They were not damaged. We have eye-witness accounts of missiles falling back. Hebert is willing to lead the charge, but he needs the ammunition.

President: Let’s talk about this. Henry leans against it because of the negotiations. But the problem is the other side kicking us on this.

[Page 897]

How much effect on the negotiations will this have? We do have a domestic public relations problem. Jackson3 says, “Why not tell the people we bombed them back to the table?” We know that is true but we can’t do this. I know we put North Vietnam in an impossible position. I believe we need to get something out. The networks are killing us.

Kissinger: If we get it out today, it will play for the three days just before the negotiations resume.

President: Do you think it would hurt negotiations?

Kissinger: My instinct is not to hit them with this. They know what happened. I have no objection to individual briefings for Congressmen.

Rogers: Why not look at the facts?

Moorer: We had 731 B–52 sorties over North Vietnam against 40 targets. We lost about 2%. The North Vietnamese have about 900 missiles. They ran out of missiles. I think this pushed their quick reply to us. They have an assembly and distribution problem. Many of the missiles fired dropped off. Our intercepts showed all their batteries running short. It will be the 23rd of January before they are back to the starting point if they can put it on the railroads.

President: Their resilience is good.

Moorer: The reason they responded to us is we saturated their defenses. We have many intercepts showing shortages. We could have gone on with relative impunity. They use 50 missiles for one aircraft they shoot down—about the same rate as the past.

President: The B–52 is more vulnerable than the others. The SAM missile was built for it.

Moorer: Yes.

Laird: The SIOP expects a 30% loss with a nuclear-weapon attack. We had a 98% penetration rate.

Moorer: The weather was bad and we couldn’t use TacAir. If we could have, it would have really damaged them. They did a great job.

President: This is a tangential point: I talked to Haig about it last night. What about the 20 pilots who talked?

Laird: I don’t think they were drugged. Take the guy who badly needs medical treatment, and they hold it unless they sign.

President: You don’t think these are soft types?

Laird: Absolutely not.

Moorer: They had to have high morale, otherwise they couldn’t have done what they did.

[Page 898]

Moorer: General Weyand sent in a general rundown. The NVA are down to 31% of their strength in MR–4. In MR–1, their strongest, the only hot spot is Kontum. They’ve reinforced southern MR–1 to recapture more territory. Carver says a ceasefire may be close because they’re preparing for operations just prior to a ceasefire. Weyand says they don’t have the capability to execute their plan. It’s very quiet in SVN.

President: I have one question: Henry said in Florida that Vietnamization of the Air Force by spring would do the job.

Laird: They are moving fast. We have F–5 and C–130 pilots already going.

President: This affects Thieu’s attitude. He’s saying: “You make your own deal.”

Laird: The logistics and Operation Enhance gave them an excellent boost.

Moorer: While we were giving priority up North, there was no instance that South Vietnam suffered a lack of air support. They helped themselves without difficulty.

Moorer: In the B–52 operations, we varied the package and the tactics. No one could have conducted operations like that. We saturated their defensive capability.

Laird: It had great psychological impact. It was a tremendous operation.

President: Think of the brave men.

Laird: I want to talk more about it.

[Dr. Kissinger left the room briefly. At 10:35 a.m. Secretary Laird showed pictures of the bomb damage on targets.]

President: Show these pictures—before and after—in the briefing.

[Dr. Kissinger returned at 10:45 a.m.]

Moorer: Another important thing. There were less than 8 hours in all the 11 days when we could use the smart bombs because of the weather.

Rogers: Can’t you use the smart bombs on the leadership and government headquarters?

Laird: Because it’s close to the Hanoi Hilton and other civilian areas.

Kissinger: We have intelligence reports [less than 1 line not declassified] that the night raids are really killing them.

Rogers: How many targets were left? If we had kept on for a few more days, were there more to hit?

[Page 899]

Moorer: Yes. We wanted to hit the training areas. There was one good area, for example, near Son Tay.

Kissinger: But we would only have had one day left before the New Year’s standdown. Then we would have had the Congress in.

President: That was the point.

Laird: We want to get the story across.

President: We could do it with the pictures or just brief for the press and others—or we could just do the Congressmen.

Laird: We’ve done the Congressmen.

Rogers: Can we support the buildup charge?

Moorer: Yes, from their logistics buildup and the COSVN directives.

President: Their infiltration rate is up from 1 October there also. We’ve certainly put a crimp in their effort.

Laird: The problem is that in previous years the figures were higher.

President: The point is that the infiltration is rising.

Moorer: 100 tanks were coming down.

Laird: But they need 500 to replace their losses. Stennis sees the figures from the years past and asks those questions.

Rogers: We should not be defensive. We should show what they were doing.

President: We can make exactly that point.

Laird: But Stennis comes back and says we are putting in much more to South Vietnam than the other side was.

President: One thing about the enemy buildup: How many predicted the Spring offensive? And they were building up to do it again.

Rogers: Say that the President was convinced they were planning to double-cross us.

President: We acted in good faith. They are acting against this.

Kissinger: And it was the May 8 policy.

President: Use the hard intercepts.

Rogers: Let me give my view on what we do.

President: Henry was there in Paris for 10 days going through terrible sessions negotiating with them. Last week I decided to go the extra mile.

Kissinger: That’s where the press is misleading. The key really was that they raised more and more issues. Thus it’s not true that we triggered it by making new issues.

Rogers: I want to read the transcripts.

Kissinger: I will send the one of the last day.

[Page 900]

President: [To Dr. Kissinger] The last day’s transcript shows how they were just diddling us.

Rogers: When we talk about Henry’s position in Paris and the domestic scenario, I think a domestic display of the bombing results is not helpful. The people are fed up. But Congress needs something. They want to know what we did and why. But this is mostly up to the military. I can talk on the tactics.

Kissinger: I agree on a private basis.

Rogers: If it shows a significant military effect, then people can draw their own conclusions on why they returned to the table. We did our bombing carefully; that caused some losses. We merely returned to our previous policy when they backed away from the agreement. Show the proof that we didn’t bomb our own POWs, and other instances to show all the false statements being made. I’ve done a statement for the committees—executive sessions. I gave it to Henry to clear it. I would push it off till Wednesday or Thursday next week,4 but I can’t hold off much longer. The Congress says Henry briefs LBJ, so why not us?

President: We have problems with the committees.

Rogers: Really with the whole Congress.

Laird: But if we do it only behind closed doors, Hebert, for example, will say, “Why not give me something to use outside?”

President: There is no reason not to say we didn’t hit the POW camps.

Kissinger: No, that’s o.k., but I want to avoid pushing the damage stories just before the negotiation begins.

Rogers: I’ll complete a draft of the statement before the end of the week, then I’ll check it out and see whether we should say it to the committees.

President: I think it’s better to say something; they hold on that way.

Kissinger: I agree. I’ll look at the statement, then we’ll decide next week to see how it goes. If they’re dilatory, we’ll go.

President: Right, we can see how it’s going. If they’re being dilatory we’ll go right away. If not, then we’ll see.

Rogers: North Vietnam is not under great pressure if they don’t think we’re going to bomb again.

President: What do your Congressional people want?

Laird: They want to know what we did and they want to go public with it.

[Page 901]

Rogers: The North Vietnamese position on the ICCS—we can say how absurd it is. If it can’t go around the countryside to inspect, it’s a farce. It’s an illustration of their bad faith.

Kissinger: The infiltration provision doesn’t make sense unless there’s a supervisory mechanism.

President: On Bill’s effort—we’ll know by Wednesday whether he should go with a statement. On the military briefings—I see no objection to saying we hit military targets only. The pictures may be bad publicly. But we have clear photo evidence that it was effective and directed against military targets only. If civilian areas were hit, it was not intended. And no POWs were hit.

Rogers: It would be helpful to get the chairmen of the committees to say they were briefed and they are convinced they were not hit.

Kissinger: I can see the Defense view, but MACV briefings tend to show great military success. They have a gloating effect. If it’s done in low key, o.k.

President: Mel should do it in a political way. Mel, you do it, not MACV or the military. In a matter-of-fact way, not gloating.

Kissinger: Does this look too defensive? If it’s bad again tonight, probably it should go out.

Laird: I’ll give a judgment tonight.

President: Please give a judgment tomorrow. If we do it, we should do it Friday.5

How do you handle the Committee?

Rogers: I must go before them. We can’t be defensive.

President: I agree. We might be getting too optimistic.

Rogers: We can’t be saying there’s almost an agreement. You don’t have it till you get it.

President: Right.

Moorer: How should we do our staffing of the planning for a ceasefire?

President: Hold it. We are moving cautiously. We must not have any wedges driven. I want you all to knock down these stories. On the Congressional side, get the trustworthy people, and speak candidly with them on where we stand.

Laird: I am asking Moorer to do this himself.

President: Any other thoughts?

Kissinger: On the negotiations, the less we say the better off we are.

President: The heat will be on.

[Page 902]

Rogers: We need to be careful, or we will get crossed up.

President: We are not going to brief. I saw Albert and Mansfield but I’d seen Scott and Ford.6

Laird: I am going to Defense and Appropriations in closed sessions.

President: I have a concern about that.

Moorer: Mahon7 says the number one question of his constituents is why the bombing, and what did we do.

Rogers: Passman8 says the same thing.

Moorer: We have to have something to tell our people.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1026, Presidential/HAK MemCons, January–March 1973. Secret; Sensitive. All brackets, with the exception of those describing omitted material, are in the original.
  2. The Bach Mai Hospital was about 500 meters from the Bach Mai Airfield, the location of the headquarters of the North Vietnamese Air Defense Command on the outskirts of Hanoi. The Command was the intended target of December 21, 1972, B–52 raids, but the nearby hospital was also struck. Because the hospital’s patients and medical staff had been evacuated earlier, the hospital, except for a small caretaker staff, was empty. (Parks, “Linebacker and the Law of War”)
  3. Senator Henry M. Jackson (D–WA), Chairman, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.
  4. January 10 and 11.
  5. January 5.
  6. Representative Carl B. Albert (D–OK), Speaker of the House of Representatives; Senator Michael J. Mansfield (D–MN), Senate Majority Leader; Senator Hugh D. Scott (R–PA), Senate Minority Leader; and Representative Gerald R. Ford (R–MI), House Minority Leader.
  7. Representative George H. Mahon (D–TX), Chairman, Appropriations Committee.
  8. Representative Otto E. Passman (D–LA).