29. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • Response to Continued North Vietnamese Infiltration and Logistics Activity in the South

The North Vietnamese are continuing their heavy rate of personnel infiltration and logistics movements through Southern Laos into Cambodia and South Vietnam. These actions are in clear violation of both the letter and the spirit of the January 27 Agreement. We cannot [Page 145]say for sure precisely what their motivation may be, but there are three likely possibilities:

  • —they may believe that we won’t react while they still hold a large number of our POWs and thus they are free for the next three weeks to continue a major replacement and resupply operation to position themselves and keep their options open for the future;
  • —they may be simply testing us to see how far they can go because they have not yet made up their minds on whether to pursue their objectives politically or revert to military actions; or
  • —they may have decided to resume offensive action, possibly in the fall.

Whatever their motivations, their actions are a clear challenge. We have protested these actions in our private channel and demanded an explanation of them and their cessation. We have given the North Vietnamese a clear signal that they cannot continue this course with impunity, but they have not responded and we have seen no evidence of a cessation.

The issue is whether and how we should respond and if we are to do so, the timing of our response.

  • —On the diplomatic side, efforts through the Four-Party Joint Military Commission and the ICCS would be largely unavailing. Neither of these bodies has been able up to now to successfully undertake on a timely basis investigations of major violations. Attempting to follow this route or to move publicly to bring the weight of opinion to bear against the North Vietnamese, if it were to accomplish anything at all, which I doubt, would be time consuming and allow the infiltration to continue on a massive scale for many more weeks at least.
  • —On the military side, the North Vietnamese are exposed both in the trail area of the Laotian Panhandle and in the northern reaches of South Vietnam’s MR–1. In both areas they are operating in daylight and the traffic is so heavy as to be congested. They clearly are taking advantage of the fact that all air action against them has ceased. A series of heavy strikes over a 2 or 3 day period in either of these areas would be very costly to them in both personnel and material.

The WSAG has considered a range of options and concluded that diplomatic steps should continue, including reaffirmation to the North Vietnamese of our serious intent.2 It concluded also that we could have no assurance that the North Vietnamese would not continue to push up against the limits of the Agreement. They will posture themselves [Page 146]in a way which would make massive offensive action once again a viable option for them unless they clearly understand that such a course will generate a prompt and violent response from the United States. Thus, some reaction will be important.

Of the military options, it was agreed that a strike against the trail complex in Southern Laos would have the most immediate effect with the least risk. We have the precedent of our earlier B–52 attack in Laos just after the Laos ceasefire.

  • —Such a strike would, by its very surprise, have a devastating effect. It would dramatically inhibit the infiltration of both personnel and equipment.
  • —It would signify clearly that we will not tolerate continued violations and will react decisively to them. It is precisely this sort of U.S. reaction on May 8 and again in December which caused the North Vietnamese to reexamine the course on which they were then bent. If they now believe that we may not react and we fail to do so, we will encourage increasing and even more blatant violations. If we react we will demonstrate the costs which they must expect to bear if they abrogate the Agreement. It will help to make clear once again that they have a stake in keeping the Agreement.
  • —The argument against taking this step is that it will be seen as an evident breakdown of the ceasefire and perhaps of the Agreement itself. There will be recriminations. But in my judgment if we do not react, the Agreement may well break down precisely because we did not. The recriminations in that event will be no less severe.

If we are to undertake such an operation, the question is whether to do it before all our POWs have been released or wait until after the release has been completed.

  • —The argument for reacting before all the POWs are released is that this will demonstrate that you will not permit a challenge to go unanswered and that you are determined to see that the agreement is adhered to.
  • —The argument for waiting is that we can be sure that the POW release will not be held up because of our action. If the POWs were held back after we had conducted air strikes, there would be serious domestic reaction.
  • —On the other hand, if we wait until the fourth increment of POWs has been released at the end of March, the strikes would be coincident with or immediately follow President Thieu’s visit.3 We thus would be seen as reacting to Thieu’s pressure and be pictured as captive to his [Page 147]policies. The benefit of independent reaction would be substantially diluted.
  • —If we act immediately after the third prisoner release, which will be completed by the end of this week, we can minimize the risk of a hold on the remaining POWs. There will be a 2-week period prior to the final release. There will be time after the strikes to reestablish the arrangements for that final release and for our coincident final withdrawal. Meanwhile we would cease all withdrawals as additional leverage to bring about the final release. There is a risk that release of the last increment of POWs will be held up but I believe it is minimal. Each time that we have reacted decisively in the past, the North Vietnamese have pulled back. They did not hold up the second prisoner release on the grounds of our B–52 attack in Laos though the attack occurred just prior to the scheduled release.

I recommend that you approve planning now for a 2–3 day series of intensive U.S. air strikes against the trail area of Southern Laos to be conducted immediately after release of the third increment of POWs is completed on March 16. Your final decision would be given after the POW release and in light of developments between now and that date.4

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 163, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, January 1973–April 1973. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Sent for action. A stamped notation at the top of the memorandum reads: “The President Has Seen.” A handwritten note attached to the memorandum reads: “Henry—The JCS Need 48 Hours Notice. Brent.”
  2. The WSAG convened on March 6, 11:24 a.m.–12:12 p.m., and March 13, 10:03–11:24 a.m., to consider U.S. options. Minutes of those meetings are ibid., NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box H–117, WSAG Meeting Minutes, Originals, 1973.
  3. Thieu planned to visit the United States between April 2 and 5.
  4. Nixon initialed his approval.