177. Memorandum From Winston Lord of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
- Haiphong & Hanoi
We may well face a watershed decision on May 3 whether or not to resume bombing of the Haiphong and Hanoi areas. Put more directly, it is essentially a decision whether to play summit chips in the Vietnam game. Obviously, you have thought through the implications ad nauseam, and I am fully aware of the tremendous pressures on you coming from various quarters. I believe I understand the strategic rationale for bombing in these areas and I acknowledge some valid arguments. But nevertheless the risks seem to me heavy and the possible benefits unlikely.
The decision revolves crucially around Moscow’s reaction. The other factors are as follows:
- —Presidential credibility with various audiences argues in favor of the bombing. He has said he would do whatever is required, and our position is in effect that all options are open, save nuclear weapons and the use of U.S. ground forces. Failure to hit the H–H areas could look like a deal with Moscow, a failure of Presidential determination, a nervousness about domestic political considerations, etc. However, the overall question of credibility is pegged to whether he will permit South Vietnam to “lose.” If that happens, the fact that he bombed Hanoi– Haiphong won’t help him very much, if at all. And my view is that if the South Vietnamese are destined to “lose,” bombing the H–H areas is not going to make a difference.
- —The military arguments cut both ways. Raids could have some impact on operations a few months hence, but they take away assets from more urgent and lucrative targets in the battle zone. The longer the raids in the H–H areas, the greater the longer run impact, but past experience should convince us that it will not be decisive, and meanwhile this means longer run diversion from the pressing requirements further south.
- —The psychological impact on our South Vietnamese friends would certainly be a plus. However, it cannot by itself make the difference in morale—the ground battles and the urban situations will do that.
- —The psychological impact on the North Vietnamese is difficult to judge. There is some evidence that the one-day raids shook up the North Vietnamese. However, the past record certainly suggests that the net effect will be merely to rally the population, not discourage it.
- —Chinese reaction does not seem a decisive factor. They have been restrained to date, are probably somewhat impressed by strong actions, and in any event, know that it is Moscow, not Peking, that is involved at this juncture. However, a certain risk persists. And certainly a souring of US–USSR relations cannot but hurt us in Peking.
- —There is no question that there will be significant civilian casualties, an unalloyed argument against the bombing.
- —The U.S. domestic scene has to be an argument against the bombing. The right might be given a temporary lift, and the left will be critical no matter what the President does. But the decisive weight of American opinion would shift against the President if the bombing did not bring rapid results on the ground or diplomatically. The negative shift would be even more pronounced if the bombing is seen to be the cause of sinking the Moscow summit and an historic SALT agreement. And since one can agree that bombing the H–H area won’t directly affect the ground situation, we come back to the crucial diplomatic factor of Moscow’s reaction.
The Moscow Role
Arguments for the bombing because of the impact in Moscow rest on two assumptions:
- —That Moscow, getting the dangerous message, will choose to pressure Hanoi rather than scuttle the Summit, SALT, etc.
- —That having chosen to pressure Hanoi, it can do so effectively and quickly.
Neither assumption looks very plausible to me. We know, from the Moscow trip, that the Soviets (or at least Brezhnev) are panting for the summit. But we have no assurance whatsoever that this takes such precedence that Moscow will really lean on its difficult ally. They may find Hanoi’s timing awkward and hope to muddle through the summit period with the offensive and our reaction manageable as background music. However, if we press them to chose between the summit and their ally, we can have little confidence how Brezhnev will come out, and even less confidence how the Politburo as a whole will allow him to come out.
Furthermore, even assuming that Moscow does want to be helpful in order to salvage US–USSR relations, what precisely is it to do [Page 660] over the next crucial several weeks? How does it go about blowing the whistle on Hanoi? The North Vietnamese have the equipment they need to carry on the current offensive and they have momentum going. Can the Russians really make them desist, particularly with the Chinese looking over their shoulders? I just don’t see Hanoi—when it may think it has victory in its grasp—doing what big brother wants it to do.
Thus there are these two doubtful propositions that Moscow will choose, and that Moscow will be able, to pressure Hanoi. The more likely choice is for them to sacrifice the summit if that is the only alternative. We will then have the worst of both worlds—no help on Vietnam and all the setbacks of fractured U.S.-Soviet relations, including:
- —The loss of an historic SALT agreement whose long range significance is momentous indeed. Instead of the most important arms control agreement ever, we will face a heightened arms race, in which the Soviets will have a decided edge, given our domestic mood on defense spending.
- —The aborting of all the other specific areas of agreement with Moscow that have been ripening. The whole concept of interlocking interests preventing future confrontations would be lost—the loss of our major leverage on Peking. Our China initiative could well be jeopardized. Less likely, but conceivable, would be stirrings toward some improvement in Sino-Soviet relations.
- —A strongly negative U.S. domestic reaction to the crumbling of the President’s foreign policy achievements and vistas.
In short, I believe we are much better off refraining from bombing the H–H areas and using our military assets where they count, pocketing a SALT agreement that is in our interest irrespective of what happens in Vietnam, and muddling through the summit as best we can. It is not a particularly attractive prospect. But the alternative is almost certainly not going to be decisive in Vietnam and very likely will cost us heavily in other areas.2
This begs the question of what the Soviet Union will think of us as a partner (or adversary) when we have supposedly “flinched” on the bombing question. I know this is at the heart of your concern about the decision. It is, of course, a dilemma we have created for ourselves. But again whether we flinch or not is subordinate to whether or not [Page 661] we let South Vietnam “lose,” and again, I don’t think the bombing will be decisive diplomatically (i.e. Moscow wants to and can pressure Hanoi) or militarily.3
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 74, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Moscow Summit 1972 [2 of 2]. Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Sent for information. The city of Quang Tri, the capital of South Vietnam’s northernmost province by the same name, fell to the NVA on May 1. The deliberations on the ramifications of this defeat are in the minutes of the May 1 WSAG meeting. (Ibid., NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–116, WSAG Minutes, Originals)↩
- In a May 1 memorandum on “short-term actions” to Kissinger, Haig wrote: “A range of options should be considered which run the gamut from doing nothing and proceeding with the Summit to a series of escalating military actions culminating with mobilization and threatened, if not actual, invasion of North Vietnam.” (Ibid., Box 993, Haig Chronological Files, May 1–20, 1972 [2 of 2])↩
- As cited in a May 1 memorandum from Laird to Nixon, Abrams reported that the situation in the northern part of South Vietnam would depend upon the ARVN will to halt the North Vietnamese offensive and thus to generate “lucrative targets” for aerial assault. “In summary of all that has happened here since 30 March 1972, I must report that as the pressure has mounted and the battle has become brutal, the senior leadership has begun to bend and in some areas to break,” Abrams concluded. “In adversity it is losing its will and cannot be depended on to take the measures necessary to stand and fight.” (Ibid., White House Special Files, President’s Personal Files, Box 75, President’s Speech File, Monday, May 8, 1972 Vietnam Speech [1 of 2]) A May 2 Intelligence Note reported on the apparently contradictory Soviet response to the events of the past month in light of the upcoming summit: “In the aftermath of the Communist offensive in Vietnam and the U.S. retaliatory bombing of the Haiphong environs, Moscow tried to have the best of both worlds. It publicly supported Hanoi and condemned the US while continuing preparations for the President’s visit and conducting business as usual in Soviet-US bilateral relations.” (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 1 USSR)↩