199. Memorandum for the Record1
- Contingency Plan for Operations Against North Vietnam
- Dr. Henry A. Kissinger
- Major General Alexander M. Haig, Jr.
- George C. Carver, Special Assistant for Vietnam Affairs, CIA
- Helmut Sonnenfeldt
- John Holdridge
- Richard Kennedy
- John Negroponte
- Winston Lord
- Jonathan T. Howe
Dr. Kissinger assembled a group of NSC staff members plus a CIA official, who had just completed a study of the impact of a blockade, to discuss the effects of and possible international reactions to various contingency actions which were under serious consideration by the President. These actions included mining of North Vietnamese ports and interdiction by air of rail lines and other logistics targets throughout North Vietnam.
The meeting began with a presentation by Mr. Carver on the impact of closing off supplies to the port of Haiphong. (A copy of the report is at Tab A.)2 The paper did not consider the effects of parallel steps which might be taken to interdict the logistics flow. After intensive discussion of various aspects of the supply problem, including differences in the situation in 1969 from those at present, Dr. Kissinger asked various staff experts for their assessment.
Hal Sonnenfeldt expressed the view that it was probable that the Soviet Union would cancel the Summit. However, he did not believe that the contemplated action would lead to a war. A variety of possible Soviet reactions were discussed. Sonnenfeldt felt that a paper he had prepared in 1969 concerning possible contingency actions3 was still valid with the exception that the United States was now better postured in its relations with the Soviet Union.[Page 756]
John Negroponte stated that the actions would have a major impact on ARVN morale and thereby greatly increase their fighting effectiveness. He stressed that the Government of North Vietnam was in a fairly precarious position and that mining and all out bombing could result in a shakeup of the current power structure.
John Holdridge outlined various options for the PRC and indicated that they might feel obliged to provide some manpower, allow use of Chinese air fields as a safehaven for North Vietnamese planes and open ports in South China. He felt the actions would cool relations with the United States and that the emphasis in U.S./PRC relations would focus almost exclusively on people to people contacts for a while. However, he did not believe these actions would lead to a major confrontation with the PRC. Holdridge also pointed out that relations with China were much better and our understanding of them had increased since earlier years when there was great concern about the intervention of Chinese forces in Vietnam.
Dr. Kissinger made the point that if the decision were made to carry out these operations, they must be done brutally and could not be restricted to halfway measures. A discussion ensued as to whether it would be better to carry out these operations before or after the Summit and before or after the battle of Hue. Most present agreed that the time for the operations, if they were to be conducted at all, was then—before the battle of Hue commenced and before the Summit.
George Carver raised the possibility that the North Vietnamese might harm our prisoners but several in the group, including Dr. Kissinger, disagreed, believing that there would be a major upswelling of indignation in this country and that the enemy would not do such a foolish thing.
Dr. Kissinger then pointed out that in analyzing the supply situation, consideration should be given to the technical possibility and probability that the North Vietnamese would shift to other means of supply before resources in the South were entirely depleted. In other words, in order to protect their forces they would have to take action before they ran completely out of supplies. All emphasized the importance of the ground battle in South Vietnam to the success of the plan. It was essential that the South Vietnamese go all out and win some battles.
Dr. Kissinger then summed up some of the arguments which had been presented:
- —The North Vietnamese have manpower constraints. This would be the most severe test that they had faced and would undoubtedly affect their morale and cause strains in their own fabric. There were limits to what they could ask their people to endure.
- —In 1965 the North Vietnamese felt that time was on their side. Now it was eight years later and they were faced with a blockade and a stronger South Vietnamese army in the South. It was possible that the blockade might affect their calculations in their convulsive and all out effort in the South. (Mr. Carver indicated that he felt there would be a change in the people sitting around the table. By that he meant Le Duan would not survive and there would be a new leadership alignment.)
- —Morale in the South would be favorably affected and the operation might result in silencing President Thieu’s opposition. This would dispel any doubt that the United States had worked a deal behind the back of the South Vietnamese and indicate that President Thieu was the man who had delivered the Americans. It would strengthen Thieu’s hand politically. We in turn could say to the South Vietnamese that it was essential that they make a maximum all out effort. (Carver pointed out that there was a tendency to let the Americans do the job for them and we would have to be careful to ensure that this feeling did not prevail.)
- —It would give us something to bargain with for our prisoners which we would not have had otherwise.
- —There was a small chance that the actions would produce, after a period of delay, a more rapid negotiation to the end of the war. In the first weeks following the announcement, the North Vietnamese would want to maintain a tough position in order to see how the battle went in South Vietnam and whether there was major domestic opposition in the United States to the bargain. They obviously would not go immediately to the bargaining table.
On the other hand there were a number of disadvantages:
- —With the U.S. having further invested its prestige, the defeat would be greater if the operations failed.
- —The loss of the Summit was almost a foregone conclusion and could have a very negative effect on SALT and other important negotiations with the Soviet Union.
- —There was likely to be a cooling of relations with the PRC.
Mr. Carver pointed out that the North Vietnamese had been lucky in Tet of 1968 in bringing the U.S. Government around to their position even though the North Vietnamese had suffered a serious defeat. If the North Vietnamese were checked on the ground in the South, they would be in a serious situation when faced with renewed bombing and mining.
Dr. Kissinger then asked each person present whether he was for or against putting the contingency plans into effect:
- —Mr. Carver said that he would do it but do it thoroughly and do it soon.
- —Mr. Holdridge said that he would favor the operation if we had enough resources to carry the day. If there were sufficient military resources, his vote was yes.
- —Mr. Negroponte said he felt that he was more optimistic about the chances for success of the operation than others present and that he favored it without reservation. He felt the result would be quicker and more decisive than others anticipated. The morale factor would be a key to the success of the ARVN.
- —Mr. Sonnenfeldt said that he favored it and that we should do it soon and sustain it.
- —Mr. Lord said that Dr. Kissinger knew that he was against it. First, he didn’t think it would work. Second, he thought our losses would exceed our gains and third if it didn’t work, it would be throwing good money after bad and would compound our losses.
- —Mr. Kennedy said that he would favor doing it but with the same reservation expressed by Mr. Holdridge concerning resources. His second reservation would be with regard to the possible negative domestic reaction. If we started the operation, we must be willing to pay the price and recognize that the other side might simply wait out the President’s tenure. On balance, however, he was in favor of it.
- —Commander Howe said that he would favor the operation provided it was done thoroughly and intensively.
- —General Haig indicated that it was a tough decision and his major concern was on the domestic front but that on balance he favored it.
Dr. Kissinger then thanked all those for attending the meeting and expressing their views frankly.