204. Memorandum for the President’s Files1


  • National Security Council Meeting


  • President Nixon
  • Vice President Agnew
  • Secretary of State Rogers
  • Secretary of Defense Laird
  • Secretary of Treasury Connally
  • Director of Central Intelligence Helms
  • Director of Office of Emergency Preparedness, Lincoln
  • Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Kissinger
  • President’s Press Secretary Ziegler
  • Mr. John Negroponte, NSC Staff (Notetaker)

President Nixon: As you are all aware we have an important decision to make today on Vietnam. The current situation which is certainly not as critical as portrayed by the press is nevertheless in the balance. There are serious questions as to Vietnam’s equipment and will. General Abrams needs more assets. We’ve sent air primarily. The Soviet summit is jeopardized by each option open to us:

  • —Doing nothing
  • —Only bombing the North
  • —Blockading or mining and bombing
[Page 767]

Thus today we need a cold-blooded analysis.

Regardless of how we have helped the South Vietnamese, we have done reasonably well in some places and poorly in others. I am surprised at the fact that we have provided inferior equipment to that furnished by the Soviets. They have provided 13 new weapon systems, big tanks-big guns; this shows what the South Vietnamese are up against. The South Vietnamese fighting performance is a mixed bag. Even by the most optimistic assessment there is a substantial danger that South Vietnam may not be able to hold up particularly in Hue; but in Military Regions III and IV where most of the population lives they are doing quite well.

Hue is of symbolic importance and they may attack within the next few days.

Putting it in those terms the real question is not what will happen to South Vietnam but what we have to do to affect the situation. We could wait the situation out. This is a tempting course. If the South Vietnamese can’t do the job on the ground it would be tempting for political reasons. We could blame the opposition for getting us into the war and then for not letting us out. Congress undermined us at the negotiating table and we could tell the U.S. people let’s flush it because South Vietnam couldn’t hack it. This is a tempting proposition. It could be sold. Our Democratic friends would buy it and a great number of Republican friends would buy it as well.

But there are problems. The major one is that, if in the future after all the effort in South Vietnam, a Soviet-supported opponent succeeds over a U.S.-supported opponent this could have considerable effect on our allies and on the United States. Our ability to conduct a credible foreign policy could be imperiled. This leaves out the domino theory; but if you talk to the Thai, the Cambodians, the Indonesians and the Filipinos, as I have, the fact of a U.S. failure and a Communist success would be considered a failure of U.S. policy.

  • Secondly, the diplomatic track is totally blocked. The public sessions have been unproductive. Henry was in Paris last week2 and made every offer we had made previously and even more. They flatly refused and insisted on our getting rid of Thieu, releasing everybody from prison and so forth making a Communist takeover inevitable. The Communists now think they’re winning and they’re getting tougher at the bargaining table.
  • Thirdly, there is a considerable body of military opinion, not a majority, that we should put more air strikes into Hanoi and Haiphong. The difficulty with this course is, first the DRV will be better prepared, [Page 768] second General Abrams needs assets for the battle in the South and third, there is the serious question of effectiveness of resuming bombings on a regular basis. This raises problems similar to those previously faced and the question of what would be accomplished.

The fourth and final course would be to adopt a program of cutting off the flow of supplies by sea and rail. The effect of cutting off supplies by sea can be conclusive but the question of rail is in doubt because of our experience from 1965–68.

Whatever we do it won’t affect the battle immediately in the South except perhaps the psychological effect. The real effect will be three of four months from now for sure.

As regards the summit, this latter course might jeopardize the summit. I think we have to realize that if the situation in Vietnam is as it is today there can’t be a summit. The summit is jeopardized by all these courses of action. That consideration we have to assume. There will be no summit.

There is no good choice. The bug-out choice is a good political one but I am not sure what this office would be worth after doing that. The other military choices would have grave foreign policy consequences and political consequences at home. Nothing we can say is sure and all have serious risks regarding the summit, public opinion and Congress.

Anyone who raises a question of risk must look at the choices. We face a situation where nothing is sure. There are grave political risks and risks to the country if we try one of these policies and fail.

I believe the first course of action is the least viable. It is the best politically, but it is the least viable for our foreign policy. Escalation in the bombing or a naval and air cutoff have questionable value. Neither will surely tip the balance to the side of success. It is only a question of degree. The only question in regard to increased bombing or a cutoff is whether this provides South Vietnam with a better chance of success.

[Omitted here is discussion on the mechanics of and logistical considerations inherent in mining Haiphong’s harbor and bombing in other areas of North Vietnam.]

President Nixon: Suppose we are wrong? Suppose Vietnam fails? How do we handle it? You don’t assess the risks for our policy?

Secretary Laird: We must hedge on equipment. We have given them everything they have asked for and will continue. If they don’t have enough incentive, then all the equipment in the world won’t save them.

Secretary Connally: Why do you use the argument that cost is too great? You aren’t going to save any money.

Secretary Laird: The military equipment route is the cheaper route.

Secretary Connally: Explain that to me. Haven’t all the assets already been sent there?

[Page 769]

Secretary Laird: We are conducting a massive air campaign in the DRV and in South Vietnam. It runs up into tremendous amounts of money. Just to give you an example, one B–52 strike costs 40,000 dollars in ammunition.

Dr. Kissinger: What you are doing is arguing against the present scale of air effort.

Vice President Agnew: I don’t think, if we just let things go, we can afford to let South Vietnam slide. When South Vietnam goes it will be utter collapse if something isn’t done. It will be a complete loss of U.S. diplomatic credibility around the world. We must move the Soviets off center. We must move off gradualism. We should stop saying what we are not going to do. We are not in a confrontation with the Soviets. There is still the possibility of a face-saving solution in Paris. Before a confrontation with the Soviets they could go to the DRV and say let’s find a solution. What will happen if we let South Vietnam slide into defeat?

President Nixon: These are all things we don’t know.

Vice President Agnew: If there is a collapse, the Soviets will be encouraged in the Middle East, in the Indian Ocean. It will be a green flag for wars of national liberation anywhere. I personally believe in the domino theory.

President Nixon: We could do this and still fail. Mel (Laird) is aware of this. The South Vietnamese could still collapse. Then it would only be a chip for our Prisoners of War.

Vice President Agnew: By not doing anything more we would be giving testimony to our weakness. The Europeans have let us be out in front of every fight they have. If something happens with the Soviets then let the Soviets be nervous. Politically and domestically I think it will be vicious for the Administration but, Mr. President, if I were sitting where you are I would say we have got to do something. We’re the greatest people in the world for handcuffing ourselves. We are compulsive talkers. I don’t think you have any option. The effect could be great in South Vietnam. It could stop the erosion of the internal structure and beat DRV morale.

Mr. Lincoln: I believe the domino theory.

President Nixon: I think we all do. The real question is whether the Americans give a damn any more. Americans don’t care about Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and the Philippines. No President could risk New York to save Tel Aviv or Bonn. We have to say it—our responsibility is to say it—because we must play a role of leadership. A lot of people say we shouldn’t be a great power. That is all well and good if there were not another couple of predatory powers on the scene. The Soviets already have a tremendous capability and the Chinese are developing one.

[Page 770]

If you follow Time, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the three networks, you could say that the U.S. has done enough. Let’s get out; let’s make a deal with the Russians and pull in our horns. The U.S. would cease to be a military and diplomatic power. If that happened, then the U.S. would look inward towards itself and would remove itself from the world. Every non-Communist nation in the world would live in terror. If the U.S. is strong enough and willing to use its strength, then the world will remain half-Communist rather than becoming entirely Communist.

Mr. Lincoln: We really have to hedge against a failure in South Vietnam even if the chance of failure is only ten percent. Those who criticize us will say why didn’t we do it sooner. This action hedges against it. Four or five months from now it is likely to be of some help. It is a less inflammatory step than just actually bombing.

I have one technical concern and that is the question of availability of air power. In the short run can it be better used in support of our air mission in South Vietnam than in this interdiction?

President Nixon: I understand the problem. Hue is a little bit like Verdun. The Germans and the French decided it was important and fought for it. Three million men were killed as a result. Hue is a hell of a symbol. General Abrams is using as much as he can.

Secretary Laird: Abrams is dividing up his planes between MRs 1, 2 and 3.

President Nixon: Abrams has 35 B–52s which he does not allocate every day. They are used for targets of opportunity.

Admiral Moorer: He also has a call on the resources operating north of the DMZ.

President Nixon: One advantage of this operation as distinct from bombing more is that, if we bombed more, our credibility will be diminished. If we do this option it will be with the assumption that Abrams will have all the resources he needs. The main battle is in the South. The reason there was no second strike on Hanoi and Haiphong was because General Abrams did not want to divert the resources. I was much persuaded by the needs that he expressed and if the military commander says what he needs, we will support him.

Vice President Agnew: Whatever we do, we should do it all. First, we should free up the air. Second, we should surprise them and third, we should lessen the domestic impact. The docks are part of this. We should go the whole route.

Secretary Connally: I couldn’t agree more. It is not only a question of Vietnam but Laos, Cambodia and all of Southeast Asia. Mr. President, you say United States people are sick of it. You said we will withdraw. If Vietnam is defeated, Mr. President, you won’t have anything. [Page 771] I agree it won’t happen in three weeks but it is a mistake to tie our hands as we did in the mid-1960’s. At that time many Americans thought we were doing this on a no-win basis. If we move we ought to blockade, we ought to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong. It is inconceivable to me that we have fought this war without inflicting damage on the aggressor. The aggressor has a sanctuary. If Russia gets away with it here like it did in Bangla Desh then it will be all of Southeast Asia. Where next? The Middle East? We must think about these things. The other problem is South Vietnam’s ability to survive.

President Nixon: Then you would approve this operation.

Secretary Connally: Don’t let them nibble you to death on this. You’ve got to make a conscious decision one way or another. What the people want is leadership.

President Nixon: There is no sure choice. I will have to decide before 2 o’clock. Everything you say will have to be weighed. Secretary Rogers will evaluate the world aspect. We see risks of confrontation. We must have in mind the fact that the USSR, with so much on the plate, might move to cool it rather than heat it up; so there is a question about the USSR there. I think we have to bear in mind that they expressed concern about the problem. They expressed an interest in getting Hanoi back to the conference table. I don’t know whether they can influence Hanoi to do something. But as far as the USSR is concerned this course may be an incentive or disincentive.

Secretary Rogers: If there is a failure in South Vietnam that is disastrous for our policies.

President Nixon: Even if we try?

Secretary Rogers: Secondly, we shouldn’t be carried away. I think the U.S. people think you have done enough and that you have done very well. The question, therefore, is whether there is something more you can do to be effective. I agree with Dick’s (Helms) paper.3 It is a good one. We assume the effect will be good. LBJ said that it didn’t work. Do we think it will work? It is clear that it won’t have the effect militarily in the short term and maybe it won’t have any effect at all. It could have a psychological effect on both South Vietnam and North Vietnam and, if so, that would be worthwhile.

[Page 772]

But it could have the opposite effect both on the battlefield and domestically. I think it’s going to be a tough one with our people and with our allies. We will have some help from the British and a few others.

As for Congress and public opinion, I think they will charge that this will have no military effect. It looks from Dick’s (Helms) paper that most supplies can come by rail. Maybe they can’t but I’m assuming that the CIA paper is right on this.

If we do this and fail, I think that would be worse and more damaging to our prestige. I don’t know whether it will be effective or not. We must rely on the military. If this will strengthen the military hand and the hand of the South Vietnamese, I think we should support it. Could we wait? Perhaps a week? Is there a time factor? I learned in my discussions from the Europeans that the DRV wants to destroy the summit.

Secretary Connally: This will put the summit in jeopardy but I don’t think it is certain that they will cancel it.

Dr. Kissinger: I think that if we do this there is a better than even chance that the Soviets will cancel the summit.

President Nixon: I couldn’t go to the summit if conditions in South Vietnam are the same as now or worse.

Secretary Connally: It is better for the Soviets to cancel the summit than us.

Secretary Rogers: The question is is it going to work or is it going to hurt us?

Vice President Agnew: I think we are better off if we do it even if we lose Hue.

Secretary Laird: Let’s not make so much out of Hue. We lost it in 1968.

Vice President Agnew: The media are making a big thing out of Hue. That is something we cannot help.

Secretary Laird: The problem is one of assets.

Dr. Kissinger: The problem with all these figures is that one cannot construct a program analysis approach type model. The fact of the matter is that they would have to redirect 2.2 million tons of seaborne imports. At present they are only importing 300,000 tons by rail. We did not stop all of their rail transport in 1965–68.

President Nixon: It is very different now. Sihanoukville is cut. Now we will cut off the port.

Dr. Kissinger: They have a theoretical capacity but they can’t use trains by day and if you analyze every segment of the railroad in China you will find that one segment of the railroad is apt to get overloaded. You can’t throw these figures around without a better analysis. It is [Page 773] easy to say that they have four months’ capacity and could go all out and end the war but they would end with zero capacity. Another possibility is that they would try everything in one month or alternately cut way down on their activities. One thing is certain they will not draw their supplies down to zero.

President Nixon: The key point is if it is militarily effective. Looking to the future we have to think about whoever sits in this chair after the election. We must consider the long term advantages as well as the short term. If South Vietnam goes and we have done this, Bill’s (Secretary Rogers) view is that we are worse off. John’s (Secretary Connally) and the Vice President’s view is different.

My view is that either way, if South Vietnam goes, as far as the political situation is concerned we are done. What is on the line is an election. The only effective thing is to decide now that, if South Vietnam isn’t going to succeed, then we should withdraw before the debacle, blame it on the Senate and pull out. I could make the goddamnest speech to this effect and win the election, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that because I know too much. I’m not sure that U.S. training is equal to Communist style training. This is no discredit to us. We are different and we believe in permissiveness. The North Vietnamese fight because they’re afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t.

My main point is that I will consider the possibility of simply chucking it now, blaming the doves for sabotaging the negotiating track and encouraging the enemy and telling the North Vietnamese we’ll do everything they want to get back our prisoners of war.

The price they are demanding for our prisoners of war is not just a deadline for the withdrawal of our forces. We’ve tried that. They won’t give back those prisoners of war until we get out of Southeast Asia totally. At least with this option we have something to bargain for POWs. We certainly can’t pay the price that they have demanded.

Vice President Agnew: I disagree that this is a viable political alternative. I don’t think we can sell it.

President Nixon: We have several choices. The first is a bug-out. The second is the choice of continuing to do what we’re doing. The risk of this course is failure. In any event we are not going to Moscow. When I came back from Communist China I didn’t get a damn thing on Vietnam.

We go to the Soviet Union, we agree on principles, credits, and we toast each other at a time when Soviet tanks are kicking hell out of our allies. If we act and then we have a summit, perhaps we can do that. The real proposition is, are we better off letting the dust settle or will more drastic action tip the balance in a decisive way? I will have to weigh these. All of you come down on these matters in varying degrees and shades. It comes down not to whether we lose in Vietnam [Page 774] but first what can we do to prevent that and second what should we do to make the losses palatable if we do in fact lose.

Secretary Connally: One option was negotiations and last fall and spring there was hope for negotiations but that hope is down the drain. We have lost the negotiating option. At the moment our country’s future is in the hands of the South Vietnamese and whether they stand and fight. We cannot allow this situation to continue.

Secretary Laird: I am limited to 2.4 billion dollars annually. I have put in 2.9 billion dollars already, hiding it under the table. I am taking it out of the hide of the Services.

Secretary Connally: you’re already pregnant.

Secretary Laird: It’s a question of where you are next year. If you are to have a viable policy, you can’t break down your whole force posture. You’ve got to have the support of the people and the Congress.

Vice President Agnew: If we don’t get anywhere on the Vietnam question, then we won’t be anywhere anyway.

Secretary Connally: We can’t make this decision on the basis of cost. You can’t convince me that if you bomb the railroads, the ports of Haiphong and Hanoi, you can’t persuade me that it won’t affect the psychology both in South and North Vietnam.

Secretary Laird: I agree.

Secretary Connally: Maybe you can give the South Vietnamese the necessary will by doing this.

President Nixon: The U.S. way of training may not be the most effective.

[Omitted here is further discussion on the tactical military situation in South Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–110, NSC Minutes, Originals. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. According to Nixon’s Daily Diary, the meeting lasted from 9:10 a.m. to 12:07 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) That same morning, Kissinger sent the President a memorandum briefing him for this meeting and a proposed scenario for announcing the intended military actions. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 128, Subject Files, Vietnam, President’s May 8, 1972 Speech) In his memoirs Nixon prints his diary entry, which reads: “Monday was a pretty tough day because the NSC meeting ran over three hours, with Laird opposing the decision and Rogers saying he would be for it if it worked. Connally and Agnew predictably took a very strong position for it. The record will speak for itself. Of course, in fairness to Laird and Rogers, both of their reputations are on the line, and I think they will have very serious doubts about whether the action will succeed. The real test, of course, will be whether they support once the decision is made and on that I have no doubt.” (RN: Memoirs, pp. 603–604) In his memoirs Kissinger also described the meeting: “The NSC met next day, Monday, May 8, in the unreal atmosphere that Nixon’s procedures generated. All present knew that he had almost certainly arrived at his final decision. They therefore had much less interest in considering the issues than in positioning themselves for the certain public uproar. Nixon, with his back to the wall, was at his best: direct, to the point, with none of the evasions that often characterized his style when facing opposition.” (White House Years, p. 1184) A tape recording of the meeting is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Cabinet Room, Conversation No. 100–17.
  2. See Document 183.
  3. Appended to this meeting record as Tab A, but not printed, is the prepared briefing by Helms, May 8, entitled “The Effect of a U.S. Policy to Interdict Land and Sea Imports to North Vietnam.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–110, NSC Minutes, Originals, 1972) The attached covering note from Negroponte to Haig, May 9, reads: “The attached should be appended to the draft minutes of the May 8 NSC meeting which I provided to you earlier this afternoon.”