85. Editorial Note

On April 6, 1972, Assistant to the President Henry Kissinger received memoranda from Secretary of Defense Laird and Deputy Assistant to the President Haig on contingency plans for military operations against North Vietnam. Laird explained in his memorandum that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, had developed “outlines” for two possible actions against Haiphong: a one–time air strike against military targets in the area; and a mining operation against shipping in the harbor. Laird doubted, however, that either plan would lead to any military advantage. Bombing would be largely ineffective, he argued, since North Vietnam not only operated an intricate distribution system but also received most of its military supplies from the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Without an intensive air campaign, mining might also fail to interrupt the shipment of military supplies. Laird did not believe that the proposal to mine the harbor merited “serious consideration” at the time; he believed rather that political factors, both at home and abroad, should determine the American response. Laird emphasized this point in a handwritten postscript: “The political impact of these plans may be what is wanted by the President—The military impact would be minor and [Page 267]the impact on present battle would be even less. If the Russians want an excuse to stop their present major (80% supplies) contribution to North Vietnam, mining might have that political impact but I would doubt it.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1079, Howe Chronological File’s, Feb–Mar–April 1972)

Haig dismissed the “negative attitude” adopted by Laird on the issue of bombing and mining North Vietnam, noting that Kissinger was already considering “a directive for operations of much greater scope.” (Memorandum from Haig to Kissinger, April 6; ibid.) In a separate, undated memorandum to Kissinger, Haig proposed “an intense no–holds barred air and naval campaign” to force Hanoi to retreat on the battlefield and return to the negotiating table. The campaign consisted of bombing every area in the country (except a buffer zone along the Chinese border); bombarding the entire coastline; mining and blockading every port. Haig further urged a political campaign of psychological warfare against North Vietnam and diplomatic pressure against its allies, including the Soviet Union. There was, however, a price to be paid: “It is recognized that these actions may force cancellation of the summit and it is assumed that the summit would be laid on the line as one of the early diplomatic steps in the preparatory phase.” (Ibid.)

Although he admitted ignorance of these contingency plans, Winston Lord of the National Security Council staff also addressed the impact of air operations against North Vietnam in an April 8 memorandum to Kissinger. Lord made a distinction between “effective” and “harmful” bombing: the former, limited to the battle zone and direct support areas, was already justified by provocation from Hanoi; the latter, extended to the rear areas of North Vietnam, was likely to provoke an outcry not only in Washington but also from Moscow and Beijing. Lord assumed that Kissinger was actively considering punitive bombing on a short term basis “to show Hanoi (and Moscow and Peking) that we are capable of going bananas.” The result of such action, however, would be “the worst of all worlds,” doing more damage to U.S. policy than to the North Vietnamese military. “I agree that this is a decisive test for our Vietnam policy and for our global policy,” Lord concluded. “I also believe we may pass the test with the help of effective bombing. More spectacular bombing cannot rescue us and indeed could wreck the chance we do have.” (Ibid., RG 59, S/P Files: Lot 77 D 112, Box 335, [Lord–Chron], April ′72)

In spite of the reservations expressed by Lord and Laird, President Nixon decided that the contingency plan outlined by Haig would be implemented by May 8 if the South Vietnamese army proved unable to withstand the North Vietnamese assault. (Haig, Inner Circles, page 282; Kissinger, White House Years, page 1116)