10. Memorandum to Members of the 303 Committee1


Except for satellites, no overhead reconnaissance has been conducted over mainland China since March 27, 1968. The stand-down was ordered at the instance [insistence?] of Secretary Rusk in part because the level of drone reconnaissance over South China in the preceding months, when combined with the frequency of inadvertent overflights of the Chinese border with North Vietnam by US military aircraft conducting bombing raids on North Vietnamese targets, may have given the Chinese reason to believe that the US was being deliberately provocative. The stand-down also anticipated President Johnson’s speech of March 31, announcing the partial bombing halt.
In the light of the extended stand-down of overflights of China the resumption of such flights now would undoubtedly be looked upon by the Chinese as signalling a shift in US policy. Moreover, the resumption would be taken as an indication of the policy line toward China which will be forthcoming from the new Administration. It can be assumed that Peking interpreted the 1968 stand-down on overflights as an intentional US decision suggesting that US actions against the mainland were not under consideration or at least imminent; the resumption could signify to Peking that the converse may now be the case. This signal would reach Peking at a time when there are signs of serious disagreement in the Chinese leadership over how to deal with the United States and would tend to strengthen the hand of those advocating a hard line towards us.
The intensity of Peking’s reaction against resumed US overflights would increase considerably if any of the aircraft involved were shot down over mainland China. As has been the case in the past, we [Page 26] can expect the Chinese to put on display wreckage of downed aircraft as tangible evidence of US provocations and hostility.
The net result would likely be to extend the period in which the Chinese stance toward the United States will be essentially one of enmity. A curtailment in US hopes of dealing with the Chinese Communists on anything approaching a reasonable basis would also ensue. While for motives which are not wholly apparent the Chinese acted to postpone the Ambassadorial-level talks scheduled to be held in Warsaw on February 20, they nevertheless hinted that the talks might be resumed when the atmosphere had improved. With renewed overflights, however, an improvement in the atmosphere sufficient to permit a resumption of the talks might be delayed materially. Another possibility is that the Chinese decision on release of the American yachtsmen recently seized near Hong Kong might be affected or resumption of overflights used as a pretext for not releasing them.
Finally, the chances are good that the resumption of US overflights of the China mainland would be leaked in the United States, and in any event Chinese Communist publicization of the overflights (e.g., in displaying the downed aircraft) would make their existence known. Those elements in the United States who are seeking to improve Sino-US relations will then almost inevitably blame the Administration rather than the Chinese for lack of progress in the desired direction.2
  1. Source: National Security Council, Nixon Intelligence Files, 303/40 Committee Files. Top Secret; Idealist; Byeman. Chapin sent the memorandum on March 17 to all agency representatives (Kissinger, U. Alexis Johnson, Packard, Mitchell, and Helms) of the 303 Committee. The Committee met on March 11 to discuss U–2 photographic reconnaissance of Northeast China, SR–71 flights over South China, [text not declassified]. The northeast China mission was designed to examine missile construction, while the flights over southern China were to observe fighter aircraft, as well as logistical and support facilities. [text not declassified]. While no agreement was reached on these three operations, the Committee reached a consensus that the use of drone reconnaissance over South China was acceptable. (Memorandum for the record, March 13; ibid.)
  2. Kissinger forwarded a decision memorandum to Nixon on March 22. The President approved the following recommendation: “That you approve resumption of a aerial reconnaissance in South China, but limited at this time to overflights by the 147 H/T drone. All such missions will be subject to approval by the 303 Committee on a monthly basis in accordance with current procedures governing reconnaissance operations.” (Memorandum from Kissinger to Nixon, March 22; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, NSC Files, Box CL 301, 303 Committee) According to the memorandum for the record prepared by Chapin, after a “spirited” meeting of the 303 Committee on March 25, it was decided to reconsider the U–2 overflight mission in 3 months [text not declassified]. (Memorandum for the Record, March 27; National Security Council, Nixon Intelligence Files, 303/40 Committee Files) In late April, through a series of telephone conversations and memoranda, the President and Kissinger made clear that they wanted to resume offshore reconnaissance flights around China. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1319, NSC Unfiled Material, 1969, 2 of 19)