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85. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • Evaluation of Chinese Communist Attempt Against U.S. Reconnaissance Aircraft

You have seen the report that the Chinese Communists sent out two MIG 19s with protective cover, in an apparently premeditated effort to intercept and presumably to shoot down a C–130 which was flying [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] collection mission some 100 miles off the China coast on July 2. The MIGs could not locate the C–130, which aborted its mission and returned safely.

These intelligence missions are routine. They sometimes elicit defensive Chinese patrols, but not since 1965 have the Chinese shown evidence of hostile intent.

There are certain aspects of this situation which are puzzling and even disturbing. First, the aircraft was operating well off the China mainland, and was following a flight pattern which has been repeated many times. Customarily the Chinese could be expected to react only when the path carries the aircraft close to the mainland, and they have [Page 222]allowed the many previous flights along the same general line to go unchallenged. Second, the attempt against the aircraft comes at a time when the Chinese have been cautiously opening communications with us, in a process which has not been entirely disrupted by Cambodia. It is true that the Chinese have displayed particular military sensitivity about the Shantung region, and may have wanted to raise the cost and decrease the effectiveness of our intelligence collection activities in this region by driving us farther offshore and perhaps resorting to fighter cover. There may be also some new military developments in or around Shantung regarding which they are particularly sensitive.

However, this may not in itself be sufficient explanation for an effort to shoot down an American aircraft far at sea. Had they succeeded, they would have finished off the slight movement toward a Sino-U.S. thaw. In doing so, they would have nullified the “U.S. option” which they have been developing since their confrontation with the U.S.S.R. began.

The tone of Chinese treatment of us—particularly their diplomatic language—has not changed so markedly as to suggest a major reversal of Chinese policy. Witness the courteous and low-keyed manner in which they deferred future Warsaw meetings.

Perhaps the most plausible hypothesis is that somebody in the power structure did want to wreck Sino-U.S. relations. Discounting the usual stridency of their propaganda language, the Chinese for some two years have been cautiously and tentatively feeling us out to see what we might be willing to do to improve relations. This policy is usually associated with Chou En-lai and the moderate grouping which has dominated internal policy in the same period. In the past couple of weeks, there has been evidence of an upsurge of the zealots, and signs that they are fighting their relative exclusion from the reconstituted Party. The Air Force during the Cultural Revolution was the most radical of the armed services. The attempted shootdown may have been related to a policy/power struggle and been intended to stop the moderate drift of foreign policy. The perpetrators may also have hoped that by provoking us into reactions or angry statements they could discredit any proponents of limited accommodation with the U.S.

From the Chinese standpoint, a shootdown would have had two useful byproducts, which may have been used by the proponents to persuade the Standing Committee (i.e. Mao) that the effort should be undertaken:

  • —It would have raised estimates in the U.S. as to the danger of deeper Chinese involvement in Southeast Asia, and increased pressures for U.S. withdrawal.
  • —It would have shown solidarity with North Korea, which the Chinese have been courting.

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From our standpoint, whatever the truth as to the above hypothesis, the prudent course would seem to be to examine our intelligence operations and make sure that aircraft are not unnecessarily exposed, or their missions unusually provocative. If my guess is correct, we have the additional incentive to avoid playing into the radicals’ hands.

We should be sure that adequate cover is given to missions which are thought necessary. The loss of a MIG 19 would not particularly serve the radicals’ purpose. We cannot simply abandon the entire C–130 collection operation under these circumstances, without proving to the Chinese that a hard line works best with us.

I have asked that proposals for forthcoming intelligence missions against China be framed with the increased danger in mind.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 520, Country Files, Far East, China, Vol. IV. Top Secret; Umbra. Sent for information. A notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.