13. Minutes of a National Security Council Meeting1


  • President Nixon
  • Vice President Agnew
  • William Rogers, Secretary of State
  • Melvin R. Laird, Secretary of Defense
  • Gen. George A. Lincoln, Director, Office of Emergency Preparedness
  • Elliot Richardson, Under Secretary of State
  • Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Richard Helms, Director of Central Intelligence
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Winthrop Brown, Deputy Assistant secretary of State
  • Col. Alexander Haig, NSC Staff
  • Richard Sneider, NSC Staff
  • Brig. General Ralph Douglas Steakley, USAF, Deputy Director (Operations) for Reconnaissance, Joint Staff


  • NSC Meeting on North Korean Downing of U.S. EC–121 Reconnaissance Aircraft

[The following is a transcription of Col. Haig’s notes.]2

Helms: No North Korean claim of being in their air space. Only a limited North Korean military reaction. Possible strip alert, plus air defense alert. No ground alert.

Few incidents surpassed this one, the Pueblo3 excepted. Increased provocations.

Soviet ships in areas of search—no indication of survivors.4

[Page 29]

Wrap-up of North Korean Navy: 10 Komars.

Army comparisons: About even in ground force. With U.S. air support, they have about even capabilities.

The President: 1965 incident.5 We escorted for six months during daylight, but went to…

Get me the history on incidents in this area, especially since 1953 through 1955 period.

Steakley: Route of mission—inconsistencies; speeds.

The closest point was 38 nautical miles. Not consistent that it went in.

Maybe exploratory signal. North Korean fighters went airborne. Advisory warning signal went to aircraft. Condition 3—fighters airborne—heads up. Three minutes later, second track picked up on conversion tracks. Condition 5 alert—plane turned. Third message sent but probably after shootdown.

Fix of shootdown has remained consistent. Soviet track consistent with our track.

Mission flown nine times since November. [Reviewed typical mission.]Soviet tracking normal. Seldom done by North Koreans.

The President:

General Wheeler: Review of military options:

  • —The drone option.
  • —Escort reconnaissance flights in the future with combat aircraft.
  • —Show of air and naval force—48 hours—with coordinated diplomatic efforts. Had no effect after the Pueblo (got mixed up afterwards with the Soviet).

Air strikes against North Korean air defenses. Could cause insecurity. Might cause attack and result in loss.

  • —We could blockade North Korean ports—within 48 hours. Act of war—little effect. They have no sea-going shipping. We could commandeer some North Korean ships. There is one now at sea with Dutch flag and crew.
  • —Attempt to destroy a North Korean aircraft off North Korea. Chances slim of getting one. Same little effect.
  • —Sea to shore bombardment. 48 hours. We would need air cover, however. West coast ports offer little—East coast better. Inchon area is best but it’s in too far.
  • —Attack targets adjacent to the DMZ, with Honest John or conventional artillery. But the Honest John is inaccurate at extreme range. Violation of the Armistice Agreement would trigger retaliation.
  • —Ground raid across the DMZ. Violation of the Armistice. It could trigger the ROKs to do the same. It would need very heavy fire support—they have some.
  • —We have the capability of an infinite permutation of air attacks—one, two or many airfields. Air defense targets. We’ll need between 24 and 250 US aircraft. We would use Guam, Okinawa, or carriers. The chances of success are excellent. The loss rate would vary with the tactics—2% to 8% losses. Probably between both of these ranges.

This is the menu of military options. Some would have effect; some no effect.

Rogers: Diplomatic options:

The Panmunjom talks are a forum. The North would talk first and would make their claims. They could talk and walk. We would look silly. They have already stated their case. I want to reject.

The UN is a possibility. We would present our case in letter form, but ask for no action. If we do ask, we will get none. Most won’t support us. They will ask why the flight is necessary.

We can use diplomatic contacts with friends and allies.

We could use a combination of all these: diplomatic, UN and Panmunjon. We would be able to help generate domestic support in the event of military action. But all of these are marginal.

Maybe we don’t have to move immediately. Watch for a change.

Don’t fall into trap about where it happened—when we say we should say so but not if…

The President: Don’t say equivocally. They’ll lie.

There is a major difference with the Pueblo. This is a routine mission. That is why there was no air cover. Why did they do this after Pueblo?

Rogers: Unusual tracking. As the General pointed out.

The President: There is no international law as regards air space.

Steakley: It was not unusual, in the sense of its past pattern—only in sense of its scheduled pattern.

The President: Oh, this is normal in the past? His rule to do so?

Steakley: Yes.

Vice President: I see no uncertainty. We know where it was hit and the Soviets picked up here.

Rogers: This is what they will say. I don’t agree.

The Vice President: We always take the other guy’s position.

[Page 31]

Laird: This is helpful but they have control of the ——.6 They can deny.

Wheeler: We have photographed with their okay. It picks up even a wheel.

Laird: Mileage is correct—yesterday—no problem.

Richardson: What will the Soviets say about their own?

Rogers: They can’t lie.

Kissinger: Pyongyang claims we shot first.

Wheeler: I imagine an air-to-air missile. It would probably have to be a missile.

Kissinger: Their statement implies a straight drop on this.

The President: Bill has to go before the editors7 shortly.

Henry, any more?

Kissinger: No. The only thing is that we considered the diplomatic scenario depends on the retaliation decided on. Both must be consistent.

Rogers: Also, we shouldn’t threaten the other side. It ties our hands.

Richardson: Mr. President, provision of Article I of the Treaty.8 The USSR and North Korea are bound.

What is the South Korean reaction?

Wheeler: Bonesteel says they are very concerned. It is typical of their past actions. They are apprehensive we won’t do anything.

Brown: The ROK press reaction says we should retaliate strongly.

The President: They are very jittery.

Laird: The Marker thing hasn’t helped.

Kissinger: With respect to the treaty, North Korea is the only country with defense treaties with USSR and the Chinese.

Also there is an escape clause in Article I.

The President: We will disperse.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–109, NSC Minutes, Originals, 1969–1970. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the Cabinet Room at the White House. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting lasted from 10:13 to 11:07 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The CIA prepared a paper, “Alternative Courses of Action In Response to Korean Attack on US Aircraft,” for discussion at this meeting. The paper “first states assumptions regarding possible survival of the crew and North Korean intentions, and then lists possible objectives of US actions. Alternative military courses of action with associated diplomatic actions are discussed as follows: show of force; single select military combat actions; other military actions.” (Central Intelligence Agency, Executive Registry Files, Job 80–R01284A, Box 9, K–3, Korea, January–December 1969)
  2. All brackets are in the original.
  3. See footnote 4, Document 7.
  4. According to a memorandum for the record of the DCI’s April 16 morning meeting, Helms was briefed that Soviet and U.S. naval vessels in the area of the shootdown were exchanging messages that, combined with U.S. photos of debris, suggested that there were no survivors. (Central Intelligence Agency, Executive Registry Files, Job 80–R01234A, Morning Meeting Minutes, Box 1, March 1–April 30, 1969)
  5. Reference is to the attempted North Korean shootdown in April 1965 of a U.S. RB–47 reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan.
  6. Omission is in the original.
  7. See footnote 4, Document 8.
  8. Presumably a reference to the North Korean-Soviet mutual defense treaty, signed July 6, 1961. (Keesing’s Contemporary Archives, 1961–1962, p. 18246)