15. Record of a Telephone Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

P said another call that might be useful in lining up support would be to Rockefeller. P suggested K give him a call and use his own judgment as to how much you want to disclose. K said he talked to Mel—as result of consultations he finds they are content with what President is doing—there is no pressure to do anything more. President said he (Laird) has been brave soldier—he has taken a lot of heat on these things and you can’t just let State get credit for checking with Congress and being the good guys and Mel the bad guy. That is why President asked him to check with them—he understands them and knows what we are trying to do. President asked whether Laird still thought we had to do this. K said yes. However, K said they were talking on phone that was not secure. Laird still believes it is right thing to do but no longer thinks there is Congressional pressure to do it. K said he thought Rockefeller would support it but he will check with him. P said it was not high priority—give him a call tomorrow.

President said he is still affirmative. He has to be sure we are leading the charge with other people coming along a bit. K said it is about the boldest course President can take. In long run it may turn out not to be so risky. Pres said when you come right down to it here’s the Soviet Union finally flushing Czech Revolution down the drain and no one gives a damn; here we are on isolated basis and we do not do a [Page 35] thing with 31 lives missing. Pres said he looked at editorial in Star—he really thinks we should have gotten across the fact there was no question about where plane was. K said he (Pres) could nail that down tomorrow. President agreed. P said they made check and no question whatever and they know it. K said Korean radar showed it was 40 miles off the coast and Russian radar showed 60. They know we are not playing provocation into a crisis. Russians have their hands full in Czech now—they have to be ready for next few days against some riots. K said there will be some reaction in the West. President said he doubted Britain, France and the rest would do anything. K said there might be some bad editorials against them but they will have their hands full for a few weeks.

K said if we do this, we have to be ready to go very, very far in case it leads to ground action. I think we can stop if we are willing to look down and that is a very tough one to bite early in Administration and I owe it to you to say that. K said his judgment is that it will not come to that.

Pres said he trusts Mel is not backing off. K said he is uneasy about it. K said if Pres says he wants to do it, Mel would agree to do and take public responsibility for it. President said Rogers would not. K said he believes to do this will make or break President’s administration—they owe it to Pres and must stand behind him.

President said take the people on the other side—take Kennedy,2 country will be strongly against him. K said they will say Pres risked another ground war in Asia. K said Pres will have to say we will not tolerate another ground war in Asia—to Dobrynin we will have to say more. When it happens, we might have to go to tactical nuclears and clean it up. All hell will break loose for two months, but at end of road there will be peace in Asia. K said that is something that is easy for him to say.

Pres discussed press stories—they are not praising us, they are trying to get us to do something. They are eroding self-confidence of this country. President said that is another problem that is not answered by option 2.3 K said he has come to feel that option 2 with Lunch is not feasible. This gives other side incentive not to make public as there is [Page 36] nothing they can do about it. Pres said that leaves option 2 without Lunch. K said yes and then do that two weeks after. K said this is low risk course and he would favor if there were no VN war going on and if we had not slipped back so much in last 10 years. Because there is VN and because there is general erosion of moral fiber of country, President said a bold move is indicated. K said in his view we may be forced into an even bolder move a year from now if we do not do this one. President said you mean VNK said that and anything else that might happen.

P said if question comes up tomorrow, should he indicate that we are going to continue reconnaissance. K said absolutely. Pres said he thought he should say too that we can’t expect Americans to take these activities when they are in open sea and open air unless Government backs them up. K said unless Government protects them. P said he would put in context of looking toward future. Pres said he could use some of option 2 at press conference tomorrow.4 K said he could say he will protect but not how.

K said if Pres uses option 2 he will not lose much, if anything, but general trend is against Pres and this is problem. P will not be significantly worse off. K said his talks with Dobrynin had effect.5 P said with their troubles in Czech they may need us more than we need them. K said he did not think to do nothing is a calamity—Pres said as K points out, to do option 2 is not a calamity. Pres said with option 1 the gains are great and risks very great.6 P said with option 2 there are no gains and no risk except perhaps down the road. K said the risk in option 2 over period of time, which will be cumulative, will be greater than risk in option 1, which will be enormous in brief period. Pres agreed. P said everytime US fails to react, it encourages some pipsqueak to do something.

Pres said not to let Laird move off now—when they meet Saturday morning7 he does not want him wobbling around. K said he would talk to him. Pres asked why no pressure was being put on State by South Koreans. K said he thought our Amb was telling them to keep [Page 37] quiet. P speculated about effect this action would have on averting another Korean confrontation—can’t brush off fact that they say they will take us on. K agreed they might do it. K talked of gain of taking on toughest character in Communist camp and facing him down—this would be enormous. P said we will not take any more heat from moving too much force in—have to be ready to stop them.

P said he would read briefing book now for tomorrow.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 434, Korea: EC–121 Shootdown, North Korea Reconnaissance Shootdown 4/17/69, Vol. II Haig. No classification marking.
  2. Presumably a reference to Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts).
  3. The NSC staff prepared option papers, undated, that provided “themes to be used, as appropriate, in public statements, diplomatic consultations, and domestic consultations.” Option two set forth a threefold U.S. response: “A. We have carefully considered military retaliation but have ruled it out at this time. B. We do intend to continue reconnaissance missions in the area. These flights will have an armed escort as long as we feel this is necessary. C. We have made it unmistakably clear to North Korea that we will not tolerate future provocations.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Box 434, Korea: EC–121 Shootdown, North Korea Reconnaissance Shootdown 4/17/69, Vol. II Haig)
  4. During his April 18 news conference, the President responded to a question about how the United States would respond to the shootdown by explaining that any U.S. action had to be put in the larger context, “how responding in one area might affect a major interest of the United States in another area—an area like Vietnam, Vietnam being the top priority for us.” He declared that normal reconnaissance flights in the Korean area would continue. See Department of State Bulletin, May 5, 1969, p. 381.
  5. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XII, Soviet Union, January 1969–October 1970, Documents 12, 13, 17, 23, 27, 32, 36, and 37.
  6. Option 1 set forth the following U.S. response: “A. The U.S. action in retaliation was an extremely limited and measured one. B. Ours is a single action. C. We are fully ready to defend ourselves, but we trust that there will not be any further military actions.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Box 434, Korea: EC–121 Shootdown, North Korea Reconnaissance Shootdown 4/17/69, Vol. II Haig)
  7. April 19.