16. Memorandum From Richard L. Sneider of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

SUBJECT

  • The Korean Decision and Domestic Opinion

A fundamental issue on the Korean decision is the problem of mobilizing sustained public support. There are very few direct clues to American opinion on this issue. Up to the present time, the public demands for retaliation have been limited and less vocal than after the Pueblo seizure. On the other hand, warnings against retaliation have been equally small and come from the expected quarters.

It is my guess that a very large segment of the American people would initially welcome a strong response—as an act of strength and self-respect. The problem will be to prevent this support from seriously eroding over a period of weeks. The action will certainly have its minority of dovish critics from the very beginning. It will raise such issues as—why did we react to this incident and not to the shooting down of other reconnaissance planes? Isn’t there a risk of a two-front war in Asia? Why was Congress ignored? etc. They will be playing to an American people who, however enervated by a decisive action, are also essentially fatigued by the Vietnam war, concerns about the growing racial and city crises, taxes, and other domestic problems turning them inward.

Even if the action brings no response from the North Koreans, these nagging doubts and concerns will remain and serve as a basis for the “never-again” rationalization—although there will be a great [Page 38]sense of relief and pride in success. It should also be noted that anticipated overseas criticism will play into the doves’ hands.

A crucial question will be the interaction of domestic opinion on the Vietnam war. A strong response in Korea is almost certain to bring the North Vietnamese up short and heighten their concern about the risks of prolonging the Vietnam war. On the other hand, they will be watching even more closely domestic public opinion in the U.S.—which they consider their trump card in outlasting us at the peace negotiations. The initial shock effect on Hanoi could well be lost if there is a serious erosion of domestic support for the Korean action leading to renewed pressures against the Vietnam commitment.

This then is the risk of the Korean action. But, it must be evaluated against the risk of inaction. American opinion is volatile and difficult to judge at this time. I can only guess and that guess is that it will not give sustained support for the Korean action because too many will conclude that U.S. vital national interests were not engaged, as they were in the Cuban missile crisis, sufficiently to justify the risks of renewed hostilities in Korea.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 438, Korea: EC–121 Shootdown, General Materials—EC–121 Shootdown. Top Secret; Sensitive.