83. Editorial Note

As part of its strategy of applying pressure on the Soviet Union and North Vietnam as a way to achieve a negotiated end to the war in Vietnam, the Nixon administration developed specific plans for military escalation in October 1969. The National Security Council staff developed one such plan, codenamed Duck Hook, consisting, among other things, of the mining of the Haiphong port complex, the quarantining of the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville, and intense aerial bombing of selected targets. According to an October 2 memorandum to Nixon from Henry Kissinger, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, the “basic objective” of Duck Hook was “to give Hanoi incentive to negotiate a compromise settlement through a series of military blows.” The memorandum is published in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970, Document 129.

According to the handwritten journal of H. R. Haldeman, Assistant to the President, he spoke with Kissinger the following day and found him to be “very concerned—feels we only have two alternatives [in Vietnam]—bugout or accelerate—and that we must escalate or P[resident] is lost.” Haldeman also noted that Kissinger’s “contingency plans don’t include the domestic factor.” (National Archives, Nixon [Page 283]Presidential Materials, Handwritten Journals and Diaries of Harry Robbins Haldeman, Vol. 3, September 29, 1969–January 12, 1970)

Kissinger had held a series of meetings with the NSC staff in September to plan Duck Hook. According to a memorandum for the record of one such meeting, held on September 12 in the White House Situation Room with Kissinger in attendance, Soviet perceptions of Nixon’s state of mind figured into the Duck Hook plan. “If USSR thinks President is a madman, then they’ve driven him to it [military escalation], and they’d better help calm him down.” (Memorandum for the record; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 45, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Contingency Planning, Sept.–Oct. 1969)

Another memorandum from Kissinger to the President outlined a slightly different scenario under Duck Hook. The operation would begin with a diplomatic gambit that included warning “Dobrynin that unless Hanoi reversed its course in all these areas in the very near future—a matter of a few days, in fact—we would be obliged to take some form of action to show Hanoi that it could not escape the consequences of its behavior. We should expect as an immediate sign of Hanoi’s changed intentions a significant constructive move on its part in the Paris negotiations.” If Hanoi failed to respond, however, “we would proceed with our military measures.” Once the conventional military measures were underway, the memorandum added, “We would assume a heightened PACOM and SAC alert posture militarily to show our resolve and to respond to whatever contingencies arise.” (National Archives, RG 218, Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Records of the Chairman, General Wheeler, Box 189, White House Memos (1969))

Nixon expressed reservations about Duck Hook during an October 9 lunchtime conversation with Haldeman. According to Haldeman’s handwritten journal, the President was still “pondering the course” to take in Vietnam. Although the President had not yet ruled out Kissinger’s plan to escalate the fighting, Haldeman wrote, he was leaning toward troop withdrawals, a course favored by Secretary of Defense Laird and Secretary of State Rogers. Nixon’s “worry about K[issinger]’s plan is that it will take six–eight months—and fears can’t hold the country that long at that level—where he could hold for same period of withdrawals.” (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, HJDHRD, Vol. 3, September 23, 1969–January 12, 1970)

The administration rejected Duck Hook. According to Kissinger’s memoirs, on October 17 he recommended that the President defer consideration of the plan. President Nixon recalled in his memoirs that, as a consequence, it “was important that the Communists not mistake as weakness the lack of dramatic action on my part in carrying out the ultimatum. We would be able to demonstrate our continuing resolve [Page 284]to the North Vietnamese on the battlefield, but I thought that the Soviets would need a special reminder.” (Kissinger, White House Years, page 285; Nixon, RN, page 405) Nixon was referring to the “ultimatum” he delivered to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin on October 20; see Document 85.