Four years ago Richard Nixon was just where he is now on Vietnam, i.e., on the brink of a wider conflict. He didn’t think the war could be won, but didn’t want to lose “leverage” by saying so in public. His one hope, his “secret plan” for “an honorable peace,” i.e., for snatching political victory from military defeat, was to shut off Haiphong and bring about a confrontation with the Soviet Union. This is exactly where he—and we—are today. After all the years of costly losses, all he offers is a bigger gamble.

Catch the Falling Flag, Richard J. Whalen’s memoir of his service as a speech writer for Nixon in the 1968 campaign, could not have appeared at a better moment. It provides the full text of the speech Nixon was about to give on his own plan to end the war when Johnson announced on March 31 that he would not run again. Two days before, conferring with his speech writers, Nixon startled them by an extraordinarily—and uncharacteristically—candid remark. “I’ve come to the conclusion,” Whalen quotes him as saying, “that there’s no way to win the war. But we can’t say that, of course. In fact, we have to seem to say the opposite, just to keep some degree of bargaining leverage.”

But the only bargaining leverage he had in mind was to threaten a bigger war. “We can’t send another three hundred thousand men,” Whalen quotes Nixon as ruminating with the speech writers. “We can’t invade North Vietnam. The only thing left is Haiphong and that involves risks with the Soviet.” Once again four years later the only thing left is Haiphong.

The rationale of the Moscow summit was exposed then as he “thought aloud” with his speech writers. “Now,” Nixon went on, according to Whalen, “there could be a new era in our relations with the Soviets, a new round of summit meetings and other negotiations. We have to make that plain to them. We have to say, ‘Look if you go on supporting North Vietnam, we will have to act dramatically.” We won’t add—’if we have the power,’ of course. On the other hand, we have to say, ‘If you are willing to give ground and help us out of this morass, it could mean lots of good things. Otherwise, we’re going toward confrontation.’ ”

Had he not hastily canceled his speech when he learned that Johnson would speak the same night and shelved it altogether when Johnson’s turned out to be an abdication, Nixon would have sounded exactly the same theme we have been hearing from the Administration in recent weeks. The speech Nixon prepared in 1968 said:

Today the Soviet Union and the Communist States of Eastern Europe are providing fully 85 percent of the sophisticated weapons for North Vietnam and 100 percent of the oil. It is Soviet SAMS and Soviet anti-aircraft guns that are shooting down American planes. It is Soviet artillery that is pounding the Marine fortress of Khe Sanh. Without Soviet military assistance, the North Vietnamese war machine would grind to a halt…. Not the small primitive state of North Vietnam but its great Soviet ally and protector inhibits the full exercise of America’s military power. Not even the proximity of Red China’s massive armies is as powerful a deterrent to US actions as the presence of Soviet freighters in the port of Haiphong.

So either the freighters are removed or we sink them? Nixon in 1968 did not propose to say anything so bald. But he was ready to say, “We need a new policy that will awaken the Soviet Union to the perils of the course it has taken in Vietnam.”

No mention was made of arms control in the bargaining Nixon then envisaged, though the SALT talks were soon to begin. “The agenda at the summit” was to include not only Vietnam but other points of tension including the Middle East and Cuba, “which is attempting to export subversion.” Nixon was prepared to offer the Soviets “in the most specific ways possible, as much friendship as they were willing to reciprocate.” This was the blueprint for the advance trips made to Moscow in recent months by the Secretaries of Agriculture and of Commerce. “And prudent diplomacy,” said the speech Nixon never gave, “would reserve further economic concessions to the Soviets for use as bargaining counters.”

The plan then and the strategy now is to offer the Soviet Union a kind of junior partnership in the Pax Americana in return for US trade concessions. The alternative is an escalated war, threatening the destruction of a Soviet satellite and daring Moscow, if it doesn’t like it, to come on out and fight. This, in the thermonuclear age, is a pretty juvenile scenario. If the bluff is called is Nixon seriously prepared to go this far to have his way in a distant Asian Lilliput?


The revelations in the Whalen book1 complement those in National Security Study Memorandum No. 1, which was drawn up at the very beginning of the Nixon Administration as its basic guide to future policy on Vietnam. This was leaked widely in recent weeks to the press and on Capitol Hill, another triumph of the Xerox machine over bureaucratic secrecy. Senator Gravel sent copies to every member of the Senate2 but he told me the other day that some senators had primly sent the document back with a note saying that they refused to read it! Perhaps like Roman senators they would rather make policy by inferring omens from the flight of birds.

Generally speaking there is nothing in the 548 pages that is new, much less secret. They might as well classify the telephone book as this compendium of grim observations familiar to every close reader of the newspapers. The report would best be entitled “Basic Facts About the Vietnam War the Bureaucracy Privately Admits, Manfully Denies in Public, and Continues to Ignore in Making Future Policy.”

The least important part of the report has had the most newspaper attention. This is its recognition—for the umpteenth time since World War II—that airpower is not a decisive weapon, a fact graphically demonstrated every day in the current offensive where the enemy was able to transport and stockpile huge quantities of matériel despite a torrential rain of bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and seems able to bring up reserves, supplies, artillery, and huge quantities of shells despite saturation and carpet bombings by B-52s around the firebases and cities they threaten and take.

The most timely and urgent parts of the report, which we present verbatim in this issue of The New York Review, have nowhere else been printed in full. These are the replies of the CIA, the State Department, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) to the question of what would happen if we shut off Haiphong, heavily bombed the area around Hanoi, and left North Vietnam dependent on what it could bring in, under bombardment, over the rail and road lines from China. This is Nixon’s last card and he is now playing it, though it is obvious from a close reading of the replies that here again airpower is not likely to be decisive, nor worth the cost and risk.

Before we look at the replies, one basic observation about NSSM-1 is in order. This was the first comprehensive study ordered by Kissinger for Nixon after he took office in January, 1969. It was supposed to give the new Administration a completely fresh look at the war. Actually it raises no fundamental questions about the war itself. It asks why the NVN and VC are in Paris but not why we are in the war. It does not assess its over-all costs or its impact on America’s over-all world situation. The questions, for all their detailed precision, avoid these bigger issues and are set in the context of how to win the war politically, if not militarily.

It is characteristic of this approach that the question of bombing Haiphong and Hanoi, hitherto off limits to our bombers for fear of a larger war and probably in accord with a tacit understanding between Washington and Moscow, is raised tangentially. There is no question 1) about the huge additional cost in planes and pilots or 2) about the international complications which could follow if the Soviets took steps to defend their ships from planes and mines in North Vietnam’s harbors. The reader will see that only the State Department, as if gratuitously, touches on these broader and riskier aspects of the problem in its final paragraph:

It should be noted, in conclusion, that this paper does not address the advisability [italics in original] of closing Haiphong, nor the question of the Soviet and Chinese responses. These matters, clearly the most central problems, lie outside the terms of reference of Question 28 (d).

This seems to have been the State Department’s quiet way of registering a protest against the failure to include the wider risks in this first comprehensive survey by the new Administration. None of the agencies touched on the failure to ask about the cost in planes and pilots of intensive bombing over so heavily defended an area as that around Hanoi, Haiphong, and the Chinese border. The number of pilot POWs and MIAs would certainly go up sharply in the wake of any such campaign, but this is covered by silence.

The reader will see that, of the three agencies, the CIA is the most outspoken on the question of the Hanoi-Haiphong bombings, concluding that they would be “unlikely” to “significantly interdict import levels.” The replies from the State Department and the Office of the Secretary of Defense are more guarded. They follow the style of carefully calibrated ambiguity favored by ancient oracles and economic forecasters—hedged against every contingency and with a little something for every ear.


State and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, their bureaucratic antennae attuned to what the White House probably wanted, are more optimistic than the CIA. The State Department even goes so far at one point as to say that bombing of the Haiphong-Hanoi area “would over time prevent North Viet-Nam from receiving sufficient economic and military aid to continue the war effort.” But the reader will see that this is followed by the hedge that in the past North Vietnam had “surprised many observers, and confounded many predictions” by maintaining itself and sending “ever-increasing” amounts of supplies southward “during 3 1/2 years of bombing.”

“With this experience in mind,” the Department concludes, hedging and then re-hedging the new hedge, “there is little reason to believe that new bombing will accomplish what previous bombings failed to do, unless it is conducted with much greater intensity and readiness to defy criticism and risk of escalation.” Pretty clearly, the State Department, if asked to vote on bombing Hanoi-Haiphong, would vote No.

The OSD reply, carefully read, does not offer as much prepackaged optimism as State’s. It asks freedom from “the militarily confining constraints” of past bombing. It says in its lushest bureaucratese that “the concept would preclude attacks on population as a target but would accept high risks of civilian casualties in order to achieve destruction of war-supporting targets.” Would North Vietnam’s dikes be considered “war-supporting” (they irrigate the fields that feed that country) and thus open to bombardment under this “concept”? How they love the language of metaphysics at the Pentagon!

Even with no holds barred the OSD only promises that imports of war matériel “would be seriously reduced,” and “over time” (how much time? in what millennium?) North Vietnam’s “capabilities to cope with the cumulative effects of such an air campaign would be significantly curtailed.” But after this gingerly optimism we are soon told that there is not “sufficient data available at this time on either the cost or effectiveness of an air campaign” against the rail and road links with China “to reach a firm conclusion as to the chances of isolating NVN from her neighbors.”

It seems that “past attempts” have “met with considerable difficulties.” OSD estimated that it would require 6,000 sorties a month (or 200 a day) agianst the two rail lines from China alone, though “even at this level of effort” they could still be kept open, while “interdiction of the road system would be still more difficult.” OSD notes that “we currently fly approximately 7,000 sorties per month against two primary roads in Laos without preventing throughput truck traffic” and adds that the road network from China has “7-10 principal arteries and numerous bypasses” making it harder to bomb than the two-road system which is the heart of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

“Thus,” the OSD concludes lamely, “it is not possible to give a definitive answer to the question of how much war-essential imports could come into NVN if sea imports are denied and a strong air campaign is initiated.” That is not a conclusion that recommends the risks involved, risks the Nixon Administration is taking.

When machines begin to think and to make war no men, their biggest error will be their inability to grasp the wayward irrationality of human beings, the defect in their clockwork which leads them to persist in struggle—and therefore to upset calculation and sometimes surprisingly to win—against such unfavorable odds that to give in would be the clearly correct, the computer-directed course.

Our war in Vietnam bears a strong resemblance to that war of the furture. An invading machine civilization has stubbornly persisted in the machine’s oversimplified strategy based on the best it could muster—the bomber, the bulldozer, and the computer. Now the machine’s last gasp of hope is that somehow victory can still be won via a smashed or blockaded Haiphong by denying the other, the human, side—hardware. It is as if determination, will, spirit were invisible to the machine, too, spectral to be quantified by its computers, existing in some fifth dimension for which they had never been programmed.

In the current offensive we can see again the crucial fact from which we have constantly averted our eyes over the years—the very same people, the Vietnamese, fight so poorly on our side, so well on the other. One side has the airpower; the other side has the will. If airpower were equally matched, if the Vietnamese on our side had been subjected to an equivalent bombing on the battlefield and behind the lines, there is little doubt that they would have collapsed long ago. Airpower has not given us victory, it has only prolonged that agony before defeat.

The weakness shown by ARVN in the test of battle was foreshadowed in those portions of NSSM-1 which have had least attention in the leaks to the press—the unfavorable political and human factors on our side. These made hopeless from the start our effort to solve a political problem by military means.

NSSM-1 shows, that we could not mobilize the people because its major sectors were hostile or indifferent to us—the peasants, the Buddhist, the youth, part of the labor unions. Here are a few passages which light up the political landscape.

One foreboding sentence comes from the most optimistic agencies, JCS (joint Chiefs of Staff), CINPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific), and MACV (Military Aid Command, Vietnam): “Youth leaders, on balance, are rarely supporters of the GVN [Saigon government] programs or policies or considered ready to serve as officials in the government.” Here is a complementary passage from another leading purveyor of optimism, the US Embassy in Saigon, when asked about the prospects for a political mobilization behind the Thieu regime:

While the trend is favorable, it must be said that progress has been painfully slow, particularly with regard to developing strong national political parties. The tradition persists from French colonial days that a true nationalist is by definition anti-government [emphasis added].

The embassy did not dare to add that true nationalists were anti-government because under us as under the French the governments were puppets of the foreign intruder.

Vietanam is a peasant country but the Saigon regime has least rapport with the peasants. In response to a question about the attitudes of various elites, the Office of the Secretary of Defense observed:

It is at the village level among the rural elite that the greatest problem exists for the GVN’s acceptance. Ever since the Ngo Dinh Diem regime struck a blow at the autonomy of the village and extended the Saigon government adminstration’s control of village life [more palinly: the Diem regime abolished election of village officials and appointed them instead, often placing Northern Catholic outsiders in charge of Southern Buddhist villages], there has been a marked gap between rural and urban elites. The success of the VC in the rural areas is in part traceable to this situation. There is considerable evidence that a good part of the GVN leadership still fears the outcome of village and hamlet elections (which have been partially reinstituted)unless they are manipulated by Saigon authorities because of the prospect of success therein for VC and/or oppositional elements.

At another point, in discussing various religious groups, the OSD observed, “It is among the rural Buddhist masses that the Viet Cong has its principal strength.” So the NLF’s principal strength is in the grass roots and among the majority faith. Some US military intellectuals have seen hope in the destruction of the countryside and the “urbanization” of the peasant as he flees to the cities and the Saigon regime’s control. But the CIA, in reply to a question on how adequate is our information on damage to civilians, made a sobering observation. It spoke of the “tremendous beating” the peasant has taken from “both friendly and enemy forces” as evidenced by the rapid flow of refugees and migrants to urban areas. “While the long run impact of this process would, at first examination, appear to be favorable to the GVN,” and CIA commented, “it is probably true that a considerable proportion of the urban population which is normally classified as ‘GVN controlled’ is made up a recently rural population which has little reason to affiliate itself with the cause of its social disruption.”

The least representative elements in South Vietnam seem to be the only ones at all enthusiastic about the war effort. These are the Northerners and the Catholics, especially the Northern Catholics. In some ways the civil war is a war between rival Northerners, led on our side by Northern generals like Thieu who fought for the French and on the other side by Northern generals like Giap who fought against the French. Even the US Embassy admitted at one point, “At the beginning of 1966 the GVN was basically a Northern military junta”—it is not much different today. So narrowly based is the government, and so slim any popular support for its war policies, that a State Department reply at another point warned against any effort to widen its base. When asked about broadening the government to give it more mass support, the State Department replied:

Any attempt to include more militant “opposition” or neutralist elements would risk serious Northern/Catholic/ RVNAF [Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces] reaction. We would probably get nowhere if we attempted now to encourage such wider participation in any case and might merely confirm suspicions in certain Vietnamese leaders’ minds that we are working for a “peace Cabinet” or government of transition.

How do you whip up popular support for a South Vietnamese government domainated by Northerners and weakest—among the South Vietnamese? Nobody said that plainly but it is there between the lines in an OSD discussion of regional factors. The OSD began by noting that “as far as the war is concerned, the Northerners [i.e., the Northerners in South Vietnam] remain the most intransigent in their desire for military victory.” It said the central Vietnamese (the area around Hue and the northern provinces of South Vietnam generally) “are probably the most ‘war weary’ and desirous of peaceful settlement.”

The Southerners, the OSD reply continues, “are the most ambiguous in their political responses to the war and the problem posed by the NLF.” While “most leadership groups wish to maintain South Vietnam as a non-communist state and limit NLF influence,” the OSD said, “the greatest ‘accommodation’ has taken place with the NLF in many delta areas.” OSD concludes delicately, “In part Southern dissatisfaction with Northern influence in the GVN/RVNAF has tempered there military against the NLF….” In other words many Southerners so dislike Northern domination of the Saigon government that their class fears of a communist takeover.

Overshadowing all else is war weariness. Curiously, no questions were directed to this No. 1 factor, but the OSD opened up the subject in discussing “secret organizations and parties,” a significant heading for a forbidden topic. It said:

The full extent of war weariness and the desire for peace is not knowing in any exact manner for the people of South Vietnam. Indications are that such feelings are widespread and deeply desired by a significant number of the population. This was manifest in the President election of 1967 when despite the desire of the ruling government elite, the peace issue surfaced as a principal point for discussion in the campaign. The relative success of Truong Dinh Dzu [the runner-up, still in jail] in garnering some 17 percent of the vote attested to considerable organizational activity in his behalf throughout GVN areas of control.

The OSD said the Paris peace talks opened the door to further discussion of “alternatives to continuing the war” and that the Saigon regime’s ‘current irritation with the ‘peace campaign’ of the An Quang Buddhists, student and youth groups, and some trade unionists, indicates how explosive an issue is involved.”

The possibility of rallying popular support is further undermined by the known and widespread corruption of the Saigon regime. The OSD reply about the corruption problem touched on a deep-rooted moral and religious factor:

The principal effect of corruption has to do with the Vietnamese conception of the Just Cause [italics in original] wherein righteous behavior on the part of individuals either validates or discredits the government or political movement they serve. It is a prime objective of the NLF to depict the GVN and the RVNAF as corrupt and venal. Unfortunately too many of the GVN’s leadership—military and civilian—validate that image by their behavior and thereby undermine their own authority in a society where Confucian values of rectitude have considerable meaning for the people.

These are not problems which can be solved by blockading Haiphong or drowning a million Vietnamese in the North by bombing the dikes.

The character of the regime determines the character of its army, and to read NSSM-1 is to understand why the ARVN forces fall apart so easily under enemy attack. The cowardice and incompetence shown by so many high ranking officers in recent days should have come as no surprise to those who read NSSM-1. The OSD said that “politics still prevails over professionalism” in ARVN. “Political tensions between Northerners and Southerners,” OSD reported then, “will still affect the RVNAF as will the conflict between a large number of low ranking combat officers and the basically French-trained high ranking officers who have achieved their positions due to politics rather than performance in the field.” OSD did not touch on the implications of “French-trained.” It implies that most of the top officers were traitors who fought against their own people on the side of the French, as they fight—if that is the right word for it—on our side today.

The responses about ARVN show the narrow class character of the Saigon regime and of its officer corps, a society in which a privileged gentry rules as it did in pre-communist China. All this comes out not in response to clear questions but as a by-product of inquiries about the officer class of ARVN.

The responses on the officer corps ranged all the way from the usual pap given out by the US Embassy in Saigon to a downright “Marxist” analysis of the problem from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The embassy replied that “prospects are good” for increased selection of officers on the basis of “competence and performance,” but added lamely, “It must be admitted that there is still a long way to go.” The State Department was less sanguine. It said the situation was so bad that “some positive steps taken by the GVN even seem to have produced unintended results: when the RVNAF introduced fitness reports and promotion panels in 1967, the number of promotions to the critical ranks of captain and above declined and fell below the number authorized, thereby exacerbating rather than easing the RVNAF’s officer shortage.” The CIA opened a broader and gloomier perspective:

There remains the broader question of eligibility for government or military service at a meaningful level of those not already in the government (e.g., the degree of opportunity for the bright and vigorous peasant who might become an excellent company commander). The educational and social restrictions on eligibility for, let alone advancement in, government service have been long-standing weaknesses of the GVN. Though the war and the inordinate size of the RVNAF have probably created opportunity for peasants that otherwise would not have existed, there is no evidence of GVN encouragement or of any change in normal requirements. Even given vigorous US prodding and high level GVN concurrence, it would be prudent to envisage increased social mobility in South Vietnam in terms of decades [emphasis added].

Of course the Saigon regime does not have “decades” in which to make these reforms. But the most radical and devastating portrait was drawn by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The OSD said that except for recommended non-coms, the officer class was drawn almost entirely from high-school graduates. It said only 7 percent of RVNAF officers had received commissions from the ranks and that this had actually declined to 4.8 percent in the 1967-68 class, the latest before NSSM-1 was compiled. The OSD went on to say:

Since high school education is primarily available to the city-bred and wealthier classes, the officer class in Vietnam is hardly attuned to the life style of the rural conscripts and ordinary soldiers of the RVNAF. Indeed, this has led many observers to comment unfavorably on the “Mandarin” character of RVNAF officers.

This acceptance of a “mandarin style” and inadequate other motivation produced many officers who were more interested in perquisites and privileges of rank than in effective military leadership. This gap between officers and soldiers has resulted to a degree in poor combat efficiency [emphasis added].

The OSD went on to draw a deadly contrast between the atmosphere of ARVN and of the NLF. It said that in the RVNAF the “lack of empathy shown by the officer ranks to the rural population has resulted to some extent in the perception by the peasantry that the RVNAF is not ‘our army’….” On the other hand the NLF is regarded more favorably because it has “more officers of peasant origin and its soldiers are made more conscious of and disciplined to the rural population’s needs.”

The climax of the OSD discussion is a veritable bombshell which reads in its clear appreciation of class factors as if it came from a Marxist study of the war. “The recruitment of officers drawn from the same class strata represented by the GVN officials,” the OSD concluded grimly, “has also contributed greatly to the elite character of political parties and the failure of any of the pro-GVN parties to achieve a mass base in Vietnamese society.”

The emphasis is ours and the epitaph may serve for the Saigon regime.

The Washington dispatch which follows had to be written and put into type before Nixon’s speech the night of May 8, announcing his decision to mine North Vietnam’s harbors and to smash its rail and road connections with China. But the disclosures to which the article calls attention provide the explanation of Nixon’s longrange strategy, its weakness and its risks.

It is characteristic of Nixon’s secretiveness that National Security Study Memorandum No. 1—which is discussed and partly reprinted below—though intended in 1969 to lay the groundwork for his policies on Vietnam, nowhere asked the advice of intelligence agencies and the bureaucracy, military and civilian, on the very policy of “Vietnamization” he adopted. But at two points in their responses, there were warnings against US troop withdrawal and doubts expressed about ARVN’s ability to stand alone. Four military agencies (US MACV, CINCPAC, JCS, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense) warned against “a too hasty withdrawal of US forces.” The CIA went further and said progress “has been slow, fragile and evolutionary,” adding quietly, “It is difficult to see how the US can largely disengage over the next few years without jeopardizing this.”

It is now clear that Nixon took the gamble on Vietnamization in the hope that if this failed, a bigger gamble would succeed. The bigger gamble, as the reader will see, was either to buy off Moscow and Peking or, if that didn’t work, to use the threat of a nuclear confrontation to make them stand by while we destroyed North Vietnam from the air. In other words, if his gamble on South Vietnam’s future failed, he was and is prepared to gamble America’s future and the world’s. This is the reality behind Nixon’s proclaimed search for “a generation of peace.”

The mining of North Vietnam’s ports and the decision to blockade it by sea and air is potentially the gravest decision ever taken by an American President, for it sets off a slow fuse that could ignite World War III. A gamble of such magnitude, taken by one man without any real consultation with other branches of government, can only be described as an act of dictatorship and war. Nixon—one must assume—is as ready for the domestic as for the world consequences. The martial law imposed in Saigon may be a foretaste of the repression to be expected at home if the situation deteriorates.

In the literally terrible calculus of events, as I write a few hours after the deadline passed in Haiphong harbor, the question is whether Moscow and Peking will act with the same primitive irrationality that Nixon has, putting prestige, face, and machismo ahead of civilization’s survival, or whether their leadership will take the blow at whatever cost to their own political future, hoping that Hanoi’s armies will shortly have achieved their aim, which clearly is not territory but the destruction of Saigon’s will to resist and an end of the Thieu regime. But even if the crisis is thereby resolved “peacefully” at the expense of the Vietnamese people North and South, it is difficult to see a successful summit, a SALT agreement as a sequel. It is easier to see a new era of heightened suspicion, tension, cold war, and escalating arms race.

In the tense moments at the White House just before press time Nixon was doing his best to pantomime a victory, calling in the photographers and giving them sixty feet of film instead of the usual forty to record a visit with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin and Soviet Trade Minister Patolichev. “The atmosphere of the session,” said the pool report in the press room, “was extremely amiable, cordial, and pleasant. There were lots of smiles all around and the President seemed particularly buoyant.” Dobrynin looked a bit uneasy, but Patolichev, when asked later whether the summit was still on, replied, “Was there ever any doubt?”

Was this cheerful idiocy merely marking time while waiting for the Kremlin to make up its collective mind or would we see an opéra bouffe cave-in instead of an apocalypse? If brinkmanship paid off, what new hair-raisers lie ahead? Just after dawn this morning at the Capitol vigil under a cloudless blue sky as the mines were activated 9,000 miles away, one listened to the clichés with which men comfort themselves in crisis and could only hope that by some miracle the American people might assert themselves and force a change of course.

IFS, May 11, 2 PM

CIA, State and Defense Had Doubts About Attacking Haiphong

Documents from Nixon’s Secret Study of the War: National Security

Study Memorandum No.1


What are current views on the proportion of war-essential imports that could come into North Vietnam over the rail or road lines from China, even if all imports by sea were denied and a strong effort even made to interdict ground transport? What is the evidence?

The Defense Department’s Answer

Land Import Capacity

In 1968, NVN imported an average of 6,800 STPD (short tons per day); 6,000 STPD by sea, and 800 STPD by land. Imports by land were higher in 1967, amounting to about 1,100 STPD. However, the land lines of communication from China were not used to capacity. It is estimated that the two rail lines from China have a theoretical uninterdicted capacity of about 8,000 STPD and the road network could provide an additional 7,000 STPD during the dry season (normally June-September) and about 2,000 STPD during the poor weather months. The combined capacity of the land routes (9,000-15,000 STPD) is more than enough to transport North Vietnam’s total import requirements of about 7,000 STPD. If all seaborne imports were to come through China, considerable logistic problems would have to be solved by the Chinese regime.

Interdiction of Imports from China

If seaborne imports can be denied to NVN, her ability to successfully pursue the war in SVN would be dependent on land imports from China.

A strong effort to interdict road and rail transport from Communist China through North Vietnam would require a concerted and coordinated air interdiction campaign against all transportation: military support; petroleum oil, and lubricants power; industrial; air defense; and communications target systems. The interrelationship of the effects of destruction of targets in one category to the effectiveness of others is such that a cumulative impact is achieved. The air campaign would be conducted in such a manner as to be free of the militarily confining constraints which have characterized the conduct of the war in the north in the past. The concept would preclude attacks on population as a target but would accept high risks of civilian casualties in order to achieve destruction of war-supporting targets.

An interdiction campaign as described above, when employed in conjunction with denial of sea imports, would, in large part, isolate Hanoi and Haiphong from each other and from the rest of the country. Isolation of Hanoi, the focal point of the road and rail system, would be highly effective in reducing North Vietnam’s capability to reinforce aggression in South Vietnam. Importation of war-supporting material would be seriously reduced. Road capacities would be reduced by a factor well in excess of the estimated 50 percent believed to have been accomplished during the summer months of 1966 and 1967. Over time, North Vietnam’s capability to cope with the cumulative effects of such an air campaign would be significantly curtailed.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that resumption of an interdiction campaign similar to that carried out in Route Package I between July and 1 November 1968 would assure almost total interdiction of truck and waterborne movement of supplies into the demilitarized zone and Laos. Naval blockade offshore and interdiction of Regional Package II to Thanh Hao would further enhance this effort.

Commitment of B-52 forces following heavy and unrestricted suppression of defenses by fighters, could reduce the amount of time to accomplish the above. Although the North Vietnamese have established a significant by-pass capability, the transportation nets remain vulnerable at many key points. The locomotive population could be attrited quickly if all buffer restrictions were removed near the Chinese border.

There is not sufficient data available at this time on either the cost or the effectiveness of an air campaign against these land lines to reach a firm conclusion as to the chances of isolating NVN from her neighbors. Past attempts to cut rail, road, and water networks in NVN have met with considerable difficulties. It has been estimated that a minimum of 6,000 attack sorties per month would be required against the two rail lines from China. Even at this level of effort, the North Vietnamese could continue to use the rail lines to shuttle supplies if they were willing to devote sufficient manpower to repair and transhipment operations. Interdiction of the road system would be still more difficult. Since the bombing halt north of 19° in April 1968, North Vietnam has repaired all major road and railway bridges, constructed additional bypasses and alternative routes and expanded the railroad capacity by converting large segments from meter to dual gauge truck. These improvements would make even more difficult prolonged interdiction of the overland lines of communication.

We currently fly approximately 7,000 sorties per month against two primary roads in Laos without preventing throughput truck traffic; the road network from China has 7-10 principal arteries and numerous bypasses. Finally, the monsoonal weather in NVN would make it difficult to sustain interdiction on the land lines of communication. Poor visibility would prevent air strikes during 25-30% of the time during good weather months and 50-65% of the time during poor weather months. Thus, it is not possible to give a definitive amount to the question of how much war-essential imports could come into NVN if sea imports are denied and a strong air campaign is initiated.

Attention would also have to be given to interdiction of supplies coming into SVN from Cambodia. Over the past 2 years, the enemy’s use of Cambodia as a supply base and a place of refuge has become more pronounced. During the period October 1967 to September 1968, 10,000 tons of munitions transited Sihanoukville and are suspected of having been delivered to enemy forces in the Cambodia-Republic of Vietnam border regions. This amount represents more than enough ordnance to satisfy the arms and ammunition requirements for all enemy forces in South Vietnam during the same period. Thus, the act of sealing off the enemy’s Cambodian supply lines must be considered as an integral part of any plan to prevent supplies from reaching enemy forces in the Republic of Vietnam.

The State Department’s Answer

The crux of this question is the definition of “war-essential imports.” There is room for considerable disagreement on this subject, but in our judgement, the category of war-essential imports should include most of the economic aid provided by the Soviets and Chinese, as well as nearly all of their purely military aid. The reason for this is that economic aid is equally if not more important than military aid in keeping North Viet-Nam a going concern. (During 1968, economic aid totaled some $340 million and military aid about $540 million). In fact, it can probably be assumed that all North Vietnamese imports in the past few years have been directly related to the war effort. The regime would not have used its sparse funds and credits, or burdened its strained transport system, with nonessential goods.

Food imports constitute a growing percentage of total imports, in 1968 replacing general cargo as the single largest category of imports. This reflects the steady decline in crop acreages and yields that began in 1965 and has continued through the present. The importance of food imports can hardly be overstated; even with them, North Viet-Nam has been forced to strictly ration foodstuffs on the official market and progressively to reduce the composition of the rice ration so that at present it consists 60 percent of rice substitutes such as domestic corn and imported wheat. In addition, a thriving black market has grown up, dealing in foodstuffs (and other items as well) and involving large numbers of DRV lower level officials and cadres, as well as average citizens.

Economic aid has been essential in keeping North Viet-Nam afloat; under present conditions it is extremely doubtful that Hanoi could dispense with any substantial portion of this aid.

The question becomes, therefore, “Could North Viet-Nam continue to receive and distribute most of the economic aid and nearly all of the military aid it is now obtaining from foreign suppliers if Haiphong and other key ports were closed and if the road and rail lines from China were heavily bombed?” A second question is: “What would happen if it could not?”

To begin with, it must be noted that in practical terms it would be impossible to deny all imports by sea. Even if the one principal port (Haiphong) and the two secondary ports (Cam Pha and Hon Gai) were closed, there would still be twelve minor ports as well as numerous coastal transshipment points suitable for over-the-beach off-loading. Lightering operations would permit an indeterminate amount of supplies to enter North Viet-Nam from the sea. It is nearly certain, however, that these minor ports and transshipment points could not handle anything like the present volume of imports going into Haiphong. (It is estimated that 85 percent of the total aid to Hanoi arrives by sea, i.e., through Haiphong. Almost all of this is economic aid, since military supplies are generally believed to come overland via China.)

We do not believe that the capacity of the DRV-CPR road and rail network is great enough to permit an adequate flow of supplies in the face of an intense day and night bombing campaign. In our view, earlier analyses which have claimed a virtually unlimited capacity for this network were based primarily on theoretical considerations of transport capacities and did not give adequate weight to the very real difficulties the North Vietnamese have experienced in handling imports even when Haiphong was relatively untouched. It is true that these difficulties were overcome, but to our knowledge there is no evidence that Hanoi would be able to deal as successfully with the closing of Haiphong and heavy attacks on lines of communication from China. We therefore believe that interdiction of Haiphong and heavy attacks on the rail lines from China would over time prevent North Viet-Nam from receiving sufficient economic and military aid to continue the war effort. But it would be difficult to quantify this, since it depends on the type and intensity of interdiction.

On the other hand, one important point should be kept in mind. The North Vietnamese surprised many observers, and confounded many predictions, by holding the North together and simultaneously sending ever-increasing amounts of supplies and personnel into the South during 3 1/2 years of bombing. It is clear that the bombing campaign, as conducted, did not live up to the expectations of many of its proponents. With this experience in mind, there is little reason to believe that new bombing will accomplish what previous bombings failed to do, unless it is conducted with much greater intensity and readiness to defy criticism and risk of escalation.

This brings us to the second part of the question, “What would happen if Hanoi could not obtain sufficient war-essential imports, as defined earlier?” Here again, there does not seem to be any quantifiable answer; we are reduced to educated estimates. If we arbitrarily assume that nearly all military aid reached North Viet-Nam (because it is relatively compact and could be transported by a small number of freight cars or a larger number of trucks, and because it has a high priority) but that only half of the economic aid did, we think that by strenuous exertions and considerable belt-tightening the North Vietnamese could continue on their present course for perhaps at most two years more. Beyond that time, barring a ceasefire or protracted lull in the fighting in South Viet-Nam (either of which would greatly ease Hanoi’s burdens), we would estimate that Hanoi would be forced (1) to make concessions to the US in order to get Haiphong reopened, or (2) at least to reduce the scale of the war in the South to manageable proportions, perhaps by reverting to political struggle backed by terrorism and selected guerrilla operations which did not require Northern aid and personnel. Of course, other factors such as manpower shortages would figure in the same time-frame.

It should be noted, in conclusion, that this paper does not address the advisability of closing Haiphong, nor the question of the Soviet and Chinese responses. These matters, clearly the most central problems, lie outside the terms of reference of Question 28 (d).

The CIA’s Answer

All of the war-essential imports could be brought into North Vietnam over rail lines or roads from China in the event that imports by sea were successfully denied. The disruption to imports, if seaborne imports were cut off, would be widespread but temporary. Within two or three months North Vietnam and its allies would be able to implement alternative procedures for maintaining the flow of essential economic and military imports. The uninterrupted capacities of the railroad, highway, and river connections with China are about 16,000 tons per day, more than two and a half times the 6,300 tons per day of total imports overland and by sea in 1968, when the volume reached an all-time high. Experience in North Vietnam has shown that an intensive effort to interdict ground transport routes by air attack alone can be successful for only brief periods because of the redundancy of transport routes, elaborate and effective countermeasures, and unfavorable flying weather.

Almost four years of air war in North Vietnam have shown—as did the Korean War—that, although air strikes will destroy transport facilities, equipment, and supplies, they cannot successfully interdict the flow of supplies because much of the damage can frequently be repaired within hours. Two principal rail lines connect Hanoi with Communist China, with a combined capacity of over 9,000 tons a day. Eight primary highway routes cross the China border, having a combined capacity of about 5,000 tons per day. In addition, the Red River flows out of China and has a capacity averaging 1,500 tons per day.

An intensive and sustained air interdiction program could have a good chance of reducing the northern rail capacity by at least half. However, roads are less vulnerable to interdiction, and waterways even less so. In the June-August 1967 air attacks—a previous high point of US interdiction efforts against targets in the northern part of North Vietnam—the transport system was able to function effectively.* Strikes in August 1967 against the Hanoi-Dong Dang rail line were effective in stopping through service for a total of only ten days. Strikes during this period against the highways that parallel the Dong Dang line showed no insignificant [sic] or sustained reduction of capacity. The Hanoi-Lao Cai rail line capacity, after destruction of the Viet Tri bridge, was maintained at 700 tons per day by use of a rail ferry. If more capacity had been required, however, there is every reason to believe that additional facilities would have been installed at this location to restore the through capacity of the line.

In addition to the overland capacity, an airlift from Chinese airfields could potentially provide a means for importing a large volume of high-priority goods. Moreover, total interdiction of seaborne imports would be difficult because shallow-draft lighters could be used to unload cargo from oceangoing ships anchored in waters outside the mined major harbor areas. Large numbers of small coastal ships and junks could move cargoes from ships diverted to southern Chinese ports of Fort Bayard, Canton, or Peihai, and could unload imports over the beaches, or move into North Vietnam’s network of inland waterways.

The volume of imports that would be essential to maintain the war cannot be closely estimated. Out of total imports in 1968, less than five percent were military materiel and ammunition. Other imports essential to the war would include petroleum, food, clothing, transport equipment, and construction materials to maintain the lines of communication. In 1968, the volume of all overland and seaborne imports included the following:


Within the miscellaneous category was an undetermined amount of goods to maintain the economy, to build factories, and to satisfy, at least in part, civilian needs. Moreover, the level of import of some goods was believed to be more than current consumption, permitting a buildup of reserves. It is possible, therefore, that war-essential imports might be as much as one fourth less than the total, or 4,700 tons per day. Whether war-essential imports are estimated to be 4,700 or 6,300 tons per day, however, the overland import capacity would be from two to three times the required import level, and it is unlikely that air interdiction could reduce transport capacities enough over an extended period to significantly constrict import levels.

This Issue

June 1, 1972