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It's mentioned in a paper on the Vietnam war that (contemporaneously):

When [... in 1969] a North Korean jet shot down a U.S. EC-121 surveillance plane, Laird again acted on his own as he ignored a presidential order and limited American actions that risked new hostilities in Korea and dissent at home. Laird didn’t write a memo. Laird didn’t ask for permission. Laird simply stopped surveillance flights worldwide and stalled the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the region, all undercutting Kissinger’s intended image of a mad, vengeful president. Not for the last time, Kissinger fumed, “How can he do this? He has a direct order from the President.”

The quote is cited to Telcons of the time, so there's little doubt that Kissinger said that, but what isn't so clear is what Nixon had actually ordered Laird to do. So, did Nixon actually order Laird to do any of those things? What's the "direct order" from the president that Kissinger mentions saying, exactly?

The wikipedia article on the incident mentions no such order. It does indicate that there were NSC etc. discussions how to respond. At best

Nixon promised that "they’ll (i.e., North Koreans) never get away with it again," and ordered a "resumption of aerial reconnaissance flights."

But that doesn't make it clear if Laird stopping the flights or anything else he'd done before was against a direct order.

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  • So you're not skeptical about a claim, you want historical research. There's a place for that.
    – pipe
    May 15, 2023 at 6:51
  • 1
    @pipe The quoted passage claims that a presidential order that somehow interfered with Laird stopping surveillance flights existed and Laird acted on his own against that order. The question is if that specific claim is correct. May 15, 2023 at 7:18

2 Answers 2

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According to R.A. Hunt's [somewhat gigantic] biography of Laird (published by the Government Printing Office in 2015), it is essentially true that Laird delayed resuming the reconnaissance flights (safe for a token one!), and that Nixon had both sent a memorandum and had made a public statement about resuming the flights. Subsequently, Kissinger complained to Nixon that Laird was delaying and had the approval process for the flights removed from under Laird's control, in favor of the 303 Committee that Laird was not even a member of (and was headed by Kissinger). I'll give some selective quote since coverage goes on for several pages (40-45):

At his morning press conference on April 18, [Nixon] disclosed he had ordered continuation of the long-standing policy of using reconnaissance flights to protect US forces in South Korea and the the flights would have armed escorts. [...]

Four days after Nixon publicly announced that reconnaissance flights would resume, he was chagrined to learn otherwise. On 22 April Laird informed Nixon that at his direction the JSC had requested CINCPAC Admiral J.S. McCain Jr. to prepare for the secretary's approval a plan to resume reconnaissance flights within intercept range of Chinese and North Korean fighters. [...] Laird mentioned no completion date for reviewing the CINCPAC plan. In addition, he appraised the president that he had initiated an even broader review to weigh the intelligence value of the fights against the risks involved before he would resume them. [...]

This latter, broader review [of Laird] did have stated completion date of April 30.

On 24 April [Laird] forwarded to the president Gen. Wheeler's conclusion that having four fighter-escorts accompany each reconnaissance mission "would be beyond the capability of currently assigned PACOM forces" and reduce strength in Vietnam.

Aware that the DoD had authorized only one reconnaissance mission between 18 and 24 April, [...o]n April 25 [Kissinger] sent Laird the formal memorandum of the president's decision to resume scheduled reconnaissance flights along the Chinese coast from the Gulf of Tonkin got the Sea of Okhotsk. Laird, however, decide to delay approving the JCS plan. He wanted to consider alternative methods of collecting intelligence [...] Laird's moves, undertaken for plausible reasons, delayed reconnaissance flights for an indefinite period, in effect thwarting Nixon's order. [...]

Kissinger informed Nixon of Laird's actions in delaying the reconnaissance [flights] in contravention of his stated policy. Kissinger pressed Nixon for the immediate resumption of reconnaissance flights. [...]

To neutralize Laird's delaying tactics, Nixon decided on 28 April that the 303 Committee, an interdepartamental body that reviewed and authorized covert operations, would take over from the DoD review of worldwide reconnaisance flights. [...] The secretary of defense was not a member [of 303]. Giving the 303 Committee authority to review reconnaissance programs would allow Kissinger as committee head to control the process, [and] hasten the restriction of flights [...]

According to the book the 303 committee then consisted (besides Kissinger as APNSA) of the deputy secretary of defense, deputy undersecretary for political affairs, and the director of the CIA.

So, it's probably still a bit of a matter of opinion whether Laird really disobeyed a direct order, but his actions were perceived as delaying to such an extent that Nixon removed Laird from the loop (of approving the flights), after Kissinger's complaint.

I tried to corroborate that with primary sources that are available on-line, but there is a bit a discrepancy though. Namely that I was only able to find a memorandum signed by Kissinger and with Laird among the recipients, dated April 29, according to the official log. This one is clearly subsequent to Nixon putting Kissinger/303 in charge; it says:

The President has directed the immediate resumption of regularly scheduled reconnaissance operations in the Pacific area. This order specifically includes the resumption of scheduled reconnaissance targeted on North Korea. [...]

The President has also ordered that the review of worldwide reconnaissance operations being conducted by the 303 Committee following initial review by the Department of Defense adhere to the following priority:

  1. U.S. reconnaissance operations targeted on North Korea.
  2. U.S. reconnaissance operations conducted in the remainder of the Pacific area.
  3. U.S. reconnaissance operations conducted elsewhere.

The President emphasizes that this review of reconnaissance operations should in no way delay the immediate resumption of reconnaissance operations.

But it is interesting nonetheless that Kissinger was speaking for the president in that one. This at least corroborates the bit that 303 was put in charge of the flights.

The claim that Laird was excluded from the 303 and the WSAG [Washington Special Actions Group -- that was set up at the same time] is verified with respect to the latter, from a July meeting in which only his undersecretary G. Warren Nutter participated.

I also managed to track down Nixon's presser (of April 18) in which he [is said to have] announced escorted reconnaissance (that then didn't happen as such, i.e. escorted)

I have today ordered that these flights be continued. They will be protected. This is not a threat; it is simply a statement of fact.

As the Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces I cannot and will not ask our men to serve in Korea, and I cannot and will not ask our men to take flights like this in unarmed planes without providing protection. That will be the case.

But if you read it carefully, it leaves some room for interpretation what protection for the reconnaissance meant.

Another interesting bit in there is the scale of the flights he disclosed:

going back over 20 years and throughout the period of this administration being continued, we have had a policy of reconnaissance flights in the Sea of Japan similar to this flight. This year we have had already 190 of these flights without incident [...]

So, yeah, one can see why Kissinger thought Laird later approving only one flight over a few days was perceived as stalling.


This is what Nixon himself had to say in his RN memoirs (p. 385)

Despite my April 18 directive--and the pub­lic announcement of it--we were faced with a series of postponements, excuses, and delays from the Pentagon, and it was nearly three weeks before my order was implemented. Even worse, we discovered that with­out informing the White House, the Pentagon had also canceled recon­naissance flights in the Mediterranean. Thus from April 14 to May 8, the United States had not conducted its scheduled aerial reconnaissance in the Mediterranean and the North Pacific-two of the most sensitive areas of the globe.

I was surprised and angered by this situation. The North Koreans would undoubtedly think that they had succeeded in making us back off the reconnaissance flights. Thanks to this incident I learned early in my administration that a President must keep a constant check not just on the way his orders are being followed, but on whether they are being fol­lowed at all.

He doesn't quite single out Laird, instead speaks of "the Pentagon" as delaying.

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From a quick search, this actually sounds like a confabulation of several reported events. Snopes addresses (or fails to address) one:

Claim: In 1969, then-President Richard Nixon ordered a nuclear strike on North Korea while intoxicated by alcohol — but his inner circle convinced him to hold off on such a decision until sobering up.
Why no rating on this article? This is a trending topic but has not yet been rated by Snopes for reasons we’ll outline below.

Politico is usually fairly reliable, but this anecdote is contained in an article about Trump:

Moreover, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger recalled years later that in the final days of the Nixon presidency he had issued an unprecedented set of orders: If the president gave any nuclear launch order, military commanders should check with either him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing them. Schlesinger feared that the president, who seemed depressed and was drinking heavily, might order Armageddon. Nixon himself had stoked official fears during a meeting with congressmen during which he reportedly said, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” Senator Alan Cranston had phoned Schlesinger, warning about “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.”

Sagepub reports on a secret nuclear alert meant not as an actual attack, but to scare enemies.

The alert began on October 13, 1969, when U.S. tactical and strategic air forces in the United States, Europe, and East Asia began a stand-down of training flights to raise operational readiness; Strategic Air Command (SAC) increased the numbers of bombers and tankers on ground alert; and the readiness posture of selected overseas units was heightened. On October 25, SAC took the additional step of increasing the readiness of nuclear bombers, and two days later SAC B-52s undertook a nuclear-armed “Show of Force” alert over Alaska, code-named “Giant Lance.” Three days later, U.S. intelligence detected Soviet awareness of the heightened nuclear alert and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird ordered commanders to terminate the test at the end of the month.

At least some of these may be inspired by Nixon occasionally presenting himself as a "mad dog" that is so crazy he will freely escalate to mutual assured destruction, in order to obtain negotiating advantage.

A book review includes the following blurb:

-- Nixon ordered the bombing of Palestine Liberation Organization camps inside Jordan, but his order was ignored by Defense Secretary Melvin Laird.

The New York Times offers a vaguely similar anecdote:

The conversations portray a senior adviser trying to juggle foreign policy crises under a president increasingly distracted by the Watergate scandal and, on at least one occasion, too drunk to talk to the British prime minister.

In a 1979 archive article, they offer this version, which touches on a larger number of your points (Nixon, Kissinger, and Laird are involved, but it's Cambodia instead of Korea, and Laird is shut out of the loop:

Then came the American invasion of Cambodia — again covered over by secrecy. As they made the plans, Nixon and Kissinger even excluded the Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird. Afterwards, both said that the Administration had hitherto scrupulously respected Cambodian neutrality — a gross lie in light of the secret bombing.

The National War College and National Defense University offer this additional partial match in a case study. In it, Haig says something to Kissinger reminiscent of the Kissinger quote above:

An elaborate set of back channels assured that Kissinger as well as Nixon could communicate directly with military leaders to convey commands without going through the Secretary of Defense. Since the North Korean shoot-down of a Navy EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft in April 1969, a rift had developed between Nixon and Laird over how best to respond to international crises.184 Admiral Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, became a primary target for receiving personal Presidential direction. Laird had notified military chiefs and high-ranking civilian defense officials that they had to communicate with him first before contacting the President, but Moorer rejected that notion. In a February 1, 1972, telephone conversation with Haig, the admiral revealed that he had told Kissinger a week earlier, “My first loyalty is to the President and the orders he gives me are obeyed immediately.” Moorer added, “Any order from the President, of course, will be obeyed from me regardless of Laird.”

The latter two articles were the closest matches I could find. The Kissinger quote only shows up in its exact form on this page, according to Google. My best guess is that most of these sources are secondhand, as the Nixon administration was notoriously secretive, and that they've been conflated with each other over the years.

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