Thursday, July 4, 2019

North Korea shoot-down of USN EC-121: Why no retaliation?

On April 15, 1969 a North Korean MiG-21 shot down a US Navy EC-121M electronic surveillance aircraft assigned to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One (VQ-1) Atsugi, Japan, BuNo 135749, c/n 4316. She was shot down over the Sea of Japan about 100 nm off the coast of the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea, in international waters. There were 31 American souls aboard, all lost, only two bodies recovered. The EC-121 was unarmed and had no escort.

Richard Nixon was the US president. He took office on January 20, 1969.He chose not to retaliate. The question on which I wish to focus here is, "Why not?"

Please bear with me here. This report is a little longer than I wished, but the interactions in the executive decision-making process is very informative.

I might start by saying many US reconnaissance aircraft were shot down during the Cold War, and to my knowledge no significant military retaliation by the US occurred. So there was certainly precedent for doing nothing.

Nixon was highly concerned about the loss of the 31 crew, he was adamant about taking military action, and he was angry that the US seemed to have its hands tied against North Korea.

At the time, US intelligence opined  North Korea would not invade the South and would not attempt a resumption of major hostilities. However the bottom line was that North Korea would engage in as many hostile actions as it thought it could away with such that it would not provoke all-out war.

In the weeks prior to the shoot-down, Republic of Korea (ROK) ambassador to the US, Kim Dong Jo, met with Secretary of State William Rogers in Washington on March 9, 1969 and Prime Minister (PM) Chung Il Kwon, shown here, met with President Nixon in Washington on April 1, 1969. They were both concerned about the level of US commitment to defense of South Korea.

The PM said the DPRK was militant, trying to stir up trouble in the ROK, and was trying to provoke dissidence in the ROK in multiple locations such as the North Vietnamese had been doing in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). He expressed some concern the US would back away from its forward defense and suggested actions the US ought to take to keep its forward defensive hearty. He said it would be a political disaster if the US withdrew forces. The ambassador was similarly worried.


In response to the shoot-down, the JCS prepared possible courses of action on April 15. No US retaliatory actions had yet been taken. The JCS paper said the US was prepared now to do the following:
  • Diplomatic demands for appropriate redress
  • Conduct high altitude/high speed reconnaissance operations over North Korea
  • Conduct escorted reconnaissance flights in the same area with the same type of reconnaissance aircraft
  • Request the Soviets to make representations to the North Koreans
  • Destroy North Korean aircraft off the coast of North Korea
The JCS said it would have to reposition forces to take these actions:
  • Show of force
  • Feints against North Korean air defenses
  • Selective air strikes
  • Blockade of North Korean ports.
In response to his question, Dr. Kissinger told Nixon on April 15 there was a single Korean ship sailing with Dutch registry, a Dutch crew and flag. Kissinger opined it would be impossible to seize that ship. Nixon wanted to “pick up the ship.” Kissinger hesitated.

Nixon was adamant the US could not just sit around and do nothing, that the price that was paid was too high to do nothing. Nixon had no problem in dealing with the Dutch. Nixon complained some were trying to cast the EC-121 as a regular reconnaissance plane that was fair game. Both Nixon and Kissinger knew it was not a regular reconnaissance plane, though it had flown such missions for some 15 years without incident.

Kissinger opined the North had made a deliberate decision to shoot it down. Nixon reiterated the Dutch ship must not make it to North Korea.

It was at this point that the Department of State, lawyers, and the Justice Department entered the conversation. Attorney General John Mitchell was with Kissinger and came on the line. He said the matter of contractual arrangements between the Dutch and Koreans need to be examined. Kissinger repeated the US did not know where the ship was other than it was on the high seas.

Nixon told them he was resolved to take action, “even if I have to overrule everybody in the State Department.”

The American leadership knew Soviet Communist Party Leader Leonid Brezhnev despised North Korean leader Kim Il sung. Kim had captured the USS Pueblo on January 23, 1968without consulting the Soviets.

With that in mind, Kissinger discussed the EC-121 with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin. Dobrynin advised he was concerned and thought the US ought to portray itself as dangerous.

I’ll note here that at this point in time, as far as I can tell, the final status of the EC-121 crew was not known to the principals in the White House.

Nixon was not yet through with Kissinger, however. In a telephone call Nixon asked about doing the “Lunch Plan.” As I understand it, the "Lunch Plan" was one option under a highly secretive overall plan named "Operation Menu" during the Indochina War. It described a series of bombing strikes planned against Cambodia in March 1969. It would start by executing the "Breakfast" Plan against one set of targets, then a "Lunch" Plan against another etc. I assume Nixon was referring to this approach as a good one for retaliation against North Korea.

Nixon thought it would be fine if the US were caught bombing North Korea and told Kissinger he wanted every plane moved into South Korea. Kissinger said forces were getting ready to move but urged caution, to which Nixon agreed. But Nixon would not give up on that Dutch ship. He told him to call Lloyd's of London to find out where it was, or call the Hague to find out.

I should mention that Secretary Rogers was interested in a diplomatic protest, but Kissinger told him Nixon did not want to protest to anyone.

During the evening of April 15 Kissinger posed eight questions to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird addressing air strikes against North Korean targets. He gave Laird until afternoon of April 16 to have a response. The questions asked:
  • Bomb the airfield from which the MiG-21 launched
  • A plan for a naval blockade
  • A plan for mining Wonson harbor
  • A plan for a submarine-launched torpedo attack against a North Korean military vessel inside or outside territorial waters
  • The order of battle (OB) of US and North Korean forces.
  • An assessment of US reinforcement requirements should the North Koreans attack the ROK after US retaliation with either air or with air and ground.
At about the same time, Nixon authorized moving three aircraft carriers from Vietnam to waters off North Korea from Vietnam. They were to start sailing on April 15. Nixon was told they would be 72 hours away.

USN Task Force 71 (TF-71)was assembled employing ships mainly being used off the coast of Vietnam. Keep in mind the war in Vietnam was full throttle at this time. TF-71 included aircraft carriers Enterprise, Ranger and Ticonderoga and the anti-submarine carrier Hornet, the battleship USS New Jersey, three cruisers, the Chicago, Oklahoma City and Saint Paul, and 16 destroyers. This photo shows part of TF-71 off shore Korea. She is hard to see, but the battleship US New Jersey is visible in the background.



On April 16, Admiral John McCain, USN, CINCPAC urged the JCS to provide “immediate positive tasking” for TF-71. Commander Richard Mobley, USN, a defense intelligence specialist said that Admiral McCain warned, “If we operate again in the Sea of Japan as a show of force and without positive action, I believe that we continue to provide justification to their judgment of us as ‘paper tigers.” McCain prepared several plans.

On April 16, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird forwarded a first (rough) cut of the JCS concept of possible targets in North Korea which might be struck in retaliation. It suggested Wonson and Son Dong Ni airfields for attack, either from carrier-based aircraft or from USAF land-based fighter aircraft and carrier based aircraft

USN aircraft would attack Wonson and USAF and aircraft would attack Sondok. Options were provided if a single strike were preferred and if maximum destruction were preferred.



A B-52 option was presented, employing from 24-48 aircraft out of Guam, recovering at Guam.



JCS further recommended:
  • All US-ROK forces in the ROK be placed on alert, covert attainment of DEFCON 3 at launch of the strike force, overt DEFCON 1 at Time over Target (TOT). 
  • Place the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) assets for nuclear war on alert throughout the Western Pacific (WestPac): strategic bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and sea-based submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).
  • Place USAF units in Japan and Okinawa on DEFCON 3 at TOT.


Readiness Condition DEFON 3 required an increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness. The USAF must be ready to mobilize in 15 minutes. DEFCON 1 meant nuclear war was imminent.

The mission would be to disrupt the military posture and impose a penalty. JCS warned that such an attack would be an act of war and the North may retaliate against US-ROK forces. It recommended against attacking anything on the west coast because of the high concentration of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and the fact that the operation would be so close to China. Flight operations from the Sea of Japan would also require undesirable overflight of the ROK.

The JCS expected a range of North Korean reactions including attacks against the ROK and intense action along the DMZ. Direct Chinese interference was not expected. Soviet reactions would probably be close surveillance. Both sides would engage in heavy propaganda.

On April 16, 1969 Mr. Richard Helms, the Director, CIA briefed the National Security Council (NSC) on the situation in North Korea:
  • The attack was deliberate. Purpose was to revive high level of tension with the US
  • Kim Il Sung will act without regard to the Soviet Union and China. Shows himself to be strong and assertive
  • Recall however North Korea has mutual defense treaties with both the USSR and China
  • North Korea has again shown it can take on the mighty US
  • No doubt Kim saw the EC-121 attack as low risk given the US reaction to the Pueblo (no reaction)
  • Kim could focus public attention on challenging the US rather than on failing to attack the ROK
  • The DPRK immediately asked for a meeting of the Military Armistice Commissions at Panmunjom for April 18
  • The North Korean military has remained rather quiet since the shoot down: no evidence of any change in military status
  • The North Korean attack against the US only one of many serious incidents. Aggressive actions toward the ROK have been much more frequent and increasingly severe
  • The Soviets had some ships in the area and helped with rescue operations. They also flew two Tu-16 bombers to reconnoiter the area
  • North Korea can defend against a ROK attack, but would need help to attack the ROK
Also on April 16, General Alexander Haig, USA, the president’s military adviser, provided a memo to Dr. Kissinger. Haig seems to say a “do nothing” stance might stand up:
  • Retaliation is called for, but the US has to measure its ability to contain a worst case scenario should the US retaliate militarily. 
  • The US should demonstrate it has the capability and intent to use military force through reinforcement and increased readiness. 
  • The president can convey a message he is ready to go to the mat without actually attacking. 
  • However, if the president wants to attack, hitting an airfield may not be the best option. 
  • A submarine ambush might be best. 
  • Future reconnaissance missions should be flown but have an escort.
Also on April 16, President Nixon chaired a National Security Council (NSC) session. Helms said North Korean military actions since the shoot-down have been limited, defensive if anything. There is no indication of EC-121 survivors. I think this was the first time this news came to the NSC. Helms reviewed the mission track; Soviet tracking agrees with ours.

Nixon asked the CJCS, General Wheeler, to review the options. He did:
  • Employ drones (I assume instead of manned reconnaissance aircraft)
  • Escort future manned reconnaissance flights
  • Show of air and naval force. Had no effect during Pueblo.
  • Air strike against the North could cause the North to attack the ROK, and we could experience losses
  • A blockade can be implemented within 48 hours, but would have little effect as North Korea has very little shipping. It gets most of it stuff through the border with China. The US could commandeer some North Korean ships; the Dutch ship is now at sea
  • Sea-to-shore bombardment could be done within 48 hours. It would require air cover. East coast presents best targets.
  • Could attack areas adjacent to the DMZ using Honest John missiles, which are inaccurate at extreme range. That would violate the Armistice agreement and would trigger retaliation
  • A ground raid across the DMZ would also be a violation, and will cause the ROKs to do the same. Such raids would require heavy fire support for the ROKs.
  • The US can conduct a wide variety of air attacks, using from 24 to 250 aircraft. Chances of success are excellent. Expect 2-8 percent losses.
Secretary of State Rogers presented diplomatic options:
  • Panmunjom talks are a forum, the North would probably talk and walk out. Recommend against this.
  • The UN is a possibility, but we cannot expect much support. Members will wonder why we conduct such flights.
  • No obvious need to move immediately. Might be best to watch for a change.
On April 17, the JCS directed CINCPAC to prepare to bomb the airfields at Sondok and Wonsan:
  • 12-24 A6s would fly ‘night full systems’ attacks against each airfield under CINCPAC Plan "Fracture Maple."
  • The JCS also tasked the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to plan similar raids using as many as 24 B-52 bombers against each base.
The JCS asked the commander, USFK to recommend actions on the peninsula that would demonstrate an increased readiness posture to the North.

CINCPAC proposed other options including:
  • Use surface-to-air missile equipped ships to sail within 50 nm of the DPRK ready to shoot down any aircraft identified as North Korean. 
  • Impound or harass North Korean coast craft and fishing boats going beyond the 12-mile limit
  • Employ the battleship New Jersey (BB-62) to fire against selected targets in Wonson
  • Seize the ship built for the DPRK by the Netherlands.


On April 17, the CIA presented an intelligence memo.
  • The North shot down the EC-121 without consulting China or the USSR. That could affect their decision-making if we retaliate.
  • Any US military retaliation will be to underscore the right to use international airspace and deter against future hostilities. North Korea will not pay much attention to those.
  • The North Koreans planned this event betting the US would not retaliate based on the Pueblo experience.
  • Kim Il sung may think the US is overextended in Vietnam giving him latitude to act against the US with “relative impunity.”
  • Kim Il sung likes to take risks, likes to bluff and intimidate, especially a “mighty imperialist.”
  • CIA believes Kim is trying to offset his failure to attack the ROK. He probably feels he must keep tensions high, among other things, hoping the American public will tire of the whole thing and cause American withdrawal or reduction in forces.
  • A show of force will have little effect and the DPRK is unlikely to challenge it.
  • Intensification of non-combat actions will only help the DPRK convince the world the US should withdraw.
During the evening of April 17, Dr, Kissinger talked by phone with the president. The discussion centered on politics, especially as regards Secretary of Defense Laird vs. Secretary of State Rogers.
  • Nixon favored Laird over Rogers. 
  • They also talked on an unsecured phone and discussed options in terms I could not follow; e.g. option, 1, option 2 etc. 
  • There is a feeling in the discussion that there is no pressure to move quickly. 
  • President Nixon remained concerned that 31 souls were lost and the US is doing nothing.\
  • Kissinger affirmed the EC-121 was where we had said it was. 
  • They kept talking in terms of the “Lunch” option which refers to covert SAC bombing of targets in Cambodia, starting with “Breakfast” against a target, ”Lunch” against another etc. 
  • Kissinger felt “doing this” (whatever “this” was) would make or break Nixon’s presidency. 
  • Kissinger I believe was contemplating how to deal with Ambassador Dobrynin. I believe he would tell Dobrynin the US will not tolerate another land war in Asia, even if the US had to go nuclear. 
  • Nixon opined how the press was urging action. 
  • The President felt a bold move was required to offset the erosion of public support for Vietnam. 
  • Kissinger agreed and said we would have to do it now or end up having to do it next year in a more bold way.
Richard L. Sneider of the NSC staff offered his thoughts on American public opinion:
  • American support for strong reaction will be there, and the people will be proud of a success, 
  • All that will likely erode over a few weeks. Then questions will arise. 
  • There is Vietnam fatigue already.
  • Overseas expect a dovish reaction. 
  • The North Vietnamese are likely to interpret strong action as meaning the Vietnam War will be extended. But if US public support erodes quickly, the North Vietnamese will renew pressures for the US to withdraw.
Sneider concluded that his guess was strong action will not earn sustained support. The public will conclude vial US interests were not at stake.

Secretary of Defense Laird provided Nixon a memo on April 18 in which he provided his understanding of the alternative actions being considered.
  • Best option was a one-time air strike using carrier-based fighters.
  • Did not favor using B-52s.
  • Fighter aircraft will provide surprise and accuracy, and if an aircraft is lost, it will be more palatable than losing a B-52 and its larger air crew. Laird preferred employing the A-6.
All that said, Laird recommended against any military option. He seemed unsure whether the US needed to fly so many reconnaissance missions over the Sea of Japan. He said escort flights are unsustainable. He felt more comfortable with explaining why the US conducts these flights, vowing to provide armed escort, challenge the North Koreans to try to stop us, instruct the military to destroy any North Korean aircraft or vessel approaching our aircraft outside their territorial airspace, and declare the US retains the option to attack North Korea.

Laird concluded saying the public and congressional members seem to support the measured approach employed thus far. He also said he was unsure whether the US could handle two wars. He said the JCS could fight two wars for about a week. Diversions from Vietnam would have to be made. Logistics support would take 30 days after a Korea war started. Laird did not think the North Vietnamese would conclude that the action Laird is recommending was a sign of weakness. He believed that progress with Vietnamization especially of the South Vietnamese Air Force was proceeding well. Plans to attack Cambodia would meet strong public disapproval if we were at war in Korea.

Laird said:

“(An attack against North Korea would be an) episode that didn’t have to be, that carried far more risks than the potential pay-off would seem to dictate, and that led to general public disenchantment across a broad range of affairs. If, for example, we take losses during the strike, the question will be raised about losing more life to vindicate original losses.”

ROK President Park met with the US ambassador to the ROK, Mr. William Porter on April 18, 1969 (Korean time) and said the American choice was between a counterblow that will impress the DPRK or the US can give up its right to operate over international waters. Park said he believed the North would repeat the EC-121 attack unless a strong US reply is made. He commented that the US refused to give the DPRK a strong warning after it captured the Pueblo and attacked the Blue House in Seoul. The end result was the loss of the EC-121. Park acknowledged a strong American response would probably result in some kind of action against the ROK. Apparently Porter told Mr. Park the US cannot engage in a strong military response.

By the mid-evening of April 18, President Nixon, talking with Dr. Kissinger, seemed to believe he could simply run through the facts of the EC-121 flight, order continued flights of this kind, take whatever steps are necessary to protect them, and use whatever action is determined necessary. There would be no military retaliation.

On April 20, 1969 the entire TF-71 gathered in the Sea of Japan. TF-71 remained until April 24. It never fired a shot.

Recall that Nixon ordered the resumption of reconnaissance flights on April 18. However, between April 18-24 the Pentagon had authorized only one reconnaissance mission. On April 22 Laird told the president he had directed the JCS to request CINCPAC prepare a plan to resume such flights. Kissinger pressed Laird hard to restart the flights, and presented him with a formal memo telling him the president wanted these flights resumed along the Chinese coast from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Sea of Okhotsk.

Laird decided to delay approving the JCS plan. He wanted to explore alternative methods of collection, reduction of flights against Korea and using unmanned or high fliers to do the job. Therefore he delayed resuming reconnaissance flights. He thwarted Nixon’s order.

On April 28 Kissinger told Laird by phone to resume China and Soviet flights, but hold off on flights off Korea involving fighter escorts.

Kissinger went to the president. He urged him to personally call for a resumption. He feared the North Koreans would have attained their goal and that China and the Soviets might follow the North Korean model. He also objected to Laird defying the president three times. As a result, Nixon assigned the 303 Committee to take over review of worldwide reconnaissance operations from the Department of Defense (DoD). The 303 had been formed to handle covert operations. The committee consisted of assistant for national security affairs (Kissinger at present), the deputy secretary of defense, deputy undersecretary of state, and the director of central intelligence. The secretary of defense would not be a member.

On April 24 Laird informed the president that General Wheeler had concluded that having four fighter-escorts accompany each reconnaissance mission “would be beyond the capability of currently assigned PACOM forces.”

On April 29 Dr. Kissinger informed the secretary of state, secretary of defense and Director, CIA that the president had directed the immediate resumption of regularly schedule reconnaissance operations in the Pacific, including those targeted at North Korea. Combat Air Patrols (CAP) would be provided. The CAPs would be authorized to approach up to 50 nm of the North Korean, Soviet or Chinese coasts. As noted earlier, this was beyond PACOM's capability and was not done to my knowledge.

Many high level and military command actions addressing North Korea ensued through May, including plans to attack North Korea in the event of a further provocation, assurances to President Park, and more in-depth studies regarding contingency planning.

In looking at the reasons for doing nothing, it seems that the risk of igniting a wider war while the US was engulfed in the Indochina War dominated not retaliating. My own feeling is that the US was not ready for this shoot-down. I do not believe there was no pre-planning for such an eventuality. There was little consensus on what to do. Frankly, I think his secretaries, the CIA, and others simply flooded the president with retaliation plans. I think it was nearly impossible for the president to absorb them all and formulate a single plan.

There are others who offered these opinions.

Robert Wampler, a historian who works for the National Security Archive, a project of George Washington University, wrote:

"The U.S. did not have a very good menu of options when this happened, which sort of constrained them in their ability to pick and choose amongst something that would work, and also contain the situation.”

“Contain the situation” seemed to be the watchword, despite an unprovoked attack that killed 31 American military members.

Returning to Wampler:

“The military produced the options, ratcheting up the level of military force all the way to all-out war and to using nuclear weapons. But constantly you find the military saying, 'But the risks probably still outweigh the potential gains.' "

As an aside nuclear war was also considered during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Indochina War.

Morton Halperin worked for the NSC at the time. He believed that Nixon did decide to retaliate:

“Nixon had made a decision that we would retaliate by bombing the air base from which we believed the planes had come to shoot down the EC-121. And he had ordered an aircraft carrier to move close enough to be able to carry out the bombing.”

But the reality was that both his secretary of defense and secretary of state did not support such action, and there was also a fear of public sentiment.

Dan Sneider of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University has said:

“The danger of a wide war tends to trump whatever benefit you think might come from punishing your enemy here with a retaliatory strike.”

Thomas Karamessines, the deputy director for plans at the CIA was a member of the committee set up by Kissinger to deal with the EC-121. His comment here is revealing:

“It is an eye-opener to some of us to learn that a retaliatory strike, if it had been ordered to take place within 24 hours of the shoot down of our plane, would have been practically impossible unless it were launched from South Korean land-based planes; and political as well as military considerations obviously made this inadvisable.”

At the end of the day, President Nixon wanted to retaliate militarily, and so did Dr. Kissinger. But Nixon did not retaliate as he wanted to do.

For his part, Kissinger was fed up with the entire executive branch process. He noted:

"The fact of the matter was that toward the end the president really didn't use the NSC at all to speak of. I mean he hadn't used all of the staff of the NSC … Quite often … decisions were made by two or three or four people."

He also wrote in his memoirs:

"Our conduct in the EC-121 crisis was weak, indecisive and disorganized … I believe we paid in many intangible ways, in demoralized friends and emboldened enemies."

Commenting in his book The White House Years, Kissinger wrote:

"We made no strategic assessment; instead, we bandied technical expedients about. There was no strong White House leadership. We made no significant political move; our military deployments took place in a vacuum."