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Mayaquez and National Security Decision Making in Crisis

Mayaquez and National Security Decision Making in Crisis


CSC 1997


Subject Area - National Security




Command and Staff College

Marine Corps University

Marine Corps Combat Development Command

Quantico, Virginia 22134-5068




Mayaquez and National Security Decision Making in Crisis







10 April 1997

Academic Year 1996-1997










Submitted by:




Kenneth L. Robinson

Major, U.S. Army

The study and the practice of politics are two different things. The student of politics pursues the truth in the clear light of hindsight, without the constraints of time or the pressure of events. The statesman, however, must make decisions in the light of imperfect information, with limited time available, under opposing pressures, receiving contradictory advice, unable to foresee the future.

Edmund Burke1


Does the man make the times or do the times make the man? I submit that in the case of Henry Kissinger, the man made the times. His strong personalty shaped the national security policy of the United States during the Mayaguez Crisis. This paper will show that the history of the rescue of the SS Mayaguez and her crew would be entirely different if Henry Kissinger were taken out of the equation and replaced by a Cyrus Vance or a Dean Rusk.


The paraphrase of Edmund Burke accurately sets the stage for an analysis of national security policy-making under crisis conditions. The danger of national security crisis action decision making is that, by its very nature, it lends itself to being made by the man with the loudest voice and the most articulate argument. A frightening combination if he also happens to be wrong.



1 Paraphrase of Edmund Burke by Ambassador Robert H. Miller, Vice President of the National Defense University, 15 May 1985.



The Crisis


On the 12th of May 1975, a Cambodian gunboat seized the SS Mayaguez, an American Merchant Marine vessel, and its crew. The Ford Administration chose a forceful response, dispatching U.S. Navy aircraft to attack the Cambodian mainland, and US Marines backed by a flotilla of Air Force aircraft to battle Khmer Rouge soldiers on Koh Tang Island in the Gulf of Siam. The US response was swift and violent.

The principal US concern during the crisis was a perceived need to react swiftly and responsibly in order to save the lives of the crew and to recover the vessel. The US acted to prevent a repeat of the USS Pueblo incident with North Korea and to make clear to every government in the region that the safety of its sailors and the freedom of the seas for its vessels were matters of great concern.


What Caused the Crisis?

The ship and its crew were taken to the Cambodian island of Paulo Wai where they were held overnight. The next day the ship and its crew were moved to Koh Tang, a heavily fortified island located 30 miles from the Cambodian mainland.





Once under attack, the SS Mayaguez sent SOS signals which were eventually picked up by a US embassy and relayed to the National Command Authority (NCA). The White House ordered reconnaissance assets in the region to maintain a 24 hour surveillance on station over the crisis site.

At 12 noon on the 12th of May, the National Security Council (NSC) met to discuss the breaking crisis and list policy options for the President. After an intelligence update from the Director of Central Intelligence, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger presented a powerful argument that "greater issues were at stake than international piracy; the seizure of the Mayaguez raised questions of international perceptions of American power and will."2 Kissinger initial arguments set the tone for the development of the policy options for the rest of the crisis.


What Was the World Like in 1975?

America had just ended the Vietnam war. Internationally, we had suffered a major reversal of our stated foreign policy. US policy makers assumed there would be potential challenges to our national interest. Faltering US credibility and the imminent fall of Phnom Penh and Saigon was on the minds of the NCA.




2 Gerald R. Ford, A Time to Heal. (New York: Harper & Row,

1979), 182.

The President personally felt a deep sense of shame over the US lack of aid during the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.3 In short, the US was concerned about the "domino theory" of credibility. There was a growing perception internationally that the US was politically impotent.


The Initial US Objectives

Monday, 12 May was the first meeting of the NSC. The participants decided on two key US national security objectives:4


      The swift recovery of the SS Mayaguez and its crew.


      A demonstration of American power and resolve by a forceful response.


Henry Kissinger, in an attempt to resolve the conflicts that arose from these two competing objectives, allegedly said, "The lives of the Mayaguez crew must unfortunately be a secondary consideration." He later denied this quote in an article by Newsweek magazine on May 26th 1975.





3 The President expressed his concern during a speech before a joint session of Congress on April 10th, 1975.


4 The President, Vice-President, Secretaries of State and Defense, acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Director of Central Intelligence, General Scowcroft, the Deputy Secretary of Defense and State and a senior staff member of the NSC (Ford interview by Hugh Sidney for Time Magazine).


The White House issued its first official press release at the conclusion of the first meeting of the NSC:


We have been informed that a Cambodian naval vessel has seized an American merchant ship on the high seas and forced it to the port of Kompong Som. The President has met with the NSC. He considers this seizure an act of piracy. He has instructed the State Department to demand the immediate release of the ship. Failure to do so would have the most serious consequences.


With its first public statement on the street, privately, the President and the NSC seemed pre-disposed to direct military action.


The Fog of War: Action at the Crisis Site

When the US received word that the Mayaquez had left Poulo Wai and was heading toward the Cambodian mainland, the immediate national security concern was a repeat of another Pueblo incident if the crew were taken. Cambodian gunboats were maneuvering between Koh Tang and the mainland. Based on this new information, late in the evening of the 12th, General Brent Scowcroft, USAF, Deputy NSA, ordered PACOM, US fighter aircraft to be launched for a potential interdiction mission with the gunboats. He then went to the White House to secure permission for direct action from President Ford.5



5 Gerald R. Ford., A Time to Heal (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 210.


US fighters engaged the gunboats with warning fire, turning three gunboats back and sinking a fourth.6 While this engagement was taking place, and unbeknownst to the US, a fishing boat filled with the Mayaguez crew was simultaneously departing Koh Tang for the Cambodian mainland. As the fishing boat proceeded toward shore, it took heavy warning fire from US fighter aircraft but was relentless and proceeded on its course.

On the 13th of May the President was briefed on the location of the Mayaguez. The President ordered the Secretary of Defense not to allow another Pueblo incident to occur.7

Isolating the Mayaguez from the mainland was the order of the day. With this new directive, it became prudent to consider a rescue of the ship's crew. A second NSC meeting was convened on the morning of 13th of May. Options considered during this second meeting included:8


       Diplomacy via China


       Retaliatory seizure of a Cambodian Island


       Landing Helicopters on the Mayaguez


       Boarding the Mayaguez from a destroyer


       Tactical air attacks on Kompong Son



6 Roy Rowan, The Four Days of Mayaquez (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975), 198.


7 Ford, A Time to Heal, 277.


8 Henry Kissinger., White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.,1979) 263.


The only significant policy decisions to cone out of this second NSC meeting were troop and ship deployment orders to the vicinity of the crisis site to support any possible contingency operation.

The sinking of the Cambodian gunboats brought about a third late night meeting of the NSC. Secretary Kissinger again defended his argument that "the American response had to be forceful enough to make an impact on the provocative North Koreans," who were at the time tunneling under the thirty-eighth parallel.9

President Ford listened to policy options from other members of the NSC and then decided on a basic plan:

      Assault both the Mayaguez and Koh Tang Island

      Conduct air strikes on the Cambodian mainland

During this third meeting of the NSC that same determined, lone fishing boat, and a gunboat escort, continued toward the Cambodian mainland. The gunboat was sunk but the fishing vessel was undeterred by rocket fire as well as two 2000-pound bombs dropped within blast range of its hull. An Air Force pilot reported seeing Caucasians on the fishing boat and requested guidance. The combat information was relayed around the world to the White House situation room and into the NSC meeting in progress.


9 Rowan. The Four Days of Mayaguez, 1975.


President Ford ordered the US Pilots to "do everything possible to turn the boat around, but not to sink it."10


Other Options?

During the previous meetings of the NSC, President Ford determined that the national security interest of the United States required a forceful swift response. The intelligence community and the Department of Defense were developing a picture of what it perceived the threat to be. The President, through the JCS, was pre-positioning forces, including US Marines from Okinawa to Thailand. Navy ships were being repositioned close to the area of operation. A letter of intent was drafted for the United Nations.

The State Department received information that China might use its influence with the Khmer Rouge to secure the release of the Mayaguez and its crew. Simultaneously, however, Thailand's Prime Minister informed the US charge d' affairs that "the US was expressly forbidden to use its bases in Thailand for any military retaliation that might be in regard to this matter.'11


Limited Time and Opposing Pressure

The clock was still ticking, the fishing boat with possible



10 John B. Taylor., "Air Mission Mayaguez," Airman, February 1976, 46.


11"Khukrit on the U.S. use of Thai Tenanted Bases for Military Action in Cambodia," Cable from Bangkok, #8874, 141734Z,AF (Declassified)


Caucasians was nearing the mainland, diplomatic and domestic pressures were now simultaneously entering into the decision making process of the NSC. JCS planners, under pressure to execute an operation as soon as possible, were concerned about the lack of adequate command and control, air lift, and a doctrinal force ratio to commit forces to combat. The JCS agreed that an extra day would provide a higher assurance of success. But, they must recover the crew prior to their imprisonment on the mainland.

On the afternoon of 14 May the US Ambassador to the United Nations delivered a request for assistance to the Secretary General. Congressional committees were briefed on the impending action. The NSC also met to debate whether the US should bomb the Cambodian mainland. If so, should it be strategic bombers or tactical aircraft? The two main arguments were:


      Should the US use B52s to show US determination


      Should the US use tactical aircraft (There was fear of domestic and world opinion if the US response was disproportionate).


During the meeting the DCI reported that intelligence sources indicated "at least some members of the Mayaguez crew were most likely on the mainland."12 Tactical aircraft strikes became the option.


12 Ron Nesson., It Sure Looks different From the Inside, (Chicago: PLayboy Press, 1978) 34.


The Decision to Act


President Ford ordered military operations to begin between 4:45 and 5:10 P.M. eastern standard time on the 14th of May. US Marines invaded the Island of Koh Tang via a helicopter assault from Thailand; simultaneously, a Marine boarding party; from a Navy Destroyer seized the SS Mayaguez.

There was very light resistance on the Mayaguez, and the Marines retook the ship. The invasion of Koh Tang Island proved more difficult. The Marines, expecting a "walk-ashore" operation, instead flew into the teeth of a defense prepared by numerically superior, well-entrenched, and well-disciplined Khmer Rouge soldiers.13

Simultaneously with the Marine offensive, the Cambodian government broadcast on local radio their intention to free the Mayaguez. The White House responded with a press release that declared US forces had already secured the Mayaguez and would cease military operations only if the crew were released immediately and unconditionally.

While the fighting raged on Koh Tang, US fighters bombed Kompong Son on the mainland. Simultaneously, Marines recovered the crew of the Mayaguez from a Thai fishing boat with all members accounted for and unharmed.


13 Rowan, The Four Days of the Mayaguez, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975) 198.


What started out as a rescue mission ended up as a pitched battle at hand-grenade range between the Marines on Koh Tang and the Khmer Rouge. Once the crew of the Mayaguez was secure, the focus shifted to withdrawal of forces from Koh Tang and more retaliatory air strikes against the Cambodian mainland.


Use of the Bomb

The Cambodians were slowly closing in on the encircled Marines with approaching nightfall. The Marine Commander on the ground determined that he could not hold his position through the night. The decision was made to use BLU-82 Bombs.14


The bomb seems to have been dropped for its diversionary and inhibiting effect and seemed to reduce some pressure. Military operations concluded on the 15th of May with the extraction of the last Marines from Koh Tang.


The Price of Success, Measured in US Lives

Twenty-three Marines died in an accidental CH-53 helicopter crash in Thailand. Eighteen Marines died during the invasion and subsequent withdrawal from Koh Tang, forty-one lives in all. Forty crew members of the Mayaguez were rescued.


14 BLU-82 is a 15,000-pound bomb. It was the largest nonnuclear bomb in the US arsenal. It was originally developed to produce helicopter landing zones in Vietnam. On February 6th 1991, I observed a BLU-82 which was dropped to the front of my position on an entrenched Iraqi division. The blast was visible at 28,000 feet, 168 miles away by Airborne Command Control and Communications aircraft. It's a "big" bomb!

This represents a ratio of one life lost for every life saved.15


Why did the United States Act with Swift Force?

An overriding concern for US credibility and prestige seemed to be the driving force throughout the planning and implementation of this crisis action.

The national security objectives for the crisis were clear:


      Recovery of the ship and crew

      A demonstrative show of force

      Prevention of another USS Pueblo hostage situation

Time constraints and a lack of accurate information

complicated the decision making process of the President throughout the crisis. The timing for military operations and bombing priorities were the two areas of greatest debate for the policy makers in this action. If the President had delayed action for another day it would have allowed time for a more thorough reconnaissance of the objective areas. It would also have allowed the military to improve its planning and force ratio

against the Cambodian soldiers on Koh Tang. However, a delay also ran counter to two of the three stated national security objectives of the crisis. Specifically, a delay risked losing the opportunity for punitive strikes against the Cambodian government. Additionally, a delay might have allowed the Cambodians to move the crew of the ship into the interior of the


15 Joint Chiefs of Staff., After Action Report: US Military Operations. SS Mayaguez/Koh Tang Island, 12-15 May 1975.

country, increasing the likelihood of another Pueblo hostage situation.

For those reasons, the idea of a twenty-four hour ultimatum was not implemented. Kissinger said, "every time we considered it, we came to the same conclusions, that the risks of giving it to any military operation that might be contemplated and to the crew members, were greater than the benefits to be achieved by giving a specific time limit." He added that the threats voiced by the United States through the United Nations and China constituted an ultimatum.16


The Role of Intelligence in the NSC Policy Debate

The big questions for the intelligence community during this crisis action were:

   Where were the crew members of the Mayaguez?

   What were the intentions of the Cambodians?


   What were the capabilities of the Cambodians?


The President needed an answer to the first question in order to justify an assault on the Cambodian mainland and Koh Tang island. Reconnaissance aircraft observed the crew being removed from the Mayaguez on the 13th of May. They saw them placed onto two fishing boats which then proceeded to Koh Tang.



16Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, "Mayaguez Rescue," press release, 16 May 1975.

However, the next day only one fishing boat departed Koh Tang for the mainland.

The military asserted that any decision to conduct a hostage rescue required accurate locations for all of the crew members. The only information available to the NSC in the short time frame of the crisis were spot reports from US fighter pilots and P-3 reconnaissance personnel. The reports seemed to conflict with each other and varied from pilot to pilot. The available intelligence did not reduce the uncertainty or contribute to the decision making process; it complicated it.


President Fords Management Style: Impact on the NSC

The key players during this crisis were the President, the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the Assistant for National Security Affairs. President Ford preferred the role of arbitrator between the opinionated members of his cabinet. He felt that this was an appropriate role for a Commander-in-Chief.17

This leadership style caused the NSC members to compete for the attention of the President. In peace time, the group dynamics generated useful options and healthy debate. However, during crisis action, with lives at stake and the vital interest of the US in balance, this management style had a chilling effect on some members of the NSC.


17 Ford., A Time to Heal, 273.

President Ford has been called a foreign affairs neophyte in comparison to Secretary of State Kissinger, whose entire professional life revolved around the study and practice of foreign affairs.18 I do not agree with this assessment.

President Ford relied heavily on his Secretary of State and publicly held him in high regard. This special confidence (some might call dependence) gave Secretary Kissinger a special advantage in shaping the national security policy of the United States during this crisis. Kissinger summarized his own method of operation in an interview he gave to Time Magazine, where he made the following observation about the NSC and national security policy making under crisis:


Personality clashes are reduced; too much is usually at stake for normal jealousies to operate. In a crisis only the strongest strive for responsibility; Many hide behind a line of consensus that they will be reluctant to shape; others concentrate on registering

objections that will provide alibis after the event. The few prepared to grapple with circumstances are usually undisturbed in the eye of the hurricane.

Kissinger saw himself as a clear-headed man of vision who was willing to seize control of crisis situations while others vacillated or were paralyzed.



18 Christopher J. Lamb., Belief Systems and Decision Making in the Mayaquez Crisis, (University of Florida Press, 1989), 63.


19 Robert Shrum, "The Most Hated Man," (Time, 15 October

1979), 44


The NSC System and this Crisis


The National Security Council system is designed to provide a forum for interagency consideration of policy issues.

Due to its small size and its rapid access to information, the NSC is perfectly suited to be the hub for policy debate during crisis action. The National Security Advisor and in recent years, his staff, have acquired an institutional existence, power and importance that was never intended by the National Security Act of 1947. It is frightening to think that the potential exist that the man with the loudest voice and the most articulate argument can carry the day. Ultimately, it is the President's responsibility to keep the NSC in order and banish the conflicts among unruly subordinates. This century's Presidents have compiled a rather poor record in this regard.

Edmund Burkes writings on the study and practice of politics and Secretary Kissingers' quote on policy-making under crisis serve as an excellent warning that the selection of a future National Security Advisor should be amended to allow for nomination by the President and confirmation by the Senate. Too much potential power resides in this critical decision to do it any other way.








Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, "Mayaguez Rescue," press release, 16 May 1975.


Ford, Gerald R., "A Time to Heal." New York: Harper & Row, 1979


Joint Chiefs of Staff., "After Action Report: US Military Operations, SS Mayaguez/Koh Tang Island," 12-15 May 1975.



Kissinger, Henry., "White House Years" (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1979



Lamb, Christopher J., "Belief Systems and Decision Making in the Mayaguez Crisis," University of Florida Press, 1989



Nesson, Ron., "It Sure Looks different From the Inside," Chicago:

Playboy Press, 1978


Rowan, Roy, "The Four Days of Mayaguez" New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975



Shrum, Robert., "The Most Hated Man," Time, 15 October 1979



Taylor, John B., "Air Mission Mayaguez," Airman, February 1976

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