459. Summary Record of the 512th National Security Council Meeting0


Director McCone read an intelligence summary of the military situation in the Plaine des Jarres.1 He estimated that the Pathet Lao had a two-to-one military superiority in the Plaine. Kong Le is apparently leaning heavily on international support to get a cease-fire. Latest information indicates that, contrary to some reports, he is not giving up. Mr. McCone referred to a message from Vientiane, a copy of which the President read (copy attached).

Secretary Rusk reported that British Foreign Minister Home had told us that the U.K. Ambassador in Moscow had been unable to see Gromyko to present a demarche on Laos because top Soviet officials were apparently in session with Khrushchev who returned to Moscow today. The British are trying to persuade the Russians to join efforts to halt the attacks on the neutralists in Laos.2 The Soviet Ambassador in Vientiane, according to our reports, is trying to be helpful in keeping the situation from deteriorating further.

Secretary Rusk emphasized that Souvanna is the key to rallying neutralists in Laos against the Pathet Lao. He made five political recommendations which are listed in the State paper attached. With respect to other measures, the Secretary recommended that there be no publicly announced military moves for the next three days. He suggested that the SEATO exercise planned for late May could be used as a cover for U.S. forces moving into the area earlier. The U.S. forces moving into Thailand would await the arrival of allied forces now scheduled to be there in early June. He believed that we should increase the number of U.S. forces in northern South Vietnam in order to be in a position, if Laos [Page 977] falls, to move into North Vietnam. We must avoid being committed publicly to supporting Souvanna with U.S. forces so that if later Souvanna rejects our support we will not be in an awkward position.

Ambassador Thompson, who had returned from San Francisco by plane to attend the meeting, noted that the Russians were accusing us of interfering in the internal affairs of Laos, but at the same time were saying that the Geneva Accords should be sustained and that the situation in Laos should return to normal. He felt that any military moves which we should take now should not be publicly announced, but that secret military moves would be useful in persuading Moscow and Hanoi of our seriousness. Khrushchev would not be in a position of publicly backing down in the face of U.S. military pressure in Southeast Asia.

General Taylor said the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that Admiral Felt, as CINCPAC, call at Bangkok and Vientiane and confer with the military representatives of SEATO. He said a task force consisting of an aircraft carrier and destroyers should sail from Subic Bay to the Gulf of Tonkin. The task force would cruise in the area. No U.S. forces should be put ashore now.

The President indicated he did not believe that landing U.S. forces in Hue in northern South Vietnam would be advisable because of the difficulty of removing them at a later time. He felt that if forces were to be put ashore, they should be put in Thailand. He asked what military action we could take against Hanoi.

In response, General Taylor indicated that several actions could be taken against Hanoi, such as sinking ships in the harbor, flying reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam, and the bombing of selected places. Secretary McNamara said that an additional action would be destruction of selected rail lines.

The President requested that a study be made for his consideration next week of feasible military actions to be taken against the northern Vietnamese. Secretary Rusk asked that the task force not sail out of Subic Bay today, Sunday their time, but rather on Monday3 when it would be possible to say that the task force was engaging in routine exercises.

The President asked whether we should talk to the Thais about U.S. ground forces coming into Thailand now. He approved of Admiral Felt conferring with the SEATO military advisers in Bangkok.

Secretary McNamara said he believed that we should talk to the Thais now only about U.S. air units which would be coming there. Discussion of the landing of U.S. ground forces would be initiated if necessary.

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Secretary Rusk recalled that he had raised the subject of additional U.S. forces for Thailand with the Thai Foreign Minister in Paris recently. U.S. forces moving into the area in the near future could be described as units participating in the scheduled SEATO maneuvers.

In response to the President’s question, Secretary Rusk said the French were not forcefully supporting Souvanna. The President thought we should make our views very clear to the French, recalling that Souvanna was their man. Secretary Rusk said he could recall to the French De Gaulle’s comment to him that if Souvanna got into trouble, we would have to help him. We wanted the French to encourage Souvanna to take a firm stand in defense of his Government, to get the King involved in the current situation, to strengthen the French military mission, and to use appropriately the French mission resident in Hanoi.

Secretary Rusk, commenting on the proposed visit of Governor Harriman in Europe, suggested that he should leave for London immediately and then go to Paris. His further trip to Moscow would depend on the kind of response the British got to their demarche to Gromyko.

Governor Harriman said he felt he could take a very firm line with French Foreign Minister Couve because Couve had earlier made commitments to us when he was persuading us to support Souvanna originally.

Secretary Rusk suggested, and the President approved, a Presidential message to Khrushchev to be carried by Harriman in the event he goes to Moscow. Ambassador Thompson recommended that Harriman go to Moscow alone rather than accompanied by a British representative. Secretary Rusk agreed that Governor Harriman could appropriately go alone in view of the fact that his mission consisted of discussing Laos with the two co-chairmen of the ICC, the British and the Russians.

Ambassador Thompson restated his view that we take military missions now but not make them public.

The President authorized the sailing of a task force from Subic Bay to the Gulf of Tonkin.4

Secretary Rusk asked that the task force not sail north of the demarcation line lest we appear to be threatening action which we are not yet prepared to take.

Secretary McNamara said the task force would take some time to get to within two hundred miles of the Vietnamese coast.

The President asked why we need to follow such a careful policy toward Cuba in view of the fact that the Russians appear to be prepared to see the Geneva Accords destroyed. He approved the proposed U–2 [Page 979] flights over the supply routes in North Vietnam. He agreed that we should be prepared to move U.S. air forces in Thailand, but suggested that we consult the Thais about our plans only after we know Khrushchev’s views concerning the current situation in Laos.

Director McCone said that our latest information was that the remaining twenty-three American prisoners would probably be leaving Cuba on Monday. He had reports that these prisoners were being moved from the Isle of Pines to Havana. Donovan appeared hopeful that the removal would be completed Monday.

The President commented that with the prisoners out of Cuba, we might be in a position to act against Cuba if Khrushchev made no move to halt the deterioration in Laos. He asked what action we could take against Cuba.

Director McCone said we should fly low-level reconnaissance missions which were necessary no matter what happens in Laos. He said we need to have pictures of Soviet convoys, some of which were described in considerable detail by Donovan upon his return from his last visit to Havana.

Ambassador Thompson pointed out that a U.S. bombing raid on Pathet Lao forces in Laos would be easier for Khrushchev to accept than U.S. action against Cuba.

Mr. Bundy asked whether, in light of the Laos situation, we should hold up the joint U.S./U.K. demarche to Khrushchev on disarmament. Secretary Rusk said he did not think we should. The Soviet leaders are undoubtedly discussing all subjects, including disarmament.

Mr. Bundy asked about the proposal to brief the North Atlantic Council on the U.S./U.K. demarche on disarmament. The present line is to say no more than that we are delivering to Khrushchev a message concerning disarmament. We do not think, however, that the demarche will remain secret. The President expressed reservations as to why this was necessary, but he did not specifically oppose the North Atlantic Council briefing. He did comment that he did not see how we could talk to the Russians about anything if the Geneva Accords are breaking down.

The President summarized the information which would be made available to the press, namely, Secretary Rusk’s calling in the Ambassadors of the ICC member states, Governor Harriman’s trip to London and Paris, and the scheduled National Security Council meeting Monday. As to the movement of the task force, no public announcement would be made, but if news of the movement became known in the Subic Bay area, we would acknowledge here that the task force was engaging [Page 980] in a routine fleet exercise. The fleet will sail tomorrow unless developments are such as to make it appropriate to sail earlier.

Bromley Smith5

[Attachment 1]


Telegram to the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Following is CAS Vientiane 6120 received in Washington as IN 21874.

In COS opinion there are three separate and distinct factors at play in present Plaine des Jarres (PDJ) situation. They are:
Lao soldiers performance when faced by Viet Minh or when he thinks he is faced by Viet Minh. The performance of Kong Le’s forces has shown signs of the same weaknesses Phoumi’s forces demonstrated during the previous fighting, i.e. a strong tendency to retreat or abandon position in face of relatively light pressure if forces believe they are opposed by Viet Minh. This is particularly true when hit by accurate artillery fire which Lao tend to associate with Viet Minh gunners.
Kong Le’s mercurial temperament. We have recd indications from Vang Pao, Canadian and Indian ICC types, French and British visitors, that Kong Le is obviously in charge, he is displaying definite weaknesses as a military tactician. A role which is being primarily handled by Col. Soulivanh. None of Kong Le’s staff including Soulivanh are rated by local observers as top flight military planners or tacticians, even by Lao standards.
Souvanna’s lack of clear, concise, and public statements and actions in support of Kong Le.
All evidence tends to indicate that Kong Le’s estimate of his own strength and stayability seems to fluctuate radically from day to day, and since his actual military determination and stayability is undoubtedly directly related to his own mood of the moment, his basic military capability fluctuates. For example Kong Le screamed for immediate [Page 981] assistance yesterday saying he might in fact lose PDJ if immediate help not received. His cries tended to agree with French reports from their officers in PDJ as well as views of a British newswoman who returned from PDJ last nite saying Kong Le’s position hopeless. This morning, however, Kong Le was visited by [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] pilot [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] who reported Kong Le calm and determined. Kong Le’s hqs camp site right off end of PDJ airstrip seemed orderly and fairly quiet. At the same time morale of Vientiane neutralists fluctuates with Kong Le’s. Yesterday they were desperate; today they are hopeful. The local neutralists [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] and Phoumi (to Amb) have both voiced optimism today over viability Kong Le’s position.
Given all of the negative factors in the situation COS believes that there is strong chance Kong Le position in PDJ would be lost to next strong attack were it not for flexibility now authorized to Meos to support Kong Le as necessary. Army concurs as does Ambassador as evidenced by his authorization of current Meo flexibility to come to Kong Le’s assistance and exert pressure where necessary to strengthen Kong Le’s hand in PDJ vicinity.

Since we are agreed as country team that if Kong Le hit suddenly and driven from PDJ there would be little chance of his regaining foothold even with Meo support, Amb authorized foll actions which directly related Meo support to Kong Le:

Placement of 75mm and 57mm weapons in Meo position within range of Khang Khay and Ban Lieng (Sinkapo’s hqs). Plan was to divert pressure on Kong Le by shelling. However Meos now under instructions not to fire until further authorization received.
Ammo drops north and south of Xieng Khouang Ville which would be used by Meo in pressure and squeeze tactics and some minor harassment against PL. Ammo also permits resupply of Kong Le troops in area, where needed.
Further ammo drop to Site 98 and stationing Caribou for distribution from there.
Cutting of route 7 east of Nong Phet (UG 3263).

COS believes that flexibility for Meo support afforded by Amb’s decision gives Kong Le better than even chance of holding a position on PDJ. He now (as of noon 20 Apr local) holds PDJ airfield and with Meo, Lat Houang. Meos in position put considerable pressure on Khang Khay, Xieng Khouang and Ban Lieng. Meos support, we believe, beginning to pay off even though restricted to squeeze and pressure tactics so far. Vang Pao reports PL now short of rice, requisitioning from villagers their areas and seem to be scouting north of Khang Khay for possible avenues of retreat if needed. If they reject Souvanna’s latest call for cease-fire the PL may make another strong attack on Kong Le, this time in attempt overrun his position PDJ; however, if this starts Meo are in [Page 982] position launch heavy strikes against Khang Khay and Xieng Khouang Ville.

Re our recommendations, we believe anything short of latitude provided Meos by Amb authorization outlined above would mean loss of PDJ and possible disintegration Kong Le forces. With this lattitude, however, believe Kong Le can survive anything short of all out attack including Viet Minh in sizable numbers. His chances of regaining territory already lost would depend on complete removal of restrictions on Meos. Under these circumstances we believe lost ground could be recovered. Meantime, believe course being followed best for it keeps pressure on and force available but lets situation remain conducive to Souvanna’s last ditch attempts to obtain cease-fire agreement from PL and return of lost positions in peaceable fashion.
Re your specific questions, no immediate threat to Site 98; morale of Meo high; Meo very capable interdicting routes 7 and 4 at any time.
FYI only: Hqs may rest assured that local country team, under Ambassador’s leadership working very closely together with full exchange views, ideas and information. On all basic questions there is complete harmony of views. In COS opinion, Wash willingness to delegate authority to Amb has greatly facilitated country team, under Amb’s leadership, to respond quickly to challenges of most complex and critical situation.

[Attachment 2]




Communist attacks on Kong Le’s neutralist forces threaten to destroy the middle faction, which is an essential element of Souvanna’s government of national union.

Although we do not expect massive attacks on Phoumi forces to follow at the present time, the continuation of Communist attempts to eliminate the neutralists will bring Phoumi and Communist forces face to face with an increasing danger of deterioration into the same kind of military confrontation existing before the Geneva Accords.

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In addition, there are two immediate dangers:

That the Pathet Lao and Hanoi will interpret a U.S. failure to respond vigorously to their attacks on the neutralists as a U.S. decision to abandon Laos and an invitation to apply similar tactics to Phoumi that they have successfully used on Kong Le.
That first the neutralists and later the Phoumi forces will make the same interpretation as the Pathet Lao and Hanoi—that the United States has decided to abandon Laos—and disintegrate, leaving us with nothing to support.


In our judgment there are 2 keys to the situation.

The first is Prince Souvanna Phouma who, as the leader of the neutralist element is the personification of the neutralist coalition and the public image of legitimacy. He is essential to a continuation of the government of national union and all reserves possible must be taken to support him and encourage him to remain at his post.

The second key is Hanoi. The Pathet Lao would probably not present a serious problem to Phoumi’s forces if it were not for the presence of the Viet Minh, and the Pathet Lao would probably not, by themselves, be so aggressive or effective as they are with Viet Minh direction. Thus, the problem here is how to exercise influence on Hanoi.

In our judgment the Soviets have relatively little influence on Hanoi at the present time—there is no air lift or major aid program that they can call off; they are physically separated from Hanoi and Laos by China; and they are hampered by the Sino-Soviet rift.

The Soviets probably have still less incentive to bring pressure on Hanoi—their relations with China are such that any attempt to press Hanoi will open them to a Chinese charge of appeasement.

The major Soviet interest in the Geneva Accords is presumably to avoid a major flare-up in Southeast Asia. At the same time, the major Soviet leverage on Hanoi is probably the same thing—the threat of American intervention.

As for Hanoi, the one incentive for carrying out the Geneva Accords, or even for observing the cease-fire alone, is again the credible threat of force.

The indicated course of action is thus (1) support for Souvanna and the neutralist forces, and (2) diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union combined with a threat of force of one form or another.

The question is what can we hope to achieve by these actions? Realistically, it seems doubtful that we could hope to force the Pathet Lao to restore the territories taken from Kong Le the past few days. We probably could hope to bring about a cease-fire on the present lines of division.

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There would appear to be some chance that if we moved quickly we could thereby preserve Kong Le and enough of his forces (possibly relocated to, say, Luang Prabang), to permit the continuation of Souvanna’s coalition government, though in a weakened form. There will presumably be an even better chance to preserve Phoumi and his forces, possibly as a result of a de facto partition.


In the light of the above analysis, we recommend the following:

That Ambassador Unger immediately discuss with Souvanna what steps the United States should take in support of him and the neutralist forces, including air dropping the arms and supplies pre-positioned in Thailand, action by the Meos, etc.
That Ambassador Bohlen make a strong approach to Couve de Murville on actions by the French.
That Ambassador Kohler raise the subject of Laos with Gromyko on the occasion of the interview which he has already requested on another matter.
That Governor Harriman proceed to London and Moscow to discuss Laos with both co-chairmen.
That the Secretary will call in and discuss the current problem with the Ambassadors of the ICC members.

We assume that the Department of Defense will have some recommendations as to the military moves required. In addition, we would recommend that consideration also be given to the following:

Moving up the SEATO maneuvers scheduled for late May and June.
That consideration be given to placing air, sea and ground forces in South Viet-Nam, possibly at Hue, so as to strengthen Southern Laos.

Further issues that must be resolved involve the timing of the military moves required. Two alternatives present themselves:

Carry our military moves simultaneously with Harriman’s trip to Moscow.
Postpone decisions regarding military moves until after Harriman’s return.

  • Alternative 1 would serve to strengthen Harriman’s hand with the Soviets and in turn would provide the Soviets with a lever to use on Hanoi and Peiping. On the other hand it might have the effect of putting Khrushchev in the position of appearing to capitulate to U.S. threats. The USSR might have difficulty in resisting a Peiping-Hanoi attempt to test our resolve.
  • Alternative 2 would enable Harriman to make a serious diplomatic effort within the Geneva framework and in turn might make it correspondingly easier for the Soviets to respond favorably. On the other hand, a diplomatic approach, not backed by military moves may not impress the Soviets. It also runs the risk that we would become involved in a series of delaying maneuvers behind which the Communists would completely destroy what is left of the neutralist military position.

In balance, we favor the latter—except that steps should be immediately taken to obtain the prior agreement of Priminster Sarit and President Diem if required.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, NSC Meetings, No. 512, April 4, 1963. Top Secret. The meeting lasted until 11:55 a.m. (Ibid., President’s Appointment Book) For William Colby’s account of this meeting, see Document 460.
  2. Not further identified. Director of INR Hughes sent Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Hilsman a memorandum suggesting ways to deter the Communists from destroying the neutralists. Hughes concluded that none of the Communist elements in Laos—the Pathet Lao, North Vietnamese, the Chinese, nor the Soviets—felt any pressure to end the attacks on the neutralist center. The problem was for the United States to create inducements. U.S. military deployments in the area would, according to Hughes, send a message to all elements. (Ibid., Countries Series, Laos: General, 4/20/63–4/21/63)
  3. As reported in telegrams 980, 981, and 988 to Vientiane, April 19, 20, and 20. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 Laos)
  4. April 22.
  5. The JCS directed CINCPAC to make these moves in JCS telegram 9565 to CINCPAC, April 20. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 Laos)
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
  7. Secret. Also sent to the White House for Bundy and Forrestal and to the Department of State for Hilsman. Sent with instructions to pass to Colonel McCrea of DOD/ISA and General Lansdale of OSD.
  8. Secret.