197. Memorandum From the Director of the Office of Southeast Asian Affairs (Trueheart) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Bundy)1


  • Duck Soup
I understand that Al Friedman will be calling you again on this subject.2 We have been informed that the JCS and ISA are taking the matter up with Mr. McNamara. Al’s call may be a final attempt to reverse our position before approaching the Secretary of Defense. The paragraphs which follow explain the position we have taken on this matter and the rationale.

Souvanna’s Position. When Ambassador Sullivan sought Prince Souvanna Phouma’s views regarding this US-proposed operation, Souvanna replied “with considerable deliberation” that in principle he wished such enemy aircraft destroyed, but also in principle he would prefer that it be done by RLAF T–28’s (Vientiane’s 1802 of May 4).3

a. Caveats. Souvanna recognized, however, that in practice it seemed doubtful that his T–28’s could do the job. Since the alternative was US aircraft, he carefully spelled out the terms of reference which would have to be followed:

Extreme care must be taken to avoid giving the Communists a big propaganda play;
Aircraft must not be struck on the ground;
Aircraft must not be hit during casual flight; in other words,
The enemy aircraft must be intercepted in the air while it is engaged in the act of parachuting or dropping supplies to enemy ground forces.
Souvanna’s approval of an intercept with these caveats pertains only to operations in Sam Neua Province.

Department caveat. In addition to Souvanna’s caveats, the Department in Deptel 11214 said that only North Vietnamese aircraft could be [Page 398] intercepted in this fashion. If there is uncertainty about the identity of the aircraft, it should not be attacked. This point was made because of Ambassador Thompson’s great concern that we not shoot down a Soviet plane.
Evidence. The evidence of continuing enemy air drops is quite intermittent and seldom confirmed. Reports during the past five months concerning unidentified aircraft in Laos refer to sightings in other provinces as well as Sam Neua. Few actual sightings of drops have been reported and the reports are mostly by small friendly units. All recent reports indicate enemy aircraft activities have been at night—therefore not subject to attack under the restrictions outlined above.
Absence of Lao Request. During this entire 5-month period, neither the Lao armed forces nor Souvanna Phouma has raised this subject with U.S. officials. Presumably, if the volume of air drops to enemy troops in Sam Neua was sufficiently great to affect the struggle there, the Lao themselves would have attempted an intercept or request the U.S. to intervene.

T–28 Pilots. Ambassador Sullivan suggested making the intercept with T–28’s flown by Air America pilots. The Department so far has refused to give this authorization and suggested, instead, that Lao [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] pilots be selected and perhaps trained in T–28’s for this operation (Deptel 1121). Ambassador Sullivan replied that no such Lao [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]pilots are proficient enough to perform the task.

a. L/FE has reminded us that civilians who engage in hostilities are usually treated as “unprivileged belligerents” or possibly even as spies. Thus, if Air America pilots flying T–28’s on combat missions were shot down or otherwise fell into enemy hands, we might have no legal basis for claiming for them treatment as prisoners of war in accordance with POW conventions or accepted international law practice. Moreover, in such an event, this evidence would give confirmation to Communist charges regarding the para-military character of Air America and undermine our position with respect to Air America, RLAF T–28’s and support for the Geneva Agreements.

As matters stand, there have been no recent reports of daylight air drops in the Sam Neua area and Bill Sullivan agrees that we would not be warranted in keeping planes on alert to intercept. He has requested instead authority to institute such an alert with Air America manned T–28’s and to carry out interception when and if daylight air drops are resumed.
Our position is that the political risks are sufficiently great and involve factors (e.g. US-Soviet relations) beyond the purview of Vientiane, that the decision to intercept made last April should be reviewed in the light of circumstances prevailing when flights are next reported. This [Page 399] position is reflected in the attached draft telegram which Defense has thus far refused to clear.5
  1. Source: Department of State, EA/Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia Files: Lot 75 D 394. Top Secret. Drafted by Slutz and cleared by Barbis. A copy was sent to Unger.
  2. On September 10 Friedman sent Bundy a copy of a September 7 memorandum from Blouin to him, recommending that a JCS proposal to give Sullivan authority to execute Duck Soup without recourse to Washington be approved by the Department of State. Also attached to this memorandum was an undated note from Bundy to Trueheart, stating that Bundy told Friedman that the Department of State “must stick to our guns.” (Ibid.)
  3. Not printed. (Ibid., Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)
  4. Dated June 20. (Ibid., POL 27 LAOS)
  5. Attached was a draft telegram deferring a final decision on Duck Soup until more reliable evidence on the air drops was available. For the cable as sent, see Document 198.