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[Page 433]

131. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1

SUBJECT

  • Laos

PARTICIPATION

  • Henry A. Kissinger, Chairman
  • State
  • U. Alexis Johnson
  • Defense
  • G. Warren Nutter
  • CIA
  • Thomas H. Karamessines
  • JCS
  • Vice Admiral Nels C. Johnson
  • NSC Staff
  • John H. Holdridge
  • Col. Robert M. Behr

Summary of Decisions

1.
The proposal to resettle the Meo should be identified only as a “last ditch” measure.
2.
A State/Defense message will be dispatched asking for in-country recommendations on the proper distribution of M–16 rifles between the RLA and Meo irregulars.2 Recommendations will be elicited from Defense on the provision of additional rifles above the Presidential authorization of 20,000.
3.
Additional T–28 aircraft should be made available to the RLF but not from Thai resources.
4.
If Souvanna desires artillery support, consideration should be given to 105s as opposed to 155s.
5.
A State/Defense message will be sent asking for in-country opinion on the possibility of earmarking and training specific Thai units for operations in Laos.3
6.
The use of “mercenary” pilots should not be pursued.
7.
Final decisions on many recommended courses of action will have to be suspended until the conversations with Souvanna have been evaluated.

The meeting began at 2:34 P.M. Kissinger said he thought the Laos paper to be a first class analytical effort.4 His problem is how to get from here to a decision point. Ever since August the President has been pressing for action to stabilize the Laotian problem. He recognizes that it is difficult to make an intrinsic case for Laos. Nevertheless, Laos borders on Thailand, whose security could be threatened by the loss of Laos to communist forces. Moreover, how can a political settlement in Vietnam be defended if we permit the DRV to erode or abrogate the Geneva Agreements on Laos?

Secretary Johnson stated that the paper under consideration does not address itself to the security of Thailand. With regard to Laos, his general feeling is one of optimism. Having observed the rhythmic pattern of events over a period of years (during which time the DRV could have almost at will scored telling military successes against the RLG), what now is different is that we are in the aftermath of unprecedented military achievements by the forces of Vang Pao. We must now anticipate an almost certain response by the DRV. We should not, however, over-react. Things move slowly in the area and we should do what we can—physically and psychologically—to beef-up the RLG.

Kissinger asked when the 12,000 NVN troops moving along Route 7 would get into place. Admiral Johnson replied that the first elements have reached the Plain of Jars, but the main body is still enroute.

The Group then speculated at some length about the tactics and motives of the NVN forces in recent months. One cannot be certain that NVN activity has not been a part of a pre-determined plan of operations in Laos. On the other hand, their current moves may be a reaction to the recent successes of Vang Pao. Whatever their motives, Vang Pao's destruction of large quantities of pre-stocked NVN matériel has caused modification of their tactic of moving up to supplies. Now the supplies must accompany the troops.

Secretary Johnson said the advance NVN elements are the only forces exerting military pressure now. Our worry should be what may happen, not what is happening. In the absence of a real crisis we should act deliberately along the lines we have been, that is, a policy of strengthening the RLG but without commitment of our forces. The real [Page 435]problem arises in the event the NVN are moving to take control of the Mekong River as a part of their operations against SVN. What moves could we make to deter this?

Kissinger suggested a forcible reaction now might be productive, but noted that Laos paper said quite the opposite—that a forcible U.S. move might precipitate a NVN advance against the Mekong.

Admiral Johnson reported the concern of Vang Pao that his people (the Meo) are suffering a great deal. Accordingly he is willing to “have another go” at the NVN to relieve the pressure. This failing, a mass withdrawal to the region of the Thai border is the only remaining solution. The Group then discussed the utility of resettlement of the Meo as a possible course of action, as suggested by the paper. The consensus was that, as an immediate measure, the proposal is off-track. A movement of such proportions would be, in effect, a retreat and would follow major military reverses, which are not now foreseen. It was agreed to drop this option.

Kissinger expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of detail in the maps used in the paper. Karamessines said he would correct this inadequacy.

Kissinger returned to the basic question of NVN strategy. Why would they withdraw over 40,000 troops and then re-introduce 12,000? Would the 12,000 represent a holding force until the main force can be re-supplied and moved back as a part of an expanded plan of operations against Laos? Or is it more likely that the 12,000 have been dispatched as a replacement force but with reduced objectives? The objective, in the case of the latter, might be a strategic penetration to separate Laos into large chunks, interdicting the RLG LOC between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

Secretary Johnson stated there are two theories explaining the DRV strategic motivations and, in particular, their seeming reluctance to press their advantage. (1) They believe that if SVN falls, so will Laos. In other words, they can wait. (2) They have pushed up to what they think the traffic will bear without forcing the U.S. into more militant responses. Moreover, the Soviets have had an interest in maintaining a facade of legitimacy. As long as the communists are not losing territory and the 1962 lines are still more or less recognized political boundaries, there is no compelling need to completely de-stabilize the situation. As a consequence, Secretary Johnson opined, the DRV may make definite and major moves to restore their losses in the Plain of Jars, but little more than that. We shouldn't do anything indicative of overreaction until it is apparent that the intentions of the DRV go beyond restoration of their losses.

Kissinger asked how we could convey to the other side the impression that we are willing to acquiesce in their traditional moves, but [Page 436]will react positively to anything beyond that. He responded to his own question by saying we could introduce 6,000 U.S. troops and tell Senator Fulbright it is only a “token force.”

Karamessines asked Secretary Johnson if he would advocate continued support of the RLG, to which Johnson replied emphatically and affirmatively, saying that most of the measures advocated by the Laos paper make good sense.

Admiral Johnson then turned to the specifics of the recommended measures of assistance. He noted that of the 20,000 M–16 rifles approved by the President for Laotian forces, the number had grown in the paper to 34,500. The JCS can handle the 20,000 with no problem and would probably favor an increase, but the central point is to get a fix on the right number. All agreed that this should be done.

Karamessines pointed out that the 20,000 rifles appeared destined for the RLA, with other numbers being considered for the Meo irregulars (who know how to use them). After considerable discussion the Group agreed that a significant number of the 20,000 should go to the Meo (perhaps as high as 6000), this being within the spirit of the President's instructions. The local commanders should make the determination of the most effective break-out and will be requested to do so by a joint State/Defense message.

No conclusive answer was given to Admiral Johnson's question as to the desirability of exceeding the specific number of 20,000 rifles.

Secretary Johnson brought up the matter of T–28 aircraft for the RLAF and the Thais, stating that the provision of additional aircraft is a high priority action. Kissinger was strong on the point that T–28s should not be taken from the Thais to be given to the RLAF. Admiral Johnson agreed, reporting that the JCS will probably recommend getting the aircraft (the number now looks like 22) from the VNAF and giving them to the RLAF. The VNAF shortage could then be made up from other types in the U.S. inventory. The whole operation, once approved, would take about 45 days.

While on the subject of air support, Admiral Johnson noted the shortage of aerial reconnaissance direction finding capability in Laos. The only quick-fix is to divert resources from SVN, which is not a good solution. No answer to this problem is in hand, but it is being studied.

A lengthy discussion ensued on the subject of artillery support for the Laotians. The paper recommends introducing a Thai artillery unit equipped with 155s. Thanom had advocated this development although Souvanna has not asked for it. At the present time Thai volunteers are training the Meo in the use of 155s. This gun is not particularly suitable for operations in Laos. Moving them about from mountain to mountain by helicopter is an awkward task. Nevertheless, field recommendations favor introduction of Thai 155s with a combat [Page 437]defense force of about 300 troops. CINCPAC recommends a return of the Sierra Romeo 8 package to train the Meo, and then move it back out of country. The consensus of the Group was that the value of 155s is more symbolic than practical, that 105s would be eminently more suitable both in terms of their versatility and relative ease of logistic support, and that a decision to supply any artillery should depend on what Souvanna says he wants during his current visit here. In the meanwhile Admiral Johnson will ask the Joint Staff to prepare an evaluation of the advantages of 105s over 155s.

Kissinger reported the inclination of the President to support Souvanna should he request B–52 operations against NVN/PL forces. That raises the question of what, precisely, does Souvanna want—is he elated or depressed? Will he ask for money, B–52s or ground forces?

Secretary Johnson said he would have Marshall Green report his conversation with Souvanna ASAP,5 and Kissinger said he would try to get an early read-out of the conversation between the President and the prince.6

Kissinger then asked if the Group was prepared to endorse all of the measures they had discussed, or had not previously excluded. Secretary Johnson said yes, with the exception of Thai artillery, which would depend on Souvanna. Moreover, he said, the Group need not concern itself with Laotian political actions since all of the things the paper recommends Souvanna do, he is already doing on his initiative.

Secretary Johnson wondered about the paper recommendation for increased Thai training and support of RLG forces. What specifically did the drafter have in mind? No one knew, but the paper will be amended to state in factual terms what is recommended.

Secretary Johnson addressed himself to the recommendation that Thai forces be trained for possible operations in Laos. This puzzled him. Are we not already training the Thai forces for such operations.

Admiral Johnson explained the situation. The only really effective training to date has been associated with special Thai units earmarked for SVN. We could do the same for Laos. General training for the bulk of the Thai forces presents problems because it requires field maneuvers, [Page 438]which in turn calls for increased rations and payment of per diem. Should we desire to go that route, the U.S. would have to pick up the tab.

Secretary Johnson demurred, saying that the Thais could and should pay for their own training. He recommended that State and Defense draft a joint message asking the in-country team what can be done along these lines.

Secretary Johnson then mentioned the paper's recommendation to use third country pilots to fly Laotian aircraft. The general opinion on this recommendation was that it introduced too many complications and should be dropped.

Kissinger asked for a discussion of B–52 reconnaissance operations over Laos, which has long been on the President's mind. Secretary Johnson said that if the President wished, it would be done. He, however, would not do it now. Kissinger asked the Group to reason it out. If we are not now under serious pressure would we be trumping an ace? If a NVN offensive starts, would we then use the measure as a signal? All agreed that we would. Kissinger then asked what the DRV would conclude if we did it now. Admiral Johnson doubted that the impact would be great. We've done it before with one or two aircraft and there was no reaction. That operation produced good results but he would have to check on the extent of the radar scope photography that was obtained. He cautioned the Group to remember that B–52 recon sorties had to be escorted to protect the bombers from MIGs. He stated further that obtaining data on actual target locations is more important than getting data to assist navigation. That information is hard to get from the air, particularly if troop concentrations are what is sought. Kissinger wondered when would be the best time to play the card—now or later. Secretary Johnson and Nutter recommended withholding until after a definite NVN move. Kissinger remarked that a better basis for decision will be available after the conversations with Souvanna have been analyzed. Then we will be in a better position to decide when the signal should be given, for what purpose, and with what effect. He asked Admiral Johnson to find out the size of the B–52 force the JCS were thinking about. Admiral Johnson agreed to do so and then raised a question about the paper's recommendation regarding increased reconnaissance over NVN. He wondered why this action is being called for because to his knowledge the program is currently meeting its objectives. Secretary Johnson remarked that we should do whatever is needed to acquire intelligence, plus whatever “signalling” is called for.

Kissinger inquired about the recommendation to increase psychological operations in Laos. Admiral Johnson said that leaflet drops had been restrained to date by the imposition of restraints by the RLG. All [Page 439]agreed that no further action would be taken in this area until the wishes of Souvanna are made known.

Kissinger concluded the meeting by asking that Secretary Johnson take action to reorganize the paper, focusing on recommendations as to what needs to be done and what decisions need to be made. The recommended actions should be broken down into those that will go on normally and those that will be dependent on a NVN/PL offensive of increased scale. He asked that the revised paper be made available for another WSAG meeting before October 11th. This meeting adjourned at 4:30 P.M.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–114, WSAG Minutes, Originals, 1969–1970. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room.
  2. Not found.
  3. Not found.
  4. Kissinger is apparently referring to a draft report prepared by the WSAG Working Group, which was summarized for the President on October 20; see Document 138. The October 10 plan is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 545, Country Files, Far East, Laos, Vol. II, 1 August 1969 to 10 October 1969.
  5. Green met Souvanna at the airport on October 6 and a memorandum of conversation of their discussion during the ride to Washington is ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 7 LAOS. Kissinger sent Nixon a copy of this memorandum of conversation and a copy of a conversation on October 4 between Souvanna and Lao Country Officer, Mark S. Pratt, in New York City. After briefly summarizing Souvanna's main points, Kissinger noted that the only topic Souvanna specifically stated he planned to raise with Nixon was the timely supply of military equipment to Laos. (Memorandum from Kissinger to Nixon, October 7, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL–287, Memoranda to the President, 1969 Oct., Folder 1)
  6. See Documents 132 and 133.