133. Memorandum of Conversation1
- The Public Position on US Activities in Laos
- The President
- Prince Souvanna Phouma, Prime Minister of Laos
- Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
- Mrs. Sophia Porson, Interpreter
(See separate Memcon for other subjects.)2
President Nixon asked what answer we should give when asked about the use of US air power in Laos, i.e., the air strikes conducted in Laos against the North Vietnamese at the RLG’s request.
The Prime Minister suggested that the reply be that this is being done at the request of the RLG and is part of the commitment undertaken at Geneva to ensure Laos’ territorial integrity, independence and neutrality.[Page 444]
The President said that so far we have refused comment. Did the Prime Minister think we should change our position and admit we have been conducting air strikes.
The Prime Minister thought it best to stick to the original position we took, i.e., simply state that we are conducting armed reconnaissance flights and that our planes respond when attacked. The infiltration by the North Vietnamese continues and the armed reconnaissance flights increase as the infiltration increases.
The President pointed out that the difficulty with that was that the Symington Subcommittee and others are aware of our attacks and will press for an answer.
The Prime Minister said he would say what he told the North Vietnamese Ambassador to Laos: If the North Vietnamese withdraw their troops, the RLG will ask for the bombing to stop. Also only North Vietnamese troops are bombed. The bombing is the RLG’s only means of defense as it has fewer troops than the other side and no reserves to send in against the fresh troops coming in.
President Nixon said he completely approved the bombing and would do more but the problem is a domestic political one, i.e., whether the US will become as deeply involved in Laos as in Viet-Nam. Part of the answer lies in the Prime Minister’s statement that there are no US ground troops in Laos and that none have been or will be requested. But this is a very delicate political issue and we have been trying to dance around it as much as possible.
The Prime Minister said he would go farther and state that Laos has always resisted the idea of an extension of the war to Laos. He vigorously opposed the famous McNamara Line. They do not want the war to be extended to Laos, and it is important that US public opinion understand that.
In short, the Prime Minister concluded, there was no violation of the Geneva Agreements, and no possibility of extending the conflict into Laos.
The President said he wanted to be sure that he understood the Prime Minister’s position regarding US assistance. He summarized the Prime Minister’s statement as follows:
- He has stated publicly, as we have, that the US is providing logistical assistance and arms, but that the RLG does not want and does not need US ground forces;
- His public position on the air support has been the same as ours; these are armed reconnaissance flights which react when attacked.
The President explained that he wanted to review this with the Prime Minister because the Symington Sub-Committee and others were aware of the truth, which is that we are providing air support to the RLG against the North Vietnamese. On that point, he asked the Prime [Page 445] Minister what he thought we should say if pressed. Did the Prime Minister think we should and could admit publicly that air support is being given. He asked the question because the Prime Minister had indicated he thought the air support was consistent with the Geneva Agreements. This was a very important matter.
The Prime Minister thought we could say that this support was given at the request of the RLG when necessary, when the government forces were “submerged” or attacked by the enemy forces. It is not systematic bombing but intermittent bombing conducted in case of need. He stressed the need to indicate that it was not systematic, but only in the case of North Vietnamese attack.
The President returned to the point about whether or not this was a violation of the Geneva Agreements, saying that some people at the State Department had sent him a report stating that the bombing was in clear violation of the Geneva Agreements. The President reiterated that he supported the bombing himself, and would do more, but that he wanted to see how to resolve the problem of criticism of the bombing.
The Prime Minister remarked that the Agreements had been violated by the North Vietnamese before the ink had dried on them. The US intervention started in 1964, at the RLG’s request. Since everyone knows that the US is carrying out air strikes in Laos, the Prime Minister said, one could answer criticism by saying that this is in response to violations committed by the North Vietnamese and that we are acting at the RLG’s request. Additionally, one could say that it is the role of the signatories of the Geneva Agreements to defend the territorial integrity, independence, and neutrality of Laos. The US intervention came after the interference in Laotian affairs by the North Vietnamese. If there is a violation by the US, it is at the request of the RLG which is acting only in self-defense. It seemed to the Prime Minister that the responsibility of the US was involved here, and that the US was entitled to help Laos.
President Nixon indicated to Dr. Kissinger that he thought we must develop a more believable position, especially since the Prime Minister would be confronted with some tough questioning. He thought it would be a good idea to work out the position privately, adding the comment that the position he had taken could not be sustained in the long term under sophisticated probing.
Dr. Kissinger said the position would be discussed at a meeting of representatives of the agencies involved this afternoon,3 and told the Prime Minister that he would check the position with him later.[Page 446]
Dr. Kissinger also remarked that the fact that the attacks are only against the North Vietnamese would help us out of the difficulty we are in since the North Vietnamese have never admitted the presence of North Vietnamese troops. This shows that they violated the Agreements first.
The President summed up by saying that he thought three points need to be emphasized in the position:
- The RLG is entitled to the support of the US and others pursuant to the 1962 Geneva Agreements;
- What the US has done and is doing is entirely consistent with the Geneva Agreements and always at the request of the RLG;
- There has never been and never will be in any form a request by the RLG for US ground forces. The RLG wants to fight its own battles, and wants only logistic support. Additionally, from time to time, as necessary, and not systematically, when outside forces threaten to overrun Laos the US assists with air support. This support is given only on those occasions and only against the North Vietnamese forces who have been acting in violation of the Geneva Agreements.
The Prime Minister agreed with that statement.
- Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 63, Memoranda of Conversation, Presidential File, 1969. Top Secret; Nodis. Copies were sent to Rogers, Laird, and Helms. See footnote 1, Document 132 regarding Souvanna’s visit.↩
- Document 132.↩
- No record of this meeting has been found.↩