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172. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1

SUBJECT

  • Laos

PARTICIPANTS

  • Henry A. Kissinger, Chairman
  • State
  • Marshall Green
  • Jonathan Moore
  • Defense
  • Richard Ware
  • CIA
  • Thomas H. Karamessines
  • [name not declassified]
  • JCS
  • Admiral Nels C. Johnson
  • Colonel Bennie L. Davis
  • NSC Staff
  • John Holdridge
  • Colonel Robert Behr
  • Keith Guthrie

SUMMARY OF DECISIONS

1.
B–52 Strikes in the Plaine des Jarres. Mr. Holdridge is to collaborate with Mr. Moore in preparing a memorandum to the President setting forth the three options presented in the Laos Ad Hoc Group study and the agency views and arguments, as discussed at the WSAG meeting. The memorandum should set forth the military argument for action and the two different political arguments—one favorable to a strike and the other opposed. Mr. Kissinger will recommend that the President consult in advance with Secretary Laird and that if the President believes a strike desirable, he also talk with Secretary Rogers before making a decision.2
2.
Chinese Roadbuilding. Mr. Kissinger will try to get a decision from the President within the next few days.3

Mr. Kissinger opened the meeting with a request for a review of the circumstances that led to the holding of a WSAG meeting at this time.

Mr. Green explained that Ambassador Godley had asked for decisions on both the matters on the agenda. Mr. Kissinger suggested that B–52 strikes—as the more urgent matter—be discussed first.

B–52 Strikes in the Plaine des Jarres

At Mr. Kissinger's request, Mr. Green and Mr. Moore explained the reasons why an immediate decision was needed on a B–52 strike. The concentrated target provided by a recently identified North Vietnamese headquarters in the Plaine des Jarres was likely to disperse within a few days. MACV was prepared to launch a strike in about 24 hours, and Ambassador Godley would require advance notice in order to coordinate with Souvanna.

Mr. [name not declassified] briefed the group on the nature of the target. Intelligence showed a major North Vietnamese headquarters had been established in the Plaine des Jarres. There was no solid information about the number of troops who might be in the target area or the timing of any attack which the North Vietnamese might be planning. However, the available indicators were similar to those which had preceded previous major communist offensives. On the question of troops in the target area, Mr. Moore pointed out that intelligence did not conclusively show a concentration was present, while Admiral Johnson said that Ambassador Godley had referred to 4,000 to 5,000 troops.

Mr. [name not declassified] explained that it was possible that there were this many troops in the area, although this could not be conclusively proved from the available data.

Colonel Davis explained that MACV was proposing six B–52 strikes, for which area reconnaissance had already been undertaken the preceding day (January 25). The enemy threat to the B–52's was no greater than that involved in previous strikes in southern Laos. If the strike were to be made the following day (January 27), MACV would have to be notified by midnight January 26–27, and Ambassador Godley two hours earlier. Ideally, the military would like to have a decision by 6:00 p.m., January 26. If not launched at the earliest time proposed, the strike would have to be put off at intervals of 24 hours, since [Page 543]it was necessary to fly under cover of darkness for security against MIG attacks.

Mr. Kissinger asked if the reconnaissance flights had been observed by the North Vietnamese. Colonel Davis and Admiral Johnson indicated that there was some evidence that the North Vietnamese may have detected the reconnaissance flights and that they would know that B–52's were involved.

Mr. Kissinger then stated the options as put forth by the Ad Hoc Group: (1) B–52 strikes; (2) B–52 strikes accompanied by political signals of a deescalatory nature; (3) no B–52 strikes at the present time. He observed that to take no action would be tantamount to not using the B–52's, since no suitable target would be available for them once the North Vietnamese offensive begins.

Mr. Kissinger then asked individual members for their views.

Admiral Johnson said the JCS favored the strike.

Mr. Green said that the State Department was opposed. By launching a strike in advance of a North Vietnamese offensive, we would be taking the responsibility for escalating the conflict in Laos, and we would have problems with Congressional and press critics in this country. It was important to use all our influence to get the Laotian problem back on a political track. Ambassador Godley's January 25 conversation with Souvanna indicated we might be able to get the RLG to take the initiative in talking to the communists about reducing hostilities. There was danger that the North Vietnamese would interpret a B–52 strike as indicating the U.S. no longer wished to maintain the 1962 accords, especially since the Plaine des Jarres area was territory which had long been under their control.

Mr. Kissinger asked whether anyone had requested us to make the strike and what action the North Vietnamese might take in response to a strike. Mr. Green thought that Souvanna would probably favor a strike but observed that the Laos often failed to put two and two together and did not see the interrelation between military and political actions. The strike would only create a crisis atmosphere. Its military usefulness should not be overrated. We have always realized that the North Vietnamese could occupy northern Laos at anytime. Even if the strike were successful, the communists could bring in more troops, and they might indeed be stimulated by a strike to take stronger action against the friendly Lao forces.

Mr. Ware said that his staff had recommended against the strike because of the political drawbacks. However, on the basis of a conversation that morning with Secretary Laird, he thought it would be advisable for Mr. Kissinger to talk to Laird before a decision was made. Mr. Kissinger said he had talked with Laird that morning and understood his position.

[Page 544]

Mr. Karamessines said that CIA favored the strike but with accompanying diplomatic initiatives to minimize its escalatory effect. Mr. Kissinger pointed out that there was no time to take any diplomatic action. Mr. Karamessines went on to say that a strike was desirable to preserve the capabilities of friendly forces in Laos, particularly Vang Pao's Meo troops, and to bolster the morale of Souvanna's Government.

Mr. Kissinger summed up the problem as one of determining the military effectiveness and the political implications of a strike. From a political standpoint, we had to consider that a strike might give the enemy a pretext for stepping up its military campaign. On the other hand, if we failed to strike, the enemy could misinterpret our inaction as a sign of weakness.

Mr. Kissinger then asked about the effect which a B–52 strike might have on North Vietnamese objectives. Would it cause them to delay their attack? Did their build-up indicate that they had already decided to launch an offensive? Would they publicize the attack?

Mr. Moore said it was possible but not certain that a strike would delay an enemy attack. Mr. Green pointed out that the Plaine des Jarres is not the key area, since we know the communists have the capability to occupy it. What is of critical importance is that they not attack the area around Sam Thong and Long Tieng. While they might in any event attack beyond the Plaines des Jarres, a B–52 strike could stir up a hornet's nest and cause the communists to step up their offensive. It is important that we try to continue the delicate balance between communist and friendly forces which has been maintained over the years in Laos. Coming on top of the recent Vang Pao offensive in the Plaine des Jarres, a B–52 strike will convince the communists that we do not want to maintain the 1962 settlement. Mr. Green again emphasized that the area in question was enemy controlled territory, and that we could consider stronger measures such as B–52 strikes if the enemy forces got closer to regions controlled by our friends.

Mr. Moore added that it was also important to consider the signal we will give to Souvanna. It was in our interest to influence his government in the direction of political action rather than military measures.

Mr. Karamessines reiterated the importance of supporting Souvanna and the Meos, who constituted the only friendly fighting force in Laos. We could not expect the North Vietnamese to negotiate. They wanted to destroy Vang Pao by taking the Plaines des Jarres and going on to Long Tieng. This would mean a defeat for us and leave us with a refugee problem.

Mr. Holdridge and Colonel Davis pointed out that the Plaines des Jarres target area was more lucrative than ones that had been hit with previous B–52 strikes in southern Laos.

[Page 545]

Mr. Kissinger directed that Mr. Holdridge collaborate with Mr. Moore in preparing a memorandum to the President setting forth the three options and listing agency views and arguments, as discussed at the meeting. Mr. Kissinger would recommend to the President that he talk with Secretary Laird before making a decision and that if the President was inclined to support a strike, he also consult in advance with Secretary Rogers. The memorandum should set forth the military argument for action and the two different political arguments—one favorable to a strike and the other opposed.

The Group then discussed the SNIE being prepared on the objectives of the North Vietnamese in Laos and their possible reactions to developments there.4 Mr. Karamessines noted that it was now proposed to delay completion of the study for an additional week. All agreed that the study was pertinent to the question at hand but that there was no way of completing it in time for it to be considered in connection with the President's decision on B–52 strikes.

Mr. Kissinger said that in considering the North Vietnamese reaction it was important to separate what they said in public from what they actually believed. Knowing about our Congressional problems, they would undoubtedly publicize any B–52 strike, and we might have to face the problem of how to deal with criticism from the Hill. However, the crucial question was how the communists would view a strike in terms of setting their future objectives in Laos. The key issue was whether a B–52 strike would increase or decrease the likelihood of a communist advance beyond the Plaine des Jarres. Mr. Green said this question would be argued either way.

Chinese Roadbuilding

Mr. Kissinger said the issue was primarily whether a blocking force should be placed below Muong Houn to prevent Chinese roadbuilding activities.

Mr. Moore added that there was also a question of the extent of U.S. involvement in any action that might be taken.

[Page 546]

In response to Mr. Kissinger's question Mr. Moore said that a decision was needed as soon as possible. Ambassador Godley had asked for a decision last week, and we have intelligence that Chinese survey teams are already moving south of Muong Houn.

The Group then discussed the forces which might be involved. Mr. Moore said that the Vietnam Ad Hoc group had concluded that a large 1,500 man force of CIA irregulars would create many problems and contribute little toward easing the situation. This proposal had been included primarily because it was suggested by Ambassador Godley. Admiral Johnson agreed that forces of this sort were not required and Mr. Green pointed out that it would take troops away from the defense of other areas.

At Mr. Kissinger's request Mr. Green outlined the rationale for taking some action in response to the Chinese roadbuilding campaign. The roadbuilding was in an area not traditionally controlled by either side. It affected a region close to Thailand. It also provided the Chinese an opportunity to increase their influence with the Pathet Lao.

Mr. Moore explained the option preferred by the Laos Ad Hoc Group. This called for hit-and-run commando attacks which would demonstrate opposition to the roadbuilding but avoid the risk of getting into a real battle involving the Chinese. In response to Mr. Kissinger's question Mr. Moore and Admiral Johnson said that the objective was not to make a stand in the area but merely to discourage the roadbuilding activity.

Mr. Karamessines said that the CIA favored the commando operation.

Mr. Green noted that a small initiative would help to keep the situation under control and reduce the risk that Souvanna might provoke a clash with the Chinese. He had already condoned a Lao Air Force strike in the area. Mr. Moore noted that Ambassador Godley wanted to utilize U.S. Air Force strikes to back up the commando activity.

Mr. Ware raised the question of Thai concern about the road-building, and Admiral Johnson noted that Ambassador Unger had advocated making some response. Mr. Green said that the Thai ought to help out; however, Mr. Karamessines pointed out that the Laos were not anxious to have the Thai in this region.

Mr. Kissinger concluded by saying that he would try to get a decision from the President in the next few days on what to do about the Chinese roadbuilding.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–002, WSAG Minutes, Originals, 1969–1970. Secret; Nodis. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room. Robert Behr of the NSC staff sent these minutes to Kissinger under cover of a memorandum of February 23; that memorandum indicates Kissinger saw the minutes on March 27. (Ibid.) Copies of the minutes were also sent to U. Alexis Johnson, Nutter, Karamessines, and Vice Admiral Johnson.
  2. The memorandum was apparently not prepared because of opposition from Rogers and the President's unavailability; see Document 183 and Kissinger, White House Years, pp. 451–452.
  3. See Document 174.
  4. Reference is to SNIE 58–70, “The Communist View of the Situation in Laos,” February 5, which concluded: “Hanoi almost certainly wants to establish hegemony over Laos, but subordinates this goal to its higher priority interest in establishing its control over South Vietnam”; Moscow and Beijing realized that their influence on Hanoi's policy in Laos was limited; stepped up PL/NVN military activity during 1968–1969 was to counter US-supported RLG military initiatives and to prepare for any settlement in Laos; Hanoi wished “to preserve the symbolic authority of the 1962 settlement”; and finally, during the next few months Hanoi would try to recapture the Plain of Jar and eliminate Vang Pao and his forces, thereby forcing Laos to accept a settlement which would halt U.S. bombing in Laos. (Central Intelligence Agency, NIC Files, Job 79–R1012A, NIEs and SNIEs.)