174. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1
- Lao Request for US Support for
Operation Against Chinese Road Building
Prime Minister Souvanna and the King have been pressing us to use CIA-sponsored guerrilla forces to take action against Chinese road building activity in Laos which appears intended to extend a motorable road from Muong Houn in north-central Laos to Pak Beng on the Mekong (see map at Tab A).2 This road already extends from the Chinese border to Muong Houn. The Lao, and also the Thai, are greatly concerned over the possibility that the Communists could use the road to move strong forces to the line of the Mekong. If the Communists should do so, not only would they improve greatly their strategic position in Laos, their penetration of strategic areas of Northern Thailand where Communist subversion is already a serious problem would be facilitated. The Thai, of course, are greatly concerned. Ambassador Godley in Vientiane has supported in principle Souvanna’s request that something be done. The RLG itself does not have units which could effectively carry out this sort of operation.
The problem is complicated due to the fact that in 1962 the Lao Government asked for Chinese assistance in building roads, and Souvanna himself indicated in 1968 that he could see no basic objection to Chinese construction of a road that went from the Chinese border no further than Muong Houn. Aerial photography has now picked up survey activity south of Muong Houn, and Souvanna wants to move now. He has already sanctioned a Lao air strike against the road north of Muong Houn, and has repeatedly urged us to support him in establishing a blocking position on the ground between Muong Houn and Pak Beng. (We have urged him to make no more air strikes for the time being.)
- Inserting a 1,500 man force, drawn primarily from irregulars but also including Lao army units, to control the area between Muong Houn and Pak Beng; tactical air support would be with Lao air force T–28s, but USAF tactical aircraft might be required if the force were challenged. Air America would provide aircraft, but there would be no American advisors on the ground.
- Mounting small scale hit-and-run guerrilla operations to strike at facilities or personnel or mine the construction area south of Muong Houn; air support again would be with Lao air force T–28s.
- Option 2a, with the addition of USAF tactical air support on enemy targets south of Muong Houn.
- No military action but inducing the Lao to undertake a political initiative against the road.
Option 1 is what Souvanna wants. Its advantage would be that it would show firmness of purpose and might at least temporarily stop the Chinese due to the increased military effort they would need to deal with it. It would also improve our relations with the Lao and Thai. However, it risks a confrontation with China, would create a second front of some magnitude, might be interpreted by the enemy as US opposition to a political settlement since the territory is considered by the Communists to be on “their side” of the 1962 line, and most importantly, would draw manpower and resources away from the critical Plain of Jars front which the Lao cannot spare. The force would not be large enough to block a really determined effort by the other side to push on.
Option 2a is a compromise proposal. Its advantages are that it would signal opposition to road construction beyond Muong Houn, would require only a moderate investment of resources, and would minimize US involvement. Lao forces needed elsewhere would be less affected. It would have most of the advantages of Option 1, including satisfying the Lao and Thai. Its disadvantages are that its size would definitely be inadequate to stop a really determined effort and the Lao air force support might be both insufficient and uncontrollable in terms of where they bombed (e.g. north of Muong Houn, which we want to avoid).
Option 2b would have the advantage of providing adequate and controllable air support. On the other hand, it would increase US involvement in a new area in Laos and would have the potential for bringing a direct US-Chinese confrontation.
Option 3 would underline the US and Lao desire for a political rather than a military solution and might advance the opening of political talks. Its disadvantages are that it would neither satisfy the Lao [Page 551] and Thai nor deter the Communists, who might read it as a sign of weakness. Moreover, Souvanna might then take action on his own which could have adverse political and military repercussions.
(At Tab B is a paper submitted to the WSAG by the Interagency Ad Hoc Group on Laos which outlines the options and issues in greater detail.)4
The WSAG on balance decided to support Option 2a. A deciding factor was Souvanna’s urgent desire for help and determination to go ahead without us in its absence; in fact he has said that unless he hears from us in 48 hours he will take action on his own. In view of his lack of ground forces, this would probably mean stepped-up attacks by Lao T–28s against the Chinese north of Muong Houn. I believe that Option 2a is the best of the courses open to us in view of the desirability of deterring the Communists on another front, or at least forcing them to reveal more of their intentions, and of reassuring the Lao and the Thai that we will stand by them against a threat which to them is very real. Moreover, the Lao resources would not be strained and our own role would be minimal. The risk of a US-Chinese confrontation would not be very great. Our contribution would be to provide a helicopter lift for the guerrillas and to airlift supplies. We of course have no assurance that Option 2a would be sufficient to cope with the situation, but we stand to delay a further extension of the road and learn more of Chinese, North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao objectives.
That you authorize the adoption of Option 2a, as outlined above.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Files, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–071, WSAG Meeting, Laos, January 26, 1970. Secret; Sensitive. Sent for action.↩
- Attached but not printed.↩
- See Document 172.↩
- The paper was attached to a January 24 covering memorandum from Moore to Kissinger. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–071, WSAG Meeting, Laos, January 26, 1970)↩
- The President wrote “2b” on the approval line. Kissinger informed Laird, Rogers, and Helms of Nixon’s decision in a February 5 memorandum, and on behalf of the President directed that the operation should be undertaken provided the Royal Lao Government was willing “to put on record, in a form that the United States Government may cite as necessary,” that there was no outstanding request by the Royal Lao Government for road construction by the Chinese. (Ibid.)↩