177. Memorandum for the President’s File1


  • Early-Afternoon Meeting in the President’s Office with Ross Perot (12:45–1:35 p.m.)

Ross Perot entered the President’s office by way of Dwight Chapin’s office. The President got up from his desk, came forward and shook Ross’s hand, then suggested that all of us take seats near the fire.

[Page 558]

The President opened the discussion right away and for some 10–12 minutes told Ross how valuable he thought his recent (Christmas season) round-the-world trip had been. He said that even though food and other goods had not been delivered to U.S. prisoners of war in Hanoi, in his opinion the publicity which had been given to the trip was well worth the $600,000 spent. He said, too, that Ross could be proud of his post-trip press conference and talk-show performances. Then, before Ross could speak, the President went on to comment about the views he knew Ross held on the Federal government’s current activities to relieve the plight of U.S. prisoners. He said that he agreed with Ross that we could probably do much more than we are doing.2 He said, too, that he could well understand Ross’s surprise at the calibre of some of the members of the International Red Cross teams. Reiterating his continued interest in resolving the POW dilemma, the President said he felt that a separate team, or organization, was needed—something independent of, or at least detached from, the State Department.3

Then Ross reviewed the highlights of his trip to Southeast Asia and Copenhagen … and just started to outline the kind of plan he thinks will promote some action when the telephone next to the President rang. It was John Ehrlichman calling on another matter (Secretary Hardin’s memo on farm policy). The President talked to John for 3 or 4 minutes—then excused himself and went back to his small office sitting room for another 8–10 minutes. When he returned he asked Ross to go on with his action plan concept.

Ross spoke of the value of actions teams and described such a team thusly: a group made up of very few people, all of whom have past [Page 559] records indicating one outstanding success after another …4 given a task … a deadline for completion … and no other duties. “This,” said Ross, “creates a ‘succeed or fail’ environment. It was this technique— this kind of environment—which was responsible for NASA’s putting a man on the moon. Frank Borman will vouch for that.”

Ross went on to tell how much good he thought action teams would be within the State Department—and within HEW. In fact, he said that he had talked to Bob Finch about the concept—about small teams, each concentrating on a major problem area—reviewing the issue, travelling out to the field and observing first-hand the conditions responsible for the problem, returning to hash out possible solutions, and finally reporting a recommended course of action (with valid alternatives) to the department Secretary. The President said that the principle was a good one.

Ross then returned to the POW topic and stated the opinion that the action team system would certainly do more than is being done to relieve the plight of U.S. prisoners. When he finished, the President thought for a moment—then said that a White House team, or at least a White House team director, should serve to make the priority on this matter more clear … not only to the Hanoi Government and the U.S. public, but our Departments of State and Defense as well. He told me to get from Henry Kissinger, without delay, two reports: one on all USPOW relief operations going on now in Laos (i.e. all covert and overt activities designed to “pick-up” or otherwise secure the freedom of captive persons) with some figures to show effort expended and successes achieved; and one bearing the same kind of information relative to South Vietnam. He said, too, that by February 15th he wants a game plan on how best to organize a White House team, the sole duty of which will be to work for:

  • —Impartial inspection of POW facilities
  • —Free exchange of mail and packages
  • —Release of a list of names of all known prisoners
  • —The earliest possible release of all prisoners.
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Although Frank Borman’s name was mentioned briefly as a candidate for the directorship of this team, no firm decisions were made.

The informal meeting adjourned, and Ross thanked the President for taking so much time with him on a Sunday afternoon. The President said it was good to see Ross again, and that he felt as though some very worthwhile things had been accomplished.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, Memoranda for the President, Box 2, 2/1/70. No classification marking. Drafted and initialed by Butterfield.
  2. On a January 31 briefing memorandum from Butterfield to the President, prepared for this meeting, Nixon wrote to Kissinger: “K note my notes. I am not satisfied with our governmental activities here. Have a quick study made & give me a new game plan for 1. Government & 2. private action. Let’s see some unconventional plans.” In his briefing memorandum Butterfield wrote that Perot had expressed surprise that since his return from his trip on which he had spent $600,000, “no one seems to be particularly concerned, grateful … or even curious.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 94, Vietnam Subject Files, Vietnam, U.S. POWs in North Vietnam to April 1970)
  3. In a February 3 memorandum to Kissinger, Butterfield stated: “the President has in mind the creation of a small White House group which will concern itself solely with matters pertinent to relieving the plight of American prisoners in Southeast Asia.” Butterfield added that Nixon envisaged “an action-oriented team—1, 3, 4, or 5-man unit to concentrate on all possible ways—conventional and unconventional—to bring to bear on the Hanoi government pressure sufficient to revert its view of American captives as an asset to one in which they are considered a liability.” According to Butterfield, Nixon wanted the unit to cut through red tape, move quickly into the field, and have as its objectives inspections of POW facilities, free exchange of mail, release of POWs’ names, release of sick and wounded POWs, and eventual release of all POWs. (Ibid.)
  4. On February 12 Kissinger responded to a request from the President for a report on previous operations in Laos and South Vietnam to free POWs. Kissinger summarized two attached reports, one by CIA on efforts in Laos and one by the Embassy in Vietnam on recovery operations in South Vietnam. In Laos, Kissinger described CIA intelligence efforts to locate and rescue U.S. POWs, but stated that the “results of all these efforts have been zero.” In South Vietnam, Kissinger reported that one POW was recovered, but he died from wounds inflicted by his guards. In both Laos and Vietnam, Kissinger reported that hundreds of Lao and Vietnamese POWs had been rescued. Nixon wrote the following comments: “K. 1. A tragic, frustrating operation. 2. Would a shake up—a new approach help? Possibly the present team is worn out & unimaginative?” (Ibid.)