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181. Memorandum From the President's Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • Current Hanoi Intentions In Laos

My staff has developed the following estimate of current North Vietnamese intentions in Laos:

Military: The Communists will certainly try to retake the Plain of Jars, whose recent capture by General Vang Pao's Meo Forces they considered an incursion into “their” territory. They may also try to move against Van Vieng, the headquarters of Premier Souvanna Phouma's neutralist forces, so as to install their own “neutralists” there. They may even try to move close to the royal capital Luang Prabang and perhaps Vientiane to increase their pressure on the King and the Lao Government. We doubt that they would make a massive push to the Mekong River, which would involve too high a political risk and probably also too high a military price.

An important Communist objective, beyond territorial gains, is to crush the Meo Forces or at least to inflict such staggering losses that the Meo can be disregarded as a military factor for a long time. Hanoi also wants to punish the Meo enough so that they will not again presume to venture into Communist-held areas. With the Meo out of the military picture, and the pro-Souvanna neutralists also nullified, Souvanna's military strength would be greatly eroded.

The timing of the Communist offensive is still unclear. Their main attack yesterday was against the Xieng Khouang airfield, and may have been intended to prevent the King from landing there as planned. (He instead went to Vang Pao's headquarters.) The Communists also took advantage of low cloud cover which hampered tactical air. Thus we still cannot be sure whether yesterday's action heralded a massive sharp push or whether the Communists will develop their attack over a period of time, in accordance with meteorological and political considerations.

Political: Hanoi's principal political purpose is probably to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Souvanna Phouma. If the Meo and the [Page 568]neutralist forces can be badly defeated or even decimated, Souvanna and his government may want very much to reach an accommodation which would save what is left. At that point, Souvanna might be ready to ask for a U.S. bombing halt in the panhandle in exchange for Communist promises to relent. The bombing in southern Laos benefits us more than Souvanna, and the Communists would try to take advantage of that divergence of interests.

Political considerations might help force the Communists to exercise some restraint. If they move too far they might risk a massive U.S. air reaction in Laos and perhaps U.S. military moves in Thailand. This would tend to make Souvanna more dependent on us and might encourage him to hold on.

Negotiations Front: We do not believe the Communists now want to negotiate a new agreement on Laos. They will probably not want a separate Lao accord before Vietnam has been settled. But the Communists may hope that military pressure can persuade Souvanna to accept some “understanding” under which the Communist hold on the Lao Government structure would be increased without revising the 1962 Geneva Accords.

With regard to the United States, Communist actions would be intended to warn us that we cannot get peace in Southeast Asia without dealing with Hanoi. Even though Vietnamization may ease our problems in Vietnam, it cannot help us in Laos.

Problems for Hanoi: All this is not so simple as it sounds. There is evidence that even the North Vietnamese forces in Laos, which used to sweep up the battlefield against Government forces whenever they entered into action, are not quite what they used to be. (This is also true in South Vietnam.) They are younger, less well trained, and less well led. Recent reports indicate that some units were very demoralized by tactical air raids against their positions. General Vang Pao's Meo Forces are tried but tough. This does not mean that Hanoi cannot achieve many and perhaps all its military objectives. But the action may well not be as easy as they would wish, particularly if the weather permits a sustained tactical air effort in support of Vang Pao.2

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 546, Country Files, Far East, Laos, Vol. IV, 1 February 1970–31 March 1970. Secret. According to an attached undated note from Haig to Kissinger, Smyser prepared this estimate of North Vietnam's current intention with regard to Laos.
  2. In a February 12 memorandum to the President, Kissinger responded to Nixon's request for a report on air drops of food and material in Laos. Kissinger summarized two attached papers by CIA on “Food Drops in Laos” and “Air America Operations in Laos.” Nixon wrote the following comment on the summary of Air America Operations: “K. Sounds like a good operation—unless the amount of good is less than the obviously very heavy cost of the program.” (Ibid.)