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

SUBJECT

  • National Security Council Meeting to Consider Public Posture on Laos

The National Security Council is meeting at 4:00 p.m. on February 272 to consider what our public posture should be on Laos in order to meet growing demands on the Hill and among the people for a [Page 634]full explanation of the U.S. role in Laos.3 State has proposed that it be authorized to accede to the request by Senator Symington for public release of the censored part of the testimony on Laos which was delivered in executive session before his Subcommittee.4 Secretary Rogers believes that this step would ease the pressures to which State has been subjected by Senators Symington, Fulbright, and others on the Hill over our role in Laos, and also would be desirable in putting our actions in Laos in a good light before the American people.

The Problem

So long as the Communists in Laos were willing to let the political and military balance in Laos remain roughly what it was when the 1962 Geneva Accords were signed, i.e., a standoff in Northern Laos between neutralist Prime Minister Souvanna and the Lao Government forces on the one hand against the Communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces on the other, with Hanoi controlling the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Laos was not the major issue for U.S. policy which it is today. Our bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail with Souvanna's consent was regarded domestically as essentially being part of the Vietnam war.

However, when the Communist's dry season offensive of 1969 in Northern Laos pushed beyond areas traditionally held by them and began to threaten the old political and military balance, both our involvement and public and Congressional attention went up. At Souvanna's request we greatly increased our tactical air strikes in the North in support of his forces, and this aid helped materially in the success of Vang Pao's counterattack in 1969, which captured the Plain of Jars. With the current Communist offensive to retake the Plain, our air strikes have increased still further, and have included B–52 as well as tacair strikes. (This air support is running at a rate of over $500 million annually.) We have helped Souvanna not only to prevent hostile forces [Page 635]from gaining control of the Lao Government and possibly forcing a halt in our bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but to preserve Souvanna's legitimate neutralist government established by the Geneva Accords and maintain it as a buffer between Thailand and Communist subversion originating in North Vietnam. These actions have been misinterpreted—deliberately or otherwise—as pointing to another U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia like that in Vietnam, which the Administration is trying to cover up despite the “right” of the American people to know. The B–52 strikes and news stories about armed Americans in civilian clothes aiding the Lao Government troops have blown the issue up to major proportions.

The real issue in Laos is entirely related to Vietnam:

  • —There is no question but that the North Vietnamese can overrun Laos at any point in time that they care to, providing they are willing to pay the political and psychological costs of upsetting the 1962 Accords.
  • —Should North Vietnam overrun Laos, our whole bargaining with respect to the Vietnam conflict would be undermined. In fact, if North Vietnamese military operations in Laos succeed to the point that Souvanna believes he must succumb to their influence in order to survive, we could then anticipate that he would refuse to permit us to continue our interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and thus our military operations in South Vietnam would be catastrophically damaged.
  • —These are the fundamental considerations with all the rest amounting to balderdash. It is probably these fundamental points which are recognized by our domestic Vietnam war critics.

The Meeting

Your purpose at the meeting will be to listen to the points of view of the principals on how we should best handle the problem of dealing with the Congress and the public, and to approve a specific procedure. I suggest that you begin by explaining your reasons for calling the meeting and what you hope to achieve. You might then:

  • —Call on CIA Director Helms for a brief intelligence assessment of the situation in Laos;
  • —Follow this by calling on Secretary Laird for a similar briefing on our military operations;
  • —Ask me to review the issues and the options with respect to public information policy;
  • —Ask Secretary Rogers to explain just what would be released if State handled it;
  • —Call on the principals for their opinions;
  • —If you desire, end the meeting by going over some of the broader policy issues which are at stake in Laos. I will be prepared to review the principal issues.

[Page 636]

The Issues

  • —State regards the release of the Symington Subcommittee testimony as being the simplest way to do this. We might kill two birds with one stone: placate Symington, Fulbright, et al, and show the public what we are really doing.
  • —On the other hand, it is doubtful whether the release of the sensitive parts of the testimony will placate the Senators. They know what is going on in Laos, and why. The executive sessions have given them all this. Their purpose is to undermine existing commitments. Release of the Laos testimony would help serve this purpose, since the testimony was slanted in directions desired by the Committee.
  • —Releasing the testimony would help North Vietnam to document its case that we are violating the Geneva Accords, without admitting that it is violating them, and thus seriously undermine the real basis for our action. It would also make it more difficult for the Soviets to preserve their present relatively friendly posture towards the RLG.
  • —If the transcript is released uncensored, much of the work of the White House coordinating apparatus that you set up in your decision of November 6,5 which has worked so effectively, will be undone. This would make future Symington hearings such as the upcoming NATO hearings vastly more difficult to control.
  • —Furthermore, by giving in on Laos, the Administration's stand on not releasing sensitive parts of the proceedings would be eroded with respect to other countries. We might be opening a real Pandora's box of problems for ourselves, not only domestically, but in our relations with other countries. Our good faith in preserving the sanctity of international agreements could no longer be trusted, and the usefulness of the diplomats who negotiated them would be compromised. I am particularly concerned over the reaction of the Thai, who already question our commitment to them.
  • —If we passively agree to publish this sensitive material, our private assurances to foreign governments that Fulbright's actions do not bind the U.S. Government lose all credibility.
  • —Finally, the passive action of releasing the sensitive material does not give us an opportunity to control the coverage given by the news media. The materials will simply be used to give whatever slant its users desire. We should get whatever public relations credit there is, not the Foreign Relations Committee.
[Page 637]

The Options, Pro and Con

Basically, the options boil down to releasing the sensitive testimony, or finding some other way of getting our message to the public if this is accepted as being desirable. We might arrange a press back-grounder, either by State or the White House, or alternatively arrange private, sensitive briefings of Administration supporters on the Hill who might then help to defend the Administration's position. A review of the options follows:

1.

Releasing the testimony

Pro:

—Might help to ease Congressional and public criticism of the Administration over Laos.

Con:

—Would involve the many disadvantages inherent in the issues outlined above.

2.

Arranging for a press backgrounder

A.

By State

Pro:

—Would allow us to control what is said, and how, without releasing sensitive information.

—Would preserve State's primary role in handling the Laos issue before the Congress and the public.

Con:

—Would not satisfy Senatorial criticism.

B.

By the White House

Pro:

—Would allow us to control what is said, and how, without releasing sensitive information.

Con:

—Would bring the White House directly into the controversy before the lines are completely drawn.

—Would focus Senatorial criticism on the White House, which so far has not been the case.

3.

Arranging for private briefings of designated supporters

Pro:

—Would allow our case to be made most fully on the basis of sensitive information.

[Page 638]

Con:

—We could not be assured that the help of supporters would be sufficient to overcome the publicity accorded the critics of our Laos policy.

Talking points for your use at the meeting are attached (Tab A).6

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 101, Vietnam Subject Files, President's March Statement on Laos—Background/Miscellaneous. Top Secret; Sensitive. Sent for action. A note on the memorandum reads: “ret'd 3–2.”
  2. On February 26 at 9:35 a.m., Laird and Kissinger discussed the problems of U.S. covert operations in Laos. Laird told Kissinger, “It's in my budget whether it's CIA or Defense. I have to defend it.” Laird reported that he had informed the House Foreign Affairs Committee about operations in Laos: “—they know the past and everything in Helms' operation but they were really shocked about the increased raids in the north. It shakes them to the bottom of their feet. You know the problem there.” Laird doubted there would be any leaks from the House Committee, but he could not say the same for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and he feared that the Department of State had already informed them about the operations. Kissinger stated: “If Souvanna should ask us to stop the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is not in his best interests, we are in trouble.” Kissinger suggested a backgrounder to Republican Senators, but Laird suggested that “the whole thing is pretty much in the open” and that the Nixon administration had increased bombing sorties over Laos by 400 percent over the Johnson administration. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 362, Telephone Conversations, 1969–1976, Chronological File)
  3. See Document 194.
  4. U.S. Senate, 91st Congress, 1st session, 1969, U.S. Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on U.S. Security Arrangements and Commitments Abroad, Hearings on United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad, Kingdom of Laos, Part 2, October 20, 22, 28, 1969.
  5. The Ad Hoc Committee on Laos was established on December 6, 1969. The December 6 memorandum from Kissinger to Rogers, Laird, and Helms announcing the creation and describing the membership and responsibilities of the group is in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 LAOS.
  6. Attached but not printed.