194. Minutes of the National Security Council Meeting1
- The President
- Vice President Agnew
- Secretary of State Rogers
- Secretary of Defense Laird
- Attorney General Mitchell
- CIA Director Helms
- Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Wheeler
- Henry A. Kissinger
- Bryce Harlow
- William Watts
RN—I want to run through the Laos situation. We must think about the best way to present what we are doing. We may have to leak some information, but we have a good story to tell.
When the leaders of the Veterans groups were in the office the other day, they asked about Laos. I told them it all began in 1962 with the Accords which were violated as soon as they were signed. North Vietnam encroached into the area, and the Ho Chi Minh trail runs right through Laos. I said we had to be concerned over the possibility of an overrun. I have said we will [not] put in troops.
Kissinger—Not “will not”, but “have not”.[Page 639]
RN—There are no present plans to put in troops.
Rogers—No plans, but if needed we would want to get Congressional approval.
Laird—Concerning ground forces, we do insert some from time to time on the Ho Chi Minh trail.
RN—That is all right. We bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail and we will continue to do so. I say that categorically.
(CIA Director Helms then gave his briefing (attached).2)
RN—Where is the 1962 demarcation line?
Helms—To the west of present battle lines. The farthest west they have gone is into Moung Suoi.
RN—When does the rainy season begin?
Helms—It is 2 or 3 months away.
Rogers—They usually leave then and execute a pull-back.
Helms—We were surprised last year by their tactics. Vang Pao was encircled. We did get weapons in to him.
RN—Was there much weapon loss for us?
Helms—Yes. But we destroyed the ammo. We fly matériel in with helicopters or light planes.
The enemy now seems to be probing for weaknesses rather than preparing for an all-out attack. They are bringing in long-range artillery.
RN—What does the Senate know about Vang Pao?
Helms—We have briefed since 1961, including such people as Admiral Felt and Ambassadors Parsons and Brown. CIA was ordered to terminate activities [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. The Meo’s observed restrictions placed on them. We did have case officers [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. The North Vietnamese did not comply with Articles II and IV, and on June 25, 1963, President Kennedy said to go back in.
RN—Have we lost anybody there?
Helms—Five CIA men have died; 4 in helicopters shot down and one by accident.
RN—The picture in the paper of the air base triggered public inquiry.
Helms—[less than 1 line of source text not declassified] There are 53 Americans there all the time, [1 line of source text not declassified] in Vientiane.
Rogers—Has there been an increase in sorties?[Page 640]
RN—Where was the 25% reduction in air activity undertaken?
Laird—It has been cut down in Northern Laos. The monthly sortie rate has gone up as follows:
Rogers—This is the figure the Senate is most interested in.
RN—Why has it gone up?
Helms—The North Vietnamese upped their personnel.
Laird—Our priorities are as follows: first priority is against in-country Vietnamese; second priority is against the Ho Chi Minh trail; third priority is in support of the efforts of the Plaine de Jarres. Our in-country needs have gone down.
RN—That coincides with the bombing halt.
Rogers—But we stepped up again at the time the Plaine de Jarres was taken by us. That time we went farther.
Laird—Bill (Rogers) has a point. We did go farther than ever before.
Rogers—Yes, we escalated. At least that is what our opponents say.
Helms—But last year the enemy made a major mistake.
Rogers—Do you think the enemy could take Laos?
Helms—There is an uncertain equilibrium, and it hinges on the political situation.
Mitchell—But they have put more troops in.
Rogers—We have increased our sortie rate.
Helms—They have a major frustration over developments in Vietnam.
Rogers—They would hope to put enough heat on Souvanna to put a stop on bombing on the Ho Chi Minh trail.
RN—We don’t have to stop. Do we bomb only with Laotian approval? I don’t care what they say.
Wheeler—We have agreements with Souvanna on rules of engagement. Souvanna says the Ho Chi Minh trail is North Vietnamese controlled, which gives us a free hand.
Laird—If Souvanna asks us to stop, we don’t have to. But the squawks here are great. We could knock off Dick Helms’ operation, plus air operation.
I think Congress will concentrate on Laos this year.[Page 641]
RN—Where do we go for funds?
Helms—Senators Russell and Young decide.3
RN—That is no problem.
Laird—But Russell doesn’t know how long he can work this way.
RN—If the Royal Laotian Government crumbles, the Thais would be psychopathic. Concerning the trail, we will continue to hit it. The Thais wanted us to send guerrillas in. There is no problem about getting into a deeper involvement in Laos. Who wants to defend it anyway. But if we move to include the Thais, then that is a real problem.
Rogers—Under the SEATO Accords, we can go the defense of Laos through the constitutional process.
RN—It would never get through the Senate.
Rogers—I am not worried about defending the Thais.
Laird—They are not strong enough to do it.
Rogers—Why do we always support people who can’t defend themselves?
Laird—You can’t get the Thai army to move very far from Bangkok.
Wheeler—They have weak junior leaders in the military.
RN—Where do we stand?
Rogers—We are heading to a serious problem with Congress. They are looking for an issue, and this is it. They see in it a repetition of Vietnam. A replay in escalation is occurring. Our sorties have been doubled. B–52 strikes have taken place. We look as if we are supporting at all costs, but we have refused to make anything public. We need some kind of testimony by the Administration, which is complete.
RN—But what the critics say is dishonest. How many advisers do we have in Laos?
Helms—It is not that simple. [1 line of source text not declassified]
Laird—The U.S. military has 229 people.
Rogers—Have any Green Berets been rehired?
Helms—There are 15 ex-Berets, under 2-year contract. But they are not Green Berets, they are not sheep dip.
Rogers—We have refused to make anything public on air sorties.
Laird—But the President did talk about that in November and December.
Rogers—That only applied to the Ho Chi Minh trail.[Page 642]
The Committee proposes to make a major confrontation. They are placing it on the ground of Executive privilege versus congressional authority. How about the air sorties? How can I defend keeping this secret?
Do we gain by failing to make this public? [1 line of source text not declassified] But we are running into a credibility problem.
Mitchell—If you get a statement out, will that turn off Symington?
Rogers—No. He would just release more testimony.
Mitchell—But that just opens Pandora’s box. The testimony must come out of the Executive branch.
Rogers—This can go out of the testimony. They always have been concerned over Executive privilege.
Laird—There has been only one B–52 strike on the Plaine. We hit the Ho Chi Minh trail every day.
Whatever we do, it will not quiet the people on Laos. How we handle this is a major issue of credibility of this Administration.
I see 7 or 8 ways to handle things:
- Let Symington release it. This would look like the Committee smoked it out.
Have a State backgrounder, or even on the record.
Rogers—You can’t try to resist Symington and Fulbright and yet leak the story. That would lead to a real fight.
Laird—That depends on how much you give. It didn’t necessarily help to talk about the Ho Chi Minh trail.
- Brief selected members of Congress. This is no good since they all know anyway.
- Continue to hard-line.
- Issue a new government statement, as a follow-up to the Presidential speeches of December and January.
- Make a new statement, plus a backgrounder which could be done by State or Henry.
- Let the Royal Laotian Government put out a statement first and then we follow-up.
Rogers—If we go along the lines of #7, that would be a catastrophe.
Laird—We could announce something together.
Honestly, I only like #5. I think we need a new statement. I have several suggested drafts. I am not concerned about quieting interest on Laos but on our credibility.
Rogers—I agree—just as we were successful in Vietnam when the President came out publicly. So if we tell a good story here it will quiet down. Why hide everything?
Laird—I agree. We should come out. We can point to this as an adjunct to the war in Vietnam—part of helping the overall situation.[Page 643]
RN—I did imply that in December; now we must get it out. We can’t have testimony saying CIA is involved. [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]
Rogers—I can get by without mentioning CIA.
Helms—[less than 1 line of source text not declassified]
Laird—One unit is ready to go.
Rogers—We can get Souvanna to say he asked for them, and that this was done at his request.
RN—Yes, to uphold the Geneva Accords.
Rogers—And I can say we have no combat troops there.
RN—We have [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] advisors.
Kissinger—Do we have advisors with the Royal Laotian Government?
RN—[less than 1 line of source text not declassified] military men, but none have been in combat and none killed.
Wheeler—We did lose some crew at a radar station.4 [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]
Helms—I am not sure about that.
Rogers—I think we can get the Committee to go along with sorties, [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. When a release is made the President can make a policy statement. He can point to no escalation.
Kissinger—I see two problems. First, what should we make public? Second, what about the material the Symington Committee has?
On the Symington Committee release, we can make a deal with the air sorties kept in, but the critics will keep after the CIA story. Others will go after it as well.
Laird—We have other committees who already know about it. We must go with an Administration statement.
Rogers—That is no problem; we can work this out with Congress.
Laird—But don’t give sortie levels.
Rogers—I thought you said that was okay.
Laird—No. The number business is dangerous.
Rogers—We shouldn’t do this on a background basis. We should go to the committees openly, and be forthright.
RN—Who goes first? I think we should go first. We don’t want to give an impression that we were withholding something. This has been going on for 6 years.[Page 644]
Harlow—To the degree the Committee report can be sanitized, you should go talk with the Committee.
Rogers—Symington knows everything.
Laird—The Symington Committee should not have all that.
Harlow—Symington is up for reelection and he will keep after this. So will Fulbright who is sure you preempted the Vietnam issue with your speech.
The major interest is on the ground and CIA. Symington is giving the impression of an enormous covert effort, on the edge of becoming a new Vietnam.
You could say to Symington that we will give you the most sanitized version within national security interests. We can’t go further, in fairness to your colleagues. But Symington wants a confrontation with the President.
He brought up with me at lunch the issue of the Philippines [less than 1 line of source text not declassified].
Laird—I see Symington embarrassed by having this conversation laid on the table. He is all bent out of shape.
RN—Of course, we will continue to talk. If we do something, we must get our story out. If the Symington Committee goes out first, that is an insult to the other committees.
Mitchell—Again, the credibility gap.
RN—We must lay it out. We will not disclose CIA activities. On sortie rates, I think people are more worried about ground involvement.
Laird—It costs $2 billion, including Northern Laos and the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Rogers—Why do you refuse to tell the sortie rate?
Helms—Why not admit bombing Northern Laos at the request of Souvanna.
Laird—For a long time Souvanna did not want that.
Rogers—But that has changed now. What do I say when we assert Executive privilege?
Kissinger—You are not claiming Executive privilege, but the national interest.
Rogers—It is the same thing.
Mitchell—On the sortie rate question, why do you need the number?
Mitchell—Can’t you say that we increased when Souvanna asked, because of the increase of North Vietnamese troops.[Page 645]
Harlow—I assumed there was a military reason for not giving sortie numbers.
Laird—We can announce daily rates.
RN—When Souvanna came here I was told not to announce sortie rates.
Helms—State didn’t want it done. They felt this would embarrass Souvanna and might bring the Soviets in, claiming violation of the Accords.
Rogers—We could work that out. We could announce something with Souvanna.
Helms—We have deliberately held news of the increased North Vietnamese troops quiet.
Laird—The cost has gone up from $500 million to $2 billion during this Administration. But we can ride that out.
Kissinger—We can take a position which could include the following points:
- Assert that North Vietnamese troops are there and admit that our own activity is underway.
- There has been escalation from the other side.
- Enormous pressure has come on Souvanna.
- But the focus of attention will shift to ground operations, and a fear that we are going to war through CIA.
We must stress we are trying to negotiate a settlement in Vietnam. With respect to the public, we need to keep a low level.
With respect to Hanoi, we need ambiguity. I worry about too much explicitness. We should tell the story. Show a good reason, but with restraint.
Rogers—I agree with most of that. But this was done in the Vietnam speech. The statement must be made by the President.
Harlow—This all makes sense. We should preempt the area. It should be brief.
Laird—I have some draft suggestions.
Mitchell—What about the bombing on the Chinese road?
Wheeler—That was not done. You could say with assurance that there is no use of ground troops in Laos.
RN—There are no ground forces, and there will be none without going to Congress. That takes care of North Vietnam, Congress, and the public.
Wheeler—You can’t defend Laos from Laos. You must go to North Vietnam to do that and you must go in through Thailand.
RN—I agree. That is insane.
Wheeler—There were proposals earlier to put troops in the panhandle. I was opposed.[Page 646]
RN—Laos is a country where there are more elephants than people. There are 2 million elephants and 1-1/2 million people. That is one country where the Republicans are in the majority.
Rogers—I can delay testifying until next week.
RN—I want to think about this over the weekend. We should make a statement next week. A backgrounder won’t work—it looks tricky. On the Committee business, if we give to Symington the others will be damned mad. They have kept quiet in the past. The method is either to bite, or respond to questions.
Rogers—How about five minutes on television?
RN—I could go on at night. But that would spread to 70 million people what only 10 million people are worried about. I could give a 5 minute statement in the middle of the day—low-key.
Should I make it live like the withdrawal statement?
Harlow—This is not that kind of an issue.
RN—We must line up the troops. We must write in a simply way. There is a lot of confusion on this. I don’t want any questions left.
What about Souvanna?
Rogers—I can let him know.
RN—I was going to have a press conference Monday. Now I won’t.
All of you please try your hand at talking points, and let me have them by the first of next week, by Monday p.m. Set forth the points I should make and the points I should avoid.5
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–109, NSC Minutes, Originals, 1970. Top Secret. Apparently drafted by Watts. Talking points for Nixon and Kissinger for this meeting are ibid., NSC Meeting Folder, Feb. 27, 1970.↩
- Not attached.↩
- Senator Richard B. Russell (D-Georgia) and Senator Stephen M. Young (D-Ohio).↩
- Eleven “contract” employees were killed at the radar and navigation site 85 at Phou Pha Thi, Laos, in March 1968 when it was captured by the North Vietnamese. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XXVIII, Document 342.↩
- On March 6 the White House released from Key Biscayne, Florida, a “Statement About the Situation in Laos.” The text is in Public Papers: Nixon, 1970, pp. 244–249; see also Document 197.↩