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203. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1

SUBJECT

  • Laos and Cambodia

PARTICIPANTS

  • Henry A. Kissinger, Chairman
  • State
  • U. Alexis Johnson
  • Jonathan Moore
  • Marshall Green
  • Defense
  • G. Warren Nutter
  • Dennis Doolin
  • CIA
  • Thomas H. Karamessines
  • [name not declassified] (for briefing only)
  • [name not declassified] (for briefing only)
  • JCS
  • Vice Admiral Nels C. Johnson
[Page 686]
  • NSC Staff
  • John H. Holdridge
  • Col. Robert M. Behr
  • Keith Guthrie

SUMMARY OF CONCLUSIONS

In the context of the President's desire to have hard and soft options formulated, the WSAG discussed possible actions (including use of Thai troops and B–52 raids) which might be taken in Laos. It was agreed that an in-place cease-fire proposal might be included among the alternatives although it was recognized that a cease-fire could have serious disadvantages. Ambassador Godley is to be requested to submit to Washington his plans for evacuating the Thai Sierra Romeo unit from Long Tieng.2 Mr. Kissinger will discuss with the President the type of response to be made to Ambassador Godley's message urging use of additional Thai troops at Long Tieng.3 State will provide by the afternoon of March 19 scenarios for possible diplomatic actions in connection with developments in Laos and Cambodia.4

Mr. [name not declassified] briefed on Laos. Friendly troops in the Long Tieng area included the recently deployed Sierra Romeo IX Thai artillery battalion. Three special guerrilla units from southern Laos were being moved in as reinforcements. Continued control of the air strip was essential if an effective defense was to be maintained. The North Vietnamese were moving but did not yet have enough strength to make the friendly position in Long Tieng untenable. If the friendly forces could hold for a couple of days, Vang Pao might be able to regroup and make a good defense, particularly if the weather improved and some air support were possible. The North Vietnamese were unlikely to go beyond Long Tieng in the immediate future. They had no supply caches in the area and would need perhaps a month to consolidate their position and eliminate isolated outposts in the vicinity.

[Page 687]

Dr. Kissinger asked what the practical impact of the fall of Long Tieng would be. If it were merely a question of Vang Pao's morale, nothing had changed in the situation in northern Laos. Pointing out that Vang Pao's morale was an important factor, Mr. Karamessines said that if the Meos retreated across the Mekong to Sayaboury province, Souvanna's government would lose its only effective fighting force, and Souvanna would be in a less advantageous position in dealing with Souphanouvong. Mr. [name not declassified] pointed out that the North Vietnamese would be in a position to threaten some of the provincial capitals, and this might lead to a Lao attempt to appease them through some gesture such as requesting the US to halt bombing. In response to Mr. Kissinger's question, Mr. [name not declassified] said that Souvanna might request a bombing halt in northern Laos but would probably not seek a halt in the Panhandle area for fear of alienating US support for his regime.

Admiral Johnson raised the question of Long Tieng's location with regard to the 1962 line. Mr. Johnson observed that if the North Vietnamese intended to advance beyond the 1962 line, the route would not be through Long Tieng but along Route 7/13 toward northwest Laos. Mr. Karamessines pointed out that the North Vietnamese needed to eliminate Long Tieng because it was a threat to their flank, and Mr. [name not declassified] noted that once Long Tieng were neutralized there would be nothing to stop the North Vietnamese from moving northwest or south.

Mr. Moore asked when the rains would begin and what was likely to happen then. Mr. [name not declassified] replied that there were about two months of rain left. Mr. Green noted that various factors—supply problems, unfamiliar terrain, bad weather, and US bombing—might lead the North Vietnamese to pull back later on.

Mr. Kissinger asked why Thai units were being moved to Long Thieng at the same time the CIA station was being evacuated. He wondered about the consequences if any of the Thai were captured. Mr. Karamessines said [less than 1 line of source text not declassified], but that there certainly might be problems if some of them were captured. Evacuation could be difficult, since it depended on control of the airstrip and would require the use of “Sky Crane” type helicopters to move the artillery pieces. The Thai units would be useful in order to provide some show of resistance to the North Vietnamese.

Mr. [name not declassified] briefed on Cambodia and reported that the situation remained quiet with no evidence of dissidence among the regular army commanders. In answer to Mr. Kissinger's questions, he said that it seemed unlikely Sihanouk would be permitted to return.

Mr. Kissinger asked if a Communist insurgency similar to that in Laos might develop in Cambodia. Mr. Karamessines thought this possible but not probable because of the strength of nationalist sentiment [Page 688]against the Communists. Admiral Johnson suggested the North Vietnamese would not want to get involved in a war on two fronts in the south. Mr. Karamessines observed that the North Vietnamese would have no reason to mount an insurgency since they could continue to use Cambodia territory. Even if the Cambodians stopped cooperating with the Communists, the latter would find it difficult to retaliate because the Cambodians might enlist South Vietnamese assistance in suppressing Communist insurgents.

Mr. Moore asked about the new government's announcement that it would continue Cambodia's policy of neutrality. Mr. [name not declassified] said this indicated the new regime does not want a confrontation with the Communists right away. Mr. Moore observed that the Cambodians might put some restrictions on the Vietcong but would probably not go all the way. Mr. Green pointed out that the coup reflected basic underlying discontent in Cambodia. Though this was partly due to nationalist sentiment and concern about the Communists, it was also related to economic problems and Sihanouk's interference in the government process.

With the conclusion of the briefings, Mr. Kissinger opened discussion of US options in Laos. He said that the President wished to look at both hard and soft options. One course of action would be acquiescence in the present situation. We would see if the Communist advance loses momentum and would make general diplomatic efforts to stabilize the situation. We would continue our present support for the RLG but would not seek to increase Thai involvement, employ B–52's, or raise the Laotian question in Paris.

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Karamessines asked how the United States position would be affected if the North Vietnamese broke across the 1962 line. Mr. Kissinger said that the issue was not the line. Even if the North Vietnamese stop, they have upset the balance established in the Geneva accords. Mr. Green replied that this might not be true in absolute terms. The Meo have demonstrated their capacity to survive in the past and might re-emerge as a fighting force. In response to Mr. Kissinger's question, Mr. Karamessines agreed that if the Meos retreated to Sayaboury, they would be out of the war.

Mr. Moore said that was not the only option. The Meos could be relocated at other sites. Mr. Kissinger asked where the Meos were going now. Mr. Johnson replied they were moving south and southwest and none had reached Sayaboury.

Mr. Johnson said that because Vang Pao has suffered reverses, we are faced with the issue of letting him fall back from Long Tieng and trying to salvage as much as possible or trying to take a stand there. What can be salvaged from retreat is difficult to ascertain because it depends largely on psychological factors.

[Page 689]

Mr. Kissinger asked if we had much that we could put into a defense of Long Tieng. Mr. Johnson mentioned the Thai regimental combat team (RCT) advocated by Ambassador Godley.5 However, he noted that Ambassador Unger was bearish on using the RCT in Laos,6 and neither the Thai nor the Lao Government had approached us about this although we had a second-hand report that Souvanna was interested. Mr. Green pointed out that the RCT involved is the one designated in the Taksin Plan,7 and its employment might raise the question of US action under the Plan. He noted that Ambassador Unger thought the RCT would not be suitable for anti-guerrilla operations.

Mr. Kissinger said the situation in Laos posed three problems. The first was the military balance and whether the United States had any interest in this aspect by itself. The second was the impact on Hanoi. The President's threat to take necessary steps has something to do with North Vietnamese restraint in South Vietnam. Letting the Communists kick over the Geneva accords in Laos could have an opposite effect. Thirdly, there is the impact on Thailand and Cambodia. Mr. Johnson commented that reaction depends on how much we build Long Tieng up as a prestige factor.

Mr. Kissinger asked Mr. Karamessines if the Meos would in fact disintegrate. Mr. Karamessines replied that Vang Pao will do his utmost to hold the fragments of his forces together and to keep fighting while falling back so long as he feels he has backing, not just from the United States but also from Souvanna. Mr. Kissinger asked about the prospects for support from Souvanna, and Mr. Karamessines pointed out that in the last few days Souvanna had been providing some. Anything that the United States could do would also help. In answer to Admiral Johnson's question, Mr. Karamessines said that assurance of support was more important to Vang Pao than holding Long Tieng.

Mr. Moore raised the question of what would happen after the North Vietnamese take Long Tieng and added, in answer to Mr. Kissinger's question, that the fall of Long Tieng seemed certain. Mr. Moore noted that the Lao Ambassador had said that the North Vietnamese objective in seizing Long Tieng was to retaliate for the occupation of the Plaine des Jarres last year and that having reached Long [Page 690]Tieng, they would not continue military pressure but would limit themselves to political pressure. Mr. Johnson said that capture of Long Tieng would permit the North Vietnamese to consolidate their position on the Plaine des Jarres. Mr. Kissinger commented that we have always thought the North Vietnamese could take over northern Laos but have tried to maximize the psychological inhibitions against their doing so. Mr. Green added that while the North Vietnamese have the military capacity to go beyond Long Tieng, they will undermine their political position by doing so.

Mr. Kissinger asked if anyone favored using Thai troops. Admiral Johnson said the JCS thought this possibility should be explored. In addition to the 13th RCT the Thai unit now in South Vietnam might be considered. The Thai forces could be placed on the ridge around Vientiane.

Mr. Green noted that the North Vietnamese have already demonstrated their ability to retaliate against the Thais by attacks along the border and might take action if the Thais become deeply involved in Laos. Mr. Moore said the political price to the United States could be high, since Thanom would like to get the United States more committed. Mr. Green said the question had both short and long-range aspects; the former involved only the use of the 13th RCT and its effect on the present situation while the latter had to do with the general question of the desirability of greater Thai involvement in the defense of Laos.

Mr. Kissinger asked if the introduction of Thai troops at this time would restrain the North Vietnamese. Mr. Green replied that on the contrary the North Vietnamese would very much like to give the Thais a beating, and Mr. Karamessines agreed.

Admiral Johnson circulated a draft cable prepared by the JCS calling for the transfer of the 13th RCT and the Thai unit in South Vietnam to Laos.8 Mr. Green objected that the Thai unit in South Vietnam was made up of volunteers who were entitled to discharge if withdrawn from Vietnam. Admiral Johnson replied that if the Thai Government made a top-level decision to use its troops in Laos, any deficiencies and restrictions on the Thai forces could be taken care of.

Mr. Kissinger asked if Thai troops would not provide an incentive to the North Vietnamese to keep advancing, particularly if a Thai withdrawal from South Vietnam were involved. Mr. Green added that it was highly important to maintain the multinational character provided by TCC units in South Vietnam. Admiral Johnson said that even if Thai units could not be withdrawn from South Vietnam, the JCS thought it would be useful to send the 13th RCT to Laos. Mr. Kissinger concluded [Page 691]by saying that any Thai pullout from South Vietnam would have to be discussed with the President.

Mr. Kissinger said that it appeared to be the consensus that no additional Thai troops should be sent to Long Tieng but that we should consider how we might make use of Thai troops if the North Vietnamese continued to advance toward Vientiane and the provincial capitals.

At this point a newly received cable from Ambassador Godley urging use of Thai troops at Long Tieng was distributed to the WSAG members.9 Mr. Karamessines suggested that it was desirable to reexamine the WSAG's view on Thai troops in the light of this latest message.

Mr. Kissinger asked if the arguments in favor of regrouping Vang Pao's forces south of Long Tieng did not also apply to using Thai troops. Mr. Johnson agreed that they did.

Mr. Kissinger noted that Ambassador Godley believed the Thais would have a desirable psychological impact that would make up for the loss of Long Tieng. Mr. Green countered that as Ambassador Godley recognized in his message, this was looking at the situation purely as seen from Vientiane. Mr. Moore added that Ambassador Godley did not address the questions of the military effectiveness of using Thais and the consequences of a possible Thai defeat.

Mr. Kissinger asked why, if Vang Pao might be able to hold, the Thais might not also be able to make a stand. Mr. Green said that we did not want to tempt the North Vietnamese to advance further. The presence of Thais might draw the Communists on; if the Thais were defeated, the loss to the United States would be all the more serious.

Admiral Johnson asked how we could say no if the Thais wanted to send troops to Laos. Mr. Green replied that so far the Thais have not asked to get involved. Mr. Kissinger asked how we would go about getting the Thais involved, and Mr. Johnson responded that we would have to induce Souvanna to request Thai assistance.

Mr. Green commented that Souvanna was searching for a diplomatic solution to the present difficulties. Mr. Kissinger asked how it was possible to pursue a successful diplomatic course unless we had power to back up our proposals. Mr. Johnson said that we did have [Page 692]power—the possibility of making a strong defense at a fallback position, the use of the special guerrilla units from southern Laos, and our air capabilities once the weather improved. In answer to Mr. Kissinger's question, Admiral Johnson said the weather would not be better until May. Mr. Kissinger commented that by then the Communists might hold three-fourths of Laos.

Mr. Johnson mentioned that a possibility for action on the diplomatic front was offered by an Indian proposal to call for a cease-fire in northern Laos (specifically excluding the Panhandle) and observation by the ICC. He read portions of a draft note prepared by the Indians.10 He suggested that we take no public position on the proposal but that we welcome and encourage the Indian initiative, which could do no harm. Mr. Kissinger agreed that the proposal seemed harmless, and Mr. Green suggested that the Indians might get the ICC to issue the cease-fire proposal. Mr. Green added that Souvanna gave indications of being well disposed to the proposal if the ICC operated in all parts of Laos. He cautioned that we would not want to state that we were in favor, since this might cause the other side to back off. He said that the proposal had the advantage, if successful, of toning down the war and bringing about a balance of Laos. It might also bring pressure to stop bombing. Mr. Green noted that an in-place cease-fire in Laos might appear to set a precedent for South Vietnam, and that the North Vietnamese might therefore be reluctant to accept it. Mr. Kissinger said the Indian cease-fire proposal should be included in WSAG planning as a possible alternative.

Mr. Green called attention to the scheduled meeting between Souvanna and an envoy from Souphanouvong. He thought that Souphanouvong's position would likely be that no negotiations could be held until the bombing is halted. Souphanouvong might also make an unacceptable proposal on a dividing line.

Mr. Johnson suggested that we encourage the Indian initiative, which seemed the only realistic alternative open. Mr. Kissinger pointed out that a cease-fire would mean that the enemy would halt in place and not have to retreat during the rainy season. In effect, this might hand Laos to the Communists next year. Mr. Green admitted there was a 50-50 chance of this. In answer to Mr. Karamessines' question, Mr. Green said he believed the North Vietnamese would accept ICC observation. Mr. Kissinger noted that Mr. Green had stated his opinion that the enemy would probably stop after taking Long Tieng. We knew that they were worried by pressure from Vang Pao and bombing during the rainy season. A cease-fire would remove this pressure. What [Page 693]would the enemy give up in return? If the North Vietnamese were not likely to advance further, perhaps we should acquiesce as quietly as possible in the fall of Long Tieng and not buy into a cease-fire. Mr. Johnson admitted there were dangers involved in a cease-fire but said that we should not oppose it. Mr. Green added that a cease-fire had advantages too, although we would not want to take the lead in proposing it.

Mr. Green suggested that we might also keep up our diplomatic activity. We should keep accenting consultations under Article 4 of the Geneva Agreement and should dispatch notes to the Geneva signatories. We should release the President's exchange of letters with Kosygin and Wilson, and, in general, keep the focus on international efforts to deal with the problem. Mr. Kissinger pointed out that the President wanted a more active diplomatic scenario.

Mr. Kissinger raised the subject of B–52 bombing and confirmed with Admiral Johnson that there were no targets available at present.11 Mr. Karamessines said that if targets existed and the situation was deteriorating on other fronts, we should bomb. Mr. Nutter said that this was about the only action open to us in the way of a hard option.

Mr. Kissinger asked if Congressional opposition to bombing was really important. We were faced with a Communist offensive, and our tactical air could not operate. What objection could there be to B–52 raids? Mr. Green said we could not disregard Congressional opposition. The enemy knows that this is a soft spot and will put out propaganda blaming us for escalation. Mr. Kissinger asked if we could ever hope to appease Congressional opponents. The President's November 3 speech indicated a strong stand was more effective in dealing with them. Mr. Green said we should hold B–52's in reserve until we have a clearer idea of enemy intentions. If the North Vietnamese head for Vientiane, we could reconsider.

Mr. Kissinger said that the President wanted to have both hard and soft options. From a military standpoint it would be difficult to [Page 694]put together a hard option.12 The use of Thai troops and B–52 raids might be considered.

Mr. Johnson raised the question of briefing Congress about the Sierra Romeo operation. Mr. Kissinger said this should not be done yet.

Mr. Kissinger asked about progress in moving special guerrilla units (SGU's) to Long Tieng from southern Laos. Mr. Karamessines said it would not be until “late tonight” that there could be enough SGU's in Long Tieng to offer a chance of making a defense. It was agreed that the WSAG would meet on the morning of March 20 to review the situation at Long Tieng.

Mr. Kissinger cautioned that we did not want a Thai debacle in Long Tieng. Mr. Moore said that Ambassador Godley assured us he had plans for removing the Sierra Romeo unit if necessary. Mr. Kissinger said Ambassador Godley should be directed to provide these plans to Washington.

Mr. Kissinger said that he would discuss the use of additional Thai forces with the President. Mr. Johnson suggested that a telegram on this question responding to Ambassador Godley's message be prepared for Kissinger's approval. Admiral Johnson said that the JCS had such a draft cable in preparation.

Mr. Green and Mr. Johnson said that diplomatic scenarios on Laos and Cambodia would be submitted the same afternoon (March 19).

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–114, WSAG Minutes, Originals, 1969–1970. Top Secret; Sensitive. Colonel Behr sent this record and the minutes of the next six WSAG meetings on Laos and Cambodia to Kissinger on March 31. A note on Behr's transmittal memorandum reads: “HAK has seen. 4/6” The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room.
  2. Not found.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 207.
  4. Eliot submitted the possible scenarios for Cambodia and Laos to Kissinger on March 19. For Cambodia, State suggested continuing to support Cambodian neutrality and territorial integrity and “not trying to force Cambodia into our camp.” If Cambodia asked for military assistance or U.S. troops, the United States should react cautiously and “avoid getting sucked into a major role.” The United States should agree to take Cambodian requests for economic assistance under sympathetic consideration, should encourage regional support for Cambodia, reactivation of the ICC, possible French support, and an international conference on Cambodian neutrality. As for Laos, the possible scenario included rebutting the Soviet Union's rejection of Souvanna's call for consultations under Article IV of the Geneva Agreement of 1962, encouraging India to call for a cease-fire, reconvening the Geneva Conference, direct cease-fire negotiations between the RLG and Pathet Lao, and collective action by Asian nations. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 LAOS)
  5. See footnote 3 above.
  6. Unger discussed the problems and consequences of deployment of Thai forces into Laos in telegrams 3207 and 3219 from Bangkok, March 18. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 567, Country Files, Far East, Thailand, Thai Involvement in Laos)
  7. The Taksin Plan (formerly known as Project 22) was a contingency plan for U.S.-Thai military response to North Vietnam overrunning Laos. A summary and history are attached to a March 22 memorandum from Holdridge to Kissinger. (Ibid., NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–072, WSAG Meeting, 3/24/70, Laos and Cambodia)
  8. Not further identified.
  9. In telegram 1950 from Vientiane, March 19, received in the White House Situation Room at 11:45 a.m., Godley stated that “fresh troops on the ground, if introduced quickly enough, might still salvage situation” and “even undermanned, underequipped Thai units, which by comparison to those available to RLG look great, can make significant psychological as well as military contribution to the defense of Long Tieng.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 567, Country Files, Far East, Thailand, Thai Involvement in Laos)
  10. Not found.
  11. On March 19 Haig sent Kissinger a memorandum enclosing a message from Abrams to Wheeler in which MACV stated: “The situation in northern Laos has, according to information available to us, not stabilized. There is no adequate intelligence on which to select B–52 targets. If targets could be developed there is no assurance that Ambassador Godley could clear them because of the lack of knowledge of friendly troop dispositions.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 102, Vietnam Country Files, B–52 Strikes in Northern Laos)
  12. After the WSAG meeting, at 12:30 p.m., Kissinger telephoned U. Alexis Johnson to inform him that the President called him to ask what the WSAG had “come up with.” Kissinger replied, “there wasn't much we could do militarily.” The President “went through the roof” and said he wanted a “hard option.” Johnson told Kissinger, “We have got the hard option but everyone was against it.” Kissinger asked Johnson to write up a “hard option” before 2:45 p.m., noting “can't have any discussion of whether desirable or not; just write it up.” (Ibid., RG 59, U. Alexis Johnson Files: Lot 96 D 695, Tel-cons, March–April, 1970) Johnson immediately called Green and asked him to get something down for meeting at the White House at 1 p.m. (Ibid.) For the meeting at 1 p.m., see Document 204.