204. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Hard Options on Laos


  • Henry A. Kissinger, Chairman
  • State
  • U. Alexis Johnson
  • Marshall Green
  • Defense
  • G. Warren Nutter
  • CIA
  • Richard Helms
  • Thomas H. Karamessines
  • JCS
  • General Earle Wheeler
  • NSC Staff
  • John Holdridge

Dr. Kissinger opened the discussion by asking if there were any B–52 targets in Laos which were presently identified. General Wheeler said that there were two known target areas North and East of the general Sam Thong–Long Tieng area containing troop concentrations, but nothing in the immediate vicinity or near Site 272. Mr. Helms suggested going back to the North Vietnamese lines of communication, and General Wheeler agreed that this could be done if reconnaissance was possible under the bad weather conditions now prevailing.

Dr. Kissinger asked if there were chokepoints which could be hit, noting that the North Vietnamese were complaining about the condition of the road. Ambassador Johnson picked this up by wondering whether the area of the passes into Laos offered tactical or B–52 targets. General Wheeler said in response that there were targets on both sides of the Barthelmy Pass which were suitable for tacair strikes if the weather permitted. He mentioned SAM and AAA sites.

Ambassador Green raised the question of strikes against Sam Neua, which was a politically sensitive area long exempt from aerial attack. General Wheeler stated that such attacks could be easily laid [Page 696] on. Dr. Kissinger asked if this was a populated area; if so, we should not attack it. On B–52’s, Dr. Kissinger wondered if we could give authority to Ambassador Godley and MACV to order B–52 strikes if targets were identified. Mr. Helms felt that this was the best way to go about ordering such strikes, and Ambassador Johnson agreed, saying that if we were going to take this action, the strikes should be made when targets were actually present. Ambassador Green suggested that as a preceding step, Ambassador Godley might be asked if lucrative targets were actually present. There was a wide area to consider, including chokepoints, roads, etc., and we in Washington would want to know if the targets might appear marginal. When asked how this procedure would differ from our present practice, Ambassador Johnson explained that Ambassador Godley and MACV presently come in to recommend a target, which is then approved or disapproved by Washington. Ambassador Green pointed out that Ambassador Godley has not yet suggested just what he has in mind. Dr. Kissinger expressed the belief that there ought, in fact, to be some restrictions in B–52 operations, e.g., the ground rules should rule out attacks on populated areas. He asked what General Wheeler thought about procedures. General Wheeler felt that Ambassador Godley and MACV should be given authority to go ahead. He did not believe that any specific time-period should be imposed on this authority, since prior reconnaissance and target scope photography would be required, which would take a minimum of 24-hours.

Ambassador Johnson said he was not necessarily recommending B–52 operations in bringing this option up, but rather cataloguing what we might do. He suggested that the paper on military options which had been prepared last year for the WSAG provided a useful catalogue in itself.2

Mr. Helms interjected with the thought that AC–130s from South Laos might be helpful if diverted northward. General Wheeler agreed that such might be the case. He would ask his Air Force people.

Returning to the catalogue, Ambassador Johnson listed the possibility of increased use of tacair in Northern Laos. However, he took it that the system was already saturated, and there was no real room for any increase. Mr. Helms again suggested the use of gunships. These could be set up easily if General Wheeler were to give the order.

Again picking up the catalogue, Ambassador Johnson listed striking politically sensitive targets in North Laos such as Sam Neua and strikes along the North Vietnamese border within 10 nautical miles of it. Ambassador Green pointed out that we were already striking up to [Page 697] 4 kilometers of the border, and that this option was about what we were doing now with the exception of attacking Sam Neua. Dr. Kissinger asked for a report on targets around Sam Neua which could be hit without civilian casualties by gunships or other types of aircraft.

The next catalogue item listed by Ambassador Johnson was increased Thai support, which included artillery support (already underway) and employment of the Thai air force. He mentioned that Thai pilots had previously been used to fly Lao T–28s, but that this new option included overt air assistance. Dr. Kissinger questioned this latter step, since as he understood it we were already giving about as much tactical air support in Laos as could be effectively used.

The next item listed by Ambassador Johnson was an improved US advisory system in Laos, which he thought would not be helpful at this time. Continuing, he mentioned the staging of ground attacks on Sam Neua, which was not feasible at this time because there was no capability. Ambassador Green observed that this option involved following up prior bombing attacks with ground operations. Ambassador Johnson described Sam Neua as a key central control point for both the North Vietnamese forces in Laos and the Pathet Lao, but reiterated that we did not now have the capability of striking it on the ground. Another catalogue item listed by Ambassador Johnson was mortar and rocket attacks against North Vietnamese supply points. This, he said, would require a long lead time, with problematical results.

Turning to political as opposed to military measures, Ambassador Johnson listed the possibility of an RLG appeal to the Geneva cochairmen and to the members of the ICC. This move was in effect already under consideration. He then listed admitting US air operations openly, presumably as a signal to North Vietnam. Digressing for a moment, he reported that there was a ticker item in from Vientiane saying that there was already talk in the town about “mercenaries” being moved into the Long Tieng area. This item reported a figure of 300 mercenaries moving in, and stated that while there was no immediate identification of their origin, added that Thai officers had been working with Vang Pao. The Vientiane ticker item raised the question of what we should tell people on the Hill about the Thai role. Mr. Helms recalled that all the Symington Subcommittee had been told was that a Thai battalion had been in Laos last year, but had later been withdrawn. Ambassador Johnson felt that something should be said about the Sierra Romeo IX battery, but he was not sure as to who should be told or what should be said.

The next item on Ambassador Johnson’s list was introducing Thai ground forces. From this, the discussion focussed upon the pros and cons of sending the Thai RCT to Long Tieng. Dr. Kissinger declared that he could see disadvantages in putting Thai forces into the combat [Page 698] area but wondered whether there might be some merit in moving Thai forces to the border. He asked what would be involved in getting Thai forces into Laos. Ambassador Johnson explained that the process would involve going through the Lao and having Souvanna ask the Thai for help. Souvanna would probably be very slow in responding, as he would be reluctant to have Thai forces cross the river just to be there— he would want them to be involved militarily, if used at all. Dr. Kissinger questioned the cost to us if the Thai were to become involved. What would they want as a quid pro quo? Would they really need to be paid in some way to defend their own country? There was general agreement among the others present that the Thai at the minimum would want the US to pick up the support costs of any Thai forces involved, whether simply moving to the Thai border or going into Laos.

In Ambassador Green’s opinion one of the things which the Thai would ask us would be whether we had activated the Taksin Plan.3 They would also want to know what role we ourselves intended to play. Ambassador Johnson agreed, adding that in any move to the border or across the river the Thai would ask us if this meant activation of the Taksin Plan. However, there was no other feasible plan which he could see, and hence any action by the Thai would place us in an impossible dilemma and cause questions to arise as to whether the Taksin Plan was dead. Dr. Kissinger asked if we couldn’t say they were doing it for deterrent purposes, and asked, too, if the deterrence were to fail, wouldn’t the Thai ask us to activate the Taksin Plan anyway?

Ambassador Green brought up the possibility of sending the crack Thai forces now in South Vietnam. However, we would want to ask here whether we wanted these forces taken out of South Vietnam. Mr. Helms thought that Lao SGUs would probably be better than Thai forces in the immediate situation and Mr. Karamessines confirmed that three SGU battalions plus two companies of guerrillas were being moved into Long Tieng. Ambassador Johnson affirmed that this was the heart of the problem—the willingness and the capability of the Lao to defend their own country. There are a lot of Lao forces elsewhere in the country which were not engaged at all. Dr. Kissinger emphasized that the President wanted to demonstrate to the North Vietnamese that they would not be able to get a free show in Laos. Mr. Helms endorsed this view, observing that the North Vietnamese had violated the understanding under which the bombing halt had been undertaken in Vietnam, and that we could pass the word to the North Vietnamese that if they didn’t stop now, we would strike in North Vietnam. We could easily hit the many supply depots in the southern part of North [Page 699] Vietnam without hitting Hanoi. Ambassador Johnson said that we could also bomb both sides of the Barthelmy Pass. According to General Wheeler this could easily be done. Barthelmy Pass was not a chokepoint, but contained good targets. To a suggestion from Ambassador Johnson that if we were to act in this way we should not say anything, Mr. Helms said that it would be good to give a warning that we intended to follow through. Hanoi had been calling our hand again and again since March 1968, and we should take firm action. Ambassador Johnson asked if all this had not been in the context of Vietnam, to which Mr. Helms replied that he felt the message should be passed which would put the situation in its total context.

Ambassador Johnson reverted to his catalogue and listed the limited introduction of US ground forces into Laos in the Panhandle. General Wheeler remarked that we had already put small teams into the Panhandle—this was the Prairie Fire operation which had not created much of an effect.

Other catalogue items listed by Ambassador Johnson, which appeared overly drastic at this time, included a resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam, unlimited air and naval bombardment of North Vietnam without restraints, SEATO intervention, reconvening the Geneva Conference, repudiation of the Geneva Agreement and breaking off the Paris talks. From these Dr. Kissinger suggested that political measures might be considered, and wondered if Admiral McCain might not be asked to visit Bangkok. General Wheeler said that Admiral McCain was presently in Saigon, where he had attended the just-concluded SEACOORDS meeting, and could be easily sent to Bangkok. Dr. Kissinger raised the question of possibly sending Admiral McCain to Vientiane. Was there anything against such a move? Ambassador Green responded to the effect that this depended on what came out of the meeting in Vientiane between Admiral McCain and Ambassador Godley. The short-term effect could be to get the North Vietnamese to stay their hand, but over the long term the effect could be negative. He thought that the tactic of attempting to give signals through meetings of this sort was not too effective, since the Communists were on to it. They had possibly held off in earlier days, but might not do so now. A brief discussion followed of the advantages of having a meeting between Admiral McCain and Ambassadors Godley and Unger in Vientiane or somewhere else in the area, such as Udorn. Mr. Helms thought that Udorn would be a new twist, but Ambassador Green felt that we would not want the Communists to pick up the challenge which Admiral McCain’s presence in the area would pose. Mr. Helms felt that this was a valid point, but on the other hand, we had no surcease from North Vietnamese pressures. How could we get any worse off?

Ambassador Johnson thought we would be certainly worse off if the North Vietnamese were to push all along the line, to which Mr. [Page 700] Helms asked what they were doing now? Ambassador Johnson suggested that the North Vietnamese might now be operating within previously claimed territory, and would not go beyond it. He asked what Mr. Helms thought the North Vietnamese presently intended, and how far we should go to resist. Mr. Helms countered by pointing out that the Meo were the only effective fighting force in Laos; if they were eliminated, what then?

Dr. Kissinger asked if we would be much worse off if Admiral McCain went to Vientiane. Ambassador Green said that we would be worse off, because the other side would call our bluff. We had succeeded in bluffing them before, e.g. in 1962 when we sent in the Marines to Thailand, but couldn’t do so now. Continuing, Ambassador Green noted the possibility of Congressional resolutions cutting off our funds in Vietnam, Laos and everywhere else, and said that the fundamental issue which we faced was how much of our prestige we were laying on the line. We would need, also, to consider the relationship of Cambodia to what was going on, and it seemed likely that the North Vietnamese estimate of our involvement in Cambodia was very high. Their situation was probably more difficult than it seemed to us at the moment. They were having difficulty moving up supplies, had been hurt by tactical air, and now would definitely be worried about the course of events in Cambodia.

Dr. Kissinger asked that a list be made of what could be done now. Ambassador Green said that the proposal to bring in gunships, and the other moves which had been mentioned in the morning meeting such as moving in SGUs, falling back from Long Tieng, and B–52 strikes, were feasible and made sense. Dr. Kissinger agreed that we could count on the gunships. Mr. Helms suggested in addition that helicopter gunships—Cobras—be brought in from South Vietnam. The question of US pilots for the Cobras was then discussed, and it was agreed that this posed no problem. The Cobras would be based in Udorn, where we were in a better position anyway to provide support, and there was no difference between helicopter pilots over Laos and the other US pilots who were in action. There was not much difference between Vientiane and Udorn in proximity to the battlefield. It was also accepted that there would be some losses.

Dr. Kissinger again requested views on political moves. Ambassador Green explained that State’s thinking was focussing upon the Indian cease-fire plan. The visible side of this from the US standpoint would be letters from the President to the Geneva signatories, and also to the Soviet Union citing its reply to the President’s earlier letter and telling the Soviets that it was their duty to support the Geneva Agreement. Dr. Kissinger called upon Ambassador Green to get a tough letter or reply to the Soviets over to the White House by March 20, so that [Page 701] this part of the exercise could be accomplished before the weekend. He suggested that the letter make plain that we would not accept the Soviets’ contention that they had no responsibility and add, too, that their reaction would have a significant effect on US–USSR relationships. He would like to deliver this letter to Dobrynin March 20, or March 21 at the latest.4 Ambassador Green noted that the letters to the other Geneva signatories would be specifically tailored to fit the circumstances of our relationship with each, i.e. what we said to the French would not be the same as what we said to the Chinese.5

General Wheeler went down a checklist of actions which he proposed to take on the basis of the present discussion. These included the use of C–130 gunships over the Plain of Jars; seeing if suitable targets could be found in the Sam Neua area; seeking out B–52 targets (Defense was already trying to locate such now, but needed reconnaissance to the southwest of Sam Thong and Long Tieng); striking supplies, SAM sites and AAA sites on both sides of the Barthelmy Pass; locating chokepoints for air strikes; and moving Cobras and gunships to Laos from Vietnam. Mr. Helms suggested that this list be augmented by the movement of ARDF assets to Laos from Vietnam.

Ambassador Johnson stated that there would be no problems from State on the Cobras and the gunships. However, with respect to B–52 strikes and bombing both sides of the Barthelmy Pass, State would appreciate an opportunity to comment. Dr. Kissinger assured Ambassador Johnson that this opportunity would be provided.

Dr. Kissinger asked for the views of those present on arranging a meeting between Admiral McCain and Ambassadors Godley and Unger. General Wheeler said that if such a meeting were not followed up, it would be counterproductive. On the other hand, if it were followed up with actions such as B–52 strikes and attacks on both sides [Page 702] of the Barthelmy Pass, it would be a useful step. Ambassador Green agreed, suggesting that Udorn be the meeting place and that it be followed up by air strikes using Cobras and C–130s. General Wheeler wondered if the visibility in Udorn would be adequate, to which Ambassador Green said this could be arranged. It depended on how we handled the press. Mr. Helms supported this position, saying that it made a good mix and that a meeting in Udorn was almost as good as one in Vientiane.

Mr. Nutter raised the question of whether the diversion of gunships to northern Laos would have an effect on the Panhandle. General Wheeler said that it would, but the main question was what issue was most important at any one time. Dr. Kissinger said he assumed that the diversion would not last for more than two weeks.

Dr. Kissinger said that he hoped to be able to tell General Wheeler by 3 o’clock or what moves would be approved. The McCainGodleyUnger meeting should be arranged fairly quickly. B–52 reconnaissance could be carried out immediately, and would be picked up by the North Vietnamese. As to targets in Sam Neua, General Wheeler stated that he would need to look into what target data was on hand. Reconnaissance might be needed, since this had been an exempt area for years.

Dr. Kissinger asked if there were any other moves besides the letters from the President to Kosygin and the other Geneva signatories which we should consider. Ambassador Johnson responded that we could tell the Indians that we have no objections to their going ahead on the cease-fire move. Mr. Helms had not heard of this ploy, and after it was explained to him declared that the Panhandle was excluded from any cease-fire. General Wheeler took the same position. Ambassador Johnson said that such would be the case, as the Indians had already made plain. Nobody was under any illusions that we would accept limitations on our freedom of action in the Panhandle. Dr. Kissinger asked Mr. Helms if he saw any problem in the fact that under a cease-fire the North Vietnamese could stay on in the area now occupied during the rainy season. Mr. Helms replied in effect that since we had no assets anyway to drive the North Vietnamese away, and in fact had no assets to hold them south of Long Tieng if they wanted to go this way, he saw no practical grounds on which to object. To a remark by Dr. Kissinger that he had thought from the morning session that it might be possible to hold a line south of Long Tieng, Mr. Karamessines explained that a fall-back to Site 272 was possible, but that the area could not be held if a major effort were launched. The question was whether the enemy would want to go south, in view of his lack of familiarity with the ground and his supply difficulties. To this Dr. Kissinger asked if it thus could be concluded that the enemy had already effectively overthrown the military balance in Laos. Mr. Helms replied affirmatively, adding that the Meo were pretty well finished [Page 703] off for the present, and that our problem would be how to help stabilize the situation. General Wheeler agreed, commenting that he had no faith in the other Laotian troops at all. Ambassador Johnson had no argument, either. Dr. Kissinger wondered if anyone was worried about the junction of routes 7 and 13. Was there a threat to Vang Pao from this direction? Ambassador Johnson replied that he did not see a threat now, since the North Vietnamese lines would be greatly extended. Ambassador Green hoped that we could make them pay a price if they came from this direction.

Dr. Kissinger stated that he agreed with Mr. Helms on the score of the North Vietnamese challenging us on every possible occasion. Until we stopped backing away we would not get a settlement in either Laos or Vietnam. What we were attempting to do here was to show that we were meeting the challenge. He asked General Wheeler to provide B–52 targets quickly and to undertake reconnaissance immediately. He went on to support the McCainGodley meeting, the move of C–130s and Cobras to cover North Laos, and the drafting of the two types of letters. All of these actions could be considered approved, and there was no need to wait for a further meeting.6

  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. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room.
  2. A summary of this paper is in Document 138.
  3. See footnote 7, Document 203.
  4. On March 21 Nixon sent Kosygin a letter stating that he did not share the Soviet leader’s view, expressed in a letter of March 13 to Nixon, that consultation on Laos by the Geneva signatories was “unrealistic and would not be helpful.” Nixon suggested that the Soviet position was “illogical and unconvincing” and asked Kosygin to reconsider it. The letter did not state that broader U.S.-Soviet relations could be affected by the Laos issue, but did confirm the “desire to base our relations on the principle of negotiation rather than confrontation.” (Both letters are in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 LAOS)
  5. The letters to the signatories of the Geneva Convention of 1962 other than the Co-Chairmen, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, were eventually sent on April 7. Nixon expressed concern with the situation in Laos and called for consultations of the signatories under Article IV of the Declaration of Neutrality of Laos. Nixon informed the head of state of each signatory nation that the British were prepared to consult, but the Soviet Union was not. Nixon asked that each signatory support his call for consultations. (Letter from Nixon to Lon Nol, April 7; ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 749, Presidential Correspondence, Cambodia, Lon Nol, Prime Minister (1970)) Other similar letters are ibid. under respective head of state folders.
  6. Kissinger outlined these actions in a March 19 memorandum to Nixon, who initialed it. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–072, WSAG Meeting, 3/19/70, p.m.) Kissinger then sent Rogers and Laird a March 19 memorandum directing them to take the actions Nixon approved. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 LAOS)