Learn about the beta

207. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1

SUBJECT

  • Laos

PARTICIPANTS

  • Henry A. Kissinger, Chairman
  • State
  • U. Alexis Johnson
  • Jonathan Moore
  • Marshall Green
  • Defense
  • David Packard
  • G. Warren Nutter
  • Lt Col. Gerald H. Britten
  • CIA
  • Richard Helms
  • Thomas H. Karamessines
  • [name not declassified] (for briefing only)
  • JCS
  • General Earle G. Wheeler
  • NSC Staff
  • B/Gen. Alexander M. Haig
  • John Holdridge
  • Keith Guthrie

SUMMARY OF CONCLUSIONS

It was the consensus that the introduction of additional Thai troops would provide no assurance that Long Tieng could be held by friendly forces. CIA and the JCS generally favored the use of Thai troops as offering the only hope of avoiding enemy capture of Long Tieng and the destruction of the Meo as a fighting force. State Department and OSD were opposed because of the political consequences of Thai involvement and a possible Thai defeat. There was general agreement that the assembly of a Thai regimental combat team within Thailand would be useful, although the State Department was cautious about pressing the Thais to take such action.

[Page 708]

The Defense Department will provide Mr. Kissinger briefing material on bombing targets in the vicinity of Barthelmy Pass. The State Department will submit to Dr. Kissinger by the afternoon of March 23 a draft reply to Thanat's letter.2 Ambassadors Unger and Godley will be informed through the appropriate CIA station chiefs of recent developments with regard to Laos, including the ThanatKissinger letter. The President's second letter to Kosygin will be shown to Souvanna.3

Mr. [name not declassified] briefed on the military situation near Long Tieng, which he described as “up for grabs”. The enemy was urgently moving troops toward the area. There were about 1,000 North Vietnamese troops in the immediate vicinity of Long Tieng, with 5,000 to 6,000 in the surrounding hills and many more further back. The North Vietnamese seemed to be hoping to forestall a successful defensive action by recently arrived RLG reinforcements, of which there were now about 2,000. It was not possible to estimate how well the reinforcements would fight. Enemy rocket attacks were not yet effective against the airstrip, but this might be only a matter of time.

Mr. Kissinger asked why the Meos were not being pulled in from the outposts, where they might get picked off. Mr. Karamessines said this was essentially a tactical judgment by Vang Pao, who thought that as guerrilla forces they could be more usefully deployed so as to harass the enemy.

Mr. Kissinger asked about artillery deployments. Mr. Karamessines said that latest information indicated four 155s and one 105 were in place. There was a brief discussion of an unconfirmed report that a 155 had been withdrawn either for maintenance or because its position was threatened. Mr. Kissinger asked if a rapid collapse were likely. Mr. Karamessines said that this was so and that in such event it was probable the 155 would be lost although present plans were to move it out by air if there was a remote chance of doing so.

Mr. [name not declassified] said Vang Pao wants to bring in Thai troops. He would then use the Meos to hit enemy supply lines from behind in the vicinity of Ban Ban and the Plaine des Jarres.

[Page 709]

Mr. [name not declassified] added that the North Vietnamese have logistic problems. They have no supplies in the area, their supply routes have bogged down at certain places, and they are concerned about possible B–52 strikes and moves to cut their supply lines. Mr. Kissinger asked about the desirability of hitting the points where the enemy supply lines were clogged. General Wheeler replied that they were being hit; 100 tacair sorties were flown “yesterday”.

Mr. Johnson asked how Vang Pao proposed to move his troops for the attacks on the supply lines. Mr. [name not declassified] said this would be done with helicopters as was customary.

Mr. Green asked if the recent heavy rains had not brought an improvement in the weather situation from our standpoint. Mr. [name not declassified] said that this was so, since visibility was better and it was more difficult for the North Vietnamese to get their supplies over the roads. General Wheeler said the clearer skies would greatly improve tacair effectiveness.

Mr. [name not declassified] concluded by noting that the enemy was apparently trying to eliminate all friendly posts within striking distance of the Plaine des Jarres and, in answer to Dr. Kissinger's question, said that he thought they would certainly succeed in doing so.

Mr. Packard displayed a map showing the 1962 cease-fire line and the successive yearly lines of the North Vietnamese advance since. He pointed out that the map showed that the North Vietnamese had not come much further this year than in every preceding year. Mr. Kissinger observed that the difference this year was that they were present in greater force.

Mr. Kissinger asked for a review on what had been done to carry out the decisions made last week. Mr. Packard said that C–130 gunships have been moved to Laos. However, Cobra (helicopter) gunships have not, since they would require establishing ground support forces in Laos. In answer to Mr. Johnson's question, General Wheeler said that General Abrams thought that Cobras would have to be located at Vientiane or perhaps beyond. General Abrams had deep reservations about their use in Laos because of the lack of a sophisticated command and control system. General Wheeler added that three C–130s had now been operating several days and could continue until April 6 without degrading our capability to take action against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He said that ARDF (to locate enemy radio terminals) was continuing at the rate of six operations per day. General Wheeler concluded by saying that there was no truth to Vang Pao's claims that air support had been decreased to 20 sorties per day. The recent tacair rate was 87 per day, and most times it was in excess of 100 which was about all the system would accept. Mr. Packard added that sorties during February totalled 1518 and that this rate could continue and perhaps be somewhat increased.

[Page 710]

Mr. Kissinger asked if the North Vietnamese could launch an attack on Long Tieng at any time, and if so, could they capture it. General Wheeler said the answer to both questions was yes, assuming the enemy wished to pay the price in losses. The friendly forces in Long Tieng could make its capture expensive.

Mr. Kissinger asked about the composition and will to fight of the friendly forces. General Wheeler said that the principal forces were the special guerrilla forces brought from the South and that they would fight. Mr. Karamessines described the units in more detail and explained that they were organized in an inner and an outer defense perimeter.

Mr. Kissinger asked if the addition of three Thai battalions would affect the outcome. General Wheeler said this was a possibility but noted that Admiral McCain, Ambassador Unger, and Ambassador Godley were by no means confident about this when they met at Udorn.4 Mr. Helms said that the most the introduction of Thai units would do would be to permit a holding action until the rains began in about two months. He added that there was really no other option except to try to delay. Mr. Packard said it might be a good idea to bring in the Thai if this would release Vang Pao to attack enemy supply lines. Mr. Helms said that even if this were done, our basic tactic would remain the same—trying to hold off the enemy for 60 more days.

Mr. Kissinger asked if the introduction of Thai forces would enable us to buy the necessary 60 days. Both Mr. Helms and General Wheeler stated that they did not know.

Mr. Johnson asked about the effectiveness of the Thai forces. General Wheeler said the Thai 13th Regimental Combat Team had a number of deficiencies—including lack of experience in battalion-size operations—but that it would be tenacious in a defensive operation. However, the Thai units were not assault troops like the North Vietnamese.

General Wheeler said Thai troops posed more than a purely military problem. The larger issue was whether to provide support for Thai operations in Laos in the face of the political furor this would raise in the United States, including allegations that Plan Taksin was being involved. If we were willing to face the political problem, we should [Page 711]urge the Thais at least to move their forces forward within Thailand and should continue maximum possible bombing. We could alternatively go a step further by having the Thais move to Long Tieng and gambling that they would be able to hold the position there until the rains began. General Wheeler said he could not guarantee that the Thais could hold Long Tieng.

Mr. Johnson said the implication of the messages received from the field was that the use of Thai forces could be kept secret. This was simply not possible. Mr. Packard and Mr. Karamessines agreed.

Mr. Kissinger said there were both military and political problems. The military problem was where best to make a stand. Should the Thai troops be moved to Long Tieng, to some less advanced point in Laos (Site 272), or to the border?

General Wheeler said that it was difficult to judge at this distance from the scene whether the North Vietnamese would overrun Long Tieng before the Thais got there. The minimum time to get the first battalion combat team there was 72 hours, and 96 hours might be a more realistic estimate.

Mr. Kissinger asked if the North Vietnamese would go on to Vientiane after taking Long Tieng. General Wheeler said that because of the extremely rough terrain below Long Tieng, it was more likely they would proceed west along Route 7, then down Route 13 to Vientiane. Mr. Kissinger asked if it were not our judgment that the North Vietnamese would stop after taking Long Tieng. General Wheeler said that we really did not know, and Mr. Johnson added that it was more accurate to say that if they moved further, they would probably proceed along Route 7.

Mr. Kissinger asked about the possibility of making a stand at Site 272. General Wheeler said it might make a good defensive position, but there was no reason to put more troops there if there was no need to defend it. Mr. Kissinger concluded that Site 272 was therefore not really a fallback position. It was hard to get into and hard to get out of. General Wheeler said the JCS was not attracted by Site 272.

Mr. Packard suggested it would be better to use Thai troops to block an enemy advance along Route 13. Mr. Johnson agreed and said that we could defer a decision on Thai troops to see if a threat developed on Route 13.

Mr. Kissinger described the political problems posed by Thai troops. Their use would raise the question of whether we were triggering Plan Taksin. In addition, we would have to consider whether we might be stimulating a North Vietnamese attack by precipitate action to introduce Thai troops. The time had come to ask whether by gradually introducing Thai units and stepping up B–52 attacks, we were starting down the slippery slope. The President had said this morning [Page 712]that he leaned toward introducing Thai troops. Mr. Kissinger concluded that we must have a broader concept of where our actions in Laos are leading us. We should not follow a course of taking a move, getting clobbered, taking another move, getting clobbered, and so on. Could we not develop three or four scenarios?

Mr. Johnson sketched one possibility. Introduction of Thai troops would cause the North Vietnamese to bring more force to bear. We would then have to decide whether to reinforce Long Tieng and introduce more Thais. At some point Long Tieng would take on the aspect of a Dienbienphu. Having taken one step, we would find ourselves under heavy pressure to take others. Another possibility was that if we introduced Thai troops and then pulled out, we would suffer a great psychological and political setback.

Mr. Kissinger asked about the implications for Thailand if Thai troops were used in Laos. Mr. Green said there were several aspects to be considered. The Thais wanted to draw us into the ground defense of Thailand by having us support Thai forces in Laos. Use of Thai troops in Laos might affect the Thai contribution in South Vietnam. Also, the Communists might try to stir up insurgencies in Thailand, as they have the capability to do.

Mr. Green asked about the Lao King's position on Thai troops. Mr. Karamessines said the best information indicates he is opposed. He also pointed out that there were a number of new intelligence items which indicated that a coup, [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] might be in the offing in Vientiane. Mr. Green and Mr. Johnson both commented on the possible adverse consequences in the United States and Thailand if the North Vietnamese were to inflict a humiliating defeat on Thai troops.

Mr. Kissinger said that every year the balance in Laos surges back and forth. The North Vietnamese probably hesitate to attempt a complete takeover because they fear the political and military consequences if they go too far. What reason will they have to worry in the future if we say we will not put forces in Laos and do not bring in Thai forces?

Mr. Packard suggested that we might have the Thais move forces to the border. Mr. Johnson said this would not get around the Taksin problem.5 Mr. Kissinger pointed out that it was the Thais who had taken the initiative to raise the matter with us. Mr. Green said that the key point was whether the Thais would undertake this on their own. They wanted to involve us. If they took action by themselves, there would be no objection. Mr. Johnson agreed.

[Page 713]

Mr. Kissinger asked if it were not also true that if we refused to respond to the Thai request, they would conclude the United States was not committed to the defense of Thailand. Mr. Johnson said that Ambassador Unger had reported nothing that would indicate this. Mr. Kissinger asked how we should interpret the message from Thanat. Mr. Johnson responded that it did not seem to him to mean that the Thais would take a refusal as an indication of lack of US support for Thai defense. Mr. Kissinger asked what we should say to Thanat if we turned him down. Mr. Johnson suggested we base our refusal on military grounds and state that we thought the idea of moving Thai troops to Long Tieng was not militarily sound.

Mr. Helms said that short of committing more troops, we would not find it possible to hold Long Tieng until the onset of the rains. If Long Tieng falls, most of the adverse consequences already discussed will come to pass. The Thais will be worried; there will be turmoil in Vientiane. He did not know about the implications for Plan Taksin. Mr. Kissinger observed that one result of Taksin was that we could not take even a small action without worrying about triggering the Plan.

Mr. Packard said that a key issue was whether the loss of Long Tieng opened the road to the capital. Mr. Johnson said that in the narrow sense it did not. Mr. Kissinger agreed that it did not open a direct route to Vientiane. However, in a broad sense, by opening the way via Route 7/13 and destroying the Meo as an effective fighting force, it would remove all the obstacles to a North Vietnamese takeover.

Mr. Johnson said he agreed that over the years uncertainty about US intentions had restrained the communists. We had given signals— such as Taksin, B–52 bombing, and the landing of Marines in 1962. If we could get the Thais to move without ourselves getting involved, Thai action could be useful.

Mr. Kissinger asked if we could reply to Thanat that some movement seemed indicated but that the Thai forces should be held south of the Mekong. Mr. Johnson thought this might be feasible. Mr. Green cautioned that having Thai troops across the river from Vientiane might lend credence to rumors of Thai involvement in coup plotting. He wondered if we might tell Thanat that we were uncertain about Long Tieng and would not wish to put the Thais in a dangerous position. However, it would be up to them if they wished to make a move on their own.

Mr. Kissinger said that the Thais could not move troops without our help. Mr. Johnson countered that the Thais had some air transport capability, and General Wheeler agreed.

Mr. Helms said there seemed little point in just moving troops to the river. This would have no effect on the course of the war. Mr. Moore pointed out that it would have an effect on our involvement with the Thais.

[Page 714]

Mr. Kissinger asked what would be left to Souvanna after the fall of Long Tieng and the destruction of the Meos. Our air support would be of little use if there was no opposition to the communists on the ground. Mr. Green interjected that Vang Pao's mood was always fluctuating and that he had often shown a capability to bounce back after a defeat.

General Wheeler reiterated that Thai battalions gave no assurance of holding Long Tieng. Unless we felt willing to meet the political costs, use of Thai troops constituted a chance hardly worth taking. If the Thais lost, we would have to commit more troops. Laos could not be defended from Laos. The only successful defense would be one which attacked the problem at its source in North Vietnam.

General Wheeler said there might be some value to assembling the scattered elements of one of the Thai RCT's for training purposes. This would have some military benefits, if, for instance, we decide later to make a defense of the Vientiane plain. Mr. Johnson asked about the cost to the Thai counterinsurgency program. General Wheeler and Mr. Packard said there would be some cost but not much. Mr. Johnson said he thought we should encourage the Thais to assemble a force.

Mr. Helms said that if the enemy believed we might bomb North Vietnam, something might be achieved. Mr. Kissinger asked how this message could be conveyed to North Vietnam. General Wheeler said it would be clear if we actually did some bombing. Mr. Johnson asked about bombing Barthelmy Pass. General Wheeler said that the Pass would not serve as a choke point, but that nearby supply facilities offered profitable targets. Mr. Packard said that Defense could provide briefing material on what was located at the Pass, and Mr. Kissinger asked him to do so. Mr. Johnson said he agreed that if we were going to bomb in North Vietnam, we should do so without any advance message. General Wheeler said we should also bomb Mu Gia and Na Pe Passes. Mr. Green asked if it would be better to bomb now or to wait until after the fall of Long Tieng. General Wheeler said we had already waited five years.

Mr. Kissinger pointed out that the North Vietnamese were cautious as long as Vang Pao was on their flank. With the Meo destroyed there was no force to keep the communists away from Vientiane. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Green said this had been true for many years.

Mr. Kissinger asked about the prospects for Vang Pao. Mr. Karamessines said it would be a miracle if a cohesive force was left after the fall of Long Tieng. We should consider whether we wanted our position in Laos to rest on this small chance. Mr. Johnson countered that the adverse effect would be even worse if the Thais were involved in a defeat at Long Tieng.

Mr. Helms said that if the State Department was against introducing Thai troops, how did it propose to play out the situation in [Page 715]Laos. Mr. Johnson said we should do what we can to maintain the Meo forces but not make Long Tieng a Dienbienphu. Mr. Kissinger asked what happened if the Meos collapsed, and Mr. Johnson responded that we would then be faced with a decision on whether to urge the Thais on or implement Taksin. Mr. Kissinger asked about the impact on South Vietnam. General Wheeler wondered what would happen in Cambodia. Mr. Nutter asked what we would lose by bombing the Barthelmy Pass. Mr. Johnson responded that there still seemed to be a better than 50–50 chance that the communists would make no further move after taking Long Tieng. Mr. Kissinger said we must consider that the ball game might be over if Long Tieng were lost.

Mr. Helms pointed out that in previous years there had been no Vietnamization program in progress. If the communists succeeded in neutralizing Laos, they could undermine Vietnamization.

Mr. Green said that if we got involved in Laos, the communists would want to step up their attacks. The public furor that would be aroused in the United States would encourage them to go further.

Mr. Nutter asked what the Congressional reaction would be if we lost Laos. Mr. Johnson said we should handle the problem so that it is not our loss.

Mr. Kissinger said he agreed with Mr. Helms that the communists seemed to be trying to back us into a corner. They know that after a Vietnam settlement, they could take Laos for free.

Mr. Green asked if our estimate was that the communists wanted to seize all of Laos. Mr. Karamessines and Mr. Helms said we had no estimate.

Mr. Kissinger said that one could argue that Vietnamization worked because of our threat to retaliate against North Vietnam. He asked if in previous years there had always been some friendly force left in Laos at the end of the communist advance. Mr. Johnson said that there had, since Vang Pao always retreated into the hills. Mr. Kissinger observed that the mistake this year was to let the Meo stand and fight.

Mr. Packard said that if the communists took Laos, we would have to move in and implement the Nixon Doctrine in Thailand. He asked if there were no other steps we could take in Laos. General Wheeler said that with good troops and air support, an enemy advance along Route 7/13 could be impeded. Mr. Johnson said that if Thais were used, they should be used there.

Mr. Kissinger said that the principals must be given a chance to consider any proposal that Thai troops be moved. He said it was also essential to have an answer ready for Thanat by the end of the day.

Mr. Kissinger summarized the views on use of Thai troops at Long Tieng. CIA believed we would be no worse off with the Thais than without. The Joint Chiefs had the same view. The State Department [Page 716]was opposed. Mr. Packard said that on balance he was against introducing Thai troops.

Mr. Kissinger asked about assembling a Thai regiment at Udorn. Mr. Packard said this was the least we could do. Mr. Helms had no strong views. Mr. Johnson suggested not pushing the Thais but letting them take the responsibility.

Mr. Kissinger raised the question of the impact of events in Laos on the Thais. Would they not believe that what was happening in Laos would happen to them next year? How should we explain the situation to them? Mr. Johnson and Mr. Packard said we should tell them that Long Tieng is not the place to put their forces. Mr. Kissinger asked Mr. Johnson to draft a reply to Thanat's letter.

Mr. Karamessines asked if the President's latest letter to Kosygin could be shown to Souvanna, and it was agreed this could be done. Mr. Johnson asked about bringing Ambassadors Godley and Unger up to date on recent developments including the Thanat-Kissinger letter. Mr. Kissinger cautioned that his channel to Thanat must be protected, since it was based on an assurance given Thanat by the President in Bangkok that he should feel free to communicate directly through Dr. Kissinger. It was agreed that briefing of the Ambassadors could best be handled through the appropriate CIA station chiefs.

  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. In a March 22 letter to Kissinger, Thanat informed him that the Lao Government had asked for combat units and Thailand was prepared to dispatch immediately to Long Tieng one infantry battalion (777 men) to be followed, if needed, by two additional battalions. Thailand was prepared to do this if the U.S. Government provided the necessary material and logistical support. (Letter attached to a memorandum from Kissinger to Packard and U. Alexis Johnson, March 23; ibid., NSC Files, Box 567, Country Files, Far East, Thailand, Thai Involvement in Laos) On the afternoon of March 22 Kissinger sent Thanat an interim reply stating that the United States had made three B–52 strikes in support of Long Tieng, was studying Thanat's proposal, and would respond “in the immediate future.” (Ibid., Box 101, Vietnam Subject Files, Sensitive/Souvanna Phouma/ Long Tieng)
  3. See footnote 4, Document 204.
  4. In telegram 3366 from Bangkok, March 21, Unger reported that he, Godley, and McCain concluded after meeting on March 20 in Udorn that even if two Thai battalions arrived immediately, they would “provide no guarantee that Long Tieng can be held through the next seventy day critical period until the rains are expected to ease the pressure, but it is our judgment that they improve the chances enough to justify the effort.” The three men also agreed that “it seems entirely unrealistic to contemplate keeping such a deployment covert.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, DEF 19 THAI–LAOS)
  5. See footnote 7, Document 203.