211. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1
- Thai Troops in Laos
- Henry A. Kissinger, Chairman
- U. Alexis Johnson
- Marshall Green
- David Packard
- General Cushman
- Thomas Karamessines
- William Nelson
- General Earle Wheeler
- NSC Staff
- John Holdridge
- Richard Kennedy
Dr. Kissinger said he had again been with the President,2 who wasn’t inclined to let Laos go down the drain and let the record show he had disregarded the appeals of the King of Laos, Souvanna and [Page 724] Thanat.3 Mr. Johnson noted that the group had just been discussing the alternatives and outlined them for Dr. Kissinger. First, acceding to the original Thai and Lao request, [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]; second, agreeing to move the Thai battalion in and providing pay and allowances, but as openly declared Thai forces in Thai uniforms (Mr. Packard remarked that this would make little difference in terms of US public opinion); third, making a firm commitment to induce the Thai RCT under certain conditions, namely, that they be declared as Thai in the same way as the Thai forces in Vietnam, and if Long Tieng is lost and the North Vietnam forces advance; fifth [fourth], stopping short of a firm commitment by assembling the RCT and beefing it up; and sixth [fifth], reaffirming the previous position we have taken in response to the Thai and Lao requests. In the last two alternatives, we would lay every emphasis on what we were doing in the air by way of showing that we were not standing idly by.
Dr. Kissinger asked what advantage there would be in declaring the Thai presence. Mr. Johnson replied that there would be an advantage in the U.S. showing that we were not continuing to fight a secret war, but rather that the Thais felt strongly enough to take a clear stand. To a question from Dr. Kissinger as to whether the Thai would be willing to declare their forces, Mr. Johnson said that this remained to be seen. With respect to Long Tieng, they were reluctant, but if the RCT crossed the border, he didn’t see how they could be expected to act in any other way. However, they had not discussed this matter in connection with the RCT. General Wheeler noted that this raised the question of our SEATO commitments. The only excuse we could use to justify putting Thai troops into Laos was that they considered a threat existed to Thailand. Mr. Johnson added that the question would apply more realistically to the Taksin Plan. An important element in the RCT idea was that we could say we were not making a commitment of US ground forces. He hoped though that we could finesse the Taksin Plan being implemented.
Dr. Kissinger stated that he was interested in General Wheeler’s question, and wondered if it were not important for the Thai forces to receive sheep-dipping. If they were to go in as regular forces, it would be difficult to avoid involving SEATO. On the other hand, we could claim that SEATO did not apply, and use this justification to handle Senatorial criticism.[Page 725]
Mr. Green observed that the more covert the operation, the more suspect it would be, and the more press criticism would arise. He thought that if the operation were limited, we could get away with it, but if it were larger it wouldn’t jell.
Dr. Kissinger asked how large a force was involved. Mr. Green spoke of a regimental sized unit; Mr. Karamessines explained that the total force would involve 770 infantry plus 100 support troops.
Dr. Kissinger noted that the SEATO commitment would be more severe if we waited until Long Tieng fell and the North Vietnamese started to advance afterwards. A brief discussion ensued on the state of the road (Route 52) between Long Tieng and Route 13, in which it was agreed that the road did not go all the way through. Dr. Kissinger hoped that AID had stopped construction on the road, and Mr. Green declared that Ambassador Godley could see to this point.
Reverting to the question of US public opinion, Mr. Johnson thought that we could get away with one Thai battalion in Long Tieng, but nothing more. General Wheeler agreed, saying that this was something under 1,000 men, but if additional battalions were to cross the river we couldn’t get away with it. There was some talk about moving in two BCTs from the Black Panthers in Vietnam, which would bring headlines in every paper in the country.
Dr. Kissinger called for a discussion of the Long Tieng situation, and asked General Wheeler for a military judgment on what effect there would be if, for example, a Thai battalion were put in as of 9:00 A.M. the next day. General Wheeler replied that even with another 1,000 men he could not guarantee Long Tieng could be held against the forces which the North Vietnamese had available. These forces had been ordered to take the position. They had seized an outpost yesterday which Vang Pao had retaken. There was another North Vietnamese division along Route 7, the 312th Division, which had not been brought in at all. If Hanoi were willing to pay the price, the additional Thai men would be no guarantee. They would, however, add to the chances that Long Tieng could be held.
Dr. Kissinger wondered how long Long Tieng could be held, and how long it would take to move the 312th Division into the area. General Wheeler estimated that if the unit could be brought in within four days, they would be doing well. Mr. Nelson thought that four days would be very rapid and Mr. Karamessines estimated that a week would be more likely. The distance it would need to cover was about 40 miles.
Mr. Johnson asked General Wheeler if the North Vietnamese had the ability to close the airport. General Wheeler replied affirmatively. If the enemy seized the high ground, he could make it very unpleasant. General Cushman referred to the 122 mm rockets in the enemy’s [Page 726] possession. According to Mr. Johnson, this would make it difficult to move in supplies and evacuate personnel.
Dr. Kissinger asked if 1,000 men would be enough to stand up against what the enemy has near Long Tieng now less the additional Division. General Wheeler set the North Vietnamese forces at 2,000 to 2,400 men, to which Dr. Kissinger speculated whether the introduction of 1,000 men before the enemy could increase his forces would add up to a fair chance that the position could be held. Mr. Nelson set the Lao forces in the immediate vicinity of Long Tieng at 1,700 men in the inner perimeter, with another 1,800 in the outskirts.
Dr. Kissinger questioned whether we would know of the movement of the other North Vietnamese Division sufficiently far in advance so as to have time for an orderly retreat. General Cushman replied that for this we would need more ARDF. General Wheeler stated that the North Vietnamese were putting in a land line between the Plain of Jars and the Sam Thong/Long Tieng area, hence we might or might not know. Presumably the forces in Vang Pao’s small outposts might be able to give us some warning.
Dr. Kissinger declared that there were two arguments in favor of moving the Thai forces: (1) we might be able to hold Long Tieng, and (2) we might prevent the disintegration of Vang Pao’s army and give him a chance for an orderly retreat. By preventing a rout, we would keep his forces in the field. He wondered to what extent the Thai battalion would contribute. General Wheeler referred to the “shrill appeals” which we had received from virtually everyone in the field. The introduction of the Thai forces would serve as a considerable morale factor for Vang Pao and his troops. The arrival of Sierra Romeo IX had exerted a very favorable effect on the defenders. Putting 1,000 men in would not guarantee holding Long Tieng, but would have a value in terms of the morale factor which could allow Vang Pao to hang on longer. From a morale point of view, he was inclined to take the chance. This would raise the cost to the enemy. This was not the military decision, though, but a political one involving US public opinion and the heat which the President would face. Dr. Kissinger observed that it would be nothing like the heat we would face if we were to lose Vietnam.
Mr. Packard said that Secretary Laird was against the move. There was a chance that we would be able to get over the immediate problem posed by the Church Amendment satisfactorily,4 but there might be restrictions on what we might do in other parts of the world.[Page 727]
General Cushman supported putting the Thai battalion into Long Tieng, adding that he would be happier if we could send in 2,000 men. Vang Pao’s forces needed a shot to their morale. If they didn’t get it, they might fold up and not stop their retreat until they reached Sayaboury. He agreed with General Wheeler that the decision was essentially political and that militarily speaking the addition of one or two thousand men would not guarantee a defense if the other North Vietnamese Division came in. A lot depended on the weather, and the air sortie rate we could maintain. He anticipated that we could get an intelligence picture of the other division from our ARDF resources.
Dr. Kissinger asked how quickly the attack could come. General Cushman said that the enemy was probing now in a very methodical way, and had three months’ time until the rains came.
Dr. Kissinger asked for Mr. Johnson’s views. Mr. Johnson indicated that his previous objections still stood. On the military side, if the enemy got into a position where he could close the air field, we might face a real disaster there. Would the more people we brought in invite a bigger disaster? General Cushman acknowledged that the enemy could close the air field but said that we could use our air support against the enemy gun positions—the situation was not like that at Khesanh.
Mr. Nelson said that air drops could be affected.
Dr. Kissinger asked if gun ships had been brought in, and General Wheeler spoke of the addition of three AC–130 gun ships and 13 extra hours of ARDF.
Mr. Johnson said that he was still bearish about putting a battalion into Long Tieng but recognized the situation in both Thailand and Laos in the light of the new Souvanna appeal. He, therefore, proposed beefing up what we had said about putting the RCT in, and doing what was necessary to make it an effective force as quickly as possible. It was now scattered, and needed training. Rather than commiting Thai troops now, he would rather see an effective Thai force built up.
Dr. Kissinger summed up the Long Tieng case, saying that if 1,000 men were moved in before the North Vietnamese launched a full-scale attack, this would increase the probability that it could be held. The result might be that the enemy would need to move in another Division, which would create delay. The Meo morale would also be stiffened, and to the extent that we attach importance to maintaining the Meo, would increase the chances of an organized retreat. Against, we might move into a Dienbienphu, with an enormous political headache which might multiply the political restrictions on our movements. Mr. Packard said that he wanted to amplify Dr. Kissinger’s last statement to apply it to Vietnam. We would be restricted from doing things in South Vietnam. We were doing well there but needed more time; if we [Page 728] lost this time we would lose the whole ball game. Dr. Kissinger said that there was a contrary argument—how was Hanoi going to interpret events if it launched an attack contrary to the 1962 Accords and we pulled out our troops in April as scheduled. Was there a psychological ball game? The President was weighing this, and the implications if the Vietnamization process were to get kicked over. Mr. Packard argued that until Long Tieng fell we had other responses. We could hit North Vietnam, and if we wanted to send a message this would be more direct than introducing a few Thai troops. Dr. Kissinger said that in talking to the President he would try to reflect the discussions here.
Mr. Green wanted to bring up some additional cons. If the Thai put in 1,300 men, this would be a big commitment; if they were defeated and retreated, there would be a serious effect on Thai morale. As a related matter, the enemy was bringing up reserves, and would be tempted to give a good blow against the Thai to rile up the US scene. If the Thai forces retreated to Site 272 the North Vietnamese would be tempted to follow. Unger had reported in an earlier message that the RCT was not accustomed to functioning as a unit and would need two months to be upgraded.5 Dr. Kissinger asked if Unger’s position hadn’t been reversed. It was his impression that in the Udorn meeting there was a unanimous recommendation that the battalion should go in.6 Mr. Green acknowledged that there might have been a reversal. However, the message had not come from Unger but from Admiral McCain and reflected the consensus.7 Dr. Kissinger requested the State representatives to query Unger as to his personal views and get a response by the following morning.8 He was interested in how Unger would weigh the demoralizing factor of turning down two requests from the Thai and Lao against the other considerations.[Page 729]
Mr. Nelson submitted one additional pro—the coup problem in Laos, i.e. if there were a serious defeat, what the rightists might do against Souvanna for not having pulled it off. Dr. Kissinger proposed to leave this particular issue aside for the moment, and raised the problem of how to implement a move should the President decide to take action. General Wheeler and Mr. Karamessines agreed that airlift was on hand, and that the troops could be moved as ready. Dr. Kissinger asked if we needed to go to Souvanna and Thanat with a plan. Mr. Johnson replied that no detailed plan was needed, and that JUSMAG and the Thai could work out the operation on the ground. He did not know the time factor though, and would need a judgment from Bangkok. Dr. Kissinger asked for a detailed plan by 8:30 AM March 26.9 He wondered also if a diplomatic scenario was required, and Mr. Johnson replied negatively since we had already talked to the Thai and the Lao.
Dr. Kissinger wondered what the next step would be if the decision was not to go in now. General Wheeler advocated assembling the Thai RCT in Udorn to get ready to move at a later time. His information on the RCT was that it needed a shake-down period to get supplied and for the troops to get used to one another. This would be doing something positive. Mr. Johnson agreed, spoke again on the possibility the Thai might want to pull the Black Panthers from Vietnam, and raised the question of the Thai asking us for more equipment now. General Wheeler stated that JUSMAG and the Thai could provide equipment from stocks now on hand.
Ambassador Johnson thought that for our commitment to have meaning, we would need to support the Thai forces in Laos on the same basis as their forces in Vietnam. If Long Tieng fell, and the North Vietnamese advanced, this would give substance to our commitment.
Dr. Kissinger wondered, as a practical matter, whether the North Vietnamese could get as far as Vientiane before the rains. Mr. Johnson thought not. They have the problems of extended LOCs, and Cambodia. This would be a contingency which we would not need to implement. General Wheeler demurred, saying that U.S. troops could get [Page 730] from Long Tieng to Vientiane before the rains. Mr. Packard said that the question was not so much as whether they could get to Vientiane but whether they would. General Cushman referred to the possibility of putting the one battalion in, and pulling the rest of the RCT together.
Dr. Kissinger raised the proposition of telling Souvanna that we had considered his request, made an analysis, and concluded that the most useful role for the Thai troops would be to assemble them as a RCT, offer support. We were also prepared to agree to immediate consultations with him and the Thai; after the fall of Long Tieng, we would move the troops to an agreed place, and support them on the same basis as in Vietnam. Was this rational? Mr. Packard said it was rational, but on political grounds was serious. Mr. Johnson agreed that this was a serious commitment, and hoped that we would not be called on to implement it. Mr. Kissinger noted that it was hard to play “chicken” if we were not prepared to play the game. Mr. Packard said that if Long Tieng fell, then the President had a better test of whether Laos was going to fall. Dr. Kissinger noted that the President had already rejected the lesser options which had been proposed.
The group discussed briefly the time required to move the battalion from Udorn into Laos. Dr. Kissinger suggested that General Cushman work this out together with Defense. General Cushman agreed. Mr. Johnson reaffirmed that he would get Unger’s assessment. Dr. Kissinger promised to get the pros and cons together by 8:30 AM March 26 and see where we stood. Dr. Kissinger said he recognized that participation of the Thai might increase the North Vietnamese intention to attack, but this might decrease if it got us involved. He outlined the pros and cons of the second case: Pro—It would avoid a Dienbienphu, keep the Thai from being overrun, show Thanat and Souvanna that we were responsive, deal with the domestic situation by showing that we had waited until enemy intentions were unambiguous and had exercised enormous restraint in the face of strong pleas. Moreover there was the chance we might not have to act. Con—The danger was that the action would not be enough to keep Souvanna from stampeding, and it would be harder to avoid involving SEATO and the Taksin Plan because it would bring the threat closer to the Thai border and our commitment would be larger. Was this a fair assessment?
A discussion ensued on the consequences of a Thai disaster at Long Tieng, as opposed to whether a worse one might ensue at Vang Vien two weeks from now if no attempt were made to defend Long Tieng. Also, would the injection of the Thai give the Meo an opportunity for an orderly retreat to Site 272?
The meeting concluded with a remark by General Wheeler that Laos could not be defended from Laos and that other actions were needed if our positions were to be held.
- 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 six other 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.↩
- Kissinger met with the President and Helms from 12:30 to 1:04 p.m., with the President and Haldeman from 1:05 to 1:31 p.m., and alone with the President from 4:23 to 4:29 p.m. on March 25. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files, Daily Diary) In his meeting with the President and Kissinger, Helms stressed the need for Thai troops at Long Tieng, and covered the military situation, Souvanna’s state of mind, the possibility of a rightist coup if Long Tieng fell, and warned that Thai battalions could only delay the fall. Helms continued: “Apologizing for my vulgarity, I told the President that I realized this was a ‘shitty’ decision to ask a President of the United States to make but in light of all the factors it seemed a desirable thing to do at this juncture. He [Nixon] commented that it had been necessary to do a number of unpleasant things recently and that this was one more that could be taken on as well.” (Memorandum for the record by Helms, March 25; Central Intelligence Agency Files, DCI (Helms) Files, Job 80–B01285A, Helms Chron, 1 Jan–30 June 1970) Records of the other meetings have not been found.↩
- The King of Laos told Godley that he “ardently hoped we (the U.S. Government) would be able to assist the Thais in assisting the Lao in a most discreet manner.” (Backchannel message from Godley, enclosed in a memorandum from Karamessines to Kissinger, March 25; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 546, Country Files, Far East, Laos, Vol. IV, 1 February 1970–31 March 1970) Regarding Souvanna’s request, see footnote 5, Document 214; for Thanat’s request, see footnote 2, Document 207.↩
- The Senate voted on December 16 (73–17) to prohibit committing U.S. ground forces to Laos or Thailand in an amendment by Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) to the Defense Appropriations bill. It was included in the final bill as passed by the House and Senate on December 18 and approved by the President as an “endorsement” of his Asian policy. (Congressional Quarterly Almanac, Vol. XXV, 1969, pp. 454, 462–463, 998–999)↩
- Not found.↩
- See footnote 4, Document 207.↩
- Regarding Unger’s message, see footnote 6 above; McCain’s consensus message has not been found. The Station Chief in Vientiane also attended the Udorn meeting. He reported that McCain, Rosson, Godley, Unger, and he and their staffs reached the conclusion at Udorn on March 20 that “only ground troops supported by heavy TACAIR and ARCLIGHT strikes could hold Long Tieng.” A negative decision “would take the last bit of fight out” of Vang Pao. The fall of Long Tieng would cause Souvanna to negotiate from weakness in the projected talks with the Pathet Lao. (Text of a backchannel message from Vientiane, March 24, enclosed in a memorandum from Karamessines to Kissinger, March 25; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 546, Country Files, Far East, Laos, Vol. IV, 1 February 1970–31 March 1970)↩
- Unger sent Johnson a long backchannel message at 12:42Z, March 26, in which he answered a series of questions posed by Johnson. In summarizing the message for Kissinger, Haig stated, “I draw the conclusion that Unger favors the introduction of the Thai battalion if the situation on the ground so dictates it. He has politely cut through some of the specious Johnson arguments while not confronting them head on.” (Memorandum from Haig to Kissinger, March 26, with backchannel message from Unger; ibid.) Haig also informed Kissinger that Sullivan prepared a memorandum on March 26 that Johnson sent to Kissinger in which Sullivan argued that the war in Military Region II had never been about territory. The Meo (Hmong) “have traditionally fought to keep their tribe alive, rather than to retain their real estate. They are essentially nomadic.” Sullivan noted that the lowland Lao were far more interested in territory as a buffer against North Vietnam, and that Souvanna’s plea was not new and the “lowland Lao military officers put him up to it.” (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 LAOS)↩
- On March 26 an unattributed paper outlined an operational plan to move the Thai battalion from Udorn to Long Tieng. (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 101, Vietnam Subject Files, Sensitive/Souvanna Phouma/Long Tieng)↩