224. Backchannel Message From the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

933. To the White House Eyes Only Henry A. Kissinger.

General Abrams and I have been working on an overall assessment of the inter-relationship between recent events in Laos, Cambodia and Viet-Nam and on recommendations for courses of action particularly with respect to Cambodia. We have decided to send in the assessment portion alone through State Department channels (Saigon 5182)2 and to provide the recommendations separately through this channel because of their sensitivity. Following are those recommendations, to be read as the concluding portion of the ref message.
We think some selected and judicious help should be given to Cambodia for reasons set forth in the concluding two paragraphs of our assessment.3 Here are our views on the forms that such cooperation might take:
One important area where early help will be needed is in the economic field. We should engage in quiet discussions with Japan, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia as to how we might help. One possibility might be a special fund attached to the ADB.
We recognize the cross-border operations and other forms of cross-border cooperation are a very delicate business. As indicated in our assessment the Cambodian Government cannot request or welcome [Page 799] them openly—indeed they might request them secretly and criticize them publicly—and we also understand that such operations create problems in the U.S. whether conducted by GVN or U.S. forces. We expect such operations would create especially intractable problems if conducted in thickly inhabited areas of Cambodia. The VC/NVA are often established in or near Cambodian villages, and air attack against such positions for instance would create an outcry that we must be careful to avoid. We are also quite aware from recent experience that most cross-border operations cannot be concealed.
The purpose of cross-border operations, as we have stated, should be to induce uncertainty and worry in the enemy that we may take advantage of his exposed position if he commits himself too deeply into Cambodia in actions against the Cambodian forces. A subsidiary purpose, which can be served at the same time, is to restrain the South Vietnamese forces from ill-considered actions across the border which could be dangerous or unprofitable and would result in friction between them and us. We can only exercise control if we sit down with the South Vietnamese and plan jointly for cross-border operations and contingencies. We regard this as exceedingly important.
There are some cross-border operations which could be undertaken with military profit. These would be in unpopulated areas where we could strike selected bases, headquarters, communications centers and supply lines. On the ground reliance should be on Vietnamese forces. The main U.S. effort should be in air and artillery support and operational planning. We have in mind targets where there is virtually no population other than enemy military personnel.
There may also develop military opportunities and/or political and psychological requirements which call for penetrations across the border. For example in certain tactical contingencies we might help the Cambodian forces by allowing ARVN units to engage in shallow penetrations of the border, to a degree just sufficient to prevent the enemy from discounting the threat to his rear.
It seems from here that what we need now are preparations and where necessary the initiation of selected and limited actions to meet three ends:
To signal to the enemy that we are not prepared to stand idle if they pursue a policy of military or insurrectionary pressure against the Lon Nol government;
To avoid serious strains in our relations with the GVN that are bound to develop if we try to clamp total restraints on them; and
To give encouragement to the Lon Nol government at a time when they are most in need of it.
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 410, Backchannel Messages, Southeast Asia, 1970. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only.
  2. Telegram 5182 from Saigon, April 7, is ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 ASIA SE. NSC staff member David McManis summarized the telegram for Kissinger and sent it through Haig, who characterized Bunker’s assessment as “a hard line view!” (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 145, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, April 1, 1970)
  3. The last two paragraphs of telegram 5182 from Saigon read: “As seen from Saigon, it is in our interest to keep the Lon Nol Government in being because it will cooperate less with the VC/NVA than any likely successor government. We think this is true even if Lon Nol came to a limited accommodation with the enemy. The most likely alternative government to Lon Nol would be a government completely subservient to the Communists if not controlled by them.
    “In the military field, we should so conduct ourselves as to induce uncertainty and worry in the enemy that we may take advantage of his exposed position if he commits himself too deeply into Cambodia in action against the Cambodian forces.” Bunker concluded that there were courses that could achieve this end while also reassuring and encouraging the Cambodians. He agreed with the Embassy in Phnom Penh, that assistance to Cambodia should depend on evidence that the Cambodians were doing all they could themselves.