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239. Editorial Note

While in Hawaii to welcome back the astronauts from the Apollo 13 moon mission, President Nixon met on April 19, 1970, from 7:30 to 9:10 a.m. with Commander in Chief, Pacific, Admiral John McCain and [Page 832]other military advisers in the Governor's suite of the Kahala Hilton Hotel for a military briefing on the Pacific Command. (President's Daily Diary, April 19; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files) According to an April 20 memorandum from General James D. Hughes, the President's Military Aide, to Kissinger, the briefing by McCain included the following discussion on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia:

“Admiral McCain stated the B52s are doing a great job overall. He discussed certain missions and the President showed great interest in this. In particular, the missions flown were on SAM sites numbers 387–751 which were covered. The results were good (you probably already have received the word). The President was greatly interested.

“Admiral McCain felt that the border areas in Cambodia were definitely controlled by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese and felt that their principal effort was to isolate Phnom Penh. He expressed four possible solutions for Cambodia.

  • “a. Go back to military aid to bolster the weak Army.
  • “b. Covert financing to assist them with their financial difficulties.
  • “c. Let the ARVN cross the border and fight. Admiral McCain mentioned that General Lew Walt in a recent visit to President Thieu said that Thieu was violently in favor of this.
  • “d. Proceed as we have in Laos—Air strikes and artillery support.

“Admiral McCain felt that the ARVN could provide air and artillery support in Cambodia if we would take up the slack in South Vietnam.

“The President asked about the forces required to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail. CINCPAC stated that the cut would require 2–3 divisions in the III and IV corps areas and approximately 5 divisions in the I and II corps areas. Further CINCPAC felt that it was not practical to do this with conventional forces but air strikes and irregular forces were more effective. The President expressed high interest in this, particularly in the development of contingency plans to accomplish this mission.

“During the discussion of Vietnam, the President showed much interest in the Chieu Hoi program. CINCPAC was most optimistic about the program and claimed that it was definitely on the upswing. A comparison of the first quarter of calendar year 1970 with first quarter calendar year 1969 shows a slight reduction but CINCPAC felt that this will be overcome this Spring.

“1969 First three months—10,612

“1970 First three months—8,983

“The President was very interested in the SAM sites and asked if our reconnaissance efforts were productive. He was anxious that CINCPAC have plans to strike new strikes and re-strike old ones.

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CINCPAC mentioned the importance of the POL pipeline beginning at the port of Vinh.

“The President expressed interest in this and said that we should keep this information coming in so these lines can be hit. Strikes against POL pipelines would be difficult to hit because of ground cover. The CINCPAC mentioned that the best area was approximately 12 miles in Laos, however, he felt that the port of Vinh had to be closed. The President pressed the point and CINCPAC said the best way was to take the docks and pumping stations. He urged CINCPAC to submit plans on these and other lucrative targets for considerations. The President reiterated that he considered the oil sites a high priority target and again urged that the CINCPAC propose plans to target these sites.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 559, Country Files, Far East, Southeast Asia, Vol. II, General)

At Nixon's request, McCain traveled to San Clemente, California, to give Kissinger the same briefing the next day, April 20. Kissinger and Nixon met with McCain from 2:15 to 2:30 p.m. in the den at San Clemente. (President's Daily Diary; ibid., White House Central Files) In reporting his discussion with the President and Kissinger to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Wheeler, McCain stated that the President had asked what would be the best mix of GVN and U.S. forces to use if cross-border operations were mounted. Nixon also asked if only South Vietnamese forces should be used with the United States providing air and artillery support from within South Vietnam. McCain assured the President that plans were being prepared and would be submitted to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on an urgent basis. The President informed McCain that Lon Nol should be helped to establish communication with Saigon and that he had approved financial support for the Lon Nol government as well as transfer of Soviet bloc weapons captured by South Vietnam's armed forces for Cambodia's armed forces. The theme of the meetings, McCain told Wheeler, was “the need for speed in view of the ‘precarious situation' in Cambodia.” (Telegram 220437Z from CINCPAC to CJS, April 22; OCJCS File 091, Cambodia, 14–21 May 1970, as quoted in the Historical Division, Joint Secretariat, JCS, The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the War in Vietnam, 1969–1970, pages 247–248.)

After the meeting the President called Kissinger and informed him that “Cambodia is important and we will have to do it fast. I need to know how soon the VN can get going over there.” Nixon also wanted to be sure that Cambodia formally requested South Vietnamese assistance. The President stressed that, “Aiding Cambodia with arms is use-less—they cannot use them. Get the Money to Lon Nol.” When Kissinger informed the President that he had doubled the CIA initial figure of $5 million, Nixon replied, “that will give him [Lon Nol] some [Page 834]assurance. Don't limit the psychology thing.” Finally Nixon suggested to Kissinger that he wanted to make clear to McCain that while he was not ordering U.S. troops to take part in the operation, “I don't want SVN to get in there and then get the hell kicked out.” (Transcript of telephone conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, December 20, 2:40 p.m.; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 362, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)

Kissinger recalls that McCain, “brought home to Nixon the danger to Laos and Cambodia” and “gave focus to his inchoate anxieties about Cambodia.” According to Kissinger, McCain also reinforced Nixon's conviction that the withdrawal schedule for U.S. troops should be flexible. Kissinger admits that he had come to the same conclusion as the President and McCain: the United States could not stand by and watch Cambodia collapse and ultimately cause the collapse of the U.S. effort in Vietnam. (Kissinger, White House Years, pages 480, 487)