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263. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • NSDM 57—Actions to Protect US Forces in South Vietnam

Issues

I am concerned about two aspects of NSDM 572 and respectfully request clarification or modification of the NSDM, as appropriate.

First, the NSDM, in the last sentence, says “The Washington Special Actions Group is designated as the implementing authority for these steps.” It was not clear to me what that provision meant. I understand there was no intent to alter the in-being operational channels, viz, from you to me, and thence to the field commands. I further understand the sentence will be rescinded,3 and I am appreciative of that change.

The second aspect of the NSDM which concerns me involves the points incident to our meeting this morning.4 The first point was that I had not properly fulfilled my role in describing, evaluating, and making recommendations on the two original options in General Abrams' March 305 submission on possible actions against base areas in Cambodia. The second point was that I was not prepared this morning to [Page 894]discuss these options adequately. The reasons I was less than adequately prepared were (a) the materials I had been using for discussion purposes were prepared on the premise that either the Parrot's Beak or the Base Area 352/353 operation would be considered, but not both; (b) that the Parrot's Beak operation was the one to receive most active consideration; and (c) that, in any event, the decision on the operations had already been made by the time of our meeting this morning.

In view of our discussion, and developments since our meeting, I believe I should provide additional comments. In particular, I believe an operation against Base Area 352/353, using US or combined US/RVN Forces, would involve higher risks and costs than potential benefits. Assuming operations against Base Areas 367/706 in the Parrot's Beak will proceed on schedule, I believe ancillary operations in Base Area 704 are much to be preferred to operations in Base Area 352/353.

Background

There are underway at this time a number of military operations designed to protect US forces in South Vietnam, to provide the background in which Vietnamization and RVN self-determination can be effected, and to exert pressure on the NVA/VC to negotiate for a political settlement. These operations include:

  • RVNAF cross-border operations in conjunction with Cambodian units.
  • MENU strikes.
  • Tactical air operations in Cambodia along more than 50 percent of the Cambodian/SVN border.
  • Surveillance of shipping into Cambodia.
  • Arms shipments to Cambodian forces.
  • Facilitating the introduction of Khmer and tribal forces into Cambodia for use against NVA/VC units there.

The impact of this impressive array of military actions is not entirely clear. The actions are sufficient, in my judgment, to constitute a major plus. General Abrams reported on April 21:

“It cannot be determined at present the tactical effect of ARVN [cross-border] operations; however, if ARVN claims of enemy killed in action, and food and munitions caches captured are valid, the immediate VC/NVA situation within those areas penetrated is considerably less tenable.”6

[Page 895]

Again on April 27, General Abrams reported on RVNAF cross-border operations for the period 18–26 April. Among the results were:

265 enemy killed in action
19 enemy detained
1013 individual weapons captured
46 crew-served weapons captured
70 tons (estimated) munitions captured or destroyed

The MENU operations against six NVA/VC Base Areas in Cambodia are continuing. This week MENU strikes are scheduled every night. More than 3,000 tons of ordnance will be dropped during the operations this week. More than 100,000 tons of ordnance have been expended on the six Base Areas during the past year. General Abrams has consistently made the points that MENU strikes:

  • Produce outstanding operational results.
  • Pre-empt and reduce enemy operations.
  • Disburse and disrupt enemy supply, training and rehabilitation activities.
  • Have a direct bearing on the success of Vietnamization.

The above recap highlights the two most significant categories of operations against the enemy in Cambodia. Combined with the other operations listed, it illustrates the substantial pressure being exerted against the NVA/VC forces there.

Prospective Additional Operations

The joint RVNAF/US operation against Base Areas 367/607 in the Parrot's Beak will be initiated on April 28, Washington time. This is part of Option 2 to which General Abrams referred, and which he outlined in detail, in his messages, MAC 4158 and MAC 4159, of March 30, 1970. I provided you a copy of those messages.7 Included in Option 2, also, was an attack by ARVN forces on Base Area 704. Option 1 in General Abrams' planning message was an attack, principally by US forces, on Base Areas 352/353.

I had assumed, perhaps mistakenly, that Option 1 and Option 2, as outlined by COMUSMACV, were just that—options to be considered on an either-or basis, if the decision were made to proceed with sizeable cross-border operations involving US support or involvement. I had not contemplated nor assumed the two options, or any portions of the two options, would be conducted simultaneously. General Abrams' March 30 messages, as you may recall, treated the options, at [Page 896]least implicitly, in a mutually exclusive manner. He consistently compared the options, providing advantages and disadvantages of each, and inferring they were being made available for selection between the two.

As more serious consideration centered on operations in the Parrot's Beak Base Areas 367/706, therefore, I assumed at least a portion of Option 2 was the focal point for discussion. I realized that some messages had been exchanged in military channels on the implications of Option 1, i.e., operations against Base Area 352/353. But in the absence of National Security Council deliberations on Option 1, I concluded that the attention to the Parrot's Beak operation obviated Option 1. For those reasons I did not see the necessity for, or utility in, providing my views on any prospective ground operation in Base Area 352/353. I was surprised, as a result, by the tentative decision to move against those Base Areas, in accordance with the Option 1 plan, as well as against Base Areas 367/706.

In contemplating the introduction of US units into Cambodia, especially in sizeable force, it is impossible to postulate some near-term potential military and political advantages. The operations would further disrupt the supply, command and control, training, and rehabilitation areas of enemy forces. Some impact could be made on the combat strength levels of the enemy forces in Cambodia. The pressure might constitute some incentive for the other side to negotiate.

I do not believe the sum total of potential benefits of the contemplated US and US/RVNAF ground actions can be expected, even if the operations go according to plan, to be decisive in the conflict in Southeast Asia. The other side has shown the requisite flexibility in the past to adjust his base areas in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia against strikes by our side. Hanoi still retains the capability to replace combat losses, both in men and material. The requisite pressure to induce meaningful negotiations is an unknown. But given the overall uncertainties currently extant throughout Indochina, it is not reasonable to expect the projected operations to be sufficient to cause Hanoi to believe that now is the appropriate time to negotiate seriously.

In fact, Hanoi might use the projected actions, especially if the US is heavily involved on the ground, to arrive at an opposite conclusion. On the premise that added US ground involvement may arouse strong US popular and Congressional disapproval, Hanoi might retrench from any negotiating plans that otherwise would have been contemplated. The actions against Base Areas 352/353, which would place US military personnel on the ground in Cambodia, carry the following risks and costs:

  • • Put at risk the support of the American people for our operations in Southeast Asia.
  • • Constitute the beginning of operational patterns which, if continued, go beyond our budgeted resources.
  • • Provide the operational setting in which US combat deaths can, and probably will, exceed by significant amounts those of the past weeks and months. (The leakage of plans to the enemy, the lack of familiarity with the terrain, the size of the operations, and the stated enemy objective of protecting base areas point to such a conclusion.)

Alternatives

There are three alternatives readily available, as companion-pieces to the scheduled Parrot's Beak operations:

1.
Initiate the ground attacks in Base Areas 352/353, as outlined by General Abrams in his original Option 1.
2.
Initiate ground attacks in Base Area 704, as outlined by General Abrams as a component part of his original Option 2.
3.
Initiate no further large-scale US or US/RVNAF ground operations at this time.

The principle advantages and disadvantages of each alternative, in my judgment, are as follows:

Alternative 1: Base Areas 352/353

Advantages:

a.
Potential for destruction, or disruption, of the major enemy command and control headquarters.
b.
Simultaneous pressure on the enemy across a broad front.

Disadvantages:

a.
Substantial US ground presence required, far higher than that involved in any other alternative. US forces are involved in all contemplated options; but the degree of US involvement in this alternative, especially on Cambodian soil, is so much greater in this case as to constitute a difference in kind.
b.
High US combat deaths to be expected. General Abrams, considering a scale of high, medium, and low intensity combat, concluded that both the Parrot's Beak and 352/353 operations “would fall into the High Intensity category.” Given the relative US ground involvement in the latter operation, we would have to expect high US casualties.
c.
Explaining in a credible way the type and degree of US involvement would be inordinately more difficult than for other alternatives involving a lower US profile, especially on the ground.

Alternative 2: Base Area 704

Advantages:

a.
Provides added simultaneous pressure against the NVA/VC forces in Cambodia.
b.
Is essentially an ARVN operation, especially on the ground.
c.
Would involve fewer US casualties.
d.
Has consistently been part of the Option 2 planning and therefore should constitute little difficulty in implementation.

Disadvantages:

a.
Lessens opportunity for direct attack on COSVN. (It should be noted, however, we have the opportunity, and have been using that opportunity, to use MENU strikes against Base Areas 352/353. Because of the civilian Cambodian population involved, that option does not exist for Base Area 704.)
b.
Increases the danger of non-combatant casualties, because of the relatively more populated area involved. (This can be ameliorated to some extent through coordination with the Cambodian government.)

Alternative 3: Do Nothing More Than Parrot's Beak

Advantages:

a.
Lessens overall US involvement.
b.
Simplifies planning and coordination.

Disadvantages:

a. Loses opportunity to make major impact on NVA/VC base areas, especially since the die will have been cast in principle in the Parrot's Beak operation.

Summary and Recommendations

Overall, I believe the level and type of effort we and the South Vietnamese, in conjunction with Cambodian forces, have been putting on the enemy have been productive towards achieving US goals. The prospective Parrot's Beak operation, with its relatively low US profile, should add to that pressure.

If we are to proceed with other sizeable ground attacks against enemy base areas in Cambodia, I recommend you authorize the operation against Base Area 704, i.e., Alternative 2 above. I believe the lower US profile involved, the prospects for lower US combat deaths, and the alternatives using air assets against Base Areas 352/353, make preferable the Base Area 704 operation. The increment of potential value to be achieved by operations involving large US forces on the ground in Cambodia would not, in my judgment, justify the added risks and costs ancillary to such operations. In addition, you should know that General Abrams has been having difficulty getting agreement from the South Vietnamese for their share of participation in any 352/353 operation. Such South Vietnamese reluctance would make it even more a US operation.

I believe we should continue with operations as planned, plus an ARVN attack on Base Area 704, and withhold involvement of sizeable US ground forces on Cambodian soil. The totality of our current and [Page 899]prospective military operations is significant. It seems prudent to me to defer involving US personnel on Cambodian soil, at least until the overall military and political picture in Southeast Asia is clearer, the potential US benefits from such involvement are greater, or the risks and costs attendant to such US actions are less.

Melvin R. Laird
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 145, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, April 1, 1970. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. On April 27 at 10:25 a.m., Laird telephoned Kissinger to complain about the WSAG being the implementing agency for NSDM 57. Kissinger suggested “coordinating” was a better word. Laird also told Kissinger that “regardless of what Wheeler tells you casualties will run at least as high as the iron triangle.” Laird did not want the President to blame him when they reached 800. Kissinger stated that the President said this was the price he would have to pay and he felt “we are on a slow bleeding course now.” At 1 p.m. on April 24, Kissinger called Laird to tell him the operations were being delayed for 24 hours. Laird admitted that he was not prepared for the meeting with the President on April 27 (see Document 261) and was surprised that the President was authorizing an attack against COSVN and the Parrot's Beak as well as base 704. Kissinger replied, “I am getting restive that people are implying the President isn't getting all the information.” (Transcript of telephone conversation between Kissinger and Laird, April 24; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 363, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)
  2. Document 260.
  3. See NSDM 58, Document 270.
  4. See Document 261.
  5. See the summaries in Documents 219 and 264.
  6. Brackets in the source text. The origin of this telegram extract has not been identified.
  7. Attached to Document 219.