297. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Laos and Cambodia


  • Henry A. Kissinger, Chairman
  • State
  • U. Alexis Johnson
  • Marshall Green
  • Tom Pickering
  • Defense
  • G. Warren Nutter
  • Dennis Doolin
  • CIA
  • Richard Helms
  • Thomas Karamessines
  • NSC Staff
  • John H. Holdridge
  • Colonel Richard Kennedy
  • JCS
  • Admiral Moorer

The meeting opened with a discussion of the impending operations against Base Area 740, which Admiral Moorer described as being primarily an ARVN affair. Dr. Kissinger asked if when the plan came over and the President decided what to do, this would complete the base area operations. Admiral Moorer notes that attack in Base Area 609 in the tri-border area had not been considered yet. Dr. Kissinger [Page 986] said and all agreed that Base Area 609 was not included among those which were to be considered. Admiral Moorer said that then Base Area 704 would complete the program.

Dr. Kissinger turned to the question of the Presidential Directive on military assistance to Cambodia, and asked what its status was. Colonel Kennedy stated that it was with the Bureau of the Budget. He noted that the date of the first arms shipment was April 22, and that the date of the Cambodian request for assistance was April 14. Mr. Nutter thought that this first shipment was difficult to consider as U.S. aid because it involved AK–47s. Dr. Kissinger asked if it was the judgment of the group that the Presidential Decision should be transmitted to State as soon as possible after the President had signed it, so that Congress could be informed promptly. Ambassador Johnson said that there was no advantage in delaying the action, and that the deadline in fact was May 22. After asking again if there was any disagreement, Dr. Kissinger said that he would have Colonel Kennedy check with Bryce Harlow, and that subject to any different view on Harlow’s part, the action would be taken as recommended. Admiral Moorer mentioned that Senator Fulbright had made clear during Secretary Laird’s testimony that this issue had bothered him. Secretary Laird had indicated that the Presidential Determination would be coming forward.

Dr. Kissinger brought up the draft cable on guidance for ARVN operations in Cambodia.2 Ambassador Johnson stated that he had received the NSC redraft and had sent suggestions back. He had also received a call from Mr. Packard saying that much more emphasis should be given to the South Vietnam aspects. Accordingly, he had tried to retain the same language as the redraft but had shifted the South Vietnam wording into an earlier part of the draft. What he had presented now represented the NSC draft plus changes. Dr. Kissinger declared that he had had the benefit of extensive Presidential directives, so he was clear in his mind as to what the President intended. We should stop the debate, and do what the President says. He wondered whether what was called for in paragraph 3 could actually be done. How could we stop doing things in Cambodia and still accomplish what the President wanted done? He referred again to the repeated Presidential directives, which the President had reiterated in his conversation earlier this same day with Ambassador Bunker.3 What the President wanted was (1) more ARVN flexibility in operating in the base areas and in establishing a better posture to re-enter them, (2) use of the ARVN as a [Page 987] deterrent force against North Vietnamese pressures on Cambodia and (3) for ARVN to be in a position after July 1 to deter the NVA from reentering the base areas. The base areas had to be cleaned up, and if the ARVN needed to go back it should be permitted to do so. It should also have the capability of putting pressure on the North Vietnamese. There would be difficulties if the draft said that this should not diminish capability to operate in Vietnam.

Ambassador Johnson asked if the President didn’t agree with the concept that the thrust should be to take advantage of the gains made? Dr. Kissinger replied that if this point was put positively, and if it was stated that the major thrust of the next phase should be pacification in South Vietnam, there would be no problems. Nor would there be disagreement on the concerns in Defense over the question of the ARVN running around in Cambodia indefinitely. Nevertheless the three basic objectives remained:

Cleaning up the base areas.
Deterring North Vietnamese attacks on Phnom Penh.
Maintaining pressures along the South Vietnam–Cambodia borders so that the enemy would not come back into the base areas.

Mr. Nutter said that Secretary Laird was concerned over the second point, since we had not been preparing Congress. He would need to go back if Defense’s view was wanted.

(At this point, Dr. Kissinger was called from the room. He returned to say that Secretary Laird was issuing the execute order on the Base Area 740 operation. Ambassador Johnson asked if this had the President’s approval, and Dr. Kissinger replied affirmatively. Admiral Moorer said that the operation would begin the night of May 20.)

Dr. Kissinger remarked that he did not believe it would be satisfactory to turn the WSAG members into drafters, to which the others agreed. Dr. Kissinger said that two drafts could be produced from which the President could make his choice, or another effort could be made to draw up an agreed draft. Vietnamization should be given high priority, but the present version was too sweeping in this respect. Ambassador Johnson wondered whether, as a fair proposition, rephrasing paragraph 2 in positive terms might provide a solution. Dr. Kissinger observed that there would be problems in paragraph 7 as well—we would want to give the Cambodians a chance to accomplish their own defense. He asked if the underlined parts in the draft were new, and Ambassador Johnson reiterated that the draft was basically the one which had been drawn up by the NSC with additions underlined and deletions lined through. Ambassador Green endorsed the thought that expressing paragraph 2 in positive terms would solve the problem. Admiral Moorer cautioned against quantifying ARVN operations in such a way as to stop its activities. Ambassador Green offered as an [Page 988] acceptable concept the thought that “the major thrust in South Vietnam remains Vietnamization.”

Mr. Nutter again said that he would need to check back. Secretary Laird was very strong on including language to the effect that what the ARVN did in Cambodia should not detract from progress in South Vietnam. Dr. Kissinger said that if Defense wanted such language, he would show it to the President. The matter was not for his, Dr. Kissinger’s, decision.

Mr. Helms brought up a point which he felt was related: the area in Southern Laos touching on Northeast Cambodia was pretty much under VC control and was rapidly becoming a no-man’s land. The Agency had road watch teams there, but did not really know what was going on. He wanted to draw attention to the fact that Northeastern Cambodia was now hitching up with Southern Laos. He did not know how to address the problem.

Dr. Kissinger suggested a paper setting forth the situation and the possibilities for dealing with it, such as bombing. Mr. Helms agreed.4 Admiral Moorer mentioned that we had carried out thirty-two bombing missions in Southern Laos along the Se Kong River which had knocked out docks and staging areas. Ambassador Johnson suggested the possibility of bombing Northeastern Cambodia, to which Dr. Kissinger remarked that the President has desired, as a number of people present had heard, to hit targets in Cambodia beyond the 30 kilometer limit. A written directive would be needed, which they would have in the next day or two. Ambassador Johnson thought that Northeastern Cambodia could be dealt with in the same way as Laos. Admiral Moorer pointed out that we would need to identify suitable targets. In reply to a question from Dr. Kissinger on the whereabouts of the 40,000 NVA troops, Admiral Moorer expressed that we have a pretty good plot.

[Page 989]

Dr. Kissinger stated that the President thought he had authorized air operations of the type discussed, but there evidently was a difference between his position and that of others. We would need to formalize this difference. Ambassador Johnson said that the guidelines we were operating under for air operations were that we did not contemplate using U.S. tactical air inside Cambodia in support of Cambodian forces. Dr. Kissinger stressed that the President wanted rules of engagement taken up for Northeastern Cambodia similar to those in Laos which would permit the defense of our forces while in Cambodia and anti-infiltration activities. The President had the idea, too, that if these operations ease the pressures on Cambodia this would be desirable. Ambassador Johnson pointed out that our forces would be in Cambodia only until July 1. What about aerial operations afterward? Dr. Kissinger declared that it was not in the President’s mind to stop them. For the present, though, he had noticed, as in the case of Takeo, that the enemy might withdraw beyond the 21 mile (30 kilometer) limit and just sit.

If this was true, then we should hit. Mr. Helms remarked that COSVN had been acting in the same way. Dr. Kissinger said that he had been telling the bureaucracy daily to hit at enemy concentrations of this nature—what would he have to do to get this done? He asked Mr. Nutter to get back to him or telephone him if Defense had any problems.

Mr. Nutter mentioned that one question under review in Defense was the extent of Steel Tiger. A brief exchange between Ambassador Johnson and Admiral Moorer brought out that what was involved was the possibility of extending Steel Tiger into Cambodia, although it was difficult to identify targets. Admiral Moorer believed that it would be desirable to put people into Cambodia on the ground. These would not be U.S. forces but indigenous forces, as in Laos. Mr. Helms noted that this was an unpopulated area, a no-man’s land; Ambassador Johnson suggested the use of Montagnards. Dr. Kissinger thought there would be no problem in using indigenous forces as road watch teams, and asked Mr. Helms to make a recommendation. Mr. Helms agreed to make an “all-purpose” recommendation on this issue.

Mr. Nutter asked if the RVNAF might help out? Admiral Moorer said that it was being used in Cambodia, but only against sanctuaries on the basis of hard intelligence, and south of the Mekong. It was very important to deny this area to the enemy. We were using U.S. air to the north and east of the Mekong. Mr. Helms said that whatever was used should be accurate, and this argued for the USAF as opposed to the RVNAF.

Mr. Nutter and Admiral Moorer discussed the nature of the targets which existed in this region, which Admiral Moorer felt would [Page 990] more likely be moving targets than fixed troop concentrations. Ambassador Johnson referred to the possibility of making aerial photographs; in fact, we had told Lon Nol we would do so.

Mr. Nutter said that he would have no problem in extending Steel Tiger into Cambodia, and Dr. Kissinger proposed issuing a directive on this now. Ambassador Green argued that this would “raise a ruckus.” He felt that we could do better by using Montagnards than we could by launching air operations in the rough area of the Anna-mite chain, which would be very difficult. If Montagnards could be gotten in to disrupt communications, we would be much more effective, and there would be no ruckus on the Hill. Ambassador Johnson agreed, saying that U.S. tacair operations after July 1 would certainly raise a ruckus. Admiral Moorer remarked that Secretary Laird had said several times in his testimony the previous day that he might recommend tacair operations, and had not been pinned down. Mr. Nutter spoke of the problem of populated areas, to which Dr. Kissinger made it clear that populated areas should not be hit.

Ambassador Green brought up the possibility of using SGUs against the Se Kong River. This area was exposed, they should be able to get in.

Mr. Nutter observed that another problem was the location of the 40,000 NVA troops. Ambassador Green reiterated that in Northeast Cambodia, we would be more effective by moving on the ground rather than in the air. Dr. Kissinger thought we might do both, and Mr. Helms urged that we put in everything that we could. Ambassador Green stressed that the Montagnards traveled back and forth in this region, had resources which people in the lowlands lacked, and would serve us better than highly visible air operations.

Mr. Doolin raised the possibility of establishing choke points, and Dr. Kissinger asked him if there was a proposal to do this. Admiral Moorer cautioned against oversimplifying the problems in establishing choke points. Dr. Kissinger declared that until July 1 there would be no objections to doing so; after July 1, if the President wanted to take the heat of conducting such operations, this would be his problem. Ambassador Green pointed out that there were no villages and the region was very wild; airdrops would be needed for the Montagnards. Once targets were located, aerial operations would be acceptable, but we needed to be very selective.

Dr. Kissinger said that he had no ideas of his own nor information on the maximum effectiveness of air power. However, he did have his instructions, which had to be carried out by all. It was his job to see that this was done. Any valid objections on the part of anyone concerned would be shown to the President. What was involved was the anti-infiltration campaign in Northeastern Cambodia and tactical targets [Page 991] beyond the 21 mile limit. Tactical targets of course had to be identified, but it was not the job of those present to decide what made a tactical target. Any mix of ground operations, road watch teams, and air operations would be acceptable. In addition to all this, the President would reach out for anything which could help the Cambodians. The President had taken enough heat in the previous three weeks to last him three months, and the only thing which would be a pay-off for him was results.

Dr. Kissinger turned to the question of repairs for the Cambodian T–28s. Was it correct that the Thais were not enthusiastic? General Vogt reported that our military in Thailand were working directly with the Thai Air Force on this question, to include the possibility of Thai teams going into Phnom Penh to look into the situation. Admiral Moorer confirmed that the Thai were not enthusiastic on providing maintenance. General Vogt said that things nevertheless were now being worked out through Air Marshal Dawee, even though the Thai claimed that they didn’t have enough capability to take care of their own needs. The big problem would be in moving damaged aircraft. He was expecting a message in from MACV on this subject. Ambassador Johnson commented that we would also have a problem just in keeping the five operable Cambodian T–28s going.

Dr. Kissinger brought up the subject of training Khmer forces in Thailand. Ambassador Johnson digressed by mentioning parenthetically that Ambassador Unger had sent in a cable concerning a Thai desire to use some of the Black Panthers in Cambodia, to which he had reacted negatively.5 Dr. Kissinger agreed. Dr. Kissinger then said that he had a 3:15 appointment and could not go into this particular issue any further at the present session. He proposed putting off the discussion until the following day. It was agreed that the group would reconvene on May 20 at 4:30 p.m.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–114, WSAG Minutes, Originals, 1969–1970, 5/19/70. Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room.
  2. The cable as approved and sent is Document 301.
  3. See Document 295.
  4. On May 20, the Chief of the CIA’s Far East Division, Directorate of Plans, William Nelson, submitted to Helms a paper on South Laos and northeastern Cambodia in response to this request. Nelson suggested that there were at least three options. The first was to maintain the status quo of using current Lao forces to control the Mekong Valley and using the U.S. Air Force to interdict infiltration. The second was to augment CIA irregular forces on the Bolovens Plateau with a Thai regimental combat team and artillery responsible for defense of the plateau and harassment of the Sekong River, while continuing air interdiction, road-watching, and small scale harassment of North Vietnamese supply lines. The third option would be to add to the second option 5,000 Thai to be formed into 10 Special Guerrilla Units (SGU) responsible for defense of the Bolovens and interdiction of the Sekong River. (Central Intelligence Agency, DDO/ISS/IP Files, Job 75–424, 1 of 4, [file name not declassified] Incoming, Memos, Operations & Intelligence, Vol. 1, #2)
  5. Not found.