302. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1


  • Special NSC Meeting on Cambodia, 3:00 p.m., Friday, May 22, 19702

The restricted NSC meeting on Cambodia is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. on Friday, May 22. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss:

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(1) U.S. air operations in Cambodia, and (2) future South Vietnamese operations in Cambodia. I suggest you begin by calling on each of the following for about ten minutes each:

  • —General Wheeler for a rundown on sanctuary operations;3
  • —Director Helms for enemy reactions.

U.S. Tactical Air Operations in Cambodia

Issue: Should we conduct air operations against enemy tactical and logistical targets in Cambodia beyond the present 30 kilometer line?

Those who favor use of tactical air argue that there are profitable targets which can be identified. Attacks against enemy headquarters units, logistical facilities and infiltration routes in Cambodia would limit the enemy’s ability to re-establish base areas or to threaten U.S. and Allied forces in South Vietnam. Such air attacks would keep the enemy off balance and by making clear that he cannot count on immunity from U.S. air, deter him from broadening his attacks in Cambodia.

Those who oppose tactical air attacks point out that accurate target identification will be difficult until ground reconnaissance and spotters can be introduced to supplement electronic and aerial surveillance. There is always the danger of some civilian casualties (but this can be controlled to a large extent). Unless present limits on MACV sortie rates are lifted, tactical air in Cambodia to some extent will be at the expense of effort elsewhere in the theater. There will be some adverse domestic public and Congressional reaction when such attacks become public knowledge—this reaction probably would be greater after June 30 than before.

Secretary Laird generally supports authorization for such attacks on selective basis. He doubts, however, the availability of many profitable targets. He also is concerned at the added costs which will further hurt his budgetary situation if sortie rates are increased to cover Cambodian operations. He believes that Congress has not been prepared to accept a wider use of U.S. tactical air, particularly after June 30.

Secretary Rogers probably will express reservations on the grounds of expected public and particularly Congressional reaction. He may also express concern over possible civilian casualties.4

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General Wheeler and Mr. Helms support tactical air attacks now to take maximum advantage of the disruption of enemy units and supply facilities caused by the sanctuary attacks and to prevent the enemy from re-establishing supply routes in Cambodia.

Your May 21 decision authorized:5

  • —U.S. tactical air strikes to be conducted against enemy tactical and logistics targets in Cambodia to limit enemy capability to resupply forces which could threaten U.S. and allied units in South Vietnam;
  • —Waived the 30 kilometer limitation; and
  • —Specified that care should be taken to avoid strikes in heavily populated areas.

Your decision was based on the need to attack these targets to protect American forces in South Vietnam. (General Haig confirms that General Abrams can identify targets and wants authority to attack them.) You might wish to confirm your desire that these attacks go forward without delay. (You asked Secretary Laird to submit a plan by May 22.) There is no need to decide now on our policy after June 30— this can wait for an assessment of results of the strikes between now and then and a clearer picture of enemy actions and intentions at that time.

ARVN Operations in Cambodia

There are two issues:

What limits should we try to impose on ARVN operations in Cambodia?
What U.S. support should be given to such operations?

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Issue 1—Limits on ARVN Operations:

Those who favor continued ARVN operations point out that if we severely restrict those operations in the base areas, we could lose much of the longer term benefit to Vietnamization of the current successes against the sanctuary areas. If we foreclose ARVN operations elsewhere in Cambodia, we would be giving the enemy a free hand to secure the southern ports, to use military pressure to bring down the Cambodian Government, and to re-establish supply routes and bases for actions in South Vietnam.

Those who oppose point out that if the ARVN becomes obsessed with Cambodia, Vietnamization and pacification could suffer. There would be the risk that the ARVN could get in trouble and face a serious defeat unless we were willing to bail it out. Continued ARVN operations beyond the border sanctuary areas, unless specifically requested by Cambodia, also would risk serious damage to Cambodia-South Vietnam relations (there is an historical ethnic enmity).

Secretaries Rogers and Laird support a position of flexibility but would prefer that ARVN operations after June 30 be limited to short duration operations in the border sanctuary areas. Both may express concern over the effect on public and Congressional opinion of the appearance of U.S. acquiescence in wide-ranging ARVN operations, seen to be primarily aimed at supporting Lon Nol. Secretary Rogers may also emphasize the suspicion and possible growing estrangement between Cambodia and South Vietnam if the ARVN stays on.

General Wheeler and Mr. Helms support continued operations in the sanctuary areas to keep the enemy from threatening our forces in Vietnam and the flexibility for deeper operations as a deterrent.

Your Decision:

To protect U.S. forces in Vietnam and enhance Vietnamization, you decided to support continued ARVN operations:

  • —To continue clearing out the base areas;
  • —To prevent re-establishment of the base areas; and
  • —To deter broader enemy attacks against Phnom Penh or Cambodia’s southern ports.

It would be preferable if all ARVN forces were withdrawn to South Vietnam and new operations after June 30 began from there.

You want the ARVN to concentrate on Vietnamization. You want to discourage wide-ranging ARVN operations which could be the pretext for enemy attacks. However, we would not publicly state a restriction in order to keep the enemy uncertain.6

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Issue 2—U.S. Support for ARVN Cambodian Operations:

Those favoring U.S. support say that it will be important, though not necessarily crucial, to ARVN success. Operations in the base areas can be conducted without direct U.S. involvement in Cambodia—artillery and logistics support could be provided from the South Vietnamese side of the border. U.S. tactical air support in Cambodia, however, could make an important contribution to the ARVN’s success in some circumstances.

Those who oppose argue that any U.S. support will generate domestic criticism and will not contribute significantly to our objectives.

Secretary Laird probably prefers that U.S. support be very limited and that air support be provided only in case of the most extreme need. Secretary Rogers probably prefers that no direct support be provided and that, in any event, no air support be provided to ARVN in Cambodia after June 30. Both positions rest on concern for domestic public reaction.

General Wheeler and Mr. Helms prefer air support if needed and artillery and logistics support from South Vietnam to keep the sanctuaries clear.

Your Decision: You approved U.S. artillery and logistic support from the South Vietnamese side of the border and, if needed, tactical air support (primary reliance to be on the Vietnamese Air Force). These actions support the objective of protecting U.S. forces in South Vietnam by assisting ARVN in keeping the sanctuaries clear.7

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–074, WSAG Meeting, Cambodia, 5/22/70. Top Secret. Sent for information. On the copy of this memorandum (ibid., NSC Files, Box 1324, Unfiled Material, 1 of 11) is a stamped note that reads: “The President has seen.”
  2. The meeting was held in the Cabinet room, lasted from 3:02 to 4:53 p.m., and was attended by the President, Rogers, Mitchell, Laird, Helms, Wheeler, and Kissinger. (Ibid., White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary) Apparently this meeting was so restricted that no one took notes; see Document 303.
  3. Crossed out after this entry was: “Secretary Rogers for a résumé of diplomatic events.” A new page reflecting the revision was inserted in the copy in the National Archives; see footnote 1 above.
  4. Kissinger and the President discussed this issue and the restricted NSC meeting in a telephone conversation on May 22 at 6:20 p.m. Nixon told Kissinger, “I was heartened by the meeting today in terms of the Rogers thing. Schultz and others were saying there was a credibility gap.… But Rogers, who is the most sensitive, said it was not true.” Kissinger noted that “Actually Bill [Rogers] agreed on bombing, which surprised me. It was Laird who disagreed.” Nixon responded, “Yes. He also agreed with letting ARVN run loose. And that’s exactly the right line. If they [the North Vietnamese] should take Sihanoukville, then we will let ARVN do the mining.” Kissinger suggested that “someone will have to provide protection for them if the Russians decide to challenge them.” The President felt “that was a long way down the road” and suggested that they concentrate on shaping up the White House staff and Cabinet and get them to realize that “we done something good.” Kissinger agreed and noted that the debate was shifting to “what will happen to the ARVN after July 1.” Nixon suggested that, “We can’t object to Asians defending their own interests.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 363, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)
  5. On May 21 the President approved a plan he had requested from Laird to conduct tactical and B–52 air strikes in Cambodia beyond the 30 kilometer limit. The undated memorandum indicating Nixon’s oral approval is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 335, Subject Files, Items to Discuss with the President, 1 May 1970–15 June 1970. Laird’s plan is attached to a memorandum he sent to the President on May 22. Kissinger sent Laird a memorandum on May 23 that indicated Nixon’s approval and asked that the plan be executed without delay. (Both ibid., Box 103, Vietnam Subject Files, Freedom Deal)
  6. This decision is reflected in Document 301.
  7. As reflected in Document 301.