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331. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1

REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AT WSAG MEETING

The President said he thought he would stop in for a moment to get the latest up-to-date report on Cambodia. Following the meeting the other day,2 he had been concerned on one thing—it seemed to him [Page 1077]that it was as important as anything else to pay attention to the psychological effect of such matters as stories in the New York Times listing attacks on 30 towns, roads cut, and oil and rice shortages in Phnom Penh. The history of politics shows that psychological pressures could bring governments down as well as military attacks.

The President then noted he had read reports to the effect that two main roads radiating from Phnom Penh were still open, and asked what the situation actually was. From news reports, he had understood that the enemy had cut these roads or was interdicting them. Admiral Moorer replied that Route 1 was open between Saigon and Phnom Penh, and that trucks were moving along it. He referred to the possibility that the press might pick up exaggerated reports from the people saying that they were attacked, and make it appear that something more was happening. The President asked how recent the report was of Route 1 being open, and Admiral Moorer replied that this information had just been received. General Kraft (MACV Director of Operations) had been to Phnom Penh, and had arrived back in Saigon only three or fours hours ago; he had flown down the road and saw traffic. In addition, it was possible to keep the Mekong River open. On June 17 the Shell people had brought in a tanker containing a three months' supply of aviation fuel.

The President asked about the situation on the other road. Admiral Moorer replied that Route 4 between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh was open at least as far as Kampong Speu. Enemy forces which had been in the town had retreated to the south, and while they had the capability of interdicting the road he did not believe that they could cut it.

The President stated that he had the impression that Phnom Penh was surrounded and under seige. What did the people in Phnom Penh think? The stories of Phnom Penh being surrounded had come from press representatives writing from Phnom Penh. Mr. Packard said that he had checked this morning, and that enemy forces numbering anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand were in the vicinity of Phnom Penh. Reports from the enemy spoke of attacks on the 18th against the airport and the power plant. The problem in defending Phnom Penh was it is greatly spread out, and required lots of troops; there are 15,000 Cambodian troops in Phnom Penh. The President asked if the Cambodian forces were well positioned, and Mr. Packard replied affirmatively. Nevertheless, small enemy units could sneak up. Although the city was not in danger of falling, this created a psychological problem. The same was true with respect to the roads—small enemy bands could move around the countryside, and cut a tree or place mines to block communications temporarily. We would simply have to live with this situation.

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The President inquired about the oil supply in Phnom Penh. Were supplies sufficient only for two weeks? Admiral Moorer reiterated that supplies could reach Phnom Penh, especially via the Mekong. The President agreed that if shipments could come up the Mekong, the situation was not serious. The President understood, too, that there was rice on hand in Phnom Penh for six weeks. This was quite a bit.

Mr. Packard noted that he had looked into Cambodian oil supplies. In one category there was only a 28-day supply, but in everything else there was more. He concurred with Admiral Moorer on the possibility of getting tankers up the Mekong regardless of conditions on Route 4. Admiral Moorer added that the South Vietnamese were continuing to bring refugees out by river.

The President wondered in terms of psychological warfare if it would be useful to have the South Vietnamese run another task force up the Mekong to Phnom Penh. This could be for the ostensible purpose of bringing rice. He didn't have the slightest idea if this would work, but he was not talking in terms of actual warfare but rather in terms of psychological matters and politics. For example, it was possible that the Thai forces in Laos wouldn't fight unless attacked, but their very presence there had given a great psychological lift to the Lao.3

Mr. Helms observed that in addition to making psychological moves, we needed better press responses. The President agreed, and wondered if we could do something about the U.S. press. Mr. Helms said that CIA was, in fact, trying to arrange for “leaks” to the press in Phnom Penh [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. The President indicated that he was not thinking in terms of misleading the press. However, we needed to recognize that we could lose psychologically rather than militarily, and had to play a positive game. This was what the other side was trying to do by running around the countryside and shooting things up. He thought, though, that without Sihanoukville and the sanctuaries, the enemy forces must be running short of ammunition. How were they moving it—on their backs, or on trucks? Mr. Helms stated that the enemy was using captured trucks and pedi-cabs. He described the enemy attacks as going into the ghettos and terrorizing them.

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Would it be to our advantage, the President asked, to see if the South Vietnamese couldn't be encouraged to get in a few more fights? He asked how many South Vietnamese units were in Cambodia. Admiral Moorer said that there were ARVN units at Kampong Speu and that South Vietnamese Marines were at the ferry crossing at Neak Luong. The President emphasized that one thing was important: the South Vietnamese had to stay. In addition, we needed to get the psychological line out that more might come in. He had said on June 34 that all U.S. troops would be out by the end of the month, but the South Vietnamese were different. It was alright for the American people to know that all U.S. forces would be out, but not for the enemy, since it removed the uncertainty about our actions. It was therefore important to get stories out that the South Vietnamese were there, and would not allow the Phnom Penh–Sihanoukville axis to be destroyed. As he had told Secretary Rogers, while it might actually be necessary for the South Vietnamese to go in, this could be avoided if we handled psychological matters correctly. For example, we should do everything we could right now in terms of giving arms to the Cambodians. If enough was going in to give the appearance that we are really supporting them, they would get a big boost.

Admiral Moorer remarked that according to a report from General Abrams the South Vietnamese joint general staff fully appreciated the desirability of keeping Cambodia out of NVA/VC hands. The President emphasized he wanted to be sure that we did not discourage the South Vietnamese from this. General Abrams had said earlier that the mission of the South Vietnamese was to hold South Vietnam. He appreciated this consideration, but also knew the importance of seeing that all of Cambodia didn't fall. We had to be sure that their position was balanced. Admiral Moorer assured the President that General Abrams understood the President's point. Within the framework of his guidance General Abrams had developed a good relationship with the Cambodians to assist them as well as the Vietnamese in Cambodia. The Vietnamese for their part had increased their liaison team in Phnom Penh to 24 people including representatives of the principal service functions. They had reached agreement with the Cambodians that both could operate 16 kilometers on either side of the border, and also had agreed on areas of operation. The South Vietnamese would deal with anything beyond 60 kilometers from the border on a case-by-case basis. Highway 1 was open to two convoys per week, and the South Vietnamese were looking into the matter of keeping Route 4 open. He reiterated [Page 1080]that the Mekong could be kept open. A discussion on the utilization of the Mekong ensued with the fact emerging that the river depth was 17 feet all the way to Phnom Penh. The President thought that this point should be made publicly. Was the South Vietnamese Navy good? Could Vietnamese forces hold the river open? Admiral Moorer said that the South Vietnamese forward base at Neak Luong contained supplies for 15 days, and a brigade of the Vietnamese Marine Corps was there to assist in keeping the road open. Behind these forces was the 9th ARVN Division, which contained combat engineers. An airfield was being developed for reconnaissance tacair, helicopters, and gunships. All these were South Vietnamese. This advanced base was better than Phnom Penh for the South Vietnamese, since it was closer to South Vietnam, outside the reach of reporters, and easier to defend. Continuing, Admiral Moorer noted that South Vietnamese FAC's would be sent to Kampong Thom tonight to provide tacair support as further examples of South Vietnamese assistance to Cambodia.

On the shipment of captured weapons, Admiral Moorer reported that a plan had been worked out. The first shipment would be on June 19, in which rifles and mortars would be flown in. The South Vietnamese had also agreed to train 80 Cambodian companies, thirty to be given refresher training, and 50 recruit training, with the latter completed by October. The U.S. was providing supplies, and the Cambodians the men and the food. Two Khmer Krom battalions had been trained in South Vietnam and would be in Phnom Penh between July 1 and 13. Thieu had said that this operation had to stop, but had later agreed to go ahead; 1,000 more would be recruited. With respect to the fighting, General Abrams had reported that the South Vietnamese had borne the brunt but appreciated the consequences of a Communist takeover of Cambodia. They were receptive to the idea of supporting Cambodia, amenable to General Abrams' suggestions, and responsive to reasonable requests. Admiral Moorer noted he was sending General Vogt to Saigon that afternoon to inquire into intelligence and communications matters. In passing, Admiral Moorer noted that the South Vietnamese had furnished a number of 4-man teams with radios to be sent out into the countryside around Phnom Penh.

The President asked if the South Vietnamese had furnished ground observers for our air. It was understood, he said, that our air would have a free hand. Admiral Moorer described the Salem House teams, which were composed of indigenous personnel who had been trained by the South Vietnamese but worked with us. Such teams were assisting beyond the 30 kilometer limit, and should help in our interdiction.

The President declared that it was important for people at State to talk positively and confidently. There should be no worry about being proved wrong, nor should there be any distorting. What was the public [Page 1081]relations situation at Phnom Penh? Ambassador Green replied that there was a good public affairs officer at Phnom Penh, but that we had been deficient in giving him guidance. The President stressed that we should remember our purpose here. We had to remember that news reporting could affect the outcome of a battle. There was the question of having a more positive view. We should lay out the facts positively, and explain what the Cambodian Government has going for it. For example, the Government had stronger popular support now than it did under Sihanouk. Was it true that the Cambodian forces had basically stayed in place, and hadn't run? Admiral Moorer referred to reports of some recruits having run away, but he and Mr. Packard agreed that the 30–40,000 Cambodian regular troops had done rather well. Admiral Moorer cited a report from our Defense Attaché that the Cambodian forces had counter-attacked. The President described the enemy situation in Cambodia as being different from that in South Vietnam, in that the North Vietnamese were in a hostile country and did not have the support of guerrilla forces in the countryside. Now that we had removed fear of the U.S. in North Vietnamese minds, we needed to leave a stronger fear of what the South Vietnamese would do. This was very important, and State and Defense should both consider sitting down with a few reporters, and give a backgrounder.

The President referred to an item in this morning's New York Times by Tad Szulc. Szulc was a brilliant fellow, but he was not out to do us any good. The President did not blame him for this story, but blamed us. We needed to face the fact that there were a great number of people in the press and in Congress who have a vested interest in seeing us fail. This was a game for them, and we should counterplay. We had a story to tell which was not being told. Thinking back to the period of April 10–30, four provincial capitals had fallen during this time. He had said that our sanctuary operation was concerned with South Vietnam and not Cambodia, and this was indeed our major goal. Nevertheless, Cambodia did not need to go. With our power, it would be a major failure to let it go without making a significant effort. We should send in arms, send in more South Vietnamese, go up the Mekong and undertake more reconnaissance. Admittedly this would not have much of a military effect, but would have an enormous effect psychologically. The President recalled to Ambassador Green the importance of psychological factors to Asian leaders, citing President Suharto as an example.

Ambassador Green noted that while we had our problems, the enemy had terrific ones, such as supply and communications. The President strongly concurred, referring to the way the enemy was spread out in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Ambassador Green referred also to Khmer nationalism as a problem for the enemy. The President said that it was important to support Cambodia diplomatically; he had [Page 1082]been glad to see that the three Djakarta conference nations had at least been heard by the Soviets. He concurred that Khmer nationalism was a useful factor. Ambassador Green stated that it was not just Communism involved, but fear of Tonkinese, who could be distinguished from South Vietnamese. The President noted that the elements of the Civil War which were present in Vietnam were not present here. It was not important who ran the government—Lon Nol, or Matak. The main point was that Cambodia should be neutral and independent. Ambassador Green suggested that in the forthcoming SEATO meeting, we might make a point of speaking in favor of respecting Cambodia's neutrality.

The President referred to the possibility that Alec Home might be named as the new British Foreign Minister. If so, he might be helpful. The President had talked with Heath, who would be making a mistake if he did not appoint Home. With the Conservative victory, the British might start to play a more positive role, both here and in the Middle East. Heath was a tough man as indicated by his expressions three years ago on British policy east of Suez. He couldn't reverse things, but would do something. It would be good to have some help and not to be alone. In Jordan and Lebanon, it would be good to have somebody with us. Ambassador Green thought that if Home were to attend the SEATO meeting, he could be extremely helpful.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–114, WSAG Minutes, Originals, 1969–1970, 6/19/70. Top Secret; Sensitive. These minutes contain the record of the meeting only when the President was present. In an undated memorandum Haig informed Nixon that he had discussed with Kissinger the President's suggestion that he meet with members of the WSAG “to emphasize again your desires for positive action in the Cambodian situation.” Haig stated that Kissinger thought it would be “constructive,” but suggested that it would be “most constructive” if the President's appearance was brief and that he “avoid any statement which appears to be a directive that Thai forces be introduced into Cambodia.” Rather, Kissinger suggested that the President “urge positive action to resolve difficulties which now stand in the way of a Thai decision to move forward.” Haig attached talking points for Nixon. (Ibid., Box H–075, WSAG Meeting, Cambodia, 6/19/70)
  2. See Document 326.
  3. In a June 22 memorandum to the President Kissinger summarized an attached report of June 1 from the CIA on the Thai defenders (one regiment consisting of two artillery battalions and three infantry battalions) at Long Tieng in Laos. The report gave the Thai high marks for defensive skill, leadership, and discipline, but noted their dependence on logistical support and their lack of aggressiveness in forward patrolling. Still the CIA ranked their performance as admirable, to which Nixon remarked in the margin of Kissinger's memorandum: “Good.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 432, Backchannel Files, Angkor/Erawan reports)
  4. Reference is to the President's June 3 Address to the Nation; see Public Papers: Nixon, 1970, pp. 476–480.