82. Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Sullivan) to the President's Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
You asked for my opinion concerning the utility of additional United States military action in Laos.2 As I told you previously, and as I told the President during the trip back from Midway to Honolulu, I consider that there is very little more we can do than we are currently doing. I also consider that the net result of additional effort would be marginal.
In reaching this assessment, I start from the premise that Laos, as a landlocked nation of less than three million people, can never be a military match for North Viet-Nam, a nation of nearly twenty million. I also assume that it is not in the United States interest to commit our own forces to a ground war in Laos. Therefore, the limits of perfectibility in the defense of Laos must be defined by the capabilities of Lao ground forces, aided by United States training and equipment, and augmented by United States air support. Additional United States assistance is given in the form of intelligence and clandestine operations.
Currently, we train and equip regular Lao armed forces of about 60,000 men. Additionally we train, pay and direct a tribal guerrilla force of about 40,000 men. We have furnished a small tactical air force of T–28 aircraft, which we attempt to keep at air operating level of 48 aircraft, with Lao pilots. Due to a shortage of Lao pilots, we pay for the services of about a dozen Thai “volunteer” pilots. Moreover, by contract with two U.S. operated companies (Air America and Continental Air Services) we provide airlift support for the Lao military and our own guerrilla forces.
About 60 USAF sorties per day are flown from Thailand in direct support of Lao military activity. U.S. Forward Air Controllers (about 10) also operate from Thailand and from strips in Laos. Communications are handled by U.S. military and civilian personnel to assure the efficiency of these operations.
To run the foregoing effort, there are less than 200 U.S. personnel in Laos who are “in violation” of the 1962 agreements. It has always been my policy to hold this number to a minimum and to position them in such a manner that they could be immediately extracted if political considerations dictated. It is important to note that the United [Page 254]States has accepted no commitments whatsoever in association with these military operations and that they could, in principle, be terminated unilaterally by us at any time.
In addition to these arrangements, but in no sense as a quid pro quo, the Lao government permits the U.S. to carry out bombing operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an area of Laos that has very little strategic interest to the Lao government itself, but which is directly related to our interests in South Viet-Nam. We fly about 400 tactical air sorties a day and about 20 or 30 B–52 sorties per day in this area. The only conditions attached to this permission are (a) that we should not publicly admit our bombing, and (b) that we avoid killing Lao civilians who may be haplessly in the same area as the North Vietnamese infiltrators who are targets of our bombing raids.
Without the permission of the Lao government, and in the light of Souvanna's advice to me that he would refuse such permission if we asked for it, we also conduct cross-border raids from South Viet-Nam into the Lao panhandle. These raids are run by platoon-sized units of South Vietnamese irregulars, encadred by U.S. Special Forces men.
This combination of effort has kept the military situation in Laos more or less stabilized for the past five years. The Lao have suffered relatively heavy casualties and have had nearly one quarter of their population displaced as refugees. But there has been no significant loss of terrain, and indeed, a net gain, over the situation which obtained in 1964.
When one is asked what more can be done, it is first necessary to consider what the objective is, where and how it is to be done, and who will do it. Let us start with the least desirable proposal—the introduction of U.S. ground forces overtly into the enemy sanctuary area in the Panhandle. These sanctuaries contain from a regiment to a division of enemy forces, depending on current deployments. Therefore, an operation against them would have to involve regiments or divisions.
Not only would such a venture be of dubious military success (it would probably at best be a second Khe Sanh), but it would raise major political considerations. If we asked the Lao for official permission, they could reasonably be expected to accede only if we made some explicit commitments to them. It is doubtful that we wish to extend our commitments at this time. If, on the other hand, we did it against the specific wishes of the Lao, we would face an uproar internationally and domestically. We do not wish that sort of reaction.
Assuming, then, that broader ground action is out of the question, we might consider additional air action. Again, the question is where and by whom. The air operation in the Panhandle is frankly already saturated. There is little more that can be done there except against populated areas. We could probably get Lao agreement to such attacks [Page 255]if we agree to give the population adequate warning to leave the towns before we attack. Such warning would also result in the evacuation of military objectives and, hence, the value of the proposed attacks would be nil.
Similar considerations prevail for most other direct U.S. military efforts which might be proposed elsewhere in Laos. The only exception to this statement might be the possibility of augmenting the daily USAF effort allotted to direct support of Lao troops. This suggestion would have to be measured against the limited communications, forward air control, and targeting capabilities available to the Lao.
Hence, my only suggestions for augmenting our effort in Laos come down to a few proposals associated with improving the inherent capabilities of the Lao forces. These are as follows:
- Provide the Lao army with more M–16 rifles. (They currently have less than 6,000 and most of their opponents have AK–47 weapons. I would increase this total up to 20,000 rifles.)
- Provide the Lao air force with more AC–47 aircraft. (These planes, with side-firing guns, are excellent for the defense of small outposts. I believe there is now a program to convert four of the C–47 inventory to this configuration. I would convert others or supply new ones up to a total of ten—two to each military region.)
- Finally, I would provide the Lao air force with T–41 trainer aircraft to improve their pilot training program.
All of these proposals have either been made, or are being made, by our Country Team in Laos. If there is an indication from you that the President favors these rather modest suggestions, it would make a long story much shorter.
- Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 LAOS. Secret; Exdis. In a June 10 covering memorandum to Walsh, Sullivan stated that Kissinger asked for this memorandum “on a private basis.” Sullivan told Walsh that his recommendations reflected his opposition to CINCPAC's and other military commanders' urgings for a major increase in U.S. military activity on Laos. Sullivan discerned from Nixon and Kissinger that the military hoped to assign a U.S. major general as military commander for all activities in Laos and take over at least part of the role that the U.S. Ambassador to Laos currently fulfilled. Sullivan stated that he had shown this memorandum to Godley and suggested that Rogers, Richardson, Johnson, and Green receive copies.↩
- Kissinger sent a copy of this memorandum to Nixon on June 16, stating in the covering memorandum it was in response to Nixon's request “to look into the possibility of doing more to improve the military situation in Laos.” Kissinger summarized Sullivan's view that there was little more that the United States could do, but added: “I believe the key factor in Laos is the enemy's ability to concentrate its forces there and overrun the remainder of the country at any time it would appear advantageous to do so. Additional U.S. assistance to Lao forces could not alter this fact, although it could make a difference in the current situation.” Kissinger recommended that the Under Secretaries Committee look into the issue and Nixon approved on April 18. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 286, Memoranda to the President, June 1969, Folder 2)↩