96. Minutes of Review Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam: Negotiations and Internal Security


  • Henry A. Kissinger, Chairman
  • State
  • Richard F. Pedersen
  • William Sullivan
  • Defense
  • G. Warren Nutter
  • JCS
  • LTG F.T. Unger
  • CIA
  • R. Jack Smith
  • OEP
  • Chris Norred
  • NSC Staff
  • Morton Halperin
  • John Holdridge
  • Winston Lord


With regard to the papers on Vietnam Negotiations (NSSM 37),2 it was decided that the Ad Hoc Vietnam Interagency Group would draft certain follow-on studies. On political settlement, there would be papers on the nature and operations of a mixed commission for elections and on territorial/political accommodation as a means to a settlement. The latter paper would include an examination of alternative routes toward territorial/political accommodation. On withdrawals, there would be a fuller study of de facto mutual force withdrawals. The paper on verification would be modified somewhat and would include discussion of the option of using the International Control Commission in its present form. The study on international guarantees, which had received extensive comments from Embassy Saigon, would be put aside for the time being.

[Page 293]

With regard to the study on Internal Security (NSSM 19),3 it was decided that a new summary paper would be drafted to treat the problem in terms of optional courses of action. This study would be an interagency effort, headed by OSD (Mr. Nutter), and would be completed prior to the President’s departure on his trip. In addition, CIA would submit, within about 10 days, an assessment of the current internal security situation in South Vietnam, and more precisely, the degree of confidence which we have in our present indicators.4


Kissinger noted that there were two subjects to be discussed: a study on internal security in South Vietnam which the President requested some months ago, and four papers on Vietnam negotiations submitted by the Ad Hoc Vietnam Interagency Group. He suggested starting with the negotiating paper on political settlement. He believed that this paper and the one on withdrawals were excellent, although somewhat overtaken by events.

He noted that the political settlement paper laid out three broad alternatives—elections, territorial/political accommodation, and peace cabinet. Our present emphasis was on elections and our approach would be shaped by the forthcoming Thieu statement. The advantage or limitations of the elections route would become apparent within the next few months. He wondered whether NSC treatment of this subject at this time would be fruitful and asked Sullivan’s opinion.

Sullivan responded that the President’s May 14 speech committed us to elections rather than a coalition government. That is Administration policy unless some change occurs. He believed that both the imminent Thieu speech and the paper under discussion fit into this policy framework. He commented that if we get nibbles from the other side on our call for elections, we may see emerging de facto partition of the country.

Kissinger wondered whether there should be further treatment of the questions of an international body and election commission. Sullivan said that they had tried to treat the former subject but found it very difficult to do so at this time. Kissinger wondered whether we would be ready to respond if the other side accepted the suggestion of election supervision by a mixed commission and an international body. Sullivan acknowledged that we would not be ready, but pointed out that the other side has rejected international supervision. He believed we should concentrate on what a mixed electorial commission might [Page 294] look like or do. He and Kissinger agreed that it would be useful to address such issues as the powers and functions of an election commission. There followed a brief discussion of the treatment of a mixed commission in Thieu’s forthcoming speech.

Kissinger raised a second issue in the political settlement paper that he believed deserved further examination, territorial accommodation or the local distribution of power. He noted that Sullivan had foreseen through the elections route the possibility of some provinces falling under the control of the other side. He suggested a paper might treat the following problems. It could give us some idea of what would happen in the case of local political accommodation, what we really mean by this term, and which authorities would be permitted to exercise which functions. Finally, the paper could look at alternative routes toward this type of settlement. Sullivan had mentioned elections as one possibility; if the other side responded to the President’s speech, there could be supervised local ceasefires which might constitute another route. Sullivan noted that this is what the other side had in mind when it talked about “how elections ought to be organized.” They are thinking of getting sanctification of the legitimacy of local elections carried out by their (PRG) committees. In response to Kissinger’s query, Unger believed that the paper that he had suggested would provide helpful information.

Sullivan then briefly described the essence of Thieu’s elections offer. In commenting on probably South Vietnamese reactions to Thieu’s speech, Sullivan said that for many elements in SVN the important thing was to keep the army intact.

With regard to the political settlement paper, Unger said that hopefully something could be negotiated between Alternative A (elections) and Alternative B (Territorial Accommodation). Sullivan noted that the paper suggested some softening of Alternative A, with Alternative B being left as a prospect for negotiations. We assume the other side would stick with Alternative C (peace cabinet), but they might show some interest in exploring how far we might go within the framework of Thieu’s proposals.

There followed some more discussion of the Thieu speech and its implications. Sullivan said that Thieu knew that the other side would not buy a winner-take-all proposition like national elections under the present constitution. By not limiting his proposal to Presidential or general elections, Thieu was in effect leaving open territorial accommodation options for possible response by the other side. However, this implication was not being stated either publicly or privately for the time being. Pedersen noted that Thieu was saying that all elements could participate in the election process.

Kissinger summarized the situation as being that the present emphasis on elections could lead us toward a territorial/political accommodation [Page 295] type settlement and that we should be ready for this possibility. As for Alternative C, this depended on how one interpreted phrases like “peace cabinet”. He repeated that a new study on local territorial accommodation could examine what the current situation is and therefore what the distribution of power would look like, and alternative routes toward such a settlement. The latter subject would include electoral commissions, local elections, and perhaps ceasefire or other means. It would be useful to have a scenario for the next few months based on the President’s speech, the Midway meeting, and Thieu’s proposals. These elements would confirm our position for the next three months. Sullivan said this was true, barring a dramatic move by the other side which we could not rule out. For example, they might call for a ceasefire along with a coalition government. In response to Kissinger’s question, Sullivan said that a separate and somewhat tortured paper on ceasefire was being developed. He believed it was better to treat this subject separately because of its many implications and complexities. One of the problems was that it was artificial to extract a ceasefire from the political context. Kissinger said it would be useful for him to get a better idea of what precisely is meant by a general ceasefire, e.g., what orders are given to which authorities. Unger and Sullivan noted that the Joint Staff would help with this question and would look at such elements as the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, permissible logistic and military movements during a cease-fire, and terrorist activities. Kissinger noted the importance of having a clearer picture of who had units where in the country, who would stand still in a ceasefire, what each side could and could not do, etc.

Unger noted that the position of the Chairman, JCS was that there should be no ceasefire without mutual withdrawals. There was a basic gut feeling that the advantages of a ceasefire would lie with the other side. Kissinger noted that the President’s instincts were generally in line with General Wheeler’s. However, if faced with a ceasefire proposal we must be prepared. Unger agreed that this subject should be studied, especially its relationship to election proposals. Sullivan felt that a ceasefire proposal would probably not surface in such a benign fashion. The other side was more likely to combine it with a coalition government and play the whipsaw game between Washington and Saigon. Unger said that a combination of ceasefire and coalition government would be difficult to resist on the home front. Sullivan agreed but noted the difficulties for Saigon. Halperin commented that we could be in an even worse position if the other side simply announced a unilateral ceasefire. He believed it would be harder to refuse such a move. Kissinger believed that such a move would strengthen the cease-fire proposal, but it would be the suggestion of a coalition government that would whipsaw the GVN and ourselves. Halperin noted that Saigon would not even accept a ceasefire by itself. Sullivan said that [Page 296] the Thieu speech would mention the subject, and Holdridge commented that the key factor for Saigon was the circumstances surrounding a ceasefire. Kissinger summarized that the group agreed that a paper should spell out various approaches to territorial/political accommodation and that there would be a separate paper on ceasefire.

The group agreed with Kissinger that the issue of negotiating procedures, e.g., US-DRV bilaterals or four-party discussions, was largely overtaken by events and did not need further treatment. He mentioned that at some point we would need to discuss the possible conflict between the Vietnamization process and the Paris negotiations. Sullivan suggested that we see reactions to the Thieu speech and that further down the road this issue might be discussed.

Kissinger then took up the paper on withdrawals. He noted the problem of the other side’s forces coming back into South Vietnam after having been withdrawn. He did not believe that we had ever spelled out precisely what we mean by de facto withdrawals, how we would recognize them and at what point we would reciprocate beyond what we were already doing. Unger commented that our information on the other side’s withdrawals would be gleaned from our unilateral intelligence efforts. Kissinger asked whether by withdrawals we meant that they would proceed into North Vietnam. Unger noted that withdrawals into Laos and Cambodia would be into havens, but that we could not rule out consideration of this prospect. Kissinger noted again the need for criteria on this question. He said that mutual withdrawals were a process beyond the troop replacement program, which is largely independent of the other side’s actions.

Sullivan suggested the example of withdrawals by attrition. He said that 70% of the enemy’s forces were not North Vietnamese. If they continue to suffer casualties like they have had the first six months of this year, and yet no troop replacements were sent through the pipeline (this should show up in South Vietnam at about the end of the month), then we would have a developing situation where the North Vietnamese proportion of enemy forces was dropping. This would add up to withdrawals by attrition. He had talked to Joint Staff personnel working on Vietnamization and they were considering this aspect. They were assuming a residual force of a 40,000 filler base of North Vietnamese.

Kissinger asked what the latest information was about enemy infiltration. Smith said that the figure for the next few months of 11,200 represented forces that we believe had already been counted before. Holdridge noted that it usually takes four months for personnel to arrive in South Vietnam after entering the top of the pipeline. Thus, most of those who had started out should be arriving in Vietnam by now. Smith said that the intelligence community was still intensively studying [Page 297] this question. For the moment, he cautioned against people reacting to a figure of 11,200 as a sign that infiltration was starting up again. There was not yet enough evidence to draw any conclusions on this issue. Sullivan said that if infiltration does continue to stay down, then the other side would be heading toward the base force that had been mentioned, perhaps in a matter of months. Kissinger noted the basic concept that Sullivan had raised that de facto withdrawals were not only a function of replacements, but also could come about through attrition. Sullivan noted the related factor of the level of combat which brings one back to the potential of a ceasefire. Kissinger suggested that we needed some definition of de facto withdrawals and believed that the one added by Sullivan was very helpful. We needed criteria to help us decide at what point we could take reciprocal action. Sullivan noted that one response could be troop replacements but in greater degree. Kissinger concurred, saying that such reciprocal action would be beyond what we ordinarily would do under the Vietnamization program.

Kissinger then raised the issue of the verification of withdrawals. He believed that the three possibilities in the paper (UN body, improved or expanded ICC, and a new organization) covered the basic possibilities. Smith agreed. Kissinger asked whether everyone concurred that we should not expend too many negotiating assets on a verification body but rather rely on what we could do unilaterally. He noted to Smith that the CIA had a big task in handling both SALT and Vietnam. Smith responded that the paper did say that, given limitations on our unilateral verification capabilities, we should seek agreement concerning a verification body. In response to Kissinger’s query whether everyone agreed with the formulation of our approach in the paper, Nutter noted that it fell between insistence on a verification body and not raising the issue at all. The fundamental question was whether one should insist on such a body if our chances of getting one appear hopeless.

Kissinger assumed that everyone had seen the cable from Embassy Saigon on the international guarantees paper.5 He wondered what the reaction was to this cable which proposed substantial restructuring of the paper. Sullivan felt that international guarantees were such an esoteric and marginal possibility that the subject matter did not merit the effort that would be required to restructure the paper and take account of the Embassy’s suggestions. The cable did contain some useful points, but may have mixed the subjects of guarantees and verification. Guarantees could be nebulous and beyond the control of individual parties. Nevertheless, the US might wish to go back into the country if agreements were disrupted. Otherwise we could be left with nothing but [Page 298] pious expressions of concern. Smith noted that even if we took this line, it did not mean that we would actually be able to go back in.

Kissinger returned to the question of the verification of withdrawals and asked about the relationship between our unilateral verification capability and the number of forces we had in Vietnam. Smith and Holdridge noted that this depends largely on where our forces were and what type we had. Kissinger wondered how much our unilateral capabilities were degraded by a decreasing US presence. Unger said that Saigon and MACV had looked at this question and that some 4,700 troops were directly involved in maintaining our present capabilities for unilateral verification. He confirmed that this included not only cryptographic personnel but those needed to fly reconnaissance planes etc. Smith noted that there was a 25% margin of error in our estimates which rose to 50% if we lose all SIGNINT.

Nutter suggested that the verification paper should assess the ICC in its present form. Sullivan noted that this was not one of the three alternatives; we did not consider the ICC in its present form to be what we should aim for. Nutter thought that it would be better than nothing; Pedersen commented that it would not be much better. Nutter believed that these views were not really stated in the paper. Sullivan read the paper’s segment on the ICC’s value and said that he believed that Nutter was saying that if all other alternatives fail, we might wish to fall back on the current ICC. Holdridge noted the possibility of increasing clandestine operations to monitor withdrawals. Sullivan added the factor of improvements in South Vietnamese capabilities; this was related to the subject of internal security (NSSM 19). He acknowledged that the alternative of the current ICC as a verification body was only in the paper implicitly, not explicitly as a last resort. Nutter thought that it would be a next to last resort and that in any event there was something to be gained by insisting on the principle of international verification. Pedersen suggested that this was more in the nature of guarantees which we would assume we could not negotiate. Nutter suggested that perhaps we could trade this objective for something else in the negotiations.

Kissinger summed up the results of the discussion. Sullivan’s Ad Hoc Group would draft papers on the operations of a mixed electoral commission; the nature of territorial/political accommodation, including alternative routes to this outcome (for example the relationship to a ceasefire); de facto mutual withdrawals; and whatever modifications were needed in the verification paper, including the option of the ICC in its present form. It was agreed to put aside the paper on international guarantees and the Saigon Embassy comments.

Nutter suggested that it would be useful for the Ad Hoc Group to spell out more fully the paper’s recommendation which fell between [Page 299] Alternative A (Elections) and Alternative B (Territorial Accommodation). This mixed alternative should be treated as fully as the original alternatives themselves. Sullivan noted that a fuller treatment of this in-between option would come largely from the two political papers that Kissinger had suggested on mixed electoral commissions and territorial/political accommodation. It would also partly be a by-product of reactions to Thieu’s elections proposal.


Kissinger then introduced the subject of the internal security study.

Smith did not believe the paper was ready for higher level consideration. He was surprised that it was before the Review Group for discussion. He was not speaking out of intimate knowledge or out of any parochial interest. He thought that it was out of key with the other papers under consideration and did not parallel their basic framework or concept. When asked by Kissinger about his principal objections, he said that it was partly a matter of not having had enough time to review the paper, and partly also his belief that it should be made consistent with other Vietnam studies. He suggested that he might submit a constructive critique in a day or two suggesting how the paper might be improved.

Unger noted that OSD and the JCS were on opposite sides of this question. He had gone into the paper in great detail. He had found it very complicated and not ready for NSC consideration. There was a significant split here between the views of the JCS and OSD. His people had made an effort to delineate the differences of view through a charting effort and even this had proven complicated. He was referring to the different missions to be performed by various forces, command and control arrangements, etc. He added that beyond the differences between OSD and the JCS, there were also different viewpoints among other agencies, like State, CIA and AID, who had agreed to the report in principle. Given these many differences, he did not believe that we should impose this study on Saigon at a time when Saigon would say that the recommendations would complicate our efforts in this field. Our South Vietnam mission would say that this study would derail our pacification programs, and would urge an evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach.

Kissinger commented that before the report goes to Saigon it must go to the President, who asked for it at one of the early NSC meetings. His interest had been triggered by the remark that most of the country was “relatively secure”. This could also mean that most of the country was relatively insecure. He wished to know precisely what we meant by our estimates. This paper being discussed need not necessarily be the response to his questions, but something was needed. He [Page 300] did not believe that this study lent itself to NSC treatment but perhaps there could be a paper based upon it. The President had indicated that he wants a study on this question before he leaves on his trip.

Kissinger then mentioned some of his own concerns on this subject. During his visits to Vietnam, and when he looked at charts on the situation in the villages, he saw the enormous premium placed upon the judgment of the reporting personnel. When he asked these people their criteria for judgment of village security, their answers ranged from the highly sophisticated to the appallingly crude. It was a difficult task, given the rapid turnover of personnel in Vietnam. He believed that we needed some feel for the range of confidence we have in our security estimates. He had received many letters from people who were worried about how we arrived at our estimates. We needed to know where and why there were disagreements. These questions were closely related to the problem of local accommodations. We could conclude that the present internal security programs were less than satisfactory, but that we would not wish to touch them because of all the other objectives we have in Vietnam. Smith concurred that our estimates were troublesome.

In response to Sullivan’s question, Kissinger said that the President wants as a minimum information and judgments about the situation. However, beyond that he would want to consider greater internal security efforts. There had been some inconclusive discussion of this subject at Midway. On the other hand, Thieu might think that major recommendations by us would add to his problems. In any event, the President would like recommendations on how to improve the internal security situation.

Unger commented that some of the recommendations in the paper had already been accomplished in part, thanks to the study. He noted the various plans that had been drawn up and some of the recommendations that had been put into effect. In response to Kissinger’s query, he said that the major problem with the study was its change in organizations, its switching of ministries and assignments of forces. There would be competition for talent and money among the RVNAF, Territorial Security Forces and Internal Security Forces. Kissinger said that any objections to various recommendations would certainly be placed before the President.

Nutter said that he too had had some problems with the paper. He had sent it back for redoing after seeing an earlier version. The study basically reflected OSD, State and CIA views. The emphasis was on the need for reorganization, both in Vietnam and in Washington. There was the essential factor that the internal security situation had not improved enough—he was never happy when the answer to such a problem was to reorganize the system. He noted that much of the [Page 301] paper had been done some time ago. He acknowledged that it was very bulky and for that reason he had requested a summary. He thought that the study could be treated in either one of two ways. A summary could be sent to the NSC and simultaneously transmitted to MACV for their response. Meanwhile, the group which drafted the paper could be asked to spell out the kind of Washington organization that they felt was necessary. Alternatively, the study could be sent back to the group for re-examination in light of the critiques being made upon the paper. He noted that there is some urgency to this problem, and that considerations related to constabulary forces and troop replacements were coming more and more to the fore. Kissinger concurred that internal security was becoming an increasingly important subject. Pedersen noted that all reports indicated that efforts in this field were not progressing well. Sullivan added that the manpower squeeze was becoming acute. Decisions on allocation of manpower were already a problem for us, and between us and the South Vietnamese. Nutter suggested that the working group could add specific issues which had not been treated, e.g., the possible use of over-age people for the constabulary force.

Kissinger noted the problem of deciding what MACV is supposed to do with this study. He would like to see a paper showing where we are currently in internal security; recommendations on how to improve the situation in a general way (e.g., force strength); and specific examples, (e.g., manpower priority).

Sullivan noted that one of Smith’s problems with the paper pertained to what situation would prevail in the event of an agreed or de facto cessation of major hostilities involving RVNAF. In this situation one would assume that internal security forces took on even more importance. Smith agreed and noted the many ramifications to this problem, e.g., what the RVNAF could do in such a situation.

Unger believed that all types of forces were involved in the question of internal security. It was difficult to differentiate between missions. Abrams had already undertaken many of the study’s suggestions, e.g., giving more control of forces to provincial districts. Thus, if there was a settlement based on local accommodation, these local levels would have their own forces. Sullivan noted the additional concept of using regular forces for internal security.

Pedersen believed that this problem presented a classic situation for an options paper. Kissinger thought this was a very constructive idea. He did not believe that the paper needed to make agreed recommendations. This would meet many of Unger’s points. Unger agreed and repeated that the paper as it stood was too complicated. JCS/MACV views would lend themselves to options in a shorter paper.

[Page 302]

Kissinger then asked Nutter to take responsibility for directing an interagency effort on a new paper drawing upon all the relevant agencies. This paper should be in the form of options and could include an assessment of where we currently stood as regards internal security. Smith interjected that the latter subject could be done more rapidly. He said that his agency would do a paper on the confidence level in our assessments of the internal security situation and coordinate it with other agencies. In response to Kissinger’s query he said that he believed he could circulate this paper within a week or so.

Kissinger said that the President shared Nutter’s feeling that reorganization does not solve problems. Smith added that his agency thought that NSSM 19 would be like NSSMs 36 and 37.6 He wondered if NSSM 19 was designed to be a planning vehicle. Kissinger said that this was not what had been intended originally. It was designed to relate the internal security picture to the war situation. Now however it would be useful to make it consistent with NSSMs 36 and 37 (Vietnamization and negotiations) for planning purposes, as well as to relate internal security to on-going hostilities.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–111, SRG Minutes, Originals, 1969. Secret; Nodis. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room.
  2. For a summary, see Document 91.
  3. For a summary and analysis, see Document 94.
  4. Not found.
  5. Not found.
  6. See Documents 87 and 91 for summary of responses to NSSM 36 and 37.