109. Memorandum for the President’s File by the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig)1


  • Meeting with the President, Dr. Kissinger, Admiral Moorer and General Haig on Tuesday, January 26, 1971 in the Oval Office, 12:25 p.m.–1:03 p.m.

The President opened the meeting by informing the group that he wished to meet with them to review the military aspects of the operation scheduled to be conducted against Tchepone in Laos. Admiral Moorer stated that he would conduct the briefing in such a way as to flesh out the detail of the broad, outlined plan discussed with the President earlier. Admiral Moorer used a large map, covering North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He described the Tchepone operation as taking place in four phases:

  • Phase I, which would be initiated on the night of January 30–31, involved internal movements within South Vietnam and included the movement of the ARVN First Airborne Division and a regiment of ARVN marines from III Corps to the I Corps area. It involved the following additional steps:
    • —The insertion of intelligence teams into the Tchepone area to acquire last-minute military intelligence.
    • —The movement of the Fifth Mechanized U.S. Brigade west along Route 9 to Khe Sanh; repair of the road and its bridges; and the establishment of fire bases along the Laotian border.
    • —The provision of U.S. and ARVN blocking positions south along the DMZ.
  • Phase II would consist of the following actions:
    • —The crossing of the Laotian border by some 10,000 men of the First ARVN Division.
    • ARVN ground elements would attack due west along Route 9 setting up flank security as they proceeded.
    • —When they reached a point about midway between the border and Tchepone, the First ARVN Airborne Division would launch a brigade air mobile operation to seize the Tchepone airfield.
    • —Phase II would be concluded with the consolidation and improvement of the Tchepone airfield and the defenses around Tchepone.
  • Phase III would involve maintaining the security of the Tchepone airfield and the movement of ARVN forces in a 360° arc into blocking positions along the routes surrounding Tchepone. It would also involve search and destroy operations designed to disrupt the infrastructure and the logistics lines and to discover caches in the area.
  • Phase IV of the operation involved the withdrawal of ARVN forces to the east along Route 9 or an option of swinging south to Base Area 611.

Admiral Moorer then presented what he considered to be the major advantages of the Tchepone operation. These included:

  • —Tchepone was the control center for the three exit points from North Vietnam through which all logistics flow to Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam.
  • —It was the headquarters for all logistics operations in Laos.
  • —South of Tchepone, the logistics route split into two or three segments and, therefore, it was the focal point and the convergence point for North Vietnam’s logistics effort. The main thrust of the movement of supplies south of Tchepone was the old trail bordering the South Vietnamese border and the newly developed complex along Highway 23 through Attopeu and down the Mekong corridor.
  • —An operation in Tchepone should totally disrupt all logistical activities of the North Vietnamese for the period of time needed to repair the damage done by South Vietnamese forces. This could represent as much as a year’s gain overall.
  • —If the enemy fights, and it is likely that he will, U.S. air power and fire power should inflict heavy casualties which will be difficult to replace. The enemy’s lack of mobility should enable us to isolate the battlefield and insure a South Vietnamese victory.
  • —The current flow of materiel versus manpower through the Ho Chi Minh Trail confirms that the large bulk of supplies and materiel will be in the Tchepone area during the period of the ARVN attack. (Admiral Moorer noted that 14,000 tons had moved through Tchepone just last week.)
  • —The large number of laborers and transporters in the area confirmed that the North Vietnamese use a system of off-loading their trucks at the end of each leg of a logistics journey. This occurs in the Tchepone area where the trucks are off-loaded just before dawn, then reloaded just after dark for movement south. This means that large amounts of supplies are also needed just to sustain the transport and laboring forces involved. For this reason, there should be considerable numbers of stockpiles and rolling stock which could be affected by the [Page 307] operation. Admiral Moorer emphasized that the North Vietnamese are now concentrating on supplies rather than manpower down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This had been necessary because of the Cambodian operations last year and it was normal for the enemy to shove supplies down and then have his forces move into them. At the present time, there were forces in the south but a serious shortage of supplies. Admiral Moorer noted that enemy troops in the supply system were carrying weapons which was a departure from past practices. He noted also that an all-out, full-fledged effort was under way to rebuild the enemy’s logistics system and to get supplies down into Cambodia and South Vietnam.
  • —Disruption of the Tchepone supply complex would increase the chances of the survival of the Lon Nol regime.
  • —It would drastically delay the infiltration timetable for personnel, facilitate Vietnamization in South Vietnam, and insure our ability to continue with a rapid rate of withdrawal of U.S. forces.

In summary, Admiral Moorer stated that the operation was militarily feasible, would get decisive results, and convey a signal to the North Vietnamese of the great risks they have accepted by extending themselves into Laos and Cambodia.

Admiral Moorer then turned to a detailed analysis of the enemy’s ability to reinforce his units in the Tchepone area. He pointed out that habitually the enemy moved his troops in this area at night because of heavy air attack. If the enemy could be panicked into initiating daytime troop movements to reinforce the Tchepone area, the damage which could be inflicted by our air would be greatly magnified. Admiral Moorer emphasized again that he did not believe that ARVN forces could be overcome due to their own mobility and the U.S. firepower which would be provided.

The President then stated that the key element in the Tchepone operation was the fact that the U.S. is not directly involved on the ground but would be limited to fire support through artillery from South Vietnam and the full range of air support involved. At the same time, the President stated, there would be charges of U.S. efforts to widen the war through an invasion of Laos. The President commented that it would be most helpful if we could use South Vietnamese assets and helicopters to lift their troops rather than having to rely on U.S. forces.

Admiral Moorer replied that he had investigated this possibility twice with General Abrams and he had also looked into the possibility of allowing the South Vietnamese to handle the Route 4 operation themselves. General Abrams had made every effort to convince the South Vietnamese to support themselves, but they just did not have sufficient capability to lift a brigade into Tchepone and to provide for the great array of logistics requirements involved. Admiral Moorer [Page 308] stated he would again investigate the possibility, but that he was confident we would have to lift the ARVN forces and provide for their logistics support as well as their medical evacuation. He stated that, in the plan, the 101st Airborne Division’s helicopter assets would be involved.

Dr. Kissinger asked Admiral Moorer if it would be possible to modify the Tchepone plan in such a way that it would involve only an overland operation. Admiral Moorer stated that he had discussed this possibility with I Corps ARVN Commander, General Lam, but that General Lam felt that the shock action of the air mobile operation was essential to its success.

The President asked Admiral Moorer to study the operation again in terms of a plan using less U.S. airlift, so that we would not be open to the charge of lifting South Vietnamese troops into Laos. The President added that the main problem at this point, however, was the attitude of Souvanna.

Dr. Kissinger stated that we had had a reply to our initial approach and that it was somewhat worrisome and vacillating.2 Dr. Kissinger continued that Souvanna indicated that he would have great difficulty with an operation that would extend more than three weeks, and that we had verified that three weeks was not nearly enough to make the operation cost effective.3 Dr. Kissinger added that Souvanna’s concerns might be overriding, but that in any event the operation would have to extend for at least four to six to eight weeks. Only in this way could we pose the enemy with a most serious problem of tying up his logistics for the remainder of the dry season, and forcing him during 1972 to rebuild his whole logistics infrastructure. Thus, in effect, we could be buying a full year of additional security at a time when our strength would be minimized and the greatest risks to our overall Vietnamization [Page 309] program would exist. For this reason, Dr. Kissinger stated it appeared that the Tchepone operation should be extended for at least a two-month period.

The President asked again about the specific attitude of Souvanna. Dr. Kissinger confirmed that the initial approach made by Godley was somewhat tenuous and that new instructions were being prepared for Godley in a more explicit tone.4 Admiral Moorer commented that he could not quite understand how we could accept the double standard, permitting the North Vietnamese to occupy and use Laos and be so self-conscious about ARVN efforts in Laos to prevent this. Dr. Kissinger stated that this was the point that we had made to Souvanna and that we could live with the position that he might take, demanding the withdrawal of all foreign forces from his territory.

The President then remarked that while he agreed with Admiral Moorer that we were the victims of a double standard, the situation in Laos was somewhat different due to the emotional problems domestically. It was important that Souvanna take a position which would not be damaging to our domestic attitude here. He asked Admiral Moorer and Dr. Kissinger to look into whether or not the operation could be conducted without U.S. troop lift and he also asked that alternate plans be considered which would not involve Laos.5

The President then asked Admiral Moorer to touch upon the current state of planning for the Chup operation. Admiral Moorer replied that the Chup operation had been fully prepared and was ready for launching on February 4th. The President noted that this meant that both Chup and Tchepone would take place simultaneously but with independent command and control. Admiral Moorer confirmed that this was the case and that General Tri would be in command of the Chup operation and that General Lam would be in command of the Tchepone operation from I Corps.

The President asked what the benefits of the Chup operation would be. Admiral Moorer answered that the enemy had been attempting to rebuild the sanctuaries in the Chup area and that the North Vietnamese and VC 7th, 9th and 5th Divisions were in the area. Dr. Kissinger interjected that there would actually be some advantage of going through with the Phase I of the Tchepone operation since it would serve as a feint to reinforce success of the Chup plan. Admiral Moorer [Page 310] continued that during last Spring’s Cambodian operation the enemy withdrew to the north and west and that at least two full enemy divisions and an artillery brigade, as well as the 274 and 272 Regiments of the 9th Division, were in the area. He pointed out that there had been some recent movements of the 9th VC Division towards the Fishhook in an effort to get back into the III Corps area of South Vietnam.

The President stated that he agreed completely with the operation and that he hoped there would be some contact, with a sizable South Vietnamese victory and that this success would help Thieu in his election and would add to the momentum of the improvement of the South Vietnamese forces. Dr. Kissinger noted that the Chup operation would blunt the enemy offensive this dry season in southern and central Cambodia. The President asked if it would relieve the pressure on Phnom Penh. Admiral Moorer answered that unquestionably the operation would do so for this was the area from which had come the logistics support and troop elements now moving around Phnom Penh. Admiral Moorer added that the attack on Phnom Penh airfield probably came from a sapper unit attached to an artillery brigade located in Chup.6

Admiral Moorer continued describing the operation by indicating that the Chup operation would involve a thrust west along Highway 7 to Kompong Cham. The highway would then be turned over to the Cambodians and the South Vietnamese would continue to attack north through the Chup Plantation to the elbow of the Mekong River. This would be followed by an attack south of Route 7 to link up with the other ARVN forces which were attacking west along Highway 1. The operation would take approximately three months.

The President stated that the operation appeared to be a sound one and that it would obviously take the pressure off Phnom Penh and continue to prevent additional pressures from developing against the III and IV Corps of South Vietnam.

The President then turned to General Haig and asked what he thought of the attitude in Phnom Penh as a result of the enemy pressure, and especially as a result of the attack on the airfield. General Haig stated that he was certain that the recent enemy activity in and around Phnom Penh had added greatly to the anxiety of the Cambodians [Page 311] but that he could see no signs that morale or resolve was cracking. He stated that in many respects the attack on the airfield might have had some therapeutic value in shaking the complacency which General Haig had noted in the Cambodian armed forces during his recent visit to Phnom Penh.

Admiral Moorer stated that, in his view, if the go-ahead was not given for the Phase II of the Tchepone operation, we would still reap some tremendous psychological benefit as a result of having conducted Phase I. He also suggested that the enemy would likely concentrate his defenses in the Tchepone area and that massive employment of U.S. air could result in increasing casualties to the enemy.

The President stated that he was in favor of conducting the Tchepone operations but that Souvanna’s attitude would be pivotal. He reiterated that he would like to have a thorough investigation made of whether or not the operation could be conducted without U.S. airlift.

Admiral Moorer commented that he, too, strongly favored the Tchepone operation and noted that they had considered an alternative plan of attacking across northern Cambodia to Stung Treng in an effort to cut the Mekong logistics corridor south of Attopeu. Investigation, however, suggested that this was not nearly as effective an operation as Tchepone since there were no concentrations of enemy supplies and since the area was open, permitting the enemy to shift and move his forces so as to avoid contact. Furthermore, a thrust of this kind into northern Cambodia might merely force the enemy to shift his supply routes further west without seriously disrupting them. Admiral Moorer added that he would now also look at the Chup operation with the view towards attacking farther north beyond the elbow of the Mekong as far as the Stung Treng area.

The President stated that in his view the enemy’s situation had deteriorated badly and that he may not be as tough as he had been in earlier months. He noted that the enemy had been taking a beating as the ARVN grew stronger. This Spring’s campaign could have a major impact.

The President then inquired about additional bombing of the Laotian choke points and other air plans which he had requested. Admiral Moorer stated that two sets of plans had been developed. The first provided for heavy air strikes in the Panhandle against the entry points in North Vietnam—the three major pass areas. The second series of attacks provided for naval bombardment against the coastal logistics facilities along the east coast of North Vietnam. Admiral Moorer added that they had also developed a plan for coastal PTF raids against North Vietnam employing South Vietnamese crews and involving the use of the 40mm cannons on the PTFs. Finally, Admiral Moorer said that the JCS had prepared plans for attacks on POL storage areas along the east coast of North Vietnam.

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The President stated that he would like to see all these plans, provided they involved South Vietnamese troops only. He pointed out that it would be of great benefit to escalate raids against the north and to do so simultaneously with the Chup and, if it was approved, the Tchepone operation. All this would convey to Hanoi that the ARVN was growing stronger, that in the future they could expect attacks against their homeland. Dr. Kissinger then commented that Mr. Laird had all the plans discussed by Admiral Moorer but that they had not been forwarded to the White House.

The President asked whether or not it would be possible for the South Vietnamese to conduct a raid against the North Vietnamese airport in the Hanoi area. Admiral Moorer answered that they had looked into this very carefully with General Abrams but that the consensus of professional opinion was that such a plan would not be feasible, due to the strong enemy defenses in the area.

The President thanked Admiral Moorer for his presentation and the meeting was adjourned.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Box 84, Memoranda for the President, Beginning January 24, 1971. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Sent for information.
  2. The final instructions along with the text of a message to Souvanna Phouma were sent to Godley in telegram 13112 to Vientiane, January 25. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 80, Vietnam Subject Files, Ops in Laos and Cambodia, Vol. II) Godley met with Souvanna on January 26 and reported on the meeting in telegram 470 from Vientiane. (Ibid., Box 83, Vietnam Subject Files, Special Operations File, Vol. I) In a memorandum to Kissinger, January 25, responding to Kissinger’s request, Helms wrote that Souvanna had a good record on being able to keep a secret, but there was no record on how he would handle confidentiality if he was opposed to an activity. (Ibid.)
  3. In telegram 470 from Vientiane, Godley also reported that Souvanna studied the message and maps of the Tchepone area minutely, suggesting other options for the site of the operation, but Godley pointed out the deficiencies of each. Souvanna noted that he would have to protest the operation and ask the South Vietnamese forces to leave, but that if it could be kept secret for a week, he could give the South Vietnamese around 2 weeks to withdraw, thus allowing 3 to 4 weeks for the operation. He asked Godley to query Washington about the possibility of attacking the border area between Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia instead and the total time needed for the Tchepone operation. He added that he would “sleep on” the information.
  4. See footnote 5, Document 110.
  5. The request was sent in JCS message 2075 to CINCPAC, January 26. It reads as follows: “Although we have plowed this ground before, I have been once again asked if the ARVN can conduct this operation without the use of US helicopters. Request your comments.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 83, Vietnam Subject Files, Special Operations File, Vol. I)
  6. In a memorandum to Nixon, January 22, Kissinger reported on the “well planned and coordinated effort to destroy military facilities” at the Pochentong airport near Phnom Penh by VC and NVA forces early that morning, Cambodia time. (Ibid., Box 511, Country Files, Far East, Cambodia, Vol. XI) In a second memorandum to Nixon, January 22, Kissinger added that there were no U.S. casualties, but a number of Cambodian victims, and almost the entire Cambodian Air Force was lost. Nixon wrote on the bottom: “Let’s see whether a S.V. Namese Commando squad could not be put together to hit an airport near Hanoi.” Haig noted on the memorandum that the Department of Defense had been notified. (Ibid.)