142. Backchannel Message From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker)1

WHS 1010. I am sending this message on an “exclusively eyes only” basis. It is a personal communication with no official status. It is caused by profound concern that unless my office can get a conceptual grip on the situation, the most serious consequences for our entire Vietnam policy could develop. As you know, I fully supported the decision to move into Laos. I remain convinced that the reasoning that led to the decision to undertake these operations was sound. There is certainly no inclination here to second-guess or question the conduct of the tactical battle, and no one is more aware than I of the difficulties which nitpicking from Washington can generate. I consider General Abrams one of our great commanders. Everyone here has full confidence in him. Nevertheless, I am profoundly concerned by the way the situation is evolving and for that reason, I would be most grateful if you would meet privately with General Abrams and discuss my concerns with him. But please do not show him this cable. It is so frank because of our own personal friendship.

[Page 439]

Fundamental to the future success of our objectives in Southeast Asia is the maintenance of a minimum basic confidence here that the actions we have taken thus far offer hope of leading to a situation in which the South Vietnamese will be able increasingly to manage their own defenses as U.S. forces continue to be withdrawn at rates comparable to those of the past. The President’s decision to support Lam Son 719 was based on his confidence that the Laos trail network would be disrupted with some impact on the enemy’s ability to undertake offensive operations during this dry season and the next as well. Frankly, I am beginning to wonder what if anything has been achieved in this regard. Since the operation has been launched, the President has received reports on a wide range of modifications to the plan brought on by the host of very real difficulties with which the ARVN had been confronted, only to discover that events on the ground and subsequent operational reporting have not been consistent with the forecasts. Specifically, we have found ourselves in the following position:

The President was initially briefed to the effect that ARVN forces would seize Tchepone four to five days after H-Hour.
On February 15, he was told that weather, supply problems, conditions on Route 9, and enemy resistance would delay achieving this objective for a period of 8 to 10 days.
Subsequently the President was informed that Tchepone was less important because all routes going through Tchepone were being cut southeast of Tchepone.
Subsequently, the President was informed that a modified scheme of maneuver would be adopted which would place two regiments attacking on a northeast axis along Route 914 and the high ground to the north with the objective of seizing Tchepone.

Since receiving information on these various conceptual approaches, events on the ground have not confirmed our ability to accomplish them. This has quite naturally resulted in concerns here as to the overall future outlook of the operation. An additional factor which concerns me greatly is the limited ARVN strength which has been involved in this operation at a time when the enemy has obviously committed his full resources.

We fear that this ARVN strength is not only insufficient to accomplish the mission but is also so weak that significant portions of it can be overrun. If that happens, and if the ARVN must pull back, nothing fundamental will be changed—either here or in South Vietnam—by the argument that Hanoi casualities were even heavier than ours. Husbanding reserves will not help now because there will not be the domestic basis for another battle.

I would like to emphasize that both the President and I have full confidence in General Abrams and recognize the immense difficulties [Page 440] which he faces, not only in supporting the ARVN in a most difficult tactical situation but in influencing them to undertake operations which may not necessarily reflect their own wishes. As you know, no one here in Washington supports what we are trying to accomplish more than I. But we can accomplish nothing unless we face facts. You know what we are up against here. We have just seen the tip of the iceberg in this respect. We will do our best to hold the fort. But we must know what we are up against. There is no chance to keep panic from setting in if we are constantly outstripped by events.

In order to keep the President fully abreast of the future prospects of the Laotian venture, I would be most grateful on a strictly personal basis to have your blunt assessment of what the future holds both in terms of prospects for success and the overall ability of the ARVN to accomplish the mission which it has undertaken. Specifically, what is the reason for the conditions I have described; how well is ARVN really fighting; what can we reasonably expect to achieve; what do the South Vietnamese really think; and finally what do you believe Thieu personally thinks of the operation. I ask for this assessment without any intention of pressuring you or General Abrams with respect to what should be accomplished but rather to obtain from you the most candid appraisal now available so that the President will be best able to handle any difficulties which may arise here and prepare himself for hard choices. You were present in Washington when the decision was made to proceed and only you can know and will fully understand what we are trying to accomplish here. For this reason, I am confident you will not show this message to General Abrams, who may feel obliged to discuss it in military channels. I therefore leave it up to your best judgement as to how best to obtain General Abrams’ frank assessment through this channel exclusively.

My good wishes are with you and Abe.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 84, Vietnam Subject Files, Special Operations File, Vol. VI. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only.