158. Backchannel Message From the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
Visit to I Corps which included lengthy discussions with General Southerland as well as meetings with General Lam, CG, ARVN I Corps, and General Phu, CG, 1st ARVN Division, has been completed. Visit has confirmed that ARVN enthusiasm for continuation of Lam Son 719 is completely lacking. The extended periods of intense combat to which elements of ARVN airborne division and 1st Division have been subjected has left both commanders determined to call off operations as quickly as possible. General Lam is apparently succumbing to this pressure.
I arrived in I Corps after a period of especially bad weather during which elements of 1st ARVN regiment on high ground south of Route 9 have been under severe attack and with U.S. air having been only marginally effective. During this period the regiment’s 4th battalion was badly mauled and eliminated as an effective fighting force. Results of this action culminated in decision by General Phu and General Lam to permit withdrawal from Laos of division’s second regiment—the move to begin as soon as the first regiment had been withdrawn. Yesterday, 18 March, the entire first regiment was withdrawn and one battalion of the second regiment had also been displaced to South Vietnam. This action was taken despite assurances given to General [Page 476] Southerland by General Lam that he would maintain the positions held by the second regiment on the high ground south of Route 9.
Lam has also ordered start of withdrawal of the airborne division to successive phase lines eastward toward border. It is now obvious that ARVN has lost its stomach for further operations in Laos and that main problem now faced by General Abrams is not getting ARVN to stay but rather to influence them to pull out in an orderly fashion.
The enemy now has five regiments poised to strike airborne on and north of Route 9 and seems to sense waning ARVN aggressiveness. Enemy has unquestionably suffered huge casualties, nevertheless smell of victory is in his nostrils and all-out effort on his part can be anticipated.
One of complicating factors in the situation has been the poor performance of the ARVN airborne division which has from the outset lacked aggressiveness. Its commander has continually complained of inadequate support from both General Lam and General Southerland.
Throughout this week General Abrams at the Saigon level and General Southerland at Corps level have been urging South Vietnamese to reinforce operation by moving second ARVN division North from its area of operations in Southern I Corps. General Lam and apparently President Thieu, have refused to do so. Last night President Thieu apparently called General Lam and informed him that he was moving the ARVN airborne back to Saigon as soon as it could be extracted from Laos. Despite above, General Lam still insists he will conduct Phase IV of Lam Son 719 by following up extraction and displacement of airborne and 1st division elements and armored forces along Route 9, with an attack overland due east by the two marine brigades through the Laotian salient but north of base area 611. He plans upon reaching the salient on or about 10 April, to subsequently attack back into Laos through base area 611 from its extremity. I personally have some doubts this will be done given current state of mind I have observed in ARVN leadership.
In my view, next week will be critical. ARVN leadership must be influenced to move eastward in orderly fashion utilizing preponderance of U.S. air power intelligently. This means each displacement must be undertaken only after full U.S. air assets have been concentrated to prepare moves. Further, General Lam must resist the CG, First ARVN Division’s pressure to give up high ground south of Route 9 until airborne and armored forces have displaced east along Route 9. Weather will be the critical factor. My visit to I Corps has convinced me that issue now is not feasibility of reinforcing and remaining in Laos, but urgent need to impress upon ARVN the necessity of moving out only with full concentration of U.S. firepower in an orderly and tactically sound fashion. It appears to me that further pressure on ARVN risks not only rupturing of the kind of intimate coordination needed to insure [Page 477] orderly displacement but also threatens severe fracture of U.S.-GVN relations at the political level. I regret I can not provide a more encouraging report but am confident this frank appraisal is essential for you to have. I have not discussed this appraisal with General Abrams and Ambassador Bunker but will do so this afternoon. In interim I recommend that pressure from Washington to reinforce or to delay departure from Laos be terminated. Efforts now should be concentrated on providing fullest U.S. support by way of firepower and in attempting to influence ARVN leadership to execute retrograde in an orderly and professional manner. Retrograde movement will certainly take more time than ARVN anticipates if it is done properly. Attack east by marines should take at least ten days or two weeks. Thus we can count on some ARVN activity in Laos up until early April. We may see Phase IV as described above but I have my doubts at this point.
General Abrams, Ambassador Bunker and I are to meet President Thieu this afternoon at which time the issue will be discussed. We will make an additional effort to bolster his resolve, however, the more limited success would be far preferable to the serious defeat of ARVN forces in Laos. These are the simple stakes at this point.
Review of situation during my visit confirms that ARVN interdiction of Route 914 has been only sporadic. Recent efforts to interdict road culminated in severe fighting which forced first ARVN division back up on to the high ground. ARVN forces are not now in a position to cut road. Thus enemy is strong along Route 914 and continues to mass around Aloui north of Route 9.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 549, Vietnam Country Files, Laos, Vol. VII. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. The original is a retyped copy of backchannel message 640 from Saigon, 1310Z.↩