259. Memorandum for the Record1
NSC Meeting on Vietnam
The President: I wanted to get together with you to go over our general line on Vietnam.2 We are having a little respite, and I thought that this would be a good opportunity to have a meeting. What I wanted was to have a situation report on Vietnam and an indication of where we’re going. We are now coming into a period in which there is an enormous amount of speculation about our future policy on Vietnam, both in this country and elsewhere, and needless to say, we must cope effectively with the situation. I will suggest a format for the meeting and not go on at great length. First I would like to have Dick Helms give a rundown on the political and military situation in Vietnam, and have Admiral Moorer follow with a discussion of the military situation. [To Secretary Rogers.] Bill, if you want to give a rundown on the political situation there, or if there are any others who have questions they would like to raise, I will want them to go ahead.
I will simply introduce by saying that our choices are pretty limited, as you know. We can, of course, do this or that, and can come to some conclusion as to what we want to do from the military and from the political standpoint. On the other hand, the situation is not one for discouragement, if we collectively hold good and tight.
Mr. Helms: There are many soft spots in the northern part of South Vietnam. There are security problems there. There is terrorist activity. How much benefit have the Communists gained from this? We can’t really tell. But incidents will continue.
Thieu is still in control and will win over 50% in the election. There is confusion among the South Vietnamese people about how to cast a negative vote—particularly with the announcement made today.[Page 932]
The President: What announcement are you talking about, Dick?
Mr. Helms: President Thieu announced today that people could vote against him, first, by tearing up the ballot or tearing it in half; second, by marking an ‘x’ across it; and third, by putting an empty envelope into the ballot box. A voter can show his opposition to Thieu in three ways.
The President: That’s not too bad. He has three alternatives.
Mr. Helms: Thieu has problems in his own camp. His own Prime Minister suggested himself as an alternative. Khiem thinks Thieu is in trouble. With the Army, a coup is unlikely unless the Army thinks American aid is jeopardized. There is always some chance of an irrational act. There is much talk, but less serious action. Thieu is in control, with few overt threats to his position.
From Hanoi, it looks like this: They see a political situation with possible instability. They see the U.S. domestic situation. And they see the atmospheric between what happens in the U.S. and what happens in Saigon.
They can create disorders, but they can’t influence it significantly. Low level military action is also likely. We are coming down the home stretch, but they can’t control the political scene.
Military action is also limited except in the area just South of the DMZ. Also the central highlands: There are considerable reinforcements going in and great potential there.
It is less clear about their possible intentions for the dry season. Their message is now less strident than a few months ago. There are no clear signals. There is little discussion in the documents about their strategy and tactics.
Our rapprochement with China may have put Hanoi off stride. They called the Chinese “opportunists”. They have muted these comments now. Also, they probably can’t figure the Saigon political situation. And the floods have caused a problem.
We should know soon whether they decide to do something.
The President: Could you spend a moment on Cambodia and Laos, Dick? Do the situations there have any influence on Vietnam, particularly in terms of how North Vietnam looks at policy toward Cambodia at this time?
Mr. Helms: The Cambodians have put the wet season to good use, and have gained control over some of the territory they lost as the dry season ended. This is not to say that if the North Vietnamese wanted to push them back, they couldn’t do it. The question is whether or not the North Vietnamese will wish to make an effort of this sort.
In Laos, General Vang Pao has made a good effort and occupied much of the territory of the Plain of Jars, and has captured large stores [Page 933] of food and arms. This makes it tougher for the North Vietnamese. However, as in the case of Cambodia, nothing has happened to prevent the North Vietnamese from pushing them back, and from making the same kind of military effort against Vang Pao as they did before. In the South, on the Bolovens Plateau, they had taken much more territory than ever before, but the Lao have taken back Paksong. I must say, this was a very significant victory. The North Vietnamese may come again, but it was still significant.
To recapitulate, looking at Indochina as a whole, the North Vietnamese have a question as to where they should put their priorities and make their major effort. They perhaps don’t know where they will move, but they probably still believe that they can move back into the areas which were taken by our side.
The President: [To Admiral Moorer] Tom, do you have anything to add to what Dick has said?
Admiral Moorer: If I may, I would like to say a few words. First, Mr. President, adding a bit to what Mr. Helms said about Laos, the situation on the Plain of Jars continues to be that the North Vietnamese have the capability of moving Vang Pao back if they want to commit their resources to do this. At the Bolovens, the North Vietnamese must hold all this territory if they want to bring down logistical support from the Panhandle. Without these LOCs they wouldn’t have access to the South.
Regarding Cambodia, there are two kinds of operations going on. One is an independent type carried out by the Cambodians themselves such as Operation Chenla II.3 The encouraging part of this operation was that the Cambodians have been able to exercise control, provide logistical support, and handle operations on their own in a semi-professional way. Elsewhere in the country, all the LOCs into Phnom Penh are open. There are a number of main routes which radiate out from the city. We did have that attack on the oil tanks this morning, in which 14 out of 29 tanks were hit, but these can be repaired in two weeks and with the LOCs open there shouldn’t be an emergency in Phnom Penh. General Lon Nol is very ambitious, and has plans to move above the so-called Lon Nol line and reoccupy areas occupied by the North Vietnamese.
The other type of operation to which I referred is cross-border operations by the South Vietnamese, which have been somewhat restricted due to the floods. Efforts are being made by General Abrams and General Weyand to get better South Vietnamese and Cambodian cooperation. Significant progress has been made at the division and regimental level, and coordination is getting better all the time.[Page 934]
Regarding South Vietnam, I agree with Mr. Helms on the situation in MR I. The North Vietnamese saw fit to withdraw two regiments back into North Vietnam. There is no question but that the Lam Son 719 operation just concluded seriously inhibited the capacity of these units to operate, and they had to pull back to refit. The military action which we had expected during the Lower House elections didn’t materialize. However, the North Vietnamese have just created a new division, the 22nd, out of other forces in MR I, and when they flesh this out they will have added a whole new division to the MR I forces.
In MR II, as Mr. Helms has said, the sensitive area is that of the Central Highlands. MR II has the weakest leadership. MR III has been fairly stable, except for one ambush near the Cambodian border. The ARVN operation in the U Minh forest has been extremely well conducted, and is indicative of a growing capability of the ARVN to operate on its own. Five hundred enemy have been killed, weapons and supplies have been captured, and there have been a considerable number of defectors. It is true that a significant number of PF units have been overrun in MR IV, but the number has been decreasing—there were four in August, and two in September. We were concerned about this matter last June, but General Abrams reported two days ago that the situation has stabilized and is not indicative of a deteriorating situation.
In sum, Mr. President, I can say that Phase I of the Vietnamization Program has been completed, and that Vietnamization is working. There are leadership problems in MR II, but this is being given attention. It will also be necessary for the North Vietnamese to reconstitute their logistical system before resuming operations. We can expect terrorist operations such as fire-bombing, particularly in urban areas, but I don’t expect Main Force operations unless the North Vietnamese are prepared to commit themselves deeply across the DMZ or in some other area, for instance across the Cambodian border.
The President: To what extent have U.S. forces dropped below 200,000?
Admiral Moorer: We’re holding to the line which you established, Mr. President. We will be down to 184,000 by December.
The President: I have noticed that U.S. forces have had very low casualties. Is this because they are in defensive positions, and there are no search and destroy operations?
Admiral Moorer: No sir, all operations of that sort have been turned over to the South Vietnamese. We had only 13 casualties this week. Most of the casualties are caused by aircraft actions and by booby traps.
The President: Yes, I had understood that our forces were mostly in defensive positions. I saw that we lost a helicopter. Are we still giving helicopter support to the South Vietnamese ground forces?[Page 935]
Admiral Moorer: This type of support is continuing, and we will back up the South Vietnamese with fighter aircraft and helicopters.
Secretary Laird: We must be careful in talking about U.S. actions. We still have artillery bases which are ours, which must have infantry protection. These bases would get socked unless the troops went out and searched for the enemy and didn’t give warning.
The President: Of course, they just can’t sit there, and there has to be patrolling to protect the bases. Do U.S. forces still play a primary role in I Corps? Where are they located?
Admiral Moorer: U.S. combat units are primarily in I Corps and some in III Corps. Many of the other units are at Cam Ranh Bay packing up to go home.
The President: To what extent are you concerned about the enemy buildup threatening the DMZ and I Corps?
Admiral Moorer: I don’t see any immediate threat to the friendly forces is I Corps.
The President: How do you analyze the enemy buildup—the roads through the DMZ, and the enemy forces above it?
Admiral Moorer: Mr. Helms’ comment about the buildup was motivated, I believe, by an intercept saying that enemy forces were beginning to move. However, we don’t have indications other than this. The enemy could move, but we would want broader information about enemy forces coming south. There is only an indication that they may move.
The President: Does anybody else have anything to say?
Admiral Moorer: I think we have given them the opportunity. From the military point of view, the South Vietnamese should be able to pull their own weight and provide their own security. This is not so much a matter of hardware and equipment, but of political structure and national will.
The President: I agree. They have the equipment, weapons, and airforce which the other side doesn’t have.
[To Mr. Helms] To my great surprise, I noticed in reading the New York Times story about demonstrations which the students in Saigon were pursuing, that there was little popular support for the students. But on the other hand, wires said that these demonstrations were serious. Could you put what is happening into perspective? We’ve seen coups before, and there have been fire bombings—how do these things look in terms of popular support?
Mr. Helms: I think all these things are minor episodes. The demonstrations have been spirited, but the police have got going quickly, only a few students have been involved, and there has been no evidence that the people in the streets have gotten in at all. All of them were students in the group which the TV cameras focused upon. We haven’t [Page 936] been able to find any sign that any of these short, sharp demonstrations have had a significant effect.
The President: What about Ky? Is he plotting against Thieu, and does he have the support of the students?
Mr. Helms: We have had good indications in the last 24 hours—we have good penetration of Ky’s organization—that he is stirring up all his followers but the indications say that he intends to take opposition in a legitimate way with no coup.
The President: What evaluation have you or State had prior to this meeting on Minh’s backing or stimulating demonstrations?
Mr. Helms: He is more active again and serious in his opposition to Thieu, but regardless of this, Thieu has the power and will stay the course. I believe that he can handle the situation unless something unforeseen comes up, such as an assassination.
Admiral Moorer: General Vien is the most stabilizing element in that country. He does not participate in political activity, and is highly regarded by the military.
The President: General Vien? Who is he?
Admiral Moorer: He is the Chairman of the Joint General Staff.
The President: Oh, yes. He doesn’t get involved in politics?
Admiral Moorer: No. For example, in Operation Lam Son 719, he was quite frank in his comments. He said that Thieu was interfering and preventing the operation from proceeding in the best way.
Dr. Kissinger: He also had a few things to say about General Lam.
Admiral Moorer: Yes, he did speak about General Lam and the situation in MR I, but his comments were full and frank.
The President: Looking at Vien from the standpoint of political stability, do you consider him a possible subject for leader of a coup, or would he stand by Thieu all the way? Would he be for the Government as it is?
Admiral Moorer: He would resist a coup.
The President: Would he take program direction from us?
Secretary Laird: I have travelled with him through all of the Military Regions. He has some questions about the situation, but this is normal for the leader of the JGS.
The President: Go ahead, Mel, and follow up with your analysis of Vietnamization.
Secretary Laird: I believe that the military and political situation is quite favorable. The logistics build-up has gone ahead more rapidly than anyone had thought possible. We are telescoping what had been planned for the next 11 months into a 2-month period, and will have all the paperwork done by September 30. This is going to surface a little [Page 937] bit more, because we have all those ships unloading, and tanks coming down from Japan. We have accelerated the training of four helicopter squadrons, and moved up the completion of this training from June 1972 to six months in advance. We are turning over the equipment of the 22nd Division in MR I. I have talked to Thieu about this.
The President: We are getting out of tactical air support, I believe.
Secretary Laird: Yes, we are going ahead with the turn-over of two tactical fighter squadrons and two airlift squadrons and moved the transfer ahead from mid-1972. The date depends on the availability of the aircraft for transfer. We are not yet up to a general manning level of 90% for the combat divisions, but we will be there for sure by 1 January for the combat units. Today we are at a level of 205,000 U.S. forces, and your date of 184,000 by December 1 will be met. Actually, the number will be just a little under this, but we have the 184,000 figure as a target.
As to what the troop levels will be, I have tried to shut up speculation coming from Saigon and elsewhere about future levels. I have taken your comments in your press conference of September 16 and sent them to all commanders and told them to try to hold this line. I’m afraid, though, that this logistics thing may break. I told Dr. Kissinger that if it does, it will come from the South Vietnamese because it would be to Thieu’s advantage to let it be known.
The President: I suppose that this is because it would show that he’s being backed.
Secretary Laird: Yes. When those tanks come down from Japan, Thieu will want to show them off a little. However, I told General Vien of the JGS on a very classified basis that even very few people in the Defense Department know about this. But there will be some stories.
I believe it is very important for us to know where we will be on December 1. We will have only five brigades, five air attack squadrons, and four helicopter squadrons, and will be down to a level where 67% of our men and materiel will be out. 75% of our combat forces will be gone. That’s quite a change. But we will still be able to maintain a capability in the air.
The President: We don’t count carriers as part of our forces in Vietnam, do we?
Secretary Laird: We never have; we’ve never included carriers in our ceiling. Our friends in the press have been trying to bring them in, but as far as General Abrams and DOD are concerned, we are not going to start now. We might need an appropriate increase in our force ceiling for Thailand of some 500 to 1,000 men, but I don’t believe this should cause a problem since we are down to a level of 32,000 from well over 50,000. Because of this we could have a few more air force [Page 938] personnel. I do think, though, that with respect to air support for the South Vietnamese, our program is well in hand. There should be no question that the kinds of support needed will be made available. We have the capability of surging B–52’s, and are now flying 32 to 33 missions per night, mostly in MR I and in the southern half of the DMZ against the road network there. The enemy has been pulling forces north out of this region as a result.
The President: Have we ever used B–52’s in North Vietnam?
Secretary Laird: No.
The President: We have never used them there, but have come close to the North Vietnamese border from time to time.
Is there any reason for our not using B–52’s over North Vietnam? Is it because they are more vulnerable? Of course, I’m not thinking of bombing Hanoi.
Secretary Laird: We have put them in on the passes fairly close to the border.
Admiral Moorer: We have had attacks against from them anti-aircraft guns, but haven’t lost one yet.
The President: I take it the reason is that they might be vulnerable. It would be a great psychological victory for North Vietnam to shoot one down, and their use has been restricted to South Vietnam.
Secretary Laird: There has been no mass bombing of the North, and the decision was not to hit civilian centers, but only to use tactical fighters to go in and take out certain targets. We haven’t used mass drops at night.
I don’t have anything further to say except that I don’t see how we can deliver more on our program or get the South Vietnamese to assimilate more equipment. Some of the equipment which they are now getting won’t be used until February or March, but we are getting the paper work done. There is one thing I can assure you, as Tom [Admiral Moorer] has said: the will of the South Vietnamese to fight is something we can’t determine.
The President: Is it your judgment that they are fighting rather well?
Admiral Moorer: Yes sir. General Abrams has sent in a message4 saying that he considered they had done very well, although they had suffered casualties. He was quite pleased.
Secretary Laird: One thing which we should remember is that a major war is still going on. Just because our losses are down, we should [Page 939] not forget that the South Vietnamese losses are running at 20,000 a year, and that this is a very large figure. When you take into account the estimate of the North Vietnamese coming down, and assume that the estimate of 100,000 casualties on their side is correct, then 120,000 men are being killed in two countries of less than one-twentieth of the population of the United States. So we don’t want to give the impression that Vietnam is not an active place, and that there’s no shooting and people being killed.
Admiral Moorer: North Vietnamese casualties have been pretty much in a straight line, and haven’t been reduced. There’s still a war there.
The President: [To Secretary Rogers] Bill, do you have any comment on the political situation?
Secretary Rogers: I would like to comment on one thing which you spoke about in your press conference:5 the South Vietnamese elections. There is not much dispute even among our critics that the Parliamentary elections were fair by our standards and fairly conducted. All we can say about the Presidential elections is that we are disappointed, and that we have made every effort with respect to Thieu, whose judgment up to now has been good. If he had encouraged Ky and Minh to run, he would have won anyway. We now must accept the fact that the referendum is going ahead. We can expect some disorders but not massive disorders, and I think that Thieu will get a substantial victory, much more than 50% of the vote—a lot higher. We have to remind ourselves in this case that there is no alternative. Ky would not be desirable to the liberals, and we can’t say he would be a natural leader of the Vietnamese people. Looking at the situation from both our standpoint and from their standpoint, Thieu is the best man. Minh is weak, and wouldn’t be a good leader, but the unfortunate thing is that election is not being held in a way we would want. Within this room, I can say that it’s our failure as will as Thieu’s, but we have no alternative but to go ahead—to work with him, encourage him, to try to get a free country, but not punish him. He is increasingly suspicious of his opponents, of the Buddhists, and of the U.S., and will be difficult to deal with after the elections. But we have to deal with him, and not let anybody think that we would deal with anybody else. What you said in your press conference couldn’t have been said better.
One other thing—I noticed a rash of stories over the weekend about troop withdrawals and what you have planned in the way of reductions. [Page 940] I hope that we can avoid this kind of speculation, which is very harmful. If we can just hold the line until your next announcement—.
The President: Does anybody else wish to say something?
Secretary Laird: Until we get the things which we need approved by Congress, we shouldn’t have any announcement. That’s why the 15 November date is just about right.
Secretary Rogers: One thing, there is a dangerous amendment before Congress, Senator Montoya’s, which would move that we would not give assistance to Vietnam until we get a fair election.6 It would state that we want a fair election. But Thieu has said that he would resign if the U.S. cuts off aid, so this might generate the feeling “let’s help him do so.”
The President: It would be the last election.
The Vice President: I feel that politically and emotionally we’re on the eve of a rather violent resurgence of agitation against the war notwithstanding the substantial progress of Vietnamization and the decreased activity of the enemy. Actions by such political figures as Senator McGovern, and the feeling in the press that in some way they can get a terminal date, has stimulated within the political community a kind of activity in which Vietnam is not on the back-burner. A number of candidates will be running with left-wing support in the coming elections, too. One thing which we’ve forgotten is that Big Minh is the idol of these people. They don’t remember that at the time of the unfortunate Diem incident, Minh was in the position of helping to overthrow Diem. He didn’t take hold at all.
Dr. Kissinger: And Minh was put in as a man who we thought would guarantee a continuation of the war effort.
The Vice President: Exactly—our friends have forgotten this. We shouldn’t acquiesce in this bubble coming to the surface about what a great man he is. It seems to me, Mr. President, that our tack is for us to continue emphasizing the obvious success of your policies, the low casualties of our forces, and reminding our people about the peace proposals we have put on the table in Paris, staying strongly with your position. What’s happened in the past is that we’ve been hammered day to day in the press to make the kind of concessions which the liberals want, and the people forget what our position is and confuse it with the position of the liberals. Then some writer gets a statement from somebody in the bureaucracy indicating that maybe the President’s policy is wrong, and we’re affected. We must be extremely strong in support of [Page 941] our policy, and to be conciliatory only encourages opposition. We should say it’s working, stress this, and forget new initiatives.
Secretary Laird: I would like to add one point to what the Vice President has said. The situation in Paris, it seems to me, is pretty sterile. I am concerned, though, over one thing which is going on about which we should be careful not to set ourselves up. This is the POW thing, where we have no leverage. The only leverage we have is humanitarianism, where we can embarrass Hanoi all over the world. But if we get in and give them a big chip, it would be a very bad thing. People are continually trying to set up the POW issue as a political thing.
Secretary Rogers: We should be very careful about emphasizing the importance of the POWs at Paris, otherwise in a few months we’ll again be in the position of fighting the war to get the POWs back.
The President: That’s exactly the way to put it. That’s what they were looking for in their 7 Points.
Secretary Rogers: Paris has taken a back seat lately, and shouldn’t be put back in front.
The President: What I would like to suggest is this: Is looking silly on the American front, if not before the entire world, worth an understanding in Paris?
The Vice President: Should we think about laying out the negotiating record?
Secretary Laird: There was a Detroit News report yesterday saying that the president of the UAW, and also the president of the NAACP, were going to organize a demonstration outside the Union League Club. They were going to demonstrate over your price freeze, and also over Vietnam, and had sent out invitations to people to take part. If, as the Vice President said, there is a danger that anti-war activity will return, this would be a test. Should we accept this as a test, and face it head on?
Secretary Rogers: To answer your question, I think the Vice President’s point is one we’ve got to keep in mind. The timing is important, and if something is going to develop we should do what he suggests. But I don’t believe we are yet at that stage. If it looks about to build up, we should do it, but I believe the President is on such high ground it wouldn’t be necessary. Maybe we could restate our position at the UN. From the height of Paris, we wouldn’t know what we would get into.
The Vice President: We should be ready to do so.
The Attorney General: The Democrats have scheduled a lot this fall, and there is much going on up on the Hill. The answer is to get information from our friends up on the Hill.[Page 942]
Secretary Laird: The Democrats have now caucused, after which we got a couple of people to shift their vote on the draft bill.7
The President: Of all people, Mansfield told the caucus—he put it to them—that the draft bill was important in political terms as well as in terms of Vietnam. He said that the Democrats had put us in every war since World War II, including Vietnam, and they couldn’t let the Republicans end the Vietnam war.
Secretary Laird: I can tell you that some people up there called after the caucus. They said that they had not been for the draft bill, but were for it now.
The President: That’s because Mansfield went too far. I’m surprised that he did this. He’s deeply emotional about his amendment, he believes in it deeply, but to put it in this way was surprising.
Secretary Rogers: There are about 10 amendments to the Military Procurement Bill, and four amendments to the Foreign Assistance Act, with all kinds of amendments on appropriations. We will have a whole series of such amendments, but there is no alternative but to face up to them.
The President: In particular, when the Greek amendment8 comes up they will say to cut off aid. Why? Because Greece doesn’t have democratic leaders. Yet, of the 91 countries all over the world to which we give aid, only 30 have leaders who are there as a result of democratic elections. In two-thirds of these countries, the leaders are not there due to elections which we would consider democratic. Does this mean, though, that we should cut off aid? Even in places such as Colombia and Mexico I understand that the changes have not been, strictly speaking, democratic.
Mr. Helms: Can we be sure of these figures?
Dr. Kissinger: We got them from you.
The President: So when the argument comes up that they want an amendment about Greece and Vietnam, some “bold boy” should say cut off aid to all undemocratic countries, and then watch those boys scream.[Page 943]
Secretary Rogers: I don’t think anywhere near 30 countries have our kind of election.
Dr. Kissinger: For example, we can’t say that Guyana was in that category.
The President (to Secretary Connally): John?
Secretary Connally: I suspect we are going to have demonstrations because the opposition wants to revive the Vietnam issue, but I don’t believe that these can be successful. We can have demonstrations instigated or manufactured by revolutionaries, but it seems to me that your policy is a winning policy. I suggest, though, that we try to take out of the war the element of South Vietnamese fighting North Vietnamese. That’s not why we are there; we are there to stop Communist aggression. That’s what you have done. To the extent that you have a friendly press, it is emphasizing that you have opened up to the Chinese and the Russians, so you mustn’t let headlines appear about soldiers being lost in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. What’s happened is that you’ve won. We are not losing many men, but to the extent you can keep casualties down you are better off. The Vice President is right, though, that in Paris you won’t get anything, and you’re on dangerous ground. However, you’ve turned the whole thing around from what the situation was several months ago.
The President: We had assistance in this from the North Vietnamese. McGovern walked in after meeting with them and said that they would release the prisoners if we set a date, and they then said, “hell no.”
The Vice President: The way to use this is to say that even they—people like McGovern—now know that the North Vietnamese can’t be trusted.
Secretary Laird: I agree with John (Secretary Connally) on the thrust of his remarks. John, the first time I went to Vietnam after our elections,9 the first question General Abrams asked me was how much time do we have—12 or 18 months. We’ve done pretty well, that was almost three years ago.
The President: Yes, but we’ve been just one jump ahead of the sheriff, the whole time.
Secretary Connally: I think we have more time today than we did a year ago.
Secretary Laird: About military assistance, we’ve got to have support. Assistance becomes more and more important over the next three years, very important to the direction in which we are going. The way [Page 944] it is, there is a three-year proposition in which aid will be at a very massive level, but then it can be pared down. If military assistance is handed over to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, though, we will be in real trouble.
The Vice President: The VC know that the best way to get to the American people is by means of U.S. casualties. They succeed in their mission if headlines appear saying that other American troops are being moved in and 100 Americans have been lost. They would get a demonstration from this.
The President: Let me say, they have some restraints on them, too. They shed blood and suffer casualties, and they are restrained at this moment.
Secretary Connally: The bureaucracy is talking and anticipating your policies, and I don’t think this is a position anyone ought to take. Nobody should talk except the people you specifically designate to do so.
The President: It’s difficult to stop this because so many people know about our plans. Much of it seems to come from Saigon.
Secretary Laird: The speculation goes in two ways. One is that you are going to delay further troop withdrawals, and the other is, then, that you will withdraw everything. We’ve gotten word out to our people, and I don’t know how I can make our position any clearer.
Admiral Moorer: We have sent a message, and the plan is classified.
Secretary Rogers: We have more time with the public, but this is not so with respect to Congress. The situation is quite dangerous there.
The President: I believe we must keep the Congressional critics off balance, certainly until December 1. After that, depending on what we say, they might come out again and get in front. I agree that it might have hurt in the Committee for Mansfield to take such a political line, but deep down such a man is going to believe that way. It’s a helluva thing—look at what happened in Korea. So I agree with Bill’s point, that Congress is the problem and not the people, although there is a public aspect too. It’s not difficult to stir up the Democrats—look at Woodcock, for example—because they’re such a tightly controlled group. We shall see.
Let me sum up by saying that I think that everybody is pretty much on the same track. What we have to do is see that our policy is consistent with the analysis of the situation and of our goals which we have made here.
First, with regard to the next announcement, you should simply say categorically that you don’t know what I will say and that I will determine this next November. What we said before is a good position: the situation may change, and we will analyze it then. Will there [Page 945] be a final announcement? You don’t know, you don’t know this, that, or the other thing.
There should be discipline throughout with respect to Thieu and the South Vietnamese Government. We have to recognize that with the best of intentions the behavior of the U.S. in Vietnam has not really been all that bright. (I know Thieu very well; I met him first in 1956.) The murder of Diem in which we were involved to a disgusting degree set off a turn of events which gave encouragement to the country, and we became mired down. Maybe this would have happened anyway, I don’t know. We took the road of instability. Having elections during a war is very difficult, particularly a civil war, and it is a hard thing, too, to insist on having all the precedents we have in peace time. Thieu is the leader and is having elections just the same, even though Vietnam never had elections before. Our choice may be difficult, but the only one there who can run the country is Thieu. Whether there will be a referendum or elections, and the people vote for or not for, Thieu is the only one there. Ky can’t do it, and Minh is unbelievable. There’s a real war on, finding a new leader is very difficult, and we’re going to back Thieu. He might be shot, but don’t say anything about that because it might encourage them if we say that if there was a coup we would assess the situation and maybe get out. We must take that hard line.
In terms of our general policy, POWs, and negotiations, we must put the best face on what is a perfectly good line. Of course, we’ve gone through a lot—the demonstrations in 1969, the Cambodia demonstrations, and those last May, but we’re still around. We have been able to survive. Looking down the road, let me separate out the policies and interests of the country. Politically looking at the short run, we could have used Thieu’s failures to get out. Considering that in this country we are being asked why we have stayed as long as we have, the people would heave a sigh of relief. We could have lived with that for a year and a half. Then the consequences would come—an unmitigated disaster in terms of our foreign policy in the future. When you look at all the countries we support around the world, a considerable number must have some doubts about the U.S. Because of neo-isolationism, our moves towards the Chinese and the Soviets, and the Nixon Doctrine itself, there are surely some doubts that the U.S. can be relied upon. After the U.S. let Diem down, that is after the murder of Diem, for us to say that Thieu is out because he didn’t do what we wanted—I can see the whole thing unravel starting from Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and all the way to Japan. What we really confront is what has been a long and terrible trial for U.S. foreign policy: will it fail or succeed? Whoever thought that we would be in this position, with Vietnamization working, and the Vietnamese capable of defending themselves? [Page 946] 17 million people can now live under a non-communist government, even though it is not necessarily free.
Leaving the elections out, there is no doubt about what happened in North Vietnam after the Communist take-over. 50,000 people were murdered there, and one-half million North Vietnamese have been killed in this war. What will they do with the people of South Vietnam if they walk in? You can just imagine. So as we look down the road, we can say that we have a good record but we are tired. We can say that we have lost 45,000 Americans and Thieu won’t behave, so we’re getting out. The American people would like this for awhile, but after the elections would very much dislike it. If it ends that way, I am convinced that we would have a disaster from the world point of view in the things that we are doing.
Looking at the positive side of America, we have done many good things. The China initiative is very important, even though we only agreed to discuss differences. We do have differences with China, but within 15 years it will be a significant power, and the question is will we discuss these differences or fight about them? So we’re starting now. The same is true with respect to the Soviets. We give a little, and they give a little, and no position has changed. To be able to play these games, it is doubly important that the U.S. not fail in Vietnam, otherwise those 91 little countries are going to say: “My God, can we depend on the U.S.?” So, realistically, we have to see it through, and the way is to stand by Thieu and support him. We will make another announcement on Vietnamization in November, and face up to it. We must stick through this way.
We have a few bolts to shoot too, against those who nitpick and say we should bring out a few more men or that we are going to make massive moves on the world scene.
- Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS–84, National Security Council, 1969–76, Meetings, NSC. Secret; Sensitive. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting took place in the Cabinet Room. (Ibid., White House Central Files) All brackets are in the original.↩
- In a September 18 memorandum to Nixon, briefing him for the meeting, Kissinger wrote, “Your top advisors should leave the meeting convinced that you are firmly set on a course that will terminate the conflict with dignity.” He recommended that Nixon make the following points: the administration’s record was impressive; the way the U.S. role in the war ended would greatly affect the administration’s efforts to shape a new and balanced foreign policy; no administration official should do anything to undermine Thieu; there should be no speculation about the mid-November withdrawal announcement; and a strategy should be prepared to counter anti-war legislation in Congress. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 872, For the President’s Files—Lord, Vietnam Negotiations, Encore Sept. 71–15 Feb. 72)↩
- Abrams sent his most recent biweekly report on Cambodia, including the Chenla II Operation, in COMUSMACV message 171025Z to CINCPAC and CJCS, September 17. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 CAMB)↩
- Not further identified.↩
- Reference is to the September 16 press conference; see footnote 3, Document 257.↩
- Senator Joseph Montoya (D–NM) announced on September 12 that he would introduce an amendment to the Military Procurement bill requiring the administration to withdraw all U.S. troops if it could not certify that Thieu would have an opponent. (The Washington Post, September 13, 1971, p. A3)↩
- Laird is referring to the extension of the draft in the Selective Service Act (HR 6531), which had included Senator Mansfield’s amendment on troop withdrawals. Previously, in June, the Senate had passed the amendment, which called for the withdrawal of all United States military personnel from Indochina within 9 months. However, the House of Representatives refused to accept the amendment. Consequently, Senate–House conferees devised a compromise that declared it was the sense of the Congress that the war be ended at the earliest practicable date, which the Senate accepted on September 21. (“Senate Votes Cloture, Passes Draft Measure,” The Washington Post, September 22, 1971, p. 1)↩
- Reference is a House amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act restricting aid to Greece.↩
- Laird traveled to South Vietnam February 10–17, 1969.↩