29. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • Southeast Asia Redeployment

Attached at Tab A is a memorandum from Secretary Laird on Southeast Asia redeployments in which he describes his actions to stay within FY 71 budget levels by planning for accelerated troop withdrawals from South Vietnam. This memorandum has possible serious implications which I wish to bring to your attention.2

Secretary Laird points out that your decision to reduce our forces in Vietnam by 50,000 by October 15 will not bring our authorized manning down to the budget request levels for FY 71. The announced troop ceiling for that date is 384,000, some 17,000 troops higher than the level assumed in the budget.

Secretary Laird goes on to point out that the Office of Management and Budget has asked the Defense Department to make every effort to reduce Defense outlays $1.2 billion below the FY 71 budget request. Faced with the dual prospect of the budget request providing funds for lower force levels than those now in prospect and pressures to further reduce outlays, Secretary Laird asked MACV, CINCPAC and the JCS to “recommend” to him troop ceilings and a redeployment program to meet your approved May 1, 1971 troop ceiling of 284,000. The JCS “recommendations” would entail withdrawing 90,000 of the announced 150,000 troops by the end of this year and the remaining 60,000 [Page 58] by next May, which is precisely the opposite of what you had in mind. Secretary Laird concludes that he has informed the JCS, CINCPAC and MACV that their “recommended troop ceiling and redeployment plan through May 1, 1971 is approved for planning.”

You should be aware of the fact that when Secretary Laird says that the military has “recommended” these troop ceilings, they are in reality making their proposals within the strict fiscal guidance laid down by the Secretary and thus presenting what they consider the least bad of their choices available within this constructed framework. It is therefore misleading to state simply that the JCS “recommend” the troop ceilings contained in Secretary Laird’s memorandum.

In addition, though not mentioned in his memorandum, Secretary Laird has established lower draft quotas which might well deprive the Army of the ability to provide the force levels necessary to meet the goals we were considering even if there were sufficient funds.

In response to Secretary Laird’s memorandum I have done the following:

  • —confirmed informally that we will reach the target date of October 15 within one or two percent of the 50,000 reduction figure you announced;
  • —told Admiral Moorer that you are not committed to the troop levels that Secretary Laird has approved for planning purposes;
  • —sent a memorandum to Secretary Laird asking him, the JCS, CINCPAC, and MACV for their assessment of the risks associated with the troop reductions outlined by the Secretary. This should surface any objections from the military who we understand consider the risks to be “imprudent.”

Further Background and Implications of Secretary Laird’s Memorandum

Secretary Laird’s memorandum points up that further unilateral withdrawals are contemplated without considering whether they might be used to extract political benefit in the negotiations.

As you know, your decision to reduce U.S. forces in South Vietnam by 150,000 through the Spring of 1971 was bound by two central considerations:

  • —to maintain the momentum of U.S. peace initiatives by forthright public announcement;
  • —to provide maximum flexibility in the rate of drawdown between the present and the critical period of the 1971 Tet.

Within the framework of our overall objectives was the need for continued progress in Vietnamization and minimum exposure of remaining U.S. forces to undue risks. The capability of ARVN forces to assume greater responsibility for their own security was fundamental to the timing of our plan. We agreed with General Abrams’ recommendation that no more than 50,000 troops be withdrawn from Vietnam this year. The reasons for this recommendation were: [Page 59]

  • —a strategy of using our residual strength to discourage a new Tet offensive in late January or February of 1971.
  • —to enable us to apply maximum bargaining leverage with the remaining substantial increment of combat forces.

The security situation in South Vietnam has improved as a result of the Cambodian operation. Nevertheless, I and II Corps are still threatened and ARVN force postures in III and IV Corps have been weakened by the redeployment of ARVN forces to Cambodia.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the field commanders have reconsidered these factors in a new assessment of their earlier withdrawal plans. They have concluded that an accelerated rate of redeployment will impose imprudent risks to Vietnamization and U.S. objectives in South Vietnam. On the other hand, the way the Secretary of Defense has set up the budget and organized draft calls has made it infeasible for them to adhere to their previous recommendation that we withdraw 60,000 spaces by December 31, 1970, to be followed by another slice of 90,000 through April 30, 1971. Even if sufficient funds could be made available, the past level of draft calls now makes it impossible to achieve the broad manpower base necessary for the force level in Southeast Asia which the Chiefs would support.

Faced with the foregoing, the Chiefs developed the alternative plan mentioned in the Secretary’s memo, which involves the withdrawal of 90,000 by the end of the year, with an additional drawdown of 60,000 by April 30. The net effect would be a compressed, straight-line reduction of 120,000 spaces by the end of February—an increase of approximately 60,000 beyond what the military consider a prudent course of action. As Secretary Laird mentioned to you during your meeting with General Westmoreland on August 17, one of the most serious difficulties associated with this expedited withdrawal schedule is the personnel turbulence that it will entail. The rapid draw-down of 90,000 U.S. forces between now and January 1, 1971 will result in personnel turbulence within many of our remaining combat units and tend to dampen maximum pressure on the enemy during this critical period.

In my view, our biggest bargaining chip between now and the end of Tet (February 1971) is our ability to regulate the timing of the draw-down of our forces. We face the danger of losing this chip. Thus, whether the potential military risk materializes or not, you should be aware that fiscal constraints and, more importantly, manpower decisions made outside the framework of the NSC system threaten to deprive us of desirable flexibility in the critical months ahead. The proposed accelerated redeployments would in effect spend all the benefits of the Cambodian operation on our withdrawal schedule rather than using these benefits as possible leverage in achieving a negotiated peace.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS–2, Chronological File, August 1970. Top Secret; Sensitive. Sent for information. Lord drafted the memorandum on August 25. Printed from a copy with an indication that Kissinger signed the original.
  2. Attached but not printed is an August 20 memorandum from Laird to Kissinger. On September 4, Kissinger replied to Laird about Southeast Asia redeployments: “At the time that the President approved the 150,000 reduction figure, it was anticipated that no more than an additional 10,000 troops would be withdrawn from South Vietnam before December 31, 1970. While the President agrees with your position that there be no supplemental budget requests in FY 1971 for U.S. forces in Southeast Asia, he would like to know your estimates of the additional dollar costs and manpower requirements that would have to be met if we were to hold to the original schedule. He would also like to receive the views of the JCS on that original schedule.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–215, NSDM Files, NSDM 52) In a September 10 meeting with his Vietnam advisers, Laird commented that all of the requests were answered in his August 20 memorandum and that he saw no reason to go back to the JCS. (Memorandum for the record by Odeen, September 10; Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–76–67, Box 88, Viet 092, Sep–Dec 1970)