4. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Ambassador G. McMurtrie Godley, U.S. Ambassador to Laos
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger
  • Mr. John H. Holdridge


  • Ambassador Godley’s Comments on Developments in Laos

Dr. Kissinger began by informing Ambassador Godley that the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board had reported that Ambassador Godley was doing a great job in Laos. Dr. Kissinger added that Ambassador Godley had more guts than most people in his Service, which was much appreciated here.

Ambassador Godley thanked Dr. Kissinger for these remarks, and went on to raise a specific question: the U.S. personnel limitations in Laos. The ceiling established by the President was 1040 Americans, and Ambassador Godley wanted to know whether if he were to come in with a request for any more, there would be any heartburn in the White House. Dr. Kissinger asked how many additional people might be involved, and Ambassador Godley said that at the most there would be 80 more. Some were already there on TDY, and would be shifted over to permanent change of station. He didn’t want to be pinned down on a fixed number. Dr. Kissinger declared that the President as a matter of principle wanted to make a maximum effort in Laos, and regardless of what messages might be sent to Ambassador Godley (including back channel), this would remain the President’s wish. The President wanted maximum pressure to be maintained during the summer, and if Ambassador Godley came in with a request for more personnel as being necessary for this purpose, his, Dr. Kissinger’s, instinct was that the President would agree. 80 could be accepted, but if the number could be squeezed to 40 we would be happier since there was in effect a commitment not to increase the numbers. However, if Ambassador Godley told us that he had to have the extra personnel, this would be acceptable.

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Ambassador Godley said that if more Cambodian SGUs were desired, it could be arranged. He had checked with his Station Chief, and with Bill Nelson. Souvanna didn’t mind; in fact, he would be delighted. Souvanna regarded the Cambodians as “brown folk,” similar to the Lao, while the South Vietnamese were “yellow folk.” Souvanna would be willing to live with the existing Prairie Fire operations, but there would be trouble if these operations were extended westward. It would be better to work out of the Bolovens with Cambodian and Lao SGUs. Ambassador Godley felt that these operations would be effective, but he was not so sure about the effectiveness of South Vietnamese operating in South Laos.

Dr. Kissinger questioned Ambassador Godley about the possibility of a Communist peace offensive in Laos. There apparently had been some feelers from the Russians, but if a peace offensive was in fact, underway, the President’s present disposition was not to accept it unless it included Vietnam. Ambassador Godley thought that it would be difficult for the Lao to refuse to respond to a peace offensive. The Lao Armed Forces were extremely tired, and had lost lots of men. Souvanna, however, would be cautious.

Dr. Kissinger brought up Ambassador Godley’s testimony before the Symington Subcommittee, wondering in particular how Senator Fulbright had treated him. Ambassador Godley expressed the opinion that the hearing had gone quite well. The one thing he had been worried about from Fulbright was questions on the presence of the Thai troops in Laos, which might have been leaked even though there was no transcript.2 However, this issue had not caused any problems. The Senator had taken the line that there was nothing particularly secret about this matter, he had seen Mr. Helms’ transcript about the Thai troops,3 and he was fully aware that the Thai ground forces were operating in Laos. Another Senator (Ambassador Godley didn’t remember which) had wanted to know if the Thai had been asked to send troops by the Lao, to which Ambassador Godley had replied affirmatively. [Page 7] Yet another Senator had asked how much the Thai troops cost, to which he had said that he didn’t know, but believed that the cost in Laos was less than for the Black Panthers in South Vietnam. Ambassador Godley noted that he had made a memorandum covering the hearing for the record.

Dr. Kissinger asked if Long Tieng could be held during the dry season, to which Ambassador Godley replied that it could be held certainly until after the U.S. elections. When Dr. Kissinger asked if it could be held afterwards, Ambassador Godley stated that if the Lao could push out in a crescent West, Southwest, and South of Long Tieng it would be possible to hold the town. In response to a further question from Dr. Kissinger on the fighting capacity of the Meos, Ambassador Godley described them as being virtually out of the war. Many of the Meos had gone off to take care of their families, although little by little they were coming back. The Lao forces at Long Tieng now consisted of a national guerrilla force, i.e., were made up of units drawn from all over Laos. Vang Pao was still the best Lao general, but he was not as good now as he had been last year. He was tired, and his charisma was down. He had a habit, too, of not using his staff, and was a one-man artilleryman, even though he was an effective political leader. Nevertheless, he was still the best the Lao had, and there was no one else on the scene. In further describing the makup of the Lao forces, Ambassador Godley observed that what had been Meo battalions a year ago were now all 40 percent Lao, that is, of non-Meo personnel.

Dr. Kissinger asked about the fighting capacity of the North Vietnamese—were they still good? Ambassador Godley replied that they were very good. Vang Pao had a practice of cutting open the stomachs of NVA casualties to see if they had been eating well, and had found them still to be well fed. There were no 16–18 year olds among the NVA troops. Originally, the 316th Division had not fought well, for example, the soldiers had jumped out of their foxholes to fire at attacking aircraft, but they had learned.

Dr. Kissinger asked if the B–52s had helped. Ambassador Godley shouldn’t hesitate to ask for B–52 support—if a request got to this building, it would be approved. Ambassador Godley declared that the B–52 raids in Northern Laos had produced more BDA than in any other area. The results had been extremely good. He indicated that air activity in Laos had been cut down by the Seventh Air Force, but that he didn’t object because the present heavy rains had reduced the effectiveness of air action.

Dr. Kissinger asked if Ambassador Godley foresaw another Communist dry season offensive next year. Ambassador Godley suggested that a peace offensive might be expected instead, which as he had mentioned might be attractive to the Lao. In the face of this, we needed to [Page 8] maintain our ground capability in the South, and to hit the Trail. Ground action in South Laos depended completely on the help provided by the RLG. All the officers in the SGUs were from the FAR.

Ambassador Godley described the CAS-supported SGU operations in Laos as “superb” in contrast to MACSOG Prairie Fire operations, none of which were undertaken without U.S. participation. There were no U.S. personnel in the SGUs, just Lao. The SGU operations were much better than those in the Prairie Fire program. The CAS program was run by Devlin, the Station Chief in Vientiane.

One other point which Ambassador Godley wanted to raise in connection with the U.S. operations in Laos, as distinct from the Steel Tiger strikes, was that the total cost was less than $500 million per year, including AID, MASF, CAS, and the bombing. In all this, we were not losing a single American, and we were killing over 30 North Vietnamese a day. $500 million was what one U.S. division cost us in South Vietnam. In Laos, this same sum enabled us to tie down two North Vietnamese divisions, numerous Binh Tram, plus many trucks and antiaircraft artillery sites. We were getting a bigger bang for a buck in Laos than anywhere else.

Dr. Kissinger observed that there was no trouble within this Administration concerning anything Ambassador Godley had said. He wondered how long the North Vietnamese could keep going under the circumstances which Ambassador Godley had described. The conversation concluded with a remark by Ambassador Godley that the North Vietnamese could probably go for some time yet, but undoubtedly had been hurt by their losses.4

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 547, Country Files, Far East, Laos, 1 April 1970–11 August 1970. Top Secret; Sensitive. Sent for information. The meeting was held in Kissinger’s office. Holdridge forwarded the memorandum to Kissinger under an August 5 covering memorandum and Kissinger approved it on August 10.
  2. Kissinger sent a memorandum to Nixon, August 4, describing Godley’s July 21 testimony before the Subcommittee on U.S. Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad. Kissinger noted, “at the opening of the hearing, after raucous protest from Fulbright and Symington, the Committee decided to have no transcript (the best possible outcome for us).” (Ibid.)
  3. Apparent reference to Helms’ testimony at a closed hearing before the Subcommittee on U.S. Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate in October and November 1969. (Congressional Quarterly, Vol. XXV, 1969, p. 863) No record of the testimony was found, but Senator Fulbright stated publicly that the United States was sponsoring clandestine operations in Laos after a closed hearing with Helms on October 28. (The New York Times, October 29, 1970, pp. 1–2)
  4. Nixon met with Godley on July 24 from 10:30 to 10:36 a.m. According to a brief memorandum to the President’s File prepared by Haig, Nixon emphasized that he wanted to increase activities in Laos to let Hanoi know that the Royal Laotian Government could hold out against North Vietnam. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Box 81, Memoranda for the President, Beginning July 19) Godley also drafted a memorandum for the record of the meeting. He wrote that Nixon advocated doing the “very utmost to develop an harassing capability in the southern panhandle” of Laos, expeditiously training Cambodian SGU’s, and providing additional funding and manpower for the training program. (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, DEF 6 CAMB)