107. Minutes of a Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • U. Alexis Johnson
  • William Sullivan
  • DOD
  • Kenneth Rush
  • G. Warren Nutter
  • Rear Adm. William Flanagan
  • JCS
  • Adm. Thomas H. Moorer
  • CIA
  • Richard Helms
  • George Carver
  • William Newton (only stayed for Helms’ briefing)
  • NSC Staff
  • Richard T. Kennedy
  • John Negroponte
  • Mark Wandler


It was agreed that:

  • —All participants of the meeting will make a special effort to keep the discussions and papers closely held.
  • —Ambassador Porter and all spokesmen should take a tough line on negotiations.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Helms) Dick, what do you have?

Mr. Helms: I can summarize my briefing fairly quickly.2 As you know, Quang Tri City has fallen. 120 U.S. advisers were airlifted out of the city, which is the first provincial capital to fall during the current offensive.

We assume the North Vietnamese will spend a few days cleaning up the Quang Tri area before they start sending large forces down south to Hue. However, we do have some indications they are already moving some units into Thua Thien Province.

[Page 351]

Mr. Kissinger: It’s statistically impossible that our planes haven’t hit the North Vietnamese. How does the enemy continue to move south?

Mr. Johnson: Our ships have been pouring a lot of fire on them, too.

Adm. Moorer: I talked to Vogt about this. He said we’re attacking 24 hours a day, with flares illuminating the battlefields at night. He said the Tac Air was the only thing that prevented the North Vietnamese from surging forward. Tac Air has stopped them over and over again. Nevertheless, the ARVN ground forces must stand and fight.

Mr. Kissinger: They won’t stand?

Adm. Moorer: That’s right. Vogt said our air attacks have been very heavy. Time and again, we’ve made the enemy turn back and regroup. But that’s not the complete answer. The South Vietnamese must stand and fight.

Mr. Rush: (to Adm. Moorer) You said our planes were attacking at night.

Adm. Moorer: Correct. We’re dropping flares, and the planes are flying around the clock to attack the North Vietnamese assaults whenever they are made. Vogt told me the North Vietnamese losses were “tremendous.”

The same thing is true for the naval gunfire support, which is being used around the clock. But the ships can’t fire into the middle of a tactical situation: they must have ground spotters to help direct the fire. In the last 24 hours, the ships have fired 2,900 rounds into the Quang Tri area. We won’t get any BDA, though, unless the friendlies go in and assess the situation.

The North Vietnamese seem to be willing to take unlimited losses. Vogt told me we’ve spotted a convoy coming through the Ban Kerai pass. There are more than one hundred trucks, and some supplies are piled up more than forty feet high. Vogt also thinks part of the 325th NVA Division may be coming down Route 137, through the A Shau valley and then in to the Hue area.

Mr. Rush: Could our naval guns reach those troops?

Adm. Moorer: No. They are coming through Laos.

Mr. Sullivan: What’s happened to the troops defending Quang Tri? Is the 3rd ARVN Division still intact?

Adm. Moorer: Six battalions and one Marine regiment were at Quang Tri base, which is north of the river. The city itself is south of the river. The troops at the base withdrew in good order. When they got across the river, they blew up the bridge. Then they left the city. The command and control situation of the 3rd Division is unknown right now. Since the American advisers are gone, we have a big [Page 352] problem in knowing what is going on with the division. The Marines are still under effective control, but we don’t know about the 3rd Division.

Mr. Kissinger: What will happen when the enemy begins to assault Hue?

Adm. Moorer: We may very well lose Hue unless the South Vietnamese can organize a good defensive line north of the city. If the troops from the Quang Tri area don’t form a good defensive line north of Hue, the 1st ARVN Division will probably have to thin itself out and make a fishhook movement around the city in order to defend it from the north, as well as from the west.

Mr. Sullivan: Is Route 1 closed between Quang Tri and Hue?

Adm. Moorer: Yes.

Mr. Sullivan: Then the South Vietnamese can’t get their units down to Hue.

Adm. Moorer: Although the road is closed, they can move south from Quang Tri and set up a defensive line north of Hue.

Mr. Kissinger: If they are under effective control.

Adm. Moorer: That’s the key question, and, as I said, we don’t know about the 3rd Division right now. The 1st Division has defensive positions west of Hue.

Mr. Kissinger: Would the ARVN have been better off if they had pulled out of Quang Tri two weeks ago?

Adm. Moorer: In my opinion, yes. This was discussed with Lam, who said he had orders from Thieu to hold Quang Tri and Hue at all costs.

Mr. Kissinger: Lam lost all the engagements he’s been in during the last two years.

Mr. Johnson: But Thieu issued an order to hold the cities. Lam had to stay.

Mr. Kissinger: If Thieu loses a division every time he loses a provincial capital, he’s going to end up losing the country.

Adm. Moorer: We’ve talked about this with Lam as he was setting up his defense north of Hue. He said he had to carry out Thieu’s orders to hold Quang Tri at all costs.

Mr. Kissinger: Lam has carried out the order.

Mr. Helms: To change the subject, the North Vietnamese are also closing in on Kontum. The only cheerful bit of news today is that all of the Skyline Ridge is now in friendly hands.

Adm. Moorer: In MR 3, the ARVN have expanded their perimeter at An Loc, and they got more supplies into the city yesterday. The situation there seems to be somewhat better. The North Vietnamese appear to be moving east and southwest, away from An Loc.

[Page 353]

The independent 271st NVA Regiment, which came down from Hanoi, is now south of Tay Ninh City. It suffered more than 400 casualties recently, as verified by a body count by U.S. advisers.

Mr. Kissinger: Getting back to MR 1, why do you suppose the ARVN will be able to hold north of Hue when they couldn’t hold at Quang Tri? They’ve lost half their forces in the area. How can they hold?

Adm. Moorer: First, the North Vietnamese have also suffered heavy casualties. In the immediate future, they probably won’t be able to apply the same kind of pressure to Hue that they applied to Quang Tri. Second, the 1st ARVN Division will be influencing and supporting the defense of Hue. However, all the South Vietnamese forces must stand and fight.

Mr. Kissinger: We don’t know what ARVN units are left.

Adm. Moorer: That’s right. After Dak To, the 22nd ARVN Division formed a defensive line north of Kontum. The forces at Hue have to do the same thing now.

Mr. Kissinger: But the 22nd Division hasn’t been attacked at Kontum.

Adm. Moorer: True, but it did form a defensive line. First we have to find out what was lost at Quang Tri. Then we have to regroup and organize a good defense at Hue.

Mr. Kissinger: Do you think it’s likely the 22nd Division may not distinguish itself again?

Adm. Moorer: That’s possible.

Mr. Sullivan: I think the 22nd Division may be by-passed by the North Vietnamese.

Mr. Kissinger: You mean the enemy will go straight for Pleiku?

Adm. Moorer: But we’re talking about the defense of Kontum.

Mr. Kissinger: Bill [Sullivan] is saying the North Vietnamese might attack Kontum from the south.

Adm. Moorer: I’m talking about the defensive line seven kilometers north of Kontum.

Mr. Sullivan: At Vo Dinh?

Adm. Moorer: No. Vo Dinh is further north than that. I think there’s a chance the 22nd Division may hold.

Adm. Flanagan: You know, you can make the proposition that the 3rd Division—which was hit by two NVA divisions—has not performed that badly. Also, the 1st Division—except for some action at FSB Bastogne—hasn’t been hit like the 3rd and 22nd Divisions. The 22nd is the worst the South Vietnamese have.

Mr. Kissinger: And it won’t get any better as the offensive goes on.

Adm. Flanagan: No, it won’t.

[Page 354]

Mr. Johnson: Do the South Vietnamese have reserves to use at Kontum and in MR 1?

Adm. Moorer: They’ve got the Ranger battalions and the one Airborne Brigade, which was sent to An Loc and then pulled back to Saigon.

Adm. Flanagan: This raises the question of whether it is more important to hold territory or to maintain a semblance of integrity in all the forces. Thieu wanted to hold Kontum, Quang Tri and An Loc at all costs. Now we’re faced with a judgmental question of what is more important: holding Kontum or maintaining integrity of forces.

Mr. Johnson: You are right. But aside from the wisdom of what is more important, I just asked if the South Vietnamese had any available reserves.

Mr. Nutter: They don’t have much.

Adm. Moorer: They will have to transfer a unit—perhaps the 9th Division, which is currently in the Delta.

Mr. Kissinger: If they do that, it would leave the Delta completely open. Didn’t Thieu recently move the Rangers out of I Corps and to the central highlands? Are the Rangers good now? They weren’t so hot in Laos.

Adm. Moorer: I think the Rangers, Marines and Airborne forces have done better than the regular ARVN divisions. The problem is that the Ranger and Airborne units are lightly armed. They are mobile, but they don’t have heavy artillery. As infantry fighters, they are much better than the regular divisions.

Mr. Kissinger: I wonder if someone should talk seriously to Thieu about his strategy. If Thieu piddles away a division every two weeks trying to defend a provincial capital, he’s going to lose the war.

Mr. Johnson: (to Mr. Kissinger) What do we think?

Mr. Kissinger: I don’t know for sure. We’re just lost the 3rd Division. We lost 17,000 men at Quang Tri. When we say the troops are not under effective control and when we say they are out of communications, it will be a miracle if some of the force is saved.

Mr. Negroponte: I think most of those men will straggle back in.

Adm. Moorer: I don’t think we’ll lose 17,000 men.

Mr. Kissinger: Maybe not. But we’ll lose a good part of that number.

Adm. Moorer: I can’t give you an answer right now. The American advisers are gone and the communications are out. We’ll just have to wait a little while.

Mr. Johnson: What is Abrams’ view?

Adm. Moorer: We asked him for his views yesterday, but the reply hasn’t come in yet. We gave him a list of questions, and I think the answers should be in today.

[Page 355]

Mr. Kissinger: The President is waiting for the answers.

Adm. Moorer: One key factor is how long the North Vietnamese will be able to keep their steam up, considering all the losses they are suffering. They just keep feeding additional forces into the battles, and they have a large pool of replacements to draw on.

Mr. Rush: The enemy must be facing serious supply problems, particularly food problems.

Adm. Moorer: Not in MR 1. But the further south they go, the more serious their supply problems become.

Mr. Johnson: They certainly are making lavish use of rockets, artillery and heavy equipment.

Adm. Moorer: That’s right. Quang Tri alone took 4,400 rounds in recent days.

Mr. Kissinger: How many tons is that?

Adm. Flanagan: Figure on 100 pounds a round.

Adm. Moorer: That’s about 200 or 220 tons.

Mr. Johnson: Very good tonnage indeed.

Adm. Flanagan: I believe a DIA report I saw recently estimated the North Vietnamese are losing one to two regimental equivalents a week during the offensive.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Carver) What do you think, George?

Mr. Carver: There’s no question about the heavy losses the North Vietnamese are suffering. I don’t have much comfort, though, with our figures. The reports are too erratic. I don’t think the North Vietnamese can sustain the pace they’ve had at Quang Tri for the last 72 hours. They’ll probably need a lull in the action while they regroup and prepare to move south.

Mr. Kissinger: Do you think Kontum will be next?

Mr. Carver: Yes. There’s a separate force down there. I think we can expect an attack on Kontum within the next 48 hours.

Adm. Moorer: If not sooner.

Mr. Carver: You sort of have the second team against the second team at Kontum, with the 320th NVA Division facing the 22nd ARVN Division.

Mr. Sullivan: We received a cable this morning, saying the Koreans are beginning to panic.

Mr. Kissinger: You mean if Kontum is lost?

Mr. Sullivan: Yes. But the Koreans are also worried about the northern part of Binh Dinh Province.

Adm. Moorer: The Koreans don’t have to worry about Binh Dinh Province.

[Page 356]

Mr. Kissinger: I haven’t seen the message. What does it say?

Mr. Sullivan: Basically, it says if the South Vietnamese collapse, the Koreans want out.

Mr. Rush: Why don’t the Koreans fight first?

Adm. Moorer: They only lost eighteen men in the fighting at the An Khe Pass.

Mr. Kissinger: Can we stop briefing Murrey Marder?3 He seems to know what’s going on at these meetings. Somebody is feeding him information about the cease-fire papers we’ve done. This cease-fire work is being done for the President, but he hasn’t made any decisions about it. In fact, I don’t know if he will. This leaking has to stop.

Mr. Sullivan: Cease-fire talk is all over town—and in Saigon and Paris, too.

Mr. Johnson: Just because people are talking about a cease-fire, it doesn’t mean that the discussions at our meetings are being leaked.

Mr. Kissinger: I’m not sure the President would accept a cease-fire.

I see we have the paper on the ARVN tank situation in MR 1. When I’m done reading these papers, I don’t know what’s happening any more.

Mr. Rush: In brief, we have a lot of tanks in Vietnam, more in fact, than the Vietnamese can use.

Mr. Kissinger: Heavy tanks, too?

Mr. Rush: Yes.

Adm. Moorer: We have enough tanks in Vietnam, but the ARVN have not requisitioned them. If need be, we are also prepared to fly additional tanks in from the Japan overhaul areas. The problem is getting the South Vietnamese personnel to operate the tanks.

Mr. Kissinger: What is your judgment on how long it would take for the South Vietnamese to collapse altogether?

Mr. Helms: Why package everything together? The engagements so far have been far apart. If I knew how Thieu and his entourage felt, I could give you an answer. But I don’t know how they feel. I don’t know why we have to create a domino effect.

Mr. Nutter: The political and economic situation in Saigon is quiet.

Mr. Kissinger: Can Hue be held?

Mr. Johnson: That’s the key question, alright.

Mr. Helms: I agree.

[Page 357]

Adm. Moorer: The defense of Hue depends on what contribution can be made on the northern approaches of the city by the remnants of the forces from Quang Tri. It’s too early to give an answer until we see what forces are left from Quang Tri.

Mr. Kissinger: Will the same North Vietnamese methods work this time? They pound the ARVN senseless with artillery and then overrun the ARVN positions.

Mr. Rush: I think the casualty rates should begin working against the North Vietnamese. They don’t have unlimited manpower and equipment. Although they have been suffering heavy losses, they keep coming.

Adm. Moorer: Hue is one of their major objectives. They will make a maximum effort to take Hue.

Mr. Johnson: I agree with you.

Mr. Carver: First, there will probably be a lull for a few days. They have to move the artillery they used at Quang Tri into position for the assault on Hue. The question is can the 1st Division—which really hasn’t been tested, except for the action at FSB Bastogne—together with the remnants of the forces from Quang Tri organize and hold a good defensive line?

Adm. Moorer: The specter of the wet season is also approaching. Vogt told me we’ve seen trucks embedded in mud in Laos.

Mr. Carver: But that won’t bother the enemy at Hue.

Adm. Moorer: It should bother him overall.

Mr. Helms: The tragedy at Quang Tri was that the ARVN held once, but never moved out on the offensive. They always sat and waited for the enemy to attack.

Mr. Kissinger: I thought Lam was on the offensive. He had all those arrows on the maps.

Mr. Helms: If the South Vietnamese moved more than a yard, it was never firmly established.

Mr. Sullivan: We are assuming the North Vietnamese are trying to create the impression of continuous countrywide action—by concentrating in one area while enjoying a lull in another area. If it is their intention to carry on and perhaps call for a cease-fire when they have the winning hand, they are probably willing to take enormous losses.

Mr. Kissinger: We can’t consider a cease-fire if the North Vietnamese are achieving success on the battlefield.

Mr. Johnson: But that’s the only time they would propose a cease-fire.

Mr. Helms: And we can’t accept under those conditions.

Mr. Kissinger: Bill [Sullivan] seems to think we should.

[Page 358]

Mr. Sullivan: Considering just the military terms, we would be under a great disadvantage. But the paper we pulled together over the weekend considered all the factors.4

Mr. Johnson: On the military side, we can’t answer any questions now. If the hostilities continue, though, do we think the ARVN can come back and regain at least some of what they lost? This is the judgment we have to make now. Admittedly, the ARVN haven’t shown much offensive mindedness, but it’s been tough on them.

Adm. Moorer: Have we had a readout from Bunker during the last 24 hours?

Mr. Johnson: No. But we should have one today.

Mr. Helms: We should also get the results of the debriefing of the U.S. advisers, who are now at Danang.

Mr. Rush: Didn’t we anticipate a massive North Vietnamese assault, some victories for them, and an attempt to capitalize on these victories by calling for a cease-fire?

Mr. Johnson: We didn’t anticipate the latter, although, as you say, we did anticipate a major offensive.

Mr. Rush: And negotiations after they had some success, not after they had been stopped.

Mr. Sullivan: We will have a problem in Paris on Thursday, when the other side speaks first. There was one slightly new point in Le Duc Tho’s statement yesterday. He talked in terms of the dismissal of Thieu, not of the entire government.5

Mr. Kissinger: He also talked about the oppression of the Saigon government.

Mr. Sullivan: In the past, they insisted on a dismantling of the machinery of oppression. Now they talk about changing the policy of oppression. Everything else in the statement was what we heard before.

Mr. Johnson: We should get something out to our delegation in Paris.

Adm. Moorer: (to Mr. Sullivan) What kind of problem were your referring to before?

[Page 359]

Mr. Johnson: What should we say? What should the tone be like?

Mr. Kissinger: It should be tough.

Mr. Helms: Have you seen the quote in Time that is attributed to the President?

Mr. Kissinger: It’s from some guy named Whelan, a speech-writer who worked in the 1968 campaign. I never saw him around here.

Mr. Johnson: What did it say?

Mr. Helms: It’s not terribly important. You can get it from Time.

Mr. Kissinger: I’ve been talking to the President. He doesn’t want any waffling this week, and he doesn’t want to see any stories in the press about proposals we may be considering. Porter and all the spokesmen should take a tough line. The day we proposed a plenary session, the other side started the offensive.

Mr. Johnson: Are we going to have another meeting in Paris next week?

Mr. Kissinger: I don’t know. There’s a good chance the President may order Porter to walk out.

Mr. Rush: I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish, but we have a mixed bag here. The situation at An Loc is fairly good, and we made a fine defensive effort at Quang Tri. There has been no debacle. The North Vietnamese have not blitzkrieged the ARVN. Now is the time for us to show our confidence in the South Vietnamese.

Mr. Kissinger: The President may order Porter out next week.

Mr. Sullivan: Just for the one meeting?

Mr. Kissinger: He may tell Porter not to agree to a meeting next week. This is still open, though. In any case, we should have a very tough statement this week.

Mr. Johnson: Porter is good at that. I want to bring up one other thing: The casualty figures. Are they up again?

Adm. Moorer: There’s still a lag in the figures. This week we will report 2 KIA and 17 missing.

Mr. Johnson: We have the same old problem with the casualty figures.

Mr. Kissinger: What about the ten flyers who were shot down? Are they dead or missing?

Adm. Moorer: We list them as missing.

Mr. Nutter: This is standard practice. We list them as missing until we find the bodies.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–116, Washington Special Actions Group, WSAG Minutes (Originals) 1–3–72 to 7–24–72. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room. All brackets are in the original.
  2. Helms’s briefing, “The Situation in Vietnam,” May 1, is in the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 78, National Security Council, Committees and Panels, Washington Special Actions Group, Mar. 1971–Apr. 1972.
  3. Diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post.
  4. Sullivan and a small working group made up of State, CIA, and Defense officers had combined a CIA paper and one he had written (see, respectively, footnotes 2 and 4, Document 97) on the policy ramifications should the North Vietnamese make a cease-fire offer in the near future. The working group’s draft, “Possible North Vietnamese Cease-Fire Offer,” May 2, is in Central Intelligence Agency, Files of the Deputy Director for Intelligence, Job 80–T01719R, Box 3, Likelihood and Consequences of a Sudden Vietnamese Communist Cease Fire Offer–27 April 1972.
  5. For excerpts from Le Duc Tho’s statement, see The New York Times, May 1, 1972, p. 10.