154. Minutes of a Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • U. Alexis Johnson
  • Defense
  • Kenneth Rush
  • Armistead Selden
  • R/Adm. William Flanagan
  • JCS
  • Adm. Thomas H. Moorer
  • Capt. Kinnaird McKee
  • CIA
  • Richard Helms
  • George Carver
  • William Newton (stayed only for Mr. Helms’ briefing)
  • NSC
  • Maj. Gen. Alexander M. Haig
  • Richard Kennedy
  • John Holdridge
  • Philip Odeen
  • Mark Wandler


It was agreed that:

  • —We should have a list ready for Presidential consideration on Friday2 morning of equipment which can be sent out to Vietnam on a [Page 567] priority basis. We should also have a judgment for the President on whether we are supplying the right mix of equipment to the South Vietnamese.
  • —Mr. Odeen should head a Working Group to consider the recommendations pertaining to the VNAF study.3 These recommendations should also be ready for Presidential consideration on Friday.

Mr. Helms: (to Mr. Kissinger) I have the papers you requested yesterday. As it turned out, we had to do two papers.4 Both of them are slightly defective, but in view of the time frame, I thought I should distribute them. Everybody should be indulgent with the papers, though.

I don’t think the first paper pays enough attention to the feelings the Soviets may have had about the North Vietnamese behavior. For example, were the Soviets hoping that the offensive would be on while the President was in China—thus embarrassing him? When that didn’t happen, did they want the North Vietnamese to hold off a bit so that the President wouldn’t be embarrassed when he was in Moscow? Do the Soviets now want the North Vietnamese to cool off the situation? I think the paper would have been better if it had considered things like this.

The second paper doesn’t pay enough attention to possible actions the Soviets could take if they want to embarrass us. I think it would be a better paper if these actions could have been related to the hypothesis which holds the paper together. I should also mention that there is a very good chronology at the end of this paper.

Mr. Johnson: Yes. The chronology is excellent.

Adm. Moorer: It’s darned useful.

Mr. Helms: I hope so.

Gen. Haig joined the meeting at this point.

Mr. Kissinger: What can the Soviets do with their show of naval force in the Gulf?

Mr. Johnson: We were speculating about this just before the meeting began, and we talked about it at the Department yesterday afternoon. One thesis is that the Soviets would very ostentatiously “convoy” their merchant ships piling up in that area to a Chinese port. Then they would say they’ve done this under the noses of the 7th Fleet. They would say they have reasserted the freedom of the seas—and we did not challenge them. After doing this, they could say that it is now up to the Chinese to get the supplies to North Vietnam.

[Page 568]

Mr. Kissinger: Everything I have heard suggests that the Soviets are most concerned with freedom of movement on the high seas.

Mr. Johnson: That’s right. And the thesis I just outlined is consistent with that concern.

Mr. Kissinger: They don’t seem to be too terribly concerned about the mining.

Mr. Johnson: They will do something we won’t prevent them from doing in any event. Then they will crow about it.

Mr. Kissinger: Even if it was our intention to stop their ships, they couldn’t do anything about it.

Mr. Johnson: I’m sure the Soviets know what our real intentions are.

Adm. Moorer: (to Mr. Johnson) Alex, you said before that the Soviet merchant ships were piling up in the area. That’s not so. Several ships have been diverted.

Mr. Kissinger: Where have they been diverted to?

Adm. Moorer: Some of them are now heading for Vladivostok.

Mr. Kissinger: It’s strange that they come all the way from the Black Sea, only to be diverted to Vladivostok.

Adm. Moorer: I think the Soviets can use some of those cargoes in Vladivostok, anyway.

Mr. Johnson: I used the word “piling,” but that obviously was not the right word.

Adm. Moorer: They are down to five or less ships heading for Haiphong. I think they have to make some kind of use of the six surface ships and the one submarine they have out there. If nothing else, it could be a face-saving operation, as Alex suggests.

Mr. Johnson: This is just speculation on our part. We have nothing to support the thesis.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Helms) Dick, you seem eager to give us your briefing.

Mr. Helms: [Read his briefing.]5

Mr. Kissinger: I saw a report this morning that said the 22nd ARVN Division is being moved to the coastal region of II Corps. Is that report accurate?

Adm. Moorer: Yes. Two of the division’s regiments are being moved.

Mr. Johnson: Are they going to the Qui Nhon area?

[Page 569]

Mr. Kissinger: Wasn’t the 22nd Division at Kontum?

Adm. Moorer: Yes, but it’s being moved to Binh Dinh Province.

Mr. Johnson: If I recall, the 22nd Division was the first South Vietnamese unit beaten in the Kontum area. Isn’t that correct?

Mr. Kissinger: I think they lost their headquarters, too.

Adm. Moorer: I don’t have all the details on this. As I understand it, though, the ROKs were ambushed on Highway 1, and the South Vietnamese are trying now to offset the enemy presence in Binh Dinh Province by moving in some elements of the 22nd Division.

Mr. Kissinger: Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for this movement. The division should never have been up there in the highlands. It’s just that I thought the South Vietnamese had no more forces left to move around.

Adm. Moorer: It’s true that the division was scattered during the Dak To operations. But since then, they have regrouped. As I said, I don’t have all the details yet, but I will get them a little later today.

Mr. Kissinger: Do you think Kontum will hold long enough for our air power to be effective? What is your estimate?

Adm. Moorer: The North Vietnamese are obviously trying to bring as much power to bear on Kontum as they can. Our Intelligence people feel the enemy preparations are almost complete. I talked to Johnny Vogt less than an hour ago, and he says the morale of the South Vietnamese forces in Kontum is high. He says they now feel they can knock out the enemy tanks. As you know, the South Vietnamese were petrified by the tanks at the outset of the offensive.

Mr. Kissinger: The worst mistake the North Vietnamese can make is to trap the ARVN forces. They should always leave one road open as an escape hatch. The South Vietnamese may bug out, but they won’t surrender.

Adm. Moorer: I should point out that Vogt’s estimate is more optimistic than the estimate of the Intelligence people.

Mr. Kissinger: Does he think Kontum will be held—or may be held?

Adm. Moorer: Yes. He is also encouraged by the situation in MR 1. He reports that Truong is pushing his people out—and preventing the North Vietnamese artillery from coming within range of Hue. The probes and the Marine activities north of Hue have been quite effective.

Mr. Kissinger: Have the Marines undertaken any other actions besides the big operation?

Adm. Moorer: Nothing as big as that operation. But they have been actively probing the enemy positions. They are not sitting back and waiting for the offensive to begin. Vogt says Truong is making a significant impact on the South Vietnamese forces. By the way, he is going up to MR 1 tomorrow, and I will let you know what he reports.

[Page 570]

Vogt also disagrees slightly with the Intelligence estimate of the situation in MR 3. DIA reports that the 7th NVA Division is still intact, although the 5th and 9th Divisions have been badly chewed up. Vogt says that’s not so. He claims the 7th Division has also taken heavy casualties.

Based on what Vogt reports, I have to say that Kontum is probably the most vulnerable area.

Mr. Helms: I think we all agree with that. If there is a collapse while the President is in Moscow, it will most likely take place at Kontum.

Adm. Moorer: The enemy is getting close enough to Kontum to shell the airfield. In fact, they hit one C–130. We’ve gotten reports from prisoners, though, that some enemy units have been denied permission to withdraw. Some units have also been denied replacements they have requested. This same general line is being passed on by prisoners taken at Hue, An Loc and Kontum. I think it may be quite significant.

Mr. Kissinger: When does the rainy season begin in Kontum?

Mr. Carver: It should start in the first or second week of June.

Adm. Moorer: The heavy rain has already started in the Trail area. Ten days ago, we received over 1,000 sensor indications. Now we are down to 250 or so indications. This radical drop is caused by the torrential downpours which have just started. I think we’re just about on the verge of getting the effect we’ve been waiting for from the rains.

Mr. Kissinger: We’ve been over this ground many times before, but I’m still not sure who will be helped more by the rains. Is the rain better for us or for the enemy? During the rainy season, we can’t fly. What is it that the enemy can’t do?

Adm. Moorer: The heavy rains help us more than they do the enemy.

Mr. Carver: Yes, that’s right.

Mr. Kissinger: The North Vietnamese can’t move tanks and artillery during the rainy season.

Adm. Moorer: More important than that, they can’t move supplies. Most of the South Vietnamese population is on the coast. Even during the rainy season, we can use Tac Air to help support them. But the North Vietnamese can’t move their supplies into position.

Mr. Kissinger: I used to read that even if the enemy took Kontum, they couldn’t hold it during the rainy season. Is that true?

Adm. Moorer: I think it would be difficult for them to hold it.

Adm. Flanagan: It would be difficult for them to hold. Nevertheless, they would still have to be attacked and cleared out by the South Vietnamese. Vann is the one who said the North Vietnamese couldn’t hold Kontum. It remains to be seen how good a prophet he is.

[Page 571]

Adm. Moorer: Vann said: “Let the North Vietnamese come. We’re ready for them.” Well, they came. Actually, I think it’s better than fifty-fifty we could retake Kontum. And farther south, in the Pleiku area, the terrain is easier for the South Vietnamese to defend.

Mr. Rush: Is the rain pattern in Pleiku the same as it is in Kontum?

Mr. Johnson: Yes. It’s the same pattern throughout all the highlands.

Mr. Carver: You have to remember that it doesn’t rain for twenty-four hours every day. One day may be overcast all day long. Another day may have intermittent showers. When the weather lifts, though, we can use the Tac Air. But the roads won’t dry out in that brief period, and the enemy will not be able to take advantage of the break in the weather.

Adm. Moorer: There’s no question, too, that the North Vietnamese are several weeks behind schedule—because they just couldn’t get started on time.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Helms) Do you agree with that?

Mr. Helms: Yes. We’ve always said that, in fact. The offensive was supposed to start in February.

Mr. Rush: But is the enemy behind on the schedule which began when the offensive was launched on March 30?

Adm. Moorer: I don’t think they had a schedule at that point. They are just trying to do everything as fast as they can. If the offensive had started in the beginning of February, they would have had a certain timetable—and of course more time to accomplish their objectives.

Mr. Kissinger: If we have only lost Quang Tri and Kontum by the time we reach July 1, that will not be a spectacular victory for the North Vietnamese.

Adm. Moorer: No, it won’t. And I even think that may be the worst that can happen.

Mr. Helms: Keep your fingers crossed.

Mr. Kissinger: It won’t be too bad if we have only lost Quang Tri and Kontum.

Mr. Johnson: Hue will be in for quite a bit of trouble before this is all over.

Mr. Kissinger: We haven’t seen the enemy’s best divisions yet, and Hue has not yet been subjected to a massive attack.

Mr. Carver: It’s true that the 324th NVA Division hasn’t really been thrown into the battle yet, and it hasn’t been coordinated with the 304th and 308th Divisions. Nonetheless, the enemy has been active in Thua Thien Province for six weeks now—and he has suffered some heavy losses. There’s no doubt that they will try to mount a two or three-front assault on Hue as soon as they get fully organized.

[Page 572]

In the abstract, it’s easy to say that they should have moved straight forward as soon as they took Quang Tri. They didn’t do that because they always prepare their attacks very carefully. But it’s also true that we prevented them from getting set as soon as they would have liked.

Adm. Moorer: It was like the battle of Bull Run, when there were so many Congressmen on the road that the Confederates couldn’t move on to Washington.

Mr. Carver: Even the 325th Division has one of its regiments in the DMZ. The North Vietnamese don’t have that many reserve forces left, either.

Adm. Moorer: This morning I heard that a prisoner said his battalion received 400 replacements but that they are now all gone. Another prisoner said his battalion received nine groups—about eighty to one hundred men are in a group—and all of them are gone, too.

Mr. Kissinger: Where did this happen?

Adm. Moorer: The first report came from MR 1, and the second came from MR 2. Two other reports—from MRs 1 and 3—say that enemy units have been denied permission to withdraw.

Mr. Kissinger: Okay. The next subject I want to discuss is replacements for the VNAF. The problem with these papers is that I can’t get a conceptual hand on the issue. I feel we may be studying it to death. We want two things, one of which has not been done at all. The first is that we want to get the maximum amount of equipment into South Vietnam as soon as possible. If there is a settlement, the South Vietnamese should be in the strongest position possible—in case there are any restrictions on bringing additional equipment into the country.

Second, we want to know if we have learned any lessons from the recent events about the composition of the VNAF. I’m not saying that we have to change the composition of the VNAF. I just want to know if we are supplying the right equipment. Or, in the light of recent events, do we feel we should change the equipment mix?

I find it hard to understand how the ARVN will be able to handle the North Vietnamese with only 1,200 A–1s—when we need 130 B–52s and a huge amount of Tac Air just to contain them. The same thing is true with artillery and tanks. Perhaps we are giving them the right equipment. But I don’t think this should be a forgone conclusion.

Adm. Moorer: I think it’s fair to say we are giving aircraft to the South Vietnamese as fast as they can absorb them.

Mr. Kissinger: But are we giving them the right planes?

Adm. Moorer: Yes, I think so.

Mr. Kissinger: What would happen if the North Vietnamese come down into the Panhandle with the Mig 21s after we leave? Could the South Vietnamese handle the situation?

[Page 573]

Adm. Moorer: If the North Vietnamese did as you say, there is no question that the South Vietnamese would have a difficult time defending themselves. But this depends, in part, on the time period you are talking about, too. I would hope, for example, that we would maintain a force in the area for two or three years to help deter such actions. I think we should keep some carriers out there and some squadrons in Thailand.

Mr. Kissinger: Keep in mind, though, that the Congressional climate for U.S. military actions after a settlement will not be good.

Mr. Johnson: I think we all realize that. Nonetheless, I, too, hope we can maintain some forces in Thailand. At least, that’s the concept we’ve been working on.

Mr. Kissinger: Me too. I wonder why we can’t give the South Vietnamese planes which are the equivalent of the North Vietnamese Migs. What are the equivalent aircraft?

Adm. Moorer: That depends on the rate with which the South Vietnamese can absorb them. We’ve thought of giving them F–4s.

Mr. Kissinger: But we never have.

Adm. Moorer: No. The South Vietnamese would like to have F–4s. It’s a question of money, though. We’re draining the U.S. Air Force to give F–4s to Israel and Korea. Everybody wants F–4s. But we don’t have the money to produce an endless supply of F–4s.

Mr. Kissinger: Israel has 74 F–4s. You don’t mean to say that 74 aircraft are draining the Air Force.

Adm. Moorer: In a way it does. There are no replacements for us. We keep making larger commitments, and the budget keeps going down. The whole problem is one of balancing a total distribution of resources, on the one hand, with the ability of the South Vietnamese to maintain and operate a sophisticated aircraft like the F–4 on the other hand. This is why we are giving them F–5s.

Mr. Kissinger: If the North Vietnamese can handle Mig 21s, does it mean that the South Vietnamese are inferior to them because they can’t handle F–4s?

Adm. Moorer: No. The F–5 is in many ways the equivalent of the Mig 21, which is an air-to-air fighter. The planes are really about equal.

Mr. Kissinger: What is the equivalent of the F–4 then?

Adm. Moorer: You mean the Soviet equivalent?

Mr. Kissinger: Yes.

Adm. Moorer: I would say the Foxbat and other newer aircraft. When the Soviets were done with the Mig 21, they didn’t build any more long-range air-to-air fighters. They concentrated on the shorter-range planes.

[Page 574]

Mr. Johnson: Is the Mig 21 an all-weather fighter?

Adm. Moorer: Yes.

Mr. Kissinger: After we withdraw from Vietnam, the North Vietnamese can have complete domination of the air if they move the Mig 21s down into the Panhandle—unless we maintain the carriers and the bases in Thailand.

Adm. Moorer: That’s right. And that’s why we are giving the F–5s to the South Vietnamese—so that they have an air defense capability. They have eighteen F–5s right now. They are scheduled to get eighteen more next year. Ultimately—by FY 75—they will have seventy-two F–5s.

We never considered equipping the South Vietnamese Air Force as fast as the ground forces because there are more complex operating and maintenance problems associated with aircraft. Another thing to remember is that the North Vietnamese have no helicopters. All their capability is in the Migs. In fact, the South Vietnamese have three times the number of flying vehicles the North Vietnamese have. If you want to give the South Vietnamese a sophisticated air defense capability, it will take a lot of money and a lot of time. The Vietnamization program is based on the assumption that the carriers and the bases in Thailand will provide the air defense capability until the South Vietnamese have all of their seventy-two F–5s.

Mr. Kissinger: We have two problems. First, the President wants to make a decision on Friday—before he leaves—about what equipment can be sent out to Vietnam right now. Second, he wants a judgment on whether we have learned anything from recent events which will make us change the composition of the South Vietnamese forces.

I don’t want to prejudge the issue. Can we get by Friday morning a list of things which could move on a priority basis while we are gone? We should err on the side of boldness. The same thing goes for tanks, too.

Adm. Moorer: We sent sixteen additional M–48 tanks to Vietnam, but the South Vietnamese only have nine crews for these tanks. This is the problem we face. We have to strike a balance between establishing a large inventory out there—which will have to be guarded and which will be subject to sapper attack—and achieving our objectives.

Mr. Kissinger: But if there is a settlement—although there is no evidence of that—it will be much better to have the equipment already in place. There will be no restrictions on training. But there may very well be restrictions on bringing new equipment into the country.

Adm. Moorer: We sent a lot of equipment in last fall on a priority basis, as you know. And this is, in part, what saved the day now. There hasn’t been one instance so far of the South Vietnamese losing a battle [Page 575] because of the lack of logistic support. We will do everything we can.

Mr. Kissinger: Good. Do everything you can—and then add fifty percent more.

Adm. Moorer: Okay. Everybody should be aware, though, of the tremendous costs we are running up. Sometimes, there are 1,000 Tac Air and 75 B–52 sorties a day. The 40,000 naval rounds that have been fired in recent weeks amount to six times the figure we budgeted for. In short, we are shooting up our war reserves. We need relief to restore our worldwide resources.

Mr. Kissinger: I know. But you always have to go with your best pitcher, too, when the situation warrants it.

Adm. Moorer: I realize that. I’m just pointing out that a year from now we will have a difficult job getting our worldwide forces back into shape. Do you want that list by Friday morning?

Mr. Kissinger: Yes.

Mr. Rush: We will do the best we can.

Adm. Moorer: And then we’ll add fifty percent more.

Mr. Kissinger: Put this into shape so that the President can approve it on Friday. And do the same thing for the ROK paper. (to Mr. Odeen) Phil, you should get a Working Group together—with DOD, JCS and State people—to staff out the RVNAF recommendations.6 The WSAG isn’t qualified to go over those items one by one.

Mr. Odeen: Okay.

Adm. Moorer: I want to point out that it will be impossible to give the South Vietnamese a much better air defense capability in the next six months.

Mr. Kissinger: I understand that. Still, we should thoroughly review the situation. As I said before, there may be a settlement with limitations on what can be shipped into Vietnam. There may even be a Congressional limitation after a settlement. Therefore, every tank and every piece of equipment we get in now means we will be that much ahead of the game after a settlement.

Adm. Moorer: Speaking of tanks, there has not been one instance where a South Vietnamese tank has been destroyed by the enemy.

Mr. Kissinger: That’s because the South Vietnamese tanks don’t come within range of the enemy.

[Page 576]

Adm. Moorer: You may be right.

Mr. Johnson: Did you hear the press report about a journalist who interviewed one of the ARVN tankers? The South Vietnamese was bragging that his sight was broken. When the journalist asked if there were any spares, the tanker answered that there were plenty of spare sights. But he said he didn’t want to install one because it would mean that the tank is combat-ready again.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Vietnam.]

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 79, National Security Council, Committees and Panels, Washington Special Actions Group, May 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room.
  2. May 19.
  3. See footnote 3, Document 146.
  4. Not found.
  5. Attached but not printed is the May 17 briefing entitled “The Situation in Vietnam.” Brackets are in the original.
  6. Kissinger’s directive resulted in Odeen’s May 18 memorandum, “Additional Equipment for RVNAF.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–087, Washington Special Actions Group Meetings, WSAG Meeting Vietnam 5/19/72)