195. Minutes of a Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • U. Alexis Johnson
  • William Sullivan
  • Defense
  • Kenneth Rush
  • Armistead Selden
  • Maj. Gen. David Ott
  • JCS
  • Gen. John Ryan
  • Capt. Kinnaird McKee
  • CIA
  • Richard Helms
  • William Christison
  • William Newton (only for Mr. Helms’ briefing)
  • NSC
  • Richard Kennedy
  • John Holdridge
  • Mark Wandler


It was agreed that:

  • CIA should provide a paper as soon as possible on the effectiveness of our interdiction effort in North Vietnam. The paper should describe the impact of our actions during the last two months, estimate what we will face from the North Vietnamese during the next four months and list the options we will have.
  • —The State contingency paper on Vietnam should be discussed at Friday’s meeting.2
  • —Mr. Sullivan should tell the French that we do not support Foreign Minister Schumann’s idea with regard to achieving a settlement in Vietnam. Our position should also be conveyed to the South Vietnamese.
  • —We should prepare one package for the Thai, listing all the additional deployments we wish to make there.

[Omitted here are Richard Helms’s briefing and discussion of South Vietnamese plans to retake Quang Tri City.]

[Page 683]

Mr. Kissinger: I’d like to have a brief discussion now of the CIA estimate on where we stand. The paper is fascinating.3

Mr. Johnson: It is. I told Dick before that I thought it was a first-class paper.

Mr. Kissinger: It’s outstanding. By the way, where is Carver today?

Mr. Helms: He’s on a brief vacation. Bill Christison worked very closely with George on the paper, and he is much more qualified than I am to answer your questions on it.

Mr. Kissinger: When I read the paper, I came to the conclusion that nothing we have done during the last two months really makes a difference in the North Vietnamese logistic situation. When you strip away all the words, our recent actions have not made a difference.

Mr. Christison: That’s not exactly so.

Mr. Kissinger: Oh, no? Perhaps I missed something when I read it.

Mr. Christison: We answered your list of questions as specifically as we could.4 You have to realize, though, that the basic material for answering the questions was already contained in the original memo.

Mr. Kissinger: We sent out the questions because we didn’t feel the original memo was precise enough in certain areas. The questions were an attempt to refine the study.

Mr. Christison: All the statements that we made in the original memo are still applicable. When you asked the question about the POL situation, for example, we gave a specific answer to the question, and we didn’t discuss the overall disruption of the North Vietnamese transportation system.

Mr. Kissinger: We sent over the questions because the original memo seemed to conclude that nothing we’ve done in the last two months has made a real difference. We thought we could at least pinpoint certain critical areas by asking specific questions. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s against common sense to think that the paper’s conclusions are true. But they may be.

Mr. Johnson: I didn’t get the same reading out of the paper that you did. I thought the paper concluded that the enemy would be physically able to continue the operations in South Vietnam for the next few months—but that the level of operations would be lower than it has been.

Mr. Kissinger: That’s not what I got out of the paper. As I read it, the enemy could continue on the same level of operations.

[Page 684]

Mr. Johnson: I read it to be a lower level.

Mr. Christison: What we actually said was that until about the middle of July, there would be no effect on the level of operations. After that time, certain constraints could develop.

Mr. Kissinger: But what will happen if the pipeline is completed by the middle of July—that’s a possibility, you know.

Mr. Christison: Even if the pipeline were completed, it would have no effect on the delivery of gasoline for the vehicles.

Mr. Kissinger: It’s my understanding from reading the paper that the motor gas would be transported in the pipeline and all other POL would be transported in trucks.

Mr. Christison: We didn’t say that the North Vietnamese wouldn’t try to truck down the POL. It’s our judgment that they will try to do so. If they do, it will require a heavy interdiction effort on our part to slow them down. And we didn’t make a judgment about how effective the interdiction effort would be.

Mr. Kissinger: Don’t get me wrong. This is a superb piece of work. I’m not attacking it; I’m just trying to understand it a little better.

Mr. Christison: As I say, we made no judgment about the effectiveness of our interdiction.

Mr. Kissinger: As I understand it, you feel they have the capability of trucking in the POL they need. In fact, it seems as though they would only have to use about twenty-five percent of their truck inventory to meet this transportation requirement. And, based on our experience along the Trail, it will not be possible for us to interdict this truck traffic. Is that right?

Mr. Christison: We did not make the judgment that it will be impossible to interdict the traffic.

Mr. Kissinger: Maybe not. But you came very close to it, by saying they could move the trucks at night and drive along by-pass roads.

Mr. Christison: It’s our judgment that the North Vietnamese can bring in an unknown quantity of POL. However, we don’t know if this unknown quantity will be enough to meet their minimum requirements. It will be harder for us to stop this traffic than it will be for us to halt the flow of motor gas in the pipeline.

Mr. Helms: Isn’t it true that weeks ago when we were all sitting around this table thinking of actions we could take, we all agreed that no matter what we did it would have no effect on the North Vietnamese activities until July or August?

Mr. Kissinger: Yes, but if the paper is right, our recent actions won’t even have an effect on the enemy in July or August. And the pipeline could very well be completed in two weeks. The combination of the [Page 685] trucks and the pipeline means, if the analysis is correct, that POL will not be a constraint on the enemy.

Mr. Sullivan: That’s right. And it will be even less of a constraint if the Chinese cooperate more than they have done so far.

Mr. Christison: This is a difficult problem to analyze. We made no judgment about the quantities of POL which will get through. That depends on the interdiction effort.

Mr. Kissinger: Have we made plans to take out the pipeline?

Gen. Ryan: Yes. There are five main storage areas on the pipeline, but they are hard to get to because they are buried.

Mr. Kissinger: But do we have plans to take them out by air attack?

Gen. Ryan: Yes, CINCPAC has the plans. I just want to caution you, though, that it will be extremely difficult to do so.

Mr. Johnson: Are the pumping stations fixed, or can they be moved about to different locations on the pipeline?

Mr. Rush: They can be moved about.

Mr. Johnson: Do these pumping stations operate on diesel power?

Gen. Ott: Yes, and sometimes they hook truck engines up to provide the power. When the task is finished, they just disconnect the trucks and drive them to other locations. Naturally, it’s very difficult to pinpoint that kind of a target.

Mr. Rush: One of our purposes in attacking the North Vietnamese power plants was to make the enemy increase use of POL for the civilian economy.

Mr. Christison: Other than on motor gas, we make more optimistic statements about the POL situation. The enemy can get the POL down by truck, but we make no judgment about whether this quantity will meet his minimum need. We think it’s still a bit too early to make that judgment.

Mr. Kissinger: From the number of trucks we estimate they can make available to this task, there’s no doubt they can get what they need.

Mr. Christison: That depends on what we can destroy during the interdiction effort.

Mr. Kissinger: Are we making route reccys?

Gen. Ryan: Yes, we’re doing what we can. But it’s difficult to reccy certain sections of road because the AAA is intense.

Mr. Kissinger: So the conclusion has to be that POL will not be a major constraint on the enemy.

Mr. Christison: By next month, according to our estimate, the enemy will have only one month of POL reserve on hand. At that time, [Page 686] if no major reserves have been brought in, critical distribution problems could develop.

Gen. Ryan: I haven’t had a chance to read the paper yet. Still, I want to point out that we shouldn’t relate this interdiction effort to the effort on the Trail. Although the enemy may have all the trucks he needs, we now have the repair stations and the truck parks on our target list. Consequently, our interdiction should be much more effective now.

Mr. Kissinger: What do you think, Bill [Christison]?

Mr. Christison: First of all, we must realize that they have all the trucks they need. Even if they should need more later on, it will be easy for them to get the additional trucks from China. Therefore, the question is can we make a big enough and sustained interdiction effort to stop the traffic?

Mr. Kissinger: Gen. Ryan says we can’t. For one thing, he says we can’t make the route reccys that we need.

Gen. Ryan: We can reccy some sections of road. On other sections, we run the risk of being knocked down if we make the reccy. However, we can take out all the bridges.

Mr. Kissinger: Are we doing that?

Gen. Ryan: Yes.

Mr. Johnson: I understand that the coastal road between China and Hanoi would not be vulnerable. I don’t think there are any major streams, passes or bridges on that road.

Gen. Ryan: That’s right.

Mr. Johnson: As I read the paper, it’s my understanding that the North Vietnamese can continue their activity indefinitely—as long as they lower their level of operations. They were getting 6,800 tons—gross—a day, but according to the CIA figures, they are now getting 2,700 tons a day.

Mr. Kissinger: You can also show that this is being done by looking at the cuts in the civilian economy.

Mr. Johnson: And the economy wasn’t very lush to begin with.

Mr. Christison: Let me describe briefly the logic we used in this analysis. The figure of 2,700 tons is the minimum amount we think they need to keep the economy and the war going. Using that figure, we then estimated the number of trucks they need to handle the tonnage. It was then our judgment that they have the means to handle the tonnage. It was not our business to make a judgment about whether the interdiction will or will not stop them, even though we came close to making the judgment on motor gas. On other things, we made no judgment about whether the interdiction can or cannot stop them from [Page 687] getting the minimum amounts through. We just gave some reasons why it will be difficult to interdict the trucks and supplies.

Mr. Kissinger: Let’s turn this around if we can. Dick [Helms] can you give us a paper as soon as you can on the effectiveness of our interdiction up to now? Show the differences, if any, resulting from the May 8 and subsequent actions. What effects are we having now and what effect will we have in the next few months on the North Vietnamese capabilities?

Mr. Christison: It will be difficult to make that assessment now. We should wait for another month to go by in order to provide useful answers to your questions.

Mr. Johnson: I was a little surprised by the way you dismissed the civilian food problem in the paper. I understand that there was a substantial amount of food and grain in the 6,800 tons a day they used to receive. At the moment, the food rations in North Vietnam are not generous, yet your conclusion is that food will not be a major issue.

Mr. Christison: That’s right. Food should not be a major issue, if at all, until the end of the year or early next year. We looked at last month’s harvest. At the mimimum level, this harvest should last until October, when the next harvest comes in. If the harvest is average, it will get the North Vietnamese through January, 1973. If the harvest is less than average, they could have severe shortages by the end of the year. If the harvest is above average, on the other hand, they will be in good shape on food for the first few months next year.

Mr. Johnson: At the very minimum, then, it would not be until January before they could begin to feel the squeeze on food.

Mr. Christison: That’s right.

Mr. Johnson: That’s the way I read it, too.

Mr. Kissinger: Let’s try to get an estimate of what we will face from the North Vietnamese during the next four months. We should also try to see what pressures the enemy might feel for negotiating—so we can form a realistic assessment of our actions. The last thing we want to do is kid ourselves. We’re not looking to get a favorable report. We just want to get a real grip on the situation. Will the North Vietnamese still be able to launch large-scale attacks, for example, during the next four months?

Mr. Christison: In answer to that question, I would have to say that the logistics half of the equation is less critical than the problem they face from having many units chewed up on the battlefield. The constraint is greater on the battlefield than it is on the logistic situation. It’s our judgment that the logistic constraint is not great in this instance.

[Page 688]

Mr. Kissinger: Suppose we had not interdicted the ports and the roads. Are you saying that we didn’t have to do those things, that the enemy battle losses have not been affected by those decisions?

Mr. Christison: The interdiction effort has not affected the battles, but it has disrupted the transportation system and lowered the morale of the North Vietnamese. There’s no doubt about that. As a result, some heavy pressures have been put on the North Vietnamese government.

Mr. Sullivan: Don’t forget the North Vietnamese are very resilient. They undoubtedly feel they have to hang on until November 7. If McGovern gets elected, they think they will get everything they want on a silver platter. Therefore, they must feel they can accept austerity in civilian and military matters until November 7. At the same time, they will make proposals which will give the Administration fits and, hopefully, influence the election. Perhaps they won’t launch major attacks. But they will take dramatic actions and make teasing proposals at Paris. I think this is what we should expect from them between now and November 7.

Mr. Christison: Logistically, they may not be confident they can hold on until November 7.

Mr. Sullivan: What would happen if they were thrown out of Quang Tri? It’s possible the South Vietnamese could do that to them.

Mr. Christison: At the moment, I think that’s about a fifty-fifty chance. I suspect Thieu started the operation too early. The North Vietnamese are strongest in MR 1, and it is very easy for them to get replacements. The weather is good, too, although that cuts both ways: it enables us to provide air support, but it also enables the enemy to move in supplies and replacements.

Mr. Helms: Every time we bash one of the North Vietnamese units during a B–52 attack or destroy a unit on the battlefield, it gets us closer to where we want to be. Christison is right: that’s our only salvation.

Mr. Kissinger: How do you explain then that until May 8, the North Vietnamese were very truculent about the negotiations. I think you can argue they were trying to create a situation which was hopeless for us. Since May 8, however, we have had all sorts of signal flags that they want to talk. But so far we haven’t seen what they want to talk about.

Mr. Sullivan: I think they are likely to be even nastier now than they were before.

Mr. Helms: They got us to give up the bombing once before. The North Vietnamese always move along the political and military tracks. Now that the military track seems to be running out of gas, they may start the political track again.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Sullivan) You think they may be nastier than before?

[Page 689]

Mr. Sullivan: Yes. They will come up with tricky proposals which are designed to be attractive to The New York Times, for example. These new proposals may very well be harder to handle than the old proposals.

Mr. Kissinger: When we have opponents who will always be in opposition, no matter what we do, we have more freedom to act than our predecessors had. We will not have the support of The New York Times, no matter what happens. (to Mr. Sullivan) You think the North Vietnamese proposals will be tricky, and they will try to hold on until the election?

Mr. Sullivan: If I were in Hanoi, I wouldn’t have any other view.

Mr. Johnson: That’s right.

Mr. Kissinger: Unless we were hurting them so badly that they needed a respite. And that’s precisely what I’m trying to get at.

Mr. Helms: Our hope should be that by October, they don’t have any main force units strong enough to really rock the boat.

Mr. Sullivan: If that’s the case in October, the units will probably be pulled back into North Vietnam. When the next dry season starts, they won’t have any capability for launching large-scale attacks. Thieu should then utilize the opportunity to reestablish his control over the countryside.

Mr. Kissinger: Why would the units have to be pulled back to North Vietnam in October?

Mr. Sullivan: That’s when the weather would permit.

Mr. Christison: There’s one other possibility. If it’s clear in August that the President will be reelected—if there is lots of evidence for that—the North Vietnamese would take it into account and could possibly change their approach on negotiations. However, they will not do that until they are convinced that the President is going to be reelected.

Mr. Selden: I was down in Alabama last week, and I can report that the people down there are one hundred percent behind our actions in North Vietnam.

Mr. Johnson: I was out in California, and I can report that our actions are not as popular out there as they are in Alabama.

Mr. Selden: True.

Mr. Kissinger: Okay. Can we get an extract from the paper so that

I can fully understand its conclusions? What’s been the impact of our actions during the last two months? What options will we have in the next two to four months? Despite everything we said today, this is a superb paper.

[Omitted here is discussion of the possibility of a change in the North Vietnamese attitude to Thieu’s presence in a coalition government, [Page 690] U.S. opposition to a French proposal for a settlement, and U.S. forces in Thailand.]

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 80, National Security Council, Committees and Panels, Washington Special Actions Group, June 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room. All brackets, except those that indicate the omission of material, are in the original.
  2. June 30. See Document 198.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 193.
  4. See Document 193.