22. Joint Message From the White House, Department of State, Department of Defense, and Central Intelligence Agency to the Embassies in Thailand and Laos 1

We have carefully reviewed your 516672 and 11813 in State channels. By separate message in State channels you will be receiving what constitutes our guidance in response to your two most recent messages.4
We believe, however, it would be useful to review in somewhat greater detail the background which underlies our thinking on North Laos strategy and provide some specific observations on the tactical situation. These observations are based on concerns dating back to late last year when the current North Laos situation was the subject of a high-level interagency review in the aftermath of the PDJ losses. These same concerns have been reinforced by the personal observations of General Stilwell5 who recently returned from a southeast Asian trip. His observations have had a persuasive impact here and are provided not with a view to giving you detailed tactical guidance but to ensure the fullest and frankest dialogue between us.6 The stakes are too high to allow for any misunderstandings between us and we must do everything we can to both reach a meeting of the minds on the objective situation and identify with the greatest possible precision those areas where our judgment may diverge.

General Stilwell’s Views:

Following are the essential points of General Stilwell’s observations as conveyed to senior Washington officials concerned with situation:

The defense of the Long Tieng/Sam Thong area now includes practically all reserves in Laos leaving no reactive capability to enemy initiatives elsewhere.
The Long Tieng/Sam Thong area has acted as a magnet for the bulk of Thai volunteers although the focus of the program was originally intended elsewhere.
Logistical support for defenses are provided almost entirely by vulnerable Air America.
Although principal importance of area is as Meo base, the Meo represent only 25% of the defenders.
Vang Pao has neither the capability nor the means to exercise command/control over heterogeneous forces.
The primary requirement for defense, a good fire support plan backed by the target acquistion means and communications to put it into effect, is lacking. Primary dependence is on air delivered ordnance.
Although terrain to the southwest is conducive to defense, no preparations for defense in depth have yet been made. Thus the enemy [Page 95] can turn position or interdict air corridors. The forces in Long Tieng will then be in jeopardy and abandonment of equipment and exfiltration by foot without capability to delay may well occur.
Long Tieng has no special military importance and the Meo dependents, once housed there, are now well to the south, in the vicinity of Ban Xon. The terrain to the south is rugged and heavily cross compartmentalized. The enemy can be confronted on every hill, every defile; and the more he advances, the greater will be his misery, operationally and logistically. Moreover, he will outdistance his artillery.
Thus, it would be wise to thin out Long Tieng and reposition some units rearward rather than reinforce it. In this manner, there would be greater assurance of protecting the integrity of the force; free some of the units drawn from elsewhere in Laos; ease the enormously difficult air logistic burden; and better prepare for the contingency that MACV may be inhibited in providing Tacair/Arc Light support if these assets are simultaneously required elsewhere.

We wish to again affirm that we are not and have not been advocating withdrawal from Long Tieng. We make this reiteration because you used the term withdrawal repeatedly in your reference messages and we believe this is an area where there has been some misunderstanding between the field and Washington. Our point is that some further forces can be removed from the immediate Long Tieng defense positions and deployed to the south now to establish defense positions in depth. We share your concern that once engaged by heavy enemy attacks it will be extremely difficult to organize orderly fighting retrograde movements unless there are manned defensive positions waiting to receive the retreating troops.
Another area where there is misunderstanding and perhaps disagreement is the degree of likelihood that Long Tieng can be held in face of strong enemy attack. Believe Washington consensus is less sanguine on this possibility than is that of field.
If we understand your position correctly you believe the most effective way of preserving the integrity of friendly forces is to stand and fight within current dispositions. You also believe that the very disintegration we all wish to avoid will occur by the very fact of withdrawing some units for a defense in depth, even in the absence of concerted enemy pressure.
We believe there is less chance of destroying integrity of friendly forces by a reduction of defending troops in Long Tieng and redeployment to defense in depth positions than there is in maintaining the present defensive strength at Long Tieng. If the enemy is successful in taking Long Tieng as presently defended he will have achieved both his objectives; i.e., taking Long Tieng and shattering the integrity of friendly forces. If on the other hand fewer forces are committed at Long [Page 96] Tieng proper, and a defense in depth with supporting artillery bases is formed, Long Tieng can still be vigorously defended, and if lost, will not also result in a destruction of friendly forces.
Obviously the crunch judgement boils down to how best avoid unnecessary personnel losses [while] delaying and making matters as costly as possible for the enemy. We are not in position to give you detailed tactical instructions from this distance but believe fullest possible clarification of situation and issues is essential. Whatever course you, the Lao and the Thai choose to adopt, we wish you to keep most prominently in mind the problem of how to best preserve the integrity of friendly forces should Long Tieng come under heavy attack.7
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–77–0094, 385, Laos. Top Secret; Sensitive. Repeated to CINCPAC, COMUSMACV, Deputy COMUSMACV, and Commanders 1st and 7/13 AF. The text printed here is the copy approved for transmission. Drafted at a meeting of the Ad Hoc Group on Laos on February 12, the joint message reflected a State, NSC, CIA consensus to which Defense acquiesced. The Defense Department’s representative, Dennis Doolin, wrote to Rear Admiral Daniel J. Murphy, Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense: “I argued as forcefully as I could that Godley should be ordered to thin out the forces at Long Tieng and stop the Pha Dong operation.” However, representatives from the Department of State, the CIA, and the NSC, convinced by Godley, decided that they could not direct the operation from Washington (see Document 21).
  2. Not found.
  3. Document 21.
  4. Attached but not printed is the approved draft of the message dated February 12. In it the Ad Hoc Group told Godley that “Your arguments in favor of your strategy, including continuation of Padong operation, are forceful and we will abide with your judgment on present dispositions.” Nonetheless, the view from Washington was that the Group had to be more concerned about the maintenance of integrity of forces at Long Tieng than retention of any particular position, including Long Tieng itself. (Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–77–0094, 385, Laos)
  5. Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell was the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations.
  6. Stilwell had already briefed the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arguing that if the Lao/Thai units remained at Long Tieng they would suffer a military disaster at the hands of the Communists. He recommended thinning out the Lao and Thai force there rather than reinforcing it. His briefing notes formed the basis for this message. (Briefing for the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff (Executive Session, 24 January 1972); National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 991, Alexander M. Haig Chronological Files, Haig Chron, January 22–31, 1972)
  7. Godley replied in backchannel message 51810 on February 16. In his summary he stated: “On 16 January I would have required one to three odds to bet we would hold Long Tieng through the President’s return from Peking. Today I offer three to one we will be in Long Tieng when the President returns to Washington and two to one that we will be there when the rain starts falling.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 550, Country Files, Far East, Laos, Vol. 9)