222. Minutes of a Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • U. Alexis Johnson
  • William Sullivan
  • Defense
  • Kenneth Rush
  • G. Warren Nutter
  • R/Adm. Harry Train
  • JCS
  • Vice Adm. John Weinel
  • CIA
  • Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters
  • George Carver [name not declassified] (only for Gen. Walters’ briefing)
  • NSC
  • Maj. Gen. Alexander Haig
  • John Holdridge
  • Col. T.C. Pinckney
  • Mark Wandler


It was agreed that:

—Mr. Kissinger will try to obtain agreement from Secretaries Rogers and Laird for a State briefing on the dike bombing issue.

[Omitted here are Walters’s briefing on the military situation in South Vietnam and discussion of casualties suffered by, operational performance of, and leadership problems in the South Vietnamese military; the effect of the coming rainy season on North Vietnamese Army operations; how the North Vietnamese number their divisions; and the likelihood of North Vietnamese forces carrying out a major attack on Hue and how the South Vietnamese are preparing for that attack.]

Mr. Kissinger: Let’s turn now to the dike bombing issue. (to Mr. Johnson) What is the status of your briefing? Why do you keep announcing it and then cancelling it?

Mr. Johnson: We’ve only done that once. We announced that we would have a briefing yesterday. But, as you know, we later cancelled it. We are prepared to go ahead with the briefing any time you wish. I understand that Mel [Laird] called the Secretary and said that he was against it. As a result of that conversation, the Secretary is now against the briefing, too.

[Page 771]

Mr. Kissinger: I thought Mel was just against releasing the pictures, not the briefing itself.

Gen. Walters: People don’t understand what the dike system is, and I think it is very important for us to get this information out. Time is fast running out on us.

Mr. Johnson: I understand Charlie Bray,2 Mel and the Secretary went round and round on this subject yesterday.

Mr. Kissinger: And we [the White House] supported no briefing?

Gen. Haig: Yes. Secretary Rogers called over here to express his opposition to the briefing. We went along with his wishes.

Gen. Walters: This is like the germ warfare issue. It will get worse and worse until we do something about it.

Mr. Kissinger: We can’t hypo the issue, but we can put it into perspective. I think we can make an aggressive briefing. Why, if we are systematically bombing the dikes, has not one of the dikes been levelled? And why has there been no flooding?

Gen. Walters: If there are floods this year, as there probably will be because the dikes are not in good repair, the North Vietnamese will try to pin the blame on us, saying that our bombing has destroyed the dike system.

Mr. Johnson: Yes, that’s right.

Mr. Kissinger: We have no reason to be apologetic about our actions. We should admit there are some craters. But we should point out that these craters were caused by bombs which were aimed at nearby military targets. We can ask why the North Vietnamese haven’t filled in these few craters. We can also make the point that there was great flooding last year, flooding which damaged the dike system. Since the system was not fully repaired in the past year, there is a good chance of heavy flooding again this year—and the North Vietnamese are trying to set us up.

Mr. Carver: The word “dike” is being played like a yo-yo. As Gen. Walters said, people don’t understand what the system is. We have to explain that the primary system is backed up by a secondary system running parallel to the main dikes. There is also a tertiary system of smaller dikes to divide the rice-growing plains into compartments, to assist irrigation and to control the level of small streams and waterways. In addition, a large number of the dikes serve as bases for roadways, so it is almost inevitable that air attacks directed against transportation targets cause scattered damage to dikes. But there is no evidence whatsoever about damage to the system. Incidentally, Amb. [Page 772] Bush3 didn’t bring out the point about the dikes serving as bases for the roadways. This is an important point, one we should bring out in briefings.

Mr. Kissinger: I agree with Mel that we shouldn’t release the pictures. If we did, from that point on, we would have to send photo reconnaissance planes along on every mission and release the photos to prove that we were not hitting the dikes. But I don’t see why we can’t give an oral presentation on the dike system.

Mr. Johnson: Bray, in fact, did some of that yesterday, at the noon briefing.

Mr. Kissinger: Who was supposed to do the special briefing?

Mr. Sullivan: Bray.

Mr. Kissinger: Let’s have the briefing. I will talk to Mel about it.

Mr. Johnson: You should talk to the Secretary, too. He’s convinced now that we shouldn’t do it.

Mr. Rush: I saw Mel at 6:30 the night before last, as he was leaving. He told me he was in favor of giving the briefing, but not releasing the pictures.

Mr. Kissinger: We can’t avoid this issue. It won’t go away because we do nothing about it.

Mr. Carver: If we get much more behind the power curve, we will never be able to catch up.

Mr. Kissinger: Exactly.

Mr. Rush: To finish up the point I was making before, at my public affairs meeting yesterday morning, Dan Murphy told me that he thought Mel had changed his mind about the briefing. I don’t know, though, why he changed his mind.

Mr. Kissinger: I will talk to our two friends. But it won’t be possible to have the briefing today.

Mr. Sullivan: You should know that this issue was the major theme of the North Vietnamese presentation in Paris today. And Jane Fonda4 is returning home tomorrow, so we should brace for another onslaught.

Mr. Kissinger: Every day we fall further and further behind the power curve.

Mr. Sullivan: We’re ready to give the briefing this afternoon.

Mr. Kissinger: No, that won’t be possible. Can you give it tomorrow?

[Page 773]

Mr. Sullivan: Yes. But it will look as though we are in a defensive position as a result of Jane Fonda’s accusations.

Gen. Walters: We simply have to get across to people that there will be flooding in North Vietnam this year and that the North Vietnamese are falsely trying to blame us for causing it.

Mr. Johnson: We should also point out that there was massive flooding in 1971—when we were not bombing the North.

Mr. Kissinger: The average intelligent person does not know about the dike system. He thinks we are bombing big concrete dams. We have to make two things clear: (1) what the system is and (2) what we are hitting.

Gen. Walters: And we also have to make it very clear that our bombing is not causing floods.

Mr. Kissinger: That’s right.

Mr. Sullivan: We are ready to declassify the material contained in the memorandum Dick Helms handed out at the last meeting.5

Mr. Johnson: I think there is a need to release the photos. There has been so much discussion about this issue that people will ask if we can prove what we are saying. They will ask us if we have photos which back up our statement. When we say we have the photos, people will ask to see them.

Mr. Nutter: These same people should also ask what photos the other side has to back up its claims.

Mr. Johnson: I’m sure we will be asked to release our photos. I think it will do more harm to our position not to show the photos.

Mr. Sullivan: One virtue of showing the photos is that people will be able to see that the pockmarks on the craters are close to military targets.

Mr. Nutter: I think we can turn the whole issue around and make the North Vietnamese back up their statements with photos, which they won’t be able to do.

Mr. Kissinger: We won’t be able to do that if we remain in a defensive position.

Mr. Carver: We can really make some good points if we take the offensive and prove that we are being set up.

Mr. Kissinger: Yes, but we’ll have to do that within the next two weeks.

[Page 774]

Mr. Rush: The North Vietnamese are shifting to a more sophisticated approach, you know. Our bombing is so heavy, they are saying now, that even bombs which miss the dikes themselves damage the foundations.

Mr. Kissinger: They can’t prove that.

Gen. Walters: That’s the set-up.

Mr. Sullivan: Waldheim6 has a couple of Dutch engineers who say our bombing is shaking the foundations.

Mr. Kissinger: This issue will not go away. We have to deal with it.

Mr. Carver: And when we do, we have to make the strong point that our bombing of the tertiary dike and road system does not cause flooding.

Mr. Kissinger: Where is McCloskey?

Mr. Sullivan: He’s on leave.

Mr. Johnson: Charlie Bray can do the briefing.

Mr. Rush: He’s done very well, so far.

Adm. Weinel: I just saw an intercept of a North Vietnamese conversation. One of the speakers said this issue was so important to them that they would even use dynamite to destroy some of the dikes, if need be, in order to keep the issue alive.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Sullivan) What about Laos? What’s going on there?

Mr. Sullivan: Souphanouvong sent a tough letter to Souvanna, as you know, and Souvanna has answered it.

Mr. Kissinger: Souvanna actually sent the answer?

Mr. Sullivan: Yes. He had the letter delivered to the Pathet Lao representative, Souk Vongsak, July 25. Souk Vongsak will be delivering another letter from Souphanouvong tomorrow morning, but this letter will have crossed Souvanna’s and will not be a reply. Our Chargé talked to Souvanna, and he reported that the language in Souvanna’s letter was subtle. [Reading from Vientiane 56211] “The Prime Minister said he wished to assure Washington that he was conscious of continued U.S. concern about interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. His proposal to discuss general cease-fire was designed to divert Pathet Lao demand for bombing halt as prior condition to talks. Souvanna wanted us to know, however, that he had not changed his mind about conditions necessary to make cease-fire effective. Specifically, either Communists must agree to effective control measures in area of Ho Chi Minh Trail or, if they refuse to do so, Trail must be excluded from provisions of cease-fire.”

[Page 775]

Souvanna also told our Chargé that we should not be concerned. He said: “I know U.S. position. We are at beginning of process which will take time. The important thing at this stage is to get contacts started and to find out whether the Communists have anything new in mind.”

So, judging from the cable, Souvanna is still okay.

Mr. Kissinger: Won’t Point 1 of the Pathet Lao proposal require us to stop bombing the Trail?

Mr. Sullivan: Souvanna said he would be willing to discuss the five-point Pathet Lao proposal if there were a cease-fire. If so, he said he would expect all matters of interest to be brought up at the discussions. He also said he would like to separate the military and political issues, and perhaps even discuss the military issues first. You are right about the first point of the Pathet Lao proposal, though. It would require us to cease our attacks on the Trail and to withdraw the Thai troops.

Do you want to hear what happened in Paris today?7

Mr. Kissinger: Yes.

Mr. Sullivan: The other side’s tone shifted, becoming more stiff. They placed a heavy emphasis on our alleged aggression and on our bombing of the dikes. They claimed that our bombing was still the obstacle preventing serious negotiations. Bill [Porter] answered, regretting that they were using a propaganda tone again. He cited articles which pointed out that they had failed to take care of the dikes after last year’s flooding. In the rebuttal, Xuan Thuy used a more measured tone. He said there were five objections to our May 8 proposal:

It provided for no political settlement.

The military conditions would result in a military government imposed in South Vietnam over their civilian government.

Mr. Kissinger: Why is that?

Mr. Sullivan: I don’t know. This is what I got over the phone. [Then Mr. Sullivan continued with the rest of the objections]:

The cease-fire would be unstable. (This is another point which I don’t fully understand.)
The POW issue would have been irrelevant if we had accepted their seven-point proposal because we would already have our prisoners back.
Our proposal lacks a terminal date for our departure.

Bill said that our original timetable for withdrawing went from one year down to six months, down to four months. Xuan Thuy said [Page 776] our proposal is similar to the statement of the restaurant owner, who says that his food is free tomorrow.

Mr. Kissinger: The other side wants us to set a terminal withdrawal date. Then there will be no progress in the negotiations, and the date will be upon us. We will have made a unilateral withdrawal—with nothing to show for it.

Mr. Sullivan: Incidentally, the COSVN assessment of the offensive and instructions on VC missions for August and September is very much like my analysis.8 If it isn’t authentic, it is a great GVN forgery. (to Mr. Carver) Do you think it is authentic?

Mr. Carver: The fellow who coughed it up is authentic. If he isn’t the North Vietnamese are paying a lot to authenticate a double agent. He has already cost them five companies, with information he’s given us about tactical situations.

Mr. Kissinger: Have I seen this document?

Mr. Rush: It’s the one about VC tactics.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Sullivan) Wouldn’t you expect the North Vietnamese to be taking a harder line in Paris?

Mr. Sullivan: Yes, I would. Their propaganda line will be hard for the next couple of months, especially if there is flooding again.

Mr. Kissinger: I have concluded that the North Vietnamese are not very bright. I used to think they were diabolically clever. Not now, though. From their point of view, they would be better off now if they had taken one of our previous proposals.

Gen. Walters: As someone once said, when you deal with North Vietnamese, you deal with fanatics, not statesmen.

Mr. Kissinger: If they had taken any one of our proposals in the past, they would be in a better position now.

Mr. Carver: That’s right. You can go all the way back to 1965 and still be right.

Mr. Kissinger: I’m not so sure. After all, in 1965 they still had the hope that the Tet offensive would produce a South Vietnamese collapse.

Mr. Sullivan: The COSVN document makes interesting reading. It says: “The VC/NVA will hit the GVN hard to force U.S. President Nixon to settle the war on VC terms. If he does not end the war, he [Page 777] may lose the Presidential election in November. It is the intention of the Central Party Committee to force Nixon to accept the seven-point proposal and then to lose the election. The Party has come to know much about Nixon in four years. If he remains President, the VC will meet great difficulty despite a cease-fire. In the negotiations, the VC may have to make some concessions to end the war and to stop U.S. bombing and blockade of North Vietnam. However, the negotiations must be based upon the seven points, and the VC will offer no other proposal.”

This has the ring of truth to it, stubborn as it may sound.

Mr. Kissinger: If the President gets re-elected, the North Vietnamese will have to think in those terms.

Mr. Sullivan: They will have to think in those terms if there is flooding and if the rice crop is destroyed.

By the way, I notice they are getting 36,000 tons of fuel from China. That’s more than their monthly figure.

Mr. Kissinger: How are the North Vietnamese getting this fuel?

Mr. Sullivan: I don’t know for sure, but it will probably come through the pipeline.

Mr. Kissinger: Are we bombing the pipeline and the pumping stations?

Adm. Weinel: Yes, but it’s difficult to do with a great deal of accuracy. They have a four-inch pipeline running from Dong Dang.

Mr. Johnson: Is the pipeline in operation?

Adm. Weinel: Yes, to Kep. They are also working on a second pipeline, so I assume they are trying to get a dual four-inch system.

Mr. Johnson: What’s coming in from China by road?

Mr. Carver: That’s difficult to tell with any precision.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 80, National Security Council, July–August 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. Charles W. Bray, Director, Office of Press Relations, Department of State.
  3. George H.W. Bush, Ambassador to the United Nations.
  4. Movie actress and anti-war activist who toured North Vietnam in the summer of 1972.
  5. Intelligence Memorandum No. 7103, “North Vietnam: The Dike Bombing Issue,” July 1972. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–089, Washington Special Actions Group Meetings, WSAG Meeting Vietnam 7/27/72)
  6. UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim.
  7. Ambassador Porter’s report on this plenary session, the 152d, is in message USDel 5982 from Paris, July 27. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 192, Paris Talks/Meetings, Paris Talks [1 of 2])
  8. The COSVN assessment is in Central Intelligence Agency Information Cable TDCS 314/05753–72 distributed on July 26 to the Departments of State and Defense, DIA, Joint Chiefs of Staff, NIC, NSA, ONE, and CRS. It is attached as Tab A to Holdridge’s memorandum to Kissinger, July 28; ibid., Box 160, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, June–July 1972.