268. Minutes of a Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam and Cambodia


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • U. Alexis Johnson
  • William E. Sullivan
  • DOD
  • Kenneth Rush
  • Warren Nutter
  • Major Gen. David Ott
  • JCS
  • Adm. Thomas H. Moorer
  • Vice Adm. John P. Weinel
  • CIA
  • George Carver
  • William E. Nelson
  • William Newton
  • NSC Staff
  • Major Gen. Alexander M. Haig
  • Richard T. Kennedy
  • William Stearman
  • James T. Hackett


JCS and OSD will complete and submit the VNAF study as soon as possible.

JCS will submit a request for permission to strike in Route Package #1.

—Mr. Kissinger will see the Korean Foreign Minister and will ask the President to receive Korean President Park.

[Page 993]

Mr. Kissinger: I thought it might be useful to have a wrap-up of where we stand. George (Carver), would you like to begin? Mr. Carver then read a nine page CIA briefing paper (copy attached).2

Mr. Kissinger: Did you say the communists did not achieve any of their objectives in the offensive?

Mr. Carver: No, I said they did not achieve many of them.

Adm. Moorer: I agree that the communists’ chance of taking Hue is now gone.

Mr. Kissinger: The worst mistake the North Vietnamese made was to surround South Vietnamese units instead of horseshoeing them. They should never surround the South Vietnamese. When they are surrounded they fight like hell for the same reason they run in other circumstances, because they’re scared to death of the North Vietnamese.

Now you said that the percentage of the population of South Vietnam living under firm enemy control had risen as a result of the offensive from one half of one percent to about three percent, or some 400,000 people. If there were a ceasefire today, would that be the situation?

Mr. Carver: Yes, that would be true with respect to the number of people under firm enemy control, 400,000 out of a population of 19 million, which still is not very many, but the enemy would control a lot of territory. We must update our maps on this, but they do control a large amount of unpopulated territory.

Mr. Rush: They claim 28% of the land area of South Vietnam. This would be contested territory in the event of a ceasefire, but we probably could slice that claim down the middle.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Carver) You say they are planning a new effort before the election. How can they do that with the casualties they have had? How many do you estimate they have taken?

Mr. Carver: We estimate 100,000 out of action, that is, killed or seriously wounded.

Mr. Kissinger: And how many wounded but not out of action?

Mr. Carver: Well, that’s hard to say. Probably a great many.

Mr. Kissinger: Can’t they replace them?

Mr. Carver: No, not readily. It should take them about 18 months to resupply and refit their main forces in the south.

Mr. Kissinger: But they can control both their casualty rate and when the casualties begin again, can’t they?

Mr. Carver: Yes, to a certain extent. With the heavy cover in the area, they can infiltrate without taking too many casualties, if they choose to conserve their forces.

Mr. Rush: How do their losses compare to those of the South Vietnamese?

[Page 994]

Mr. Carver: I don’t have the precise figures, but the South Vietnamese are generally in much better condition, both physically and psychologically. Don’t you agree Admiral (Moorer)?

Adm. Moorer: Yes, I do. The Marine Division is in very good shape. They took heavy casualties, over 900 killed in action, but they have no recruiting problem and the division is fully intact. The Airborne Division is not quite as good, but it is ready, too.

Mr. Kissinger: The plain fact is that there are only three divisions in South Vietnam that are worth a damn. The divisions in MR–3 haven’t done a damn thing. We can mislead ourselves by counting all these South Vietnamese divisions that don’t fight.

Mr. Carver: An exception in MR–3 is the Fifth Division. They are good.

Mr. Kissinger: They fought well because they were trapped, that’s the only reason. Otherwise, they would run like the rest.

Mr. Carver: Now wait a minute. You’re overlooking the morale boost these victories have given them. The morale and confidence in battle of the South Vietnamese increased substantially in 1969–70 and now the same thing has happened again after their successful battles with the North Vietnamese main force units. This is important for the army psychologically.

Mr. Kissinger: Suppose there is no settlement and the war goes on after November, are the North Vietnamese going to stop their effort any time soon?

Mr. Carver: Well, I don’t know about stopping, but they will have to curtail their effort and remain at a low level of activity for at least a year.

Mr. Kissinger: Do they have to reach a settlement?

Mr. Carver: No, they don’t have to settle, they can switch to protracted warfare. If they change their tactics to emphasize terrorism and political agitation, they can maintain guerrilla units in the south without much difficulty.

Mr. Kissinger: But at a lower level than in 1970–71?

Mr. Carver: That’s right.

Mr. Johnson: A new factor in the equation is the bombing and mining. That changes the situation considerably from 1970–71.

Mr. Carver: That’s true, and the GVN can get itself in a relatively solid position by re-establishing firm control over the populated areas. They don’t have to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail or strike across the borders. What they have to do most urgently is re-establish their own political control internally, but they can’t sit on their duffs, they have to get out and do it.

Mr. Sullivan: But the North Vietnamese will be doing something, too. Suppose they decide to rebuild their army in the south? How long would it be before they could launch another offensive?

[Page 995]

Mr. Carver: If North Vietnam wants to reconstitute its field army and launch another main force effort, it will require at least 12 to 18 months to build up.

Mr. Sullivan: What if they want to establish a guerrilla force instead?

Mr. Carver: Yes, but they can’t just convert the main force units. They can’t go in and mix with the local population. It will be necessary for them to train special guerrilla warfare units.

Adm. Moorer: They are already doing that in some areas. The key question is, can they launch another major effort with main force units in the coming weeks?

Mr. Carver: I think they can.

Mr. Kissinger: What are we doing about it?

Adm. Moorer: We would like to strike the movement of supplies in Route Package #1.3

Mr. Kissinger: Why don’t you?

Adm. Moorer: We can’t. Those are the rules of engagement.

Mr. Kissinger: Your briefers have been telling me you aren’t ready to strike in Route Package #1 because the radar isn’t adequate.

Adm. Moorer: I’m told now that we can work on it with either B–52’s or tactical air.

Mr. Kissinger: We haven’t received a request.

Adm. Moorer: I just got the report this morning. You’ll be getting a request.

Mr. Kissinger: I would like to ask a basic question. Suppose the North Vietnamese pull out their main force units now and we pull out our air support, and then the North Vietnamese come back in with a new offensive two years from now. What sort of air support will the South Vietnamese be able to provide for themselves?

Mr. Carver: If we pull out our air, they will still be weak in air support two years from now, but they should learn to rely less on airpower and more on artillery, just as the North Vietnamese do. Now I recognize that it is difficult to get them to rely less on air support, after we have taught them to expect it. But I think we also have to ask whether the North Vietnamese can have their main forces stand down without any political gains in the south and then two years later get their cadres all fired up again for a new major effort. I think that would be very difficult for them.

Mr. Sullivan: There is also the question whether the Chinese would let the North Vietnamese build up for a new assault.

Mr. Kissinger: Why wouldn’t they? What would they have to lose?

[Page 996]

Mr. Sullivan: North Vietnam could turn into another Soviet protectorate like Mongolia, if it becomes too dependent on Soviet aid and equipment. China doesn’t want anything like that, nor does China want a belligerent North Vietnam with delusions of grandeur, with hegemony over all of Indochina. The Chinese would much prefer to have four small, divided states on their southern flank.

Mr. Carver: So, assuming there are no great breakthroughs in the next two months, either politically or militarily, you will then have a different ballgame than you have now. They have been planning for a new offensive high point for months, but haven’t been able to bring it off. They will try their damnedest in October and if they can’t do it then, they will try to get it going in November. They are continuing to push for a coalition government and are emphasizing that it would not be dominated by them.

Mr. Kissinger: They have to say that.

Mr. Carver: Yes.

Mr. Kissinger: Why, with all the bombing, can they move supplies to the south in such large numbers?

Mr. Carver: They had large stocks in Laos and Cambodia before the offensive began, and they have a track record of being highly resourceful in the movement of heavy equipment under adverse conditions.

Mr. Johnson: I understand that two thirds of the former volume of supplies is getting across the border.

Adm. Moorer: Three thirds is getting across the border, because we are not bombing within twenty five miles of the Chinese border.

Mr. Kissinger: I don’t think that makes any difference. The question is how do they get it all the way down to South Vietnam? What is your assessment of the situation, Admiral (Moorer)?

Adm. Moorer: (referring to maps) The situation in northern MR–1 is very good. The marines plan to go across the river here (in Quang Tri Province) and the Airborne Division kicks off tomorrow to go west of Quang Tri to recapture some firebases there. We are picking up intercepts that indicate the enemy is having supply trouble in this area. The rainy weather is closing down roads and most of the roads in northern MR–1 will soon be out of service. Hue is pretty safe now and I don’t think they can do much against Danang. They would like to get some of the rice stocks in southern MR–1, if they can. One of our weak spots is northern MR–2, where the Vietcong have been strong for three generations, but we have been holding our own there. The situation elsewhere in MR–2 depends on how long the ROKs are going to stay.

Mr. Kissinger: Can’t we talk with the Koreans about this?

Mr. Johnson: I just had lunch with the Korean Foreign Minister. He is tying their presence to ours. He’s concerned that our forces will fall below 25,000.

[Page 997]

Mr. Kissinger: I don’t think they will. What is the schedule?

Adm. Moorer: On December 1, we should be down to 27,000.4

Mr. Johnson: The Foreign Minister is in favor of an early pullout. He says it is a domestic political problem more than anything else. They’re planning on starting in January and being all out by July.

Mr. Sullivan: They want the President to receive Park. I think they will insist on that if we push them on staying.

Mr. Kissinger: He’ll do that. I’m sure he will do it when he understands what is at stake. You can go ahead and plan on him seeing Park. The Foreign Minister wants to see me, but I turned him down today. Do you think I should see him?

Mr. Johnson: It would help. He’s dying to know what’s going on. One of the things the Koreans will insist on is closer consultation with us.

Mr. Kissinger: O.K., I’ll do it.

Adm. Moorer: (still briefing) In MR–3, the leadership is weak . . .

Mr. Kissinger: The military actions there have been a disgrace. Gen. Minh is a total disaster. He’s been sitting on that road for months without moving.

Adm. Moorer: I’ve asked why they don’t relieve Minh and they always say he is about to begin some movement.

Mr. Kissinger: He is incompetent.

Mr. Sullivan: But politically reliable. That’s the route to Saigon. It’s too close to home to put in a competent field commander who may decide to take over.

Mr. Carver: Truong would be good there, but Thieu would be very uncomfortable. He is the first general to rise to the top by fighting the communists. All the others got there through politics or friendships.

Gen. Haig: He is a peasant, too.

Mr. Kissinger: Does he have political savvy?

Adm. Moorer: He is a very sound military man. Very thorough.

Mr. Carver: He doesn’t have much presence, you’d never pick him out of a crowd, but he’s done everything well that he has ever been given to do.

Adm. Moorer: (still briefing) The situation is pretty good in MR–4. The level of activity is low.

Mr. Kissinger: There is only one North Vietnamese division there fighting three South Vietnamese divisions. Why can’t they drive the North Vietnamese out?

Adm. Moorer: No, the enemy has more than one division there. They have some smaller units, besides. So, in summary, the situation is pretty good throughout the country. A new offensive is expected, but [Page 998] the South Vietnamese are confident they can hold. Truong is confident he can hold in Northern MR–1, which is probably the most critical area. Now in Cambodia, the whole southeast part of the country is flooded and they are trying to prevent the communists from controlling the river.

Mr. Kissinger: Why doesn’t the FANK go on the offensive while the North Vietnamese Army is occupied in South Vietnam?

Adm. Moorer: The Cambodian Army is in pretty bad shape.

Mr. Johnson: What is most discouraging is the rapid buildup of the Khmer Rouge. That looks bad for the future.

Mr. Kissinger: I agree.

Mr. Sullivan: Practically the entire FANK general officer corps is in the process of being sent out of the country. They are going abroad as ambassadors and whatnot. They just weren’t prepared to fight for more than a couple of months.

Mr. Carver: The communists gave the Cambodians a pasting at Chien La5 and they haven’t been anxious to fight since.

Adm. Moorer: That’s right, they’re not aggressive at all.

Mr. Kissinger: Is there any action we should take with regard to Cambodia? (There was no reply). Well, on another subject, when can we expect to receive the VNAF study?

Mr. Sullivan: I just read a report that the Chinese are now providing North Vietnam with MIG–19s.

Adm. Moorer: The question is whether we are going to give the South Vietnamese a full air force capability or something less than that. The problem is money. We don’t know how much will be available for this purpose.

Mr. Kissinger: We have to make a decision first on what we are going to do, but how can we make a decision if we don’t have a proposal to consider? There is strong domestic opposition to our continued air effort in Vietnam. We have fought the opposition down every year, but how long can we continue to do that?

Adm. Moorer: We are converting seven squadrons to the Vietnamese Air Force.

Mr. Kissinger: The basic question is whether or not we are going to be there with our Air Force forever. If not, then we will have to Vietnamize their air force. You say their pilots are as good as the North Vietnamese and our planes are as good as the Russians’, so we should be able to Vietnamize their air force. What we need is a proposal on what to do and how fast to move.

[Page 999]

Adm. Moorer: We will give you a study.

Mr. Kissinger: But when?

Gen. Ott: We expect to have it on October 3.

Mr. Kissinger: If we are going to make a basic decision, we must have some information to base it on.

Mr. Carver: The South Vietnamese are not structured to fight an air war by themselves.

Mr. Kissinger: If there is no settlement, is the air war to be fought by us or by them? If it is them, then we need the VNAF study. This is no reflection on what’s been done before, we are now looking to the future. We did a study on the ground forces in 1969;6 perhaps we should have done one on the air force in 1969, too. The President has already said publicly that if there is no settlement we will build up the South Vietnamese Air Force the same way we built up their army.

Mr. Carver: A study on the Vietnamese Air Force couldn’t have been done in 1969. There was nothing then to base it on.

Mr. Nutter: Including the helicopters, we have already built them up from 200 aircraft to 1,000.

Mr. Kissinger: But we have to know how long it will take to build them up the rest of the way. People are always accusing me of favoring the F–5 for the Vietnamese over the F–4. Actually, I don’t know the difference between the F–5 and the F–4, and what’s more I don’t give a damn. That’s your business, not mine. Why don’t we have a study comparing the two?

Adm. Moorer: The difference is two million dollars.

Mr. Nutter: We don’t have the F–5E, it’s not in production yet.

Mr. Johnson: A comparison study of that kind will generate a lot of discussion.

Mr. Kissinger: We’ve already had a lot of discussion.

Adm. Moorer: We can certainly give them an independent air capability if we want to.

Mr. Kissinger: We need the paper.

Adm. Moorer: We have a paper from the Air Force and we are working on it now.

Mr. Kissinger: We haven’t seen it over here.

Mr. Rush: We haven’t reached a final conclusion on the study yet.

Mr. Kissinger: We have to make a decision. We’ll make it without your paper if we don’t get it soon.

Mr. Rush: You’ll get it.

Mr. Kissinger: The President has said we are not in Vietnam for all eternity. If you (Defense) can’t agree on what you want to propose, we will make the decision without your proposal.

[Page 1000]

Mr. Rush: We turned the study over to the Air Force on July 17. The Air Force finished it and the JCS is now reviewing it. We (OSD) hope to receive it from the JCS on October 3.

Mr. Kissinger: Well, get it to us as soon as possible. Are there any problems in Laos that you want to discuss? When does the rainy season start?

Mr. Carver: Here is a chart showing that.

Mr. Kissinger: You people really fouled me up. When I arrived in Paris, Le Duc Tho told me the rainy season had just ended in Hanoi, and I thought it was just beginning.

Adm. Moorer: That’s right, it has just ended in North Vietnam. What he meant was that there is no more danger of flooding in the north.

Mr. Johnson: I have had a long talk with Sisouk,7 who made two basic points. First, he is opposed to the use of Thai forces in excess of 25 units. He has had a lot of trouble with them and doesn’t want any more. He would prefer to increase the Lao units by five. Second, he wants more air support. He claims he just isn’t getting enough.

Mr. Kissinger: I thought we were going to provide all he needs.

Adm. Moorer: He has all he needs. But he is never satisfied, no matter how much we provide. We don’t have enough targets in Laos as it is.

Mr. Carver: Mr. Nelson will provide a briefing on Laos.

Mr. Nelson: Vang Pao’s forces have not done well. Task Force Delta had heavy casualties in the area north of the Plaine des Jarres, 201 killed in action, and has been brought out. Task Force Bravo has also encountered heavy pressure, particularly heavy shelling, to the south of the Plaine, and has retreated. They did discover two large caches of ammunition in the south. Enemy units have broken into small outfits of ten men each, apparently to make smaller targets for air strikes, and these small units have been quite effective. The sum of it is that Vang Pao is having trouble moving into the Plaine.

Mr. Kissinger: In spite of the withdrawal of one communist division?

Mr. Nelson: Yes, in spite of that.

Mr. Kissinger: Sorry, but I have to leave.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 80, National Security Council, Committees and Panels, Washington Special Actions Group, September–October 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room.
  2. Attached but not printed is the September 28 paper entitled “Vietnam.”
  3. Designation for the area just north of the DMZ.
  4. See footnote 4, Document 253.
  5. Chenla II, not Chien La, was an August to December 1971 Cambodian operation against North Vietnamese troops to open up one of the highways leading out of Phnom Penh and in doing so achieve several other strategic objectives.
  6. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970, Document 87.
  7. Sisouk na Champassak was Acting Minister of Defense in the Royal Lao Government.