53. Minutes of a Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • John N. Irwin
  • William Sullivan
  • Defense
  • Kenneth Rush
  • Warren Nutter
  • JCS
  • Adm. Thomas H. Moorer
  • Lt. Gen. John Vogt
  • CIA
  • Richard Helms
  • William Newton (only for Mr. Helms’ briefing)
  • NSC
  • Maj. Gen. Alexander Haig
  • Richard Kennedy
  • John Negroponte
  • Mark Wandler


It was agreed that:

  • —The State Department would prepare a press guidance paper, showing how the North Vietnamese offensive violates the 1968 understandings.
  • —The Joint Chiefs of Staff would submit a report on the maximum reinforcement effort we can make.
  • —The State and Defense Departments would issue statements at their daily briefings, hitting hard at the North Vietnamese violations of the Geneva Accords and the 1968 understandings.

Dr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Helms) Dick, let’s start off with your briefing.

Mr. Helms: You asked for a briefing on the military situation and the North Vietnamese objectives. I will begin with the military situation. [Reads attached briefing.]2

Dr. Kissinger: [Referring to the statement that the NVA were zeroed in on Dak To, page 2 of the briefing.] If we know the NVA are zeroed [Page 179] in on Dak To, that must mean we know where the artillery pieces are. That being the case, why don’t we take them out?

Adm. Moorer: We know the general vicinity where they are, but we don’t have precise locations. At Fire Support Base Delta, south of Dak To, they claimed yesterday to have killed 500 of the enemy.

Dr. Kissinger: Can’t we figure out with more precision where the enemy positions are located?

Adm. Moorer: Yes, we’re doing it.

Mr. Helms continued reading his briefing.

Dr. Kissinger: [At the end of the section on the military situation] How long do you think the offensive will last?

Mr. Helms: I think it will go on for some time.

Adm. Moorer: It will last a good twenty to thirty days.

Dr. Kissinger: And then the enemy will run out of supplies?

Adm. Moorer: No. They will begin to run low on supplies, and their operations will slack off.

Mr. Irwin: Are you saying the offensive won’t last longer than twenty or thirty days?

Mr. Helms: I think it can go on longer than that.

Mr. Irwin: I think so, too. Twenty to thirty days is a very optimistic figure.

Adm. Moorer: The main problem will be lack of ammunition. All the ammo they are using now was stored just north of the DMZ, and it was ready to move.

Mr. Helms continued to read his briefing. At the end of the section dealing with North Vietnamese objectives, he added:

I asked this morning about the 1968 understandings, and I was told that they are threadbare. Frankly, I don’t even see one thread, and I think this is so obvious that every eye can see it.

Dr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Sullivan) Bill, can you pull a paper together for us, which we can use for press guidance, on the violation of every understanding which was agreed to in 1968?

Mr. Sullivan: Yes.

Mr. Irwin: The paper should include an answer to the accusation against us: namely that our bombing is also a violation of the understandings.

Adm. Moorer: I would like to follow up a little bit, if I may, on Dick’s briefing. I agree that the enemy objective is to seize Quang Tri and possibly Kontum—even if they do not hold those places indefinitely. There is no question that the North Vietnamese have committed all their main force units to the offensive. The 308th division, for example, which had been held in reserve at Dong Hoi, has now moved [Page 180] south. The point is that they are in the enviable position of being able to send every available man into battle—and not worry about an invasion from the south or about defending North Vietnam. They are shooting the works.

Their operations in MR 3 are designed to commit the ARVN reserves and to reduce the number of reinforcements which can be sent north. The situation today is that the 3rd Division, as you know, the newest South Vietnamese division, is in position south of the DMZ. The 1st Division, the best ARVN division, has the mission of defending Hue. Most of the fighting so far has involved the 3rd Division and two Marine Brigades. Eight North Vietnamese regiments have attacked in a southerly direction, and three other regiments, from the 304th Division, have attacked to the East. The North Vietnamese have also used elements of three artillery regiments and elements of two tank battalions.

The ARVN defensive line now runs along the Cua Viet river, through Fire Support Bases Pedro, Scorpion and Barbara. The South Vietnamese are attempting to consolidate this line, and they have been ordered to hold Dong Ha and Quang Tri at all costs. Three Marine Brigades have been sent up there as reinforcements. President Thieu is also forming nine additional Ranger battalions.

For our part, we have three carriers on station, and the Constellation is coming from Japan. We have added 18 VF aircraft.

Dr. Kissinger: Can we add more than that?

Adm. Moorer: I think so. We can take a look at it. We are also conducting over fifty B–52 strikes a day. We are looking to surge even more, but the aircraft might be needed in Laos. At any rate, just about all of the B–52 effort now is going to MR 1.

The NVA have fired 55 SAMs, seven of which were in Laos, and we have lost three aircraft—a RB–66, an A–1 and an OV–2—to the SAMs. The B–52s, incidentally, are using chaff and electronic countermeasures—causing many of the missiles to miss their marks.

Concerning our ground forces, we have the 196th Brigade in MR 1, providing security for Danang, and one air cavalry unit with 27 helos. That doesn’t include the advisors stationed with ARVN units.

Finally, we have four destroyers off the coast, providing fire support. I have asked for a cruiser to join them, and we have amphibious forces ready to evacuate American personnel, if that becomes necessary.

Dr. Kissinger: What can we provide in the way of reinforcements? We will not get any award for being defeated with restraint.

Adm. Moorer: We can return many of the aircraft, but that depends a lot on base availability.

[Page 181]

Dr. Kissinger: Can you give us a report by the end of the day on the maximum effort we can make on reinforcements?

Adm. Moorer: Yes.

Mr. Irwin: What will happen if the North Vietnamese also strike in the highlands?

Adm. Moorer: For one thing, Abe [General Abrams] will have to divide his air. As I said before, all of the B–52 effort is now directed at MR 1. The ARVN have the 22nd Division and two airborne brigades up the highlands. In terms of troop strength, they are not outnumbered. As I also said earlier, Fire Support Base Delta reported killing 500 of the enemy yesterday.

Dr. Kissinger: We also had a report that some battalions were lost.

Adm. Moorer: Two battalions were reported lost and two regiments were reported ineffective.

Gen. Vogt: The two lost battalions, by the way, were from the two ineffective regiments, the 2nd and 56th.

Mr. Irwin: How many regiments did the South Vietnamese have there?

Adm. Moorer: Five.

Mr. Irwin: Two out of the five regiments, then, are ineffective.

Adm. Moorer: Yes. But the Marine Brigade has been sent there to provide reinforcements.

Mr. Irwin: Will the additional forces bring the South Vietnamese back to their pre-attack strength?

Dr. Kissinger: Will they fight?

Gen. Vogt: There is no question about that. They will fight effectively.

Dr. Kissinger: But will they fight very effectively?

Adm. Moorer: I just asked Abe these same questions. Let me tell you what he said. [Reads cable, gist of which is as follows:]

  • Adm. Moorer: How well did the ARVN perform?
  • Gen. Abrams: The ARVN have been under great pressure, from four NVA divisions, artillery and bad weather, which has hampered air support operations. But they have performed well. Only two battalions—at Camp Carroll—have surrendered. There have been 2,500 wounded. KIA figures are still incomplete.
  • Adm. Moorer: What are the ARVN intentions?
  • Gen. Abrams: Three divisions are defending the line formed by the Cua Viet river and Fire Support Bases Pedro, Scorpion and Barbara. Quang Tri and Dang Ha will be held at all costs. President Thieu has emphatically reinforced this point. A tank battalion will be used in a mobile role for defense. General Lam has requested that the Marine Brigade be used for reinforcement, and he has also asked for other divisions. At a meeting at Camp Eagle, in which President Thieu and [Page 182] General Lam participated, Thieu made a major point of saying that reinforcements will be provided to MR 1 and that Hue will be defended.
  • Adm. Moorer: What provisions were being made for the possible evacuation of American personnel? [Adm. Moorer said Gen. Abrams had given him a detailed answer, but he did not elaborate.]
  • Adm. Moorer: Should there be a surge in B–52 sorties?
  • Gen. Abrams: If the NVA attacks continue, a surge would be essential.
  • Adm. Moorer: What is the mission of the 196th Brigade?
  • Gen. Abrams: The mission of the Brigade is to (1) protect Phu Bai, (2) provide security for the evacuation of the Loran site there and (3) evacuate U.S.-sponsored personnel, if necessary.
  • Adm. Moorer: How will the new operating authorities be used?
  • Gen. Abrams: The authorities will be used to the maximum, as soon as the weather breaks.
  • Adm. Moorer: How is the ARVN morale?
  • Gen. Abrams: Morale varies. In MR 1 it is high, but it is difficult to know if it will hold up. If the enemy offensive continues, it may discredit the South Vietnamese.

Dr. Kissinger: (to Adm. Moorer) If we can get your recommendations on the maximum possible reinforcements from all theaters, it would be a great help. (to Mr. Irwin) Jack, what do you think?

Mr. Irwin: There are two sides to this, the military and the diplomatic. We support whatever must be done on the military side. On the diplomatic side, the South Vietnamese Foreign Ministry put out a very good statement.

Dr. Kissinger: Is Bunker going back?

Mr. Sullivan: Yes. He will be back in Saigon Tuesday evening.3 He has been waiting to get clearance for his plane to overfly India.

Mr. Irwin: The South Vietnamese statement is very good. It identifies the NVA divisions, describes the violations of the 1968 understandings and calls for governments to condemn the North Vietnamese actions. Now it is a question of whether we and other governments should issue statements, too.

Dr. Kissinger: What other governments?

Mr. Irwin: Any and all. The South Vietnamese statement also raises the possibility of Security Council action. We don’t think, however, that any action is called for.

Dr. Kissinger: Can we keep the political section in the South Vietnamese Embassy under control? They usually start flapping.

Mr. Sullivan: They haven’t started flapping yet.

[Page 183]

Dr. Kissinger: Let’s try to keep it that way. Can we also keep the military spokesmen under control—and not have them make alarmist statements?

Adm. Moorer: Yes.

Dr. Kissinger: State and Defense should make the initial reaction today. Then Ziegler will back it up at his 3:00 p.m. briefing. We should hit hard at the violations of the Geneva Accords and the 1968 understandings. The President wants a strong statement put out at State’s noon briefing.

Mr. Sullivan: The South Vietnamese statement identified the NVA divisions. Can we call these operations an invasion?

Dr. Kissinger: I think so. What would we have to lose by doing that?

Adm. Moorer: It is an invasion.

Mr. Sullivan: We will still get the line that the ARVN are fighting Viet Cong, not North Vietnamese main force units.

Dr. Kissinger: Who will make the initial statement?

Mr. Sullivan: I think we should do it.

Mr. Helms: I like the idea of using the word “invasion.”

Dr. Kissinger: Yes. If asked, we will also confirm that we had a WSAG meeting this morning and that the President is in touch with various Cabinet members. We will do that here, though.

Mr. Sullivan: Should we echo the South Vietnamese statement, calling for a return to the negotiating table?

Dr. Kissinger: Concerning the negotiations, we should say that all the time we were trying to negotiate, the enemy was building up for an attack. That’s why Porter acted as he did last week.4 We should say we are always ready to go back to the negotiating table, but not when we are under military pressure.

Mr. Sullivan: What about the bombing of the North? Should we say all the wraps are off?

Dr. Kissinger: You can say that the President is reviewing the situation and following it very closely.

Mr. Sullivan: Should the Department spokesman make this statement?

Dr. Kissinger: Yes, and tell him not to hype it. Who will do it? Bray?

Mr. Irwin: Yes. I think we should also refer to the South Vietnamese statement.

[Page 184]

Dr. Kissinger: After the State briefing, Defense can supply added information at its briefing.

Adm. Moorer: I would suggest that we try to be as solid as possible in these statements and that we not use colorful adjectives.

Dr. Kissinger: I fully agree with you. But the problem is not here—it is in Saigon. It was in Saigon that they used the words “critical,” “serious” and “grim.”

Adm. Moorer: I realize that.

Dr. Kissinger: We should keep them from using such words. I can understand if they say “serious.” But “critical” and “grim” have certain meanings.

Mr. Sullivan: Should we express confidence in the South Vietnamese ability to handle the situation?

Dr. Kissinger: One thing we can say is that we expect to lose territory and cities in the offensive.

Mr. Sullivan: I don’t think we should say we expect to lose cities.

Mr. Negroponte: We can say we expect losses.

Dr. Kissinger: That’s better. Use the word “losses.”

Adm. Moorer: We can also make a reference to the Tet offensive and say that you can’t draw conclusions in a short period of time.

Dr. Kissinger: No. Don’t invoke Tet at all. We had been predicting an offensive, and now they have launched one. The fact that we have been predicting it will help us.

Mr. Nutter: Abrams is saying that the lines will bend, but not break.

Mr. Sullivan: What should we do about Thieu’s proposal on the prisoners?

Dr. Kissinger: We were going to ask for a meeting on the 13th to discuss this proposal, but I don’t think that would be appropriate now. If the attacks continue, we shouldn’t ask for a meeting.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–116, Washington Special Actions Group, WSAG Minutes (Originals) 1–3–72 to 7–24–72. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room. All brackets are in the original. The WSAG met 18 times in April.
  2. Helms’s briefing, “The Situation in South Vietnam,” April 3, is ibid., Box H–085, Washington Special Actions Group Meetings, WSAG Meeting Vietnam 4/3/72.
  3. April 4.
  4. See Document 45.