75. Minutes of a Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • U. Alexis Johnson
  • William Sullivan
  • Defense
  • Kenneth Rush
  • Warren Nutter
  • Maj. Gen. Fred Karhos
  • JCS
  • Adm. Thomas H. Moorer
  • CIA
  • George Carver
  • William Newton (for Mr. Carver briefing only)
  • NSC
  • Maj. Gen. Alexander Haig
  • Richard Kennedy
  • John Negroponte
  • Mark Wandler


It was agreed that:

  • —The State Department should call in the French Chargé and protest the French statement calling for a resumption of the negotiations.
  • —The two CIA papers will be discussed in detail at tomorrow’s meeting.
  • —The Defense Department will prepare for tomorrow’s meeting an assessment of the ARVN capabilities for the next three to five months.

[Omitted here are briefings by Helms and Moorer on the current military situation in Vietnam.]

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Johnson) Welcome back, Alex. Now we’ve got the first team again.

Adm. Moorer: The press reports about the situation in An Loc have been overstated. An Loc was never surrounded the way the Alamo was. The South Vietnamese have held well. They have the 21st Division in reserve north of Bien Hoa, and the airborne brigade has moved up the road.

[Page 241]

We’re not faced with a frontal assault on Saigon. Somebody asked me yesterday if it was true that the enemy was only 25 miles from Saigon. I answered: “The enemy’s always been 25 miles from Saigon.”

Mr. Kissinger: Has the weather improved?

Adm. Moorer: I just talked to Johnny (Vogt), and he tells me we will be making more of an effort in the air. By the way, our gunfire support ships have worked over Dong Hoi. They are moving their way up to Vinh. If I’m not mistaken, they’ve fired more than 9,000 rounds already.

Mr. Kissinger: Will more ships be coming on the line?

Adm. Moorer: Yes. It will end up looking like a Russian fishing fleet. All the ships we’ve ordered to Vietnam—including the Saratoga and the Newport News—have now left the U.S.

Mr. Johnson: How are we handling the fire control?

Adm. Moorer: For those ships south of the DMZ, it’s done with spotters who are ashore. For ships north of the DMZ, it’s done with FACs [Forward Air Controllers] when the weather permits and with radar when the weather is bad.

Mr. Kissinger: I just told McCloskey that you guys have finally figured out a way to keep me under control: the press doesn’t need any leads from the White House when McCloskey is briefing so well. We’ve received many compliments from the press on the way we’ve handled the PR side. McCloskey has been superb.

Mr. Sullivan: Are you aware of the Kalb [Marvin Kalb of CBS] story last night?

Mr. Kissinger: Yes. What happened?

Mr. Sullivan: Bob [McCloskey] put out—on background—figures on Soviet military aid to North Vietnam. He said he made it very clear that the figures did not include such things as trucks or POL—items we always include in the aid figures. Marvin obviously ignored this caveat. The story he put out made the point that Soviet aid to North Vietnam has been one-tenth of our aid to South Vietnam.

Mr. Kissinger: That was a mistake on Bob’s part. These things will always happen, though.

Mr. Sullivan: He will pick it up today.

Adm. Moorer: This is one of the things that always gets me. The Russians and Chinese are giving rice—and this means that every man in North Vietnam is available for military service.

Mr. Kissinger: Bob made a mistake.

Mr. Rush: [Gives paper to Mr. Kissinger] Here are the figures Bob released. Frankly, I was shocked when I saw them.

Mr. Kissinger: Why did he do it?

[Page 242]

Mr. Sullivan: It was the result of some slippage. He gave me a little note of explanation. The press, it seems, had carried some figures, and he asked INR for our figures.

Mr. Johnson: He will pick it up at the noon briefing today.

Mr. Kissinger: We’ve got to get off the figures. We always get in trouble when we start talking about figures. This is the sort of mistake that can happen at any time. Bob has really been superb.

[Omitted here is discussion of how to respond to the French statement favoring the resumption of negotiations.]

Adm. Moorer: As you know, I spent six hours on the Hill yesterday. The current Congressional attitude is very different from the attitude during the Cambodian operation and Lam Son 719.

Mr. Kissinger: I know. I saw Scott and Ford after the Republican Leadership meeting, and I had to slow them down. They were ready to go off and say that all of North Vietnam should be open for bombing. If the Republican leaders want to say that—and have to be stopped at the White House—that’s not a bad domestic situation.

At the meeting, we concentrated on talking about South Vietnam. We mentioned the optimism about halting the enemy drive, and we said we were only bombing military targets which were supporting the offensive. But the Congressional leaders hit us for not doing enough. There was not one question from the group, which admittedly was basically conservative.

Aiken accused the President of being too soft on the Catholic issue. He said the President wasn’t being hard enough. Frankly, I was astonished, given Aiken’s close friendship with Mansfield. He was one of the most hawkish guys there. The leaders said they and the public were behind us.

Adm. Moorer: I am going to be appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee today. What should I say?

Mr. Kissinger: You can say it is very obvious that this is not a civil war any more. The Communists are now waging a regular conventional war in South Vietnam. Whatever you have been saying in the past has been fine. All the Congressional leaders praised you.

During the Laos operation, the Congressional leadership said we had to get out because they couldn’t take it domestically. Brock was one of the most emphatic. Now they are telling us to do more. And I was prepared to be defensive.

Adm. Moorer: It’s a whole new ball game in Vietnam now.

Mr. Kissinger: Right—and that fact should be of use to us.

[Omitted here is additional discussion of the French statement about negotiations.]

[Page 243]

Are there any other issues we have to discuss? Our position on the Hill is good.

Mr. Carver: Symington was friendly to us at the CIA subcommittee meeting Stennis called last week for Symington’s benefit.

Mr. Kissinger: We’ve kept Scott and Ford from slamming the Russians.

Mr. Sullivan: Victor Zorza said in a recent column that there is a split between the Department and the White House.2 I don’t know if you’ve seen the column. It says the White House and Defense emphasize linkage, but State doesn’t want to.

Mr. Kissinger: I haven’t seen the column. But I do know we’ve all been together on this. There has been a minimum of backbiting.

Mr. Nutter: This was really about linkage between economic matters and political issues.

Mr. Sullivan: If the question is raised during the briefing, McCloskey will deny it.

Mr. Kissinger: Good. We probably don’t have time today to discuss the two CIA papers. I’m sorry because I know you did a lot of work over the weekend. Can we discuss them tomorrow?

All agreed.

Mr. Kissinger: Let me just ask you, though, if you think there is anything in them which will cause us to reassess our position?

Mr. Carver: No.

Adm. Moorer: I agree with George.

Mr. Carver: We did the studies jointly with DIA, so I don’t think there are any disagreements within the community.

Mr. Rush: There’s one slight disagreement, I believe. As I understand it, DIA feels the enemy can sustain operations for one to two months, while you think he can do it for three months.

Mr. Johnson: You didn’t deal with the ARVN capabilities or the weather variables in the studies, did you?

Mr. Carver: No. We just concluded that for the next three months they won’t have serious logistical constraints.

Mr. Kissinger: You say they may put off launching an offensive in MR 2 until late May or early June. Why?

Mr. Carver: This wouldn’t be by choice, but because they are not ready. If they do wait until late May or June, the weather will be bad—and that will cut both ways.

[Page 244]

Mr. Kissinger: Do you think they would open a new front while we are in Moscow?

Mr. Carver: Yes, it’s possible.

Adm. Moorer: They’ve already got tanks and artillery out there.

Mr. Kissinger: What sort of an attack would it be? Won’t the ground turn to mud?

Mr. Carver: It will. And they may have to abandon much of their equipment if they are defeated.

Mr. Kissinger: Even if they win, won’t they have to abandon a lot of equipment?

Mr. Carver: Yes. But I think the political gains would be worth it. They would take equipment losses if they could seize and control territory. The equipment losses can always be made up.

Mr. Kissinger: Do you think they will deliberately wait until late May or June to launch the attack on Kontum?

Mr. Carver: No. I think they wanted to launch the attack earlier, but the 320th Division was not ready to move. My point now is that they may persist and launch the attack, anyway, despite the rain.

Mr. Sullivan: I noticed you didn’t mention the 2nd Division in the study. How come?

Mr. Carver: We mentioned the division in passing, I think. The main threat in the Highlands comes from the 320th Division, plus a few other units.

Adm. Moorer: That’s right. An additional regiment and a tank battalion have joined the 320th. There are also two other divisions in the area. The 320th, though, has taken heavy casualties, and it is down to half its complement.

Mr. Carver: Its combat record isn’t so good, either.

Mr. Kissinger: Your conclusion, then, is that there are no logistical constraints on the enemy.

Mr. Carver: Let me put it this way. The logistical constraints will not make them call off what they had intended to do.

Mr. Kissinger: What about the weather? Could that have an effect?

Mr. Carver: It could. But we don’t think the weather would necessarily inhibit them from launching an attack in MR 2 in early May.

Mr. Kissinger: What about in June?

Mr. Carver: That depends on how far forward they are. If the artillery is forward and ready to salvo Kontum and Pleiku, they can go ahead with the attack. If their equipment is not far forward, it would be difficult for them to launch the attack. If they have to move five [Page 245] kilometers, it is one thing. But if they have to deploy their equipment 25 or 30 kilometers in the rain, it would become an iffy proposition.

Operations in the Kontum area are conducted off one main road. You can move men through the trails, but you need a road for the 130-mm field guns, which are, as you know, on tracked vehicles. You can’t move them long distances without a road.

Mr. Kissinger: When those guns fire, we will know where they are—and we should be able to knock them out. Your study doesn’t take into account the weather, the political context or the ARVN capabilities. I would like to discuss tomorrow the net balance. Can we do that?

All agreed.

Mr. Kissinger: Will the enemy have logistic difficulties in MR 1?

Mr. Carver: No, not too much—mainly because of relatively short supply and communications lines. This leads to discussion of two separate—but related points—on logistical capabilities, especially in MR 1. As Adm. Moorer said, the North Vietnamese are operating from the supply tail, rather than the nose, in MR 1. The first point is the amount available, and the second is the distribution. They can have all the ammunition they need, for example, in Quang Tri Province. But what counts is the distribution of that ammunition to the right unit at the right time. Our air strikes are a very effective means of disrupting the distribution.

In general, the enemy supply losses in MR 1 will not drawdown the area inventory, which can be augmented fairly easily from North Vietnam.

Mr. Sullivan: You feel they launched the offensive now—rather than wait until next year—because they thought the determination of the South Vietnamese would work against them?

Mr. Carver: Yes. However, there is a split in the community about that. I am persuaded that the thesis which says they would be better off waiting until next year is a loser. The strength of Thieu and the South Vietnamese has created a situation where it is no longer possible, in my belief, for the North Vietnamese to wait.

Mr. Kissinger: If they don’t have a spectacular success, it will be bad for them.

Mr. Carver: That’s right. They have much to win, with a big success. On the other hand, they can also suffer big losses. There is a lot of talk about the Tet 68 offensive—which is really shorthand for four series of attacks: February, 1968; May, 1968; August, 1968; and February, 1969. When all the accounts were finally balanced, it was agreed that the Communists suffered a total defeat in terms of administration and organization.

[Page 246]

It’s too early to make predictions about what will happen now. We can expect a three, five or six-month cycle of attacks.

Mr. Kissinger: Where did the fighting take place in May, 1968?

Mr. Carver: In MR 3, for the most part. But there was also fighting in the Delta and in MR 2.

Mr. Kissinger: What happened in August?

Mr. Carver: That’s when the North Vietnamese attempted to overrun Bien Hoa airbase. That attack was the first tip we had about the degradation they were suffering. Three regiments attacked the base. One got there on time, one was badly hit by artillery and one was lost—it never got there. The execution of the attack was very sloppy.

Mr. Kissinger: The regiment that got lost is now with the 5th ARVN Division.

Mr. Sullivan: It’s still lost.

Mr. Kissinger: Can General Minh handle the III Corps?

Adm. Moorer: Yes, I think so. It’s unfortunate that Thieu won’t release him from the Saigon area.

Mr. Sullivan: He has been released. General Khang is taking over Saigon.

Adm. Moorer: Good. He should do better, but he is more conservative than Tri [the late general].

Mr. Carver: Even if the North Vietnamese are defeated, it won’t drive them to the negotiating table, although it will probably create stress in the leadership. In fact, it may cost Le Duan his job.

Mr. Kissinger: Do you think he is responsible for the offensive?

Mr. Carver: Yes. It’s his war. He’s the First Secretary of the Party, and he is responsible for the overall strategy.

Mr. Sullivan: (to Mr. Kissinger) He will be in Moscow one week before you.

Mr. Johnson: I don’t think there is anything that will drive them to the negotiating table. If the offensive fails, they will probably go back to the strategy of protracted war.

Mr. Kissinger: They finally discovered that we were leaving last year. If we are not run out now, though, they won’t be able to make it later on. If this offensive fails, it will mean that they cannot make it as long as we have some forces there. Suppose we get out. They could have two years of peace and then resume protracted war. Why should they wait, though, if they are confident they can win this year?

Mr. Sullivan: That’s the reason for the conventional attack now. They see their assets in South Vietnam wasting away, and they feel it is now or never.

[Page 247]

Mr. Kissinger: If they are defeated now, there is a chance they may decide to negotiate.3

Mr. Carver: If they are defeated, there will certainly be stress on the North Vietnamese leadership. Several things could then happen which would offset judgments we have made. A defeat would probably cause them to rethink their strategy, but it would not make them give up their objective of controlling South Vietnam.

Mr. Kissinger: Of course not.

Mr. Carver: They tried the big war strategy in 1968 and 1969—and it failed. Then they went to the local war strategy, which did not work. Now they are attempting the big war strategy again. However, we must remember that they have not yet played all of their cards.

Mr. Kissinger: What do you mean?

Mr. Carver: Their units are deployed, but some of them have not yet been put into action. If the big war strategy doesn’t work now, the drawing board will be blank.

Mr. Kissinger: And if it doesn’t work, it will be because the South Vietnamese ground actions prevented it from working.

Mr. Carver: Exactly. That will cause great heartburn in Hanoi. In addition, the RF and PF forces have played a role in stopping the enemy sapper attacks.

Mr. Kissinger: The only thing preventing negotiations is our refusal to put a Communist government in Saigon, or to put in a government which will certainly be overthrown by the Communists. All the other issues are merely debating points.

The North Vietnamese have three objectives: (1) overthrow Thieu and the Saigon government; (2) failing that, get us to do it; and (3) failing that, go through a phase where they will accept some elements of the Saigon government, but where they will eventually overthrow the government.

They have underestimated the strength of Thieu and the Saigon government, and they may have overestimated the degree of pliability the President has in this election year. If the first two options fail, they may decide to negotiate this year.

Mr. Carver: There is a lot to what you say. But Option 3 is not a sure thing for them. It is a gamble. They gambled in 1954, you know, when the odds were a lot worse—and they lost.

[Page 248]

Mr. Kissinger: What other options do they have? If the offensive is defeated and if the President is re-elected, they will face four more years of U.S. air power.

Mr. Sullivan: Even so, they would still have enough assets to conduct a protracted war.

Mr. Kissinger: But maybe they can do better with a settlement.

Mr. Sullivan: It’s possible they might authorize friends to put out some feelers for them.

Mr. Carver: They may also prefer to accept the present situation, too.

Mr. Kissinger: The war has been going on for ten years. How is the morale in the North? Can they keep it up much longer?

Mr. Carver: They are having increasing difficulty.

Mr. Johnson: The war won’t end in a clear-cut way. It will be ambiguous.

Mr. Sullivan: It’s won’t be ambiguous in MR 1.

Mr. Kissinger: If they don’t take Hue and Danang, the offensive in MR 1 will be a failure.

Mr. Carver: That’s right. And if they don’t take Kontum, it will be a failure in MR 2. If they don’t threaten Saigon, it will be a failure in MR 3. The South Vietnamese population will come to the conclusion that the North Vietnamese have tried their best—but that it wasn’t enough. They will then conclude the North Vietnamese are not so strong, after all.

Mr. Johnson: Your assumptions are very clear-cut. The situation could be more ambiguous, and the Communists could do something to improve their infrastructure in South Vietnam.

Mr. Carver: We think the Communists are in the position we used to be in: if they don’t win a clear-cut victory, they lose.

Mr. Kissinger: This has been interesting. Let’s talk about the papers in more detail tomorrow. Let’s also get an assessment of the ARVN capabilities for the next three to five months.

Mr. Carver: Shouldn’t Defense do that?

Mr. Kissinger: Yes.

Adm. Moorer: We’ll do it.

  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, except those that indicate the omission of text, are in the original.
  2. See Zorza, “Nixon Weighing Soviet Viet Role” in The Washington Post, April 12, 1972, p. A19.
  3. In a memorandum later that day to Helms, Carver informed him of his discussion with Kissinger on this topic: “Kissinger would like to believe that if the offensive flops, serious negotiations will become the most attractive option for the Vietnamese Communist Party. I argued forcefully but respectfully that this was not necessarily the case.” (Central Intelligence Agency, Files of the Deputy Director for Intelligence, Job 80–B01673R, Box 3, WSAG Meetings)