82. Minutes of a Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • U Alexis Johnson
  • William Sullivan
  • Defense
  • Kenneth Rush
  • Armistead Selden
  • R/Adm. William Flanagan
  • JCS
  • Adm. Thomas Moorer
  • CIA
  • Richard Helms
  • George Carver
  • William Newton (only for Mr. Helms’ briefing)
  • NSC
  • Richard Kennedy
  • Mark Wandler


It was agreed that:

—The Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff should prepare a joint paper on replacements for ARVN equipment losses. The paper should include what we have learned about the mix of equipment being provided.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Helms) Dick, do you have anything for us?

Mr. Helms: Yes, but first I want to mention that the study you asked for on Soviet assistance to North Vietnam is in front of you.2

Mr. Kissinger: Does the study prove what we wanted it to prove, or should it be withdrawn?

Mr. Helms: It’s a little bit of both. [Reads attached briefing]3

Mr. Kissinger: [After Mr. Helms read that the North Vietnamese statement said U.S. bombing of Haiphong should be stopped]Did they say “should” or “must.”

[Page 263]

Mr. Helms: It says “should” here, but I think you can read it as “must.” [Continues to read his briefing.]

Mr. Kissinger: [After Mr. Helms read about the current situation at An Loc] What would the North Vietnamese have if they captured An Loc?

Mr. Helms: A provincial capital.

Adm. Moorer: (to Mr. Kissinger) You asked the other day about the slow movement of elements of the 1st ARVN Division up Highway 13. It was smart to move so deliberately because we now know that the 7th NVA Division was detailed to cut them off. The South Vietnamese are only seven kilometers from An Loc.

Mr. Sullivan: Where is the 5th NVA Division?

Adm. Moorer: It’s north of An Loc, and the 9th Division is to the west of the city.

Mr. Helms: [Finishes reading his briefing] I have one last item—a telegram from Saigon—which I want to read to you. It presents a new twist, but I think we should treat it with caution and prudence until we have a chance to check it out. [Reads telegram, gist of which is as follows: An Australian major, an arms expert, stationed at MACV made a trip to the Quang Tri area. He reported on April 15 that he looked at some captured equipment and that a tank which we believed was a Soviet T–54 was in fact a Chinese T–59.]

Mr. Kissinger: How could he tell it was a Chinese tank? Did the buttons go from top to bottom, instead of across?

Mr. Helms: The cable said this was the first evidence of Chinese tanks in Vietnam. We have also captured a Chinese-made rocket launcher, a solid state transmitter, rifles and a 100-mm tank round. The cable from Saigon says this information will be checked out today with Abrams and J–2.

Mr. Kissinger: Will you let us know as soon as you get a confirmation?

Mr. Helms: Yes.

Mr. Sullivan: [Referring to Mr. Helms’ briefing] You said the Soviet statement of protest to us mentioned damage to their ships.4 I don’t think they said that in public, though.

Mr. Johnson: No, they haven’t.

Mr. Sullivan: In the public statement, they just mentioned the barbarity of attacking Haiphong. I don’t think our press statements should say anything about damage to Soviet ships.

[Page 264]

Mr. Kennedy entered the room at this point.

Mr. Johnson: If the Soviets want to keep the ship business quiet, let’s help them do it. The Tass statement said nothing about ship damage. The press here and in Moscow assumes Tass’ statement contained the substance of the note to us. Let’s let it ride.

Mr. Kissinger: I agree. But the press is getting leary. Joseph Kraft called over here this morning, and he was amazed that the Soviets seem to be ducking a confrontation.

Adm. Moorer: The skipper of one of the Soviet ships sent a message to Moscow, which we intercepted. The message described some of the damage.

Mr. Rush: I thought we were not sure that the damage was caused by us.

Mr. Johnson: That’s right.

Adm. Moorer: The North Vietnamese fired over 200 missiles.

Mr. Johnson: There was a radio report this morning of an East German statement which said the Soviet ships were damaged as a result of our air attacks.

Adm. Moorer: That’s correct. But the German report was based on the report of the Soviet skipper, who also said all crews are seeking safety—a wise move.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Adm. Moorer) Tom, do you have anything to add?

Adm. Moorer: You had a briefing this morning. I will answer any questions you have, but I don’t want to be repetitious.

By and large, the South Vietnamese are now controlling An Loc, and they are conducting some probes outside the city. Although there is some heavy fighting, An Loc is not in immediate danger of falling.

Abe [General Abrams] sent in an evaluation of the ARVN forces in MR 1, giving high marks to the tank units. They started with 41 M–48s, and they still have 39 left. We are providing whatever spare parts they need. Abe also gave high marks to the Marines. According to him, they are ready. Parts of the 3rd Division are in good shape, too.

Generally speaking, he gave fair marks to the ARVN forces around the Cua Viet perimeter. Those were the main things in his message. Air activity is heavy, and the weather is good.

I have nothing else to add. We are going to review today how to supply the added ammunition which is needed as a result of the surge in activity. The South Vietnamese during the last 24 hours have been fighting well—and they are not in extremis.

Mr. Johnson: Are the South Vietnamese planning to initiate some action on the northern front?

Adm. Moorer: Yes. They are planning some moves in the Cua Viet area.

[Page 265]

Mr. Kissinger: We saw Lam’s offensive actions last year.

Adm. Moorer: At least he is not withdrawing now.

Mr. Kissinger: I know. I am satisfied that he is holding what he has. It’s just that I don’t think he is offensive-minded.

I want to bring up the subject of replacing South Vietnamese equipment losses again. Can we get an estimate of just what replacements the South Vietnamese need?

Adm. Moorer: We are taking vigorous action on this. Some of the equipment can be taken from stocks ear-marked for retrograde movement from South Vietnam.

Mr. Kissinger: We should also find out if the fighting shows weaknesses in the South Vietnamese supplies. Do they need heavier equipment, or different types of equipment? Some people were making the argument early on in the offensive that the North Vietnamese artillery was outdistancing ours.

Adm. Moorer: You’re talking about the 130-mm guns, but they are not being used very much during this offensive.

Mr. Kissinger: I have no views on this subject, and I don’t want to pass judgment on it. But I do think we should take advantage of the opportunity now to review the situation.

Adm. Moorer: I might mention that there was also something in the evaluation report from Abrams about the South Vietnamese artillery. The artillery, evidently, is well-manned, and morale is high. The one problem seems to be poor control. Our people are looking into this. The report, however, was complimentary to the ARVN artillery.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Rush) Ken, can you give us a memo on the equipment situation? I think we asked for one at the April 11 meeting. Anyway, the President asks me about it every day. Perhaps you can do a joint memo with Tom.

Mr. Rush: We’ll get to work on it.

Adm. Moorer: We’ll do a joint memo.

Mr. Kissinger: Good. On the press side, we don’t want to get drawn into an endless debate on who said what, when and where or what our conditions are for a resumption of negotiations. I assume the Secretary got some of these questions at this morning’s session [before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee].

Mr. Johnson: Yes, he did.

Mr. Kissinger: He was supposed to be very vague in answering those questions.

Mr. Johnson: He was.

Mr. Kissinger: We don’t want to debate The New York Times or the Washington Post either. The record is overwhelmingly clear on what happened to the negotiations.

[Page 266]

Mr. Sullivan: Bob [McCloskey] needs some guidance for the noon briefing. For example, we should know if the North Vietnamese statements about the resumption of meetings are factually correct.

Mr. Kissinger: They have publicly proposed a meeting for April 27.

Mr. Sullivan: The North Vietnamese said they sent us a note on April 15, proposing a meeting on April 27.5

Mr. Kissinger: The important thing to stress is that we agreed to resume the meetings. I showed the Secretary [Rogers] what we have done.

Mr. Sullivan: He is clear about what was done on April 1, 2, 4 and 6. The new element, though, is the latest North Vietnamese statement. Should Bob call them liars?

Mr. Kissinger: He should duck the issue. We know their proposal is to resume the meetings on April 27. Our position remains what it has been. Their note to us is irrelevant, anyway, because they made a public call for a meeting on the 27th.

Mr. Johnson: That’s right.

Mr. Sullivan: (to Mr. Carver) I haven’t seen the text of their statement today. Have you seen it?

Mr. Carver: Not yet.

Mr. Kissinger: We should say that they know how to talk to us. The channels are open. Their declarations are nothing but propaganda. They built up their forces for the offensive while we were trying to negotiate. All Porter ever asked for was business-like negotiations.

We have had a plethora of statements. The one today says that if the plenary sessions are resumed, Le Duc Tho will come back to Paris. I would say there is nothing new in this. In fact, we shouldn’t say anything. Their statement is propaganda. If they want to talk seriously, we are ready. And they know how to talk to us.

I’ve found that this posture is confusing to them. It’s better to say very little than to go back and forth confirming or denying everything they say.

Mr. Johnson: To change the subject, I have a message from Unger [U.S. Ambassador to Thailand]. I gather from the message that the Air Force is going to increase its deployments in Thailand. Unger is not questioning this, but he is asking if he should walk the Thais back on the closing of Takli airbase.

Adm. Moorer: We’re just making some preparatory investigations. As of now, no new forces are being ordered to Thailand. However, if [Page 267] we do have to send additional planes, we want to know if we can pack them into Korat and Udorn. The Air Force says we can squeeze two more squadrons in. We originally thought we may have to reopen Takli. The big problem is getting the Thais to truck the bombs and supplies up there. As you know, they have been operating at a high tempo at Korat and Udorn. We could pack one more squadron in Korat, and we could squeeze another squadron into Udorn. Beyond that, though, we would have to open up Takli.

Mr. Kissinger: How many planes are in a squadron? Eighteen?

Adm. Moorer: Yes. We’re just making an exploratory investigation—a prudent thing to do. No new units have been ordered to Thailand.

Mr. Johnson: I can tell Unger then that you are simply exploring what may be required later on. I can say you will be in touch with him if we have to move additional planes in?

Adm. Moorer: Yes.

Mr. Kissinger: Getting back to the press side, we should not be apologetic about the negotiations. We don’t want to give the impression, though, that we don’t want negotiations. We should point out the cynical behavior of the North Vietnamese—they know how to deal with us, but they are making propaganda.

I have not had time to read the paper on Soviet aid. Can you tell me what it proves?

Mr. Carver: It shows that there is a great deal of lead time between stockpiling aid and using this aid in tactical situations. It’s obvious that the Soviets tried to make up the Lam Son 719 losses. They must have been aware, too, that they were augmenting the North Vietnamese offensive capabilities. I doubt, though, that there was an orchestration between the step-up of aid and the launching of the offensive. The schedules indicate the aid requests were placed before Hanoi jelled its plans for the offensive.

Mr. Kissinger: When did Hanoi jell those plans?

Mr. Carver: The North Vietnamese probably decided late last summer to go to main force action in Vietnam this year. They probably decided in late September or October on the step-up of activity in Laos.

Mr. Kissinger: Isn’t time running out in Laos?

Mr. Carver: Yes. I would think they only have two or three weeks left.

Mr. Kissinger: Would the whole thing be worthwhile if they don’t take Long Tieng? Among other things, they had an extra division in Laos this year. Is it possible that they couldn’t take Long Tieng?

Mr. Carver: I don’t think they could take Long Tieng. The operation this year started out like a reprise of the 1970 operation. As you [Page 268] remember, for a period of 36 hours in 1970, they could have taken Long Tieng with a corporal’s guard. This year they rushed across the Plain of Jars in December and then paused. During that pause, the defense got set, and since then, they have not been able to push out.

Mr. Kissinger: From Hanoi’s point of view, is this a failure?

Mr. Carver: Yes, I think so. They put in two divisions, supplemented with extra regiments, tanks and heavy artillery. Still, they couldn’t take Long Tieng.

Mr. Helms: There’s no doubt, however, that they tried to take it.

Mr. Kissinger: You don’t think it was their intention to go only this far?

Mr. Carver: No.

Mr. Johnson: Would you say they made the maximum effort possible in Laos this year?

Mr. Carver: Yes.

Mr. Sullivan: I don’t think they made their last push yet.

Mr. Helms: You’re right. We can expect at least one more try.

Mr. Sullivan: They announced in January that they had taken Long Tieng. We may therefore have a situation similar to the one we had at Tchepone—where they made a premature announcement of its capture. They eventually did take Tchepone and hold it for a brief period of time.

Mr. Kissinger: Even if they capture Long Tieng, they won’t stay.

Mr. Carver: I think the fears we had in early December about them taking Long Tieng and threatening Vientiane have been dissipated. They will have to wait for next year in order to threaten Vientiane.

Mr. Kissinger: This war has its own rules. I remember when we had our first Laotian crisis, Alex told us to keep our shirts on. He said this goes back and forth every year—and he was right.

Mr. Johnson: Ever since 1954, it looks as though we are going to lose Laos every year—but Laos is still there every year.

Mr. Carver: Nevertheless, the pendulum swung closer than ever during this campaign.

Mr. Johnson: I know. I thought it might be different this year.

Mr. Kissinger: What will Hanoi do next year? It seems to me that they would have to do more than they did this year.

Mr. Carver: That depends on the outcome of the fighting in Vietnam and on the political equation. I doubt that Hanoi can be overly sanguine. I think they will have to materially augment the forces they had in Laos this year—and that won’t be easy.

Mr. Sullivan: For one thing, they would like to see the Symington ceiling lowered from $350 million to $150 million.

[Page 269]

Adm. Moorer: Our air activity around Long Tieng has played a significant role. We’ve dropped thousands of tons of bombs, and I’m sure the five regiments out there have suffered heavy casualties.

Mr. Sullivan: They don’t have much room to hide on the Skyline Ridge.

Mr. Kissinger: I am amazed that their morale has held up. It must be a harrowing experience to be caught in a B–52 attack.

Mr. Helms: There was a report [less than 1 line not declassified] that the North Vietnamese are chaining tank drivers to their seats.

Mr. Kissinger: Is that true?

Mr. Helms: It may be.

Adm. Moorer: I don’t know how true it is.

Mr. Kissinger: We had reports last year that they were getting drunk on rice wine in order to get up for battle. I thought we might get a comparative report between that and the Marines who were high on marijuana. (to Mr. Carver) You don’t think, then, that the increased Soviet aid shipments and the launching of the North Vietnamese offensive were part of an orchestrated plot?

Mr. Carver: No, I don’t.

Mr. Kissinger: But you think the Soviets knew they were increasing the North Vietnamese offensive capabilities.

Mr. Carver: Yes, I’m sure the Soviets knew.

Mr. Sullivan: The increased POL shipments alone should have told the Soviets that.

Mr. Carver: Of course. The Soviets knew the increased POL shipments had to augment the North Vietnamese capabilities.

Mr. Kissinger: We can say therefore one of three things: (1) that the Soviets didn’t know anything—that this was really the normal flow of aid; (2) that the Soviets knew the specific target date of the attack; and (3) that the Soviets didn’t know the specific date, but they did know they had given the North Vietnamese a considerable improvement of offensive capabilities.

Mr. Carver: I think number three is where we would come out.6 The supply shipments increased at the end of the summer, but Hanoi’s plans had not yet jelled.

[Page 270]

Mr. Kissinger: You mean the timing of the offensive, don’t you?

Mr. Carver: Yes.

Mr. Kissinger: But the Soviets knew their increased aid would certainly make it easier for the North Vietnamese to launch an offensive.

Mr. Carver: Of course they did.

Mr. Kissinger: I’m not trying to put words into your mouth. I’m just trying to understand the situation. Would it be correct to say that a prudent Soviet Government from January on—knowing that the Summit was approaching in May—might have known with each passing month that the coincidence between the Summit and the North Vietnamese offensive was becoming much sharper?

Mr. Carver: That’s correct. It’s also inconceivable that when Marshall Batiskiy left North Vietnam the Soviets did not know what was on Hanoi’s mind. The main task of the Batiskiy mission was to review the North Vietnamese air defenses—and they obviously did that because they knew they would have to use these defenses in the near future.

Mr. Rush: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the offensive was supposed to start in February and that all the supplies were in the pipeline. As the date slipped from February, could the Russians have done something to cut the pipeline—and stop the offensive, so that it would not interfere with the Summit?

Mr. Carver: It’s not that neat. Even if the Soviets did that, Hanoi could draw down on the existing stockpiles. You can’t plot the movement of a particular shipment to the tactical situation. The supply system doesn’t work like that.

Mr. Rush: Everything was all geared up for the February offensive, and the Russian and Chinese supplies were coming in. Did the supplies continue to come in when the offensive was delayed? The Russians could have been concerned about the delayed offensive coinciding with the Summit, and they may have cut the supply flow when they found out the offensive was delayed.

Mr. Carver: That didn’t happen. Anyway, the supply system is not that responsive.

Mr. Kissinger: Since February, though, the Russians should have been expecting the offensive with each passing week.

Mr. Helms: It’s interesting to look at the POL shipment line in our study.

Mr. Carver: You can see a very obvious surge in the line in the fourth quarter of 1971 and the first quarter of 1972.

Adm. Moorer: That’s due to several reasons. First, the North Vietnamese are using more trucks to deploy men and supplies. Second, they are operating more tanks—a long way from home, too. Third, they are flying the MiGs more often, and the MiGs gobble up fuel.

[Page 271]

Mr. Kissinger: Will our air strikes on Haiphong have much of an effect on POL distribution?

Adm. Moorer: The strikes won’t have much of an effect on this offensive. But the effects will be felt later on.

Mr. Rush: Let me repeat the question I asked earlier. Seeing the delay in the offensive and not wanting it to coincide with the Summit, couldn’t the Russians have cut the supply flow?

Mr. Carver: They could have done that. But if the cut had come after the first of the year, it would not have had any effect on Hanoi’s stocks.

Mr. Kissinger: They may not have known the exact day the North Vietnamese planned to launch the offensive. But sending a military mission to Hanoi a week before the offensive was no sign that they wanted Hanoi to call it off.

Mr. Carver: Even if the Soviets wanted Hanoi to call the offensive off, they would have taken much criticism from the North Vietnamese and the Chinese. There is simply no evidence that Batiskiy told the North Vietnamese to call it off—because of the Summit or any other reason.

Mr. Sullivan: The Soviets may have known the offensive was laid on for February, in the hope that it would cause us a maximum embarrassment during the China visit. Then, although the offensive was delayed, they were committed—and they couldn’t turn it around.

Mr. Kissinger: They wouldn’t tell Hanoi to let the offensive run to May 5, would they? They would have to let the offensive run its course.

Mr. Helms: That’s right. Once they are locked into something, they take their losses to the bitter end. They have to go all the way with the North Vietnamese. Otherwise, as the leading Communist power, they would be open for a great deal of criticism. When we went into Cambodia, we had a time limit for getting out. On the other hand, if the Russians had been in our place, they would have let the operation run its course. They are not subject to domestic pressures.

Adm. Moorer: The North Vietnamese are now shooting the works. They can go all out, and when they are finished they can be refurbished by the Soviets and the Chinese. They are not gambling because they know they won’t be invaded.

Mr. Kissinger: Assuming the North Vietnamese are defeated in the South, there is nothing the Russians could do in time for the Summit, even if they quadrupled their aid.

Mr. Rush: Is there anything the Russians could do to make the North Vietnamese disengage before the Summit?

Mr. Carver: No.

Adm. Moorer: George is right. But the Soviets could make sure the North Vietnamese don’t launch another offensive.

[Page 272]

Mr. Johnson: Won’t the Chinese pick up the shortfall in supplies if the Soviets let up?

Mr. Carver: The Chinese will pick up some of the shortfall.

Mr. Sullivan: I’m not sure the Chinese are totally behind what the North Vietnamese are doing. They support a protracted war strategy.

Mr. Carver: I don’t think the Chinese are anxious to see a big North Vietnamese victory.

Mr. Kissinger: You think the Chinese interest is to keep the war going?

Mr. Carver: The Chinese will not welcome a big North Vietnamese victory in the near future. If the war continues and the North Vietnamese are kept occupied on their southern borders, that will be okay with the Chinese.

Mr. Kissinger: Otherwise?

Mr. Carver: Otherwise, Hanoi might start flexing its muscles—in Thailand, for example. I’m not suggesting that Peking doesn’t want the North Vietnamese to win. It’s just that continued North Vietnamese concern for problems closer to home will not be a bad thing for Peking.

Mr. Kissinger: We’ll meet tomorrow at 10:00.

  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. Portions of the minutes are printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 118.
  2. See ibid., Document 117.
  3. Attached but not printed is the April 17 CIA briefing, “The Situation in South Vietnam.”
  4. The note is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 110.
  5. See Document 45.
  6. The Embassy, as reported in message 3568 from Moscow, April 17, agreed with the third option, stating: “Moscow is fully committed to provide DRV with means to conduct military operations in Indochina under conditions of Hanoi’s own choosing, including current offensive.” The message is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 115.