182. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • The President
  • The Secretary of State
  • Senator Dewey F. Bartlett (Oklahoma)
  • Congressman John J. Flynt, Jr. (Georgia)
  • Congressman William Chappell, Jr. (Florida)
  • Congressman Donald M. Fraser (Minnesota)
  • Congressman Paul N. McCloskey (California)
  • Congresswoman Bella S. Abzug (New York) (arrived late)
  • Congressman John P. Murtha (Pennsylvania)
  • Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick (New Jersey)
  • Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, National Security Council
  • Assistant Secretary of State, Philip C. Habib

President: Let me say at the outset that I am pleased to see all of you and I am sorry Bella did not get here. I think the group’s going to Indochina is a great asset.2 The ones who went were a good [Page 661]cross-section of Congress and your views are indicative of that cross-section of views. I want to thank Assistant Secretary Habib for going and I am sure he was helpful to you. I ask that you give Dr. Kissinger and me your observations and any recommendations you may have.

Flynt: On behalf of my colleagues I will start but everyone will participate. We were manifestly shaken and impressed by what we saw. Fraser and I did not go to Cambodia. I had an earlier appointment with Big Minh, who used to be the commander of the forces in South Viet-Nam. He was going out of town and I went to see him. I am glad I did see him as that will be part of my report.

The first point I would like to make is that the questions of Viet-Nam and Cambodia must be treated separately. There are substantive differences in each case. The second point I want to make is that the Cambodian problem is of extremely short range.

On the Viet-Nam side of the coin, it is of longer duration. We talk in terms of two or three years. I would like to see them stand on their own feet in the next 2–3 years. That may be overly optimistic. As we have discovered over the years, publicly and privately, we have had a common goal. For years we fought side by side and even as that changed our objectives were the same. The history of Viet-Nam has been a series of mistakes, tragic mistakes. Our task is to convince the United States public and Congress not to make the last mistake, not to abruptly terminate sufficient military and economic aid which could become the most tragic mistake in a series of tragic mistakes. In my part of the country, where we have supported the situation, involvement has waned and been replaced by reluctance bordering on opposition. All of us have the difficult job of convincing Congress and the people that we cannot drop the ball. We have too much investment in lives, time and material. I wish we could report we have solutions. I have no panacea to suggest, but in concert with my colleagues I hope we can, by give and take, come up with a consensus.

President: Do you anticipate making a report to the leaders of Congress? That would be helpful.

Flynt: That is our intention, but we are limited by lack of sufficient staff. We did make a report to Otto Passman’s Committee.

President: Did Otto listen or do all the talking?

Flynt: He listened because he wanted his colleagues to hear us.

President: I served twelve years on that sub-committee. Has he changed?

Chappell: No, he still dances around.

Bartlett: I will try not to cover the same ground as Mr. Flynt. I see a need for military aid in Cambodia quickly so that they can expand the perimeter and hope for a political settlement. Without that hope, [Page 662]there will be a bloodbath. In South Viet-Nam I consider the over-all painful options. I have some concern about the three-year proposal because it gives the impression that all would be over in three years. There needs to be some kind of commitment that takes into account what comes in from Russia and China, taking into account the needs for defense. We should not be pro- or anti-Thieu in the coming election, but we should insist on the broadening of the base of the Government to bring about free elections. This would require the appointment to the Cabinet of leaders from the non-Communist group. Corruption should be ferreted out, there should be freedom of the press and proper use of the courts and police. This will help them to develop their resolve and will strengthen their capability to develop in peace.

(Mrs. Abzug entered at this point): I am sorry I am late.

Bartlett: I remember Mr. Sung said to me that at one time his dream was that Viet-Nam would be one nation without communism. That changed to a South Viet-Nam without communism and now he is thinking of a South Viet-Nam as a free institution, with guaranteed rights and including Communists.

President: Did you find Thieu agreeable to any of these suggestions?

Bartlett: All of my conversations on this subject took place on the last day we were in Saigon. They included discussions with Professor Huy and former Prime Minister Ky, both of whom agreed that Thieu should broaden his Government and bring into it all non-Communists.

Flynt: Chappell and I talked to President Thieu about an hour before we left. We were reluctant to do so but we had been asked to by several anti-Thieu, anti-Communist, but loyal South Vietnamese—one of whom was Professor Huy and one was General Minh. As best we could communicate to President Thieu, we suggested that he broaden his base and take advice from people personally loyal to South Viet-Nam but not strongly associated with him. We don’t know whether he got the message.

McCloskey: I concentrated on the military situation. This was my fourth time in Viet-Nam and I was surprised by the success that was evident. Ninety-eight percent of what I saw was a success and I was surprised by the capability of the Vietnamese Army. They are holding off the North Vietnamese and the VC without the firepower of the B–52’s and U.S. forces. I saw two regiments near Danang that were holding an area that five U.S. regiments previously held. But the South Vietnamese are outnumbered by the North and the North has the will to prevail and is putting its troups down into the South. We were all impressed that South Viet-Nam would be successful if it were independent. The problem is that the will to fight and the terrain favors the North. There has been a shift to the VC in the Delta of 10% of the population.

[Page 663]

On Cambodia, we agree to support your request because we believe that if the perimeter is cracked people will be butchered. We talked to the refugees who told us about people being killed. Atrocity stories about nails being pounded into the heads. I cannot tell you whether the perimeter will hold.

There is a difference in our figures and those of the Department of Defense on what is required. They are asking for the same amount of ammunition that is used in Viet-Nam, 650 tons per day whereas 1/6 of the men are engaged. That is why we decided to recommend $116 million for Cambodia instead of the $222 million requested. It is a close question of whether we can get through.

President: Logistically?

McCloskey: Both logistically and with votes. I would like to recommend that you withdraw the $300 million request for Viet-Nam. Failure to get it will hurt us in Southeast Asia. Both sides look at what Congress does. The estimate is gloomy. The North Vietnamese are going to win.

President: Whether we aid them or not?

McCloskey: We gave them $3.2 million in 1973, $1.3 million in 1974 and $1.3 million this year—if all goes through. There is no possibility of an increase. We will give you the votes to phase out the program, but not higher amounts. People in the South are shooting up ammunition at a rate seven times that of the North. The North is using a thousand tons per month and can use those thousand tons, but the South wants to use 54 thousand tons. We cannot support that level. We cannot support giving the South the same amount that the North gets from the Soviet Union and China. So it is difficult for the South to prevail. If we are going to get negotiations, Mr. Secretary, you should force them to a political struggle, because I see no hope over three years.

Fraser: On Cambodia it seems to me all that is left is to negotiate an orderly transition of power to the insurgents. We have the impression we are trying to get more than that. We should ask someone like the French or Waldheim and see what terms it would take for a surrender. If our expectations are high, we may be unrealistic. If I were satisfied that we were doing the right thing, I would consider it. Otherwise we are merely continuing the war and next year it would start all over again.

On Vietnam, we have no ability to affect the political situation or the situation in the villages, and we concentrate on the main forces. I received reliable reports that the VC infrastructure is coming back. It is a smoldering fire. Six hundred thousand people came under their control in one month—an overall 10% shift in population but actually a doubling of the population under VC control. The criticism of President Thieu is rising sharply and there are economic difficulties. Thieu [Page 664]is associated with corruption, which is a major political factor. People who were for Thieu in 1971 are now against him.

I went over there to see what the situation is like. Now I am for a general phase out. I would be willing to support more aid if Viet-Nam were moving toward traditional values. The problem is the United States is supporting a regime without regard to our traditional factors. I don’t like to tell a country what to do, but if they did move politically to open up it might be easier to get a political accommodation.

The Ambassador we have in Viet-Nam is a first-rate disaster. He is inflexible and is a total spokesman of the Thieu regime. I cannot believe he is an adequate representative for yourself or for the United States. I have talked to others about him and get the same impression. I think he is a problem.

Flynt: Along the lines of the last statement, I believe we must become more realistic on Viet-Nam. We received substantial reports from Embassy personnel that they are almost prohibited from sending reports to the Ambassador which he does not wish to hear. I must agree he is stifling information which he does not wish to hear. The same is true of the CIA. Pete McCloskey agrees.

Chappell: I saw the same things as the others, but I did not come to the same conclusions. I had a most significant visit with Mr. Buu of the Labor Federation. He lost a son in the war. While he opposes Thieu he told us he went all the way with any group that is against Communists. He is a strong anti-Communist. He expressed concern that Thieu was not keeping doors open to the dissidents. He realizes that some are not good, and lean to the other side. While he was critical he still wants to work with Thieu and he asked us to say this to him. We did and Thieu said he would talk to Buu.

President: Is organized labor a major factor in South Viet-Nam?

Chappell: They are an important influence. This man was extremely well-informed and a good contact. He said he had 1½ million members.

Flynt: That may be an exaggeration.

Chappell: Organized labor is still an important factor and can be influential.

Flynt: We have no disagreement on substance.

Chappell: I look at the military factors. I went to the front with General Truong who is very competent. I found high morale and high competence. The defenses were substantial and in general I feel South Viet-Nam has an undeniably strong will to defend itself against the Communists, and I am willing to vote to support them. This is a country which I feared was a welfare leech. I now think there is a good chance they can support themselves, having become self-sufficient in rice and there is oil exploration going on.

[Page 665]

President: Do they have a refinery capacity there?

Chappell: Not yet. With oil exploration work in the countryside, and the increase in production, I say they are on an upward trend as far as their economy is concerned. We would make a serious mistake if we did not give aid which they need. They are not asking for an open end in aid. There are no troops in Viet-Nam as in Europe. Thieu said if we help him in the transition period, he will be able to take care of their needs, and I think he is right. So, while the last time I was reluctant to support aid, I now strongly feel we should do all we can. We need to get the facts before the country.

Cambodia is very critical. The best hope is for a negotiated peace, but we need to get help there quickly. It is useless to send food and medicine without ammunition. We found substantial willingness on the part of the soldiers to do the job. The generals are good and the soldiers have a determination to stay with it. Desertion has been decreasing instead of worsening. We should give now to get help to them, so that they can make it through the rainy season. If they can hold their position around Phnom Penh and then open the river, it just might work. We should then look at it again later on. I believe they will hold if we can keep the airport open.

We had the vote in the Appropriation Committee 7–6 or 8–5. I thought we had Coughlin. I had a feeling it was all right, but we will be stronger if we get it with the Authorization Committee and avoid a fight in the Rules Committee. We need to push in the Foreign Affairs Committee.

President: 7–6 or 8–5 in favor?

Chappell: Yes.

Fraser: According to a military briefing, South Viet-Nam may lose two or three provinces and Hue could be isolated. If that happens, it will look as if Viet-Nam is coming apart at the seams and that will lead people to want to write it off.

President: If that happened, should the result be that the United States do less or the United States should try to do more to prevent it?

Fraser: My impression is that there is not much difference. I am prepared to do a slow phaseout, but I was pointing out this could be a problem.

McCloskey: There are seven reserve divisions above the DMZ. Three are alerted to move. Truong said that if two of these move they would take Hue and threaten Danang. If they commit them, South Viet-Nam could lose three provinces.

Bartlett: One thing that impressed all of us was the fact that the refugees in Cambodia were all worrying about the savagery of the Communists and this influenced our thinking. So if there were a military [Page 666]victory by the Khmer Communists, it would be bloody. We should carve out more for medical needs in military aid. We should meet their needs.

Kissinger: I have to leave because I am on my way to the Middle East. I would like to say one word before I go. First with respect to Cambodia, the tragedy we face is the dissension in this country which has produced the situation. Whereas if we can demonstrate that in June and July of 1973 we had negotiations in our grasp, we had China ready to work as a intermediary for the first time. You will remember this was the time of Watergate and there was no good communication with the Congress. Congress cut off the bombing. If they had held off for three months, we would have been in touch with Sihanouk. Within three days of the bombing halt the Chinese refused to pass messages to Sihanouk which we were handing over.

We never put enough in Cambodia to win a military victory. We never did enough to bring it to a conclusion. The events in 1973 were a tragedy. Right now the question is whether the United States can have it on its conscience not to send in arms to a people trying to defend themselves. We have been trying with the Chinese and others for months. I agree that it must be liquidated by negotiations. We have been trying since October. We had it in our grasp in July 1973.

Since October we are continuing our efforts. We know that Sihanouk has to come back. What is keeping Sihanouk from coming back is the Communists. If there was anything left to Cambodia that Sihanouk could get, he would get it. If we can get through the rainy season, the key will be Sihanouk. The question is whether or not the United States can pull the plug and have it on our conscience.

On Viet-Nam, it was my misfortune to negotiate that with the North Vietnamese for four years. They are hard cases. I wish I could agree to get a political solution instead of a military solution. It was not possible to negotiate a political solution with them without a strong military situation. They are the most devoted, single-minded abrasive Communists I have ever seen. I once took Le Duc Tho to a museum in Hanoi which he had never visited himself. All of the artifacts reminded him of prisons where he had been. We saw something from Vinh and he said that was a good prison but a miserable jailer. He is a dedicated revolutionary. They are hard cases and in some ways rather admirable. Le Duc Tho and all the others have fought all their lives. They will not give up, unless they have to. They must run out. Look at the political options they put forward. For years they said they would not accept Thieu and then they did. Now they say they will not accept the Government of Thieu again.

I agree with Don Fraser, in five years we may see Viet-Nam as we see Cambodia today. We can put in enough or not enough. The [Page 667]strategy problem of South Viet-Nam is different. The North Vietnamese can concentrate on one province and make one victory and it sets up a roller coaster effect. Their casualties can go up, there can be riots which could make the Government become more repressive, and we would then say that they should broaden their base and then they would not. So if aid is given, we have to face the possibility of a phase-out. I do not like it, but if it has to be done it should be high enough to be relevant to the job. Vietnamization is over with. In Viet-Nam there is a chance. Maybe all the past has been wrong but in the process millions of South Vietnamese have been engaged. We have no legal commitment to give aid. But having negotiated it, there is a strong moral commitment. In 1972 and 1973 everyone said they would fight among themselves. We did tell them—there were no promises—the United States Congress would do enough to help them.

As far as the three-year program is concerned, I have designated Habib to work it out, but it must be done right. We have to give enough to succeed rather than produce a lingering death. The domino theory is unpopular, but when other countries look at it and see U.S. involvement in 1945 and then look at what has happened, other countries see the United States providing no arms for Cambodia and no help for South Viet-Nam, the impact will be strong. Whether we get the bill or not, I do not think we should shave it too close.

President: Henry is leaving, I will want to see him off. I will be back shortly. All of you know of my deep personal conviction. More of you have disagreed with me than have agreed with me. From the beginning I felt we should have a strong worthwhile policy of helping those who help themselves, including Viet-Nam and Cambodia. I have learned more. I have learned of our negotiating efforts. When Phil Habib went up to give the details to the leadership, Cliff Case called and urged me to expose the record to the public. He urged me to ask Congress to act now on Cambodia. I feel obligated to ask Congress to act now. With the help of Cliff and others, I hope we can act now. With all we have done, it will become a blot on the conscience of the United States. I have talked to Senators Church and Pearson. They took my statement on three years with an adequate program which would end our aid. I agreed to negotiate a figure. If we are going to have a three-year program, we need to do it and do it well. Not by drips. Otherwise there would be an adverse reaction in Southeast Asia. We will have domino effect whether we like it or not, so I will work on Cambodia and Viet-Nam and find an answer we think is right.

(The President and Secretary Kissinger left the room. After a few minutes the President returned to the meeting.)

President: Okay Bella.

[Page 668]

Abzug: My trip was important to me. You know of my longstanding opposition. It gave me insights. The tragedy of Cambodia was that we visited on them a war of our doing. I see it in different terms, as a humanitarian obligation. I do not see it in military terms. Our negotiating stance must be to protect those who may be targets of retribution. That would be understandable. Our giving aid when faced with our own problems would not be understandable, but giving humanitarian aid would be acceptable. Congress is not ready but we should change the emphasis, not to have military slaughter which would be the greatest hardship. The situation is lost and I want to minimize additional slaughter. You continue a bloodbath by war, in other ways too. So we should address ourselves to the humane problem and protect them during the takeover. This makes it a realistic proposal. A moral obligation can be made on both levels. Protection in case of a changeover and humanitarian aid.

President: The only question is if we could declare humanitarian aid and shut off military operations. But, unfortunately we cannot make clear breaks by compartments.

Abzug: We can if we make a statement that we are going to resolve the problem in a peaceful way.

President: I don’t know whether you have seen the chronological statement of efforts to negotiate. I can assure you they have been pursued and will continue to be pursued.

Abzug: There is a reality in suffering and I, who oppose, will do what I can. If we hand out military aid it will add to the suffering.

On Viet-Nam, the difficulty I have on the phase-out program is that it is unrealistic. Because I think continuing aid will stiffen the other side and their supporters. I think there is instability underneath and a reluctance on the part of the other side to deal with Thieu. There is also a reluctance to consider the Government without him, and unless an effort is used to obtain a broader-based Government without him, I think progress will not be viable. You can’t tell me the other side will not accede. So our stance must be changed. Our Government can use our relations with Russia and China to make a different approach.

The Ambassador has not reflected a meaningful independent position. We have not been properly represented. We have to convince Congress and the people. And we need to show them a different approach. We behave as if it is still our war and seek a victory. We should try to bring about a solution that includes all elements. We will not accomplish that in a military approach.

Murtha: We need a victory there. From an historical standpoint the United States should have a victory there. Take Indonesia for example, which is rich in resources. If North Viet-Nam and South Viet-Nam were combined, they would have a dedicated army to dominate that area. We have a strong economic interest and we have given our word.

[Page 669]

I went to visit the area where I was for a year in the Marines. General Truong said he was cut back to the bone because of limited supplies. The United States was spending 6,000 tons per day but the Vietnamese are using only 800 tons per day in the same area. The Vietnamese battalion will use up three radio batteries per month whereas we used to draw 9. They are using two hand grenades instead of 5 per man, so he has limited strength to defend. They strictly conserve on artillery. They worry about losing land and increasing casualties. The reason the North Vietnamese action is increasing is because the South Vietnamese have to restrict their actions. They cannot operate in sanctuaries because they have less mobility. It will be a disgrace if we do not give aid. In five years we will end up with an historical blot. Kissinger said to Thieu we would furnish aid. We have an obligation to fulfill it.

President: When were you in Viet-Nam?

Murtha: In 1966. I drove down to Hoi An and the security was good, and it is because of U.S. aid.

Fenwick: For many reasons, not only my campaign promises, but also for my convictions as well, I have been against military aid for many years. It was hard on this trip as I am shaken in my resolution. Cambodia is the third act of a tragedy. China is the key. So long as China furnishes bullets, we are going to have war. I know what efforts you have made. We must redouble our efforts until we find out what China wants.

We say that the Government is inept and corrupt, but that we will provide aid. I am prepared to do so under certain conditions, as part of a plan for peace. If we can hold off until the rainy season, I would vote for ammunition. If we could get people out in the meantime—such as civil servants, teachers, refugees—I would vote for ammunition. If it is part of some program which would use the Mekong to get out. If we could have a plan to take care of the pitiful people, teachers, lawyers, civil servants, refugees. I don’t know what we could do for the millions of refugees, but that kind of responsible action I could conceive would receive acceptance.

Viet-Nam is more complex. I spoke to many dissidents. We did not ask every person if they wanted Communism in Viet-Nam, but of those we did ask, not one did. No dissidents, nor people in prison, etc. What are we going to do to resolve this? I have not made up my mind. I do not say we are going to give them any benefit by allowing Communism to take over. I am not prepared to support Thieu. As far as his press laws are concerned, we should request that he repeal them. The party law is such that it makes it difficult for the people to register a voice. One has the feeling that he only wants to have a one party election. I spoke to Ambassador Martin and he said there is some chance [Page 670]that the appropriate law would be passed. We need an international election team to be present. Ambassador Martin says Thieu will win a free election. Why then won’t Thieu do this?

Corruption is an issue. Thieu got rid of some people. There are other parties in Viet-Nam that are independent. There is an opposition in the legislature. The elements of some kind of a viable government are not lacking. There are no mass parties, only mass groups like the Buddhists, Catholics and the Cao Dai. We ought to put a person in charge of anti-corruption, maybe a political figure.

If you asked who could replace Thieu, that is an unsettling question because there is no one. I find myself sharing McCloskey and Fraser’s view—that is we can’t vote money without seeing a viable solution. We need a plan. For example in Cambodia, we should get in touch with the UN.

The PRG gave me their terms. Forget it. They asked us to get rid of Thieu and stop aid. They said the Paris Accords are not a reality. They will have to be renegotiated.

I cannot go along with the idea of a phased-out aid program. I cannot see where it leads. The reality is China, whether or not it supplies the arms.

President: If you have reservations about a phase-out, would you stop period?

Fenwick: Not so. I will regret my vote no matter which way I vote.

President: Let me reiterate. I am grateful that you went, including those who came back with unfavorable views. I am impressed with the suggestions. We will take them into consideration—some of the important suggestions. If we could sort them out as clear-cut, but I am afraid I feel the United States must make a maximum effort, including some of what you suggested. We need to be forthright and strong in Cambodia, moving toward negotiations. In Viet-Nam the three-year aid cut-off must be adequately financed. It has better than a 50–50 chance. As I look at the past, present and future, our country must be strong and forthright and at the same time as humane and flexible as we can be.

Flynt: Most of us want to support you as much as we can.

President: You will be influential.

Fraser: I have a suggestion. Would you find it useful to bring in as consideration for policy some people who could serve in an advisory role? Responsible people who come to the problem with a different approach and who can help, like Paul Warnke?

President: We will use very conceivable suggestion. It is a critical situation which is a broad national problem. We will not rule out any help on a national problem.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversations, Box 9, 3/5/1975. Confidential; Nodis. The meeting was held in the White House Cabinet Room.
  2. The legislators visited Vietnam and Cambodia between February 22 and March 3.