191. Memorandum of Conversation1

MEETING AT NOON, MARCH 24, ON INDOCHINA

PARTICIPANTS

  • The Secretary of State
  • The Deputy Secretary of State
  • General Scowcroft, NSC Staff
  • Mr. Smyser, NSC Staff
  • Mr. Eagleburger
  • Ambassador Graham Martin
  • Mr. Habib
  • Mr. Lord
  • Mr. Hyland
  • Jerry Bremer, Note Taker
[Page 687]

Mr. Hyland: We have just learned that Hue is being evacuated and that the troops from there will move south toward DaNang. Apparently the plan is now to hold DaNang, although we wonder if they will be able to. Several of the other cities south of Hue have already been overrun and are being given up. In addition there are considerable attacks coming out of the highlands. There is a refugee column here (pointing toward map) with several ranger units. They are stalled and completely without radio contact. In addition there are attacks developing toward Nhatrang where the South Vietnamese troops appear to be putting up a pretty good fight. The fighting is intensifying around Tay Ninh though there are reports that the government is considering giving up Tay Ninh. If they decide to hold it there will be a major and very bloody battle there.

The question is, first, will they be able to hold on to any enclaves in the north, and if so, will it have any strategic or political meaning since they may wind up with these coastal enclaves under very heavy attack.

We also need to know what kind of a political and strategic line Thieu is trying to draw out of this entire thing. Already in Military Region One there are rumblings from some of the commanders against Thieu. One final complicating factor is that we have no idea whatsoever what his supply situation is.

Kissinger: What I want to know is how did this all happen.2

Hyland: Well, it is clear that the South Vietnamese were contemplating giving up the highlands anyway, but they were not expecting the attack at Ban Me Thuot. When that came, Thieu decided to withdraw some of the northern troops, though this was preceded by a very confusing three-day debate within the South Vietnamese army. When these troops were finally pulled out it left Quang Tri undefended.

Kissinger: Could they have held Quang Tri with those units there anyway? And why didn’t we know about this in advance?

Hyland: The situation did not become really unstuck until they lost Ban Me Thuot. An entire division was chewed up very badly there during that battle.

Habib: As soon as they lost Ban Me Thuot the South Vietnamese made an estimate that they could retake it. And they thought they could retake it while also holding out in the north. However, Thieu’s estimate was wrong on this, they could not hold it. The forces were simply not able to retake it.

Martin: If I may go back a little to give a little perspective to this debate; late last fall, I think it was, we had an intelligence report which pointed out that the South was considering this withdrawal. No one [Page 688]took it very seriously then, and I believe the plan included the evacuations of the highlands and the north. I frankly believe what happened was that this decision was finally taken when Tran Van Lam returned from the United States. When he was here in the United States he was not received by a number of important people up on the Hill and he conveyed a sense of unrelieved gloom when he went back to Saigon. I’m sure this influenced Thieu.

Kissinger: Bill, do you believe that?

Hyland: I think it is true that the withdrawal was heavily influenced by Thieu’s view that he would get no further U.S. aid.

Martin: Yes, and on their general reading of the U.S. climate about the $300,000,000 supplemental and on future years’ appropriations. I mean, for Christ sake, you simply can’t ask these people to make that country go, strung out as it is, even for half a billion. It just isn’t enough money. We just have to give them the confidence that we’re behind them.

Kissinger: I think that’s why you should go back there, Graham. When can you go?

Martin: I can go back tomorrow, if you want, or the day after.

Kissinger: I think you should go back quickly. The President has decided that we are going to send General Weyand and Ambassador Bunker out there the day after tomorrow on a fact-finding mission.

Martin: Well, then I will go with them. I see no purpose in Bunker’s going at all. What’s he going for?

Kissinger: Well, the President thought it might be a symbolic gesture, but okay, we can just send Weyand.

Scowcroft: What about Maw?

Martin: What does Maw have to say that I can’t say?

Habib: Well, he’s in charge of figuring out what their needs are and he could report back to us on that.

Martin: I can do that as well as Maw.

Lord: It would be more assessing their specific needs.

Martin: We can give you that from the Embassy.

Kissinger: All right, we’ll just send General Weyand and we’ll do it fast. Then we’ll have the President make a speech and go into an all out fight on this.

Habib: We will have to really move when Congress returns from their recess.

Kissinger: I agree. We will make an all out effort when they return.

Habib: I was cheered from our talk this morning with Rhodes and Albert that for the first time there was a favorable reaction up there [Page 689]and I think there’s a new mood. We have no options but to go full bore after the recess.

Kissinger: That’s right. We should be straightforward and tell Congress we’re going to go for more than the supplemental. We are not trying to show how nice or how moderate we are on this subject. We will go up there and ask for what is right and not worry if we get creamed. If we get creamed, we’re going to be creamed asking for the right amount. When we do this we should do it the right way. Graham was right before and we should have listened to him. We should have gone for the extra $500,000,000.

Martin: That’s right. $300,000,000 was never enough.

Kissinger: I was part of that decision and we were wrong. We should have predicted this disaster earlier.

Habib: Of course, DOD said that $300,000,000 was enough.

Kissinger: Yes, but DOD was representing the views of the Secretary of Defense who’s up there reading the mood on the Hill. That’s entirely irrelevant. Schlesinger told the President two weeks ago that we didn’t even need that $300,000,000.

Hyland: DOD accepted the $300,000,000 only as a political, not as a military, need.

Kissinger: What will Graham say when he gets back? Graham, do you think you could draft a letter from the President to Thieu, and we’ll send it along with you. And you, Brent, tell Weyand what we want him to report. He won’t make any money by saying how little they need. The President should say in his speech what we’re doing. Shouldn’t our press spokesman be referring to the violations?

Habib: He has been referring to them every day.

Kissinger: I think we probably ought to just give up on the Cambodia supplemental. Cambodia’s finished.

Lord: No, we have to go for it for symbolic reasons.

Habib: We can’t give it up.

Lord: Though I must say why anyone would continue to fight is completely beyond me.

Habib: They have the faith that they will get more and they’re fighting for that reason.

Kissinger: Okay, we can come back to that later. In Vietnam, the only thing to do is to draw the issue quickly and make the public understand. Win, can your geniuses draft a decent statement for the President for me to look at?

Habib: We have one here.

Kissinger: Yes, but I need a consolidated draft that I can look at it. Make it tough, and short. Maybe 10 minutes long.

[Page 690]

Martin: I just don’t think the situation is in any way hopeless in Saigon now. If we can get an awareness among the U.S. public that this move is a consolidation on the part of the south and that they will still be there to fight, I think we can see it through.

Kissinger: Well that’s precisely the message you’re going to bring back with you. And that’s why the President will go on TV.

Habib: The North Vietnamese attack has focused everybody’s attention, and I think we have some receptivity now to our continuing aid. I think we can sell it to Congress. Also, I think that South Vietnam holding on depends almost entirely on the success they have in extracting their forces.

Kissinger: Graham must go back there and restore their confidence. You know, we went through some of the same kind of thing like this in 1972 on the offensive.

Martin: Yes, I remember very well.

Hyland: That is true, but the political situation now is radically different. The Communists, however this ends up, will have come out of it with a huge chunk of territory which they will argue and which many people will agree, represents a real revolutionary government. They have got considerable territorial control now.

Martin: Well, wait a minute. You’re jumping to a conclusion. It’s quite possible that they may hold out in DaNang, and that they could link it up to the south.

Habib: I just don’t think we can accept that as a possibility, Graham. They will try to hold the heartland as they have said they would. But if they go about wasting their time dissipating forces in the north trying to hold it, I just don’t think we should allow them to do that. Every military assessment I have seen has consistently misread both the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese capabilities. I think the situation is so grave that they will be lucky to hold on to the heartland right now.

Kissinger: Well, that’s what General Weyand is going out there to find out.

By the way, are we still waffling around on the LSTs which I approved in January? I would like to know why they haven’t moved on that.

Habib: Well, you approved them, but you approved them to be held on the back burner.

Kissinger: No, that was some other things, B–52s and other things that were to be on the back burner, not the LSTs.

Habib: Well, we’ll go ahead as quickly as possible on those.

Hyland: We have to face the fact that when we talk about military aid we’re not just talking about ammunition but about end items.

Smyser: There’s also the indication that the north may introduce air and naval forces at some point.

[Page 691]

Kissinger: Well, I’m sure they will introduce the air forces. With all due respect, how about mining the North Vietnamese harbors?

Scowcroft: DOD says that the south lacks that ability and that they would be clobbered before they got anywhere near them. They simply don’t have the navigational equipment.

Kissinger: To have the U.S. as an ally is really a joy these days. The most dangerous thing a country can do. All through the years they kept telling me that the mining could be done and now they say it can’t be done. I tell you I am convinced that North Vietnam will do absolutely nothing except under military pressure.

Hyland: Well, the only military pressure which will affect them now is U.S. military pressure. So, we will have to draw a line at some point.

Kissinger: To drop a few mines simply cannot be beyond the wit of man. Get us a leadership meeting when the congressmen start talking about it and Schlesinger will find a way to do it.

Habib: Well, Weyand can come back with recommendations, but it may involve the U.S. helping the Vietnamese arm and set the weapons. Even so, however, it may be impossible for the south to do it. I think the thing to do instead of asking Defense if the south can do it is simply to tell them that they have got to find a way.

Kissinger: I agree. Brent, you tell DOD that it is to be done. If we do not make it clear to the north that it is going to be painful for them to continue, they will just keep on going.

Hyland: We also face the question of the Paris accords. Do we denounce them? Do we consider them denounced?

Kissinger: I don’t know, but don’t anyone come to me arguing about Article VII or he’ll lose his job.

Habib: On the Paris accords, I think the question is the utility of it for our Congressional support, or to get something else other than fighting organized to bring some pressure on the north. For example, we could call for a meeting.

Kissinger: Yes, but what would we get from that?

Habib: Well, the other side would refuse, and that might be useful in Congress.

Lord: I’m not so sure they would refuse, I think they would simply stall their answer and when they’ve got the maximum amount they can get on the ground, then they will agree to the meeting and say that everything they hold is theirs and everything the south holds is negotiable.

Kissinger: Phil, we simply will not play the congressional game. Our only hope with Congress is to call the game as hard as possible, as we see it.

[Page 692]

Lord: There’s no use in denouncing an agreement anyway. We can de facto do what we want but de jure we should not denounce the agreement.

Smyser: The press would be all over us if we did that.

Kissinger: We can say that with respect to military supplies they have violated Article VII. We gain nothing by denouncing them because we give up the ability to say they are violating themselves. Later, if they come to some political demands, like the National Council, we may have to tell them that they’re crazy.

Habib: You can’t say. It depends on what the situation is like in six months, or eight months, or who knows in three months. There may be new pressures on Thieu to get out and the pressures may also begin to turn against us. We’re beginning to see that already. They’re beginning to blame us.

Kissinger: They are right. And they’re right in Cambodia, too. We put Cambodia now into the soup. Now, if we had given them this aid they needed, they probably could have lasted the year. I’m convinced of that now.

Hyland: They may still be able to.

Smyser: I’m not so sure. I think the military action over the past two weeks may be deceptive with the Khmer Rouge moving troops around we may see some pick-up in the military activity.

Habib: Yes, and there are also these pressures on Lon Nol now.

Kissinger: Why can’t we get him to come here? Does he know he can come here?

Habib: Well, we have left that open. Dean has made it very open.

Lord: It would be better if he didn’t come here so we would not be in the position of having been accused of pushing him out.

Kissinger: Larry, would you send Dean a message, since I’ve lacerated him so often, and tell him he’s done a good job in the last couple of weeks.

Lord: I think we’re very well postured now with Lon Nol.

Smyser: On the military front, you know there is this SR–71 flight on March 26.

Kissinger: What in the world can it do, break the sonic barrier?

Smyser: We could also send a carrier.

Kissinger: That will be in the press right away.

Scowcroft: Also, when it gets there, so what? Then what does it do?

Habib: No, that would very much hurt us in Congress.

Kissinger: What can we use with the north then, anyway?

Scowcroft: Oh, Minutemen, Polaris, etc.

[Page 693]

Smyser: I think North Vietnam is still very much concerned with U.S. action and reaction to what they’re doing.

Kissinger: What about moving an airforce squadron to Manila?

Martin: I just think it makes no sense to do anything unless we’re prepared to carry through with it, and that we can’t do.

Scowcroft: I agree. And moreover I think the north is now launched and they are committed to this and what we do is not going to have them pull back.

Kissinger: When was this offensive planned?

Hyland: Probably in December last year, but I doubt very much if they thought it would go this well. They may well be surprised with how well they’re doing.

Martin: I think the major question is the question of whether there is the will power left. If you present this as a Dunkirk with the forces still in being, we can get support.

Kissinger: That’s why we need you back in Saigon.

Martin: We also need more words about it. We need to discuss it, this Presidential speech is one thing, and I think, in addition, we have got to do something about this persistent denigration in the press of everything the South Vietnamese are doing.

Kissinger: How?

Martin: Well, we can speak out once in a while. I’ll do some of this from Saigon and you can some here.

Kissinger: Okay.

Habib: The circumstances have changed and that is the importance of the current situation. These circumstances may get us more support on the Hill.

Kissinger: When should the President speak? There are two views. One, which is this week when Congress is not in session. I think Congress is coming back April 7th or 8th. So the second idea would be that he might speak on April 5th or 6th.

Habib: There should be some way to connect it with Weyand’s return.

Eagleburger: I think he should do a five-minute speech tomorrow night, announcing the trip, and then say something next week when Weyand gets back.

Habib: You have a press conference on Wednesday, don’t you Mr. Secretary?3 I think if you said something then it would be even more important than the President.

[Page 694]

Kissinger: I think the President must go first.

Habib: Yes, with a short statement.

Kissinger: You draft something for me, Phil.

Habib: Yes.

Martin: Is there any objection if we start making a direct relationship between what’s happened in the Middle East and in Vietnam?

Kissinger: No, it’s true. It hurt us with the Arabs. Asad said in his talks with me, “You look what you’ve done to Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Portugal, etc.” (There was some debate between him and his Foreign Minister whether Portugal fitted into the category). But anyway, Asad said, “Therefore if you look at this, you will give up Israel, and so Sadat should simply not give in.” On the Israeli side, they said, “We don’t want to wind up like Thieu.”

Hyland: Well, I think the question of the Presidential speech is one thing, but there is also a very profound issue which is, what in fact are we going to do other than ask for aid?

Kissinger: By tomorrow, I would like to have a list of things which need to be done. By the way, in the future I want Al Adams at these meetings. I want to know what has to be done in Vietnam and with the other countries. There is no sense in going to the Chinese or the Russians until we’re ready to do something. After the harbors are mined, or something, then we can talk to Le Duc Tho. For Pete’s sake, they can all fly DC–3’s up there. They’re bound to get through. The north is not expecting it. And we always did something they weren’t expecting and found that this was very good. I suspect their air defense is in very poor shape.

Hyland: As a matter of fact, I’m afraid it’s in pretty good shape.

Kissinger: Well, the Pentagon and CIA are always going to find that nothing is feasible on North Vietnam. It just won’t. The military will find that everything is unfeasible.

I want Weyand to see the President before he goes. You, too, Graham.4

Hyland: We should consider whether the U.S. is going to take any military action. The question for the President is whether he wants to consult with Congress before changing the law.

Kissinger: We can’t. It’s against the law. It would be a disaster and a mistake. We couldn’t get any money at all if we did that. If they hadn’t passed that law, I personally would favor a three to four day strike against the north and then we’d tell Congress, but with that law our hands are tied.

[Page 695]

Smyser: We might consider having the President send a message to the other Asians.

Kissinger: Okay. Tomorrow by open of business I want to see an integrated plan that includes the following:

1.
The military steps that might be possible. Next, Graham, I want to see your draft letter to President Thieu and could you draft yourself some instructions.
2.
A paper on the assorted diplomatic steps, such as Dick has mentioned.
3.
A paper on Congressional strategy.

Also, I want to have a meeting on this every day.

Habib: I wonder if we shouldn’t now go ahead and set up an inter-departmental task force to include the other agencies.

Kissinger: Well, we’ll have an NSC meeting this week. When is it, Brent?

Scowcroft: Thursday.5

Kissinger: Well, after that we can set it up. Until then, let’s keep it this way. I will also want a WSAG on Indochina on Wednesday.

(There then followed some disjointed conversations about air capacity in South Vietnam)

Kissinger: Can we meet again on this tomorrow?

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Kissinger-Scowcroft West Wing Office Files, Box 34, Vietnamese War (2), Camp David File, March 24–December 11, 1975. No classification marking.
  2. Kissinger returned on March 23 after 18 days in Europe and the Middle East.
  3. Excerpts from Kissinger’s March 26 news conference were published in The New York Times, March 27, 1975.
  4. Martin, General Weyand, Kissinger, and Scowcroft met with Ford on March 25. (Memorandum of conversation, March 25; Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversation, Box 10, 3/25/75)
  5. March 27. The NSC met the next day; see Document 196.