201. Minutes of the Secretary of State’s Regionals Staff Meeting1
[Omitted here are a table of contents, list of attendees, and discussion unrelated to Indochina.]
Mr. Habib: There is so much to report. I have gone through it all with you. If you want to go through it for the others. We have started the evacuation on a gradually reduced basis in Phnom Penh of some ancillary people attached to the mission, mostly people for whom we are responsible.
Secretary Kissinger: Did Dean go to see Long Boret?
Mr. Habib: He went to see Sam Kon Khoy. Long Boret went off with Lon Nol, but he will be back within a couple of days.
Secretary Kissinger: I now see they have put the whole new government on the proscribed list, too.
Mr. Habib: That was done last week. It was quite obvious—
Mr. Ingersoll: That is only Sihanouk.2
Mr. Habib: Yes. Sihanouk is saying a lot of things these days. I think one can read him in different ways. What Sihanouk is trying to do is keep to the fore his own position in this whole operation. The only way he might save some residual role for himself. The role that he obviously is trying to carve out is sort of international spokesman for the Khmer Rouge. And they are letting him do it for the time being, because it doesn’t cost them anything and gets them a hell of a lot of attention. He can get an American reporter to write what he says any time he says it.
So I think we are all right there at the moment.
The pressure on Phnom Penh will increase substantially within a few days.
The critical question in Vietnam remains whether or not they can stabilize the front.
Secretary Kissinger: Is there any sign that they can?[Page 725]
Mr. Habib: We have no assessment.
Secretary Kissinger: Did you order Graham Martin to send us an assessment?
Mr. Habib: We sent a cable3 immediately yesterday. He telephoned Larry this morning.
Mr. Eagleburger: He said he would get it in this morning.4
Mr. Habib: And he asked what this was all about.
Secretary Kissinger: I know it is sort of unreasonable, when a country is collapsing, to ask the Ambassador what is going on.
Mr. Habib: We are going to have a little difficulty because the press is beginning to write that the Embassy is not reporting and young officers are beginning to complain that they are not permitted to send forward reports of the situation.
Secretary Kissinger: What does Graham Martin think he is doing? Mr. Eagleburger: The call this morning was “Why do you need an assessment? I don’t want to undercut the General’s report.”5 And I said that is not what it is intended for. “The Secretary would like to know what the hell is going on, and all we have are newspaper reports.”
Secretary Kissinger: And I would like to get the political judgment, too.
Mr. Habib: That is a very difficult situation. We have been getting some CIA reports, which are quite good, I think. I am in touch with Colby and Knowles, and they did a separate little political analysis.
Secretary Kissinger: On whose side is Colby in this?
Mr. Habib: I don’t know what you mean by “whose side.” I think Colby is one of those who is tremendously disappointed at what he sees happening. I don’t think he anticipated that the ARVN would cave the way it did.
Secretary Kissinger: And before nothing. That is what I don’t understand. There hasn’t been one battle yet.
Mr. Habib: You know, I am not much of a reader of history, as some of the people in this room are. But my experience—
Secretary Kissinger: In the record, put down “Sarcasm” in parentheses. (Laughter)[Page 726]
Mr. Habib: I was terrorized and wanted to keep quiet—but once you get me started, we can go all day.
The military rout that occurred is a combination of the standard military rout, plus the peculiarities of the situation in Vietnam, which a lot of people do not understand. For example, a First Division soldier has his family right behind him. The Third Division soldier, in Hue, he had his family in Da Nang. So that these fellows fight, but when the thing gets to a certain point, they begin to sauve qui peut, and sauve qui peut has now gone on for two weeks, from Quang Tri to Na Trang.
Secretary Kissinger: Yes. But why didn’t they fight for a day at NaTrang?
Mr. Habib: They did. As a matter of fact, the 22nd Division, which is a good division, was cut to ribbons north of Qui Nhon, and the First Airborne Brigade west of Na Trang in the past protected the city, and was overrun by an overwhelming force. There is no question that those two outfits fought. In fact, the 22nd Division began to get attacks from its rear from the RF and PF. That is the report. I don’t know. Whether it is accurate or not, we have no real way of knowing.
You have a deteriorating situation in which you not only have a deteriorating situation militarily, but you obviously have one politically.
Now, the generals are beginning to move against Thieu.
Secretary Kissinger: That is clear. But is there any possibility of stabilizing the situation?
Mr. Habib: A possibility, yes.
Secretary Kissinger: I mean why should they be able to stabilize it when—you know, I can understand—
Mr. Habib: The approaches to Saigon are defensible. They have forces in being. They have one force which has fought well over in the—
Secretary Kissinger: Which is that?
Mr. Habib: That is the 25th, which was never one of their best divisions, but it has fought well.
Secretary Kissinger: It must be trapped.
Mr. Habib: You have the Airborne Division.
Secretary Kissinger: The worst mistake the North Vietnamese made in the ‘72 offensive was to trap that division in An Loc. If they had left a way out, it would have bugged right out.
Mr. Habib: Now, I don’t think there is going to be much time to decide. The political situation is moving very quickly. There is a report this morning that the cabinet has submitted its resignation. That will not satisfy critics of Thieu. The critics of Thieu are saying that he has to go because of what he has done. Who would take his place—that is probably the one thing that is holding up his departure as of now. My [Page 727]guess is that with the generals moving against him, that his days are numbered, and that what will probably take his place will be the sort of collegiate generals leadership that existed in ‘65, ‘66, ‘67, before the elections, where you had a sort of—
Secretary Kissinger: Which was a disaster.
Mr. Habib: It wasn’t a disaster. You will recall that this group restructured Vietnam under Ky’s Prime Ministership, and Thieu’s leadership. Thieu was the head of government and Ky was the Prime Minister. But they were responsible to the generals as a board of directors—all the corps commanders, all the division commanders and other commanders.
In the present circumstances, I am not saying that that would work. But I am saying that looks to me as a possibility. That is one possibility.
Now, with a guy like Truong, on the other hand, who is very angry with Thieu for doing what he did to him up in I Corps—if he could be persuaded to politicize himself—
Secretary Kissinger: Just for my own education, do you think if they had not been ordered to retreat they would have fought where they were?
Mr. Habib: Yes. They were in position. And they are used to fighting that way. And they would have fought. Some of them would have been cut up. But they would certainly have saved a lot of time, if nothing else.
Mr. Hyland: They probably would have saved Hue.
Mr. Habib: They would have saved a lot of refugees. That could have been more orderly.
Mr. Hyland: We got a good analysis last night from the Agency as to what happened in the northern provinces.
Secretary Kissinger: I have seen it. I have not read it yet. What’s the point?
Mr. Hyland: Well, they focus on the decision by Thieu to withdraw this division, in which he did not consult the General Staff or the Commander.
Secretary Kissinger: You mean the Airborne Division?
Mr. Hyland: The Airborne Division—it was vital to the defense of Quang Tri and Hue. Once that was started, everything had to be reorganized. And the Commanding General up there was told by Thieu to only defend Da Nang. So he made all his plans on the basis of falling back to Da Nang, bringing up divisions from Quang Ngai. And then the order was reversed, and he was told to turn around and defend Hue. He told Thieu it was impossible to turn these troops around without losing control. And Thieu said “I don’t care. I want you to defend [Page 728]Hue.” So he turned them around, and of course they lost control of them, and they got chopped up. And then what happened thereafter was almost inevitable.
I think it is a very good analysis, and pins it down fairly well.
Secretary Kissinger: But basically you think in MR–1, if they had just sat where they were—
Mr. Hyland: If they had kept the Airborne Division there, they would at least have been able to put up an orderly defense. They might have lost in the face of overwhelming forces. But it would not have been a rout. And once the rout started in Hue and Da Nang, then the rest of the coastal area, it was inevitable.
What is happening this week is not a fantastic surprise. No one expected that five battalions would be able to defend Na Trang against—
Secretary Kissinger: If they had fought, the North Vietnamese would have suffered enough casualties not to be able to pursue with all that rapidity.
Mr. Hyland: Of course. And the North Vietnamese might not have pursued at all. I am not even sure the North Vietnamese had any notion they would be able to take Quang Ngai, Na Trang, Qui Nhon.
Secretary Kissinger: Certainly not.
Mr. Hyland: In fact, when they pulled out of Pleiku, it took quite a while for the North Vietnamese to realize what was happening. And they didn’t catch them for several days. They did not catch the rear of the column for several days.
Secretary Kissinger: But that might have been a good move, if they could have gotten them out of there.
Mr. Hyland: If they had more aircraft and a little more planning, they might have gotten out in an orderly fashion there. But that is all over with now. I think the sense of panic and defeatism that is spreading in the country is the main problem.
Mr. Habib: Especially in Saigon. Saigon is an amazing city. As you know, it is fifty percent Chinese and fifty percent Vietnamese. And it is a rumor mill. And the VC know how to use that rumor mill. And now—
Secretary Kissinger: They don’t have to have a rumor mill. They just have to report—every refugee that comes in just has to report what he saw.
Mr. Habib: It even goes beyond that. The deliberate introduction of panic stories is obvious. The turn towards anti-Americanism is clear. There were a series of articles in the Saigon newspapers, respectable ones, in effect, strongly critical of the United States.
Secretary Kissinger: They are right.[Page 729]
Mr. Habib: The deterioration of government will lead to the deterioration of law and order, and you will get the kind of madness that grips people in those circumstances.
Secretary Kissinger: Bill.
Mr. Hyland: One of Thieu’s problems is where to put all these refugees, because he’s afraid if he puts them in any populated area the stories they spread and the atmosphere will be disastrous. He cannot put them in the Delta, and he cannot put them in Saigon, so he has them in the area of Cam Ranh Bay, which is now disintegrating.
Mr. Habib: He will have to get them out of Cam Ranh Bay. I think the North Vietnamese are going to go for the east. If they get to Vung Tau, then Saigon is in real trouble, because Vung Tau is the mouth of the river, and from the mouth of the river you can control the flow to Saigon, given the refugee situation and the supply situation.
Secretary Kissinger: If they get into Vung Tau, with what they can do from Cambodia and the Delta—it is just a question of whether they can do it before the rainy season.
Mr. Habib: I don’t think under these circumstances the rainy season does any more than slow them. They are going down the roads. It is not like in the old days. They are already pressing against Quan Long, and that is only about forty miles from Saigon, up a paved highway.
Mr. Hyland: But they are also moving—one of the divisions, the Fifth Division, which is more or less scheduled for the Tay Ninh campaign—they are moving away from Tay Ninh and down towards Long Tanh—in coordination with the attacks that are going to start in the Delta during the next few days.
Mr. Habib: What they are expecting is what Thieu will do is take a division out of the Delta from the defense of Saigon. If he does that—
Secretary Kissinger: Look, we have gone through all of this. One division isn’t going to do it.
Mr. Habib: Well, an integral division has great fire power, and it has got considerable ability to maneuver.
Secretary Kissinger: In 1972, when all of the troops in the north were fighting, and he moved a division up from the Delta, first of all the division he moved up from the Delta didn’t do one lick worth of fighting, up in Third Corps. They turned out to be a disaster, for the reason you gave, because they were separated from their families. And what was described as a crack division in the Delta, you remember very well, turned into a disaster.
Secondly, without massive assistance in 1972, it would have cracked then. Let’s not kid ourselves.
Mr. Habib: I didn’t say it was going to be successful.[Page 730]
Secretary Kissinger: And this was at a time when they were facing about a third of the North Vietnamese Army, and when the North Vietnamese supplies got through only about a fourth of what they put into the pipeline, and it took them weeks to get it down there. I don’t see how one division from the Delta is going to make one damned bit of difference.
Mr. Habib: My guess will be that will be nevertheless what he does, because he will have to do it.
Secretary Kissinger: Then the Delta will go to hell.
Mr. Habib: That is exactly my point. Ham Tan will not stand up if he weakens the divisional strength in the Delta.
Mr. Hyland: Someone should have advised him not to defend Na Trang and Qui Nhon.
Secretary Kissinger: The fact is we panicked the little guy. That is what started the whole thing. After that he acted like a maniac. Unless you think he deliberately committed suicide.
Mr. Habib: No. He made a strategic decision, and it was a tactical catastrophe. I keep looking at it that way.
Secretary Kissinger: Yes. But what made him make the strategic decision.
[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Indochina.]
- Source: National Archives, RG 59, Transcripts of Secretary of State Kissinger’s Staff Meetings, 1973–1977, Entry 5177, Box 6, Secretary’s Staff Meetings. Secret. Kissinger chaired the meeting, which was attended by all the principal officers including the assistant secretaries for the regional but not functional bureaus of the Department or their designated alternates.↩
- Sihanouk released a statement in Beijing on March 31 after Lon Nol’s departure from Phnom Penh for U-Tapao. (Telegram 575 from Beijing, April 1; ibid., Central Foreign Policy Files) Lon Nol left Cambodia on April 1 and traveled to Indonesia and then to the United States.↩
- In telegram 73051 to Saigon, April 1, Kissinger requested Embassy input on evacuation planning and Martin’s assessment on the situation in Vietnam. (Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for East Asia and the Pacific, Vietnam, State Department Telegrams, From SECSTATE, Nodis (2))↩
- Document 204.↩
- See Document 208.↩