232. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • The President
  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State and Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Dr. James R. Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense
  • Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs

President: I would hope we could consider this an executive session so we could have this a free and open session.

Sparkman: We just came from one.

President: We put a great deal of time and effort into the speech.2 There was unanimity in the Administration with what I said and the policies I recommended. I was therefore able to speak with conviction about where we should go.

Sparkman: I thought the first 30 minutes of your speech, which covered the world—I don’t know who wrote it but it was the best word structure I have seen and a great delivery.

I would like to hear from the two Secretaries.

President: Henry.

Kissinger: Perhaps I should talk about the political situation and Jim will discuss the military situation and the figures we are requesting.

It is clear the military situation in South Vietnam is extremely difficult. North Vietnam has the military superiority. They have occupied much of the territory. It is caused in our view by too little assistance and incompetent management of the retreat. But whatever the reason, we are trying to bring about a political situation and a negotiation which would exploit the new balance of forces. We have thought that the U.S. should not be a principal agent in these negotiations but should rely on the South Vietnamese or others such as France. We are prepared to support negotiating efforts and the elements that are prepared to negotiate. This is a process which will take a few weeks to sort out in Saigon.

[Page 818]

With respect to the legal situation on evacuation. We want to reduce the number of American citizens as soon as possible but not so fast as to precipitate a panic. The Embassy has resisted evacuation, but we have ordered it to get down to about 1,250. I would appreciate no mention of it.

President: We had a similar problem in Cambodia. We started with over 400 and had reduced it to about 75 when the time for evacuation came. We were prepared for 600 Americans and 300 Cambodians. We had few, because the gutsy Cambodians chose to stay and die rather than leave. So we got it down in an orderly manner to a manageable figure.

Kissinger: We offered the Cabinet members in Phnom Penh a chance to leave and without exception they stayed even though they were on the assassination list.

The total list of the people endangered in Vietnam is over a million. The irreducible list is 174,000. This doesn’t mean we could get them out; it would be just those in overwhelming jeopardy. We would have to assemble them where we could get to them and have conditions where we could move them.

There are two Acts of Congress: the War Powers Act and the Indochina proscription. We think under the War Powers Act the President has authority with respect to evacuating American citizens; with the Indochina Act we would appreciate clarification. We think there is no authority for evacuation of Vietnamese.

Schlesinger: Henry has touched the high points. There has been some improvement in the past few days. They have been fighting well in Xuan Loc and the Delta but whether it is temporary depends on North Vietnam and President’s request. In the military area the North Vietnamese have eight divisions and the GVN seven. They are doing well but they are dipping into stocks of ammunition. Generally speaking, if the North Vietnamese bring up their forces they will have preponderance, but the South Vietnamese know the terrain and have their backs to the wall.

We have requested $722 million which reflects the results of the Weyand mission.3 The difference reflects the hope on the GVN side to equip four infantry divisions. That is $140 million. To convert the four ranger groups is $120 million. For general munitions, $190 million. If you would like more detailed data, General Weyand is here.

President: Let’s see what the Committee wishes. The $722 million is designed to meet the current situation and is totally different from the $300 million. Fred’s report reflects a different situation.

[Page 819]

Case: You are very good to see us, especially on such short notice. The reason for the meeting is that the Moose Mission just came back and briefed us.4 We have a consensus on the immediate actions: There should be urgent action to reduce American personnel to the point where they could be lifted out in one lift. We feel there is grave danger if this reduction is not being done in a timely manner. We fear the people on the ground would panic so we are not moving rapidly. We would go to them frankly and say this is how we would do it. Stew suggests a sea evacuation.

Kissinger: We waited to press him until the President’s speech so it would not be in the context of pulling the plug. We now have a cable saying it is underway.

President: Not to be critical, Stew, but 4,000 on one ship would pull the plug. We could have taken over 600. I don’t know how many more could be handled.

Percy: Couldn’t we give orders for every plane outgoing to be full?

Javits: There are orders and orders. We think you should be sure through someone other than Martin that your orders are being carried out. Within any context of aid, the first priority must be to get Americans and deserving South Vietnamese out. It is your problem, but we think you should be sure that your orders should be carried out.

President: I assure you my orders will be carried out. This is a two-way street. We will do our part but we think we have a good schedule and program and want your cooperation. I think we have an obligation to do whatever we can for the people to whom we are obligated.

Baker: We felt an evacuation of the American citizens was so urgent that everything else—legality, Thieu’s incumbency, everything else—was secondary to that. We appreciate your forthcoming attitude toward this problem in your speech. We wanted to tell you our concerns and hear from you your concerns. We hope when we have, we will have established a new era of negotiation between the Executive and Legislative branches. We will talk with you on the amounts, which should be designed to facilitate the evacuation of Americans.

Sparkman: How is the report?

President: I have read it. I don’t agree with all of it but it is a forthright report.

[Page 820]

Sparkman: The Cambodian evacuation went well because of planning. We hope there is some planning going on in Saigon.

Schlesinger: The situations are not parallel. The Viet Cong infrastructure, the congestion, the high potential levels of violence—it could be complicated.

Case: We appreciate this. That is why we are concerned.

Percy: Could we get clarification on the 1,200—when they will be there and could they be pulled in one lift?

Kissinger: I don’t have that today. I will have it tomorrow and I will let you know. On Thursday, the Ambassador was told to take it down as soon as possible, and to tell Thieu immediately.5

Percy: Is 1,200 the immediate minimum? It sounds like a vast number. The reason it was easy in Cambodia is that we put a ceiling on.

President: If there isn’t some indication of aid, the situation could disintegrate rapidly.

Javits: I will give you large sums for evacuation, but not one nickel for military aid for Thieu.

Church: I would think that if money is required to facilitate getting the Americans out, that can be worked out. What has not been worked out is the Vietnamese evacuees. Secretary Kissinger has said maybe there are 175,000. Clearly there is no legal inhibition to bringing some out along with Americans, but 175,000, with American troops involved, could involve us in a very large war. This raises the specter of a new war, thousands of American troops holding on in an enclave for a long period.

President: It is not envisaged that this would be for a long period but as quickly and precisely as possible.

Biden: What concerns us is that a week ago Habib told us we would be formulating a plan. A week has gone by and nothing has happened. We should focus on getting them out. Getting the Vietnamese out and military aid for the GVN are totally different.

Kissinger: The plan for American evacuation is in pretty good shape. But we had a report that if we pulled out and left them in the lurch, we may have to fight the South Vietnamese. It was that we were concerned with and that is why we wanted to go to Thieu so we didn’t do it in the context of a bug out. The second problem is getting American citizens out in an emergency. Third is the Vietnamese to whom we have an obligation. This is infinitely more complicated and large-scale. It requires cooperation from the GVN and maybe the North Vietnamese.

[Page 821]

Biden: I feel put upon in being presented an all or nothing number. I don’t want to have to vote to buy it all or not at all. I am not sure I can vote for an amount to put American troops in for one to six months to get the Vietnamese out. I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out. I don’t want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out.

President: There are three operations that are intertwined. There is getting out 4,500, the last 1,800 and the Vietnamese. The worst way to do it is to label it evacuation aid.

Symington: I am very familiar with Vietnam. In 1967 I decided it was hopeless. My people are asking if we are asking if we are holding Americans hostage for more aid. We know that is not so, but what worries me is the feeling we have been wrong so many times. We are all surprised at the collapse of South Vietnam. Why did we leave the 6,000 there so far? Where are the 175,000 going? Who is going to take them? These could all be dealt with if we could get the Americans out.

Pell: We could put these people in Borneo. It has the same latitude, the same climate, and would welcome some anti-Communists.

President: Let me comment on where they would go: We opened our door to the Hungarians. I am not saying the situation is identical but our tradition is to welcome the oppressed. I don’t think these people should be treated any differently from any other people—the Hungarians, Cubans, Jews from the Soviet Union.

Clark: Is the request for military assistance primarily to arrest the situation and bring on negotiations, or for something else?

President: I think I stated it clearly: We wanted the sum to stabilize the military situation in order to give a chance for negotiations and to permit evacuation of Americans and deserving Vietnamese.

Sparkman: Do we have any obligations under the Paris Accords?

President: We signed with the understanding we could uphold it. The means were taken from us.

Sparkman: But our obligations . . .

Kissinger: The Accords had not obligations but authorities, that is, Article 7. President Nixon and others judged that permitting the United States to extricate itself would permit the United States to provide aid and enforce the agreements. Under the Paris Accords we have no obligation. To the GVN we said that if they let us get our forces out it would enhance our chances of getting aid for them and enforcing the agreement. It was in this context, not that of a legal obligation. We never claimed an obligation; we never pleaded an obligation. But some of us think there is a moral obligation.

Mansfield: My position is well known and I won’t change. The caucus was concerned about the pace of the evacuation. Also that the witnesses should be the highest members of your Administration. We [Page 822]are trying to comply with your request as soon as possible. If Hugh [Scott] agrees, we will not meet Tuesday and Wednesday6 so we can process these requests rapidly. There was concern about humanitarian aid and the desire to send it through non-governmental agencies and the UN.

Scott: I agree to the proposal. One thing we haven’t discussed is the amounts. I think we need to discuss a figure.

Biden: I don’t want to commit myself to any precise number. How much money depends on how many we try to get out.

Kissinger: This is a matter of extreme delicacy. We can’t take them under crisis conditions. No one is thinking of a long period of time to get people out. We are thinking of ten days to two weeks.

Church: I think we should establish an emergency fund to allow you to deal with the situation and carefully draw the language about troops so as to insure there are limits.

President: We are not wanting to put American troops in but we have to have enough funds to make it look like we plan to hold for some period.

Glenn: The idea here is very different from what I envisioned. I and most Senators thought of a surgical extraction, not of a ten-day to two-week operation with a bridgehead. This is a re-entry of a magnitude we have not envisioned.

I think we have to keep this very quiet. I thought it was a one-shot airlift.

Case: This was essential to have been said. The only way we could do an operation of this kind is through negotiations between the North and South.

Glenn: I can see North Vietnam deciding not to let us get these people out and attacking our bridgehead. Then we would have to send forces to protect our security force. That fills me with fear.

Javits: Tell the press we are thinking of $200 million.

President: If this is a meeting to plan an evacuation, this will panic the GVN totally.

[The meeting ended]

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversation, Box 10, 4/14/75. Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held at the White House. Brackets are in the original.
  2. See Document 217.
  3. See Document 208.
  4. See footnote 5, Document 212. The mission’s report concluded that it might be too late for the safe evacuation of Americans, much less South Vietnamese, from Saigon. (The New York Times, April 15, 1975)
  5. See Document 218.
  6. April 15 and 16.