236. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam Evacuation


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • Robert Ingersoll
  • Carlyle Maw
  • Robert McCloskey
  • Robert Miller
  • Defense
  • Amos Jordan
  • Morton Abramowitz
  • Secretary Schlesinger
  • JCS
  • Gen. George S. Brown
  • Lt. Gen. John W. Pauly
  • CIA
  • William Colby
  • Ted Shackley
  • William Christison
  • NSC Staff
  • LTG Brent Scowcroft
  • W. R. Smyser
  • William Stearman
  • Col. Clinton Granger
  • James Barnum


It was agreed that:

  • —Instructions would be sent to Ambassador Martin asking him to speed up the evacuation of Americans from South Vietnam;2
  • —The Joint Chiefs of Staff would prepare more detailed plans for the evacuation of South Vietnam preparatory to a WSAG on April 19.3

Secretary Kissinger: Bill . . .

Mr. Colby began to brief from the attached text.4

Secretary Kissinger: How long before the Communists will be in position for an assault on Saigon?

Mr. Colby: Three to four days. (Continued to brief.)

[Page 833]

Secretary Kissinger: Where are these North Vietnamese troops coming from? (In reference to a statement in the briefing that elements of a fourth division have moved into the Xuan Loc area.)

Mr. Colby: From the northern part of South Vietnam.

Secretary Kissinger: So, there are massive numbers of troops coming down.

Mr. Colby: Yes, that’s right.

Secretary Schlesinger: They have already cut Route 1 (the only road out of the provincial capital of Xuan Loc), and the South Vietnamese 18th Division lost one of its regiments today.

Mr. Colby continued to brief.

Secretary Kissinger: It looks to me, then, that the 18th Division is trapped and that it will be destroyed at Xuan Loc.

Mr. Christison: We do have the hope that two of the regiments can break out, slip away somehow.

General Brown: Well, I don’t know. They’ve lost one regiment already. I think the chances are very slim that anybody will get out.

Secretary Kissinger: That’s the wrong thing to do, isn’t it, trap an ARVN unit? They fight like hell when they’re trapped.

Secretary Schlesinger: That’s right. That 18th Division has already put up one hell of a fight.

Mr. Colby continued to brief.

Secretary Kissinger: Don’t you think, though, that they would continue the war just as soon as (President) Thieu goes? (In reference to a statement in the briefing that the Communists appear to be peddling the line that if Thieu were replaced a less bloody outcome would be possible.)

Mr. Colby: I’m not entirely sure.

Mr. Christison: The North Vietnamese would like a capitulation by Saigon.

Mr. Colby continued to brief, turning to Cambodia.

Secretary Kissinger: Too bad, I was hoping that they would get Sidney Shanberg (New York Times correspondent still in Phnom Penh). (In reference to a statement in the briefing that a handful of US journalists were holed up in a Phnom Penh hotel.) That’s a joke, now. Put it in the record that I am making a joke. I don’t want to be haunted by that statement in the future.

Mr. Colby finished his briefing.

Mr. Christison: There is just one thing to add. We have just received a late cable. Long Boret (Cambodian Premier) apparently did not get out of Phnom Penh. According to the report, he went back to Phnom Penh this morning on a helicopter, got out of the ‘copter to help some others on, and the pilot took off without him.

[Page 834]

Mr. Ingersoll: According to the press, he’s in Bangkok.

Mr. Christison: I don’t know. This is a cable we just received, and it is not confirmed.

Secretary Kissinger: There’s just no limit to the screw-ups in Indochina. He gets out of the helicopter and it takes off without him.

Secretary Schlesinger: One Huey helicopter took 26 Cambodians out today.

Secretary Kissinger: Today?

Secretary Schlesinger: Yes. That’s real cost effectiveness!

General Brown: Twenty-six people in a Huey. They must have had them stacked in like firewood.

Secretary Kissinger: Well, could we talk first about reductions—the evacuation of Americans from Vietnam—and then we’ll talk about evacuation of Vietnamese. (Ambassador) Graham Martin has been instructed, as you know, to get down to 1250 Americans by the 20th of the month. That’s a reduction of about 4,000 in a week.

Secretary Schlesinger: I’m not sure he has a week, Henry. You know those plans are flying empty out of Tan Son Nhut. They are filling only two or three seats on those flights.

General Brown: They got some more out of there yesterday.

Mr. Stearman: The problem is that they are coming out of the woodwork everywhere. We have no roster of Americans wanting to get out.

Secretary Kissinger: Well, we have to leave some things to Graham’s (Ambassador Martin’s) discretion. I think he’s getting the people out, don’t you?

Secretary Schlesinger: It’s a very slow process. Let’s see, only 126 came out on Tuesday, 182 yesterday. That’s not very many, and there is not a hell of a lot of time left.

Secretary Kissinger: Bill (Mr. Colby), what’s your judgement?

Mr. Colby: I think we have one-to-three weeks maximum before Saigon collapses. The airport (Tan Son Nhut) could come under direct fire in a matter of hours. We could have another Phnom Penh problem.

Mr. Jordan: Yes, but we can’t assume that the people will hang together (be all in one place) like they were in Phnom Penh. Everybody is scattered.

Mr. Colby: We could cut through some of the logjams that are preventing more people from coming out. That would relieve some of the pressure.

Secretary Kissinger: We should make sure that there are no empty seats, but I don’t want to create panic. You know, this thing has to be done delicately. I don’t think Graham is slowing down the evacuation, do you Bob?

[Page 835]

Mr. Miller: No. According to the latest reports, more people will be coming out in the next three days. The problem has been all the administrative logjams—visas, documentation, etc. That’s what is slowing the pace.

Mr. Shackley: The GVN is responding better now to our requests.

General Brown: I’d just like to put this thing in perspective for you to demonstrate the urgency of the situation. It’s our opinion that if this thing goes to a military operation—use of U.S. forces to get people out—the odds of success are very remote. The only way now, as we see it, is for both air and ship evacuation.

Secretary Kissinger: What are you proposing, total evacuation now?

General Brown: No, but there shouldn’t be any empty seats on those airplanes. Also, we have that Pan Am 707 on stand-by in Guam that is not being used. We should tell them to get going. Also, we can use the C–130s at Clark Air Force Base. I just shudder to think what will happen. In Phnom Penh we were lucky, but I think the odds . . .

Secretary Kissinger: The point is that Graham is trying to get down to the required numbers by the end of next week. Are you saying that he is not trying to?

Mr. Colby: The question is the risk, and that varies according to whom you are talking to.

General Brown: I think we are going to suffer losses getting people out. If there are 1,250 people to get out at 40 people a crack, that’s 30 planes that we need to put on the ground, and that is without security forces to secure the landing area.

Secretary Kissinger: What are you talking about, helicopters in Saigon with U.S. security forces?

General Brown: No. We’ve been informed by one of the South Vietnamese generals—I can’t remember who at the moment—that certain South Vietnamese airborne and marine units will provide us security in exchange for taking them and their dependents out.

Mr. Colby: My problem is that I think we should get some Vietnamese moving, and now.

Secretary Kissinger: (Ambassador) Martin should talk to Thieu about our plans.

Mr. Colby: The way we are going about it now, we’re going to look pretty foolish when the crunch comes.

General Scowcroft: Yes, but the way Graham is going about it is designed to keep Saigon from disintegrating into chaos.

Secretary Kissinger: If Saigon disintegrates into chaos, nobody is going to get out. You have to balance off the risks. It’s a tight rope that he is walking.

[Page 836]

Mr. Colby: I think we should get at least a trickle moving.

General Brown: If Graham will fill all the seats on those planes, that will get some movement. I know the dilemma that Graham is in, but we have to get some people moving. We have put some of our resources up against several options, and it doesn’t look good.

Secretary Kissinger: (Ambassador) Martin’s sending in sensible cables. I think he’s trying to move people out.

Mr. Colby: If only the U.S. could increase the pressure on the Vietnamese to accelerate the administrative process.

Secretary Kissinger: We’ll get a cable off to Graham after this meeting. Now, evacuation of Vietnamese. What are our current plans? Do we have any plans?

General Brown: We only have a concept for a plan at this point. We haven’t identified the security requirements, timing, and so forth at this point. It calls for the evacuation of 175,000 to 200,000 South Vietnamese. We have three options. The first calls for evacuation by ship and air by both commercial and by contract aircraft. This assumes GVN cooperation—the best case situation.

Secretary Kissinger: But how are you going to get 175,000 people together?

General Brown: Well, the Ambassador’s plan—I really don’t know. It’s through special contracts and contractors.

Mr. Shackley: Identity cards have been issued to those who are to be evacuated. Those that need to be can be identified by the cards.

Secretary Kissinger: But you have no assembly points, right?

Mr. Shackley: That’s right. We have identified a number of evacuation areas, but how people will get to those areas is another problem.

Secretary Kissinger: I can see us screwing up by having the civilians at one place and the helicopters at another.

General Brown: We would also propose that the South Vietnamese go to Vung Tau by their own means.

Mr. Jordan: There are already a lot of Vietnamese there.

Secretary Kissinger: How would they get to Vung Tau?

General Brown: By road or down the Mekong from Saigon.

Mr. Colby: Yeah, and the road will be choked and nobody will get there. There will be Hondas all over the place.

Secretary Kissinger: If there is no agreement with the North Vietnamese (for safe passage) it’s going to be a goddamn mess.

Mr. Colby: You’ll have half the city of Saigon at Vung Tau.

Secretary Kissinger: We need something more specific than what you (Gen. Brown) have there. How would you pick them up at Vung Tau?

[Page 837]

General Brown: By ships. But this is wishful thinking, I think. That assumes there is no interference by the North Vietnamese or the South Vietnamese. I don’t think we can count on that. Under Option 2,5 we would propose to move them out in three days using both sea and air assets. Our security forces would be aboard both the aircraft and the ships. Option 3 talks about using four brigades of U.S. troops to secure the airfields. We would have to put more combatants into Vietnam than there are Americans to evacuate. We’d helicopter them to aircraft carriers in the Gulf.

Secretary Kissinger: Do you have a military man in Saigon working with Ambassador Martin on the evacuation plans?

General Brown: Yes, Admiral Benton. He’s not there now, but is due back to Saigon tomorrow. Admiral Gayler is going to Saigon tomorrow, also.

Secretary Kissinger: You said that one of your options assumed opposition. Opposition from whom? The North Vietnamese? The South Vietnamese?

General Brown: Anybody—could be either or both.

Secretary Kissinger: What do we do if the ARVN won’t let us use the airfields?

Mr. Colby: Make that deal with those (South Vietnamese) airborne and marine units.

Secretary Kissinger: Is that report that they would strike a deal with us reliable?

Mr. Colby: Yes, I think it’s pretty good.

General Brown: (Continuing to read JCS options) This plan commits C–141s, C–5s, and all of our helicopters. All of our forces in the Pacific would be involved. We put more combatants into Vietnam than the number of people we would have to evacuate. Also, that assumes the high possibility of combat with the North Vietnamese and ARVN.

Secretary Schlesinger: Yes, but we have no authority under the law to use U.S. forces other than to evacuate Americans. So, what you are saying there presupposes Congress will give us the authority to use U.S. forces to evacuate Vietnamese.

General Brown: Option 3 is an all-helicopter lift, Americans only. Helicopters would lift Americans from Saigon to carriers off Vung Tau. We would also have to have air cover and ground security forces. I think there is a high risk of mob violence, and there is also the threat of anti-aircraft fire (from the South Vietnamese). Helicopters can only get 4,500 people out per day. The first two options are only concepts of plans, they have no details.

[Page 838]

Secretary Kissinger: Option 2 is an air and sea evacuation from Vung Tau and envisages 200,000 people?

General Brown: Option 1 is Vung Tau. Option 2 uses Tan Son Nhut and Vung Tau. Option 3 is choppers only, and only Americans, which would require security forces.

Secretary Kissinger: From all the reporting I’ve seen, Option 3 is more likely to trigger violence against Americans than the others.

General Brown: Yes, that’s right.

Secretary Kissinger: Option 2—that’s only Americans, right?

Mr. Shackley: You would have to figure eight dependents for every ARVN soldier if you are going to use that airborne brigade and marine unit.

Secretary Kissinger: That’s 96,000 on top of the 200,000.

General Brown: That’s right.

Secretary Kissinger: Another option is possible negotiations, but if you do that, you have triggered the end right there, haven’t you? Are there any other possibilities?

Mr. Christison: If you use those South Vietnamese units, you’re going to have to promise to take everybody in the area, because they will all know what’s going on.

Mr. Colby: It’s a possibility, if the cohesiveness of the airborne and marine units can be maintained.

Secretary Kissinger: Who’s dealing with them? Are you?

Mr. Colby: The Embassy.

Mr. Christison: About half the marines are in Vung Tau. There are two units near Xuan Loc, and one is in Saigon.

Secretary Kissinger: Jim, what do you think?

Secretary Schlesinger: I think we ought to get out what Americans we can, and soon. I don’t think we can get many Vietnamese out, even under the best of circumstances, and if you do want to get Vietnamese out, you are going to have to tell the government.

General Brown: We can get a lot off the beaches at Vung Tau—like we did at Danang.

Secretary Kissinger: Dick Smyser, what do you think?

Mr. Smyser: If we tell the Vietnamese to go to Vung Tau, the government will collapse.

Secretary Kissinger: I think we should meet again on Saturday morning (April 19). In the interim, let’s do our best to speed up getting Americans out. Can you (Gen. Brown) get those concepts into plans so that we know what we are up against? I will talk to Thieu. We’ll meet again Saturday morning. We’ll get a cable out to Martin speeding up the evacuation.

  1. Source: Ford Library, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box 24, WSAG Meeting Minutes, Originals, April 1975. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room. Kissinger, Scowcroft, and Schlesinger discussed the meeting’s conclusions with Ford in the White House Cabinet Room at 4:30 p.m. (Ibid., National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversation, Box 11, 4/17/75)
  2. See Document 237.
  3. See footnote 4, Document 243.
  4. Colby’s briefing, “The Situation in Vietnam,” April 17, attached but not printed.
  5. Reference is to Department of Defense Options Paper, undated. (Ford Library, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box 19, WSAG Meeting, 1/17/75, Evacuation)