243. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam Evacuation


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • Robert Ingersoll
  • Philip Habib
  • Robert Miller
  • Amb. L. Dean Brown
  • Defense
  • Robert Ellsworth
  • Amos Jordan
  • Morton Abramowitz
  • 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:

  • —Ambassador Martin and Admiral Gayler would be asked for their recommendation regarding the immediate introduction of one brigade of U.S. Marines into Saigon;
  • —that the Working Group would prepare an option paper on relocation of Vietnamese refugees.

Secretary Kissinger: Bill . . .

Mr. Colby began to brief from the attached text.2

Secretary Kissinger: There is one thing for sure, CIA is not afraid to predict a total disaster. (Referring to a statement in the briefing that the collapse of Saigon is imminent.)

Mr. Colby: It’s hard to say anything else. (Continued to brief.)

Secretary Kissinger: The North Vietnamese will be in position to close Route 4 when?

[Page 850]

Mr. Colby: Any time now. (Finished his briefing.)

Secretary Kissinger: George (Gen. Brown), do you have anything to add? Can’t you pull off some flanking maneuver or something?

Gen. Brown: Trouble is, there are no more North Vietnamese in North Vietnam. In response to the SAM (surface-to-air) missile threat, we have moved from Okinawa those type of aircraft that we can use against SAMs—just in case they are needed. We have also moved the amphibious forces so that they will be in the best position if they are called upon to help. By 0800 tomorrow, all but the last 10 helicopters will be positioned on the carriers, ready to go. By 0500 Monday, Washington time, the remaining 10 helicopters will be on board the carriers. That means we can evacuate substantial numbers of persons by tomorrow morning.

Secretary Kissinger: How many?

Gen. Brown: 1,700 in a single lift.

Secretary Kissinger: Does that include security forces?

Gen. Brown: No, well, that’s four loading zones with 1,200 marines that could take out 1,700 evacuees.

Secretary Kissinger: And you are going to need two cycles, right?

Gen. Brown: At least. We figure we can lift out about 2,200 evacuees plus the security forces in two waves. Now, if we went to a 13-hour day, we could lift about 10,000 people out by helicopter. The basic scheme is to free-up the carrier decks and shuttle the helicopters from Saigon—the DAO Compound at Tan Son Nhut—to the decks of the carriers. It would take about two hours round-trip on each helicopter.

Secretary Kissinger: So, the plan is set. I had a long talk with the President last night, and he has ordered that the reduction of U.S. personnel will be done in one lift—two if security forces are needed.3 The final figures will be worked out in Saigon. We will not fix that figure here. So, your concept, George, has already been ordered. (Amb.) Graham Martin has been informed. He is in touch with Admiral Gayler and Admiral Benton. By Tuesday night we will be down to 1,400 to 1,700 people. It will be up to their collective judgement whether one or two lifts are needed. My impression is that only 1,400 will remain after Tuesday.4 That is now the decision. There will be no further reductions until the situation deteriorates further. All right, now the second [Page 851]point I want to make is that we want to do everything within our power to prevent panic. I don’t want any type of consultation on war powers.

Mr. Ellsworth: Our General Counsel says we have to go to the Congress on war powers.

Secretary Kissinger: He’s overruled! I want no panic at either end. We will have the total support of the Congress.

Gen. Scowcroft: Our consultations took place one-and-one-half hours ahead of the lift in Cambodia.

Secretary Kissinger: There are a number of other things that the President is thinking of. The President has already ordered a reduction to the minimum number by Tuesday morning, our time.

Gen. Brown: Admiral Gayler has come in with a request that we deploy now, a brigade of Marines from Okinawa. The reason for the Marines from Okinawa is that they will have lighter equipment.

Secretary Kissinger: We’d better run that by the President.

Gen. Brown: We have not heard Ambassador Martin’s reaction to that as yet.

Secretary Kissinger: Was the request made before Gayler left for Saigon?

Gen. Brown: Yes. He just got there (to Saigon).

Secretary Kissinger: My feeling is that the Ambassador would think that the worse thing we could do is bring in Marines. What do you think, Bob?

Mr. Ellsworth: My gut reaction is to favor it.

Secretary Kissinger: Well, I think we should get Graham’s reaction first. Graham is getting as much heat around this town as I am. I told him that the only difference between us is that they will hang him a little lower than they hang me. I don’t think Graham will go along with bringing the Marines in. Phil (Mr. Habib), tell Graham to talk it over with Gayler and ask them to come up with an agreed-upon position. Once we get their opinion, then we can act.

Amb. Brown: We haven’t got much time.

Secretary Kissinger: When does he want to put the Marines in there?

Gen. Brown: Now, but I think it would be good to get the Ambassador’s opinion first.

Secretary Kissinger: No, we can’t put them in there now. If (Amb.) Martin agrees, okay, but if we do, we must have individual consultations, and that triggers the whole thing.

Mr. Habib: If we relate it to the evacuation of U.S. personnel only, we won’t have to have consultations and there will be no challenges from Congress.

[Page 852]

Secretary Kissinger: But that would still get us into a debate on the Hill. Our objective is to have a collapse under controlled conditions, if possible. I don’t want to give the impression at this end of a total bugout in South Vietnam. In order to do this, we need the total cooperation of all the departments of the government. I don’t want to trigger an evacuation hysteria until the other end is set. That is why I am concerned about bringing in those Marines. I don’t want a debate started in Congress. So, I would recommend that we find out first from Martin and Gayler how urgent they feel the problem is and apprise them of the problems sending in the Marines would cause from this end. If the North Vietnamese start attacking Saigon on Monday or Tuesday, we may have to get out everybody by Tuesday or Wednesday. I want to keep enough of a structure in Saigon in the event we can bargain. Anyway, Martin has been ordered to cut down to 1,300 by Tuesday.

Gen. Brown: That’s going to require two waves, but that can be handled.

Mr. Ingersoll: That would be at the Embassy compound?

Gen. Brown: No, that’s the beauty of the plan—it would be at Tan Son Nhut. But, the problem is that Tan Son Nhut is in the path of the North Vietnamese, and they may attack it. Our plan is to hold the people at the DAO compound at Tan Son Nhut.

Secretary Kissinger: Well, we have to find out the sense in Saigon. We have to rely now on the people in Saigon for their judgement. Phil, check with Martin and Gayler on the Marines. We’ll meet again tomorrow morning for about a half hour. They should have their answer in by then. I think we should meet every day from now on. What do you think, 10:00 a.m. tomorrow?

Mr. Stearman: Do you want to talk about the evacuation of Vietnamese?

Secretary Kissinger: Yes, let’s talk about that next.

Gen. Brown: There is one aspect of this thing I would like to bring up. We would like to move our back-up from Hawaii to the Philippines. This could trigger press speculation of an impending evacuation.

Amb. Brown: Do you have enough aircraft?

Gen. Brown: Oh, we have plenty of aircraft.

Secretary Kissinger: I think it would be positive to move something forward.

Mr. Habib: What kind of protection are you going to have for these helicopters?

Gen. Brown: Tactical Air, but only over the area of the actual lift.

Mr. Habib: I suppose we should . . .

Secretary Kissinger: My instinct is against it, but I will talk to the President this afternoon.

[Page 853]

Gen. Brown: There is one other point. I suggest the Ambassador talk to the Vietnamese about getting those planes out of there. You know, in Cambodia a lot of those government planes were left on the ground and a lot of them were lost.5 I think there should be some plan to fly them to Thailand. At what point this should be done, I don’t know.

Secretary Kissinger: That’s a good point, but I want to clear all those cables on that. I agree that it is a good idea, George, but wait for 48 hours.

Now, evacuation plans.6 Let’s see if I have this right. Option 1 calls for one helicopter airlift for the civilians, and one more for the security forces. This would take about 13 hours.

Gen. Brown: Oh no, far less time.

Secretary Kissinger: Okay, it would take about two hours for that. That is, two hours per cycle, or four hours altogether. What do you mean by cycle?

Gen. Brown: I use the term cycle to mean two times in. Each helicopter would have to make two runs. It would take about five hours to evacuate all personnel in two cycles.

Secretary Kissinger: Okay, and you can also take Vietnamese.

Gen. Brown: No, that’s the next option—Option 4.

Secretary Kissinger: Option 4 is to lift 2,700 people in one lift with 1,200 security forces. Then we go from there on up to 10,000. Do we know who those 10,000 people are?

Mr. Habib: The Embassy has lists, but the question is, what portion do we take?

Secretary Kissinger: We’ll just have to depend on the Embassy to sort that out—if we have to go to Option 4. The President might decide to take out dependents if we have to.

Gen. Brown: You’re going to have to take out 1,200 security forces in any event.

Mr. Habib: The security forces stay to the end?

Gen. Brown: Yes.

Secretary Kissinger: Okay. Option 3 calls for evacuating by sea—no fixed wing aircraft. Where would they evacuate, Vung Tau?

Gen. Brown: Vung Tau and Newport, on the edge of Saigon. The Ambassador’s scheme is to tell the Vietnamese to go to Vung Tau and we’ll pull as many off the beach as we can.

[Page 854]

Secretary Kissinger: Those are not the only Vietnamese who are going to be there. There are a lot of Vietnamese there already, aren’t there? According to Bill (Mr. Colby) the North Vietnamese are going to be in Vung Tau in a few days. That isn’t a very good plan, is it?

Mr. Colby: Some Vietnamese would get out via Can Tho.

Secretary Kissinger: I just think Vung Tau is going to be impossible.

Mr. Habib: The Mekong River is capable of carrying ocean-going ships. People in the Delta area will be filtering out all over the place.

Secretary Kissinger: Has anybody identified those Vietnamese we want to evacuate?

Mr. Habib: That’s the problem. There are going to be all kinds of people on the riverbank. Unless you start getting a clear idea now of who you want to get out, you’re going to have a mess.

Mr. Stearman: If the North Vietnamese block Route 4, you can’t get people out through Can Tho, can you?

Mr. Colby: That’s right.

Mr. Brown: How long are those ships (four MSTS—civilian ships under military contract) going to hold in Saigon? I thought I saw where they were to leave tonight. There’s no way they can get loaded today, is there?

Secretary Kissinger: One of our negotiating assets is that there is a government in Saigon, and that it exists. We start moving people out and the government collapses.

Mr. Colby: We could begin to move some out now.

Amb. Brown: You’re talking only of handfuls.

Mr. Colby: We could leave one ship there at Saigon.

Gen. Brown: We earlier issued instructions to move those ships to sea. They were to leave no later than tonight. We have now countermanded those orders. They have been told to hold. The ships are there and will stay there until we instruct them differently.

Mr. Ellsworth: How many does each one hold?

Gen. Brown: About 1,800 people.

Secretary Kissinger: Now look, we can escalate the evacuation and we will look good three weeks from now. But, I do not want to trigger a situation in which we have mass chaos. Our best solution is to have an evacuation under a controlled situation.

Mr. Colby: We could release some of those people we want to get out now. It would relieve some of the pressure.

Mr. Habib: Some are already coming out on aircraft.

Mr. Colby: I think we should begin to move them slowly.

Gen. Brown: Another thing. You know, we’re flying one plane every hour into Tan Son Nhut. A lot of them are coming out empty. [Page 855]That’s wasteful. I would like to cut back a little on the number of flights—say to about one every two hours.

Secretary Kissinger: That has to be coordinated on the ground out there. I didn’t know you were flying in that many flights. Dean (Amb. Brown) are you coordinating this?

Amb. Brown: Yes.

Secretary Kissinger: I don’t care how you get those people out of there. My only concern is that we get down to the 1400 by Tuesday. The President has set that target. Washington will not set the pace of the planes. The object is to get down to 1400 by Tuesday. How you do it is your problem.

Mr. Colby: The President is also concerned about the Vietnamese, and I think we have to begin moving them out. If we don’t make at least an attempt to get them out, you are going to have more bitterness than you [text missing].

Amb. Brown: It seems to me that we have to make two decisions here today. You know, there are a lot of Vietnamese in this country who came here not of their own choosing, who want their relatives to come. Pressure is building up for us to do something about it. We need to make our minds up about who we want to get out. This could be anywhere from 10,000 to 75,000 people. I think we will want to give Graham the right to process these people in this category, and then consult with Congress. We must go to Senators Kennedy and Eagleton on this.

Secretary Kissinger: Why?

Amb. Brown: They want to be consulted everyday.

Mr. Habib: You know, the President has already instructed the Attorney General to parole those . . .

Secretary Kissinger: Look, this group does not have that responsibility. That responsibility rests in this building, and we will accept full responsibility. We want your cooperation and no panic. You can help us keep down the panic. I want you to avoid running all around town and giving the impression that there will be a total bug-out by Monday. I agree that we should get the high-risk Vietnamese out first. I would prefer to wait to tell Kennedy and Eagleton until Monday.

Amb. Brown: We could tell them about the general categories of people to be paroled.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes, and then you bring about the collapse of Saigon. I want to avoid the impression of a bug-out. I would prefer an option whereby we have the greatest chance of getting the most people out under controlled conditions.

Mr. Habib: There is a way. Those people who want their relatives to come to this country could petition for parole and then bring them out any way they see fit.

[Page 856]

Amb. Brown: But this can be done only by public announcement, and this would signal a bug-out.

Secretary Kissinger: Our policy is to maintain the option of an evacuation under controlled circumstances.

Gen. Brown: How about the high-risk Vietnamese? How are we going to get them out.

Secretary Kissinger: We’ll have to ask Martin if he can load one of those ships today and get it out of there.

Mr. Habib: He wants to evacuate people by air—not ships. Ships are too visible. We should keep those C–141s flying.

Secretary Kissinger: Martin wants to work out the numbers himself. It is an absurd arrangement to keep flying those planes on the off-chance there might be some people wanting to get out. That should be worked out between the Embassy and CINCPAC. That is not our job here.

Gen. Brown: We have those C–141s and Pan Am 707s on call.

Mr. Habib: Martin knows that.

Secretary Kissinger: All I’m saying is that it is up to the Embassy and CINCPAC to make sure that we get down to the 1400 by Tuesday. Make sure that that is done.

Gen. Brown: It’s done.

Secretary Kissinger: Now, what is the other option?

Gen. Brown: Well, Option 1 is going on now. Option 2 is the use of special aircraft . . .

Secretary Kissinger: And Option 3 is to get the Vietnamese to some port, like Vung Tau. Vung Tau is not a good option, if what Bill says is true.

Mr. Jordan: If those ships out of Saigon are empty, they could pick up people as they are going down the Mekong.

Secretary Kissinger: And take them where? We are not in the refugee business.

Gen. Brown: Of these options, we believe that only two are viable—the ‘chopper lift and fixed-wing aircraft.

Secretary Kissinger: How many people can you take out under controlled conditions?

Gen. Brown: By using C–141s and C–130s, we can take out about 10,000 in 13 hours, and that will build up as time goes on.

Secretary Kissinger: What’s the maximum you could get out of Tan Son Nhut in one week?

Gen. Brown: 200,000. This presumes controlled conditions.

Secretary Kissinger: How long would it take you to get started?

Gen. Brown: Immediately.

Secretary Kissinger: There’s no lead time?

[Page 857]

Gen. Brown: It would go as soon as I gave the order.

Secretary Kissinger: And you could bring out 30,000 a day?

Gen. Brown: Yes.

Mr. Stearman: Would you need troops?

Gen. Brown: A division and a third.

Secretary Kissinger: Suppose we evacuated under an agreement, how many troops would you need?

Gen. Brown: 450 Marines.

Secretary Kissinger: Okay, let me sum up. By Tuesday night we will be down to the number of Americans—1400—that Martin has agreed upon, and it will be up to him to decide how many he needs to carry on his function. The mechanics of the airlift will be left up to Martin and Admiral Gayler, without direction from here. Ambassador Martin will identify those high-risk Vietnamese and work out plans for their evacuation. I don’t think a beach operation will work. We’ll keep those ships close-in.

Mr. Habib: The question is, where are we going to take those people?

Secretary Kissinger: That’s a Working Group problem. Get the Working Group to look at the various options.

Gen. Brown: Could we move the WSAG tomorrow at 11:00? It would work out better for me.

Secretary Kissinger: Okay. Any objection?

  1. Source: Ford Library, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box 25, WSAG Meeting Minutes, Originals, April 1975. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room.
  2. Colby’s briefing, “Vietnam,” April 19, attached but not printed.
  3. When Kissinger and Ford spoke on the telephone at 10:10 p.m., the President agreed to Kissinger’s request to reduce the number of Americans in Saigon to 1,250, a number that could be evacuated in one lift. The record of the conversation is in the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 387, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File.
  4. April 22.
  5. The Government of the Khmer Republic fell on April 17.
  6. An updated “JCS Evacuation Plan,” April 19, is at Tab B of the WSAG briefing book prepared for this meeting. (Ford Library, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box 19, WSAG Meeting, April 19, 1975, Evacuation)