256. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam Evacuation


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • Robert Ingersoll
  • Amb. L. Dean Brown
  • Philip Habib
  • Robert Miller
  • Defense
  • Secretary Schlesinger
  • William Clements
  • Morton Abramowitz
  • Robert Ellsworth
  • JCS
  • Lt. Gen. John W. Pauly
  • CIA
  • William Colby
  • Ted Shackley
  • William Christison
  • NSC Staff
  • LTG Brent Scowcroft
  • Col. Granger
  • W.R. Smyser
  • William Stearman
  • James Barnum

Secretary Kissinger: Bill . . .

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

Secretary Schlesinger: Do you think there is any chance of the South Vietnamese making a deal? Or, do you think it would be just a facade? (In reference to a statement in the briefing that South Vietnamese opposition disunity would probably only further delay the formation of a government with some chance of dealing with the Communists.)

Secretary Kissinger: I don’t know. We’ll just have to see.

Mr. Colby continued to brief.

Secretary Schlesinger: The Communists haven’t taken Bien Hoa airbase?

Mr. Colby: Not yet. (Continued to brief.)

Secretary Kissinger: How would they take them, by ship? (In reference to a statement in the briefing that the South Vietnamese hope to move a number of refugees from Vung Tau to Delta areas.)

[Page 891]

Mr. Christison: Yes. Specifically, they will move them to Can Tho Province.

Mr. Colby continued to brief.

Secretary Schlesinger: Wait a second. Is that hard information? (Referring to a statement in the briefing that a US jet transport may have been the target of an SA–7 missile yesterday.) We have a report here that there has been some firing at U.S. aircraft and that the security around Tan Son Nhut has broken down.3

Mr. Christison: Our evidence is not conclusive. All we have is the statement of some personnel who were in the area, who believe that it was an SA–7. No damage was done.

Mr. Colby: There have been small-arms firings on U.S. planes several times over the past few days.

Secretary Schlesinger: On the way in or the way out?

Mr. Colby: Both ways.

Secretary Schlesinger: John (Gen. Pauly), you better check on that report to see if it is true.

Gen. Pauly: I will.

Mr. Colby continued to brief.

Secretary Kissinger: Yeah, like Cuba! (In reference to a statement in the briefing that Cambodia would be a neutral and non-aligned state.)

Mr. Colby continued his briefing.

Secretary Kissinger: What did you say at the last there?

Mr. Colby: That we have good evidence that the (Cambodian) Communists are moving ruthlessly against former government officials and military officers. They have instructed their cadres to, “secretly eliminate all senior enemy commanders and those who owe us a blood debt.”

Mr. Christison: And these come from Communist messages. The messages are mean in tone. The reprisals are directed against former government officials and military officers, for the most part.

[Page 892]

Secretary Kissinger: I think these eliminations are directed against Sihanouk’s followers, don’t you? They want to make sure that when he comes back—if he comes back—that he will have no popular base.

Secretary Schlesinger: It’s still not much comfort knowing that you’re not the target.

Secretary Kissinger: I don’t think there can be any other motive, do you?

Mr. Colby: I think that the Communists will be looking to the Chinese for support.

Secretary Kissinger: That’s another reason—the two are not exclusive. I would expect them to lean towards the Chinese and try to neutralize his (Sihanouk’s) base.

Okay, is there anybody here who needs some decisions today?

Secretary Schlesinger: Yes, I have two things—those ships in Saigon harbor and the Cambodian aircraft that was evacuated to Thailand. I think we should get a message to the Thais making it perfectly clear to them that under United States law those Cambodian planes are U.S. property. I think we should get them out of there. They can fly them to Clark AFB. The Thais are already making noises about sending them back to Cambodia. They can’t. They’re ours. We ought to get them out of there, and fast. Otherwise, they are going to use them as diplomatic wampum. There are a lot of other countries that could use those planes, like Indonesia.

Secretary Kissinger: I’m strongly in favor of getting them out of Thailand. Do we have the right to give them to Indonesia? Can it be done?

Mr. Abramowitz: There are ways of doing it. You know, the Thais may want some of them, too.

Mr. Clements: Henry, we have a real problem here. We ought to get those things out of there.

Secretary Kissinger: I have no objection to giving some of them to the Thais either. How many are there, ninety?

Gen. Pauly: Yes.

Secretary Schlesinger: We have to establish—make it very clear—to the Thais that they are not going back to Cambodia. Those planes are ours, and damnit, it is not up to the Thais to decide who they belong to. They are our property. We’ve got to get them out of there.

Secretary Kissinger: I’m in favor of giving some of them to the Thais, and the Indonesians, too.

Secretary Schlesinger: The Thais are going to demand some sort of quid-pro-quo. That’s our problem.

Secretary Kissinger: They may not . . .

[Page 893]

Secretary Schlesinger: We’ve got to establish that under the law those planes do not belong to the Thais, they are ours. You also have the problem that you might establish a precedent if we move our planes from Vietnam to Thailand.

The second thing I wanted to bring up are those MST ships in Saigon harbor. It seems to me that if those ships start moving down the Mekong toward Vung Tau, they are probably going to be interdicted. Martin (Amb.) says they have a certain value there in Saigon. They have no value. When the river closes, that’s it. They’re lost. What is it, seven hours to Vung Tau? They’ll never make it. Those ships are an important asset, and we should get them the hell out of there.

Secretary Kissinger: My understanding is that there are only two left at Saigon. Martin says he wants to keep only the two.

Mr. Habib: What Martin wants to do is keep two there at all times, and he will be down to that level in three or four days. When the present lull in military activity ends, he’ll know that that is it, and thinks he will have enough time to get the ships out.

Secretary Schlesinger: If panic sets in there is no way in hell he will get those ships out. They are not protected, they’re flimsy, and what do they have, a handful of Marines aboard? If we lose those ships, we are gong to pay, and I mean politically, on the Hill. If Martin thinks he has all that much time, why doesn’t he send them down to Vung Tau and bring them back to Saigon if the river is still open? They are not doing us a damn bit of good just sitting there.

Mr. Clements: Those things have no protection whatsoever, Henry. They’re vulnerable as hell.

Gen. Pauly: There’s another item to consider. During this present lull, there is the chance that those units east of Saigon have slipped farther south toward the river and would be in a better position to interdict it.

Mr. Colby: Some of them have slipped down. But, you have to remember that it is not easy to dominate the Delta area. That land is boggy and hard to get into with any type of heavy stuff. The Communists could beat up the ships coming down the river, but I don’t think they can get the types of weapons in there that they would need to sink the ships. I think they would be lucky to sink any of the ships.

Secretary Kissinger: Some are coming out today, aren’t they?

Mr. Habib: There are more than four ships altogether. Two more are coming up the river today. Martin wants to keep two there all the time. He thinks he has the time to move them out.

Secretary Schlesinger: Well, if you have the time to move them out, you also have the time to bring them back in.

Mr. Clements: There are only three ships?

[Page 894]

Mr. Habib: The fourth is coming in—is probably there already.

Secretary Kissinger: Let me ask Graham (Martin) about his reasoning.4 I’ll get to him today about it.

Secretary Schlesinger: Send him a stern cable. That was a rather obnoxious, flamboyant telegram he sent in.5

Secretary Kissinger: Look, Graham gets a lot of abuse. He doesn’t need any more from here. Remember, he’s working under very trying circumstances. I think he’s doing a good job under the circumstances.

Gen. Pauly: The reaction I got from CINCPAC this morning was that Graham sees no problem in getting the three ships out.

Secretary Kissinger: (To General Scowcroft) Find out what Graham’s reasoning is.

Gen. Pauly: Graham told our people he doesn’t intend to use them.

Secretary Schlesinger: He should use them, or get them the hell out of there if he thinks they’re of no use.

Secretary Kissinger: (To General Scowcroft) Find out what he has in mind.

Mr. Colby: Would you consider putting some Vietnamese on those ships now that we’ve gone public on evacuating Vietnamese?

Secretary Kissinger: What do you mean we made public? Everybody in this town is covering his ass these days. A number of people have made it public. I think it was the Attorney General this time.

[Page 895]

Secretary Schlesinger: That brings us back to what we were talking about earlier. What do we have, two day’s use of Tan Son Nhut left?

Secretary Kissinger: It’s possible that the North Vietnamese won’t try to take Tan Son Nhut, isn’t it? I mean, they may bypass it. Once, and if, they move on it, however, what do we have, two days to get everybody out?

Mr. Colby: Less than that.

Secretary Schlesinger: You can keep some C–130s flying awhile while the airfield is under attack. You would just have to be prepared to load and get out in ten minutes. The question is, where do we go once the 1200 limit is reached?

Secretary Kissinger: What are you recommending?

Secretary Schlesinger: That Martin cuts that number down to about 400 or 500. You don’t need them there anymore.

Mr. Clements: How many are there now?

Secretary Schlesinger: He’ll be down to 1,200 or 1,300 by the end of the day.

Mr. Habib: But that’s not counting the Vietnamese dependents.

Secretary Kissinger: What do you mean?

Amb. Brown: Vietnamese dependents of our employees. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles. One guy showed up with 70 dependents.

Secretary Kissinger: How many are left?

Amb. Brown: There are 3,170 left. As of today, some of the high-risk Vietnamese local employees are beginning to move out.

Mr. Colby: I’m sorry to return to this, but I have to make a nuisance of myself about it. I would like to move more of those high-risk locals.

Mr. Clements: That 3,170 figure does not include high-risk locals?

Amb. Brown: That’s right.

Secretary Kissinger: Who are all these Vietnamese that are getting out then?

Amb. Brown: Dependents, the families of high-ranking government and military officials. The families of principals.

Secretary Schlesinger: Yeah, and the principals are getting shaky now, too.

Mr. Clements: Henry, I think that at some point our taking all these people out is going to really aggravate the North Vietnamese.

Secretary Kissinger: It may not. It may be easier for them not to have to evacuate them later on. On the other hand, they may want us to evacuate them rather than come to some agreement.

[Page 896]

Secretary Schlesinger: Well, the evacuation is not going all that slow overall. But, the U.S. is going to be accountable for all those Vietnamese, don’t forget that.

Secretary Kissinger: It’s me who is going to be held accountable.

Mr. Clements: I’m not so sure of that, Henry.

Secretary Schlesinger: We—the administration—caught hell up on the Hill yesterday about that very thing. I tell you, the mood is ugly up there toward “the” administration. You have to look beyond this situation—the linkage if I can use the term—for the impact this will have on our military deployments in other areas like NATO, etc. We’ve got to be thinking now of the psychological impact our actions in Vietnam will have for future deployments.

Secretary Kissinger: What do you mean, the President told them (Congress) yesterday what we are doing.6 I was there, I didn’t detect an ugly mood.

Amb. Brown: People could start positioning themselves . . .

Secretary Schlesinger: I still think we ought to get down to 400 or 500 people.

Mr. Smyser: Graham’s concern about going down to 400 people is that he would have to send out those very officers who are necessary to get everybody else out. The problem is the hangers-on. Those he can’t get rid of.

Secretary Schlesinger: Look, Dean (Ambassador to Cambodia) got down to, what was it, fifty people? He functioned effectively right to the end.

Amb. Brown: Yeah, but Martin doesn’t have the control that Dean had. It’s newsmen and that type who won’t leave.

Secretary Schlesinger: Look, it’s a question of official personnel and a question of non-official personnel. I mean, 400 personnel in Saigon is equal to the 58 people Dean had. Besides, the activities of these people has to be shrinking as the territory shrinks. What the hell can all these people be doing, anyway?

Mr. Clements: General Brown says that a helicopter lift is a horrible expectation. He says it’s going to be awful.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes, but on the condition that a helicopter lift will be opposed.

Mr. Clements: He’s got to assume that.

Secretary Kissinger: Opposed by whom? North Vietnamese.

Secretary Schlesinger: North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese.

[Page 897]

Mr. Clements: Anyway, that’s George’s message to this group today.

Secretary Schlesinger: We’ll be down to 1,200 by tonight. The question is, what are we going to do tomorrow? Get down further?

Secretary Kissinger: I’ll talk to Graham, and I think we need a meeting with the President on this. We’ll schedule a meeting with the President for tomorrow. Okay, thank you.

  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 23, attached but not printed.
  3. In backchannel message 728 to Kissinger, April 23, Martin wrote: “I agree with the judgment of the intelligence community that the North Vietnamese can begin effectively interdicting Tan Son Nhut Airport at any time. As I have previously reported they have had that capability for many months with SA 7s. They have not chosen to use it. Although they could slip in sappers close enough to put a few rockets in, they have also had that capability not for months, but for years. Tan Son Nhut has come under attack many times before and continued to operate, but we do not really expect such attacks in the near future.” (Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Backchannel Messages, Box 3, Martin Channel, April 1975, Incoming, 2)
  4. In backchannel message WH50749 to Martin, April 23, Kissinger asked for the Ambassador’s rationale for keeping the ships in Saigon. Kissinger concluded: “You may think I am perpetually harassing you. However, when you get back here you will find that the record shows I defended you and your approach without exception. I continue to believe you are playing a heroic and patriotic role.” (Ibid., Outgoing, 3) In backchannel message 732 to Kissinger, April 24, Martin replied: “My rationale for employing the ships has always been only as a last resort. I have gone over the matter again with my senior advisors, including General Smith, Admirals Benton and Oberg, plus some senior Vietnamese. We are all agreed the attempt to load these ships with Vietnamese refugees, at this point still illegal, would almost guarantee a panic in Saigon along the Danang lines. This we cannot afford to risk.” Martin continued: “In any event, I have no objection to their being moved out to Vung Tau region, whenever it is desired to do so.” In closing, Martin added: “I don’t really think you are perpetually harassing me. As I said, I know full well the pressures a bureaucracy can bring. As long as you don’t yield to them without checking with me first to ascertain the actual conditions here, I think we can keep under control both the Washington mattress mice and the situation here. Sometimes, it is a bit like an Algerian Egg Dance, but so far I haven’t broken any yet.” (Ibid., Incoming, 2)
  5. Reviewing the ongoing evacuation in telegram 5448 to Kissinger, April 22, Martin wrote: “I am aware of your problems with your colleagues both in Working Group and in WSAG, who either are too busy to read previous cables, are simply unaware of Danang and Nha Trang or are just too impatient and frustrated with the existence of unused capacity to think of what would happen if we tried to use it.” (Ibid., NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box 20, WSAG Meeting, 4/23/75, Evacuation)
  6. See Document 252.