284. Minutes of the Secretary of State’s Regionals Staff Meeting1

[Omitted here are a summary of discussion, list of participants, and discussion unrelated to the SS Mayaguez.]

Mr. Zurhellen: Sir, we have two reports this morning that an American merchant ship has been captured by Cambodians about a hundred miles off the coast and is proceeding into Sihanoukville under Cambodian troop guard.

Secretary Kissinger: How can that be?

Mr. Zurhellen: It’s beyond me.

Secretary Kissinger: Wait a minute. It is proceeding—and what are we doing?

Mr. Zurhellen: Sir, we have no report of it through American government channels yet, and I got this only about two minutes before the meeting.

Secretary Kissinger: Now, goddam it: We are not going to sit here and let an American merchant ship be captured at sea and let it go into the harbor without doing a bloody thing about it.

We are going to protest.

Mr. Zurhellen: I assume we have been already for a couple of hours.

Secretary Kissinger: Where is John Dean? We can drop him into the jungle. What are we planning to do? Has anyone talked to the Pentagon?

Mr. Zurhellen: As I say, sir, I saw the message only when I came into the room this morning, so I haven’t had a chance to do anything.

Secretary Kissinger: How can that be? Why would they capture a ship a hundred miles at sea?

Mr. Zurhellen: It is a strange repeat of something that happened last week, when there were allegations that a Korean ship was being [Page 975]chased about a hundred miles offshore by unknown Communists, but it turned around and got away.

Secretary Kissinger: Will you get Scowcroft and tell the Navy to see whether they can intercept that ship. We haven’t reached the point yet where American ships get captured by Cambodians. (Exit Eagleburger)

Mr. Enders: Using our patrol boats.

Secretary Kissinger: Is it our patrol boats?

Mr. Enders: They have a series of 35-foot patrol boats.

Secretary Kissinger: How far out is it now?

Mr. Hyland: We haven’t had a message from the ship in five hours. We don’t know where the ship is. The last message from the ship is that it had been boarded.

Secretary Kissinger: How many hours ago was that?

Mr. Hyland: 3:30 in the morning our time.

Secretary Kissinger: May I ask what we were doing while this was going on?

Mr. Hyland: Mr. Secretary, the message that came to Washington did not come five hours ago. It came about an hour or so ago.

Secretary Kissinger: Well, where did it wait for four hours is my question.

Mr. Ingersoll: From the company.2

Mr. Zurhellen: There is a message from the shipping company in Jakarta, sir. The shipping agent of the ship in Jakarta received the message from it and turned it over to some American authority in Jakarta, which then sent the information in here.

Secretary Kissinger: When did the message reach here?

Mr. Hyland: Around seven o’clock, as far as I know.

Secretary Kissinger: Why would it take five hours when an American ship is boarded for it to get here?

Mr. Hyland: A company representative heard from his ship. This is all I know about it. And relayed the message later to the American government. And it was sent in Critic channels around seven o’clock.

Secretary Kissinger: What are Critic channels?

Mr. Hyland: Well—immediate, fast, instantaneous.

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Secretary Kissinger: Yes. But how long did we sit on it at the Embassy there?

Mr. Hyland: I do not know.

Secretary Kissinger: Well, will you find out.

Mr. Zurhellen: Yes, sir, we will find out.

Mr. Hyland: I do not know how long the company—the company representative apparently tried to raise the ship for quite a while and finally gave up.

Mr. Ingersoll: They continued to broadcast a little bit, because the radio—

Secretary Kissinger: Well, is he smart enough to understand that if it is captured by Cambodians, it is not likely to be broadcasting? Or is that not taught in the free enterprise system?

Mr. Hyland: I think he just wanted to find out anything he could about the ship. He knew it had been boarded.

Secretary Kissinger: It is being towed to an unknown Cambodian port—

Mr. Hyland: Probably Sihanoukville.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes. But, look—when you get a message like this, it is not being unreasonable to ask for some action. And if it is 100 miles out at sea—

Mr. Hyland: It could be intercepted. But if there are Cambodians on board the ship, what are you going to do?

Secretary Kissinger: I don’t know. I am not the Chief of Naval Operations. But if we cannot handle the Cambodians—what are they going to do if we intercept it?

Mr. Hyland: If we intercept it just with airplanes—even if you attack the patrol boat, that doesn’t solve the problem that there are Cambodians on the main ship.

Secretary Kissinger: I know you damned well cannot let Cambodia capture a ship a hundred miles at sea and do nothing.3

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the SS Mayaguez.]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Transcripts of Secretary of State Kissinger’s Staff Meetings, 1973–1977, Entry 5177, Box 7, Secretary’s Staff Meetings. Secret. Kissinger chaired the meeting, which was attended by all the principal officers of the Department or their designated alternates.
  2. The Delta Exploration Company received the first mayday signal from the SS Mayaguez. Newsom relayed that communication to Scowcroft in backchannel message 167, May 12, 0845Z. (Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Kissinger-Scowcroft West Wing Office File, Box 1, Cambodia, Mayaguez Seizure)
  3. Kissinger told Ford about the seizure during a 9:15 a.m. meeting in the Oval Office, May 12. (Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversations, Box 11, 5/12/1975)