42. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Libya and Indochina


  • Chairman
  • Henry Kissinger
  • State
  • William Porter
  • William Sullivan
  • Defense
  • Lawrence Eagleburger
  • Gen. Alexander Haig
  • R/Adm. Daniel Murphy
  • JCS
  • Adm. Thomas Moorer
  • V/Adm. John Weinel
  • CIA
  • James Schlesinger
  • George Carver
  • William Nelson
  • William Newton
  • NSC
  • B/Gen. Brent Scowcroft
  • Richard Kennedy
  • James Hackett


It was agreed that:

[Omitted here are conclusions unrelated to Indochina.]

—State will immediately prepare a telegram to Ambassador Godley in Laos explaining the President’s philosophy of the conduct of the war and asking the Ambassador to consult urgently with Souvanna Phouma.2 The Ambassador should discuss with Souvanna Phouma the following possibilities: (a) an expansion of the U.S. air strikes in the Tha Viang area to include the entire Route 7 and Plaine des Jarres complex, (b) an expansion of the strikes into the Ho Chi Minh trail area of southern Laos and northern South Vietnam, or (c) both the Route 7 and Ho Chi Minh trail areas. The Ambassador should seek Souvanna Phouma’s reaction to these options, including his specific approval of or opposition to each of the choices, and cable that reaction, together with the Ambassador’s own recommendations, to Washington as urgently as possible. The aircrews will be kept on alert until a reply is received from Ambassador Godley.

—The agencies will clear all press announcements of U.S. air strikes in Laos with the White House in advance of their release.

[Page 190]

DOD will remove all members of the minesweeping element from North Vietnamese soil immediately and on April 17 State will notify the North Vietnamese in Paris that the minesweeping has been suspended.

—The decision has been made to fly an SR–71 flight over North Vietnam as soon as the weather is clear. State will prepare a suggested response to the expected North Vietnamese protests by April 17.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Indochina.]

Mr. Kissinger: O.K. Jim (Schlesinger), want to give us a brief briefing on Indochina?

Mr. Schlesinger read a prepared statement (copy attached).3

Mr. Schlesinger: I will just add that there is considerable doubt within the Cambodian Government that Lon Nol will follow through on the things he promised to do the other day.

Mr. Kissinger: You all know that the President ordered air strikes in Laos.4 The question now is whether to extend them into the Laotian panhandle and South Vietnam or only the panhandle and not South Vietnam. However, if we do attack further, we should do so massively in order to get our message across.

Mr. Schlesinger: The indications are that the attack will come at the end of April.

Adm. Moorer: You’re referring to a South Vietnamese attack, aren’t you?

Mr. Schlesinger: That’s right.

Mr. Kissinger: Our concern is to do something massively; we get as much heat from our domestic critics for something big as we do for these little piddling attacks.

Mr. Sullivan: Except in Laos, there’s not much heat from our strikes in Laos.

Mr. Kissinger: That’s true.

Mr. Carver: The Poles put out word to their cadre that the agreement was a one-for-one deal.

Mr. Kissinger: The Poles did?

Mr. Carver: That’s right.

Mr. Kissinger: We have two messages from the field. There is one from Godley that says we should check with Souvanna Phouma before we hit the trails; and the other one, from Bunker, says that [Page 191]the South Vietnamese activities are all defensive. It seems that Bunker doesn’t have access to your intelligence, Jim (Schlesinger).

Adm. Moorer: Bunker’s cable may be based on the reports that the 304th and 312th North Vietnamese Divisions are withdrawing from South Vietnam.

Mr. Carver: Those units may have gone out of the country just for reorganization and resupply. In any case, the supplies are still coming into South Vietnam at a heavy rate. They are building up around Khe Sanh and in the A Shau valley.

Adm. Moorer: I don’t argue about that.

Mr. Kissinger: Before we do anything, we have to check with Godley and see what Souvanna will agree to.

Adm. Moorer: I would like to make a few comments. This is where the bombing in Laos took place yesterday (pointing to map), around the town of Tha Viang in the north-central part of the country. We sent in twenty B–52s and 23 F–111s in yesterday’s strikes. Now Godley says the situation is extremely fluid and confused, and he doesn’t have any more targets at this time.

Mr. Kissinger: He doesn’t have any more targets? What is Godley thinking?

Adm. Moorer: I don’t know. What he told me is that friend and foe are all confused in the valley around Tha Viang and that we shouldn’t bomb there until the situation is clarified. We have to have clear targets before we bomb. There are plenty of good targets in the Ho Chi Minh trail around here (referring to map), but if we strike in that area of the trail we will have to hit the missiles at Khe Sanh.

Mr. Kissinger: You can’t bomb in the Laotian panhandle without hitting the missiles in South Vietnam?

Adm. Moorer: No, that’s not what I said. We can’t hit those targets in the trail that are within range of the missiles at Khe Sanh without first taking out the missiles. And the best targets in the panhandle are those that are within range of the missiles.

Mr. Kissinger: Most of the good targets are in the missile area?

Adm. Moorer: That’s right.

Mr. Kissinger: Bill (Sullivan), that’s not in violation of Article 20. The agreement says they can’t use neighboring territory to launch attacks against South Vietnam, but it says nothing about using forces in South Vietnam to launch attacks in Laos and Cambodia.

Mr. Sullivan: That’s right.

Mr. Kissinger: What we want to do is use U.S. power massively, not to expend it on these little problems like Tha Viang. Can we get our strategy across to our ambassadors? Can we explain to them that if we get kicked in the teeth by the North Vietnamese on an agreement we have represented to the American people as a peace with honor, we want to [Page 192]attack the enemy massively and make it clear to them that we won’t stand for it? Do you think Souvanna will object to our bombing the trail?

Gen. Haig: When I was in Laos, I asked Souvanna what his view would be of a resumption of the bombing of the trail. He said he didn’t want that. He feels that Laos is out of the fighting with a very fragile ceasefire and he doesn’t want it to come apart. So I asked him what he thought about our bombing Cambodia and South Vietnam. “Ah,” he said, “that I welcome.”

Mr. Kissinger: For us to piddle away our air power in these isolated areas of Laos is a waste. The situation in Tha Viang is a bore. Why should we commit our air power over a tactical situation in a small town miles away from the Plaine des Jarres? We want to hit them massively. We have to be responsive to the President’s desires. We want them to think that if they push us too far, then we can’t be controlled.

Mr. Carver: I think it’s important to remember that no matter what action we take, large or small, we give them a message when we do so. This limited bombing gives them a message that we are prepared to bomb in Laos. On the other hand, they may read into it that we are not prepared to bomb in North or South Vietnam. The question what message we want to convey is very important.

Mr. Kissinger: I’ve been on the phone with the admirals, with the Secretary of Defense and the Deputy Secretary, explaining what we want, and here we are, twenty-four hours after the bombing, out of targets and quitting.

Adm. Moorer: We didn’t quit. The Ambassador asked us to stop.

Mr. Kissinger: Can we explain to the Ambassador what we are trying to do?

Mr. Sullivan: Sure, we can do that, but can we recommend air strikes on the trail?

Mr. Kissinger: If you recommend military action to the President, it has to be seen in a bigger concept than this Tha Viang exercise.

Mr. Clements: (to Adm. Moorer) If you want to strike the trail, what is the best target area?

Adm. Moorer: I think we should strike the missiles at Khe Sanh and the most lucrative targets on the trail, which are in the vicinity of the missiles. The area from Khe Sanh over to Chepone is full of good targets.

Mr. Clements: Are those targets above or below the missiles?

Adm. Moorer: Both.

Mr. Kissinger: We take no less heat for striking everything. If the decision is made to strike the trail, we will probably hit everything. We thought if we authorized strikes on Tha Viang they would slop over forty miles or so in all directions. General Vogt asked for authority to bomb for a week. We gave him three days instead, and then after 24 [Page 193]hours we are told he’s out of targets. Why did he ask for a week? What did he expect to hit for a week? He must have had some targets in mind. The President said O.K. for 72 hours and now after 24 hours I have to go to him and tell him we have no more targets.

Adm. Moorer: The Ambassador told us to stop.

Mr. Kissinger: We’re prepared to work the area of northern Laos around the Plaines des Jarres and stay away from the trail, if that’s what you recommend. I talked yesterday with Clements, Richardson, Admiral Weinel and a lot of other people and I thought it was all clear. What was Vogt thinking, can anyone explain that to me?

Adm. Moorer: General Vogt apparently thought we wanted to bomb enough to enable friendly forces to retake Tha Viang, while Ambassador Godley just wanted to disperse the enemy troops that were massing there, to prevent further attacks.

Mr. Kissinger: I shouldn’t be in this position, anyway, of discussing tactics. It is this President’s wish, if he uses forces in the current situation in Indochina, to use it massively and effectively. He authorized it yesterday for that purpose and he asked me to call a WSAG meeting this morning for the same reason. They have to feel that if they get us triggered we will act and they will be unable to control us.

Gen. Haig: I’m not sure I agree with Jim Schlesinger that they are planning a massive attack in Quang Tri or anywhere else. I think they plan to nibble away with little actions until they gradually erode South Vietnam’s control of the country.

Mr. Sullivan: I agree with General Haig, and I think that the Route 7 package in northern Laos makes sense. Tha Viang is in a valley and the roads leading into that valley are important lines of supply for them. I suggest we go to Godley with some homespun philosophy about the President’s desires and ask him to talk with Souvanna Phouma and get him to approve strikes on the Route 7 package.

Mr. Kissinger: There are three questions here, (1) should we expand air operations in Laos, (2) if the answer is yes, should we expand operations in northern Laos around Tha Viang and Route 7 or in southern Laos in the trail area and (3) if in southern Laos, should we also strike in South Vietnam. We already have word from both ambassadors in the negative. If we are going to go against the advice of both of them, we may as well do it massively. Is word out yet that Tha Viang is under attack?

Adm. Moorer: Not yet, but we can have CINCPAC announce it.

Mr. Kissinger: No, keep CINCPAC out of it. Let’s do it here. I don’t want to go into a long explanation of our actions; what I want to do is announce the North Vietnamese attack on Tha Viang.

Mr. Clements: We have a draft press announcement right here, all ready to go.

Mr. Kissinger: When are you going to release it?

[Page 194]

Adm. Moorer: We can do it right now. (Jerry) Friedheim meets the press at 11 a.m. and it’s now 11:10. He’s out there now. I can have the text passed to him.

Mr. Kissinger: Why haven’t you already done it?

Mr. Clements: I wanted to discuss it here this morning.

Mr. Kissinger: (looking at the draft press release) Why say all of this? You don’t have to mention the number of enemy troops and tanks, just say that the town is under enemy attacks.

Adm. Moorer: (changing the draft) O.K.

Adm. Murphy took the press release outside to the Situation Room to telephone the text to DOD.

Mr. Kissinger: We received an insolent message from the North Vietnamese yesterday.5 If we stop the bombing now and then start it up again, it will be a whole new situation. We thought when we approved 72 hours of strikes yesterday that we would have 72 hours of strikes.

Mr. Clements: I’m surprised by Godley’s attitude.

Mr. Sullivan: That’s a shallow valley and people can get all mixed up in there. It’s difficult to bomb in that situation. What I want to do is strike the LOCs moving into the valley, mainly the Route 7 area.

Mr. Kissinger: How fast can you get word to Godley?

Mr. Sullivan: We can get a cable there in one hour.

Adm. Moorer: Do we have to wait for him to see Souvanna Phouma?

Mr. Sullivan: That’s right, we do. That means we’ll have to wait at least six hours.

Mr. Carver: If we hit those supplies on Route 7 it would be a good clear sign to them.

Mr. Kissinger: That’s what we want to do, give them a clear signal. When we authorized the strikes on Tha Viang, I thought we could spread them all around the Plaine des Jarres.

Mr. Nelson: Tha Viang is not on the Plaine des Jarres.

Mr. Kissinger: We’re also going to stop clearing the minefields.

Adm. Moorer: We can do that. We made six of ten planned passes with the styrofoam ship, then we told them it broke down and had to be repaired before we could do any more. We haven’t done anything there lately.

Mr. Kissinger: Can you get everyone off the beach and back aboard ship before we notify them that we are stopping the minesweeping?

Adm. Weinel: That’s no problem, there are only seven men on the beach at this time.

[Page 195]

Mr. Kissinger: We’re going to notify them in Paris tonight. No, we can wait until tomorrow. Can you get all of our men off the beach right away, by tonight?

Adm. Weinel: Yes, sir.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Sullivan) After the meeting, I’ll show you the insolent cable the North Vietnamese sent us yesterday.

Mr. Sullivan: Should we ask Souvanna’s approval on both the Route 7 package and the Ho Chi Minh trail?

Mr. Kissinger: We may not want to hit them both.

Mr. Sullivan: I know that, but we should at least raise it with Souvanna and then if we want to hit them both, we will have the option of doing so.

Mr. Kissinger: That’s O.K. with me.

Adm. Moorer: We’re prepared at any time to put Steel Tiger into action. We’ve got 87 B–52s and 500 tactical aircraft ready to go.

Mr. Kissinger: What’s Steel Tiger?

Adm. Moorer: That’s the plan for hitting the missiles and everything.

Mr. Kissinger: Let’s get an answer from Souvanna Phouma immediately.

Adm. Moorer: Our people can be all suited up and ready to go by 7 p.m. tonight.

Mr. Kissinger: So we’re either going to stop now after 24 hours, or do more in Laos, or hit Laos and South Vietnam simultaneously. Bunker’s against striking in South Vietnam. He thinks that would break the ceasefire. We may want to give them another ten days or so before we hit in South Vietnam. Do we have that SR–71 flight going?

Mr. Schlesinger: The weather is poor and it will be for the next 72 hours.

Mr. Kissinger: That’s typical.

Mr. Porter: Have you decided to go with that flight?

Mr. Kissinger: Yes, the decision has been made, but in view of the bad weather you now have 72 hours to make a reclama. Do you object to the flight?

Mr. Porter: We (State) think the results are not worth the outcry it will cause. It would be a clear violation of the agreement.

Mr. Carver: I want to point out that we have no guarantee that we will have clear weather after 72 hours. It could be bad for a week or more. The only thing we know for sure at the moment is that it is not going to be good for the next 72 hours.

Mr. Kissinger: The weather is bad over North Vietnam?

Mr. Schlesinger: That’s right. They’re having monsoon rains.

Mr. Kissinger: I didn’t know this was the monsoon season.

Mr. Carver: It’s pretty sloppy there in April and May.

[Page 196]

Mr. Kissinger: We’ve flown these missions over North Korea. What do you say when they protest?

Mr. Porter: I just learned about the flight a minute ago. I’ll give you a paper on it tomorrow. The best course of action may just be to say nothing.

Adm. Moorer: I think that’s the best.

Mr. Sullivan: What do we tell the PRC?

Mr. Kissinger: I’ll take care of the PRC. The only time we can get the PRC to apply pressure on the North Vietnamese is when they think we are out of control. The PRC doesn’t care whether or not we exercise restraint in Vietnam.

Mr. Porter: Canada will be a problem. The political effect in Canada will be adverse to us.

Mr. Kissinger: Would the Department of State please take a look at the likely results six months from now if we do nothing to stop the North Vietnamese? What do you think will happen if the whole agreement comes apart after six months? What will it do to our foreign policy if we lose all of Indochina?

Mr. Porter: I have no argument with that.

Mr. Clements: Should we hold our press comments until after the strikes are completed?

Mr. Kissinger: We can say that we struck military targets in Laos in response to a request from Souvanna Phouma for help in defending against communist attacks. Can we see over here what each agency spokesman is going to say?

Mr. Clements: Sure.

Mr. Kissinger: And State?

Mr. Porter: Yes.

Mr. Kissinger: Ziegler has been instructed to say that we were asked by Souvanna to conduct the strikes and we acted in response to his request. He will refer all questions to Defense. What’s the situation on the supply lines to Cambodia?

Adm. Moorer: The convoy arrived safely in Phnom Penh yesterday, except for one ammunition barge that was sunk. Route 4 is now open and we are making an effort to keep it open. The South Vietnamese are taking losses trying to keep the Mekong open, but they’re working at it. We’re trying to convince the South Vietnamese, especially their 4th Corps Commander, that it is essential to their survival to keep Highway 4 and the Mekong River open.

Mr. Kissinger: I want to repeat that the President has no intention of bugging out of Vietnam. The Departments must be at least as imaginative in thinking up ways to save South Vietnam as they are in worrying about Libya.

Mr. Clements: Should we consider recalling the Paris Conference to consider the violations?

[Page 197]

Mr. Kissinger: That’s a contingency we certainly should keep in mind, but I want to take some steps with the PRC and the Soviet Union first.

Adm. Moorer: Should we keep our pilots on alert?

Mr. Kissinger: Yes, until we get a decision. Can we do anything without word from Souvanna?

Mr. Sullivan: I don’t think we should.

Adm. Moorer: What about hitting the Ho Chi Minh trail? Do we need word from Souvanna on that, too?

Gen. Haig: Yes, we do.

Adm. Moorer: (to Mr. Sullivan) Bill, let me know as soon as you get a reply from Ambassador Godley.

Mr. Sullivan: I sure will.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box H–91, WSAG Meeting Minutes, Originals, 1973. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room.
  2. Telegram 70697 to Vientiane, April 17; National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 LAOS.
  3. Schlesinger’s briefing, “The Situation in Indochina,” April 16, attached but not printed.
  4. The air strikes took place on April 16. For a detailed discussion of events before and after the strikes, see Kissinger, Years of Upheaval, pp. 316–327.
  5. The text of the North Vietnamese note is in backchannel message WH30946 to Saigon, April 15. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 415, Backchannel Messages, To Ambassador Bunker, Saigon, Through April 1973)