118. Minutes of Washington Special Action Group Meeting1


  • Vietnam


  • Chairman—Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • U Alexis Johnson
  • William Sullivan
  • Defense
  • Kenneth Rush
  • Armistead Selden
  • R/Adm. William Flanagan
  • JCS
  • Adm. Thomas Moorer
  • CIA
  • Richard Helms
  • George Carver
  • [name not declassified] (only for Mr. Helms’ briefing)
  • NSC
  • Richard Kennedy
  • Mark Wandler

[Omitted here is the Summary of Conclusions.]

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Helms) Dick, do you have anything for us?

Mr. Helms: Yes, but first I want to mention that the study you asked for on Soviet assistance to North Vietnam is in front of you.2

Mr. Kissinger: Does the study prove what we wanted it to prove, or should it be withdrawn?

Mr. Helms: It’s a little bit of both. [Reads attached briefing]3

[Omitted here is detailed discussion of the military situation in Vietnam.]

[Page 377]

Mr. Sullivan: [Referring to Mr. Helms’ briefing] You said the Soviet statement of protest to us mentioned damage to their ships.4 I don’t think they said that in public, though.

Mr. Johnson: No, they haven’t.

Mr. Sullivan: In the public statement, they just mentioned the barbarity of attacking Haiphong.5 I don’t think our press statements should say anything about damage to Soviet ships.

Mr. Kennedy entered the room at this point.

Mr. Johnson: If the Soviets want to keep the ship business quiet, let’s help them do it. The TASS statement said nothing about ship damage. The press here and in Moscow assumes Tass’ statement contained the substance of the note to us. Let’s let it ride.

Mr. Kissinger: I agree. But the press is getting leery. Joseph Kraft called over here this morning, and he was amazed that the Soviets seem to be ducking a confrontation.

Adm. Moorer: The skipper of one of the Soviet ships sent a message to Moscow, which we intercepted. The message described some of the damage.

Mr. Rush: I thought we were not sure that the damage was caused by us.

Mr. Johnson: That’s right.

Adm. Moorer: The North Vietnamese fired over 200 missiles.

Mr. Johnson: There was a radio report this morning of an East German statement which said the Soviet ships were damaged as a result of our air attacks.

Adm. Moorer: That’s correct. But the German report was based on the report of the Soviet skipper, who also said all crews are seeking safety—a wise move.

[Omitted here is detailed discussion of the military situation in Vietnam.]

[Kissinger:] I have not had time to read the paper on Soviet aid. Can you tell me what it proves?

Mr. Carver: It shows that there is a great deal of lead time between stockpiling aid and using this aid in tactical situations. It’s obvious that the Soviets tried to make up the Lam Son 719 losses. They must have been aware, too, that they were augmenting the North Vietnamese offensive capabilities. I doubt, though, that there was an orchestration [Page 378] between the step-up of aid and the launching of the offensive. The schedules indicate the aid requests were placed before Hanoi jelled its plans for the offensive.

Mr. Kissinger: When did Hanoi jell those plans?

Mr. Carver: The North Vietnamese probably decided late last summer to go to main force action in Vietnam this year. They probably decided in late September or October on the step-up of activity in Laos.

[Omitted here is detailed discussion of the military situation in Laos and Vietnam.]

[Kissinger:] (to Mr. Carver) You don’t think, then, that the increased Soviet aid shipments and the launching of the North Vietnamese offensive were part of an orchestrated plot?

Mr. Carver: No, I don’t.

Mr. Kissinger: But you think the Soviets knew they were increasing the North Vietnamese offensive capabilities.

Mr. Carver: Yes, I’m sure the Soviets knew.

Mr. Sullivan: The increased POL shipments alone should have told the Soviets that.

Mr. Carver: Of course. The Soviets knew the increased POL shipments had to augment the North Vietnamese capabilities.

Mr. Kissinger: We can say therefore one of three things: (1) that the Soviets didn’t know anything—that this was really the normal flow of aid; (2) that the Soviets knew the specific target date of the attack; and (3) that the Soviets didn’t know the specific date, but they did know they had given the North Vietnamese a considerable improvement of offensive capabilities.

Mr. Carver: I think number three is where we would come out. The supply shipments increased at the end of the summer, but Hanoi’s plans had not yet jelled.

Mr. Kissinger: You mean the timing of the offensive, don’t you?

Mr. Carver: Yes.

Mr. Kissinger: But the Soviets knew their increased aid would certainly make it easier for the North Vietnamese to launch an offensive.

Mr. Carver: Of course they did.

Mr. Kissinger: I’m not trying to put words into your mouth. I’m just trying to understand the situation. Would it be correct to say that a prudent Soviet Government from January on—knowing that the Summit was approaching in May—might have known with each passing month that the coincidence between the Summit and the North Vietnamese offensive was becoming much sharper?

Mr. Carver: That’s correct. It’s also inconceivable that when Marshall Batiskiy left North Vietnam the Soviets did not know what was [Page 379] on Hanoi’s mind. The main task of the Batiskiy mission was to review the North Vietnamese air defenses—and they obviously did that because they knew they would have to use these defenses in the near future.

Mr. Rush: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the offensive was supposed to start in February and that all the supplies were in the pipeline. As the date slipped from February, could the Russians have done something to cut the pipeline—and stop the offensive, so that it would not interfere with the Summit?

Mr. Carver: It’s not that neat. Even if the Soviets did that, Hanoi could drawdown on the existing stockpiles. You can’t plot the movement of a particular shipment to the tactical situation. The supply system doesn’t work like that.

Mr. Rush: Everything was all geared up for the February offensive, and the Russian and Chinese supplies were coming in. Did the supplies continue to come in when the offensive was delayed? The Russians could have been concerned about the delayed offensive coinciding with the Summit, and they may have cut the supply flow when they found out the offensive was delayed.

Mr. Carver: That didn’t happen. Anyway, the supply system is not that responsive.

Mr. Kissinger: Since February, though, the Russians should have been expecting the offensive with each passing week.

Mr. Helms: It’s interesting to look at the POL shipment line in our study.

Mr. Carver: You can see a very obvious surge in the line in the fourth quarter of 1971 and the first quarter of 1972.

Adm. Moorer: That’s due to several reasons. First, the North Vietnamese are using more trucks to deploy men and supplies. Second, they are operating more tanks—a long way from home, too. Third, they are flying the MiGs more often, and the MiGs gobble up fuel.

Mr. Kissinger: Will our air strikes on Haiphong have much of an effect on POL distribution?

Adm. Moorer: The strikes won’t have much of an effect on this offensive. But the effects will be felt later on.

Mr. Rush: Let me repeat the question I asked earlier. Seeing the delay in the offensive and not wanting it to coincide with the Summit, couldn’t the Russians have cut the supply flow?

Mr. Carver: They could have done that. But if the cut had come after the first of the year, it would not have had any effect on Hanoi’s stocks.

Mr. Kissinger: They may not have known the exact day the North Vietnamese planned to launch the offensive. But sending a military mission to Hanoi a week before the offensive was no sign that they wanted Hanoi to call it off.

[Page 380]

Mr. Carver: Even if the Soviets wanted Hanoi to call the offensive off, they would have taken much criticism from the North Vietnamese and the Chinese. There is simply no evidence that Batiskiy told the North Vietnamese to call it off—because of the Summit or any other reason.

Mr. Sullivan: The Soviets may have known the offensive was laid on for February, in the hope that it would cause us a maximum embarrassment during the China visit. Then, although the offensive was delayed, they were committed—and they couldn’t turn it around.

Mr. Kissinger: They wouldn’t tell Hanoi to let the offensive run to May 5, would they? They would have to let the offensive run its course.

Mr. Helms: That’s right. Once they are locked into something, they take their losses to the bitter end. They have to go all the way with the North Vietnamese. Otherwise, as the leading Communist power, they would be open for a great deal of criticism. When we went into Cambodia, we had a time limit for getting out. On the other hand, if the Russians had been in our place, they would have let the operation run its course. They are not subject to domestic pressures.

Adm. Moorer: The North Vietnamese are now shooting the works. They can go all out, and when they are finished they can be refurbished by the Soviets and the Chinese. They are not gambling because they know they won’t be invaded.

Mr. Kissinger: Assuming the North Vietnamese are defeated in the South, there is nothing the Russians could do in time for the Summit, even if they quadrupled their aid.

Mr. Rush: Is there anything the Russians could do to make the North Vietnamese disengage before the Summit?

Mr. Carver: No.

Adm. Moorer: George is right. But the Soviets could make sure the North Vietnamese don’t launch another offensive.

Mr. Johnson: Won’t the Chinese pick up the shortfall in supplies if the Soviets let up?

Mr. Carver: The Chinese will pick up some of the shortfall.

Mr. Sullivan: I’m not sure the Chinese are totally behind what the North Vietnamese are doing. They support a protracted war strategy.

Mr. Carver: I don’t think the Chinese are anxious to see a big North Vietnamese victory.

Mr. Kissinger: You think the Chinese interest is to keep the war going?

Mr. Carver: The Chinese will not welcome a big North Vietnamese victory in the near future. If the war continues and the North Vietnamese are kept occupied on their southern borders, that will be okay with the Chinese.

Mr. Kissinger: Otherwise?

[Page 381]

Mr. Carver: Otherwise, Hanoi might start flexing its muscles—in Thailand, for example. I’m not suggesting that Peking doesn’t want the North Vietnamese to win. It’s just that continued North Vietnamese concern for problems closer to home will not be a bad thing for Peking.

Mr. Kissinger: we’ll meet tomorrow at 10:00.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–116, WSAG Minutes, Originals. Top Secret; Sensitive. No drafting information appears on the minutes. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room.
  2. Document 117.
  3. Brackets in the source text. Not attached.
  4. Brackets in the source text. See Document 108. Pravda and Izvestia, however, published on April 18 the text of the protest note, which did mention the damage to their ships and personnel. (Current Digest of the Soviet Press, vol. XXIV, No. 16, May 17, 1972, p. 4)
  5. For text of the TASS statement, published by Pravda and Izvestia on April 17, see ibid.