113. Telegram From the Embassy in Thailand to the Department of State 1
Bangkok, April 4, 1971, 0549Z.
4528. Saigon Pass General Abrams. Subj: General Praphat’s Concern over Lam Son 719.
- Summary. Deputy Prime Minister Praphat on April 1 expressed grave concern about outcome of Lam Son 719. He has heard from Vietnamese that poor US support made retreat inevitable. He is generally worried about what he sees as evidence of uncertainty in US about concrete support to strengthen Thailand and other sea countries. Discussion demonstrated need urgently a) to move ahead with effective [Page 236] STAFD 2 program and b) if possible, to offer DPM chance to discuss Lam Son 719 with top level military officer from Vietnam. End summary.
- Evening Thursday, April 1 I had a long, highly informal session with Deputy Prime Minister Praphat over drinks. He had only RTA Chief of Staff Surakij and his civilian adviser Malai with him. I was accompanied by political counselor.
- It soon became clear that the DPM was in generally gloomy mood about situation in this area. After brief and very general discussion of problems that had arisen during two decades of US military assistance to Thailand, and somewhat more specific reference to problems and ambiguities in US support for Thai operations and contingency plans in recent months, General Praphat said he was deeply worried about the uncertainties that had arisen concerning US support for the countries of Southeast Asia in the future. He said the US seemed to be wavering in its commitment to this area because of domestic politics—he referred to pledges to strengthen countries in the region but didn’t see evidence of this in Thailand. He said he and the other RTG leaders were strongly committed to continue cooperation with the US, but that if the uncertainties about US intentions were allowed to deepen no one could tell when the Thai people, or Asian people generally, would feel obliged to change their attitude toward the US.
- He then introduced the subject of Lam Son 719, and it was quickly apparent that this had contributed greatly to his disturbed frame of mind. Reiterating several times that he was giving us an “Asian view” as a close friend, he said he was extremely worried about what he characterized as the premature withdrawal from the route 9 area of Laos. He said he had heard from South Vietnamese sources that their retreat was made necessary by poor US support—the source claimed some units were not even kept supplied with basics such as ammunition. He expressed the view that if we were not prepared to stay in key parts of the trail area until the end of the dry season, it would have been much better not to go in at all. He compared the action to striking a bee hive with a stick, which makes the bees go out and sting everyone, but which does not prevent their return, leaving everything as before. In fact he said the enemy would be even better prepared next year to meet attempts to block their efforts, attempts which would have even less US support than the present ones had. He said it appeared that political considerations had prevailed over military in this operation. He expressed concern that the intent may have [Page 237]been merely to keep the situation in the South quiet so as to permit continued US withdrawals that would leave the countries of the area to cope with a worsened situation afterwards.
- I said I was quite certain he was misinterpreting the purpose of the operation and not giving enough credit to its achievement. I noted that from the beginning it had been said publicly and privately that the intent was to destroy and to disrupt the flow of supplies and ammunition, not to hold territory. The strength of the enemy reaction seemed to have been a factor in determining the length of the operation, but indications were the ARVN generally fought well. As for our support, I said that weather was always a problem in connection with air operations, especially helicopter operations. I said the President had to be realistic about what he could do on a continuing basis since this could be done only with the support of the American people, and therefore could not put US ground forces in Laos in support of the Vietnamese troops. But I said our air and logistic support had been massive and unstinting. With respect to the effect of the operation, in addition to the casualties inflicted and the impact on supplies, it seemed almost certain now that the operation had given the Cambodians another year in which to train and equip their forces. By next dry season they should be a much more significant factor in the picture. Likewise other friendly countries in the area would be stronger by then so that the outlook was by no means bleak in spite of the fact that US troop withdrawals from Vietnam would be continuing.
- While he took note of and understood my arguments, it was perfectly clear that he still believed the friendly forces should have gone in to stay until the end of the dry season, or not have gone in at all. With respect to strengthening the countries of the area, he did not question this with respect to South Vietnam and Cambodia, but he asked how much stronger will Thailand really be by the end of next year. He said old plans we had begun on had not been completed, and new plans have been discussed but implementation has not begun. He reminded me gently that he has been waiting for months to hear from me concerning plans and preparations which we asked them to begin making for Cambodian contingencies. Meanwhile he said he gets constant requests for his armed forces to loan equipment to others, and to provide training to others who “arrive naked” looking to Thailand to supply them from the ground up. While we have promised to replace what Thailand is giving he has seen little evidence so far that we will do so. Meanwhile Thailand is getting more pressure from the enemy, with new and heavier weapons being used against them, especially in northern Thailand.
- Comment: The need to get on with discussion of the STAFD package is too evident to need further stress and I told the DPM that [Page 238]I expected to be able to begin useful discussions with him soon concerning plans to improve the capability of their forces in a truly meaningful way.
- On Lam Son 719, in view of the weight Praphat’s views carry in RTG councils I consider it important to expose him to a well-informed assessment of Lam Son by one of our top military people from Vietnam. I am currently trying to work something out with Saigon.