147. Editorial Note
A meeting of the Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG) was held on December 23, 1971, in the White House Situation Room to address the emergency situation created by the North Vietnamese attacks in the Plain of Jars in Laos in the early morning of December 18. The North attacked much earlier in the season and took advantage of bad weather, which prevented U.S. tactical air forces from effectively supporting Meo and Thai forces. The North Vietnamese also used “highly accurate artillery fire” with the heaviest artillery pieces (Soviet-made 130 mm field guns) they had ever used on the Plain.
The main NVA thrust was made at Fire Support Bases Mustang and Lion, which were defended by Thai SGU battalions. William Nelson of the CIA described what happened. Nelson said that the Thais had about 2,700 men deployed on December 15 and that they had suffered an estimated 400 killed and 170 wounded. According to Nelson, “The Thai 609 battalion, at Fire Support Base Lion, was the worst hit. At one time 200–300 enemy bodies were laying in the perimeter defense wire, while Sting Ray Fire Support Base from Phou Seu provided covering 155 mm fire to within 50 meters of their outposts. During the night of the 19th, elements of the BG 609 requested permission to withdraw. Permission was denied, and they were told to hold their position and that reinforcements were en route. During the night of December 19–20, radio contact was lost with the BG 609, while hand-to-hand combat activity was underway.” Nelson said that they fought “very well,” and that the base had held until the “loss of the supporting Meo position allowed enemy forces to employ direct fire weapons on the base, destroying ammunition supplies, pinning gun crews and security troops down.”
Thai troops at Fire Support Bases King Kong and Panther (Thai SGU battalions 606–608) “fought a constant battle” through December 20 and into December 21. They were told to abandon King Kong on December 20. Nelson said that the “Thais put up a good fight. They withdrew in good order.” He then described how three Meo and three Thai battalions, about 4,780 troops, had arrived at the Ban Na/Pha Dong resistance line. He said that the CIA didn’t know “where three other Thai battalions are,” that Ban Na/Pha Dong was “a very porous line,” and that all the friendly forces artillery had been lost on the Plain of Jars, although some of it was being replaced. He added that three Thai irregular battalions (SGUs 616, 617, and 618) of 1,403 men had been taken out of training and had been airlifted into Long Tieng on December 20 and 21.
When President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Kissinger asked whether regular Thai troops were available as reinforcements, Nelson supposed that they were, but said that “it’s a question of paying for them.” Under Secretary of State U. Alexis Johnson then explained [Page 321]that “we are not permitted to support them. Symington’s ceiling, as you know, is $350 million. One thing we have to do today is decide how we are going to handle the ceiling.”
Nelson then described how enemy activity in South Laos had been light. The only critical area was around Paksong, where two Thai battalions had been hit very hard 10 days before and “rendered ineffective.” Still, he said, the “strength is with the Thais.” Kissinger said that the high option for the defense of Laos was “to continue to defend the Long Tieng area and to undertake the defense of the area at the junction of routes 7 and 13,” and asked whether “we have the forces for the high option.” The State Department’s William Sullivan replied: “No, not unless we get Thai regulars. And unless the Thai Government pays for the regulars, we don’t have a Chinaman’s chance of getting them. (to Dr. Kissinger) Excuse me for mentioning your friends.”
To Kissinger’s question as to whether the Thai military program (meaning the AAT) had been agreed to, Johnson replied that it was “close to agreement. The last meeting was yesterday, and there are no outstanding issues.” Nelson then added that “I understand that the Defense view is that there is no way to beat the ceiling and that we should be honest and forthright with the Congress. The feeling of the Secretary is that we should be honest and ask Congress for more money.”
Kissinger eventually decided to obtain President Nixon’s guidance on what steps, if any, to take to overcome the problem caused by the Congressional ceiling of $350 million for expenditures in Laos in FY 1972. There was also considerable discussion of providing more U.S. air support for the Meo and Thai forces in Laos.
In the end, the Thai volunteer SGU battalions, combined with extensive U.S. air forces support (including B–52 bombers) permitted the U.S.-backed forces in Laos to survive this North Vietnamese assault and to hold key positions such as Long Tieng. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–115, WSAG Minutes, Originals, 1971)