214. Record of a National Security Council Meeting1


  • Sino-Vietnamese Conflict; Iran


  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • Secretary Vance
  • Assistant Secretary Holbrooke
  • Admiral Turner
  • Deputy Secretary of Defense Duncan
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary Armacost
  • General Lucius [Lew] Allen
  • General William Smith
  • David Aaron
  • Michel Oksenberg
[Page 796]

I. Situation Report

The President convened the meeting in order to discuss the Sino-Vietnamese conflict.

Dr. Brzezinski placed three items on the agenda: a situation report; securing approval of a Presidential statement to be delivered to President Brezhnev and determining our public posture.

Admiral Turner described the Chinese military strength which they have amassed at the border: in the air, 700 attack jet fighters, consisting of MIG 15’s, 17’s, 19, and 40 21’s—half of the Chinese MIG–21 fleet; also some Ilyushin 28 bombers; on the ground, 14 divisions, with nine amassed at an attack point in the NE portion of the Sino-Vietnamese border and 5 amassed at a point in the NW. The two attack points are at the traditional entry points to Vietnam.2

Elements of five Chinese Armies have been brought to the combat zone, and three more armies are converging onto the area from central and eastern China. It is thought these armies would camp at the bases vacated by armies which moved south and apparently now are to be thrown into battle.

Total Chinese forces in the 14 divisions total 170,000 men.

Facing them are border defense units and militia. Four reconstruction divisions—ill-equipped and ill-trained—have been moved north. Three para-military divisions have also moved north. The core Vietnamese strength is the five regular divisions ringing Hanoi.

Vietnam has also moved anti-aircraft and howitzers to the North, but their effort has been minor.

Vance: What about Vietnamese aircraft?

Turner: Vietnam has 250 MIG 17, 19, and 21. Their 21’s are better than Chinese MIG–21’s. The Vietnamese enjoy three advantages in the air: (1) training; (2) a coordinated radar control network; and (3) air-to-air missiles.

President: Is it fair to say the Vietnamese thus far have not responded to the Chinese military build-up, and that their main posture is to defend Hanoi?

Turner: Yes.

President: Have the Chinese been provoked to undertake this action?

Turner: We don’t know.

President: What will the Chinese do?

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Turner: We believe the Chinese will confine themselves to the hilly areas and not enter the plain. But the Vietnamese may not come after them.

The area of the border clashes and provocations which the Chinese claim require the attack is here. [1½ lines not declassified] The terrain is one through which armor can move. The hills are up to 3,000 feet, and the valleys can be used.

President: Is there any [less than 1 line not declassified] on the level of activity on the North Vietnamese border?

Turner: No.

Turning to the Sino-Soviet border, the Chinese have evacuated dependents from some cities in Sinkiang. They have initiated an air-alert in the Northeast and restricted inward population movement.

II. Statement to Soviets

Oksenberg asked why we should deliver a démarche to the Soviets. Vance pointed to two reasons: to dispel any notions we are involved; and to provide the framework which will guide our policy. We wish to avoid any miscalculation on their part.

[Dr. Brzezinski then presented the President with a draft (Tab 1) démarche to Moscow, which the President then read and edited. Dr. Brzezinski read the edited changes and discussion ensued.]3

The original text proposed that we tell the Soviets that restraint on their part would elicit restraint on our part. The President questioned this formulation. Allen wondered if it would inhibit increased reconnaissance on our part, should that be necessary. Or would such a formulation keep us in Subic?

Vance thought the formulation would have no practical restraint on us. Smith then asked what the utility of our “restraint” pledge was. What would we be prepared to restrain? Recognizing we did not wish to foreclose future courses of action, the “restraint” pledge was dropped.

Instead, the meeting considered saying if the Soviets would restrain themselves, we would behave similarly. The President pointed out “similar” implies the “same.” That is not our position. The President stated our objective: not to become militarily involved, not to extend our base structure in East Asia because of the conflict, but still to restrain the Soviets. We should adopt wording, the President said, that keeps our options open but still gives a sop to the Soviets.

[Page 798]

Holbrooke described our posture this way: If the Russians do nothing in response to the crisis, we will do nothing. If they do something, we will do something. Our statement must convey this sense.

Aaron agreed. If Soviets increase their ship presence, we may wish to do the same. Christopher wondered whether reaching an implicit arms restraint agreement with the Soviets fell under Article 32 and necessitated consultations with Congress. Vance said no.4

Brzezinski proposed language to take this into account, to the effect that we urge the Soviets to exercise restraint. And we would be prepared to cooperate to seek a solution to the conflict. This formulation was accepted. (See Tab 2)5

Duncan recommended deleting the clause “and its supporters” in the sentence, “Vietnam and its supporters must share responsibility with China for the situation.” Duncan saw no need to poke our finger in Moscow’s eye; they know our views. All agreed.

Vance asked whether this should go as a President to Brezhnev message.

The President said that was his wish. The dispatch shows we have not colluded with the Chinese. We were condemning Chinese actions and are acting separately from them. The President felt his word of honor was at stake here, he wished to allay any Soviet fears, and he therefore would communicate directly. He recognized time would pass before we would ascertain the Soviet reaction.

Other editorial changes were made to the draft. Brzezinski wanted “object to” rather than “oppose” Chinese steps. “Oppose” in Russian has an activist connotation that should be avoided here, since it might embolden Moscow to “oppose” as well. Holbrooke sought reference to our January 20th as well as 26th démarche to Moscow. Aaron recommended the insertion of the actual warning of 26th. All these recommendations were accepted.6

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III. Public Statements

This first statement on our reaction (Tab 3) was accepted as drafted.7

The second statement, in response to a hypothetical question about advance notice, was re-written. We would say we noted the build-up for some time and made our position clear.

If a question is raised as to whether Teng raised it, we would say he alluded to it without being specific as to Chinese intentions, and we informed him of our position.

As to the advance notice Ch’ai provided this morning,8 the President prefers to keep it in confidence. He said he feels more sympathy for the Chinese in this conflict. And we have a responsibility to protect Chinese confidence in us to inform us of their plans. The President expressed some regret the Chinese told us in advance, it places us in a difficult position, but as events unfold, we will see what happens.

The President stated that ever since the first Kampuchea–Vietnam clash, our position has been to deplore violence. We should say publicly that even during the last few hours, we have made our position clear to all the parties concerned. Our degree of knowledge should be minimized. And we should not emphasize we have been discussing the issue. We do not wish to appear to be deeply involved in this conflict, though we recognize its dangers.

Vance said he would call Andy Young to warn him but stress he was not to debrief others.

  1. Source: Carter Library, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box 56, NSC 016, 2/16/79, SINO-Vietnamese Conflict/Iran. Top Secret.
  2. A 1966 map of North Vietnam showing the Chinese ground and air attacks is in Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Subject File, Box 29, Meetings SCC 139, 2/17/79.
  3. Brackets in the original. Several draft messages to the Soviet Union are attached but not printed.
  4. Christopher’s reference to “Article 32” is not identified.
  5. Attached but not printed.
  6. In his February 17 message to Brezhnev, the President wrote, “We have informed the Government of the People’s Republic of China that we object to the military steps they have taken and urge the immediate withdrawal of their forces from Vietnam, the same position we have taken regarding the Vietnam forces in Kampuchea.” Carter also declared, “Present circumstances require wisdom and restraint by our governments to prevent any widening of this conflict and to restore peace in Indochina. To achieve this important and urgent goal, it is essential that all foreign forces withdraw from both Kampuchea and Vietnam.” The message, as well as those of January 20 and 26, is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union.
  7. Attached but not printed. Department of State Spokesman Hodding Carter read the statement on February 17. It is printed in American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1977–1980, Document 595.
  8. See Document 212.