217. Minutes of a Special Coordination Committee Meeting1


  • Conflict Between the PRC and Vietnam


  • State
  • Secretary Vance
  • Deputy Secretary Warren Christopher
  • Under Secretary David Newsom
  • Hodding Carter
  • Asst. Secretary Richard Holbrooke
  • Defense
  • Deputy Secretary Charles Duncan
  • Michael Armacost
  • JCS
  • General David Jones
  • Lt. Gen. William Y. Smith
  • White House
  • The Vice President
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • Hamilton Jordan
  • Jody Powell
  • David Aaron
  • NSC
  • Colonel William Odom
  • Michel Oksenberg
  • Gary Sick
  • CIA
  • Adm. Stansfield Turner


Dr. Brzezinski opened the meeting by announcing a three-point agenda:

1. What should be the US public position on the war?

2. Review the message that the US Government will send to the Soviet Government on the hostilities.

3. Review the US position in the United Nations proceedings.

Public Position on the War

One of the first press questions will be “Did Deng raise the issue of an attack of Vietnam while he was in the United States?” Our answer to the press is “no.”

The next press question is “Are we in touch with the Soviets?” Our answer is “We will be in touch with the Soviets soon.”

Holbrooke posed the press query: “Does the invasion affect the bilateral relationship?” All agreed the answer should be “We are unprepared to give an immediate response.” Vance is convening a special meeting to consider this question.

It was decided that all press questions will be referred to the Department of State, not handled by the White House or Defense.

[Page 804]

Draft Message to the Soviet Government

The Secretary of State expressed some concern over the implications of the sentence, “The US is ready to exercise similar restraint.” It suggests either some potential US involvement which will draw criticism both from the Congress and from the Soviet Union, or a surrender of US options, which would draw criticism from other quarters on the Hill. Dr. Brzezinski suggested replacing the “restraint” phrase with the wording, “The US is ready to cooperate in such an effort.” There was also discussion about “who” is restrained. To remove ambiguity, “all parties” was inserted in the message.

It was decided that the message will be sent later on today after it is confirmed that indeed a major Chinese attack has begun into Vietnam.2

The US Position in the United Nations

Ambassador Young has a stand-by message for this contingency. Vance talked to Young yesterday, and Young understands all public statements are to come from State.

Vance explained that it will be better to let other states take the lead with resolutions in the UN. Only after draft resolutions have been introduced can we tie down appropriate actions and tactics for the United States; it cannot be done in this meeting. Already contacts are under way with the Yugoslavs who may introduce a resolution condemning the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Dr. Brzezinski raised the larger question of how we will vote on a resolution condemning the PRC alone for aggression, i.e., excluding the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. It was explained that because at least two resolutions will be introduced, we can amend both and avoid a stark choice such as whether to vote to condemn only the PRC.

Dr. Brzezinski raised the question of consultations with our Allies. Vance said that the United Nations is the appropriate focal point for consultations with the Europeans and the Japanese because the action is there. Brzezinski agreed but suggested that we need to go further by telling the French, the Germans, the British, and the Japanese that we have been trying to deter this military action for the past several weeks so that they will not draw the mistaken conclusion that we were caught by surprise or have done nothing to prevent it. Vance agreed with this point and added that others such as Kriangsak of Thailand might also need such a briefing.

It was decided that State would proceed in the United Nations and elsewhere as appropriate to conduct such consultations with our Allies.

[Page 805]

Other Points Discussed

It was suggested that we need to move quickly with the press to put the proper spin on the Administration’s position in time to influence editorial writing in the press. In addition to Hodding Carter’s backgrounder today, it was suggested that Vance give an off-the-record briefing today or tomorrow.3

Jody Powell said that we need to get our story out earlier rather than later. Furthermore, our story must answer two major questions: a) Did the question of a Chinese attack come up during the Deng visit; and b) did we try to prevent it? Hamilton Jordan suggested that we call in selected reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post today and give them background information in order to make press reporting tomorrow accurate on the Administration’s position and thereby influencing editorial writing on the following day.

There was further discussion of the need to avoid letting this look like an intelligence failure and to address reactions which ask: “How could Deng do this to us so soon?” and “What is the value of the US/Chinese relationship?” It was argued that our public position on the Chinese attack puts distance between the US and PRC which makes these questions less troublesome.

Vance reported that he had been in touch with several members of the House and Senate. Charles Duncan offered to call the House and Senate Armed Services Committees’ chairmen. It was also reported that three Senators, including Howard Baker, will be on TV tomorrow. An effort will be made to get the Administration’s story to them before they appear.

Whether or not the President should return to Washington today was discussed. It was decided he should not come back from Camp David.

In a response to a query, Turner said there has been no change on the Sino-Soviet border, except for increased Soviet reconnaissance.

Duncan gave a brief report of US naval deployments in the South China Sea. The USS Constellation, now in Subic Bay, is undergoing repairs and would be unable to go to sea for a few more days. The USS Midway is steaming north from the Philippines to participate in the exercise, Team Spirit-79—a joint US/Korean maneuver. No one expressed a cogent reason for altering these deployments.

General Jones observed that we need to consider contingencies in the event of increased Soviet military activity and our reaction to the [Page 806] Chinese. Brzezinski instructed David Aaron to convene a group to discuss this issue.

Christopher noted that the invasion would adversely affect our Omnibus legislation and produce a more strident resolution on Taiwan.4

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Meetings File, Box 14, Folder 18, SCC Meeting: #139 Held 2/17/79, 2–3/79. Secret. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room.
  2. See footnote 6, Document 214.
  3. On February 17, a “senior American official” called on China to withdraw its forces and advised the Soviet Union not to retaliate against China. (Bernard Gwertzman, “Soviet Is Cautioned,” The New York Times, February 18, 1979, p. 1)
  4. See Document 213.