Vietnam War: The Documents - 4

Michael V. Forrestal memorandum for the record on April 1963 White House meeting on Laos

Next door to Vietnam was Laos, which in 1963 was in the process of falling to Communist guerillas. The Kennedy administration had few options in Laos, which because of its geographic situation was much less plausible as a site for U.S. military intervention than South Vietnam. Still the "military options available to the United States" were to be examined, and the President's view was that "we can take more aggressive action in Laos than we were taking in Cuba."

Memorandum for the Record (*)

Washington, April 19, 1963.

Presidential Conference on Laos

Secretary McNamara, Governor Harriman, Messrs. Nitze, Hilsman, Colby, McGeorge Bundy, Forrestal and General Carter met with the President at 4:30 p.m. today to discuss the current situation in Laos.(1)

General Carter presented an intelligence estimate of the situation on the Plain of Jars. Kong Le may have retired behind the last line of defense (the airport at Muong Phanh) and re-grouped his forces in the hills. The Meo may be able to salvage Kong Le's predicament by harassing PL supply lines. It is probable that the Communist wish to gain control of the Plain of Jars fait accompli and are doing so with North Vietnam artillery and cadre support.

Souvanna has accused the Pathet Lao of trying to destroy the neutralists but is afraid to take further steps. The French are also afraid to take the issue any further.

Mr. Hilsman said that the British have made several approaches to the Soviets and have suggested that we avoid public pressure on them. Hilsman pointed out that although the Soviets have made a show to cooperate through their Ambassador in Vientiane, they have not really moved to correct the situation. Mr. Hilsman said that the Department was considering sending Secretary Harriman to Moscow to determine whether Premier Khrushchev is prepared to honor his Vienna commitments. Before doing such a visit, however, the military options available to the United States should be examined. Mr. Hilsman said that Governor Harriman should be able to raise the possibility of U.S. military reinvolvement in Laos with Premier Khrushchev. (2)

The Attorney General also expressed the same notion but noted the connection between Cuba and Laos. The President said that this connection should be borne in mind, since we can take more aggressive action in Laos than we were taking in Cuba.

The President asked for a National Security Council meeting at 11 a.m. tomorrow morning(3) at which the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will report upon military options available to counter Vientiane and Pathet Lao pressures in Laos.(4) The Department of State will consider the parallel diplomatic steps which can be taken to show serious concern with the situation.

The President asked that Ambassador Thompson be called from the west coast to attend the meeting in the morning.

Michael V. Forrestal(5)

(*) Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Laos: General, 4/1/63-4/19/63. Secret.

(1) According to Kennedy's appointment book, this meeting lasted until 5:10 p.m. and Nitze, Colby, and Carter are not listed as participants. (Ibid., President's Appointment Book)

(2) In a memorandum of this conference prepared by William Colby for McCone, May 19, Colby noted that Harriman and Hilsman "pointed out that the Soviets themselves have very slight leverage on the DRV and Pathet Lao, as they are currently giving them little aid." Colby also reported that possible reinvolvement of the United States in Laos was the principal danger from the Soviet point of view. The President then asked if the United States would not be bargaining from weakness if it sent Harriman to Moscow, but was assured that would not be the case. (Central Intelligence Agency, DCI-McCone Files, text not declassified)

(3) See Document 459.

(4) According to Colby's memorandum, April 19, Hilsman suggested as possible minimum U.S. military action the return of White Star teams. A further step might be to send U.S. forces to Thailand. At this point, McNamara reiterated the Department of Defense recommendation that U.S. troops not be sent to Laos. McNamara also stated, according to Colby, that U.S. troops to Thailand should be air elements, not marines. He stated that consideration was being given to moving a carrier force into the Gulf of Tonkin off Hanoi as a direct threat. At a minimum, McNamara suggested alerting some U.S. forces to indicate the seriousness of American intentions. (Central Intelligence Agency, DCI-McCone Files, [text not declassified])

(5) Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.

Thanks to David Fuhrmann for supplying this document.
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