42. Letter From the Under Secretary of State (Richardson) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

Dear Henry:

This is in response to your suggestion that I try to put on paper the thoughts about the President’s Viet-Nam speech2 that I touched on in our phone conversation Saturday.

In thinking about the opportunity—and the need—for a Presidential restatement of our purposes and plans for Viet-Nam, I keep coming back to the pivotal question: why are we justified in calling for additional sacrifices of American lives and the continuing diversion of American resources for something less than victory but short of defeat?

It is not enough, I believe, to point to the goal of self-determination for the people of South Viet-Nam. Only a few of the world’s peoples enjoy that privilege, if by it we mean the exercise of free choice through fair and honest elections. Nor is this goal made sufficient by the circumstance that in South Viet-Nam the major danger to its fulfillment is externally supported insurgency: the President himself, in his Southeast Asian tour, made clear that assistance against insurgency, even though externally supported, will not hereafter justify the involvement of U.S. combat forces.

There is, however, an element in the South Vietnamese situation which significantly distinguishes it from other situations in which the exercise of self-determination is threatened by external force. This is that we have made a commitment—a promise—to the people of South Viet-Nam to help them preserve the opportunity to determine their own destiny. Whether or not it was wise in the first instance for us to have undertaken such a commitment is not now in issue: the important fact is that we have undertaken it.

So firmly and so frequently has the United States proclaimed this objective that upon our willingness to carry it out depends the credibility of all U.S. commitments. And upon the credibility of U.S. commitments [Page 141] depends, in turn, the possibility of a relatively stable and peaceful world. Conversely, should our word be rendered doubtful by our abandonment of the people of South Viet-Nam, the risk of instability and war—even of World War III—would be measurably enhanced. Not to be willing to make such additional sacrifices as are essential to the fulfillment of our irreducible minimum objective in South Viet-Nam would thus increase the danger that we will be forced to make much greater sacrifices at some future time.

Now all this, of course, has been stated many times by the President, not only in his May 14 speech3 but in all his talks with heads of state, who have strongly endorsed these propositions. And yet they badly need restatement, particularly for the American people. For the real point of Viet-Nam is not Viet-Nam itself but our world-wide role. By the same token, the real core of the criticism of our policies in Viet-Nam is a criticism of that role. The critics discount both the continuing causes of conflict between East and West and the continuing risks to every nation whose primary concern is the preservation of its own independence and integrity. In the case of the generation that has grown up since the events which generated the Cold War, this is understandable enough, but no less misguided on that account.

In the light of these considerations, it has occurred to me that the President in his November 3 speech, instead of restating our commitment to South Viet-Nam and then relating it to our wider responsibilities, might begin with a review of these responsibilities, explain their importance to world peace, and then show how abandonment of South Viet-Nam, by eroding confidence in our capacity to fulfill them, would prejudice the prospects of world peace. In so doing, he could also stress the point that the very opportunity for an era of negotiations depends on our adherence to our existing obligations. Unilateral concessions are the antithesis of reciprocal concessions. Negotiations, moreover, are aimed at agreement, and the validity of any agreement is dependent upon confidence between the parties that their mutual undertakings will be honored. The capacity of the United States to honor its present undertakings is thus an earnest of its capacity to honor its future undertakings, including those which contribute to a more enduring peace. Our sacrifices in Viet-Nam can thus be seen as sacrifices for a larger cause.

For a television audience, to be sure, a defect of this approach is its abstractness. This is a defect, however, which could be offset by injecting as tangible a feeling as possible for the real situation in Viet-Nam [Page 142] into the latter part of the address. And since the President does in fact have an extraordinarily comprehensive and integrated grasp of the U.S. role in world affairs, it would, I think, heighten the confidence of his viewers in the rightness of his Viet-Nam policies if he laid bare in a low-keyed but thoughtful way the essence of his thinking on this broader subject. In addition, his doing that would at the same time supply ammunition useful in containing other neo-isolationist pressures to roll back U.S. commitments.

Such, at any rate, for whatever they may be worth, are the thoughts I wanted to convey.

As ever,


Elliot L. Richardson 4
  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Richardson Papers, Box CL 2, Chronological File. Secret.
  2. On November 3 President Nixon gave a nationally televised speech on Vietnam. The speech came to be known as the “silent majority speech” from Nixon’s appeal for support for his policy from “the great silent majority of Americans.” The full text of the speech is printed in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1969, pp. 901-909.
  3. The text is printed ibid., pp. 369-375.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.