69. Background Press Briefing by the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

[Omitted here are Klein’s introductions and Kissinger’s opening remarks.]

I will talk to you for a bit about our general approach to foreign policy, and specifically also about the disarmament talks, relations with the Soviets and Vietnam, maybe a word about the Middle East. Then Secretary Sisco can talk to you in somewhat greater detail about the specifics of recent events in the Middle East.

Let me begin with a general statement first. I believe that when the history of American post-war foreign policy is written, it will turn out that the big turning point occurred not in 1961 when it was very eloquently announced, but in 1969, when no claims were made.

At the end of April of this year when the President spoke about Cambodia, many of my colleagues complained bitterly—many of my ex-colleagues complained bitterly—about the polarizing effect that his speech was supposed to have had with its emphasis on commitments to friends abroad and the desire to see to it that the self-determination of South Vietnam be preserved.

But if you read, for example, the Inaugural Address of President Kennedy, you will find such phrases—I don’t have the exact text here but I think this is reasonably accurate—as: “We will pay any price, we will bear any burden, we will meet any hardship, we will fight any enemy, we will support any friend, to assure the survival of liberty.”

I am not saying this as a criticism. It moved me, too, very much. I am citing it as an example of the enormous transformation that has taken place in the situation in the world and in the situation in America since the early 60’s.

The period of the 60’s, in retrospect, will probably appear as the last flowering of that era of American foreign policy which we initiated in 1948, when we threw ourselves into international affairs with the same enthusiasm, impetuosity, and dedication with which we had built our country.

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The belief was after our long history of isolation that any problem in the world that was not solved by America would probably not be solved at all. All over the world the United States found itself in the position of designing all the programs, selling them, executing them, running them. Part of this reflected the realities of the postwar situation.

Every major country in Europe, except Great Britain, had been defeated at one stage or another during the war.

Every country in Europe, with the exception of Great Britain, had been occupied at one stage or another during the war.

Every country in the world that had ever played a major role in foreign policy had been significantly smashed or reduced in influence, power and capacity to conduct foreign affairs, by the war. Economies were shattered. Civil government was very often threatened by domestic discord.

In these conditions, it was, in fact, true that if the United States did not play the major role, no one else possibly could.

Many of the transformations that I am talking about, therefore, are not criticisms of previous Administrations. They were made possible or, indeed, necessary, by the successes of previous policy and not always by the failures—although some of them also reflect certain failure.

A number of big changes have occurred. First, since 1948 over sixty new states have come into being. Since 1948 many of the traditional countries of Europe and Asia regained a great deal of their strength and vigor. Since 1948, the Communist world, which appeared monolithic, has appeared to have many profound divisions. And since 1948, and especially through the 1960’s, we have had to learn that the United States cannot be in the position where other countries can pretend that their development is more important to us than it is to them, and that if their security is threatened, it is worse for us than it is for them. The United States cannot be in this position because to conduct foreign policy on this basis may be beyond our physical resources. It surely is beyond our psychological resources. No one can ask the U.S. Government to take the principal responsibility for every decision at every point in the world at every moment in time. It is not healthy for us and it is not healthy for other countries. It enables them to shift the burden of difficult decisions to the United States. It demoralizes their domestic situation. It exacerbates our domestic decisions when all the burdens have to be borne by the United States at every point throughout the world.

It was in this situation, in the fifth year of a war that seemed inconclusive, that this administration has come into office. It is in these conditions that we have tried to adjust the American foreign policy to realities of both our domestic and our foreign situation.

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I read in the newspapers always very exciting accounts of the tremendous disputes that go on within the Administration, and who is up and who is down at any particular point, and who did or did not know about this or that decision. The basic charge that the President has given me and to his senior advisors is, first of all, to ask ourselves where we are going. The President, on the whole, is not interested in tactical questions. I remember four weeks after we came into office, if I can mention a personal vignette, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese started an offensive. The government was then still geared to the pace of the previous administration. A number of senior officials wanted to come over and assemble in the Situation Room so that the President could conduct that battle. I told them to wait a minute and let me find out what the President wanted to do. I asked the President whether he wanted to conduct these tactical operations from the White House. He said, “Is there any decision that I need to make?” I said no. He said, “Is there any decision that I can make now that would make any difference?” I said no. Then he said, “I don’t want to see them. When there is a decision that I need to make, let me know. Let me know what my choices are.” He was absolutely right. There was nothing he could do at that point when the attack started that would not drive everybody crazy. The important concern that the President has put before us is to know where we are going, to put before him the fullest range of choices that he can develop; and then, of course, the final decision, which of the options he would choose, is up to him. He has steadfastly refused to leap on the basis of what seems temporarily fashionable.

This has been terribly important because, as a result of the frustration of some of the previous events, and partly as a result of the fact that we had, or maybe have, outrun our intellectual capacity in some areas, there has been a tendency to have a rote answer to every question. The President mentioned the issue of disarmament. When we came into office, we were confronted with the prospect of talks on strategic arms limitations with the Soviets. We received a great deal of vociferous pressure from many well-meaning groups that we should immediately plunge into these negotiations. We hesitated. Indeed, we did not do it. We did not [sic]hesitate, but we did not do it because we did not want to engage in negotiations on a subject of this magnitude until we knew what we were talking about.

The danger of going into these negotiations precipitately was that we would spend two-thirds of the time negotiating with ourselves and one-third of the time negotiating with the Soviets. If you look at the history of the nuclear ban, for example, we spent five years on that subject. On the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which didn’t even concern us, primarily, but other countries, we spent four years.

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It would have been an easy matter to slap together a position and meet the Russians and put our position on the table. Then the Soviets would put their position on the table. There would have been a deadlock. We would have had to renegotiate our position within our bureaucracy. We would go back to the Russians.

This process could have been repeated indefinitely for five or six years. Instead, the President ordered the fullest study that has been made in or outside the government of just exactly what one would do if one wanted to limit any conceivable weapon system that has any conceivable application for strategic warfare.

We went through this weapon system by weapon system. We analyzed what our means of inspection were, what the dangers of violation were, what we would do if we spotted a violation, what the strategic significance would be if there was an agreement or if there were not an agreement.

In that process, incidentally, most of the usual bureaucratic disputes were avoided because we looked at it as an analytical problem and not as a bureaucratic problem.

Having made this survey, we were then in a position to put together four positions of various degrees of comprehensives, of which the President chose the two most comprehensive ones, which we put to the Soviets. The Soviets, as was predictable—and this I am not saying critically, the issue is so complex—had a slightly different view of the problem. But the work we had done enabled us to shift within a matter of three weeks from one position to another where previously this would have taken a year of internal fighting within our Administration.

Therefore, we are extremely optimistic about the progress in strategic arms talks. The Soviets have been constructive and without their cooperation it wouldn’t have been possible. But I think it is fair to say that without the particular approach that the President insisted we introduce into the decision-making process, we could not have gotten to where we are today.

I will come back to that in a moment. I wanted to use it only as an illustration of the general approach.

Let me go back, then, and say that in the light of the philosophy I have described, and say what the guiding principle of the Administration is with respect to foreign policy.

This was expressed by the President at Guam, and has been popularly described as the Nixon Doctrine. It states the following: One, of course, we will maintain any commitments that the United States has. Two, that in the case of a threat by a nuclear country against a non-nuclear country, we feel that we have a special obligation since we are the only major nuclear country in the free world. Three, with respect to [Page 233] other threats, or with respect to other programs, the initial and principal responsibility has to be borne first by the country concerned and secondly by the region concerned.

We will assist where our interests are involved and where what we can do can make a difference. But we will not be in a position where the principal programs or the principal defense are borne in the first instance by the United States if the countries concerned do not make the effort themselves.

This we view not as a way of withdrawing from the world, but as a way of remaining related to the world in a way that is historically, psychologically and domestically bearable for us. It is a way of shifting to the other countries what has to be the normal position of the primary burden of their responsibilities, intellectually, physically, politically and militarily.

Enunciating a doctrine is a lot easier than implementing it. Obviously, as one goes into a new phase, it is only at universities that one has sharp dividing lines. In reality, there are always vestiges of the old together with the beginning of the new. Obviously, for example, when you have 550,000 Americans engaged in combat, you cannot shift to the Nixon Doctrine the day after you have announced it. That will have to be obviously, in those areas, a gradual progress.

So, I am describing a direction and not a cookbook, a recipe, that can be applied literally to every situation from one day to the next.

The reason why we believe that this doctrine can, should and will characterize American foreign policy in the next decade is not only because of the developing strength and self-confidence of other countries, but also because of the different conditions that exist in the world compared to the late 1940’s.

In the late 1940’s and the 50’s, and, indeed, the early 60’s, one thought of Communism as a monolith, inherently and eternally aggressive and run from a central core. No one who has seen the Communist world operate would underrate the aggressiveness of many of their leaders and many of their countries. But there has been an important historical change in a number of respects.

One is that the Communist system simply isn’t working very well domestically, and that the Communist Party really does not have a very meaningful domestic function any more.

This has good and bad consequences. It leads on the one hand to a certain bureaucratization of life. On the other hand, it may give the Communist Parties a vested interest in foreign dangers. You don’t need an ideological party to run a country. You don’t need them to run an economy. So, they may have a vested interest always in being in a position of some tension in at least some part of the world.

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The second important and perhaps decisive feature is the split between the Soviet Union and Communist China. According to Communist doctrine, the spread of Communism is to insure eternal peace. The fact of the matter is that the Red Army has been used four times since World War II, always against allies, only against allies.

The fact of the matter is that the deepest rivalries that exist in the world today are between Communist countries. First, the split that existed between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and now the enormous tension that exists between the Soviet Union and Communist China, which may be the deepest factor in Soviet foreign policy and for which they really have no mechanism of handling it. It would be bad enough as a problem among states, that is, if states of the size of Communist China and the Soviet Union were in conflict that would be serious enough, but when you add to it a quasi-religious struggle of who is going to define the true orthodoxy so that it has profound ideological, semi-religious overtones, it has many insoluble aspects. And if the Soviet Union is more conciliatory towards the West at the moment, the consciousness of what seems to them the impending danger from the East is one of the most crucial factors.

There are, therefore, openings in negotiations with the Soviet Union that simply did not exist even ten years ago, much less 20 years ago, produced by this new aspect of international relations. These are the basic realities with which we deal.

Let me now make a few remarks about some specifics in the conduct of foreign policy.

We have a difficult problem in the sense that when the President came into office he announced that it would be an era of negotiations, that he was aiming for an era of negotiation and not confrontation. Many Americans tend to believe that you fuel negotiations primarily by endless demonstrations of unilateral good will.

On the other hand, history tends to indicate that negotiations depend to an important extent, especially with Communist countries, on the balance of risks and opportunities that they perceive.

Last year, when the President announced the ABM program, there were many who argued with us and said that if we developed the ABM, this would spark a new round of the arms race and it would forever doom the SALT negotiations.

The fact of the matter is, as the President pointed out, and as we can easily demonstrate, that without the ABM there probably wouldn’t be any meaningful SALT negotiations. What possible incentive would the Soviets have? We have stopped developing offensive weapons. We have stopped building offensive weapons. Why should they make an agreement with us to stop doing something that we have already stopped doing and that they are continuing to do.

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We didn’t say that last year. At that time, we did it mostly on strategic claims, so I don’t want to claim a foresight that we didn’t insist on last year. Last year we did it because we were getting worried about the tremendous build up of the Soviet land based missile force.

As it turned out in the evolution of the negotiations, it is the ABM which is one of the main reasons why we can be so optimistic about the fact that we will get a fairly comprehensive agreement that we expect will include both offensive and defensive weapons within a reasonable time period, certainly a much shorter time period than was spent on any other set of negotiations.

The second area which I will not cover in detail, but which Joe Sisco will talk about is, of course, the Middle East.

I will confine myself to this general set of remarks. In many respects, the Middle East is a more difficult and in some of its aspects a more dangerous problem than, say, Southeast Asia. It is more difficult and more dangerous because we and the other side are not so completely in control of our actions. The characteristic of the Middle East that has caused the President and others to describe it as similar to the Balkans before World War I is that you have two groups of countries with very intense emotions who are very conscious of their local rivalries, but not primarily responsible for the peace of the world, two groups of countries that are, however, tied to the two opposing major camps, so that if these countries can get into conflict without the desire of the major countries, that is, specifically if there is an Arab-Israeli war that is not caused either by a decision in Washington or a decision in Moscow, it can nevertheless happen that Washington and Moscow, or the United States and the Soviet Union may get involved despite the fact that they were not involved in the initial decision.

This is why the Administration has been so interested in bringing about a settlement in the Middle East, and why Joe Sisco has been so invaluable in coming up with a formula. I will not say anything more about it except to underline our concern about the Middle East, the fact that the Administration has had a united policy on that issue, and that we consider it one of our high priority items.

Now let me make a few remarks about Southeast Asia. If the Middle East is our most dangerous area, there is no doubt that Southeast Asia is our most anguishing problem. We came into office while the level of troops was, in fact, still increasing in Vietnam, in the fifth year of a war that had been inconclusive, in negotiations which had never yet reached substance, and we faced the problem of bringing the war to a conclusion as the President promised, and in conformity with the principles that he has himself outlined to you.

There is a liturgical quality about the Vietnam debate that causes the participants to take fixed [Page 236] positions, that causes people to take fixed positions, and makes it very difficult to have a meaningful debate. I recognize that the concerns that have been expressed by many of our critics are based on very thoughtful analysis. Let me therefore state briefly where we think we are going, and why we do what we are doing.

First of all, the other day I met with a group of Princeton students whose emotions exceeded their knowledge, and who said, Why are you simply continuing old policies? Why don’t you have the courage to change the policy? I reminded them that in August 1968, Senator Edward Kennedy made a speech in which he said he was picking up the fallen banner of his brother as a declaration of conscience of what should be done in Vietnam. I asked them to read that speech because it turns out there is nothing in that speech that we have not already done and exceeded. So what the professors of 1968 considered a daring program, we have gone far beyond. In 1968 [sic]when we came in, the number of troops was still increasing.

We have announced withdrawals of over 260,000. In 1968 the issue of whether one would even talk to the National Liberation Front was not settled. There is no question now that they can participate in the political process of Vietnam.

I don’t want to repeat all the details which we can furnish you in writing. The major point I want to make is that this Administration is committed to ending the war, and it will end the war. But in order to end the war, it must carry out a number of steps which lend themselves to relatively easy attack. Obviously, at this stage of the war, there are no brilliant solutions available. The easy things have all been done. Therefore, anyone who takes the negative of any proposition can point out many weaknesses in any course that may be pursued.

Let me give you an example. One of our basic policies is the policy of Vietnamization, which is really an application of the Nixon Doctrine to South Vietnam, in which we want to put more and more responsibility on the South Vietnamese for their defense and for their political development.

There are many people who specialize in pointing out that this cannot possibly work, and others who say, “You mustn’t have Vietnamization; you should have negotiation.”

Let me say two things about it. First, if Vietnamization doesn’t work, negotiation will not work either. Let me say flatly the whole thrust of our policy is to promote negotiation. We are convinced that the only quick way to end the war is through negotiation. The only reliable way of ending the war is through negotiation. No one familiar with the history of Vietnam can have any doubt that any program that depends entirely on local conditions has major problems connected with it.

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But what we are saying is this: To the extent that the North Vietnamese look at the situation in South Vietnam and see that there develops there a structure that at least will give them a major problem after we withdraw, to that extent they will have an incentive to negotiate.

To the extent that the North Vietnamese looking at South Vietnam see a structure that is certain to collapse, to that same extent negotiations cannot work.

Therefore, there is no opposition between negotiation and Vietnamization. If Vietnamization works, negotiation may work—will work. If Vietnamization doesn’t work, then both policies do not work.

Secondly, on the issue, there are many proposals, some of which have found their way into editorial pages, to the effect that we should put a deadline on our withdrawals. First of all, no one really knows whether we have an internal deadline or not. Secondly, whether we should announce a deadline raises a whole series of questions.

One reason we don’t announce a deadline is because we want to beat any of the deadlines that I have seen written about. The reason we think we want to beat it is because we still have not given up on negotiations.

Once you have committed yourself irrevocably to getting out on a certain date, regardless of consequences, the other side has no conceivable interest left in negotiation. At that time, their only task is to hold on until that deadline is reached.

We are reasonably optimistic, insofar as one can be that in Vietnam, that Vietnamization is progressing satisfactorily enough, in order to support negotiations.

We will have setbacks and there won’t be an uninterrupted progress. But the major trend we believe will either lead to a situation in which the other side may negotiate or to a situation in which we can withdraw and leave the country in a position where it has at least a chance to take care of itself.

Let me mention a few questions that are always put to us. A friend of mine wrote a letter a few months ago in which he said he wanted to put a few questions that concerned thoughtful people. One of his questions was: To what extent is your policy dictated by the Saigon Government? Or, are you independent of the Saigon Government?

I know the fashionable thing, at least in my former stamping grounds, would be to say we are completely independent of the Saigon Government and we do exactly what we believe. That would be a demagogic thing to say.

Obviously, when you fight in another country, you are allied with that other country, and you are affected by the actions of that country. Of course, we are influenced by some of their views.

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What we are trying to do, however, through the process of Vietnamization, is to put them into a position, and ourselves in a position, where we are less and less dependent on their actions and they are less and less dependent on our views. That is the purpose of Vietnamization. We are not there yet, but we are trying to be there.

Secondly, are we independent of Hanoi’s action?

Of course we are not completely independent of Hanoi’s action. They, to some extent, influence us.

The third question is in negotiations, why don’t you propose—and then you can have any list that human ingenuity can devise.

Let me make one observation about negotiations. First, there is a myth that negotiation with the North Vietnamese is like a detective story, in which they throw out their clues and we have to guess at the answer. Then if we don’t get the answer correctly we are at fault for the failure of the negotiations.

I have been visited by more self-appointed peace emissaries who have picked out a phrase from some delegate in Paris that they thought was terribly significant, that we had been told about already, 50 times before.

The chief problem in negotiations is not lack of ingenuity on our part in coming up with a formula. The chief problem in negotiations is that we are confronting a country that has fought for 25 years with great courage, but whose very quality of courage may not make it capable of visualizing a compromise.

We have paid for the beginning of negotiations five different times. First we were told that if there were a bombing halt there would be substantive negotiations. Then we were told if we talked to the NLF there would be substantive negotiations; if we made a symbolic withdrawal of troops, if we announced the withdrawal of 100,000 troops, if we made the withdrawal of 100,000 troops, if we announced a new senior negotiator in Paris.

We have done every one of these things. There have not yet been substantive negotiations, and that for one simple reason. The last convinced Leninists in the world may be the North Vietnamese, and the sharing of political power is not the most obvious conclusion to which you are driven by the study of Leninism. Indeed, the opposite is true.

Secondly, Vietnamese, North or South, find it very difficult to visualize anything else but total victory. As soon as North Vietnam indicates that it is ready for serious negotiations, it will not be lack of ingenuity on our part that will start the negotiating process. Of this I can assure you flatly.

So, the missing ingredient at this moment is the beginning of a serious negotiation. But we haven’t given up hope. You read in the paper [Page 239] yesterday that their senior negotiator is coming back to Paris. Whenever there has been a break in these Vietnam negotiations, it has come suddenly. I am not saying it is coming now, but whenever it will come, if it ever comes, it will be relatively sudden.

Let me make one final point to sum up all these observations. We had some difficult months after the President’s decision to go into Cambodia. We have been told on a number of occasions how desirable it would be if we yielded to the pressures of so many dedicated and concerned groups, and if we only stopped what is often called the polarization of our society.

We have not done it, as the President said, because history tends to prove that the people do not forgive leaders who produce disasters, even if these disasters are following the recommendations made by the public. We believe that our obligation is to make a peace that will last; that a peace cannot last if in the process confidence in the United States is shaken.

Nor do we believe that the answer to our domestic difficulties is to yield to any group that smashes the china and then says, “Look what you have made me do.”

We believe it is important that the way we end the war and the way we build the peace reflects the best judgment of the best thought that can be brought to bear on the problem.

In doing this, we believe, even though this wouldn’t be recognized, that we may be the best protection of the very people who have been most vociferously protesting against us. If this country is taken over by a radical group, it will not be by upper middle class college kids. There will be a much more elemental group taking it over.

We cannot permit the political contests to be fought out by rival groups of demonstrators. We think this is terribly important, to conclude, because we are at a point where except for the war in Vietnam, there are possibilities of bringing about a more reliable peace in the world than we have known in the whole post-war period.

We are at a point where we can re-define the American position with respect to the world, where, for whatever reasons, it may be that even the Soviet Union has come to a realization of the limitations of both its physical strength and of the limits of its ideological fervor.

But none of these possibilities can be realized except by an American Government that is confident that it knows what it is doing, that can respond to its best judgment, and by an American public that has enough confidence in its leaders so that they are permitted the modicum of ambiguity that is sometimes inseparable from a situation in which you cannot, at the beginning of a process, know completely what all the consequences are.

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The tragic aspect of policy-making is that when your scope for action is greatest, the knowledge on which you can base this action is always at a minimum. When your knowledge is greatest, the scope for action has often disappeared. This is the problem that we face. This is why no society can operate without confidence. But the reason despite this turmoil is because in any new creation one is very conscious of the symptoms of the turmoil. One is very aware of the things that are being changed. It is always a painful process to see it come about. But we think there is a very good chance that by the end of this term we will have laid the foundations for a period to which many of those who were most worried a few months ago can not only reconcile themselves, but can support and in which the whole American public will feel that this was the beginning of an era of constructive peace.

[Omitted here are Sisco’s comments and his and Kissinger’s answers to questions.]

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 426, Subject File, Background Briefings, July-August 1970. No classification marking. Herbert Klein, White House Director of Communications, introduced Kissinger and Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco and explained the rules governing a background briefing. Kissinger and Sisco conducted the briefing.