102. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The President
  • Ellsworth Bunker, Ambassador to South Vietnam
  • Robert S. Lindquist, Chargé in Malaysia
  • William H. Bruns, Chargé in Singapore
  • G. McMurtrie Godley, Ambassador to Laos
  • Arthur W. Hummel, Ambassador to Burma
  • Carol Laise, Ambassador to Nepal
  • Andrew V. Corry, Ambassador to Ceylon
  • Leonard Unger, Ambassador to Thailand
  • Norman Hannah, DCM in Thailand2
  • Robert G. Neumann, Ambassador to Afghanistan
  • Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President
  • Ronald Ziegler, Assistant to the President
  • Harold H. Saunders, NSC Staff

President: Thanks for coming. Time precludes visiting some countries. On the other hand, being in area provides opportunity hear your countries’ reactions to our policies generally—everything from foreign assistance over. What I have tried to get across on trip so far:

I have general belief that Asia is where the action is and ought to be—in spite of Vietnam. Other areas naturally important too. US/Soviet relations will be taken care of at highest level. Latin America will not change much. Africa will not govern itself for 200 years. But in terms of conflict involving us, likeliest place is Asia. Mid-East possibly, but there less likely because that would be between US and USSR. But in Asia, countries on edge of China ripe for export of revolution.

As I see it, the way we end Vietnam war will determine whether we can have viable policy in Asia—a settlement that will not be seen as US defeat and will not lead to Communist takeover in a few years. Don’t have to put this in domino terms.

One could conclude that getting out of Vietnam any way would be best thing we could do. But—though everyone wants peace—the most detrimental effect of a Vietnam settlement would be a settlement that produced Communist victory in a few years. US people would throw up hands on further active Asian involvement. We are going through critical phase for US world leadership—American people never wanted to be world leaders in first place and maybe that’s why we have never had a world policy.

Let’s start with Laos.

Godley: King has volunteered his confidence in President and US. King asked Godley say Lao military concerned US might pull out, but they aren’t worth much. King and Souvanna main elements of stability. People of Laos have not really grasped problem but they are basically [Page 318] for us. Meo are one good fighting element—our most dedicated friends. Internal situation serious. By and large good friends.

President: What about military situation?

Godley: Very serious—7 North Vietnamese battalions—4–6,000 men, now tanks used for first time. Troops using heavier weapons. Enemy has given logistical support never before seen in rainy season. 50–50 chance, next 3–4 weeks enemy would have reacquired most of his plus neutralist 1962 position. Has several options for handling Lao political situation—could now liquidate neutralists as a political force and go into bilateral conflict with non-Communists. Faced with enemy step-up in North, we have increased rate of air sorties in support (from 50 to 200) without altering rules of engagement.

Where from here? We have been trying to press Soviets and British co-chairmen. Embassy Vientiane proposed contacting Soviets to point out enemy buildup, express concern. Thinks Soviets would like to stabilize Laos—aware of Chicom road. Tell Soviets we would reduce sortie rate to 50 a day for 2–3 days and expect enemy assume defensive positions in areas they now control. Would be interesting to see Soviet reaction. Might be able to stabilize situation. Do not recommend total US standdown—Lao would lie down and roll over.

Hummel: Burma neutralist with left-wing government that is politically and economically unsuccessful. Most Burmese blame US and North Vietnam equally. However NeWin wants to see some US counterweight after Vietnam, though not applied in Burma. Have Chicom-sponsored insurgents; are planning renounce friendship treaty with China. But Burma thoroughly neutralist and do not want to lean on us. Do not want to lean on big powers for economic aid.

Lindquist: Malaysians want us in Vietnam and want kind of settlement President described. They believe we will try for right kind of settlement but have nagging doubt this will be possible. This comes at time of other disappointments—breakdown of British security system in Far East. Reappraising own security arrangements—will look more to Australia, Indonesia, Thailand. Slowly readjusting relations with Communist camp (Soviet Embassy there). Interested in Brezhnev proposal. Work closely with us, though no bilateral aid program. US posture correct, letting Commonwealth take lead, but we should go on putting money through regional organizations.

Bruns: Lee Kuan Yew—Post-Vietnam’s influence will depend on when post-Vietnam occurs. If 1970–71, he believes that will be too soon because won’t be going government in Saigon.

Neumann: Vietnam is not problem in Afghanistan—Indo-Pak and Mid-East problems far closer. There is, however, a good tacit understanding with USSR. We in 1953 did not get into military aid. Russians have pressed Afghans to phase out Chicom programs. Democratic experiment. [Page 319] Economic progress hampered by illiterate parliament trying to deal with complex development problems. Relations with Iran good, and Iran’s influence becoming greater. Pakistan: Pushtunistan very much down; transit difficulty up. Countries from Turkey down interested in transit agreement. Have suggested President say word to Yahya about transit; Pakistan could ease transit problem. “A manageable corner to unmanageable problem—Indo-Pak relations.”

Corry: Senanayake government replaced radical government in 1965—takes moderate stand. Presses agricultural development and trying reduce communal tensions. Believes peace in Vietnam can come only from withdrawal of all foreign troops. Hopes US will continue show lively interest in Asia. Immediately problems have to do with reelection of this government. We helping grow-more-food campaign.

Laise: Nepalese government takes direct interest in Vietnam. Does not want peace that is US retreat. Nepal wants US presence and aid— constitutes important balance. Chinese and Indian activity have stepped up. Nepal has reacted against India but now back on tracks. India is fumbling for a policy—imagine that US had USSR or China on other side of Canada. India holds string on our presence because our aid financed from rupees. Our interests in Nepal not vital so will depend on US India policy.

Bunker: Aside from military situation—which not bad—Thieu has “used up all his credit but hasn’t overdrawn his account.” Now broadening base of his government—new cabinet (efficiency, acceptable to assembly, popular base). Fashioning a parliamentary bloc. Forming consultative group outside cabinet, necessary because of disarray his statement created. He will need broader backing for later flexibility in negotiating. May have cabinet formed in another couple of weeks.

President: Can they survive troop withdrawals?

Bunker: Depends on speed and adequate psychological preparation. But if impression we on a rigid timetable could have disastrous effects. Can have good effects if done well—Vietnamese moving ahead rather well.

President: Let me sum up.

On Mid-East, no progress of significance. I anticipate none. May only come at a very high level only when Soviets realize they may be drawn in. Arabs they support in shaky positions. Very pessimistic situation at this time.

On Vietnam, no significant progress in Paris on public talks—don’t talk about private contacts. Soviets have played minimal role; expect none unless they can get something because they can’t get caught at it. Escalation that would involve US and USSR remote. Ties us down. One factor in other direction is that they have their troubles. As long as Vietnam going on, difficult to make progress in other fields with us. [Page 320] If USSR needs or wants better relations with US, moving on Vietnam would open door. If I were where they sit, I would keep “giving it to the US” in Vietnam.

Chinese-Soviet and US attitude. I don’t think we should rush quickly into embrace with USSR to contain China. Best US stance is to play each—not publicly. US–USSR–Europe lined up against rest of Asia not a pretty prospect. US–USSR security pact would invite Soviet adventurism in area; can let people talk about it but not do anything about.

What really rides on Vietnam, is whether US people are going to play big role in world or not. That question is very serious doubt. Mass of people usually think right but intellectuals oppose all but passive US role. How can we conduct policies in Asia so that we can play role we should:

Viable Vietnamese government for at least five years.
Where problem is internal subversion, countries must deal with problem themselves. We will help—but not American ground forces. Even when there is foreign exported revolution. Not talking about invasion by conventional troops.
I feel that with all criticism of US, Asia leaders realize worst thing for them would be for US to bug out of Vietnam because that would leave vacuum. Collective security is a good theme—but not real for five years (even Japan).
We have to conduct policy so we can sell it in US.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1023, President’s Asian and European Trip, July–August 1969. No classification marking. No drafter indicated. The meeting was held at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.
  2. In Norman Hannah’s book, The Key to Failure: Laos & the Vietnam War (pp. 269–274), he recalls that at a state dinner with the Thai Prime Minister on July 30, President Nixon told Hannah that he was aware of his strong ideas on Laos and he wanted to hear them. Hannah was loath to give his judgment to the President since it was not shared by Ambassador Unger. Unger and Kissinger subsequently worked out an arrangement resulting in a long telegram, 606 from Bangkok from Unger to Kissinger, August 3, which presented both Unger’s more gradualist approach to combating the North Vietnamese in Laos and Hannah’s bold advice to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail in the Laos panhandle by using U.S. air and ground forces. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 545, Country Files, Far East, Laos, Vol. II, 1 August 1969–10 October 1969)