103. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • President Richard Nixon
  • President Nguyen Van Thieu
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger
  • Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker
  • Mr. Nguyen Phu Duc

After President Thieu’s welcoming remarks, the President responded that this was his eighth visit to Viet-Nam and that he felt it important at this time to come to the country’s capital. It would demonstrate to Hanoi that we stand together as well as the fact that Saigon is a safe place. It was fortuitous that the moon landing provided an opportunity for his Asian trip and for another discussion with President Thieu.

The President complimented President Thieu on his July 11 statement, saying that he thought that it had been both courageous and forthcoming. It had had a good reception in the United States and in world opinion; a number of Senators who have been critical of our policy in Viet-Nam were now saying that the next move was up to Hanoi. The President went on to say he believed that we have gone now as far as we should and that the next move was up to the other side. “We can’t have you nibbled away. That is something that we are not willing to permit.”

President Thieu responded by explaining the situation he had had to confront here in view of some of the doubts his statement had created. It had been necessary to spend some time in explaining to members of the Assembly, to the Province and District Chiefs, the military, and civil servants, the GVN’s “good will for peace.” This he had done [Page 322] through means of press conferences and meetings. He felt that the impression now was that he has been forthcoming and has made a generous offer for serious negotiations and a move toward peace, but that this should be the last offer until there is some response from the other side.

President Thieu went on to say that he felt we must keep the door open in Paris; that we have won support of the free world because of the forthcoming proposals we have both made and that we must, therefore, not withdraw from the talks. As long as the other side continues to nourish the hope of winning by whatever method, military or political, we must stand firm. But, he added, we stand ready to discuss anything and in any way, publicly or privately. The problem is whether the other side is really ready to negotiate. Until now they have been reluctant and we have not seen evidence of a real intention to move ahead.

The President asked President Thieu how his moves toward political organization were progressing.

President Thieu replied by saying that as the situation now stands, we have offered to enter into reasonable and serious talks with the communists. The question is whether they are willing to talk reasonably or will choose to continue the war. If they choose the latter, the war may take on a different character. The enemy may choose to carry on at a slower tempo, eventually even to fade away; thus it might go on this way for four or five years. We have to be prepared for the fact that it might take this course. We, therefore, have to move ahead on various fronts: a) to strengthen our military forces; b) to expand pacification, to extend security through land reform and other measures to bring the people along with us; c) to consolidate the people with the government; d) to secure the collaboration of political parties in support of the government; e) to work toward collaboration of the Assembly and the Executive and f) to fashion a broader based Cabinet.

South Viet-Nam must become stronger politically, militarily, and economically.

President Thieu added that the GVN might have suggestions about our AID program, especially about procedures, in order to help the economy grow more rapidly. He felt this was important to the overall effort. The President replied that we intended to continue to provide economic aid and would be interested in their suggestions.

President Thieu went on to say that the feeling here is that President Nixon’s trip should be seen in the context of a diplomatic move to stimulate progress toward a solution in Paris. He wondered what the relative influence of Russia and China on the talks is. In any case, President Thieu felt that it was important to make preparations for what he called a “long haul, low cost” policy while South Viet-Nam [Page 323] was in the process of growing stronger and stronger. “You help us so we can take over more and more.” The process of growing stronger could have the effect of weakening the other side; and if they do not accept a political solution, it is clear that we ourselves will have to do more.

President Thieu said there seemed to him to be two alternatives, either for the U.S. to speed up the war or to help the GVN to take over more of the war burden. He felt that the statements which the President had made during his trip indicated the latter course, i.e., that Asians should take over more responsibility for their own security. President Thieu felt that this was a constructive policy and that if the U.S. wishes to disengage, the best course is to help South Viet-Nam grow strong. He added that if you help us to resist and “chase away the aggressor,” we can handle the rest of the problem.

The President repeated that we intend to continue our aid which we believe is important in developing the Vietnamese economy and in the effort to Vietnamize the war, both for the effect that this has in Viet-Nam and in the United States. The President added that he felt American opinion would be favorably influenced by President Thieu’s efforts to broaden the base of his government.

President Thieu said he proposed to go ahead with his plans and remarked that one of the problems he had had during the last two weeks was how to hold back the super-hawks and to keep the super-doves from going too far.

President Thieu said that there are risks in the “long haul, low cost” solution because the people do not yet have confidence in our ability to oppose the communists politically. Therefore, we have to have time to convince the people that we have the means to win politically. We must also convince the communists of the need to negotiate.

President Nixon asked President Thieu’s judgment as to how to go about this. Should we make it clear to the other side we are not going to quit? Thieu replied in the affirmative.

The President asked President Thieu his view of why the enemy did not attempt another high point militarily in July.

President Thieu replied that the enemy is preparing for another try, they had not been able to get ready for an effort in July, but that they would try again. Thieu remarked that the enemy problem is to maintain the war at a level which will not discourage or prevent further reduction in U.S. forces, but at the same time to try to discredit the ability of the Vietnamese forces.

President Nixon remarked that going to Paris bought the enemy time and this had been expensive for us.

President Thieu asked what we should now do in Paris, and the President replied that he felt that we should sit tight for the next two [Page 324] or three months. President Thieu agreed and said that the Vietnamese understand too that we must be forthcoming toward the negotiations.

The discussion then turned to the question of troop reduction. The President said he felt that no statement should be made about the next increment now; that this would give the impression that his visit had been used to put pressure on the GVN.

President Thieu responded that it would be helpful to do this in a way which would indicate to the Vietnamese people that the reductions will be gradual. He believed also that we should exploit the fact of withdrawals indicating that while we were making constructive moves, the communists were doing nothing. He felt also that it was important to develop a plan for further U.S. reductions in 1970 in which the U.S. would say we will withdraw X numbers of troops and GVN would say the same thing. It was important that the reductions should not appear to be sudden improvisations responding to some particular influence.

The President replied that he thought it was well to have a plan, but it should never be discussed publicly. We should not disclose to the enemy what we propose to do, but keep them guessing. Another disadvantage in making public disclosures ahead of time is the fact that critics at home will not be satisfied with whatever numbers we come up with. They will continue to snipe at us and say we are not doing enough. Consequently, let us have a plan, but let us keep it secret among ourselves. The President referred to his remarks at his press conference on June 19 about Clark Clifford’s formula to the effect that he hoped we might do better.2 He explained that what he had in mind, though he could not say so publicly, was that Clifford’s formula was not optimistic enough if we issue a warning to the enemy and then have to act on it.

The President asked President Thieu about the prospects for his land reform program. Thieu replied that the draft law had been submitted to the Assembly, which was now in recess. The Assembly would, however, meet in mid-August and he hoped that it might enact the law by the end of August.

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The President said that he had recently read a report that the VC were coming more under Chinese influence and asked whether President Thieu felt they had any separate identity from Hanoi.

President Thieu responded that he felt Hanoi had played the game as between Moscow and Peking very cleverly. They had not long ago issued a statement saying they were neither pro-Moscow nor pro-Peking. The fact is that they continue to receive help and need it from both the Soviets and Communist Chinese. There are two factions in Hanoi—pro-war and pro-negotiation. They use both in a skillful way to ingratiate themselves with both the Soviets and the Chinese, the pro-negotiation faction with Moscow and the pro-war faction with Peking.

President Thieu went on to say that after the war North Viet-Nam will attempt to maintain groupings both in Cambodia and Laos. He added that “we never forget the ultimate purpose of the Chinese. North Viet-Nam also nourishes and will continue to nourish the purpose and objective of imposing communism on the South. They will accept a temporary division, as they did in 1954, but they will not relinquish their purpose.”

The President asked President Thieu whether, if the North stays out of South Viet-Nam, they can handle the VC. He replied, “Yes, I believe we can. But we cannot imagine a permanent peace if North Viet-Nam remains in Laos and Cambodia. It is not possible to have an international body which can control one-thousand miles of border. Therefore, it is important that in a settlement Laos and Cambodia should be included and that controls should be set up in both these countries as well as South Viet-Nam.

The President said he was concerned about the deteriorating situation in Laos and asked Thieu what he felt we could do to be more effective. Thieu replied that he felt one measure we could take was to increase the bombing.

The President asked for his views of Sihanouk. President Thieu replied that while Sihanouk is bad, we don’t want to have something worse. He added that there are only two groups in Cambodia who can overthrow Sihanouk, the military or the communists; the military are weak and ineffectual and it is more likely to be the communists who would succeed. Even if the military moved against Sihanouk, he felt that the communists would eventually take over. What Sihanouk does or can do depends very largely on what happens in Viet-Nam. Cambodia is a weak country and if Sihanouk were overthrown, or if we encouraged his overthrow, it is highly likely the communists will take over.

When the President asked whether President Thieu felt the communists were a great danger to Sihanouk, he said he believed so. He thought that Sihanouk wants Cambodia to play a neutral role, but that [Page 326] he may not be able to maintain this if the communists gain or even largely increase their control.

At this point the Vice President entered the conversation and Dr. Kissinger and Ambassador Bunker withdrew.3

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1023, Presidential/HAK Memcons, President Nixon and Thieu, 7/30/69. Top Secret; Nodis; MoonGlow. The meeting was held at Independence Palace. Kissinger sent copies of this memorandum to Rogers and Richardson on August 13. Bunker sent the original to Kissinger under cover of a memorandum of August 19 in which he wrote: “I think it [the meeting] went exceedingly well. From the preliminary soundings we have taken, this seems to be an almost unanimous opinion here. In reading the transcript of yesterday’s [July 31] plenary session in Paris, it appears that Hanoi got the message.” (Ibid., Box 138, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, Vol. IX, 8/1/69–8/31/69) According to the President’s Daily Diary, Nixon and Thieu met at the Palace from noon to 5:35 p.m. This time apparently includes the discussion with the advisers; see footnote 3 below. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  2. On June 19 President Nixon held a news conference at the White House during which he was asked to respond to a suggestion put forth by former Secretary of Defense Clifford that 100,000 American troops ought to be withdrawn by the end of 1969 and that all ground troops ought to be out by the end of 1970. In response, President Nixon said, “I would hope that we could beat Mr. Clifford’s timetable, just as I think we have done a little better than he did when he was in charge of our national defense.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1969, pp. 471–472) Kissinger recalls in White House Years, “Though strenuous efforts were made to ‘interpret’ the President’s remark, the damage was done; our insistence on mutual withdrawal was by then drained of virtually any plausibility.” (pp. 274–275)
  3. While this group was meeting, a second group of “Advisers”—Berger, Green, Abrams, South Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Khiem and Defense Minister Vy—met and discussed the significance of the lull, Vietnamization, and the American public’s attitude towards the war. Nixon, Thieu, Ky, Kissinger, Bunker, and Nguyen Phu Duc joined the meeting after their discussion ended. Nixon briefed the advisers on his discussions with Thieu and Ky and then gave them a “pep talk.” (Memorandum from Holdridge to Kissinger, July 31; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1320, Unfiled Material, 8 of 19)