Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970
119. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1
- Vietnam Options
Attached is a paper analyzing alternative Vietnam policies. It is provided for your background reading for the 9:30 a.m. meeting on Vietnam on Friday, September 12.2
Four options are considered:
- —Maintain essentially our current strategy across the board;
- —Accelerate negotiations while maintaining essentially our current Vietnamization policy and moderating our military tactics;
- —Accelerate Vietnamization while maintaining essentially our current negotiating approach and moderating our military tactics;
- —Escalate militarily while maintaining essentially our current negotiating approach and halting the Vietnamization process.3
I. Basic Elements in Vietnam Policy
In formulating alternative Vietnam policies there are three basic components which we can vary: our negotiating strategy, which includes [Page 377] both the type of political settlement we seek and the way in which we negotiate these questions in Paris; our Vietnamization policy, which includes the criteria and timing for our troop withdrawals; and our military tactics, which include both how and where we fight and the signals we send.
By varying the emphasis on these components, four basic alternative routes emerge. We can:
- Maintain essentially our current strategy across the board;
- Accelerate negotiations while maintaining essentially our current Vietnamization policy and moderating our military tactics;
- Accelerate Vietnamization while maintaining essentially our current negotiating approach and moderating our military tactics;
- Escalate militarily while maintaining essentially our current negotiating approach and halting the Vietnamization process.
We have to consider these alternatives in light of present realities and the major targets of our strategy.
II. The Current Situation
We are thus heading toward autumn in uncertain fashion. Is there political significance to the lull? If so, how do we take advantage of it without demoralizing our own forces and perhaps risking greater casualties? Can the Thieu regime stand up to more political compromises? more extensive US troop pullouts? If we cannot move further on both these fronts, which fork should we take to maintain American public support without undermining the GVN’s position? What is the most critical time-buying factor for the American people—lower casualties, progress in Paris, US disengagement? What is the impact of each of these factors on the other?
All three Vietnam participants are feeling pressures. The enemy has suffered heavy losses. Their leadership is apparently divided over their strategy and whether or not to explore negotiations. The GVN simultaneously tries to placate US opinion with negotiating reasonableness and its own supporters with soothing interpretation of its proposals and reassurances that it will not budge further. We are torn between the impatience of war-weary Americans and a commitment to reach a just settlement.
III. Three Audiences
Our Vietnam strategy is directed at three basic audiences: the enemy, the GVN, and the American people. Our purposes are to:
- —convince the enemy that they have nothing to gain by waiting;
- —reassure the GVN that we will negotiate and disengage at a pace that should allow it to compete politically and militarily with the other side;
- —maintain the support of the American people for an honorable outcome to the war.
The enemy’s negotiating attitude, the situation in South Vietnam, and the endurance of American opinion of course interact. The other side’s willingness to negotiate seriously will be keyed largely to his perception of American staying power and the political and military evolution in SVN. Competing forces in South Vietnam, and most particularly the uncommitted, all weigh and reflect both the bargaining process and the stamina of the American people. US public opinion will be heavily influenced by progress—or lack of it—in Paris and the ability of the GVN to hold up militarily and politically.
A. The Enemy
It is very difficult to assess the other side’s intentions with regard to negotiations. We do not know whether Hanoi and the NLF will be willing to negotiate a settlement that we can accept or whether they intend to await the collapse of the GVN or American stamina.
- —Enemy internal propaganda documents point to autumn negotiations.
- —The substantially reduced infiltration pipelines might be a signal of a coming willingness to negotiate, including the question of de facto withdrawals.
- —There may be significance in the reduced level of hostilities and enemy-initiated actions recently, as well as Hanoi’s release of three American prisoners in connection with July 4.
- —The PRG might have been established to allow the NLF to negotiate a political settlement as equals.
- —There have been second hand private hints in the past that some members of the present GVN government, including Thieu himself, might be acceptable in an eventual sharing of power.
- —The enemy might fear that Vietnamization, by gradually reducing US presence and lowering casualties, could maintain American public support while the GVN is successively strengthened.
- —The other side may be persuaded that we are prepared to be reasonable in negotiating a political settlement, that Thieu will be obliged to yield and that therefore negotiations might yield a satisfactory solution.
There are other strong arguments suggesting that the enemy is not serious about negotiations:
- —They have insistently demanded a coalition government, overthrow of the GVN, and the unconditional withdrawal of US troops.
- —To date they have flatly rejected Thieu’s election proposals.
- —They still refuse to talk to the GVN in private on political matters.
- —The creation of the PRG, in this context, might confirm a retrogression from the bombing halt understanding that the other side would talk to the GVN.
- —The enemy’s reduced military activities, rather than being a negotiating signal, could well be designed only to induce us to speed up our troop withdrawals while they cut down their own casualties.4 Once our withdrawals have progressed significantly and have picked up strong momentum, the enemy might resume military pressures and continue to stonewall the Paris talks.
- —They might well believe that time is on their side—they need only sit tight, make sufficient attacks to keep US casualties up, maintain a negotiating facade, and wait for the American people to force an unconditional US pullout or a face-saving agreement. (The Clifford article might have served to reinforce this view.)5
- —The enemy basically mistrusts negotiations, given their 1954 and 1962 experiences where they believe they achieved less through the negotiating process than their battlefield position warranted.
There is, in short, enough conflicting evidence to suggest that there are sharp differences within the enemy’s leadership over negotiating strategy. The crucial factor remains whether they can be persuaded that they can better pursue their objectives through negotiations than through waiting.
B. The GVN
The Thieu regime is squeezed politically between our pressure for negotiating concessions and pressure from conservative supporters to stand fast. It will be squeezed militarily between the Vietnamization process and enemy threats. Furthermore, the Army leaders and other elements whose support Thieu needs to make the RVNAF more self sufficient are precisely the ones who resist political concessions. Thus our continued pressing of Thieu on both negotiating positions and troop replacements could prove contradictory and too much for the GVN to bear.
Clear assessments of the GVN’s current military and political position are very difficult.[Page 380]
The RVNAF has been growing stronger in size if not in quality.
- —While we can measure progress in numbers of men and equipment, we have great difficulty assessing motivation, aggressiveness, leadership skills.
- —Desertions remain a major problem—very high recent levels can only partly be explained by the expansion of the armed forces.
- —There has been sufficient improvement to allow replacements of US forces up to perhaps 100,000 without serious military impact.
- —Beyond that range, even with heavy US support, we cannot be sure of RVNAF performance against both the VC and continued North Vietnamese presence.
- —We can be sure that the enemy will seek to inflict defeat on both withdrawing US troops and their South Vietnamese replacements in order to sabotage the Vietnamization rationale.
We still do not have any precise understanding of the extent to which the GVN is making progress in increasing its control of the countryside.
- —In response to NSSM 19 on Internal Security, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, supported by State and CIA, reported that pacification is not making sufficient progress and would not unless there were radical changes in the program. JCS and MACV dissented, arguing that substantial advances were being made.6
- —More population has been brought under GVN control, partly because of emigration to the cities, but the stability of recent gains remains in doubt, especially in the contested, category C, hamlets.
- The political situation is as uncertain as the related military and pacification aspects.
- —The Thieu government has been the most stable since Diem, has been somewhat broadened, erected a constitutional framework and conducted elections. Thieu has launched efforts to coalesce noncommunist groups to compete with the NLF, both under his NSDF banner and in a “loyal opposition.”
- —In future political competition the tightly organized and disciplined NLF would hold major advantages over the splintered noncommunist forces. Many of the latter remain skeptical about Thieu’s intentions and prefer to jockey for future positions of power rather than join together against the communists.
- —Thieu’s election proposals have stirred a good deal of opposition in South Vietnam, both within the government and the Assembly. Many people believe his proposals have gone too far, that the other side is sitting still while the GVN does all the moving under American [Page 381] pressure. Perhaps ominously, Vice President Ky recently met with various leaders outside the government like “Big Minh” and Senator Don. Thieu and Foreign Minister Thanh have backed and filled on the election proposals in statements designed to calm such reactions.
We, of course, have means to reassure Thieu and strengthen his position, but they risk our objectives with our other audiences, the enemy and the American people.
- —We can relax our pressures on Thieu to make political compromises, thus solidifying his political support among many elements in Vietnam, especially those needed to carry off the Vietnamization process. However, this course risks stalemate in Paris and protest from Americans seeking a negotiated settlement.
- —We can drag out the troop replacement program, thus bolstering the GVN’s military position. However, this would postpone the withdrawal of all non-South Vietnamese forces from the country and feed dissent in the United States.
- —We could escalate militarily against the enemy, lifting the morale of the RVNAF and many of the GVN’s supporters. However, this policy could stiffen the enemy’s morale as well as hurt it, and it would inflame American public opinion.
C. The American People
We are well aware of the popular pressures for a prompt settlement of the war and the consequent time limitations placed upon the Administration in carrying out its strategy. There are several ways in which to buy time with the American public:
- —Pursue a manifestly reasonable negotiating track in Paris;
- —Phase out American presence in South Vietnam;
- —Attempt to lower our casualties further by modifying our military tactics;
- —Convince the American people that the Allied position in South Vietnam has improved, the enemy’s position has deteriorated, and that therefore time is actually on our side if only we have the patience.
Sooner or later we can expect popular pressures to mount once again. It is not clear what mix—if any—of the above factors will purchase enough time to work out an honorable settlement. The first three of the factors carry potential problems with our other audiences, the GVN and the enemy:
- —Being forthcoming in Paris means extracting concessions from the GVN which could lead to Thieu’s overthrow by dissident generals and other conservative elements. At the same time we undercut our bargaining position by appearing overeager to the enemy—they need only sit still and bank our overtures.
- — US troop withdrawals, if pressed too rapidly, could both undermine the GVN politically and the allied position militarily. Again, the enemy could conclude that it need only wait for our complete withdrawal.
- —Modification of our military tactics, if not handled carefully, could harm not only our military effectiveness, but the morale of allied forces as well. Furthermore, the enemy still retains considerable control over our casualty levels, no matter what our tactics.
Given the history of over-optimistic reports on Vietnam the past few years, it would be practically impossible to convince the American people that the other side is hurting and therefore, with patience, time could be on our side. First of all we are not sure about our relative position—we have misread indicators many times before. Secondly, even if we conclude that the allied military position is sound, we don’t know how to translate this into political terms—and the political prospects in South Vietnam are much shakier. Thirdly, the Administration faces an extremely skeptical and cynical American audience— the President is rightly reluctant to appear optimistic and assume his own credibility gap. Finally, to a large and vocal portion of the dissenters in this country, the strength of the allied position is irrelevant— they want an end to the war at any price.
IV. Alternative Policies
I am listing here our major choices for Vietnam with the pros and cons of each. It indicates that there is no “good” cause, only a judgment running serious degrees of risk.
Option A. Pursue Current Strategy
Our current strategy aims at keeping two options open: negotiation of a political settlement in Paris and gradual, flexible Vietnamization of the war to permit US disengagement in the absence of a settlement. Our military tactics are designed to keep pressure on the enemy to induce them to negotiate and to minimize our casualties to buy time at home. We could attempt to maintain this overall approach.
- Negotiations. We would continue to emphasize free, fair and supervised elections to determine the future political structure of South Vietnam. The President’s May 14 speech and Thieu’s July offer would frame our negotiating positions—we would not move further without give by the other side. However, if the enemy proved serious in negotiations we would attempt to use the concept of a mixed electoral commission to bridge the gap between elections and the other side’s insistence on a coalition government. Negotiations would then center on the composition, role and powers of the commission(s) and the nature of an international supervisory body. We would stress the GVN’s responsibility for a political settlement. However, we would pursue our [Page 383] private bilaterals with Hanoi on all other questions while refusing to engage in real negotiations on political issues and fully coordinating with the GVN.
- Vietnamization. We would continue to base our troop replacements on the three criteria of enemy response, level of hostilities, and improvement in RVNAF. The President would maintain his flexibility about the pace of withdrawals and would set no fixed timetable.
- Military Tactics. The President’s orders to General Abrams would remain essentially the same. The emphasis could be adjusted to cut back on search and destroy missions, except where needed to spoil an enemy buildup and thus reduce American casualties.
- Rationale. The overall rationale for this course would be that we and the GVN were being eminently fair in our offers of political compromise and we neither should not (tactically) nor need not (in terms of world opinion) go further in our negotiating positions without some response from the enemy. We would judge that our present careful urging of Thieu to make political overtures will suffice to give our side negotiating room without seriously hurting ARVN morale or weakening Thieu’s position. Similarly, we would view a broadening of the government more as strengthening Thieu’s position than detracting from his conservative support. Carefully phased and flexible US withdrawals would attempt to: keep the pressure on the enemy to negotiate; induce greater GVN self-reliance without undermining our ally politically or militarily; and buy us time at home by demonstrating the spinning out of our involvement. Our military operations would still be designed to induce the enemy to negotiate by maintaining pressure on them. A certain modification in our tactics, however, could serve both to lower our casualties further and signal our willingness to explore deescalation.
This policy’s rationale is sound in many respects. The fundamental problem is time.
- —If there is not rapid movement in Paris, we just will not have the time with American opinion fully to play out this strategy, even if it were finally to bring the other side around to meaningful negotiations. If negotiations do not show faster progress, there will be building pressures in this country for further compromises in Paris or accelerated troop withdrawals or a ceasefire.
- —Furthermore we could face increasing problems with the GVN in reconciling our objectives of negotiated settlement and gradual disengagement. As noted earlier, pressing Thieu both to be flexible politically (thus alienating conservatives) and to compensate for US withdrawals (for which conservative support is needed) could run into serious contradictions. We—and Thieu—might be better off if we [Page 384] concentrated either on negotiations or on Vietnamization alone, relaxing our pressures on the GVN on the other front. (Options B and C explore this concept.)
- —Our emphasis on free elections may never be attractive enough to the other side. The enemy is clearly suspicious of any elections within a GVN framework, no matter how that framework is loosened and modified. Every election held in Vietnam has been won by the people conducting it. The other side probably assumes this will continue to be true, despite sweeteners like mixed electoral commissions and international supervision. Indeed they have recently gone out of their way to denigrate such elements.
- —Even if we were to get over these hurdles and the NLF and Saigon were to begin negotiating in good faith, they are not likely to reach an early settlement unless there were great outside pressure on both sides. Our Vietnamization program and our veiled threats of escalation are probably not sufficient to bring that pressure.
Option B. Accent on Negotiations: shift negotiating emphasis to territorial accommodation, maintain flexibility on Vietnamization, and moderate military tactics.
This alternative assumes that the enemy might be willing to negotiate seriously on terms short of allied capitulation. We would attempt to draw them into an earnest search for a settlement through further diplomatic and military flexibility.
- Negotiations. Over the next few weeks we would make a concerted effort to draw the other side into negotiations on elections, suggesting our flexibility on the concept of a mixed commission. Assuming this does not prove fruitful, we would then shift our approach in an attempt to accelerate negotiations. Given the other side’s distrust of elections and our side’s dismissal of an imposed coalition government or peace cabinet, we would try to work toward a settlement through a ceasefire in place. A ceasefire/territorial accommodation approach would be more likely to force or entice the other side to talk to the GVN on political matters. However, under this strategy of emphasizing negotiations, we would also be prepared to talk bilaterally to the DRV about political issues.
- Vietnamization. We would pursue essentially our present approach, maintaining flexibility on pace, refusing to set specific targets. We might slightly increase our withdrawals if the criterion of lower level hostilities persisted, but we would not commit ourselves to a timetable.
- Military Tactics. These would be designed to encourage mutual deescalation and negotiations without endangering our forces. We would thus respond to the continued lull by restricting some of our [Page 385] own operations. We would attempt to generate a series of reciprocal deescalatory steps. Such a process would move us de facto toward a ceasefire (or ceasefires) and territorial accommodations, in tandem with our negotiating approach.
- Rationale. The overall rationale for choosing this policy would be to explore the possibilities of negotiating a settlement in Vietnam, both through our diplomatic efforts and military tactics. We would continue to use US troop presence in SVN as a bargaining counter in this process. Under this approach of territorial accommodation, the situation which has existed for many years in South Vietnam would be given a measure of legal status. Many villages in South Vietnam have never been under GVN control, and the NLF has controlled some of these. The NLF also has some measure of influence, recruitment and tax power in other villages. Territorial accommodation would invoke implicit acceptance of the status quo and would seek to rule out efforts to change it by force. The NLF and the GVN would retain control over the territory and population in South Vietnam they now dominate. Power would be shared in contested areas.
The most effective way to arrange such an accommodation would be to negotiate or move tacitly toward a ceasefire in place. (A separate paper on ceasefire in place fully explores the military, territorial and political consequences of a ceasefire; the enemy and GVN attitudes; the direction in which a ceasefire is likely to drive a settlement; and the likely evolution in the absence of a settlement.)
We would be acknowledging the other side’s concern about elections and would be emphasizing our willingness to allow them to share power in South Vietnam. Territorial accommodation should hold many attractions for them, both in terms of short range consolidation of local power and a longer term shot at national control. There could be local elections to ratify de facto control. They might be willing to try this settlement route and make concessions to speed our withdrawals.
We would be pressing the GVN on political compromises but maintaining the assurance of a carefully phased Vietnamization process based on the three criteria. We would continue to support the GVN so long as it made honest efforts for a political settlement. We would gamble that two elements would prevent the collapse of the regime despite accelerated pressures for a compromise sharing of power and the political implications of a ceasefire/territorial accommodation: (a) our moderately phased withdrawal, providing support over a considerable period, and (b) the knowledge among restive anti-communists in SVN that another coup would prompt us to wash our hands of Vietnam.
We would be buying time with the US public by being forthcoming in the Paris negotiations and moderating our military tactics, as well as continuing a careful phasing of troop withdrawals. Mutual [Page 386] deescalation and lower casualties would help to preserve domestic support. If, indeed, a general ceasefire in place were put into effect, the psychological effect on American opinion would probably give our policy a major new lease on life. With loss of life ended, pressure to agree to communist demands would be greatly reduced (although, with hostilities ended, there might be pressure to bring US troops home).
The fundamental problem is that the other side may not in fact be prepared to accept any settlement which does not meet all of its current terms. As already noted, we may not be able to involve the Soviets.
- —Persuading the GVN to follow this route will be most difficult. Thieu is already encountering great resistance by some elements to his election proposals. A shift to territorial accommodation, no matter how veiled, would acknowledge lack of GVN authority in large parts of the countryside. This would stir even greater dissent and perhaps cause the GVN to collapse.
- — Thieu might find a way to resist and undermine the negotiations by making clear his refusal to cooperate. If he went along and the other side did not respond we will have pushed Thieu to make compromises to no avail. His government could be weakened and our relations severely strained, making the Vietnamization process more difficult.
- —The US public would be increasingly anxious for prompt US withdrawals if the stalemate in Paris persisted. We would then be faced with a choice of either negotiating a coalition government or greatly accelerated and disorderly withdrawals. Even if the territorial accommodation course generated negotiating movement we might still be faced with pressures for accelerated troop withdrawals.
- —If we did reach a compromise settlement, we would be much more closely wedded to it. A settlement based on territorial accommodation would be ambiguous and risky—if it turned sour we would be all the more responsible for engineering a fake peace. In short we would repeat the Laos solution.
Option C. Accent on Vietnamization: maintain essentially the current negotiating approach, set a fixed Vietnamization timetable, and moderate military tactics.
This alternative suggests itself if we are convinced that the other side has no intention of negotiating anything short of the GVN’s demise and unilateral US pullouts.
- Negotiations. We would continue to stick by the principle of elections, paint the other side as obstructionist and refuse to go further on political offers than the President’s May 14 speech and Thieu’s initiative on elections. At Paris we would refuse to talk to the DRV about political questions and insist on GVN involvement, either bilaterally with the PRG or in four-party talks.
- Vietnamization. We would set a specific timetable for withdrawal of all US combat troops. We would make clear our intention to withdraw support forces later but could maintain some flexibility on these. We would attempt to strike a balance in our withdrawals between enough speed to satisfy American opinion, and enough deliberateness to allow a reasonable chance for GVN survival. We could move toward a primarily “volunteer” army in Vietnam as our forces dwindled.
- Military Tactics. We would increasingly leave these to the GVN as we turned over more and more responsibility to it. In practice our operations would be moderated as our forces dwindled. Our principal concern would be to effect orderly troop replacements and minimize American casualties. We would continue to supply air, artillery and logistic support to the RVNAF over a considerable period.
Rationale. The overall rationale for this alternative would be that we had essentially fulfilled our commitments to South Vietnam, and the GVN should now be able to stand by itself after a phased period of withdrawal.
We would tell the other side that our election-centered proposals represented the most forthcoming positions we could put forward without any meaningful response on their part. If they wished to speed up our withdrawals, particularly of support troops, they would have to talk realistically about political matters, or withdraw their own forces. They would be faced with the possibility that we might be able to satisfy public opinion in the US with specific troop withdrawal targets but that the timetable might give the GVN a chance to put its house in order so as to compete.
We would present the GVN with a timetable first for the withdrawal of all US ground combat forces, e.g., in two years, and then for the withdrawal of much of the remaining US forces over a second two year period. We would, within reason, provide any economic or military assistance requested. The GVN would be essentially on their own but we would provide significant, if declining, support over a period that should equip and train them to defend themselves even against North Vietnamese aggression. We would tell Thieu that we were not asking him to make any further concessions publicly or privately. We would leave the diplomatic, political, and military initiatives to the GVN.
We would be emphasizing to the US public the prospects of definite US disengagement over a fixed period, instead of a reasonable negotiated settlement which the other side’s attitude made very unlikely. An increasingly “volunteer” and decreasingly draftee army would further blunt war criticism. In explaining our fixed withdrawals, we would stress our lengthy commitment, the GVN’s growing strength and our phased support with minimum loss of American lives. Under this alternative we would not need to involve the Soviets.[Page 388]
In short this policy has the great advantage that the initiative is largely in our own hands.
- —The enemy would probably attempt to embarrass our withdrawal process by stepping up attacks on our forces, to keep our casualties high, and on GVN forces, to belie their supposed improvement.
- —The Saigon regime’s strength might quickly unravel once our policy is made known. Indeed, some observers believe that the Saigon government is likely to collapse rather quickly if we moved forward with fixed Vietnamization in the absence of a political settlement or a ceasefire or NVA withdrawals. Withdrawing 250,000 US ground combat forces in two years could drastically cut into the GVN’s territorial control not only in contested rural areas but also in outlying urban centers. There could be an agonizing military and political downspiral with increasing US domestic pressures to cut and run.
- —Even if the situation held up better than this, many in the US and other countries might simply construe our actions as abandoning South Vietnam and reneging on our pledge to permit the South Vietnamese to freely choose their own political future. This would erode the credibility of US commitments, could encourage increased subversion in Asia, and would greatly complicate our efforts to construct a balanced post-Vietnam Asian policy.
This alternative is in a sense a variant of the option emphasizing negotiations. Military escalation would be used as a means to a negotiated settlement, not as an end, since we have ruled out military victory. We would halt escalation as soon as it produced diplomatic results.
We would not be prepared to go beyond the current allied proposals without some enemy reciprocity, although we might hint of further flexibility if the other side proved reasonable. We would make clear that our patience was running thin in the face of enemy inflexibility in Paris and the absence of genuine Soviet attempts to move their allies. We would go to the Soviets with what we would term our best offer and tell them that we considered our positions eminently fair, that we were prepared to give and take, but that there would be no more unilateral give. We would expect them to use their considerable influence on Hanoi to induce the enemy to negotiate. If there were not prompt progress in Paris we would conclude that the other side was not prepared to be reasonable without further military pressure. We were prepared not only to exert such pressure but to reconsider our bilateral relations with the Soviets in other fields. The choice for them would be clear.
We would halt troop replacements. At first we would not publicly confirm such a freeze in our withdrawals. We would simply not announce or suggest further pullouts, clearly signalling the other side as we awaited their response to our threat of escalation. Once it was clear that there was no response in Paris, we would make public our decision to halt the withdrawal process pending reasonableness from the enemy. We would thus conserve all remaining ground forces—and probably supplement our air and naval forces—in order to carry out escalation.
We would not repeat the process of slow escalation designed gradually to increase the pressure on the enemy to negotiate. This would probably work no better than it did in recent years—militarily it would not hurt the enemy enough, psychologically it would coalesce their forces and people rather than disheartening them. Instead we would move decisively to quarantine North Vietnam through such actions as blockading Haiphong Harbor, resumption of bombing in the north (including close to the Chinese border) and stepped up pressures against third country trade with Hanoi. We would simultaneously pursue the war in the South with maximum air and ground efforts. We might move into Laos and Cambodia.
We would turn to escalation only when we were convinced that no other measures, including the threat of escalation, would induce the other side to negotiate or erase their impression that time is on their side. The record would be made as clear as possible to the world and American opinion: we were willing to withdraw our forces and see genuine free political competition among the South Vietnamese, but the North refused to pull out its forces and the PRG insisted on the destruction of the GVN in advance of political competition. Our choice is then between abject capitulation (whether or not veiled by false rhetoric) and the reluctant resort to force in order to make the enemy negotiate.
We would emphasize to all three audiences that our aims remained limited, that we were not seeking military victory, that escalation was solely designed to engineer a fair negotiated settlement. Thus the enemy would be given a choice between widespread destruction and mutual compromise in Paris. They need not choose between military victory and defeat. Whereas limited and gradually accelerated bombing of the north united the North Vietnamese people and did not decisively affect the north’s war potential, a comprehensive quarantine might break their will as well as their economic and military potential. The GVN’s morale would be lifted, but we would emphasize clearly that [Page 390] we were not seeking a victory for them. They would still be expected to earn future political power on their own. Our most difficult audience would be the US public. We would need to erase any impression that we were now going for military victory. To the great majority of Americans who through realism or war weariness have ruled out a decisive ending to the war, we would need to reaffirm our limited goals, underscore enemy intransigence, and demonstrate that the only alternatives were endless stalemate or humiliation.
As for the Soviets, this policy assumes that they could influence Hanoi and would be willing to do so rather than see the war escalated. We would calculate that the Soviets would prefer to lean heavily on Hanoi, despite the costs in terms of world communist leadership, rather than to choose between large scale destruction of their ally and the danger of a direct US-Soviet clash.
There are many problems associated with this policy but I will not concern you with them in this paper because they are being fully staffed elsewhere.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–024, Special NSC Meeting, 9/12/69, Vietnam. Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Sent for information. This memorandum was not initialed by Kissinger, but on another copy there is a handwritten indication that Kissinger signed it. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 91, Vietnam Subject Files, Vietnamization, Vol. IX, September 1967–December 1969)↩
- Document 120.↩
- According to a September 24 memorandum from Kissinger to Nixon, the President met with Laird and Mitchell on September 24. Kissinger wrote that the meeting was “an intimate discussion on Vietnam. I believe we are still faced with the four basic options [as outlined in this memorandum].… You will want to discuss each of these options, focusing primarily on the pros and cons of proceeding with military escalation on November 1.” Kissinger continued that he was “inclined to believe that accelerated Vietnamization would be a road to swift disaster. Thus, we appear to find ourselves at a cross roads which suggests that we must look intensively over the next several weeks at the alternatives of accelerated negotiations or sharp escalation of the type visualized in the Duck Hook Plan.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 45, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Vietnam Contingency Plan, Sept–Oct 1969) Duck Hook was an NSC-generated contingency planning operation ongoing in September. Brief notes of meetings between Kissinger and his staff on Duck Hook on September 10, 12, 20, 24, and 29 are ibid. Nixon met with Laird, Mitchell, and Kissinger from 10:03 a.m. to 12:44 p.m. on September 24. (President’s Daily Diary, September 24; Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files) No memorandum of conversation of the meeting has been found.↩
- Although there is no indication on the memorandum that the President saw it, this sentence was apparently underlined by Nixon.↩
- Clifford’s article, published in Foreign Affairs, vol. 47, (July 1969), pp. 601–622, was entitled, “A Vietnam Reappraisal: The Personal History of One Man’s View and How It Evolved.” Clifford called for withdrawing 100,000 U.S. troops by the end of 1969 and all U.S. ground combat troops by the end of 1970. Clifford recalls the article and the reaction to it in Counsel to the President: A Memoir (Random House: New York, 1991) pp. 607–609.↩
- For a summary of the response to NSSM 19 see Document 94.↩