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137. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • The President
  • Sir Robert Thompson
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • John H. Holdridge, NSC Senior Staff Member

SUBJECT

  • The President's Remarks to Sir Robert Thompson Concerning the Vietnam Situation
[Page 461]

After the opening pleasantries, in which the President complimented Sir Robert on his book,2 the President outlined his thinking on the Vietnam situation and its relationship to the US domestic political scene. Going back over the last three years, he said, as well as during the campaign and again since his first NSC meeting, he had hit hard on the theme that there had been a waste of our military power against North Vietnam because this power had not been used in relation to our diplomatic policy. For example, the bombing should not have been stopped until an indication had been made to the opposite side that certain things should happen as a result. Although the North Vietnamese did not get something for nothing, there was no real quid pro quo from the bombing halt.

The President referred to the proposition that it was essential that we see the real character of the war, and added that we had not previously understood what this character was. He noted that the situation in Malaya which Sir Robert had dealt with was not quite similar, but nevertheless had many of the same characteristics—e.g. there was terrorism in response to which it was necessary to train police. The President went on to say that our direction had now changed, and there has been a subtle but significant shift in US policy toward Vietnam. Our position is now better and more in keeping with the type of war we are fighting. The President noted that the improved situation was becoming apparent, and referred to the recent appearance of optimistic reports from sources such as Joe Alsop, Crosby Noyes, and even such doves as the New York Times.

The President then presented his ideas as to where the Administration stands politically in the US. He noted that it would have been a popular move for him to say on the day that he came in, or even nine months later, that the Vietnam situation had been badly mismanaged by the previous Administration, and that while we had tried to handle it, it was such a mess that we felt we had to get out. The people would have been relieved. There is now a definite change as to whether we should have gone into Vietnam in the first place. Before, there was considerable agreement, but opinion is now running 60–40 against our involvement. Nevertheless, there is still a substantial proportion of the population which says that we should not take a bloody nose.

Continuing, the President expressed the strong conviction that regardless of why we were in Vietnam, the political consequences of a defeat were such that we had to see it through. He remarked that the enemy had misjudged him in one important way: they had caught him in the beginning of his term with three years more to run. His attitude [Page 462]was not affected by shellfire. He had been through situations such as this before, and had learned that polls and editorials don't make policy. He had visited Vietnam in 1953, in 1956, and six times between 1961 and 1968. Based on his experience, he knew that if the US ended the war, and accepted the imposition of a coalition government, this would break the South Vietnamese Government.

Parenthetically, the President gave his evaluation of the Thieu government, mentioning that it was difficult even for objective observers to form judgments of new governments, but that it was remarkable what the Thieu government had accomplished despite its newness and the wartime pressures. Admittedly it needed to carry out political and administrative reforms, to let political prisoners out of jail, and to implement a land reform program. However, it had made great progress.

Returning to US objectives in Vietnam, the President again stressed his conviction that the US must see it through for the limited objectives for which we are there—to deny South Vietnam to those who would want to create the impression they had won it by force, as well as to leave a government established by the people through their own choice. Having this objective in mind, the President said, he hoped in the three years ahead of him to achieve a responsive Congress and a change in public opinion. He observed that unlike the political organization in the UK with which Sir Robert was familiar, Congress controlled the purse strings in the US and was thus extremely influential. Looking ahead, he therefore saw a very difficult situation unless a change was brought about by 1970 or 1971. If the American people fail to see an end in sight by this period, we would lose on the homefront what was being won in Vietnam. Sir Robert emphatically agreed.

The President asked Sir Robert if he ruled out the possibility of a negotiated settlement. Sir Robert said that the only circumstances under which he saw such a possibility were if it came through to Hanoi that we were staying and that conditions in the South were going well from the US standpoint. Hanoi might then want to save what was left. He did not, however, see these circumstances as existing now.

The President asked what Sir Robert thought of the “option to the right.” By this, he explained, he meant escalation. Sir Robert answered that he would rule escalation out from the US standpoint. The Administration was running its greatest risk with American opinion and dissent, as well as with world opinion. If escalation worked, he asked, what would the Administration look like? The President remarked that this depended on what we did. Bombing was one thing, but a precise surgical operation was another. Looking at things from the standpoint of the Soviet Union, he felt that the USSR was not presently exercising its influence, but as in the case of the Korean war, might possibly do so if there were incentives on the “negative side”.

[Page 463]

Sir Robert mentioned that within the present timetable, looking not too far ahead, and assuming that present US policy is pursued, victory could be won in two years if the South Vietnamese people retain their confidence in the US. Alternatively, if they thought we were going to withdraw, then there would be a collapse. He doubted that enemy capabilities were such as to launch another Tet offensive but foresaw the possibility of several “bad fortnights” which would hurt.

Turning to judgments made by presumably competent observers and the way that these may differ from realities, Sir Robert mentioned a case in Malaya, when Victor Purcell, a man with a wealth of background in the country, had said in 1954 that nothing which Sir Gerald Templar was doing was right, and that the British couldn't possibly succeed and should pull out; the very next year, though, the Communists had cracked and asked for negotiations. Dr. Kissinger asked Sir Robert how the British had handled the Communist overture at that time. It was his impression that talks had not taken place. Sir Robert recalled that the British had held firm on terms, and the Communists had in consequence reduced their arguments to the point where all they wanted was the legalization of the Communist party. Tunku Abdul Rahman had been very helpful at this stage in rejecting these terms.

The President raised the proposition of Sir Robert going to South Vietnam to look at conditions for a reasonable period of time and on the basis of his experience in Vietnam, reporting back his independent judgment of how things actually were going. He hoped that South Vietnam would remain firm in the light of US withdrawals and in the timetable which he had in mind. He needed, though, to know just what it was that we had to sell, and on how to beat the polls. If he knew these things and could speak with certainty, he could exercise a greater effect on US public opinion. The President suggested, and Sir Robert agreed, that Sir Robert should go to Singapore as part of his trip to see Lee Kuan Yew and get the feel of Lee's impressions of Vietnam developments.

Reverting to the topic of the US role in Asia, the President asked if, leaving out all else, he, Sir Robert, was convinced that the US must see it through in Vietnam. Sir Robert agreed “absolutely”, and added that in his opinion the future of Western civilization was at stake. The President went on to discuss the need for an educational program to get this point across to the American people. President Johnson's great failure, the President remarked, was that with the exception of Johnson's San Antonio speech the basic issues had never quite come through. Johnson simply called on everybody to stand with the flag. What was at stake now, the President added, is not only the future peace of the Pacific and the chances for independence in the region, but the survival of the US as a world power with the will to use this [Page 464]power. If South Vietnam were to go, after a matter of months countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia would have to adjust because they believe they must play the winner. In fact, the domino theory would apply. In addition, 500,000 people in Vietnam would be massacred.

Another issue at stake, the President observed, is whether on the other side the hawks or the doves would succeed in setting policy. If the hawks were to get leverage out of a success in Vietnam, they would be tempted to try again elsewhere. They would try to show that the US was not the wave of the future, and US allies and friends would lose confidence. Sir Robert concurred, but expressed the thought that the Communist hawks might try to win out on a slow, non-controversial basis, aiming their policy at eroding the US position rather than launching direct challenges.

The President mentioned that even among European neutralists, there were those who saw the issues clearly. The Belgian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister had told him that whatever we see in the press, not to end the war in Vietnam as a US defeat. Golda Meir had said that time really might not be on the Soviets' side and that while they might be a threat now or for five or ten years, they had long-term problems. Nevertheless, she had said that the Soviets rank with the US as a naval power and she took comfort from the fact that the US is present, as a counter to the Soviets. He had told her, the President noted, that we couldn't continue in this position—if we were defeated in Vietnam, the US people would never stand firm elsewhere. The problem is the confidence of the American people in themselves, and we must think in domestic terms.

There was a further discussion of Sir Robert's mission to Vietnam, in which it was decided that Sir Robert would operate, as on previous occasions as a consultant to RAND and take with him Desmond Palmer, who had been Sir Robert's chief of staff in Malaya. The President assured Sir Robert that everything would be open to him and that our Embassy people in Saigon would most certainly provide all help that was needed. He wanted a really good judgment, the President declared. A time-frame of a month was decided upon.

Once again, the President referred to the “option to the right”. American public opinion has been closely polled, and it seemed probable that the people were not so much anti-war as tending to feel that the US should get in or get out. They did not like the idea of the greatest power in the world being made to back down by a little country, but favored withdrawing from the war unless we did something. Sir Robert commented that the “option to the right” didn't help in the South; that unless the gains made there were solidified so that the US could leave, the situation would still be shaky. In his opinion, the best [Page 465]thing for the US to do was to show that it could beat the Communists in their own way. Dr. Kissinger referred to the Malayan situation in which the opposition had been identifiable and there had been no outside supply sources, to which the President observed we could consider the option of quarantining the North Vietnamese supplies. The Soviets could help in this, since they would not want a confrontation.

Sir Robert stated that the Soviets indeed would not want a confrontation and also don't want problems with the Chinese. He felt that they did not want the US out of Vietnam too quickly, as they were in no position to inherit US power and were afraid that without the US the area would fall into Chinese hands. Dr. Kissinger described the “option to the right” as being a problem of time. Given sufficient time, Sir Robert's method was best, but if we were being squeezed, a bold strike might help. With success in the South, and Soviet fear of a confrontation and fear of the Chinese, we could improve our position.

The President added that success in the South was important, and that if the reports we received were half true, a new factor had come about through a dramatic change for the better there. This is what he really wanted Sir Robert to look into.3 The discussion turned to indicators of the improved situation in South Vietnam, such as the increased Chieu Hoi rate, which included North Vietnamese—something which had never occurred before—and which was taking place without military pressure. Enemy morale had also declined. In Sir Robert's opinion, the most significant news was that the refugees were going back to their villages in large numbers. In this respect, the President stated that he wanted the worst news as well as the best. The military were trying to hold down the withdrawal rate and haggling over numbers such as 28 or 30 thousand. It was possible that they were being overcautious in evaluating developments, since they had been burned so often, e.g., in the 1968 Tet offensive and the “mini-Tet” this year. On the other hand, perhaps we were overly optimistic on the pacification side, but the reports were indeed better. The whole area of government in the South had improved.

The President referred to President Thieu, saying that he was getting an undeservedly bad reputation. Although some people said that the Administration must pressure Thieu to take the Buddhists back into [Page 466]the government, bring in Big Minh, crack down on corruption, broaden the base, and go forward with land reform, he, the President, didn't care what Thieu did as long as it helped the war. The conversation closed with a remark by Sir Robert that the US and the Vietnamese were fighting at different levels. The Vietnamese were, in fact, fighting for survival. When we had similarly fought for survival, we, like they, had used everything in the book.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 63, Memoranda of Conversations, Presidential File, 1969. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Holdridge sent this memorandum to Kissinger on October 24 with the recommendation that it receive no distribution outside the White House. Kissinger agreed. (Ibid.) The time of the meeting is from the President's Daily Diary. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files)
  2. Sir Robert Thompson, No Exit From Vietnam (New York: D. McKay Co., 1969).
  3. In backchannel message WH 92789 to Saigon, October 18, Kissinger informed Bunker that Nixon had asked Thompson “to provide independent assessment of security situation and general political, economic, and military conditions” in South Vietnam. Kissinger counted on the Ambassador and the Mission Council to cooperate with Thompson and provide him all the facilities he needed. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 65, Vietnam Subject Files, 8–A, All Backchannel, Vol. II, 10/69)