162. Editorial Note

On the evening of December 22, 1969, Presidential Assistant Henry Kissinger met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobryninto discuss a number of issues in a private meeting. The discussion on Vietnam follows:

Dobrynin then turned to the war in Vietnam. He said, ‘You have to understand that we tried to do something last April and May, but Hanoi told us that there was no sense having a private channel [Page 523] unless the United States agreed in advance to negotiate about a coalition government. We cannot tell them how to fight in their own country. This is a real problem to us, and we thought it was best not to return a negative reply.’ I said it would have been better to return some sort of a reply, but there was no sense talking about the past.

Dobrynin then asked me how I saw the future. I said that I really had not come to discuss Vietnam, but to sum it up in a few words, we were very confident. For the first time in my experience with Vietnam, I now was certain that time was working on our side. It seemed to me that Hanoi had only two choices—to negotiate or to see its structure in South Vietnam erode. He said, ‘Isn’t there even a slight chance that the South Vietnam Government might collapse?’ I said that we were confident that we were on the right course. Maybe Hanoi would start an offensive but then, as the President had repeatedly pointed out publicly, it would have to draw the consequences. Dobrynin said, ‘Of course, if you start bombing the North again, or if you hit Haiphong, you realize what would happen.’ I expected him to say the Soviet Union would come in. But instead, he said, ‘What would happen is the Chinese would send in engineer battalions, and you don’t want to increase Chinese influence in Hanoi.’ I said, ‘If you can live with it, we can,’ and in any event, our problem was to end the war in South Vietnam.

Dobrynin said that he did not think that Hanoi had anything new to say for the next few months. I told him that they knew what channels were available and that we would be glad to listen to them if they did. We would be flexible and conciliatory in negotiations. We had no intention to humiliate Hanoi, but we would not pay an additional price to enter the negotiations. Dobrynin asked me whether we were ever going to send a senior Ambassador to the negotiations. I said it depended in part on the negotiations, but I had no doubt that ultimately it would be done. He said he had to admit that nothing was going on at the negotiations now, but that he thought they were an important symbol.

“I said in conclusion that if Hanoi had something to say to us it should do so explicitly, and not get us involved in detective stories in which various self-appointed or second-level emissaries were dropping oblique hints. Dobrynin laughed and said he would be sure to get this point across. He thought Hanoi had nothing to say at the moment.

“The major point about the Vietnam part was the complete absence of contentiousness on Dobrynin’s part. There was no challenge to my assertion that our policy was working out, and there was a conspicuous effort by Dobrynin to disassociate himself from the Vietnamese war.” (Memorandum of conversation, December 22; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1969, [Part 1]) The full record of this [Page 524] meeting is in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XII, Soviet Union, 1969–October 1970.

Kissinger sent a December 24 covering memorandum to the President summarizing this conversation with Dobrynin and characterizing the discussion on Vietnam as in a “low key tone. His [Dobrynin’s] threat about what would happen if we started bombing the North again or hit Haiphong—that the Chinese would send in engineer battalions which would increase Chinese influence in Hanoi—seems almost to be an invitation for us to attack North Vietnam.” Kissinger also told the President that “Dobrynin said that he did not think Hanoi would have anything new to say for the next few months.” A note on the covering memorandum indicates that the President saw it and Nixon wrote “K— very fascinating” on the first page of the memorandum of conversation, although all the portions of the conversation underlined by the President related to issues other than Vietnam.