200. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • My Meeting with North Vietnamese on March 16

My meeting with the North Vietnamese on February 21 contained a number of new elements which indicate that they are serious in their [Page 659] approach to our next meeting. (My memorandum of February 22 listing these elements is at Tab B.)2

We cannot yet conclude that they have made a decision to seek a negotiated settlement now. They may be on a diplomatic reconnaissance, exploring our position before they make a decision. Or they may be looking only for a means to reduce our military pressure so they can continue the conflict at length. But their readiness to engage in talks without insisting on pre-conditions—and in a channel in which they can neither make public propaganda nor stall too long—suggests that this is a serious effort. We may have a chance for a real negotiation.

Our next meeting in the channel will therefore be very important.

1. Strategy at the Meeting

In the past negotiations, the usual strategy of both sides has been to put forward initially positions each knew would be unacceptable, for bargaining purposes. This has led to lengthy and usually pointless debates and maneuvers.

In addition, we have usually reached the position we would put forward by seeking a bureaucratic consensus. This has meant that we began with very complicated positions which we then had to jettison, losing sight of the most fundamental issues in the process.

With the opportunity for serious negotiations now in this channel, we need a new approach which can help us move quickly to the fundamental issues.

(a) Objective

From our viewpoint, there is one issue to which all others are subordinate—reciprocity in the withdrawal of non-South Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam (and foreign troops from Laos and Cambodia). Our first objective must be to reach agreement on reciprocity in principle or in fact. Once they have done so, they will have given up their claim to moral superiority and can no longer argue privately that their forces are in South Vietnam on a different moral and legal basis than ours. This would be a quantum jump in the negotiations.

There has been a special problem in the past in gaining their agreement to the principle of reciprocity, which was their belief that they could not accept reciprocity publicly. On the basis of your statement last May 14 that “If North Vietnam wants to insist that it has no forces in the South, we will no longer debate the point,” I believe we should move for private acknowledgement of the principle rather than public recognition.

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(b) Tactics

I believe the best way to gain their agreement on this issue is by the following:

  • —telling them we accept the principle of total withdrawal (as stated in your UN speech and in my last meeting with them);
  • —offering a specific timetable for U.S. withdrawal, without proposing a timetable for theirs;
  • —pointing out that we will not withdraw unless they do;
  • —saying that we recognize their special problem regarding a public connection between their withdrawals and ours; and
  • —suggesting that they make a proposal on how to overcome this problem, so that we can negotiate an agreement based on two concurrent schedules.

This approach has several important advantages over the traditional one of simply insisting on mutual withdrawal:

  • —It should make it easier for them to agree to withdraw their troops, since they can save face by not having to agree to a single withdrawal schedule.
  • —While it helps them save face, it also gives them a tough problem. If they do not come back with a schedule, they cannot argue that we are blocking progress.
  • —If published, our approach will show that we made a serious and fair effort to achieve agreement.
  • —By asking them to come forward with a specific proposal, we avoid vague “understandings” about what they would do.
  • —It enables us to smoke them out: if their basic problem in accepting mutual withdrawals is merely one of “image,” we will have given them the best chance so far to work out a settlement; but if they want us to withdraw without pulling out their own forces at all, that position will be clear.

I would also seek during the meeting to draw from them their proposals on the other basic issue—political settlement—without appearing too anxious to get into this subject. (The record should show that they, not we, pressed this issue, for the sake of our relations with the GVN.) I would also probe them on Laos—again without appearing overly eager to go into the subject.

2. Statement at the Meeting

Attached at Tab A is the statement I propose to make.3 It is in three parts—some questions, some remarks on the procedure we should follow, and a substantive section. At various points in the statement, I would try to draw out their immediate reaction.

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(a) Questions

I would begin with questions about two of their statements at the last meeting, one on how they viewed the course of these negotiations and the other on neither side’s putting pressure on the other since “these are now negotiations.” I would also ask about Foreign Minister Trinh’s statements on their negotiating position in a recent interview.4

Asking these questions first would have a number of advantages. It would allow me to test the temperature at the beginning of the meeting, and it would provide a means for trying to get out of them whatever they were instructed to say. It would also show them from the outset that we expect them to clarify their position, and will not be put in a position in which they ask all the questions and we make all the explanations. It would also show for the record that we have not missed possible “signals.”

(b) Procedure

I would then set out the procedure which must be followed at our meetings, emphasizing the necessity—and your specific instructions— that we move quickly to the basic issues. I would reiterate our general attitude and approach toward these negotiations.

(c) Substance

I would then state that they have often asked us (1) whether we accept the principle of total withdrawal and (2) when the withdrawal of all U.S. troops will be completed. I would say that we do accept the principle of total withdrawal, and then present in principle a schedule for the withdrawal of U.S. troops over 16 months (based on the proposal in your May 14 speech). The schedule would include the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in Vietnam, in accordance with our acceptance of the principle of total withdrawal.

After presenting this schedule, I would say that these withdrawals could not be unilateral, and that we recognize their special position of not wanting to equate their troops with our own. A way of handling the issue would be for them to tell us how they view the problem. We could then negotiate an agreement on this question on the basis of two [Page 662] concurrent schedules. I would next mention the importance of verification measures and the exchange of prisoners of war during the withdrawal process.

I would have papers with me on how we think they should perform in a reciprocal withdrawal, and on ways of handling the issue to publicly keep separate our withdrawals. I would tell them that, if they wished, we could make proposals on these questions. (And I would use the papers to check any proposals they make.) But I would make it clear that they should make proposals on their own performance.

My substantive statement would end with a statement that the technical issues involved in such a withdrawal could be negotiated between our delegations. I would conclude that we now have an opportunity to reach an agreement in principle which could bring an end to our sacrifices.

3. Tactics at Rest of Meeting

During the rest of the meeting, I would question them about their position on mutual withdrawals and, obliquely, a political settlement. If asked, I would also comment in very general terms on the technical issues I listed. But I would not go into real detail on any subject, at this meeting or at the next, unless they make new proposals of their own.

Recommendation: That you approve the approach for the next meeting described in this memorandum, and the statement attached at Tab A.5

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 852, For the President’s File—Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. II. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. A handwritten note on the memorandum indicates it was typed on March 16.
  2. Document 191.
  3. Attached but not printed.
  4. According to a March 10 memorandum from Kissinger to Nixon, North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh gave an interview to AP correspondent Dan DeLuce in which the Foreign Minister gave a “softer version” of conditions for a peace. In the oral version, Trinh did not say that the U.S. should recognize a provisional coalition government which would then organize elections. Rather he indicated that free and democratic elections would be organized and a broad conventional provisional government set up. The problem was that in his written response to the question submitted by the AP correspondent, Trinh took the “the usual Hanoi line” based on the ten points. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 144, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, March 1970)
  5. Nixon initialed the approve option.