34. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1


  • Reflections on De-escalation

It has become obvious that once private talks start, de-escalation will be high on the agenda. Zorin referred to a “promise” made by [Page 98] Harriman which I believe to be true. Hanoi has been putting it out in newspapers—see, for example, Joe Kraft’s column.2

The question then becomes: what is being de-escalated? What will be the impact?

De-escalation can come about in one of two ways: tacit or formal; that is to say, it can occur de facto or by agreement. However it might take place, it would bring about a major change in the situation and thus requires careful assessment.

De-escalation must be seen in the light of our overall strategy. The component of the Communist forces which gave the war its distinguishing characteristic has been the guerrilla forces. These have enabled Hanoi and the VC to prevent the consolidation of governmental authority, to move large forces unobserved and to create a general climate of insecurity.

When American forces appeared in the war, they were used mainly to fight North Vietnamese main force units. I have always considered this to be a strategic error, though the choice was not entirely up to us. Hanoi was determined to use its forces the way a bullfighter uses his cape: to keep us lunging in strategically unproductive areas and to prevent us from grinding down the guerrilla forces.

In recent months, many main force units have been withdrawn into Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam—either because they were forced or because they wish to preserve these forces for the post-war period. This has enabled us to devote—for the first time in the war—substantial forces to anti-guerrilla action. If we now de-escalate, Hanoi will get for nothing what it has had to pay heavy, perhaps excessive casualties to obtain: the effective neutralization of U.S. forces with respect to the Communist infrastructure.

Our military effort leaves a great deal to be desired, but it remains one of our few bargaining weapons.

The impact of de-escalation on the two sides would be highly asymmetrical. The guerrillas operate by terror or assassination; our side requires massive military effort. The opponent can achieve a major impact by occasional actions well below the threshold of violation; no corresponding actions are available to us.

You will be told that we can always start military operations again. In fact, the recent Communist offensive has shown that obtaining clear criteria as to what constitutes a violation is very complicated. Every difficulty we have had in deciding whether the bombing halt “understanding” had been violated will be compounded in the case of [Page 99] de-escalation. How is one to construe the murder, kidnapping or intimidation of selected South Vietnamese officials? Will we even know who did it?

Violation criteria would probably be assessed in terms of major military operations of the type U.S. and Allied forces are now conducting in South Vietnam. These operations have been designed to provide a military shield for the GVN which enables them, with our assistance, to progress in the pacification area through the establishment of law and order and security for the populace. Conversely, it appears that the enemy has concluded that major military confrontations are no longer to their advantage. Their best hope for success rests with increased emphasis on terror and assassination, while preserving their main force elements as a psychological threat and for direct action after U.S. withdrawal. Thus, de-escalation would amount to a self-imposed defusing of our most important asset and the simultaneous enhancement of this most important asset—terrorism. We would, in effect, be tying the hands of our forces in Vietnam.

The related problems associated with maintaining a force level of 500,000-plus combat troops lacking an active combat mission could also prove troublesome. Unquestionably, pressures would build to bring our troops home. It would be very difficult to counter these demands if the level of military activity in Vietnam did not require their presence. An additional problem area would be the constructive employment of our forces in Vietnam during a period when military activity had dropped off substantially or completely. A rash of incidents with the South Vietnamese populations might occur which paralleled our experiences in Europe after World War II when an unbusy occupation Army soon found itself in uneasy economic and social competition with the populace with whom they were stationed.

All this suggests that we should not agree to de-escalate now—all the more so if you plan to withdraw some forces in a few months. Such a measure will be politically meaningful only if it is taken as the result of a choice—not as the inevitable corollary of under-utilized forces.

All this, of course, must be considered as part of an overall “gameplan” on which I am now working.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 956, Haig Chronological Files, March 1969 [2 of 2]. Top Secret; Sensitive. This memorandum was not initialed, but an attached March 11 memorandum from Haig to Sneider indicates the President saw it.
  2. Reference is to Joseph Kraft’s syndicated column of March 6 entitled, “Unless Nixon Acts on Talks, He May Miss Chance for Peace.”