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


  • Alternative Vietnam Strategies

Many specific diplomatic initiatives, forums and proposals for Vietnam will be considered over the coming weeks, starting with the July 21 NSC meeting. Before weighing these tactical elements we need first to examine our basic strategic choices. Where is our current policy on negotiations and withdrawals leading us? Will we have to accent either our search for a settlement or our unilateral disengagement at some point? Which of these two courses is more likely to accomplish our objectives?

The Basic Strategic Choices

As we look at our strategic situation we face two insistent enemy demands on us—withdraw unilaterally and dump Thieu. Many domestic groups are beginning to press us in this direction. One thing is clear, however, at the outset: there is no reason for us to do both. If we withdraw unilaterally we have no conceivable motive to solve the [Page 1134] Communists’ political problem for them. Withdrawal is our option, to play as we wish.

The central question on withdrawal then, is whether we use it as a bargaining counter for a political settlement. We have two choices:

  • —we can withdraw at our own pace, leaving the political future to a contest between the South Vietnamese; or
  • —we can offer a more rapid withdrawal in an effort to make a political settlement.

We need not choose between these options now. For a time we can pursue our present policy of both withdrawing and negotiating without committing ourselves firmly either to unilateral disengagement or political settlement.

But somewhere down the road—probably no later than next April when the present slice of withdrawals nears completion—we will have to choose. The reasons briefly are as follows:

Our present policy continues to hold open the two options of a negotiated end to the war if possible and a gradual U.S. disengagement from Vietnam in the absence of a settlement.

To date this strategy has been reasonably successful. There has been military and pacification progress, we have transferred an increasing combat burden to the South Vietnamese, and we have maintained substantial American support with our troop reductions and negotiating proposals.

However, if we stick to our present negotiating stance there will probably be no breakthrough in Paris. The other side might not really insist on both its conditions of unilateral U.S. withdrawal and coalition government, but it will not budge without concessions on at least one of them. Thus at some point our present policy will turn into either negotiations, with our withdrawal schedule part of the bargaining, or into a unilateral withdrawal, with the pace non-negotiable. We will have to choose either to seek actively a settlement while our remaining forces can be used as leverage, or to leave the political settlement strictly to the South Vietnamese, whether by negotiation or force of arms, while we withdraw more or less unilaterally.

Going for a settlement would mean seeking a genuine compromise, not a subterfuge for capitulation. We would maintain something like the current pace of our withdrawals, using it to extract concessions.

Going for unilateral disengagement could mean either a slow winding down of the war along present lines or disengagement on a fixed timetable that would give the GVN a fair chance. We would not press the negotiations, having no interest in helping the Communists get a share of political power in South Vietnam. That’s their task, either through bargaining or battling the GVN.

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While we don’t have to choose now, we should at least recognize this fork in the road ahead. We need first to consider these basic strategic options of our present middle course and the two alternatives before contemplating diplomatic proposals, forums or tactics.

The Negotiated Settlement Route

We have consistently maintained that our prime objective is a rapid negotiated settlement to end the war, while our Vietnamization/withdrawal policy is a less preferred course in the absence of progress in Paris. Indeed, Vietnamization is designed to induce the enemy to negotiate by posing the prospect of a gradual American disengagement that maintains our domestic support while successively strengthening the South Vietnamese forces. Meanwhile we have put forward proposals and elaborated principles that are meant to persuade the enemy that we are ready to make genuine compromises at the conference table. We hope to convince the other side that the future offers no more, and possibly less, chance of striking a politically attractive bargain.

While we have made substantial progress toward disengagement, we have made little concrete advance in the negotiations. The only nibbles we have had have been my conversations with Le Duc Tho. But these were aborted in part by Sihanouk’s overthrow. The basic problem has been that to date the enemy has been able to calculate that we have greater problems than they do, that protracted struggle is preferable to real negotiations to accomplish their objectives. They thus stick with their two demands of unconditional unilateral American withdrawal and the overthrow of the Saigon regime.

However, at some point, we might judge that negotiation offers better prospects than the alternative of unilateral disengagement, not only for a quicker ending to the conflict but also for achieving our objectives in Indochina. For gradual disengagement without a settlement carries its own fundamental danger: at some point we could reach a crunch point where we are caught between an ally that cannot withstand any further American withdrawals and a public that will not stand for any further involvement.

If this were our judgment, we might decide to go for a negotiated settlement while our position is strong and while our troop presence is still large enough to be an effective negotiating tool. We should then conduct withdrawals at the slowest pace our domestic structure can stand for bargaining purposes and search for new political formulas to induce negotiating movement.

We would accordingly:

  • —try to extract some concessions for accelerating or fixing our unilateral withdrawals;
  • —inject ourselves in the political bargaining, because of the other side’s refusal to deal with the GVN and the latter’s disincentives to put forward its own proposals.

This active search for a negotiated settlement2 would assume that the enemy would be prepared to modify their position and negotiate seriously. Given their own problems, the aftermath of our Cambodian operations, and the costs of continued conflict they might be prepared to bargain at last.

There are major risks, of course, in this strategy. Hanoi may well swallow our proposals and sit back and wait for further concessions. To the extent that we inject ourselves directly in the political negotiations, we cut across our thesis that the South Vietnamese should shape their own political future. We could undermine GVN confidence and morale by appearing to bargain away its future. We would be more directly responsible for whatever political settlement is worked out.

We would have two essential levers in this negotiating process: (1) our remaining forces and the schedule for their withdrawal, and (2) the increasing strength of the South Vietnamese. The enemy would be induced to negotiate to speed up our withdrawals and give the GVN less time to build up its strength. Thus for maximum impact on the negotiations we would keep our withdrawal process relatively slow. (This in turn could cause problems here at home. In this sense your April 20 announcement of withdrawals totaling 150,000 over a year was a sound move—the figure was large for American domestic consumption, but the pace looked slow to Hanoi.)

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By the same token the more we move toward the final increments of our withdrawals, the less the incentive for the other side to make political concessions in order to accelerate our pullouts.

The Vietnamization/Withdrawal Route

The basic premise for pursuing this course would be that we are convinced that the other side has no intention of negotiating seriously. Their track record of intransigence in Paris supports this view. So does the memory of 1954—in retrospect they believe they threw away at the conference table their chance for reunification which they had all but won on the battlefield. They may well look at anti-war pressures in this country and calculate they can sit tight until progressive American withdrawals or political concessions undermine the GVN. Time is on their side—the U.S. exodus from the South is irreversible and the GVN can never stand on its own.

Thus we would judge that the other side would not budge from its two conditions of unilateral U.S. withdrawal and a coalition government. There would be nothing for us to negotiate about except the terms of allied capitulation. We would be better off concentrating on withdrawals of our own design, either swift to end our involvment or measured to give the GVN a chance.

If we wished merely to disengage rapidly from Vietnam without regard to the political consequences, there is no sense in our helping to arrange Thieu’s removal at the same time. Nor would we really need to negotiate the terms of our pullout. Once we announced we were getting out, Hanoi would have every incentive to allow our troops safe passage and no reason to risk a halt in the process by attacking our departing forces. They have in fact already made clear they would allow us to leave under “honorable” conditions.

If, on the other hand, we choose to continue a policy of measured withdrawals keyed to South Vietnamese performance, one could argue that we shouldn’t be in the business of probing for a political settlement with an adversary that is bent on toppling the Thieu regime. Delicate proposals designed to arrange sharing of power in South Vietnam could only cause us difficulties. Either Thieu would resist and we would be caught between Hanoi and Saigon. Or we might bring Thieu along at the risk of his alienating some of his colleagues and supporters, including the army on which he must rely to carry out Vietnamization successfully. In short, the prospect could be the enemy’s gobbling up any of our political initiatives short of outright coalition government, while the political fallout in Saigon would increasingly shake the GVN.

Thus under this strategy we would hold fast on our substantive positions. We would proceed with Vietnamization and withdrawals, [Page 1138] keying our pace to South Vietnamese readiness and American public opinion.

In any disengagement option3 our basic premise would be that withdrawal on our own terms was preferable to bargaining about these terms with the enemy in an attempt to make a political settlement.


While theoretically we could settle now on either the negotiated settlement or the unilateral disengagement course, I think we should be prepared to continue our present policy, leaving both options open for about six months. We should not at this time either write off the possibilities of a political settlement or make a withdrawal proposal in an effort to bring one about.

On the one hand there is no reason to give up on a negotiated settlement. Hanoi has its share of problems, compounded by the Cambodian operations. My private talks last February suggested some negotiating possibilities. We should see whether the longer term fallout of Cambodia and the Bruce appointment generate some movement.

On the other hand, we should not announce a fixed timetable for our withdrawals—either for disengagement or negotiating purposes:

  • —A schedule sufficiently compressed to impress Hanoi and our domestic critics would cause a collapse of will in South Vietnam. A schedule long enough for GVN survival would cause us more problems than benefits at home;
  • —The North Vietnamese are likely to reject a proposal now, either because they believe we are making it out of weakness and to appease domestic opinion; or because they don’t wish to negotiate shortly after suffering the setbacks of our Cambodian operations; or for both reasons;
  • —During the next six months we will see whether we can resurrect the private talks with Le Duc Tho and whether they can produce significant results;
  • —Our studies project significant pacification gains for the coming months. We will be able to judge whether these gains will provide us with a cushion for the withdrawal of very substantial additional forces.

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Accordingly, I believe we should:

  • —During the month of August take the position that Ambassador Bruce is exploring the situation in Paris;
  • —Early in September, you should make a speech calling for an Indochina conference and include high on the agenda the subject of cease-fire and the exchange of prisoners. This will get us whatever propaganda dividends there are and, in addition, launch discussions on cease-fire.

By early next spring, we may well have to choose definitively between the paths of negotiated settlement and unilateral disengagement. We will be in a much sounder position to do so than we are now.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–028, NSC Meeting, Vietnam: Ceasefire and Diplomatic Initiative, 7/21/70. Top Secret; Sensitive. Kissinger sent this memorandum to Nixon under a covering note of July 20, suggesting that the President would want to read this before the NSC meeting. On another copy of this memorandum, Lord is given as the drafter, except for the conclusions, which were rewritten by Holdridge and Kissinger; the drafting date given is July 20. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 861, For the President’s File—Vietnam Negotiations, Camp David Memoranda, 1969–1970)
  2. If we decide to work toward a compromise political settlement there are several alternatives we could consider to bridge the gap between the competitive allocation of power which the Communists distrust and the negotiated allocation of power which the GVN refuses.

    We could try to meld the two sides’ positions on elections and coalition government through the mixed electoral commission concept or a “broadening” of a government still headed by Thieu. Or we could move toward a nationwide ceasefire, either standstill or with opposing forces regrouped, which would produce de facto territorial accommodation.

    Both the options of sharing power and de facto territorial accommodation establish a framework for continued struggle; they do not construct a permanent political settlement. Any arrangements that are truly negotiated—as opposed to a face-saving solution that one side imposes on the other through military pressure—must leave both the Communists and the GVN the potential for eventual national control and leave the U.S. with a reasonable period after its extrication during which the final outcome is at least in doubt.

    In short a definitive national solution at the outset would require one side’s working its will on the other, granting only some cosmetic concessions in a negotiating facade. A settlement with genuine compromise would require the NLF’s dropping at least temporarily its goal of national power while consolidating its efforts at the local level. And it would obligate the GVN in return to grant the enemy substantial areas of local automony and/or some broadening of the cabinet and assembly. [Footnote in the source text.]

  3. Under this option of unilateral disengagement we would have several alternatives. We could continue our present withdrawal policy of pullouts and aim for a winding down of the war to the point where the GVN could manage on its own. We could fix a long term timetable in order to shore up our domestic support by pointing to the end of the road while still allowing the GVN enough time to be worrisome to Hanoi. Or we could offer to fix a timetable for our unilateral withdrawals only if the other side agreed to negotiate directly with the GVN on political issues—we would then proceed to disengage unilaterally and leave a settlement entirely up to the South Vietnamese. [Footnote in the source text.]