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348. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • President Nixon
  • Secretary of State William P. Rogers
  • Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird
  • Director of Emergency Preparedness General George A. Lincoln
  • Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms
  • Acting Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John D. Ryan
  • Attorney General John N. Mitchell
  • Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson
  • Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Marshall Green
  • Amb. Ellsworth Bunker, Amb. to GVN
  • Amb. David K. E. Bruce, Chief U.S. Delegate to Paris Conference on Vietnam
  • Amb. Philip C. Habib, Former Chief U.S. Delegate to Paris Conference on Vietnam
  • Assistant to the President Henry A. Kissinger
  • Col. Richard T. Kennedy, NSC Senior Staff
  • Lawrence Lynn, NSC Staff
  • Ronald L. Ziegler, Press Secretary

SUBJECT

  • NSC Meeting: Vietnam Ceasefire and Possible Diplomatic Initiatives
[Page 1140]

President: Dick [Helms],2 will you start off?

Helms: Events in Cambodia have altered the situation in Southeast Asia. Hanoi saw opportunities—and possible gains—resulting from the fall of Sihanouk in March. Hanoi certainly discounted the possibility of a U.S. move. The action we took did throw them off stride, but did not alter Hanoi's determination to increase its activity in Cambodia. The domestic reaction in the U.S. convinced Hanoi that our actions would be restricted. They will continue their long-haul, low-profile activity. They may become more active in the northern provinces. Their tactics in Cambodia have become bolder. They have shown interest in sowing confusion in the countryside and saving the indigenous insurgency.

In Laos, we have seen a new Hanoi move in the works. They are making a new proposal for talks. Their goal in the past has been to get a halt to U.S. bombing in Laos. They may waive this condition this time. They are clearly worried about more pressure on the ground in the panhandle in Laos. They may think Souvanna may call for a bombing halt.

There is a new consensus in the Hanoi leadership. They look to the long haul but they are confident they eventually will win. They see their difficulties as great but they are willing to take it. They are willing to accept the privation and the manpower losses. To keep their economy afloat they need Soviet and Chinese help. The rivalry for leadership between the USSR and China makes it difficult for either one to reduce its aid to Hanoi. Their manpower losses are actually not overwhelming.

What does this mean for the prospect of negotiations with the U.S.? They believe that if they wait long enough we will negotiate on grounds that they can accept. I would expect little movement in negotiations generally or in Paris in particular for some months. They haven't looked at the Cambodia balance sheet yet. The political situation is not favorable in South Vietnam now to the Communists and major concessions are unlikely. Hanoi appears convinced that the U.S. won't negotiate unless it means an evident North Vietnamese defeat. Their demands will still be our withdrawal.

President: Thank you, Dick. Ellsworth?

Bunker: The South Vietnamese are more confident now after Cambodia. Their apprehensions about U.S. redeployments have largely disappeared. They feel the war will diminish, though it may go on for a long time in a no-war, no-peace situation. I would say with respect to [Page 1141]Cambodia that it was more difficult for the Communists to create an infrastructure there than in South Vietnam because the Cambodians don't like South Vietnamese. President Thieu thinks that with adequate equipment support Cambodia can hold on. He thinks they should concentrate on protecting the population centers. The South Vietnamese want to continue main force operations against the North Vietnamese in Cambodia. The main problem in South Vietnam itself is the economic situation now.

President: I want to create as much doubt in the minds of the enemy about what we will do in Laos and Cambodia and complete doubt as to what South Vietnam will do. We won't be pinned down on what interdiction is. I want to be sure we give no signal to the enemy. We will continue the bombing in North and South Laos. I want to leave the policies as they are. We have no plans for U.S. activity in Laos but I want to leave it there. I do not want to indicate that the South Vietnamese are planning large scale activities in Laos but we don't want to be pinned down. We'll say only “there are no present plans.” Leave the enemy concerned. Air power will be used in Laos to interdict supplies. I want everyone here to follow this line.

[Dr. Kissinger then briefed, following the Talking Points.]3

Bunker: Thieu argues for an in-place ceasefire now. Earlier he preferred a ceasefire with regroupment.

President: MACV thought a ceasefire a year ago would be a disaster. But now their view seems to have changed.

Bunker: The situation has changed—the enemy has in part regrouped. That is one reason Thieu prefers an in-place ceasefire now. It may help his political posture.

Kissinger: It is hard to visualize regroupment except as a first step for a U.S. withdrawal.

Bunker: In case of a breakdown in the ceasefire, it is harder for us to react from a regroupment posture. That is MACV's view.

Rogers: Regrouping looks like conceding to the Communists in some areas.

Laird: We are in the best military position now we'll be in for a long time in SVN. Pacification is going well; June was the best month for several months.

With the appointment of a new Paris ambassador,4 now is the time to take a new initiative. The JCS prefer a ceasefire with withdrawal, [Page 1142]but as Henry said, past history suggests that Hanoi won't accept it. Either of the other two would be a help. I suggest we begin the talks in August and then reveal a proposal in September for domestic impact. I go along with the Rogers paper but I think it goes too fast.5 A North Vietnamese negotiation may not show up—we should wait till they do. But now is the time—since the situation is good, the casualties rate is lower, the GVN is stronger, and the Cambodia successes, we should move out in the next 60 days with an initiative.

Ryan: MACV favors a ceasefire with verified withdrawal; otherwise, if we must choose, then they would choose a ceasefire in place.

Rogers: Thieu is not only willing but is taking the lead—but he doesn't think Hanoi will accept. As to timing, I'm not wedded to the time frame of the paper. We should not emphasize the broader forum. But the ceasefire is the key—it should cover all of Indo-China—and we accept the principle of withdrawal, and POW exchange. We should insist on the options from the DOD paper.6

I suggest the President make a TV appearance and advise of his decisions. We should move on the details in Paris.

President: You think they won't accept a ceasefire?

Rogers: No, they won't accept.

Helms: I doubt they will accept.

Habib: They won't accept but they may probe for something less. After they reject the whole thing, they may take less—this gives us a chance to see whether they will take less than their full two demands.

Lincoln: Now is the time to move.

President: Let's talk about timing. What do we do in the next two weeks? I feel it would be a mistake for Ambassador Bruce to go into Paris with a whole new offer by August 15. If we don't believe the enemy will take it, the timing relates to the effects here. It would be better to be more deliberate. Bruce should meet the negotiators on the other side and see if we can get private talks, and give reformulation of what we have already presented. There is no need to prove something by hurrying; we should be deliberate. I have taken care to be sure to say our Ambassador has latitude to talk and I am anxious to hear his views. As to the enemy, to move toward them quickly might reduce the chances of their taking the offer. They might see a quick move as the timing comes closer to early September, in my view. This gives time for Bruce and Bunker to get set.

Rogers: There is no difference of view on this. The timing can be adjusted.

[Page 1143]

President: It will have an effect on American opinion. I don't want to have a dud fall on the schools and bring down public opinion and weaken our position vis-à-vis the enemy. It also gives us a chance to see how the military situation develops.

Vitally important are our press conferences. I believe Bruce should keep a low profile and low key. [Ambassador nods agreement] There should be no regular press meetings each week in Paris. I want to see a whole new stance—low-key and quiet. I want us to take time too to feel the way—because really we want to make a proposal that has a chance of some acceptance. Thus we want to take time.

We all must leave the questions in context. Say, “I am not going to discuss instructions.” We have made significant proposals in the past publicly and privately. The timing of the move must be closely held.

As to the Russians, I don't believe we ought to ask the USSR to help here—we have other fish to fry with them. I don't think we should press Vietnam with them.

In Paris it should be a confident game—we are moving well and on schedule.

Rogers: Can't we stick to the line of your press conference?7 [All agree] We should be careful about saying anything about private meetings.

Habib: We have had the practice in the past of making a regular courtesy call on the Russians.

President: We need to show discipline and we have a chance. They have the same problems. They have not shown the push we expected in Cambodia.

What is the situation with the rainy season?

Ryan: It ends about the end of October.

President: One last point: There is one weakness in our position now: The enemy assumes our divisions will bring us down. They are wrong. My position is I won't. Secondly, the restrictions they think Congress will impose they believe will hurt our ability to respond. The bombing of the North will be ended in exchange for something. Our responses in retaliation have been successful in the past. If as we now go into significant withdrawal they sharply step up their attacks imperiling our remaining forces, we will have to take action. Their assumption that we cannot is wrong. It will be difficult but we will act if necessary.

This is the incentive for them not to up our casualties. This is the fourth understanding on the bombing.

[The meeting ended.]

  1. Source National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–109, NSC Meeting Minutes, Originals, 1969–1970. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
  2. All brackets in the source text.
  3. Apparent reference to the President's talking points; see footnote 3, Document 346.
  4. David K. E. Bruce, head of the U.S. Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks.
  5. Document 345.
  6. Not further identified.
  7. Nixon's unscheduled press conference on July 20; for text, see Public Papers: Nixon, 1970, pp. 602–611.