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


  • DobryninRogers Conversation on the Paris Negotiations

Secretary Rogers has suggested to Ambassador Dobrynin that we are now prepared to enter into private talks with North Vietnam on military issues and into private four-party talks on political issues.2 This proposal, if implemented, would represent a major change in U.S. policy with serious consequences both for our posture at the Paris peace negotiations and our relations with South Vietnam.

Since January 20, we have undertaken a basic shift in our policy. We have stated that the political future of South Vietnam must be settled by the South Vietnamese themselves. We have urged direct contacts between Saigon and the NLF—most notably in your talks with Ky when you assured him that we would not talk with the NLF.3 We have worked to reestablish confidence in our relations with Saigon and assured them that we would take no steps without consulting.

We have combined heavy military pressure with a deliberate pace in Paris. We have specifically refrained from taking the initiative on opening private talks and have made clear that when such talks were possible we would talk only to the NVN and only about mutual withdrawal.

This policy was designed to avoid an impression of undo anxiety which might tempt Hanoi to draw out the negotiations in the belief that we could be outlasted and would later make concessions because of domestic political pressures. Our intention was first to discuss the issue of mutual withdrawal on which our bargaining position was the strongest. We hoped to delay talking about political issues relating to South Vietnam since such discussions could only lead to acrimony with the South—a basic objective of Hanoi. Saigon in any talks on political matters is likely to appear to be obstinate and we will be under great pressure to force the GVN not to prevent successful negotiations.

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There are signs that this strategy is evolving successfully. Hanoi has indicated a willingness to engage in private discussions which would at least include military questions. This was reflected in a Vance/Lao conversation4 and in several recent conversations with Soviet officials. The GVN has inaugurated private contacts with the NVN and the NLF. Our relations with Saigon have greatly improved and we are just beginning to establish full mutual confidence as reflected in your conversation with Ky and their failure to press hard for retaliation after the Saigon shelling.

We have adhered to this strategy in responding to the rocketing of Saigon. Our instructions to Ambassador Lodge left open the possibility of a military response, but made clear that we should not offer private talks and, if Hanoi proposed them, reply that we would not consider private talks if the rocketing continued.

Hanoi’s strategy was to get us: (1) to engage in talks about political subjects, (2) to talk with the NLF, and (3) get us into talks on de-escalation.

Secretary Rogers, in his discussion with Ambassador Dobrynin on March 8, gave Hanoi the first 2 of its 3 objectives, did not rebut the third and did so without getting anything in return. This discussion thus seriously cut across our strategy by:

proposing private talks now,
proposing political talks including four powers,
proposing the U.S. talk to the NLF,
not insisting on an end to shelling as a precondition for private talks,
not consulting first with the GVN.

A major consequence of the Rogers/Dobrynin conversation is therefore to make it difficult to resist early private talks with the NVN. By lobbing a few shells into Saigon, Hanoi has induced us to change our position on the same day that Lodge was putting our original position to Thuy. If the GVN learns of the conversation, it will seriously undercut our reasonably successful effort to establish a relationship of confidence with the GVN.

If we went ahead with the Rogers proposal, the consequences will be even more serious. Our efforts to persuade the GVN to enter four power talks runs the risk of provoking a major confrontation with Saigon and could lead to a breakdown of the Paris talks. Four-power talks would add to the NLF’s prestige and could undercut the feasibility of bilateral GVN/NLF talks. We would be directly involved in [Page 102] negotiating a political settlement and could find ourselves in the unenviable position of having to put pressure on the GVN for political concession in four-party meetings.

I therefore propose the following remedial steps:

We should not repeat the offer to engage in four-power private talks on political and military matters.
After a suitable interval, if the shelling ceased, we would move into bilateral private talks on military withdrawal.
Because both sides have traditionally confirmed private messages with public statements, we could with great effect, in this case, do the reverse:
At the next Paris session, Lodge’s presentation should be devoted entirely to spelling out our desire to discuss mutual withdrawal and to reiterating our belief that the political future of the South is best left to the South Vietnamese.
The President or a high ranking State Department official should repeat the same message at a press conference or in a speech.
If the Dobrynin communication follows the standard pattern, Moscow will talk to Hanoi. Then the Soviets will come back to us indicating that if we put this proposal to Hanoi, progress will result.
When the Soviets come back, we cannot completely withdraw from the position we have taken but we can tell the Soviets the following:
Private talks cannot occur unless we have some confidence that indiscriminate attacks on cities will cease.
If Hanoi is interested in private talks on a two- or four-participant basis, it should approach the U.S. directly.
With regard to discussions on political issues in which the four participants will be present, we envisage that their success will be contingent upon preliminary bilateral talks on mutual withdrawal between Hanoi and ourselves, and discussions among the South Vietnamese on political matters. Paris would take this same position if the issue is raised by Hanoi.
We should not now inform Saigon of this episode.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/HAK 1969 [Part 2]. Top Secret. The memorandum is not initialed. Kissinger elaborates on his concerns about Rogers’ initiative and Nixon’s “philosophical” reaction to it in White House Years, pp. 263–264. Haldeman also recounts Kissinger’s distress. (Haldeman Diary, Multimedia Edition, March 9, 1969)
  2. See Document 32.
  3. See Document 28.
  4. It is not clear to which VanceLau conversation Kissinger is referring.