41. Editorial Note

Although there is no record of the meeting in the President’s Daily Diary, merely a reference that President Nixon went to the Oval Office on Saturday, March 16, 1969, at 4:30 p.m. and returned to the residence at 6:51 p.m. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files), both Henry Kissinger and President Nixon describe in their memoirs an afternoon meeting lasting 2 hours on March 16 in the Oval Office among the President, Secretary of State Rogers, Secretary of Defense Laird, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Wheeler and Kissinger. (Kissinger, White House Years, pages 246–247 and Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, page 381)

Kissinger’s account stresses that the decision to bomb the Cambodian sanctuaries had already been made. (See Document 39.) Kissinger states that the President “felt it necessary to pretend that the decision was still open. This led to hours of the very discussion that he found so distasteful and reinforced his tendency to exclude the recalcitrants from further deliberations.” According to Kissinger, the discussion “followed predictable lines. Laird and Wheeler strongly advocated attacks and Rogers objected not on foreign policy but on domestic grounds.” Kissinger recalls that Nixon “permitted himself to be persuaded by Laird and Wheeler to do what he had already ordered.” Nixon’s own recollections stress his decision to bomb Cambodian sanctuaries. Nixon recalls that he said: “The state of play in Paris is completely sterile. I am convinced that the only way to move the negotiations off dead center is to do something on the military front. That is something they will understand.” No other record of this meeting has been found.

The day before the meeting, Kissinger called Secretary of Defense Laird at 5:40 p.m., and according to the transcript notes of March 15, Kissinger told Laird that “he just talked to the President and he would like to order this thing. L said fine. K said when he had talked to Buzz [Wheeler] earlier there were two possibilities: one, only a breakfast plan [B–52 bombing of Cambodian sanctuaries] and the other one to split forces for target [and also bomb North Vietnamese troop concentrations in the DMZ]. K said to lay on both and we will decide tomorrow which to execute. L said they could do it. K said the President may want to have a meeting between L, K, and Bill [Rogers] and the President is counting on L to be firm at that meeting. L said he does not have to worry about that, he will be firm.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 369, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File) Laird and Kissinger discussed the meeting in two telephone conversations at 9 and 9:30 [apparently p.m.] on March 16. In the first conversation, Kissinger told Laird that the President had [Page 125] approved the Cambodian bombing, “something he cannot ever avow” and was willing to do the other attack, but asked Laird’s political advice. Laird responded that in view of Rogers’ opposition, presumably at the meeting on March 16, “it would be better to do what we agreed upon. Laird didn’t see enough advantage in pushing what Bill doesn’t want. It is important to maintain a good relationship. HAK agreed. HAK said he was concerned from the domestic political viewpoint.” During the second conversation, Kissinger told Laird that the President agreed with his recommendation especially in view of Rogers’ opposition. Kissinger told Laird that Nixon knew that “Laird has the best interests of the Administration at heart and it was better to keep the team together.” (Ibid.)

On March 17 at 1:20 p.m. the President called Kissinger to ask when the breakfast bombings would begin and Kissinger responded they would commence in 1 hour. The transcript notes indicate that: “President said what pleases him is that he is glad the fellow [Thieu on March 17] agreed to private talks right away. President thinks the two are closely related. K agreed. Pres said this was token our intent and they think we really mean business. Otherwise, they were about to conclude that we were being pressured and starting again on the same cycle that we had gone through before. K said we were getting ready for some arm twisting and it was not necessary at all. Pres said good deal—pretty hard for them not to talk.” (Ibid.)

On March 18 at 8 p.m. Kissinger and Wheeler discussed the results of the breakfast bombing. Wheeler was enthusiastic about the results—”secondaries [secondary explosions] were about 4 to 7 times the normal bomb burst, this was significant.” Kissinger suggested that “if they [the North Vietnamese] retaliate without any diplomatic screaming, we are in the driver’s seat. Psychologically the impact must have been something.” Wheeler mentioned that North Vietnamese MiGs were recalled to China, “and they are in a high state of alarm.” Kissinger responded that now they have to go back to the drawing board since they didn’t expect it to happen. Kissinger congratulated Wheeler on the idea and told him the President thought he had done a good job. Wheeler responded it was mostly Abrams’ idea. (Ibid.)