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


  • Vietnam Problem

I. The Problem in Paris

In trying to settle the Vietnam war, we can follow two routes: (1) through the Paris talks, (2) through some extraordinary procedures. The Paris route is certainly the more convenient and presents fewer administration problems. However, to be successful, the following conditions must be met by the Paris route:

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We must convince the American public that we are eager to settle the war, and Hanoi that we are not so anxious that it can afford to outwait us.
We must continue military pressures of a scope sufficient to deter Hanoi from turning the negotiations into another Panmunjom.
Our Government must be sufficiently disciplined so that all of its elements speak with the same voice.
Relations with the GVN must be maintained at a level of intimacy to deprive Hanoi of the expectation that they can use the negotiations to break the Saigon Government.

If we can meet all these conditions, we might wind the war up by next Spring. However, the prospects for meeting these conditions do not seem to me too bright for the following reasons:

The dominant view in the State Department favors measures whose practical consequences will be to relieve the pressures on Hanoi and thus encourage Hanoi to prolong the negotiations.
The Paris delegation is profoundly divided and at least its junior members are quite undisciplined. We will thus be under constant pressure of leaks from Paris. (I am attaching a report from a Colonel who has been in the Paris delegations for your information.)2
The split between the military command in Saigon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department is so great that it will be very hard to present a coherent approach in Paris to avoid constant oscillation between extremes.
As our negotiators get more impatient and as public pressures start building up, there will be an increasing temptation to squeeze Saigon and to maneuver it into the position of being the chief obstacle to a settlement. If you compare our negotiating position a year ago with what it is today, this process of gradual chipping away becomes obvious. I would suspect that our minimum position today will be much stronger than our maximum position a year from now.
The tendency to make foreign policy by press-leaks or only partially considered statements deprives our policy of flexibility and coherence. To obtain discipline, on the other hand, might produce a bloody fight which would impair our diplomacy.

II. A Possible Solution

For all these reasons, I have concluded that our best course would be a bold move of trying to settle everything at once. Such a move should:

Attempt to involve the Soviet Union;
Attempt to negotiate a package settlement in order to avoid endless delay.
Present a credible threat of serious consequence if no settlement is reached.

Soviet involvement is crucial; however, the Soviet problem is complicated. They cannot be eager to run major risks for Hanoi because a victory for Hanoi does not benefit the Soviet Union geopolitically and might hurt it ideologically by proving the validity of the Chinese interpretation of international affairs. But a humiliation for Hanoi is also not acceptable because it stakes Moscow’s claim to leadership of the world communist movement. In these circumstances, Moscow tends to procrastinate; it does just enough to keep its claims as a major communist power but below the threshold of military confrontation with us. It helps tactically in Paris, but so far has not made a strategic move to end the war.

Moscow is likely to move off this course only on the basis of its own requirements, not of our needs. Secondly, it will require some event to galvanize Moscow into action or to give it an excuse for it.

This leads me to propose a program with the following components.

An approach to Dobrynin by me along these lines:
The President has reviewed the Vietnam situation carefully.
He will not be the first American President to lose a war, and he is not prepared to give in to public pressures which would have that practical consequence.
The President has therefore decided that he will make one more effort to achieve a reasonable settlement. If it fails, other measures will be invoked.
These measures could not help but involve wider risks. U.S.-Soviet relations are therefore at a crossroads.
The President is eager to move into an era of conciliation with the Soviet Union on a broad front. As a sign of this, he is willing to send a high-level delegation to Moscow to agree with the Soviet Union on principles of strategic arms limitations. He is also willing to consider other meetings at even higher levels.
The head of the delegation to discuss strategic arms limitations would be Cyrus Vance.3 He would be empowered, while in Moscow, [Page 183] to meet with a North Vietnamese negotiator and agree with him on a military as well as a political settlement. Our offer to Hanoi will be generous and forthcoming in keeping with the sacrifices Hanoi has made and the courage with which it has fought.
The President will give this effort in Moscow 6 weeks to succeed.
The President will ask nothing of the Soviet Union inconsistent with its position as a senior communist power. He expects that nothing will be asked of the U.S. inconsistent with its worldwide obligations.
If this negotiation is successful, the President will conclude that the major danger to war is being removed and he would expect progress in many areas.
The President is prepared to repeat this proposition to a Soviet Ambassador personally if there is any interest in the Kremlin.
If Dobrynin agrees, a mission should be sent to Moscow headed by Vance for the purpose of discussing principles of strategic arms limitations. Vance should be empowered to discuss North Vietnamese issues.
The object of the Vietnam negotiations would be as follows:
Definition of Objective: To reach prompt agreement with the North Vietnamese on the general shape of a political-military settlement, specifically:
Military—Agreement that there will be mutual withdrawal of all external forces, and a ceasefire based on a mutual withdrawal.
Political—(i) Agreement that guarantees the NLF freedom from reprisals and the right to participate fully in the political and social life of the country in exchange for agreement by NLF and DRV to forego further attempts to achieve their political objectives by force and violence. (ii) Agreement that there will be a separate and independent SVN for at least 5 years.
Mechanism for supervising and verifying the carrying out of the settlement. The agreement with the DRV should not attempt to spell out the manner in which the general principles agreed to will be implemented. That should be left for Paris.
If Vance can get an agreement in principle, the negotiations would shift back to Paris for final implementation. The whole process should be completed before the end of August.

III. Pros and Cons

This procedure would have the following advantages:

It would give the Soviet Union an excuse and a method for involving itself in the process.
It would prevent a Panmunjom of protracted negotiations while casualties mount.
It would give you control over the negotiations.
It is the only way to end the war quickly and the best way to conclude it honorably.
If it becomes known, it will be considered as an imaginative peace move.
The beginning of SALT negotiations will give you a little more maneuvering room domestically. Focusing the initial talks on “principles” keeps you from being pressured all the time.

The course outlined here has the following disadvantages:

It will get no cooperation from the bureaucracy and may even be sabotaged if they find out about it.
It may be used by Hanoi to undermine our position in Saigon. I think this risk would be minimal. Hanoi’s fear of Peking will make it reluctant to publicize the talks.
It will be difficult to give Vance the dual negotiating role without the other members of the SALT delegation knowing about it.4
A related question is whether a high DRV official can come to Moscow at the same time the SALT talks are going on without suspicions being aroused.
Another question is whether the DRV can negotiate in Moscow in light of the current tensions between Moscow and Peking.
All these difficulties are surmountable. The real problem is that the approach outlined here should not be implemented unless you are prepared to take tough escalatory steps if Moscow rejects the overture (mining Haiphong, bombing Cambodia, etc.). To fail to do so would be to risk your credibility.

With this proviso, I believe the pros outweigh the cons. If you agree, I shall work out a more detailed scenario.5

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1319, Unfiled Material, 1969, Box 3 of 19. Top Secret; Sensitive.
  2. Not attached, but Nixon attached an extract of this report to an April 10 memorandum to Rogers; see Document 57.
  3. Kissinger talked with Vance on March 18 to explore his willingness to undertake a mission to Moscow to link the opening of the SALT talks with an overall proposal for a settlement on Vietnam. Vance would meet secretly with a senior North Vietnamese representative in the Soviet capital, and be empowered to negotiate both issues. (White House Years, p. 266)
  4. This was a concern Vance raised to Kissinger. (Ibid.)
  5. Kissinger spoke to Nixon at Key Biscayne and the President was “dubious about the ‘Vance ploy,’ as he called it,” but Nixon agreed to make a diplomatic approach to the Soviet Union. (Ibid., pp. 267–268) See Document 55.