68. Editorial Note
On May 14, 1969, President Nixon made a television and radio address in which he outlined a major proposal for mutual withdrawal in Vietnam over a 12-month period. The text of the speech is printed in Public Papers: Nixon, 1969, pages 369–375. On April 24 Henry Kissinger sent Nixon a draft outline of the speech and a scenario of actions to be undertaken in relation to it. Nixon read and made notes on the proposal on May 8. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 285, Memoranda to the President, April 1969, Folder 2) Kissinger later recalled that on April 25, he urged the President to elaborate a clear cut position on a peace plan by mentioning North Vietnamese negotiator Xuan Thuy’s remark that, “If the Nixon Administration has a great [Page 216] peace program, as it makes believe, why doesn’t it make it public.” According to Kissinger’s recollections, Nixon hesitated because he wanted to see the results of his proposal to the Soviet Union and because he was concerned about opposition to the peace plan from Secretary of State William Rogers and the Department of State. Nixon feared the Department of State would leak the plan and add so many concessions that the President would be viewed as a “hard-liner” if he turned them down. Kissinger states in his memoirs that Nixon waited until Rogers left for Vietnam on May 12 before asking Kissinger to prepare a major speech within the next 48 hours. (Kissinger, White House Years, page 270) Kissinger did send Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird a draft of the speech in a May 10 memorandum. (National Archives, RG 59, William P. Rogers Official Files and Papers: Lot 73 D 443, no folder title) Rogers telephoned Kissinger at 4 p.m. on May 12 on a non-secure telephone from Los Angeles (en route to Vietnam) to register “his very serious reservations.” Kissinger promised to present Rogers’ views to the President in detail. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File) Laird responded to the draft in a May 11 memorandum to Nixon noting that his major concern was that the speech did not emphasize the previously cited three points for measuring progress in the war and U.S. troop withdrawals: 1) mutual withdrawals, 2) improvement in the military situation, and 3) improvement in South Vietnamese capabilities. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 76, Vietnam Subject Files, Speech Planning and Miscellaneous) Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge sent his comments on the speech in a background message from Paris, May 11, which stated “broadly speaking this is an excellent speech,” but suggested multiple language changes. (Massachusetts Historical Society, Henry Cabot Lodge II Papers, Reel 9) Bunker sent backchannel message 417 from Saigon, May 12, stating that a general cease-fire would be undesirable since it would be interpreted by the enemy and by U.S. friends alike as “throwing in the towel” and would favor the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong militarily. From a political point of view, a cease-fire in place implied a readiness to partition South Vietnam. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 65, Vietnam Subject Files, 8–A, All Backchannel)
In a telephone call to the President on May 13, at 7:30 p.m., Kissinger told the President that he had revised the speech on Laird’s recommendation and “it was pretty tight now.” The President stated that “Mel [Laird] thinks we are dong the right thing. What really pleases me is that Rogers thinks it is fine.” Nixon asked why Rogers changed his mind and Kissinger responded that he had been given a role in the speech. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)[Page 217]
The next day, May 15, from 10:08 to 11:44 a.m., President Nixon held a joint meeting of the National Security Council and Cabinet to brief his administration’s leaders on the significance of the speech. According to the memorandum of meeting the briefing went as follows:
“[Kissinger] called it ‘the most comprehensive statement made by an American President about Vietnam.’ Kissinger said the principles, measures and details in the President’s presentation could be summarized in two broad, basic principles. One: We will not collapse our effort; and two: We will be extremely flexible in trying to make a settlement.
“Discussing the new elements in the speech, Kissinger called it ‘as forthcoming and comprehensive a proposition as the President could possibly have developed’ and said that it went ‘as far as we believe it was possible to go in testing the willingness of the other side to have serious negotiations.’ Remarking on just one new element, Kissinger pointed out that ‘we no longer will expect the North Vietnamese to admit that their troops are there so long as they stop being there.’
“One of the most significant points about the speech, the President remarked, was that the South Vietnamese government had agreed to its content. He said that no one would have predicted six months ago that President Thieu would approve the substance of that speech. The cooperation of the South Vietnamese is extremely important, the President added, because while ‘some say it will be impossible to make a peace with them, it will surely be impossible to make a peace without them.’
“Commenting on the attitude of other nations in the area, the President pointed out that the reaction of Thailand is highly important. ‘They are like rice in the wind,’ the President said. ‘If they think we are going to lose, they will go the other way.’ And this suggests, the President added, that while some people scoff at the domino theory, the dominoes make it a reality because they seem to accept it as fact.
“Before the speech was in final form, it was necessary to get agreement among the various areas of the U.S. government that were involved as well as the agreement of the South Vietnamese. ‘And if any of you think that writing your speeches is hard,’ the President said with a grin, ‘you should try to write one involving State, Defense and Henry Kissinger.’
“Under Secretary of State Elliot L. Richardson suggested that South Vietnam’s President Thieu be added to the ‘list of speech writers’ since he was consulted, and made suggestions that were included. Richardson reported that the State Department had transmitted the basic elements of the speech through our Ambassadors to the governments of Australia, Thailand, New Zealand, South Korea and the Philippines. Such advance notice, he said, was most important in ‘keeping our friends with us.’[Page 218]
“Defense Secretary Laird stressed the importance of the fact that ‘there is nothing inconsistent in the mutual withdrawal plan in this speech and the Vietnamization of the war.’ He noted that there was in the speech a veiled reference to reduction of U.S. forces. The question whether some of our forces will soon be withdrawn, said Laird, will be discussed when Secretary of State Rogers returns from Vietnam. To clarify the situation with regard to prospective withdrawal of some U.S. forces—the President explained that ‘apart from any progress in Paris, we are considering withdrawals based upon the strengthening of the Vietnam forces.’”
The President asked Director of Central Intelligence Helms to gauge North Vietnamese reaction to the speech. Helms suggested it put them on notice that “we don’t chicken out.” Helms stated that Hanoi’s strategy was based on the theory that U.S. domestic dissent would force a U.S. withdrawal. Helms concluded: “this speech tells them that we will stick to our principles and will not run out.” Ambassador Lodge recalled that a week before the President’s speech the North Vietnamese at Paris introduced a new package based on ten points without their usual rhetoric. Lodge saw the Nixon speech as a comprehensive answer to this proposal. He described the speech as “like manna from Heaven for me.”
The briefing concluded with a summation by the President. He stated that the speech “provided the enemy a way out,” but cautioned that North Vietnam was bent on conquest of the South so, “We need to threaten that if they don’t talk they will suffer.” The President then listed four principal factors in the U.S. position which he described as follows:
“One, we are for peace—we are reasonable. Two, we aim to convince the enemy that if there is no settlement, we have an option which is military action not only at the present level but at an expanded level. Three, we want to make clear that they can’t win by sitting us out. Four, we want to convince them that they aren’t going to get what they want by erosion of the will of the U.S. So, said the President, we have offered them a way out. We have tried to indicate that we will not tolerate a continuation of their fight-talk strategy. We have tried to convince them that the time is coming when South Vietnam will be strong enough to handle a major part of the load. Beyond all this, said the President, it was necessary to give the impression to the enemy that the people of the U.S. are going to support a sound peace proposal and not accept peace at any price. Then and only then will the enemy realize that the war must be ended.
“The President expressed the hope that Members of the Cabinet in their speeches and appearances will explain that the Administration has presented a sound, reasonable, coordinated plan for peace. How [Page 219] the war will end, the President said, is not clear. It may not be by formal agreement, it may simply be by negotiations leading to gradual understanding.
“‘What is on the line is more than South Vietnam,’ the President said. ‘It’s a question of what happens to the balance of Asia and to the rest of the world. If we fail to end the war in a way that will not be an American defeat, and in a way that will deny the aggressor his goal, the hawks in Communist nations will push for even more and broader aggression. What concerns me more than anything else is what happens to the U.S. If a great power fails to meet its aims, it ceases to be a great power. When a great power looks inward, when it fails to live up to its commitment, then the greatness fades away. The road to peace will be difficult but we aim to get there.’
“When the Cabinet applauded his remarks, he said, ‘I really didn’t mean to make a speech to the Cabinet.’” (Memorandum of a meeting by Jim Keogh, May 15; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, President’s Office Files, Box 1, Memos for the President’s File, 1969–1970, Beginning May 11, 1969)
The President called Kissinger at 10:50 p.m. on May 14 to ask him how he thought the speech had been received. Kissinger was very encouraged with the response. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 359, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File) In a May 16 memorandum to the President, Kissinger sent a rundown of how the speech had been received internationally. Kissinger stated: “Throughout the Free World, your speech has been warmly praised as moderate, statesmanlike and a very constructive step toward peace.” While there was no official reaction from the DRV or NLF, some of their spokespersons’ initial comments on it were negative. Kissinger continued, “The response from the Soviet Bloc, although negative, has been relatively moderate and quite measured.” Nixon saw this assessment. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 75, Vietnam Subject Files, Cables, Concerning Reactions to the Speech, All Posts) According to The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the White House, page 58, the initial euphoria of the speech and its aftermath wore off as Nixon read the U.S. Sunday papers on May 18 and found that their response, unlike the foreign press, was either neutral or negative. Nixon told Haldeman that if John F. Kennedy had made the speech, the press would have been ecstatic.