93. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1
- Sequoia NSC Meeting on Vietnam
As you know, you will be meeting on the Sequoia this evening to discuss Vietnam with Rogers, Laird, General Wheeler, General Cushman, Mitchell and me.2 The following people have been advised that [Page 284] you may wish to call on them for a brief introduction to the subjects as listed:
General Cushman—The Current Situation in Hanoi and the Enemy Strategy.
General Wheeler—The Military Situation in South Vietnam.
Secretary Rogers—Paris Negotiations.
The main issues that are likely to arise are as follows:
(1) Enemy Intentions. The lull in the fighting is continuing: there have been few enemy initiated actions in the past several days and some NVN units have moved out of the Northern provinces into NVN. Hanoi has not begun to introduce new people into the pipeline. There is general agreement that the lull stems primarily from the enemy’s need to regroup and resupply and his desire to conserve manpower. It is not yet clear whether he also intended a political signal. The empty pipeline—whatever its motive—will mean that Hanoi soon will be forced to drastically cut back its level of operations, at least for several months, even if it starts refilling the pipeline now. CIA has concluded from the empty pipeline, the 10-Point Program and the creation of the PRG, that Hanoi has decided that the time was ripe for a period emphasizing “talk” instead of “fight” (Tab A).3
Hanoi faces a dilemma with regard to inflicting casualties. The enemy wants to inflict enough U.S. casualties to keep up domestic pressure to end the war but not so many that we will halt our withdrawals. Similarly if they inflict too many casualties on ARVN we might cease our withdrawals. And the enemy wishes to conserve its own manpower. These factors may be leading Hanoi to concentrate on inflicting civilian casualties.
There are several possible general explanations of Hanoi’s recent actions:
Hanoi is hurting badly.
- There is no question that Hanoi is hurting and wants to conserve manpower.
- I doubt that Hanoi is hurting badly enough not to be able to continue and, if necessary, accentuate her military effort.
- If we were to conclude that Hanoi was hurting badly we should keep up our military pressure and maintain our current position in Paris.
Hanoi is moving to a new negotiating
- Hanoi may have concluded that reduced military operations combined with a new political strategy—perhaps a call for a ceasefire— is most likely to produce US concessions.
- If we reach the judgment that this is Hanoi’s intention we should keep up military pressure but modify our instructions to Gen. Abrams to reduce public criticism.
- We should be forthcoming in Paris regarding election procedures and other concessions of high public impact.
Hanoi is signalling de-facto de-escalation in
response to our troop withdrawals.
- It is too soon to reach a firm judgment of whether Hanoi is signalling a move in this direction but we cannot exclude it.
- If we were confident that this was Hanoi’s intention we would want to respond by curtailing our operations in some way and accelerating withdrawals to see if a process of mutual de-facto withdrawals and de-escalation can be set into effect.
I believe that we need to change in some way the instructions to General Abrams. Domestic criticism will mount if we can be accused of not responding to enemy de-escalation. Moreover we cannot exclude the possibility that Hanoi is signalling a willingness to de-escalate. I have spoken to General Wheeler about providing new instructions to General Abrams but have not yet received his recommendations.
Until you make a decision on this question I believe that we should keep open our options with the following public line:
- We are of course watching the situation to determine if a political signal is involved.
- Since General Abrams’ instructions are to minimize U.S. casualties, if the enemy avoids combat, casualties and the level of fighting will decline.
- If the lull continues this will affect our decisions on the rate of U.S. troop withdrawals.
Lodge might also be instructed to ask the other side privately and quietly about whether it intends any political signal.
(2) Vietnamization. The immediate issue which we face is the number of additional troops to be taken out this year. Secretary Laird has previously recommended the withdrawal of up to 25,000 men; Secretary Rogers has recommended the withdrawal of an additional 60,000. At this evening’s meeting General Wheeler will probably support a relatively restrained rate of withdrawal. Secretary Laird, while privately prepared to support a higher figure, will probably support this [Page 286] cautious approach. Secretary Rogers will press for the full 60,000, with a decision to be announced now.
We should certainly move as fast as possible with Vietnamization, but we must weigh in the balance the favorable impact on the U.S. as against a possibly unfavorable one on Saigon and Hanoi. A too-rapid withdrawal might seriously shake the Thieu Government, particularly if coupled with pressure on Thieu for a political settlement. It might also create excessive optimism in the United States and make the withdrawal irreversible. An additional factor is the effect on Hanoi: the Communists probably cannot be fooled as to the rate of progress which the GVN is achieving in taking over the military burden. Hanoi’s reading of the domestic U.S. political implications of an accelerated U.S. withdrawal is likely in addition to be quite accurate.
I believe that you should defer judgment on further withdrawals until early August. This is when you have promised another review, and, by then, the enemy intentions should be much clearer and we will have fully analyzed them. If you make a decision now, it will leak.
(3) President Thieu’s Statement. We have just received Thieu’s draft (Tab B).4 It is forthcoming on elections but makes them conditional on mutual withdrawal. It offers full participation to the NLF in its name and participation in an election commission. It also proposes international supervision.
Secretary Rogers wishes to have much of the discussion focus on Thieu’s statement and will undoubtedly talk to it in his remarks. As you know, he feels that Thieu should be very forthcoming and offer the other side a whole range of possible election alternatives, as well as an election commission and a ceasefire. He will probably urge that we go back and press Thieu to add greater detail.
I doubt that Thieu can be moved off his position without a firm U.S. guarantee that we will not withdraw our troops unless Hanoi does.
Thieu’s patience with us is wearing thin. He had promised a draft outline of his statement by July 3 but delayed it after reading initial press accounts of Secretary Rogers’ press conference last week.5 He provided the draft only after being reassured from reading the full text of the Secretary’s remarks that he was not being pressured. He also appears [Page 287] to be reacting against jogging cables from Washington. I think we must realize that if we move too hard and too fast with Thieu we run the very serious risk of alienating him and causing his government to collapse. At the minimum we will make him uncooperative.
I believe that we should ease up on our pressure and see what we can make out of his present statement with minor modifications.
(4) Vietnamization and Political Settlement. Until now we proceeded on the assumption that our Vietnamization program was supporting our efforts to get a political settlement. U.S. troop withdrawals and the strengthening of ARVN was designed to press Hanoi to negotiate now before Saigon capabilities increased. These moves were also designed to reduce domestic criticism and to pressure Saigon into taking a reasonable position.
The safest course would be to proceed slowly both with Vietnamization and effort to get a political settlement. However this course might well fall between two stools causing us to lag far behind the expectations of our public opinion. We may be accused of not being forthcoming enough in Paris and not withdrawing quickly enough. I believe that we cannot accelerate both efforts.
I believe that the point is approaching where we may be forced to choose between Vietnamization and political negotiations. If we are really depending on Vietnamization and do not expect a political settlement Thieu should not be pressured to make a conciliatory political offer and to broaden his government to include neutralist elements. Such actions strengthen the belief in South Vietnam that the Thieu government will have to go and make it less likely that anti-Communist opposition groups will rally to the GVN.
If we are to concentrate on Vietnamization we should use our leverage to force changes in the ARVN command structure which General Abrams believes are critical to successful Vietnamization. Conversely if we are negotiating for a settlement we should proceed slowly with Vietnamization and use our leverage on Thieu to broaden his government and to make a forthcoming political offer.
If we do have to choose I would recommend proceeding with an accelerated Vietnamization program. However, there are several risks to this course.
- We would still be charged with not making progress in Paris.
- The enemy may succeed in embarrassing us by stepping up attacks on our forces keeping our casualties high, or by inflicting serious defeats on ARVN units.
- Accelerate Vietnamization even if not accompanied by pressure on a political settlement could lead to a collapse in ARVN forces drastically reducing GVN territorial control.
- Withdrawal, at some point becomes irreversible even if Hanoi steps up upon its efforts.
- Hanoi may now be ready for a negotiated political settlement which would be foreclosed by our failure to exhibit greater flexibility on political issues.
Accelerating political negotiations would appear attractive if we conclude that Hanoi is ready for serious negotiations. In that case we would have either to move towards accepting a coalition government or, perhaps, proposing a ceasefire designed to lead to a formalization of the shared control of the countryside which now exists. The risks of this course are:
- Hanoi may not be ready for serious negotiations.
- We would have to put great pressure on Thieu which could gravely weaken the GVN for Vietnamization if negotiations fail.
- Time may run out forcing us into ever greater concessions or a sudden major withdrawal.
- We would have to assume responsibility for a settlement which could easily turn sour in a few years.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 74, Vietnam Subject Files, Vietnam, Memos to the President for NSC, 1969. Secret. The date is handwritten on the memorandum. On June 24 Rogers suggested to Nixon creating a policy group on Vietnam chaired by the President and composed of Rogers, Laird, Wheeler, and Kissinger. In a July 2 memorandum Nixon informed Rogers that “I welcome the opportunity for periodic meetings of this group” but demands on his time precluded fixed meetings. Instead Nixon suggested convening the group as the need arose “in lieu of the full NSC and as part of the NSC process.” Nixon also wanted Attorney General Mitchell as part of the group and instructed Kissinger to arrange a meeting for the next week. In his memorandum to the group Kissinger described the meeting on the Sequoia as a “NSC Executive Committee.” (Memorandum from Nixon to Rogers, July 2, and memorandum from Kissinger to Rogers, et al., July 3; both ibid., Box 1008, Haig’s Special Files, Haig’s Vietnam File, Vol. 2 (Apr.–Oct. 1969) [2 of 2])↩
- The meeting on the Sequoia apparently lasted the entire cruise, from 7:31 to 11:29 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary) No memorandum of this discussion has been found. In a telephone conversation on July 8 at 10:40 a.m., Laird told Kissinger that the meeting was “very good; it helped him tremendously.” Kissinger then told Laird, “for his own use, the President has not excluded the possibility that he could take an option to the right in order to end the war quickly.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File) Kissinger recalled in White House Years that the “principal topic of discussion was the apparent lull in the fighting. Did it result from Hanoi’s exhaustion, from a new negotiating strategy, or from an attempt by Hanoi to achieve de-escalation by tacit understandings?” Kissinger also recalled that there was “unanimity that we should respond by a reciprocal slow down” and agreement on changing MACV’s mission statement from defeating the enemy and forcing his withdrawal from South Vietnam to assisting South Vietnam to strengthen its forces, pacify its territory, and reduce the flow of supplies to the enemy. (p. 276)↩
- Tab A, attached but not printed, is a July 3 CIA intelligence memorandum entitled “Hanoi’s Short Term Intentions.” The President saw this memorandum.↩
- Attachment Tab B was the draft central portion of Thieu’s speech given on July 11 and transmitted in telegram 13655 from Saigon, July 7. The final text is in telegram 13916 from Saigon, July 10. (Both National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 69, Vietnam Subject Files, Vietnam, Thieu’s Speech Material)↩
- Reference is to Rogers’ press conference on July 2. (Department of State Bulletin, July 21, 1969, pp. 41–49)↩