151. Backchannel Message From the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
I met with Ambassador Bunker this AM for two hours and discussed the purpose of my visit while receiving his views on inter alia: [Page 458]
- —situation in Laos and Cambodia;
- —domestic GVN political climate;
- —President Thieu’s attitude on cross-border operations;
- —next troop announcement and possible political initiative.
Ambassador was enthusiastic and confident about cross border operations in both Laos and Cambodia. He believes Laotian operations have severely hurt enemy citing sharp punishment to six of enemy’s ten regiments and great psychological lift given to ARVN forces especially during recent days. As we suspected he confirmed some initial reluctance and caution on part of GVN and Thieu himself. There was some fear that ARVN losses might be excessive with resultant deleterious impact on ARVN’s long-term posture. Since first weeks, however, success has added to ARVN confidence and evidence [garble—of effectiveness of?] U.S. air power has largely dispelled earlier doubts. Ambassador reports that Thieu was under some criticism [garble] after operation was launched and especially during period when it appeared to be bogged down. Since seizure of Tchepone criticism has subsided and operation is becoming definite political-plus for Thieu. Ambassador Bunker is confident that Thieu is determined to see Laos operation thru and anticipates it will continue largely through month of April but correctly feels specific time table should be avoided. Ambassador is also confident that Cambodian operation will pick up in effectiveness in coming weeks.
Ambassador will give priority attention to political initiative we discussed prior to my departure and will provide you with his views on an exclusively eyes-only basis via this channel.
We also discussed following possible scenario for next tranches of troop withdrawals. (Incidently, General Abrams had provided Ambassador with troop level figures which MACV briefing team brought to Secretary Laird this week.)
- Step 1—On April 5, President might announce drawdown of 30,000 troops between 1 May and 1 July noting that he plans to meet with President Thieu in July to discuss further plans after more careful assessment of results of cross-border operations. President could use occasion to cite initial results of Laos and Cambodian offensives which are beginning to be quite impressive and which have not yet been given comprehensive or analytic disclosure at high level, 30,000 figure substantially exceeds 12,500 rate averaged thus far. Therefore, even though period to be covered is limited the report can be essentially optimistic. Announcement of meeting with Thieu in July should generate positive press momentum which will peak in July.
- Step 2—Both Presidents meet at suitable Pacific location in early July. As result of meeting, President Thieu could announce that he has informed President Nixon that effective January 1, 1972, he will no [Page 459] longer require U.S. ground forces for security of GVN but has asked that necessary air and technical, logistics and intelligence support continue to be provided. President Nixon might reply to effect he welcomes Thieu’s decision and announce he will continue orderly withdrawal of US forces at rate consistent with past capabilities and need to insure responsible handling of US equipment and assets. He should emphasize that US forces must however continue to actively defend themselves as required and issue new warning to enemy to effect that he will take necessary action to protect withdrawing US forces. He could also announce new force level of 200,000 by Jan 1, 1972.
Meeting could also provide setting for political initiative which would best be made by Thieu and which would encompass terminal date for complete US withdrawal in return for prisoner exchange and possibly ceasefire. Another option for political initiative would be for both Presidents to agree privately to such an initiative but to withhold making offer public until just after GVN elections.
Ambassador Bunker is enthusiastic about possibilities of above game plan and will provide us with his views on timing and details of political initiative along this line on a priority basis. With or without political initiative, President Thieu would benefit greatly from meeting with President prior to his elections and positive momentum could be achieved reflecting further success of Vietnamization program.
I am meeting with General Abrams this afternoon and again with Ambassador Bunker this evening. Tomorrow party will travel to Cambodia. On Thursday I will visit I Corps returning Friday for meeting with General Davidson at II field forces. Will depart Saigon Saturday PM transportation permitting. Best regards.2
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 853, For the President’s Files—Lord, Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. VII. Top Secret; Sensitive. In a backchannel message to Bunker, March 12, Kissinger informed him that Nixon had instructed Haig to travel to Phnom Penh, I Corps, and Saigon from March 16 to 20, to assess the situation and speak with Bunker about a number of long-range issues. (Ibid., Box 1013, Haig Special File, Haig Trip File, Haig SEA Trip—Mar 71 [1 of 2])↩
- Kissinger wrote in a March 17 backchannel message to Haig: “I hope you will impress on Abrams and Bunker how important it is for ARVN to stay in Route 914–Route 234 complex for as long into April as possible. If they withdraw prematurely, we will miss a decisive interruption of supplies. This is their last shot at major U.S. support.” (Ibid.)↩