174. Editorial Note
On April 7, 1971, President Richard Nixon delivered a televised address from the Oval Office on the war in Southeast Asia. The President’s principal purpose for the address was to announce his decision to increase the rate of United States troop withdrawals between May 1 and December 1, but as Henry Kissinger, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, noted in his memoirs, Nixon intended the address to quell Congressional and press attacks against his administration that had increased in the wake of the Laos operation. (Ending the Vietnam War, pages 206–208)
During the week leading up to the address, Nixon received recommendations on the number of troop withdrawals to announce. In an April 3 memorandum to the President, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird recommended that he announce the withdrawal of 105,000 by Christmas, which would reduce the U.S. force level to 179,000. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 103, Kissinger Office Files, Country Files, Far East, Vietnam, Troop Withdrawal II)
On April 3, at an unknown time, Laird and Kissinger spoke on the telephone. According to a transcript of their conversation, they had the following exchange about the memorandum:
“L[aird]: Say, did you get that memorandum all right.
“K[issinger]: I did. Thank you, and the President has got it and is studying it.
“L: Very good. Now, I kind of held that in line with what I thought you were working on.
“K: That’s right.
“L: And didn’t go overboard at all on it.
“K: Well, it’s more than the military want, of course.
“L: Well, yeah, but the military . . . hell, they would want to bring it down to about 8,000 [troops per month], but they’ve always been about 20% . . . their recommendation has been 20% below the President’s always. So it’s about the same as you would expect. So I don’t think we are too far off.
“K: Well the President has got it right in front of him now.
“L: Do you need any more material?
“K: No, I think, Mel, that this gives us . . . Frankly I don’t know what he is going to pick and whether he is coming in on which of these three choices. But . . . or what length of time.
“L: The situation is such that he’s got to at least go 12,500 [troops per month], and he could go a little more if he really wants to, Henry.
“K: Yeah, well, that’s what your recommendation is.[Page 531]
“L: Yeah; well, I can see we could even go up to 15,000 [troops per month] if he really feels he has to.
“K: Well, I don’t think that that’s his mood. But I’ll tell him that.” (Ibid., Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Box 9, Chronological File)
On April 5, two days before Nixon’s address, he and Kissinger continued to make changes to the text. At 9:15 p.m., they spoke on the telephone and had the following exchange:
“K[issinger]: There is one thing, Mr. President, there are two sentences we ought to add because there is the cynical comment that the Doves are now making, especially McGovern, that we are substituting Asian for American casualties and increasing the bombing. We can do it in two sentences—One, where you speak about the reduction in American deaths, you can say, and South Vietnamese casualties have also dropped by I think 50%, I’ll get you the exact figures.
“P[resident]: And why don’t we say that our—then put in, and we’ve reduced our bombing by so much.
“K: And the bombing within South Vietnam has been reduced by 90%, Mr. President.”
After a continued exchange along the same lines, they concluded:
“P: Oh, of course, these goddamn Doves think just one thing. They eat you alive, they take one thing and then go after another one and hell, I’ve determined to just see it through and the hell with them.
“K: It’s the only—
“P: If it fails, it fails.
“K: Well, it’s a heroic posture, Mr. President.
“P: Well, hell, believe it or not, there is no other course for the country. These people—I mean, that’s why our domestic side while I’m interested in their views, why they’re irrelevant, they don’t know what the hell they are talking about.
“K: That’s right.” (Ibid.)
A collection of background material that the President used in preparing the speech is ibid., Box 125, Vietnam Subject Files, President’s 4/7/71 Speech, Background Information.
In Nixon’s televised address, he contrasted the military situation in Southeast Asia when he left office in January 1961 as Vice President, when there were no U.S. combat forces or deaths in combat in Vietnam, to the situation when he was sworn in as President in January 1969, when there were 540,000 troops and 31,000 deaths. He noted that by May 1 he would have brought home more than 265,000 troops and reduced U.S. casualties by 5 times in the first 3 months of 1971 as compared to the same period in 1969. He credited these reductions to the success of his plan to train and equip the South Vietnamese, the destruction [Page 532] of enemy bases in Cambodia during the U.S. operation there in spring 1970, and the Laotian operation, of which he claimed he had just completed his assessment. In justifying his decision to increase the U.S. withdrawal rate, the President stated: “The day the South Vietnamese can take over their own defense is in sight. Our goal is a total withdrawal from Vietnam. We can and we will reach that goal through our program of Vietnamization if necessary.” He posed the following questions to the U.S. public: “The issue very simply is this: Shall we leave Vietnam in a way that—by our own actions—consciously turns the country over to the Communists? Or shall we leave in a way that gives the South Vietnamese a reasonable chance to survive as a free people? My plan will end American involvement in a way that would provide that chance. And the other plan would end it precipitately and give victory to the Communists.” The full text of Nixon’s address is printed in Public Papers: Nixon, 1971, pages 522–527.
On April 9, the President sent a directive on the issues addressed the night before in a memorandum to Secretary of State William Rogers, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, and Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms: “Until further notice, I want no discussions by Government officials with the media concerning future U.S. troop withdrawal plans or U.S. plans for maintaining a residual force in South Vietnam. This applies to discussions with the press, either on or off the record, background briefings and informal speculation. I expect each of you to insure that this guidance is implemented throughout your Department/Agency.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 115, Vietnam Subject Files, Vietnam Troop Withdrawals, Vietnam Troop Redeployments)