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188. Conversation Between President Nixon and his Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

Nixon: The war presents a very serious problem. You see, the war has eroded America’s confidence up to this point. The people are sick of it, and, and so, therefore, our game here, of course, must be to deal with it. And we’ve played it right to the hilt with no support and got—and, as far as the last Laotian thing, goddamn poor execution on the part of the military. No support from anybody else and a poor excuse military. On the other hand, we also have to realize that simply ending the war in the right way may not save the country. At this point, if it goes too far—Let’s put it this way: let’s suppose the war ends; let’s suppose that it isn’t known until next year; and then the war is over, and then, politically, we go down—the country. No way. You understand?

Kissinger: Oh, yes.

Nixon: Everything has to be played, now, in terms of how we survive. It has to be played that way due to—not because of the war, and not because of Asia, but because of defense. Goddammit, nobody else is going to be for defense. Who the hell else is going to be for defense? It’s the point I make there. Who’s going to be sitting there?

Kissinger: Well, of course, it depends entirely on how one interprets ending the war. I—I think your strength is that you’ve been a strong President.

Nixon: That’s true, and I agree. I agree. I’m simply saying—

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: —saying that we realize, though that—

Kissinger: Even the, I think, the polls if you had announced a cave-in on April 7th,2 I think in—

Nixon: It’d move the other way.

Kissinger: —two months, you would’ve been the way that—

Nixon: Johnson.

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Kissinger: —Johnson was after Glassboro. You would have had a big rise, and then a sharp—but, I’m no expert at that.

Nixon: Let me put it this way: I had no intention of announcing a cave-in, as you know. I had no intention of it. As a matter of fact, we took the Laotian gamble solely for the reason that—

Kissinger: Absolutely.

Nixon: —we had one more. The Laotian gamble cost us. It cost us very, very seriously, because we probably did—Well, let me put it this way: had it not been done—I think the comfort we can take from it—had it not been done, there certainly would’ve been a big summer offensive by the Communists this summer. All right, on the other hand, doing it did—as, as Baker put it pretty well. He thought the war issue was finished last fall. A lot of people thought it was finished, and everybody was relaxed. And that’s why we held up rather well in the polls. The action in Laos, itself, dropped us ten points in the polls. You know that?

Kissinger: No question.

Nixon: Just the action. And then, the coverage of the action continued to drop us. We held it off just a little by our press conference. Then, of course, the, the night after night on television continued to drop us—a little. Then, then came the defeat weekend, which took us along. Then came Kalb, which shook the stuff all up. And then, for the first time, we get a little bit up from—a good boost by reason of doing something that the people wanted in Calley. But, even after the speech, we have to realize, we’re only back to where we were. Not to where we were before we went into Laos, but when we—but where we were after we had taken the bump going into Laos.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: See my point? Now, what I’m getting at is that from now on, we have to ruthlessly play for the best news that we can.

Kissinger: No question.

Nixon: That’s why I would have—we—Henry, that’s why I was disturbed about Abrams’ statement about supporting Thieu3

Kissinger: Oh, it was outrageous.

Nixon: You see, it’s that—it’s what we have to realize: that, from now on, Henry, the people have got to be reassured.

Kissinger: I—I—

Nixon: I’ve got to have good news—

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Kissinger: On—on that, I agree, and we can do—well, see, a lot would depend—supposing Hanoi bites at this proposal.4 Then, of course, we’ll settle the war—

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: —then—then we’ll settle the war this year, and then we have no problem. But, assuming Hanoi rejects the proposal—

Nixon: That’s right. There’s where we go.

Kissinger: Well, but then—

Nixon: [unclear] I want us to reexamine, though, the—it, if it—but, let’s assume rejection. We’ve got to examine the strongest possible thing we could do this year. That’s my point—

Kissinger: Well, that’s something—

Nixon: Or, because we may erode so much, that next year won’t matter.

Kissinger: No, but that’s what I’m asking—

Nixon: Don’t assume—you see, Henry, you’ve been calculating, and we’ve all been calculating, “Well, we’ll make a final announcement in April or May of next year.”

Kissinger: No. No, no, I—

Nixon: The final announcement must be made later this summer. That’s when it must be made.

Kissinger: Well, the—

Nixon: People have got to know. People have got to know. I don’t mean you put the date on, necessarily. People have got to know the war is over. They’ve got to know that—

Kissinger: Well, preferably, it should be made after the Vietnamese election. But, we—

Nixon: Well, we can, we can make it go that long.

Kissinger: But we can wait. We can do—

Nixon: [unclear] I’m just saying, you’ve got to examine it. Let’s remember, if we’re going to make the final announcement, don’t hold it. I mean, don’t worry so goddamn much about the Vietnamese election. You’d better worry about our own.

Kissinger: Well, I think the final announcement should certainly [Page 2]be made this year, and it should be a part of the next announcement—your—well—

Nixon: The No—November 15th, you mean?

Kissinger: Well, or—or it could be November 1st. Well, whether it’s the 15th or the 1st of November, or October 20th, that’s no—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —makes no difference as long as the Vietnamese election is behind us—

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: Secondly, we can, during the summer—

Nixon: We’ll take a look at the Vietnamese election. We’ll see how it comes out, who shapes up, who’s getting into it and the rest. Let’s see.

Kissinger: Well, we can—

Nixon: This summer, we could do—

Kissinger: This summer, we can announce the end of American ground combat, and we can probably announce—and I’m just going to drive it—announce the end of draftees being sent.

Nixon: I think you’ve got to drive that.

Kissinger: And—

Nixon: I’ll say that I think that has to be. Look, when a guy as hawkish as Bill Buckley5

Kissinger: No question.

Nixon: —is hitting it, goddamnit—

Kissinger: Well—

Nixon: —let’s just do it. Now—

Kissinger: [unclear]

Nixon: —I have to tell you, I’m getting sick of the military, anyway. They drag their feet about everything, and they—the bastards want everything, and they’re selfish. They [unclear].

Kissinger: Well, you see, for example, if you had a meeting in Midway with, with Thieu 6

Nixon: Um-hmm?

Kissinger: —at which you announce the end of American ground combat, plus the end of American draftees—

Nixon: Those two things.

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Kissinger: —that would be a pretty big—

Nixon: That would be a good thing—

Kissinger: —story. It would be a—that would take the mothers off your back immediately. If you could announce that: “After July 1st, no more draftees would be sent to Vietnam.” Uh—

Nixon: Can you drive that?

Kissinger: I’m driving it like crazy. Laird is fighting it, probably because he wants to leak the thing himself.

Nixon: Aren’t—aren’t you planning to have him in for breakfast, one day here?

Kissinger: Yeah, tomorrow or Friday.7

Nixon: Want me to work it out now? Or—

Kissinger: Yeah, that would be a good one to work out. I forgot to raise it with Haldeman in the morning.

[Omitted here is discussion of Nixon’s schedule.]

Kissinger: Another thing we could do, Mr. President, for the summer: if—supposing Hanoi turns us down.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: Then, I think, out of the Midway thing we should offer a deadline. We know they’re going to turn it down, anyway.

Nixon: Well, we’ve offered a deadline, but not—never publicly, huh?

Kissinger: By that time, we’ll have offered the deadline, privately. They’ll have turned it down—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —then, we’ll offer it, publicly. By that time, that will get the, the—

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Kissinger: —the doves off our back for the rest of the summer. Then, you can do it unilaterally. At that time, the offer would be release prisoners—

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Kissinger: —cease-fire, and a deadline. They will then refuse that.

Nixon: Not bad.

Kissinger: I mean, we’ll know—

Nixon: It’s about as far as we can go. I mean, I’m just asking, Henry, how far we could go short of—

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Kissinger: Now, on the other hand, if they—

Nixon: —a bug out.

Kissinger: —if they have accepted our propositions, so we are not—

Nixon: Oh, if they accept it, it’s a different case.

Kissinger: Then, we don’t announce it at, at Midway, we’ll just get it done during the summer. And, if they’ve accepted our proposition, the more squealing our opponents do, the better off you are.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: Because you know you’re going to pull the rug right out from under them—

Nixon: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right—

Kissinger: So, so either way, once we’ve made the proposition to them, and they’ve rejected it, we can have a very successful Midway meeting—

Nixon: Yeah, we’ll see.

[Omitted here is discussion of Dobrynin’s schedule.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 484-13. No classification marking. The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. This exchange is part of a larger conversation, 12:50-1:43 p.m.
  2. See Document 174.
  3. See Document 186.
  4. In a backchannel message to Walters, April 22, Haig instructed Walters to propose orally the following in his April 24 private meeting with the North Vietnamese leadership: “The U.S. Government is prepared to renew discussions, on the basis of new approaches, looking toward a negotiated solution to the conflict. If your side wishes also to talk in this spirit, Dr. Kissinger stands ready to meet again with Minister Xuan Thuy in Paris on Sunday, May 16.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 853, For the President’s Files—Lord, China Trip, Vietnam, Vol. VII)
  5. William F. Buckley, Editor-in-Chief, National Review.
  6. Nixon was considering meeting with Thieu at Midway Island, probably in June, at which time they would announce the end of the American combat role in South Vietnam.
  7. No record of a meeting between Kissinger and Laird has been found.