257. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • Vietnam

Recent events force us to take a dispassionate look at where we are on Vietnam, the likely prospects, and the policy options as we head into the terminal phase of our involvement.

The underlying assumption remains what it has been from the outset of your Administration: the manner in which we end the war, or at least our participation, is crucial both for America’s global position and for the fabric of our society.

A swift collapse in South Vietnam traced to precipitate American withdrawal would seriously endanger your effort to shape a new foreign policy role for this country. The impact on friends, adversaries and our own people would be likely to swing us from post World War II predominance to post Vietnam abdication, instead of striking the balanced posture of the Nixon Doctrine.

At home, the need to close the conflict with dignity is perhaps even more compelling. An ignominious rout in Vietnam would leave deep scars on our society, calling into question the heavy sacrifices and fueling the impulses for recrimination. The already rampant crisis of authority would deepen. For the future of our own people, then, as well as for international reasons, it is essential that we leave Vietnam as an act of governmental policy and with dignity, not as a response to pressures and in the form of a collapse.

Where We Are—The Wasting Assets.

We have consistently followed the two strands of Vietnamization and negotiations since the outset of your Administration. You may remember our concerns in 1969 over the ultimate outcome of Vietnamization. We recognized from the beginning the uncertainty that the South Vietnamese could be sufficiently strengthened to stand on their own within the time span that domestic opposition to American involvement would allow. It has always been recognized that a delicate point would be reached where our withdrawals would coincide with [Page 919] maximum domestic uncertainty to jeopardize the whole structure at the final hour.

Therefore a negotiated settlement has always been far preferable. Rather than run the risk of South Vietnam crumbling around our remaining forces, a peace settlement would end the war with an act of policy and leave the future of South Vietnam to the historical process. There would be a clear terminal date rather than a gradual winding down. We could heal the wounds in this country as our men left peace behind on the battlefield and a healthy interval for South Vietnam’s fate to unfold. In short, Vietnamization may be our ultimate recourse; it cannot be our preferred choice.

To date we have navigated our precarious course quite well, balancing off the demands of the negotiating process, stability in South Vietnam and our domestic scene. But our negotiating assets are wasting.

Vietnamization has worked two pressures on Hanoi to negotiate a settlement, while buying time at home with the steady decline of U.S. forces, casualties, and expenses. First, it told the North Vietnamese that they had to pay a price to get us out of the South quickly and totally. Second, it painted the prospect of the South Vietnamese government growing stronger and perhaps able to make it on its own.

Our first asset has all but withered away. Domestic pressures, coupled with the indiscipline of the bureaucracy, assures the North Vietnamese—almost daily, in a nearly compulsive manner—that we will be completely out of Vietnam soon. Why should they pay for what will fall into their laps in any event?

Until these past few weeks our second asset was still giving Hanoi serious pause. The Thieu Administration has maintained a remarkable degree of stability. The irony of the situation is that this stability should be threatened now for reasons extrinsic to the situation. If it were not for the accident of the four-year Presidential term that we helped to write into the Constitution, this asset would almost certainly remain potent. An election last year, or next year, indeed anytime other than at the climax of Vietnamization, would have compounded the enemy’s problems and probably tipped their calculations toward a negotiated solution.

But the election now, on top of major withdrawals, our China initiative, our domestic dissidence and speculative bureaucracy, threatens to be too much for the GVN. And Hanoi has probably adjusted its tactics accordingly.

Our Paris experience this summer illustrates this. In June and July we were very close to a settlement. There was a confluence of motives. Hanoi, judging Thieu might be stronger a year from now, thought they might jolt him by making an agreement that included our fixed withdrawals and various political declarations on neutrality and limitations [Page 920] on our aid. We, in turn, wanted a solution to put a terminal date on the war and to end the divisions in our country. This might have resulted in an agreement in principle signed by Hanoi to affect the elections. They would then have strung out the process of turning it into a final settlement, and then reviewed the bidding after October 3.

Instead, Minh and Ky began positioning themselves for our departure and possible accommodations. Thieu made some serious miscalculations, and we are left with an uncontested election that will severely diminish rather than strengthen Thieu’s credentials in this country. The carping here, in turn, plays back into South Vietnam, feeding speculation and unease.

This enables Hanoi to hope that Thieu will fall without a negotiated settlement. As foreshadowed on August 16 and confirmed on September 13, the other side now has every incentive to wait for the interreacting combination of unrest in South Vietnam and an American domestic squeeze to topple him and pave the way for their eventual control. They probably now judge that a negotiated settlement could arrest this process and serve as a deus ex machina both for Thieu and for us. Their self-confidence was reflected in their almost insolent manner at our last session, where they made no pretense of accommodation and didn’t even bother to build a negotiating record.


The situation is unmistakably complex.

In South Vietnam, the currents of political unrest are beginning to flow as various forces sense the American mood and anticipate our actions. Some in the Thieu Administration and the army are beginning to hedge their bets and, in certain instances, are attempting to sound out American officials. Some of the non-communist opposition are burnishing their credentials for compromise with the Viet Cong. And the communists are stirring the waters with terrorist acts in Saigon and other cities. This process is accelerated by U.S. public and governmental debate concerning our future moves which incites the South Vietnamese to jockey for position in the post-American period.

In North Vietnam, as already explained, there is thus little pressure for negotiations. The more we seem to disapprove of Thieu, the more we will unilaterally run down our one remaining negotiating asset, and the less Hanoi needs a settlement to overturn him.

In the United States, the momentum for rapid disengagement is rising, and we now face the real danger of Congressional legislation setting a date for our withdrawals and perhaps limiting our assistance to South Vietnam. The clamor will rise for a straight deal of fixed withdrawals for release of prisoners. A dwindling number of opponents are still motivated by the possibility that we do not mean to terminate our [Page 921] involvement. The politically and morally wrenching fact is, however, that much of the opposition is motivated by other considerations. The more they are convinced we are getting out, the more they are trying to impose restrictive conditions on our exit so as to claim credit for what they know we will do anyway. By definition, it is almost impossible to stay ahead of the power curve of this type of opposition.

Against this background, speculation is fast building for your mid-November troop withdrawal announcement. There is real and feigned expectation that this will be climactic, probably a revelation of our final withdrawals except for a residual force to get back our prisoners. Such expectation has been fanned both by loose talk in the government agencies and by the press and opponents who are playing their usual game of projecting goals that you are bound to fall short of. We will be in the position that even a maximum program will appear anti-climactic and something less will provoke strong opposition. And should a total withdrawal be announced we will then be in a passive posture while Hanoi and our domestic opposition slowly slice the salami.

Immediate Actions Needed

Whatever basic policy course we pursue, we should move promptly on two of the above problems.

  • First, we must stop all American actions that are designed to, or have the effect of undermining Thieu.2 He is just about the only negotiating lever we have left and for us to use him we must help him stay viable. Furthermore, he continues to represent the greatest stability to pursue the course of Vietnamization. Your powerful words at your press conference3 were a much needed tonic and have been disseminated here and abroad as the firm U.S. attitude. We had already sent instructions to Bunker to keep his Mission in line,4 some of whom have been dealing too freely with dissident forces. This week I passed reassurances to Saigon through the Vietnamese Ambassador here. And a strong presentation by you at the September 20 NSC meeting should help further to rein in the bureaucracy.
  • Second, we must tactically outflank your opponents on your November withdrawal speech. We must try to shut off comments by Administration officials. This, too, you should hit hard at the NSC session. Whatever we do, however, cannot prevent cresting public speculation which you cannot possibly match in your announcement. This means that you should deliver your statement well before November 15 and make its contents a surprise. You could announce the withdrawal of 40,000 more troops by February 1, 1972, no more sending of draftees to Vietnam, the end of an American ground combat role, and the promise of another announcement in January.

This would have the following virtues:

  • —A longer withdrawal projection would inevitably prove anti-climactic at home and all but erase what is already a shriveled bargaining asset with Hanoi.
  • —Its unexpected nature would force your opponents to reassess their line of attack. They would have to calculate that some private diplomatic moves were underway in the interval, especially after my second trip to Peking and the prospect of your two summits.
  • —It will gain some more months to make one more effort at negotiations and, in event of failure, to use your negotiating record to position the final American withdrawals.

Basic Policy Options

I see essentially four policy options, none without significant risks.


Fixed Withdrawals for Prisoners. We would lower our negotiating sights and break out points one and two of our eight points fixing a date for our withdrawals in exchange for prisoner release and a cease-fire with our forces.

This has surface appeal. We could probably negotiate such a deal and thus get our prisoners back soon and our forces out safely. We would, in any event, smoke out Hanoi’s asking price in a very brief period. This course would seem to pull the teeth of domestic opposition.

However, we can expect Hanoi to demand an almost impossibly brief deadline for our troops,5 cessation of air support throughout Indochina, the removal of at least some American equipment, and restrictions on our assistance. They are likely to make political demands also, as foreshadowed by Xuan Thuy’s statement in the September 16 plenary meeting6 that release of our prisoners is linked to Thieu’s removal [Page 923] as well as our withdrawals. Thus, whatever package we put together would probably weaken the GVN fatally. North Vietnamese supplies and personnel could pour down the Trail, unhindered by either military action or a negotiated settlement. South Vietnam would probably topple within months, if not immediately under the impact of the settlement itself. The unravelling could well occur while some of our forces were still in country. Without American air power Laos and Cambodia could be expected to fall as well.

In short, this option remains decisively unattractive.


Play Out Vietnamization. We would seek to end our involvement in Vietnam through our unilateral policy. You could announce reductions in our presence down to a residual force which we would hold, along with our air support, to bargain for the prisoners. We would continue heavy bombing in the Panhandle at least through the next dry season (spring) and provide necessary economic and military assistance to the GVN. We would reveal our extensive negotiating record and portray this course as our only realistic alternative, given the other side’s rejection of every reasonable negotiating proposal.7

This option would provide maximum support for the GVN, have the least destabilizing effect in South Vietnam, and leave it in the strongest position to continue the conflict at present or expected levels. It would mean also continued assistance for Laos and Cambodia. It would retain what is left of our fading assets for negotiations.

The probably fatal flaw is our domestic front. Pressures are already mounting for restrictive legislation on our troops and our aid. The debate in this country would zero in on Thieu as the sole obstacle to a settlement, and we could probably not sustain our position given the uncontested election in South Vietnam. Our prisoners might become stakes in a bigger game with the other side’s demanding political concessions, whereas now there is a chance for a straight prisoners-withdrawal deal.

Thus, in order for this option to be effective we must greatly shore up our domestic front. Only clear signs of a private negotiating effort and, if it fails, an even more impressive negotiating record than we now have, would have a chance to stave off Congressional pressures and permit this course of action to succeed. The holding up of our domestic front in turn would increase the chances for negotiations.


Escalation. We would slow our withdrawals, resume bombing of the North, and give Thieu maximum support.

After twenty-five years of struggle Hanoi is war-weary too and some severe jolts might produce a negotiating breakthrough. For our domestic and world audiences we would reveal our negotiating efforts and say we were left little choice.

We could never sustain this policy here at home. The public and Congressional outcry would be deafening, and governmental discipline would break down. Your Peking and Moscow summits would almost certainly be sunk, and with them probably the fruits of various outstanding negotiations.8

In brief, while I include this course as a theoretical option, I think its costs and risks are too heavy to consider it further.


Another Major Negotiating Effort. We would make one last major attempt to construct a negotiated settlement, either to end the war or to brighten the prospects for ending our involvement under option 2.

Attached at Tab C is the eight points we presented to the North Vietnamese on August 16 as an agreed statement of principles for a settlement.9 This document reflected all the progress we had made and attempted to bridge the positions of the two sides. As you know, all questions have been essentially settled except the political one (point three) and some manageable haggling over our withdrawals (point one). Thus we have basic agreement on prisoner release, an Indochina ceasefire, respect for the 1954 and 1962 Geneva Accords, international supervision and international guarantees.

On the political question, Hanoi’s insistence that we remove Thieu remains the issue. On withdrawals, the contingency nature of our deadline (it is keyed to signature of a final agreement), its remoteness (nine months after the final agreement), and our residual forces (we have said this would be less than 10,000) are the problems for Hanoi.

We could in good conscience modify points one and three to meet the other side part way, along the lines of the revised eight points at Tab B.10 On withdrawals, we would shorten our deadline to seven months and key it to signature of the agreement in principle. This would sweeten the package of principles considerably for Hanoi and give them incentive to sign so as to activate our final pullouts. From our point of view such a schedule would not be markedly faster than [Page 925] what we would do anyway on a unilateral basis. It would get us down to a residual presence of ten thousand by July or August 1972, assuming we reached an agreement in principle by this December.

On the political side, in addition to the declarations we have already said we would make, we would provide for new Presidential elections in South Vietnam five months after a final negotiated settlement. The elections would be organized and run by an independent electoral commission representing all political forces and would have international supervision as well. One month before they took place, Thieu would resign, at which time we would begin withdrawing our residual forces. We would insist that Thieu, as well as any other South Vietnamese, could be a candidate.

You will note that this political proposal grows out of your August suggestion, which Bunker relayed to Thieu, that Thieu offer to step down after a peace settlement.11 He made such an offer, somewhat vaguely, in his subsequent speech.

This scenario has attraction for the other side, despite their distrust of elections. Thieu would be stepping down, albeit temporarily; an independent body (which they could call a coalition) would run the election; and all political forces could participate. Our residual forces would begin leaving before the election. Hanoi might calculate that these factors plus the rest of the eight points would yield them their political prize.

There would indeed be severe risks, but the other side would have to deal with the GVN in putting together a final settlement including the election machinery; Thieu would be in charge until four months after a final settlement; and he would be eligible for reelection. We could thus live with such a settlement.

If a deal were not possible the very effort provides us the best way to get into a unilateral phased withdrawal. The other side’s presumed weeks of deliberations would buy us time with evidence of private diplomacy, and then their turndown would bolster our already impressive negotiating record.

I believe we should choose this option and move immediately to implement it.12

We cannot afford a substantial period during which there are no active visible negotiations or ones we can point to later. Thus, with the special channel now suspended, we must move promptly with any new [Page 926] initiative. We will want to launch it soon enough so that if domestic pressures culminate in restrictive legislation, we can put the opposition on the defensive for having thwarted our search for a settlement.

A Game Plan.

The first step is to secure Thieu’s concurrence. General Haig could outline the substance of the revised eight points to him during his visit to Saigon next week. Against the background of the domestic situation in this country, its implications for American assistance, and the unattractiveness of our other options, I believe Thieu can be persuaded to agree to this negotiating effort. Ambassador Bunker assured us that Thieu could accept the eight points we tabled in August. He would probably calculate that Hanoi would turn down our new package; he would therefore have demonstrated his reasonableness and helped to bolster our domestic situation. If the other side did agree to a settlement in principle, as noted above, they would have to deal with him in working out a final agreement, he would remain in office until four months after peace was achieved, and he could be a candidate for reelection.

Assuming Thieu accepts our proposal, we face the choice of how to float it to the other side. We can (1) present it directly to the North Vietnamese; (2) pass it to them through an intermediary country; or (3) try to get an intermediary country directly engaged.

The first course has the advantages of dealing in a well-established and familiar framework and not putting into play Hanoi’s complexes about its autonomy which could complicate our task. However, to go back with a fresh proposal after having just sharply broken the channel would be a confession of weakness. The other side would judge we were panicking, gobble up our new concessions, resort to their usual tactic of unacceptable counter proposals, and wait to see what might happen either in South Vietnam or in Paris. We would simply run out of time at home. Furthermore, if they did make a settlement, they would be even more likely to violate it if none of their friends were involved in helping to broker it.

Having another country transmit our proposal would at least get it in front of Hanoi and perhaps indicate tacit recognition by the intermediary of the reasonableness of our offer. However, it would stir the North Vietnamese sensitivities about third party involvement. This course would tempt Hanoi to reject our initiative quickly and flatly with no need for bilateral give and take.

This brings us to the third, and best, alternative, enlisting an intermediary in an active role. We would combine the new elements of our proposal with the weight of an influential and motivated third force. This should be done so that the negotiating process involves direct [Page 927] talks with Hanoi and a deadline—the ambivalent North Vietnamese leaders will be forced to make a decision, and we will know in a sufficiently short time if a negotiated settlement is reachable.

There are only two logical candidates for the role of intermediary, China and Russia. They each have some influence in Hanoi and an approaching summit with us.

China, however, has little desire to get involved, a fact they have made quite plain in their private and public statements. By agreeing to your visit the Chinese have already paid a price in Hanoi and exposed their revolutionary credentials. They recall the 1954 Geneva Agreements with anguish, believing now that they helped to pressure their friends into a bad deal. They might fear that their direct role in a compromise settlement might open up Southeast Asian leftist movements to Soviet inroads. They might believe that failure of a negotiating effort involving them could jeopardize your trip to Peking. Finally, they have modest leverage on Hanoi since it is the Russians who supply the great bulk of military assistance.

This leaves the Russians. Based on their track record and standard approach, we can be sure that they have no great desire to help us, suggestive hints by Ambassador Dobrynin notwithstanding. But there are some factors which could nevertheless motivate Moscow to play a constructive part in arranging an Indochina peace. These include enhancement of their prestige and the establishment of their claims to a Southeast Asia role.

With these incentives already present we might be able to play on the Russians’ paranoia about our rapprochement with Peking to enlist their assistance.

When Gromyko is here at the end of this month, we could appeal to him for a Soviet intermediary role. You would introduce the subject with him in a private meeting. I would subsequently speak to him along the following lines:

  • —We have two interests in improving our relations with China: our desire to communicate with 750 million people and our Southeast Asian concerns.
  • —On the first count, despite her massive population, China is essentially a regional power at this stage in history. For the near future peace on a global scale requires the cooperation of the Soviet Union and the United States.
  • —As for Southeast Asia, the conflict there makes for a distortion in our relationship, one that we wish to erase.
  • —We are prepared to make one last extra effort for a negotiated settlement to the conflict that would, in the bargain, improve Moscow–Washington relations and enhance Soviet prestige and influence.
  • —We would outline our eight point proposal, ask that the Soviet Union forward it to Hanoi and suggest it arrange a secret meeting in Moscow between North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong and myself. We would both be authorized to make a settlement based on this proposal within three days.
  • —As a global power, Russia could lend its broader perspective to Hanoi’s natural preoccupation with its own struggle and morbid suspicion of the West. Moscow will understand that the U.S. is not withdrawing all over Asia so as to hang on in one small corner of the continent, and that the real problem is to avoid a total vacuum that would only invite Chinese dominance.

We would tell Gromyko that it would be helpful to have an answer within two weeks, or before I go to China. This timing would be both an incentive and pressure on Moscow. The Russians would get an institutionalized role in Southeast Asia, a secret trip and the prospect of some voice in our China policy.

If the response from Moscow and Hanoi were positive, I would brief Chou En-lai on the project while I am in Peking and secure benevolent Chinese abstention.

Sometime during November I would go to Moscow for the clandestine meeting and try to hammer out an agreement with the North Vietnamese.

The complete scenario for this proposed course is at Tab A.13 Its successful outcome would be clearly traced to your initiative with Gromyko when he was here for a visit.

If our effort fails, we would be in a much better position to go with option 2 in January, announcing withdrawals down to a residual force which we would maintain along with air support until our prisoners were released. Even the most dovish opponent could hardly claim he would offer more for a negotiated settlement.

If our negotiating effort succeeds, we could sign an agreement in principle in November or December. There could then be a final agreement and peace in Indochina by the spring of 1972.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 872, For the President’s Files—Lord, Vietnam Negotiations, Encore Sept. 71–15 Feb. 72, President’s Speech January 25, 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. Sent for information. A stamped notation on the memorandum reads, “The President has seen.”
  2. Nixon underlined this sentence and wrote, “High priority,” in the left margin.
  3. At his September 16 press conference, Nixon said, “We would have preferred to have had a contested election in South Vietnam. We, however, cannot get people to run when they do not want to run.” Nixon praised the GVN’s democratization, noting, “We would prefer, as far as South Vietnam is concerned, that its democratic processes would grow faster. We believe that considerable headway has been made.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1971, pp. 952–953) See also footnote 7, Document 256.
  4. Not further identified.
  5. Nixon underlined the last half of this phrase.
  6. Nixon underlined the sentence to this point and drew a line to the left of the paragraph highlighting it up through this sentence. In the left margin he wrote, “The heart of the problem.”
  7. Haldeman wrote in his August 24 diary entry that Nixon and Kissinger had discussed this option: “Henry was in, discussing the problem of the Vietnam election again, which does pose a serious problem. The P[resident] is strongly toying with releasing the fact of the secret negotiations, blowing the channel, and forcing them to deal with us publicly, and then attacking the Senate opponents, saying they forced us to abandon the secret negotiations, and so on.” (The Haldeman Diaries, p. 349)
  8. Nixon wrote, “No,” to the left of this paragraph.
  9. Attached but not printed; see Document 245.
  10. Not attached.
  11. See Document 251.
  12. In Ending the Vietnam War, Kissinger summarized option 4 and noted that Nixon accepted it on September 20 (pp. 227–228).
  13. Attached but not printed is a “Scenario,” September 18, that covers the period September 20, 1971–September 1972.