35. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1
- My Meeting with Xuan Thuy, September 7, 1970
I met with Xuan Thuy for nearly five hours on September 7. As you know, I had expected little but vituperation. Instead, the atmosphere was the friendliest of any of these sessions—indeed of any session with the Vietnamese in the whole history of the negotiations. This was particularly striking since it was the first meeting since Cambodia. Cambodia was mentioned only once in passing and then only in rebuttal to my warning that they had brought military pressure in the spring.
Not only did they change their tone, but they also indicated a readiness to move on substance. They in effect dropped their demand for a 6-month “unconditional” withdrawal schedule, made no mention of the 10 points,2 and indicated that they would reconsider their political proposals. They are very anxious to continue this channel, coming back repeatedly with proposals to meet again when I insisted that this channel required major progress.
I made very clear that we were not going to replace the present government in Saigon before a political process was engaged, and that there would have to be real progress if this channel was to be maintained.
What Was New or Significant
- —The North Vietnamese tone throughout was remarkably moderate, with almost no propaganda rhetoric and considerable direct discussion of substance. There was no standard speech about U.S. aggression, no reference to the U.S. domestic situation or any other standard maneuver.
- —Thuy indicated very clearly that they would review their proposed six-month schedule for U.S. withdrawals and implied strongly that he would move towards our 12 month schedule. He made no reference to unconditional withdrawals.
- —Regarding political issues, he accepted for the first time the
three principles of your April 20 speech as practical proposals,
though raising questions about the specific measures to bring them
- • He agreed to the first principle (self-determination) though he indicated that the North Vietnamese expected to bring about unification. He stated, however, that unification was a long-term problem.
- • He did not object to the second principle (that the settlement should reflect the existing relationship of political forces) though he said we differed on our understanding of the existing relationships, overestimating the strength of the Saigon regime.
- • On the third principle (acceptance of the results) he indicated that their side would respect the results of the political process. He claimed the PRG had spoken of elections before we had. But he asserted that the main question was who should organize the elections.
- —He did not attack the idea of electoral commissions—as has been standard. Instead he asked specific questions about its operation. He did not accept it however.
- —He emphasized that Hanoi was prepared to wait a long time for unification of Vietnam.
- —In this meeting they came closer than in any other to revealing some of their own problems. For example, Thuy explained that they were not as weak as we thought (when they had earlier claimed that we had lost).
- —He was almost insistent on another meeting to give each side a chance to review its position. He seemed prepared to have it at any time at our convenience. We finally settled on September 27.
- —He showed considerable desire to keep this channel open and to meet frequently. He said they regarded it as the fastest and most reliable means to end the war. He repeatedly and emphatically stated their desire for a rapid settlement.
What Was Negative
- —Although Thuy said many moderate and promising things, they have as yet given nothing from which they cannot pull back.
- —He did not come up with anything new on the role of the South Vietnamese Government in a provisional coalition; he finally repeated their position that Thieu, Ky or Khiem could not be in such a coalition, although he indicated that others from the GVN could be.
- —He also said that no settlement could be reached if we keep Thieu–Ky–Khiem,3 though he did not push hard on this point and said we should meet again after both sides had reviewed their positions.
- —He raised the sensitive question of what would happen to South Vietnamese armed forces, which may indicate they are serious but also suggests that they will try to disband or reduce Saigon’s control of those forces before a settlement.
What Was Inconclusive
It is still difficult to judge whether they are just trying to keep us talking or have real intent of moving on to substantive negotiations. Their position today was consistent with either objective, although it was much more oriented toward serious discussions than at any other previous meeting. It was also the most friendly of any of these sessions and unprecedented in the absence of self-justifying polemics by them.
I think that they are now in a position where they have to move. They know that, and they have indicated a readiness to do so. What they said was consistent with a desire to advance toward a settlement on basic issues, though it did not irrevocably commit him. They could hardly have gone further on those issues than they did at this particular meeting, given the enormously tough problem accepting the Thieu government gives them.
We will be able to see at the next meeting whether they actually will change their position, and we will then be able to decide whether to continue the channel.
- —I read my prepared opening statement in which I:
- • underlined the appointment of Ambassador Bruce which they had said would be a significant step for serious negotiations. He enjoys your full confidence.
- • pointed out that they will soon have to choose how they wish to end the conflict. We are near a time when chances for a negotiated settlement will pass and they will have committed themselves to a test of arms against a strengthened South Vietnam supported by us.
- • explained that our restricted sessions should take place only when significant progress is possible and flexibility required.
- • emphasized why their preconditions were unacceptable.
- • cautioned them again against using military pressure to accompany negotiations and said that we were ready in turn to forego military pressure as a means of settling the war.
- • presented our 12 month withdrawal schedule.
- • reiterated our willingness to discuss a fair political settlement that will meet their essential concerns and repeated the three principles of your April 20 speech.
- • stated that although we are flexible we cannot agree to the condition that we replace in advance the leaders of the South Vietnamese Government.
- • appealed for them to join us in going to the heart of the problems in a search for the early end of the conflict.
- —Xuan Thuy made brief comments before a break. He said I had spoken “with some concreteness” on military problems but that on political problems I had only repeated what you had said and he wondered what was new. He asked what was meant by reflecting “existing relationship of political forces” and by the political process.
- —I repeated that we could not agree to the replacement of GVN leaders. I said that the NLF was an existing reality that we were prepared to take into account. And I said that we recognized that the North Vietnamese must have a stake in a political settlement if it is to last.
- —Xuan Thuy, in the most
conciliatory tone that I have heard the other side use in these
- • stressed their desire for a rapid peace and claimed that we, not they, were using force to bring pressure on the negotiations.
- • made a passing complaint that Vietnamization was aimed at prolonging the war and keeping the Saigon Administration in power.
- • delivered a bare minimum statement on Cambodia, saying that our extension of war in Indochina was sinking us into a quagmire and was making more difficulties for us.
- • said that Bruce’s appointment had merely rectified our downgrading of the Paris talks, during which they had remained in Paris, willing to meet with me regularly.
- • stated that they agreed to the negotiating procedures outlined by me.
- • said they were willing to solve the differences between our schedule and Madame Binh’s 6 month proposal.
- • probed for the content and meaning of our three political principles. He in effect did not disagree with the principles but thought that our proposals would not realize these principles.
- • misinterpreting “existing political relationships,” he said that they could not accept a situation where the GVN controlled all the densely populated areas.
- • said that the main question was who will organize the elections. He declared that neither the PRG or Saigon government has the right to do this. This was the task of the provisional coalition government which would include the three components (from GVN, PRG and third forces). If we will maintain the Thieu–Ky–Khiem administration as it is, no settlement can be reached.
- • reiterated their desire for a settlement and peace as rapidly as possible.
- —I pointed out that our 12 month proposal concerned the total withdrawal of American forces, and represented a precise monthly schedule. It was not technically feasible to shorten it although we might consider minor adjustments.
- —In response to his comments on the Saigon government’s control in populated areas, I stressed our readiness for a political contest in all of South Vietnam but repeated that we could not agree to replace the GVN leaders. I said we should concentrate on how to organize elections rather than how to organize a government and mentioned the concept of mixed electoral commissions.
- —I called for a specific work program on withdrawals and who organizes elections and emphasized that you would not authorize many more of these meetings unless we had concrete objectives and a program to achieve it.
- —Xuan Thuy then asked on what day we should meet again, to which I said I first needed an answer for you whether my general approach was agreeable to them.
- —Xuan Thuy then made another
lengthy statement in which he:
- • declared that all Vietnamese are one nation and that “some day in the future” they will be unified, although the North won’t coerce the South with immediate reunification.
- • said that our understanding of political relationships was incorrect, for it suggested that the Saigon government, being in control of densely populated areas, will have a majority in case of general elections. He indicated their opposition to partition and said that the GVN would lose a truly free election.
- • stated that our insistence on maintenance of Thieu-Ky-Khiem is the most difficult obstacle to be resolved. He asked how free general elections could be organized with them in power and called instead for a provisional coalition government consisting of their suggested three components.
- —In response to my query whether Thieu, Ky and Khiem could be part of the provisional coalition, they went to their standard formula that such a coalition could include members of the present Saigon administration except them.
- —Thuy said that we wanted a situation as it is now, and I responded that we were prepared to set up procedures in which no one was in control of elections. Thuy asked how there could be free elections with the present administration and its army in power. I said that all groups could be represented on mixed commissions and rules for activities could be worked out.
- —I reminded Xuan Thuy that our agreement on a withdrawal schedule was conditional on other parts of the settlement, without which there would be no such withdrawal.
- —I than asked him if he would be willing to reconsider his positions, implying that if we had always to make the modifications we would break off the channel. Xuan Thuy responded that both sides should study each other’s statements with a view to making modifications.
- —Xuan Thuy said that he would reciprocate reasonableness and that this forum was the best for a rapid settlement. He stressed their desire for a prompt settlement and their willingness to discuss problems reasonably.
- —The meeting closed at 2:30 p.m. with some technical discussion of how to maintain contact between us in the next few weeks.4
The next meeting was set for September 27 at 0930.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 853, For the President’s Files—Lord, Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. V. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Sent for information.↩
- Reference is to the Ten-Point Overall Solution, a plan for ending the war in Vietnam put forward by Tran Buu Kiem of the NLF at the May 8, 1969, session of the Paris Peace Talks. It is printed in Documents on American Foreign Relations, 1968–1969, pp. 249–252. See also Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970, Document 67.↩
- The President underlined this phrase and wrote the following note above: “This is probably the breaking point, unless we can find a formula.”↩
- Kissinger also reported on the meeting in backchannel message WH051 to Bunker, September 9, noting that the “session was marked by the most conciliatory and moderate tone the other side has ever displayed in these sessions” and that they had agreed to meet again on September 27. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 853, For the President’s Files—Lord, Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. V) On September 11, Bunker reported in backchannel message 484 that he had shown Kissinger’s report to Thieu, who stated that the North Vietnamese “probably felt that they needed to try the temperature from time to time to test our determination and that this was particularly true after the events which had taken place in Cambodia.” (Ibid.)↩