111. Editorial Note

On May 1, 1972, the theater commander in Saigon, General Creighton W. Abrams, informed Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird in message MAC 4021 that strategically important Quang Tri City in MR–1 was about to fall to the enemy. He further feared that the same fate awaited the Highlands stronghold, Kontum City, and the old imperial capital, Hue. Consequently, Abrams asked Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker to arrange a meeting with South Vietnam’s President, Nguyen Van Thieu. (Abrams Papers, Historical Resources Branch, United States Army Center of Military History)

At the meeting, Abrams first let Thieu read the message he had sent to Laird:

“When he finished I described for him my conviction that the real problem for South Vietnam was the effectiveness of his field commanders. I described in some detail the ineffectiveness of individual commanders by name in northern MR–1, the B–3 Front and MR–3. I told the President that it was my conviction that all that had been accomplished over the last four years was now at stake, and, at this stage, it was the effectiveness of his field commanders that would determine the outcome—either winning all or losing all. At this point President Thieu [Page 392] talked to Executive [Officer]and directed that all commanders be called to the Palace today. President Thieu then continued, advancing the view that if Hue and Kontum held for four days they would have won the battle. I told the President that no one should think in any less terms than six weeks more of heavy, bloody fighting and maybe more. This is a battle to the death, the Communists have planned it that way and will not quit until they have been totally exhausted.

“This was a candid meeting, but at no time did President Thieu show either irritation, impatience, or disagreement.” (Message MAC 4039 from Abrams to Laird, May 2; ibid.)

In backchannel message 81 from Saigon, May 2, Bunker, who also attended the meeting, told Kissinger: “We made it clear to him [Thieu] the need to act decisively and quickly to straighten them out. We emphasized the massive air support the President has provided but pointed out that this is a battle of will on both sides and that no amount of air support would be effective unless there is also the will on the part of ground forces.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 44, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Cables, 3 April–15 June 1972)

Kissinger received the message enroute to meet Le Duc Tho in Paris. He immediately cabled Haig in Washington:

  • “1. Am appalled by Saigon 0081. It is a self-serving egg-sucking, panicky lecture by Abrams. Does he think Thieu needs instruction on the gravity of his situation? He cannot make up now for his errors of the past two years.
  • “2. In the context of today’s Paris private meeting Thieu can only construe this as the preparation for a sell-out. Do we want a rout?
  • “3. Bunker is to be made aware of my views immediately. He is to call on Thieu immediately and assure him of full U.S. backing. He must understand that we will not deviate from our game plan in Paris or elsewhere. He will be given full report as soon as I return.
  • “4. This must be carried out without delay.” (Message from Kissinger to Haig, May 2; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 869, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Camp David Cables, January 1–July 31, 1972)

Haig immediately cabled Bunker a message from Kissinger: “It is essential that you again urgently see Thieu and reassure him of our full support especially in light of my discussions in Paris today.” (Backchannel message WHS 2057 to Saigon, May 2; ibid., Box 854, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XIII) To Kissinger, Haig wrote: “I agree completely and have carried out the instructions contained in your message. It is my strong suspicion that this action was taken at the urging of Secretary Laird who with others is equally culpable and panicky.” (Backchannel message from [Page 393] Haig to Kissinger, May 2; ibid., Box 869, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Camp David Cables, January 1–July 31, 1972) In backchannel message WHS 2058 to Saigon, May 2, Haig directed Bunker to meet with Thieu, and to deliver a personal message for Thieu from President Nixon pledging full American support in the defense of South Vietnam. (Ibid.)

The earliest Bunker could meet with Thieu was the following morning, May 3. When he so informed Kissinger, he also observed: “I do not believe Thieu has any doubt about our full support which I repeated to him this morning nor do I think he doubts our motives at Paris but I shall, of course, give him the reassurance contained reftel [2058].” (Backchannel message 82 from Saigon, May 2; ibid., Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, Box 107, Country Files, Far East Vietnam Negotiations, Paris Negotiations, January 25, 1972–January 1973)