117. Transcript of a Telephone Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

[Omitted here is brief discussion of Kissinger’s speaking engagement in New York, Nixon’s eulogy the next day at J. Edgar Hoover’s funeral, Kissinger’s protest to Dobrynin about Soviet naval vessels in Cuba, and the military situation in Vietnam and adverse reports about it.]

P: In that respect, I think that my feeling that we probably should have hit them before you went was probably right.2

K: You know, you’re right.

P: You would have been in a little stronger position over there. You know what I mean, they might have cancelled3 but on the other hand—

K: You mean, hit them over the weekend?

P: Yeah.

K: Well, I wasn’t against it. What stopped it over—I was in favor of it after the Quang Tri attack started. What stopped it over the weekend was that Abrams was screaming for the planes for himself.

P: I know, I know. But we run into that everytime though, Henry.

K: Well, at that time with everything coming apart—

P: It would have been rather critical.

K: Since that guy is dying to find an alibi.

P: Well, he sure does on that one. None of us are going to second-guess on the alibi business now. We’re going to do the best we can and keep our cool; that’s the main thing.

K: I think the problem with Abrams was—the problem with Le Duc Tho yesterday was he wants to see how far this offensive goes and he wasn’t going to settle in mid-stream and he wasn’t going to give me something we were going to use domestically to give our people hope. So that was the basic problem and whether we hit over the weekend or not, I don’t think made a hell of a lot of difference.

[Page 405]

P: Right. Well, look, we didn’t so that’s that. The important thing now is to it seems to me that we have to set this up so we can—I mean the cancellation, which of course seems to me inevitable at this point. I’m thinking that we might have to move it up to Friday.4

K: No, I think that would be a little early.

P: Do you?

K: The one thing we might consider, and I’d like to think about it, with your considered judgment, is whether one way of scaring the Russians with it is to say—you know, I’m having lunch with Dobrynin on Friday—I could say, “Now, look, Anatol, we’re realists. There just can’t be a summit with a President sitting in the Kremlin while Hue falls.”

P: That’s right.

K: Why don’t we agree now on postponing it for two months.

P: Or one month.

K: Or one month.

P: There’s some advantage, in my view, to have it one month.

K: That’s right.

P: Obviously before the nominations. You could say we’re just postponing it one month. We know damn well that the thing will have creamed out one way or another, won’t it?

K: That’s right.

P: And we could just say we’re going to postpone it for one month. If we could get a mutual agreement, that would be the best of both worlds. But then on the other hand, of course,—Aren’t you convinced that we do have to hit Hanoi/Haiphong once—

K: Mr. President, I believe that if—your real choice is between postponing and hitting—I mean, it’s an immediate decision. If you postpone, you’ll also want to hit afterwards.

P: Yeah.

K: But I do not see how you can do nothing.

P: Oh, Christ, my view is—I think that the [omission in the original]might be hitting and running the risk of their postponing.

K: That’s right.

P: Which I think is a very real option.

K: That is a real option.

P: A real option.

K: But then it is better to do it earlier than later.

P: That would be this weekend.

[Page 406]

K: If you’re going to hit without and not postpone, it would be better to do that as early as you can but not before you have the Russian reply.5 There is no sense—

P: Yeah, yeah; I agree.

K: In playing that one without having the cards. But another option we can consider is my telling Dobrynin—first of all, that makes it look serious. If we are thinking about talking about postponing.

P: Yeah. We’ll lay the foundation for it too.

K: Right.

P: No, I’ve concluded that we can’t—I mean, we’re probably inevitably—Well, we go in with one proposition—we have to hit; the sooner, the better. Right?

K: If we are not going to postpone, we have to hit. If you are going to play the hitting game, it’s better to do it with as much time between it and the summit as possible.

P: The difficulty with however postponing and then waiting for a week to hit. I just don’t think the postponing is going to have that much effect on the situation in the South. If we’re going to have any marginal effect in the South—

K: Mr. President, the point may be that nothing is going to have any effect on the situation in the South.

P: I couldn’t agree more.

K: That’s the tragedy of this situation.

P: Right.

K: In fact, if we were confident, we could hold the situation. If Laird had been telling us the truth, we could play it very cool. You could go to Moscow in a very strong position and say, “All right, we are licking your sons-of-bitches.” Then you could have the best of both worlds.

P: Um-hmmm, um-hmmm.

P: We’re going to keep our cool and do what has to be done. We have to realize that there aren’t any good choices but we’ll make them. But you had no idea that anybody would consider doing nothing; good God, the only one that would do that would be Laird.

K: That’s right.

[Page 407]

P: Laird and Abrams. And I don’t know why the hell they would be for that. Then they’d have no scapegoat at all. Anybody else suggesting that we do nothing?

K: Well, I guess Rogers probably would be in favor of doing it.

P: Well, we’re not going to ask him.

K: Well, I think the choices are between hitting over this weekend and there is something about delaying the attack until Sunday.6

P: Um-hmmm; I agree.

K: Well, I don’t know with all these stories of disaster; they have plenty of unfavorable news with it.

P: I’m inclined to think that as far as weekly news magazines, I’d rather hit and have that in it.

K: On Saturday?

P: Yep. You’ve got to remember that’s our story. You see, you change the story when you hit.

K: There’s a lot to be said for that.

P: You change the story; you change the headline, Henry. You know, that’s why I’ve been a very strong opponent. I guess Friday won’t work; that’s too soon but boy!

K: I don’t think we can—we have to wait for the Russian answer unless the answer doesn’t come on Friday. Then we can say we gave them 48 hours.

P: Um-hmmm. Well, I’m inclined to think we have to wait for the answer; I agree.

K: But I think if we don’t have it by Friday noon; we should just order whatever we want to order.7

P: Let me ask you this, what is your schedule tomorrow? Do you have another engagement tomorrow night or a dinner, I suppose, of some sort.

K: Well, I was going to go to New York actually to speak to a group about the Russian Summit.

P: I wonder if you could cancel that. Do you think you could? Or put it off?

K: I suppose I could, yes.

[Page 408]

P: Well, I think we ought to have—wait a minute, I don’t think you need to. Say from about 3 o’clock on tomorrow—

K: Oh, that’s easy.

P: You clear your schedule and what time would you have to leave to go to New York? 5:00?

K: 4:30.

P: Um-hmmm.

K: I could save from 2:30 on.

P: Um-hmmm; I’ll see what I can do. Well, let’s have a good talk tomorrow. Let me ask you to do this—

K: I’ll cancel this thing too but I think there’s an advantage in being cool.

P: Oh, no, no; I wouldn’t cancel. Let me ask you to do this—why don’t you in the thing—I’d like for you to run down in your own mind and sort of put it on paper what happens as we cancel the Russian summit. Do you get my point?

K: Yeah.

P: I mean, so we can’t pull the summit, then what are the consequences and so forth having in mind the fact that certainly as I pointed out that we have drawn the sword on them; they will have to respond.

K: Well, maybe not necessarily.

P: I agree; I know. Let’s assume the worst. Do it like you do your usual thing, it could be this way or it could be the other thing; this would be very helpful to me in making the decision, see.

K: Right.

P: And the idea is so—the way I look at it, you could cancel. And so the Russians gin up their opposition and, of course, the Democrats will go wild; the candidates, so forth and so on. I guess Bob told you about his poll; he brought it in to me tonight.

K: Yes, yes; we had a good talk this afternoon.

P: I told him to pass it over. I said it wasn’t going to affect me but I’m glad he did it because—

K: Oh, I think it’s important.

P: It tells you what we’re up against; public opinion wise. I was rather surprised frankly that, you know, they would, despite the Hawks and so forth, that so many people—sort of like China in a way, you know, the damn China Summit, the people wanted it even though they knew—so they’re sort of big news. I guess we’ve talked ourselves into this with the idea that talking is a good thing, Henry. That’s our problem isn’t it?

K: The last thing we did from a situation of strength.

[Page 409]

P: I know—you and I know that the Russian thing, however, is one where we can’t possibly be there in a position of weakness and I’m just not going to be there.

K: I’m wondering about so many things. If you’re there when Hue falls—

P: It may fall before we get there.

K: Well, that’s possible but supposing you’re there while 10,000 Americans are captured in Binh Long? I mean this thing could turn into a horrible defacto. Under what conditions will you be there in general? After having made all these threats?

P: No way, no way. No, we’ve got to start the hitting of the North but let’s—even the hitting of the North, what does that—we’ve got to do it in any event so let’s be strength in whatever position we have and perhaps provide something—Incidentally, I was somewhat encouraged by the actions that Thieu had taken and changed the command and the rest. That seemed to be rather good.

K: They are good.

P: Then also they apparently have a pretty good order of battle up there in the Hue area, have they not?

K: They do if they fight. The problem, Mr. President, is—here I’m trying to be realistic and I was talking to Haig about it—there just isn’t any ARVN offensive action, they are just not fighting.

P: Anyplace, huh?

K: Right.

P: Only defensive.

K: Only defensive and then only sporadically. And there is just too much unraveling in too many places.

P: Well, maybe we have to make a big play. Maybe we have to go to Thieu and say, “Look, here, boy.” Get my point? You know, I don’t believe in just letting what seems to be a disaster develop without going to the heart of the matter.

K: Before we do that, I think we ought to go to the North Vietnamese. Well, even then you shouldn’t do that in Moscow.

P: Oh, hell, no. No, we go to the North Vietnamese first by hitting them. Hitting them goddamn hard!

K: Well, there’s no sense in going to Thieu and asking him to resign unless you have a prior deal with the North Vietnamese.

P: Um-hmmm. Yeah, but look in any event, you’ve got to go first. You’ve got to go first, Henry, with a—you’ve got to have a damn good strike in the North. That is absolutely indispensable to our policy. Would you agree?

K: Right.

[Page 410]

P: And soon, huh? Unless we cancel. Of course I agree the cancellation has a psychological effect but what more I don’t know. And then you’ve got to look down the road to what is the Russian reaction; that’s what I want to see if we cancel, what will they do. You see, that’s the kind of thing I want to go over with you to see what you think we’re going to do. We have to look down the road to see whether we basically want—what happens if they see McGovern and Humphrey are there to deal with them, what happens if we are there in a position of—I don’t mean now at the summit but later—you see, you have the proposition where you cancel the summit—here’s as I see it, you lose in Vietnam, all right. And [omission in the original] survive the election, who knows; things are very strange at the present time in this country. But then where are you?

K: If you cancel the summit and survive the election?

P: Yeah.

K: Oh, then you are in a very strong position.

P: That’s a very, very big risk but if you cancel the summit and lose in Vietnam, winning the election is going to be a hell of a tough thing to do unless we are able to lose in Vietnam and do something about the POWs and so forth.

K: Right.

P: And, of course, then we are going to have turn very hard on the critics and blame them for the failure of negotiations. As you well know, we can make a hell of a case.

K: Right.

P: So these are some of the things we should think about but let’s look down the road as to how it’s going to—put your mind to that, which you like to do anyway. And when you are in New York, over there at the Metropolitan Club—

K: I’ll be very confident.

P: Be confident as hell. I mean, I think the way I did the Leaders today was the right way. Look, this is a tough damn battle and you’re up against enormous odds and they’re fighting, you know. We all know they’re not fighting too well in some places but they’ve got to be doing something, Henry, good God, unless Abrams has been lying to us.

K: He admits he has.

P: He admits he has, huh?

K: Yeah.

P: Well, they’ve done something, Henry. Good, God, at An Loc, don’t you think they did something there?

K: They were encircled; they had no place to run to.

P: Um-hmmm. And Hue? Does Haig have any information on that? I’ll call him and get it from him?

[Page 411]

K: I’ve just reviewed it with him. About the looting, we don’t have any information.

P: The looting and the—this and that. I have a sort of a feeling that that may be an exaggeration, you know what I mean? We’ve had that sort of thing before, haven’t we?

K: Right. And that wouldn’t be decisive in itself.

P: No.

K: But it’s a tough situation.

P: I have a gut reaction that we’ve got to give them one good belt.

K: So do I.

P: Come hell or high water, you know.

K: There’s no question about that.

P: And Laird is to the contrary. Not withstanding, it’s got to be for two good solid days; just belt the hell out of them.

K: I agree.

P: That’s one thing we’ve got to do. Because at least we have indicated—After all, I’ve built the whole thing on we’re not going to go out there without doing our best, everything we can.

K: That’s right.

P: If we do everything we can and they still can’t make it, then it’s not our fault.

K: And I’m going to have some contingency plans made here for that eventuality, Mr. President, because we can’t have to do it in panic. I’ll just get Haig and one other person working on that.

P: On what?

K: On what happens if the whole thing unravels.

P: Oh, hell, yes; hell, yes. You have to leave for New York tomorrow at what, 4:30?

K: Right, but I’ll cancel that thing if necessary.

P: No, no, no.

K: But it may give an impression of a great crisis.

P: Well, to an extent it is, isn’t it?

K: Oh, yeah; it would be clearly understood. Or I can set my remarks for later and go down on a later plane and tell them to do the dinner without me.

P: You might say that you have a meeting that will not finish till 5 o’clock. Could you do that?

K: Sure. And then take a plane and still get there by 8:00; we can do that.

P: Why don’t we do that then? We will plan to meet between 3:00 and 5:00 and sit down and talk this thing over a little more.

[Page 412]

K: Good.

P: In the meantime, do your thinking about the whole thing. And get off to your dinner tonight and as I say, By God, play it like I did with the Leaders today.

K: Absolutely, Mr. President.

P: Cold and tough. We haven’t gotten anything—what about that poor Bunker, has he sent us anything in yet or any of his evaluations? I suppose he is probably just about dying, huh?

K: I’ll ask him tonight for his evaluation.

P: Yeah. If you would get his evaluation. I don’t think Abrams’ evaluation is worth a tinker’s damn.

K: I’ll get his evaluation.

P: Particularly with regard to the South Vietnamese—will they survive; that’s really what it boils down to.

K: Right, right.

P: If you could get that for us, that would be helpful.

K: I’ll get that in the meantime.

P: Enjoy your dinner.

K: I’ll be speaking.

P: Uh-huh.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Box 14, Chronological File, May 1–5, 1972. No classification marking. The transcript is printed in full in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 191.
  2. Reference is to the possible bombing in the Hanoi–Haiphong area of North Vietnam before Kissinger’s April trip to Moscow.
  3. Reference is to the possible Soviet cancellation of the Moscow Summit.
  4. May 5.
  5. On May 3, Kissinger and his aides drafted a letter from Nixon to Brezhnev about the unproductive private talks between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho the previous day. The letter stated: “They were deeply disappointing, the more so since there had been reason to believe, as the result of Dr. Kissinger’s exchanges with you and Foreign Minister Gromyko, that progress would occur not only on the procedure of the talks but on their substance.” For the full text, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 190.
  6. May 7.
  7. Brezhnev replied on May 6. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 200. In his memoirs Kissinger characterized the reply in these terms: Brezhnev “could assure us that North Vietnam was ready to seek a political settlement; of course, he added offhandedly, this required a coalition government. In other words we could have peace by accepting Hanoi’s terms; for this insight Breznhev was not needed.” (White House Years, p. 1182)