2. Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to General Abrams’s message and to military actions in Vietnam.]

Kissinger: One massive problem we have is in Vietnam. We had a message from Abrams today.2 They are putting in every reserve unit they have. Everything. They’re stripping North Vietnam.

[Page 8]

Nixon: The North Vietnamese are?

Kissinger: Yeah, they’re stripping it bare and—

Nixon: What can we do?

Kissinger: Well, he wants to bomb the southern part of North Vietnam, where they have their logistic buildup. So we’ve got to look at it tomorrow. I want to talk to Dobrynin and tell him, “Look, if this offensive”—of course, they want to put it to us.

Nixon: Well, I think they want to put it to us. My view is that we may have to risk the Chinese thing, Henry. I—

Kissinger: It’s my view, too, Mr. President—

Nixon: I just don’t believe you can let them knock the shit out of South—I mean China—so if the Chinese—the Chinese aren’t going to cancel the trip.3

Kissinger: No.

Nixon: They’re not going to cancel the trip because—

Kissinger: I don’t think we should go quite as far north but we should, as we did in the last attacks, I think we should let him do something. I think if—

Nixon: Well, Henry, you—you remember I—

Kissinger: Particularly after your peace speech.4 I don’t think you should do it—

Nixon: I wouldn’t do it now. I mean, wait ’til the—after the peace speech.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: I think you’re right.

Kissinger: I’d wait until they’ve—

Nixon: Do you think they’d respond with—to our speech—with an increased buildup?

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: I think so, too.

Kissinger: That’s my understanding.

Nixon: We could just simply—what does Abrams—? Does Abrams have a plan? Or—

Kissinger: Well, he has targets. And I think they probably are going to make an all-out—and then they’re going to settle. If they don’t [Page 9] tip it then, they’re going to settle. They’re going to settle either way, because if they win, of course, they’re going to have it, and if they don’t make it then they’re going to—

Nixon: When you speak in terms of the win, what are they doing? What do you envision?

Kissinger: Well, what they could wind up doing is have a massive attack in II Corps, and come across the DMZ, and across the—and go all out in I Corps. Now, we ought to be able to handle it with massive air. But, if they go across the DMZ, of course, they’d be violating the understandings totally—5

Nixon: Yes.

[Omitted here is material printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 38.]

Nixon: You think that what they’re really doing is, as you said, what Abrams says, is a massive buildup, huh?

Kissinger: Their biggest buildup, sir, in four years. Every reserve division they’ve got. Literally, they’ve stripped it. If we could land one division up North we could drive to Hanoi.

Nixon: And where are they all? He says they’re—

Kissinger: Well they’re in—coming down—

Nixon: How’d they get in there so fast?

Kissinger: Well, they’re not all—well, some are on the trail and some are just north of the DMZ. And they’ve built a road across the DMZ, which they don’t need for infiltration—

Nixon: Well, what the hell? Why aren’t we hitting the road?

Kissinger: Mr. President, this has been one of the worst—

Nixon: What in the name of God are we doing about the road now?

Kissinger: Well, we are—oh yeah, we are bombing it. But it’s—it’s one of the worst disgraces, that here the great U.S. Air Force can’t keep [Page 10] a road from being built. They still haven’t finished it completely, so I don’t think they’ll start the DMZ attack yet. Our judgment is, or the intelligence judgment is, that they’ll start their attacks in Vietnam in February, and in the Second Corps area, and in March in the First Corps area. I think they’ll have knocked it off by May 1st.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to General Abrams’s message or military actions in Vietnam.]

Nixon: Incidentally, what are the South Vietnamese doing in terms of preparing to meet the offensive? Are they—

Kissinger: Well, he changed a commander of the second—of two of the divisions in II Corps.

Nixon: Has he?

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: And has he—the commander has changed, but are—

Kissinger: And we’ve put—

Nixon: They must be pretty good now, the South Vietnamese—?

Kissinger: Well, in I Corps they’re pretty good but that’s where they may run into a lot of tanks. This may be a replay of the—

Nixon: We have tanks there now, remember? We’ve been delivering tanks to that place—

Kissinger: Yeah. No, no. They’ve got—that should be a gory battle but, you know, it would be a lot of publicity in this country.

Nixon: Look, if it doesn’t involve Americans, it’s all right. There is—they have publicity on it anyway—

[Omitted here is material printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 38.]

Nixon: I don’t know what we can do. We don’t have any cards there, Henry, nothing but the damned Air Force, but we’ll use it. We’ve got to use the Air Force—

Kissinger: Mr. President, I think the demonstration of impotence, of getting run out of Vietnam physically—

Nixon: What’s that? I couldn’t hear you.

Kissinger: I mean—

Nixon: It’s a demonstration of what?

Kissinger: Of being run out physically. It would be too great.

Nixon: Oh, we can’t do anything.

Kissinger: Because I think they will be—after this shot—I think they—

Nixon: They’ve got to settle.

Kissinger: Yeah. That’s it.

Nixon: Don’t you think so?

[Page 11]

Kissinger: They’ve got to settle this summer. One way or the other, I think, in making your planning, you can pretty well assume, one way or the other it’s gonna be done—

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to General Abrams’s message or military actions in Vietnam.]

Nixon: I wish we could do something tough in Vietnam. I don’t—well, goddamnit, that Air Force plus the South Vietnamese should be able to do it. I don’t think the North Vietnamese are that strong. I can’t believe—

Kissinger: What we ought to do—

Nixon: —in Laos, in Cambodia they could be that strong.

Kissinger: What we ought to do is get a series of one or two-day strikes. I don’t think we can do five days at a clip, but we can—

Nixon: No, I—we can’t. As I told you before, I really think that the last two days of the last mission—it wasn’t fatal, but it didn’t help us. I don’t think it was worth [unclear] just continuing. It looked like we just didn’t hit ’em. But hit ’em for a couple of days and then stop. As you noticed that, we stopped the bombing. They quit talking about it after three days—

Kissinger: Yeah. Yeah. In two days, we can do one week. And then two weeks later, another day. They’ve just got to, and then—

Nixon: Why do you think that the fact—the reason I asked you about the other one, Henry, I think the fact that we did that five day—

Kissinger: Oh, that was very strong—

Nixon: —gave them some pause.

Kissinger: Oh yeah.

Nixon: Don’t you think it would worry them a little? They needed [unclear]—

Kissinger: Yeah, but I think we may have to hit them early in February. I don’t think it’s—

Nixon: Well, that means next week maybe, though.

Kissinger: No, the week after your proposal.

Nixon: Oh, you want to wait that long?

Kissinger: Oh, maybe at the end of the week. I’d like to give your proposal a little more ride. I think they’re going to—

Nixon: Yeah, I think we should let it ride the weekend, if we can.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: How about that—?

Kissinger: And then if they hit us, then maybe we hit them for five days. You know, if they respond to your proposal with an all-out offensive.

[Page 12]

Nixon: That’s right. But we can—in your briefing you could hit that. I don’t want to say it. I don’t want to threaten in my speech—

Kissinger: No—

Nixon: Or, do you think I should?

Kissinger: No, you should not.

Nixon: I don’t think I should be threatening at all in the speech.

Kissinger: No, no, no.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to General Abrams’s message or military actions in Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 652–17. No classification marking. The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. The transcript is part of a larger conversation, 6:08–6:36 p.m.
  2. Document 1.
  3. Nixon was referring to his State visit to Beijing, which was to take place in late February.
  4. Nixon was scheduled to deliver a major speech on the Vietnam peace negotiations on Tuesday, January 25.
  5. On October 29, 1968, in a meeting with his national security advisers, President Johnson summarized the understandings:

    “—Hanoi has agreed in a secret minute, and in our discussions to begin serious talks toward peace in Vietnam—talks which would include representatives of the Government of South Vietnam.

    “—We have made it clear to them that a continuation of the bombing cessation was dependent, first, on respect for the DMZ, and second, upon there being no attacks on the cities.

    “—The Soviet Union, which has played a part in this negotiation, knows these circumstances intimately. Their understanding has been reaffirmed at the highest level in the last few days.

    “—Both Hanoi and Moscow are clear that we shall continue reconnaissance of North Vietnam. That is why we agreed to stop only acts of force and not acts of war.” See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume VII, Vietnam, September 1968–January 1969, Document 140.