245. Memorandum of Conversation1
- President Nguyen Van Thieu
- Mr. Huynh Phu Duc, Special Assistant to the President for Foreign Affairs
- Mr. Hoang Duc Nha, Press Assistant
- Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker
- Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
- John D. Negroponte, NSC Staff Member
Dr. Kissinger: Now we can take decisions by a majority vote. [Mr. Nha enters room.] Oh no, it’s too late. [Dr. Kissinger hands President Thieu Vietnamese text of DRV August 1 proposal.]2 The English text was their own translation; they handed us this [the Vietnamese text] and the English text. If you find any nuances or differences will you tell our Ambassador?
Mr. Duc: I will do that. [President Thieu hands Dr. Kissinger and the Ambassador a document which comments on our counterproposal—Tab A.3
Dr. Kissinger: Regarding the first point that may be a better way to do it. We could have two proposals, a 10-point substantive proposal and a procedural counter-proposal. I will first study your document for a moment, Mr. President, if I may. [Dr. Kissinger and Ambassador Bunker study document for about five minutes.]
Mr. Duc: There are some omissions on page 3. I would like to refer to your point 9. Instead of a “standstill ceasefire” we suggest “general ceasefire.” At point 10 we would change the last sentence of paragraph (a) to read “. . . will be agreed upon by the belligerent parties prior to the ceasefire.”
Dr. Kissinger: That you have. [continues to study document.] Your staff works much faster than mine does.
President Thieu: We just finished this morning.[Page 873]
Dr. Kissinger: I have a few preliminary comments and let me review our strategy because I think it is very important. I read the paper you gave me yesterday.4 We substantially agree with you in our analysis. The other side wants us to agree with them to undermine your government and give them de facto control of South Vietnam. Secondly, they want us to do it because they cannot do it themselves and it would discredit completely anyone who ever associated with us. They also want to prove that you were our instrument and that we betrayed you. Our problem is to get through the next three months. You read in the papers every day what our opponents want to do. They are prepared to do more than even the DRV is asking of us. Secondly, we want to keep the DRV from making their proposal public and we want to advance a reasonable counter-proposal.
Thirdly, we would like to pick up as much language of their proposal as possible to show that we are forthcoming. Fourthly, we want to keep the counter-proposal vague so that as many issues as possible are dealt with in the implementing forums where you have a veto. Fifthly, we want to get you into the forums with them since nothing would do more to establish your legitimacy.
Therefore, it would be tactically unwise to approach the counterproposal with too legalistic an attitude. There are a number of points where I do not disagree with your additions, but I believe it is preferable to raise them in subsidiary forums rather than to give the DRV those kinds of reasons to reject our counter-proposal. What I want is to force them to accept our proposal and open the other forums, or to reject it because they insist on the installation of a Communist government. I want to keep the focus on their insistence that we install a Communist government.
The President will recall that at my press briefing after our January 25 proposal5 we succeeded in keeping the DRV on the defensive for three months on this very issue. What we want to do now is gain six weeks. Therefore we want to keep things deliberately ambiguous.
As to your first point [referring to their memo] as far as we are concerned, there is no difference in saying North and South Vietnam. We don’t want them to break the talks off on the grounds that we are seeking to keep Vietnam perpetually divided. The first paragraph has no operative significance. Personally I think we should keep it vague.
On points 2 and 3 we have no problem. As for point 4 we will come back to it. On point 5 since we know what point they will make [regarding NVA presence in South Vietnam] and we know it is outrageous, [Page 874] there is no point in making your suggested addition. If we put your suggestion in they will say we have no business raising the matter since we know they will refuse to withdraw their forces from South Vietnam. It is better that the talks break down on this subject with you rather than with us. If the talks break down with us over this point there might be many Americans who think the DRV position is reasonable.
Should we agree in principle and then they say to you that they have a right to keep 11 divisions in South Vietnam, that is a good issue for a deadlock. Therefore since the issue [NVA presence in SVN] has never been raised before in our talks I recommend that it not be put in here.
Regarding point 6 [adding clause promptly start negotiations towards reestablishment of normal relations], we can do that. As for the second part [adding clause except for purely defensive purposes and on a temporary basis to last sentence of third paragraph], I would not recommend it. It is to our advantage to keep things general. The big negotiations will be on the political issue and we must avoid playing their game.
Regarding point 7, I see no problem; we can substantially accept your suggestion. But I would like to keep it in the framework of what we said on January 25.
Regarding point 9, I think we can rewrite it in such a way that some of your previous points are absorbed. If we said “upon the conclusion of an overall agreement” this would take care of your point 5. A ceasefire would then become part of the overall agreement and the ceasefire would include the disposition of NVA forces to be discussed in one of the three forums. If we include this in the agreements to be reached in one of the four forums then we don’t need to call special attention to it in point 5.
Mr. Duc: Would the supervisory machinery and control be worked out after the ceasefire?
Dr. Kissinger: Before. I am trying to keep the document as ambiguous as possible so as much as possible can be discussed in the other forums. Once they are open we can get past November; you will not be under significant pressure from us after November. If we move a ceasefire to the end of the process—this is a concession I am prepared to make to them. I would be prepared to say at our next meeting that the ceasefire will take place after all agreements are signed. This will include a return of foreign forces to their countries, including your point 5 [about NVA in South Vietnam]. It would be a mistake to mention the NVA specifically in point 5. It would produce an explosion in our talks inevitably leading to their breakup.
Mr. Duc: It will take time to work out a general ceasefire. The supervision will take time. So everything will be worked out regarding [Page 875] the modalities of a ceasefire before an overall agreement is signed. Is that correct?
Dr. Kissinger: Yes. Their position is an agreement which must be reached in all four forums and only after that will there be a ceasefire. I have always proposed a ceasefire in accordance with our January 25 proposal or an immediate ceasefire. They always say this is unjust. I think I should yield on this point and agree with them that ceasefire should follow the agreements.
Mr. Duc: The ceasefire would not begin at the time of an agreement on the statement of principles?
Dr. Kissinger: That is correct. I must be frank with you: If the DRV becomes intelligent and offers an unconditional ceasefire our strategy will be to accept, but draw out the discussion on technicalities. We cannot refuse a ceasefire separately if they offer to do so. But then we would insist that the modalities be discussed in Kleber. As I see their position now, they want to settle all the details and principles before the ceasefire. There is no indication that they will change their position. Maybe Le Duc Tho will come back and we will find that they have changed their mind. There is no sign at all that they will accept a separate ceasefire, partly for the reasons that the President gave me yesterday. But if they become clever we have a problem, although they will have a problem too. If they propose that a ceasefire come first, I will propose immediately referring the matter to Avenue Kleber. Then the fact will become known and this will be enough for our domestic consumption and take care of four weeks.
Just imagine how complex the question is. What would a ceasefire be like? What would be involved with regard to control and supervision? This cannot be settled in four to six weeks. In any event, it is my strong view that they will not agree to settling a ceasefire first.
President Thieu: No, they won’t do that. One main reason is that they are afraid to be lured by us. Once they accept a ceasefire they can never start again and we will prolong the political talks forever. Thus they want to be sure they have something on the political side before they abandon their means of making war.
Dr. Kissinger: That is why we should handle the ceasefire in a more general way than in your point 5. We should take it out of point 5 and in point 9 say there will be a ceasefire at the conclusion of an overall agreement. That is their point 8. The more we pick their phrases the more it helps us in the United States.
Mr. Duc: Regarding a ceasefire in Indochina, the Cambodians are very concerned because the NVA occupies many areas in Cambodia. So perhaps the word “general” would be more ambiguous and suitable. The Cambodians might protest the word “standstill.”[Page 876]
Dr. Kissinger: Let’s try that. I think we can probably do that. We will not be able to avoid a standstill ceasefire if they propose one, but for presentational purposes we can use the word “general.”
Mr. Duc: Especially because of Cambodia.
Dr. Kissinger: Can we agree in regard to your suggested change on point 5 that instead we put in point 9 that after an overall agreement a general ceasefire will be observed. You recognize, of course, that I have to discuss this with President Nixon. But it would read “immediately after signature of an overall agreement a general ceasefire will be observed throughout Indochina under international supervision and control.”
President Thieu: We have the same assessment as to why the Communists do not want a ceasefire first. Perhaps we better wait about the time of a ceasefire. It is better to keep flexibility for our side.
Dr. Kissinger: Then let us keep it as it is and I can tell them orally that we agree to their timing. If we change our mind we can come back to it. At the next meeting I can tell them as a concession that we agree to have a ceasefire after all agreements are signed.
President Thieu: They will like that.
Dr. Kissinger: It is also in our interest. I thought at first it would be best to have a ceasefire as soon as possible because of our election. But upon reflection I have decided that it is easier if we keep up the bombing through the elections, unless in your view your military situation requires a ceasefire. You see, our strategy is that we are prepared to step up the military pressure on the DRV immediately, drastically and brutally one or two weeks after our election. We want to be in a position that they have rejected our reasonable proposals. After that we will put everything on the prisoner of war question. They think they can use the prisoners of war to overthrow you. If we can move quickly after the elections, we can destroy so much that they will not be in a position to come back and harm you for a long time to come.
Mr. Duc: Are we clear that we are including agreement on supervision before a ceasefire?
Dr. Kissinger: Yes, but I don’t think there will be a ceasefire. In fact I prefer that they don’t return the prisoners of war and that there is no ceasefire before the election. If Le Duc Tho returns on September 15 and proposes a ceasefire I will say in principle that I agree but that the details must be discussed at Avenue Kleber and then we can insist on international supervision before the ceasefire. Second, if their proposal with regard to the ceasefire does not involve a return of prisoners of war, then we will only stop the bombing and not remove the mines. We will not stop the mining until the prisoners of war are returned. Is that clear? It is important that in the next two months there be mutual confidence between us. We cannot control what others say and I do not know where [Page 877] Time Magazine got its story, but a certain amount of confusion may be desirable in any event. To sum up, we will insist that ceasefire modalities are discussed at Kleber and not separately between us and them.
President Thieu: What advantages is there for us for a ceasefire only after the signing of all agreements? What advantage?
Dr. Kissinger: I assume we are winning. (President Thieu nods.) I assume that they are getting progressively weaker. Therefore, if a ceasefire is delayed until everything else is settled this maximizes the pressure on them. Their big problem is that after we get elected we can step up what we are doing. If there is a ceasefire before the election it will be harder for us to resume the bombing although we will probably do it anyway. We will not accept a situation where they do to us the next four years what they have just done to us the past four years. Under no circumstances will we accept what they have done to us during the past four years.
President Thieu: I agree that we have to win psychologically but there are also situations where we can agree to a psychological concession but in fact we lose nothing.
Dr. Kissinger: Until this round of negotiations I thought they were extremely clever and devious. Now I have concluded they are not so clever. We always assumed they make no mistakes. In fact they have made many mistakes. What have they gained since July 19? Nothing. We have made no concessions and we have disarmed our opponents by announcing the fact of the meetings. If we follow this strategy now, either way we are in a good position. If they accept our proposal, it gives us no problem because every issue must be discussed in other forums where you have a veto. If they reject our offer, it will put McGovern on the defensive in the last three weeks of his campaign. If they had published their proposal on August 1, the Democrats would have said you are the only obstacle to peace; Congress would have published a resolution resembling their proposal and we would have been in trouble. If they had been smart, they would have wanted to settle fast. Instead Le Duc Tho gave me long lectures on Leninism and lectures on the relationship between political and military matters. I agreed with him on the relation between political and military matters. He wasted three weeks to convince me of a theoretical point. It was to his advantage to either settle fast or break up the talks fast.
I think they still may want to settle something in October, but you must look at the history of the January 25 proposal. We made a proposal to them which totally put them on the defensive for three months. For two months everyone talked about our proposal, not theirs. If we can achieve what I propose to you and then if the President is reelected, there will be no Congressional pressures on us in the next congressional session. Their military situation will get worse over the next year [Page 878] and we are determined not to let them do this to us again. That is why we are not withdrawing our air and naval forces now. Because we want them here on election day so after we win we can use them. We need your help to construct an ambiguous proposal, particularly on point 4. If we had wanted to give in, we could have done that long ago. Last summer they said that, if we agreed with them to rig the election against you, they would have released the prisoners of war and settled everything in July of 1971. If we had wanted to do that, that would have been the time, not in the last two months of a term during which we have lost 20,000 Americans to defend your country. If we wanted to abandon you, I would not be here.
I don’t expect you to have your final answer on point 4. Our idea is first to move the concept of National Concord into a committee and, second, to keep the idea of an election and, third, to accept the principle that they can participate in the Cabinet on the basis of demonstrated popular strength. It is inconceivable that they will accept and their rejecting this will make it difficult for our liberal opponents. In effect we are offering a form of coalition and a committee to supervise the election composed exactly as they want it to be. The New York Times and Time Magazine will not be able to say we are unreasonable. Yet, if you analyze the situation, you will see that you control fifty percent of the committee so no revision is possible without your concurrence and the election law will be discussed in the second forum with you. So even if they accept you would be in a position to control events. But my view is that, if they reject the proposal, as is certain, then after November 7 we will go back to the May 8 proposal6 and say that we, the United States, will not discuss political issues any more.
President Thieu: I understand fully what you say. We are talking here in the family. I will try to do everything possible to help President Nixon help us. It is like the 8 points and the 2 changes in the 8 points.7 If I was reluctant at that time, it was first of all because I had no time to study the proposal carefully and secondly because we were not prepared psychologically, even in our own restricted political circles. So a proposal can cause surprises for everyone and it can provoke internal political trouble in South Vietnam, and there are many men ready to take a peace proposal of this kind as a pretext to stir up political difficulty. I recognize that it is necessary in the next two months for the United States to make some move to prevent an initiative by the Communists and to help the United States elections. But you must remember something. In negotiations the communists always reject your proposals, but they put them in their pocket and they record them for [Page 879] the future. Whatever we give they reject, but they say we cannot take it back and then they always insist that we go further. So they take into their account every little piece of money, one dollar, 10 dollars, one hundred dollars, and then they ask to talk about the next hundred. The situation in Vietnam is very different (than in the U.S.). My duty to the people, the army, political groups and the National Assembly is first of all not to shock them. I must convince them that the proposal is different from a coalition government. I must at least convince restricted political circles and see how they react so that when we publish a proposal it will not cause any problems or endanger stability. Even the 8 points took me a long time to explain to everybody. I had to explain that there would be no coalition, that we would not dissolve the National Assembly and that the Constitution still existed. Everyone has to understand this. Fortunately, we have some weeks until September 15. That is why I say we need time. We have to study the formula. We have to study the titles and the best way to go about this, and even if we accept your proposal we have to study how to explain it. We have to work together.
Dr. Kissinger: As for timing, whatever we mutually agree we will present on the 15th of September, they will not be able to answer right away and they will have to send it to Hanoi, particularly if it is complex enough so that Le Duc Tho is not authorized to deal with it right away. Complexity has a great advantage. Then we will meet on September 29 or October 1 and they will give an answer. I will try to delay again. Assuming the talks break up, the plan will not be published before the sixth of October. So we have six weeks to prepare for it. This will not be published on September 15. Another possibility is that they will keep the talks going into October at which point it may be in our interest to keep them going as well and perhaps not publish the document. My nightmare is that they publish their plan. If McGovern has their plan, we would be in a terrible position. That is the one reason we need an agreed plan to reply. That is why I like the stories that you treated me coolly. Then they think I am doing things to you that you don’t like and, if they think that, then they won’t publish their proposal. If we dominate events, as I think we can, there is no way that our proposal would be published before October 5. I think you should work with Ambassador Bunker and he will come to Honolulu on August 30. It would be important to have your reaction by then. Then we would still have two more weeks to discuss matters.
Mr. Duc: Does Le Duc Tho have any idea about your counterproposal?
Dr. Kissinger: No, we didn’t discuss point 4 at all. We made general comments on the other points. We made a criticism of their point 1 and of their demand for reparations. We discussed with him which [Page 880] issues would be discussed in which forums. He kept asking me what my view was on point 4 and I told him I could not answer until I had come to Saigon to discuss the matter with you. One thing which may interest you is that I told him, since we both agreed that there should be a ceasefire, that we refer the matter immediately to Kleber for discussion. He refused.
Mr. Nha: You stick to the idea of a ceasefire and [cessation of] mining against prisoners of war?
Dr. Kissinger: In his proposal Tho mentioned a ceasefire. I therefore proposed to discuss the technical modalities of a ceasefire and so forth at Kleber. My idea was just to discuss what a ceasefire would look like. He refused. On the other nine points he has a good idea of our views from our January 25 proposal. He knows our general ideas from the eight points in January. As for point 4, he has no idea whatsoever on our thinking.
Mr. Duc: Regarding point 4, you said yesterday that in an election you thought the Communists would only get about fifteen percent of the popular vote and yet in the committee you are proposing that they have fifty percent representation. Do you see any disparity between your view yesterday expressed and this proposal?
Dr. Kissinger: What you need on the committee is a veto, not control. You would be in charge of the government. If you have a veto on the committee, you have essential safeguards. What we do is to give you the safeguard in the committee while you also have the government.
Ambassador Bunker: The essential point is the veto.
Dr. Kissinger: It is argued by your opponents in the United States that if you control the government, the army and the committee, then this is all eyewash. What we do is accept everything they propose except predetermining the composition of the government. That will be decided by an election and I am confident from your recent history that you will not necessarily fare too badly in such a process.
Mr. Duc: You say that this committee will “among other responsibilities” do certain things. What do you have in mind?
Dr. Kissinger: This is to be negotiated between the parties in the second forum. Besides, that language [“among other responsibilities”] was in our January 25 proposal.
Mr. Duc: Do you have in mind any responsibility apart from the modalities of the election?
Dr. Kissinger: No, we don’t conceive of any but again the ambiguity is in our interest to force Hanoi to examine our proposal.
Mr. Duc: This would put pressure on them for international opinion, but it could scare the South Vietnamese.
Dr. Kissinger: We are prepared to listen to counter-proposals but when you formulate them please try to balance South Vietnamese necessities [Page 881] with international necessities. Try to find a way to avoid their proposal and force them to reject our proposal. The Soviet Ambassador in Washington told me recently that he had never seen a weaker hand played so skillfully. We can modify this.
Mr. Duc: Yesterday regarding our discussion on the revision of the Constitution, I would like to be clear on a certain point. Do you conceive that the committee will discuss the revision of the Constitution and then vote on the final draft but will have no final say on the Constitution?
Dr. Kissinger: You could submit it to a referendum.
Mr. Duc: It would only be accepted if approved by the people in a referendum?
Dr. Kissinger: Assuming they accept this, the next step after their acceptance of this proposal would be that all forums would be open. That would be an endless process. Even with good will it would take two months to figure out a ceasefire. There would be the question of international supervision. Which countries would be acceptable? What would be the headquarters of the international supervisory force? How many people? It would be a long negotiation. After this there would be a minimum of six months before the elections. This assumes a miracle that everyone starts trusting each other.
And according to this procedure our troops would be withdrawn three months after an overall agreement, and assuming that this were signed in late October the election would not likely be until next September. The pressure would be off the United States and you would be in two forums without us and not under the pressure of constant scrutiny by the United States press. If you use the opportunity to focus on NVA forces in the South, then you will be in a good position. So if you analyze this carefully you will see this document gives enormous possibilities for maneuvering. We are determined to have a showdown on prisoners of war before the end of the year. Either they accept this proposal or they give up the prisoners under enormous pressure. And, if you look a year ahead, even if they accept the document the interval gives you a maximum opportunity to establish your government vis-à-vis them in the two forums. It will permit you to discuss NVA presence in the South and it will permit us to force a showdown on prisoners of war. We will not permit the DRV to tear us up for four more years.
Mr. Duc: Regarding point 4, what will be the relation between the National Assembly and the Committee of National Reconciliation? Will the Constitution still be in force?
Dr. Kissinger: Your constitution remains in force. Preferably you don’t tell this to the other side in this proposal. When I ask them what happens to the National Assembly, they say it will be abolished, but I prefer that this not be raised in this document, but in the second forum. What we want is, when peace is made, the legal structure of the [Page 882] Government of Vietnam is kept although the political process is open to all forces. Therefore under point 4 this government remains in existence and in the interval between agreement and the elections you will be in office for several months and the National Assembly will remain until the Constitution is revised, and I cannot see how your constitution would be revised without your approval.
Mr. Duc: What about the relations between the National Assembly and the Committee?
Dr. Kissinger: I haven’t thought about that. Do you have any ideas? If Le Duc Tho asks I think I should answer that that would be discussed in the second forum.
Mr. Duc: On point 4, you say the Committee will stay in existence to revise the Constitution and implement its provisions.
Dr. Kissinger: What is meant is that it would stay on to supervise new elections if necessary.
President Thieu: This language is very general. It could be that after they finish their work the Committee would just go home. If we say “agree on steps” it means they would write down the Constitution and go home.
Dr. Kissinger: My view is that the DRV will accept this proposal only if they felt they could maneuver this committee into a government. If they accept our proposal, I think they will lose the war. They will have so many forums going simultaneously the world’s press will not be able to focus on the issues and we will keep up the bombing. I don’t believe they will accept the document.
President Thieu: If they don’t accept the document and if President Nixon is reelected, how do you see an end to the war?
Dr. Kissinger: The DRV always has it in its power to get us out by offering the prisoners of war and a ceasefire. If they do this we will have to weaken them so much while we still have electoral backing and at the same time Vietnamize the Air Force in 1972 and 1973 so that at least we can force them to give the prisoners of war back or at least by 1974 reduce our direct involvement.
In my view in order to affect our elections they are wasting enormous forces and my impression is that in 1973 they will not be able to carry out any main-force activity of any significance and you should be able to make great progress in pacification. The dilemma for them is that, if they revert to protracted warfare, your position is unassailable. Their other alternative is to make a settlement. After the election we will interpret the provisions in the strictest possible ways and I assume that although the war may not end the balance of forces will shift preponderantly in your favor.
President Thieu: How about the return of prisoners of war?[Page 883]
Dr. Kissinger: They may not return the prisoners, or perhaps they will return them when they are convinced we don’t care any more. We will make one tremendous effort to get back the prisoners and in this effort I can assure you we will stop at very little. It is out of the question that we will make any additional concessions after the election.
President Thieu: They cannot accept and they will continue to fight but I still believe that after the election they will have to revise their policy. They will have to negotiate a temporary peace or continue protracted warfare. If they continue protracted warfare, we may have the prisoner of war issue if you exert pressure on them. Do you foresee any possibility that they will ask for a settlement which involves only prisoners of war? What kind of offer would you think they might make for a prisoner of war solution?
Dr. Kissinger: At some point we may have to accept the prisoners of war for an end of the bombing. But if so, it will be at a point when we have severely weakened them. At some point we may have to stop the bombing for this. Maybe in the second half of next year. But what they want is for us to also stop military and economic aid. If we agreed to stop such aid we could settle now, but we will not do this. We have to get to a point where you can continue to fight with a minimum of direct U.S. involvement, but with continued military and economic assistance. We can also try to influence their allies not to arm them in such a way that they are capable of repeating military activities on the scale of the past few months.
I must say that my instinct tells me that they are going to settle. They are not as self-confident as they used to be. Before, when they made a proposal they would stick with it for a year. At the last meeting I told them I was going to Saigon and very frankly told them we would not accept point 4. Le Duc Tho said he was returning to Hanoi. It is very unusual for them to re-evaluate their position so shortly after they have tabled a new proposal. In the past they always had a perception of how they could win. In 1965 they counted on the guerillas, but in 1968 the guerillas were destroyed. In 1968 they began to count on their main forces but now their main forces are being destroyed. Now, if they go to protracted warfare, you will regain all of your territory.
President Thieu: They understand that after this offensive they will not have enough troops to achieve their goal.
Dr. Kissinger: After the election I think you should plan some landing operation in Dong Hoi or Vinh for 24 hours.
President Thieu: It could be done.
Dr. Kissinger: It should be in December or January after our elections. You should plan on it. If you could conduct such an operation for 24 to 48 hours, perhaps at Vinh.[Page 884]
President Thieu: There is nothing in Dong Hoi. It should be in Vinh or Thanh Hoa. There is something in Thanh Hoa.
Dr. Kissinger: If a brigade or division could go in and tear up the place and leave, then they would have to return forces to North Vietnam from the South because they have nothing up there now. Maybe the way the war will end is by continued bombing on our part and the landing of your forces in the North.
President Thieu: I don’t mean to say that I think by protracted war that Hanoi has any hope to win. What I mean is that they cannot do otherwise. They cannot admit defeat. It would be demoralizing for them and politically dangerous for their regime.
Dr. Kissinger: I think they must be in a difficult position. Otherwise they wouldn’t be talking to us with the bombing going on. I think the fact that they have not published their plan and that Le Duc Tho has had no television or news interviews are signs of insecurity. They don’t know which way to move. If we publish our counter-plan then we will have neutralized them militarily and politically and this will carry us to November. If they accept the plan, so what?
President Thieu: What assessment did General Weyand give to you about the situation?
Dr. Kissinger: He gave me an assessment of the situation looking ahead to periods of two, six and twelve months, just like I asked the President yesterday. General Weyand thought that offensive operations by the enemy had steadily decreased with their declining capabilities, that no significant objectives had been lost, and that perhaps they might carry out a couple of spectaculars. In six months the enemy will have no conventional capabilities of any major significance and pacification would make major strides and you would regain almost all of your territory, and in 12 months the trend would even be greater. With the coming of the rains in MR–I the situation will become very complex for the enemy and the possibility even exists of a collapse of some of their divisions.
President Thieu: They will start another offensive in the first week of September, perhaps the 25th of August, and it will last during September and October. It will not be the same strength and momentum as the last offensive because they have less tanks and ammunition. They have introduced the 312th Division, but let’s not talk about divisions but rather about strengths and capabilities. They will try a conventional offensive combined with pacification-spoiling operations. But this cannot last more than two months and after your election the fighting will subside.
Dr. Kissinger: Can they fight in MR–I in October?
President Thieu: Oh yes, they don’t care about the weather or their losses. They fight for political reasons. When the Politburo decides to [Page 885] fight for political reasons they have to fight irrespective of the conditions. We in the Free World are different but they will fight for political reasons until the elections and we have to judge what they will do then not according to capabilities but according to doctrine.
After the elections the fighting will go down. They have never sustained an offensive for more than three months. The last offensive was the longest because of tanks and artillery, and they used the last dry season for the maximum infiltration of tanks and ammunition.
In six months we will recapture the whole territory and we will begin the first phase of pacification in Binh Dinh and Quang Tri. We will consolidate what has been downgraded in pacification. Speaking frankly, we have had a downgrading of pacification from A hamlets to B and from B hamlets to C, in about 100 hamlets (sic).
In twelve months the situation will be much better. It will be much better than in December of 1971 because the NVA will not be the same in December 1973. If we don’t sign anything, the war will fade away and they will have less supplies, less manpower and less regular units in December 1973 than they had in December 1971 or March of 1972. If there is protracted warfare, they have no hope to win but they can try and continue to protract the war as long as they can because they cannot withdraw their troops; they cannot admit to their people that they have lost the war.
Dr. Kissinger: Can they keep their troops in the South indefinitely?
President Thieu: Yes, they have a saying, “Born in the North to die in the South.” They can keep 100,000 or 50,000. They can even make some warfare with 10,000. If they want to stir up something, maybe Laos or Cambodia will be an easier place. You might say that South Vietnam is now the bone and Laos and Cambodia are the steak. Their long-range plan is to use military pressure to influence Cambodia and Laos.
Dr. Kissinger: You should be in a stronger position to help Cambodia.
President Thieu: Yes, if they help themselves. The DRV wants to influence the political situation in Laos and Cambodia. They want to stimulate the pro-Communist and neutralist forces; they want to support those who seek to lessen U.S. influence. I call these their “long-range ambushes.” After that they may wait for 5 or 10 years to see if things weaken. Now with regard to Cambodia. (sic) Even with a settlement and with international supervision we have to accept de facto control of the Communists in north Laos. We have no troops there and you have no troops there. So for Laos we have to accept the situation. But in Cambodia they can do like the Vietnamese because they are 6 million people and they have an army capable of dealing with the KC and with our help they can defend against the NVA main forces. It will take time; they need pacification; they need cadre; they need good administration. It will take years.[Page 886]
Dr. Kissinger: Unfortunately we don’t have Ambassador Bunker in Cambodia.
President Thieu: You can move him there when the war is over here. The Cambodians have lost three years in the present situation.
Dr. Kissinger: Mr. President, that is partly our fault. Some of our people think that the Nixon Doctrine means that we must do nothing.
President Thieu: We must not accuse anybody. The rate of American aid to build the Cambodian army has been faster than the rate of aid to build the Vietnamese army.
Dr. Kissinger: It is not a question of money but of determination. Are you helping the Cambodians develop their army?
President Thieu: We are building their army; we have trained most of the Cambodian army, all of their navy. We have trained colonels, majors, lieutenants and non-commissioned officers. We are ready to help on pacification. [Going to the map of Cambodia and drawing an arc from Kompong Som through Phnom Penh and eastward to the Parrot’s Beak] When I spoke to Lon Nol, I suggested that he work in this area eastward toward our border together with us. But they have not followed my advice. They sometimes do one thing and sometimes another and don’t know what to do first.
Dr. Kissinger: Mr. President, I have a question about the situation in the North. Frankly I am somewhat concerned about your northern provinces. If, as you say, there is another enemy offensive, I worry about whether it is a good strategy to use your elite troops in storming the Citadel perhaps weakening them for when the big offensive starts. I am expressing my worries very honestly.
President Thieu: I have not given orders to take the city, but to destroy the four divisions. I would like to lure the Communist divisions into Quang Tri. If they defend the area around Quang Tri, they will have to expend more troops and we will destroy the troops. The situation has changed a bit. They have a political need to hold Quang Tri just like we had to hold Binh Long [An Loc]. They have issued orders to hold Quang Tri at all costs. I am only using three battalions to attack the Citadel; they are using two regiments to defend it. We are gaining the double: we destroy two regiments and we cause them political concern.
Dr. Kissinger: Can’t you go around them?
President Thieu: We have a plan. For us it is good to attack the 312th Division at Quang Tri because otherwise they could go to Hue and cause trouble. It is better to attack the enemy’s troops at Quang Tri then Hue. I do not want to let them disturb Hue.
Dr. Kissinger: Well, where will the offensive come then if they are defending Quang Tri? In MR–I you are on the offensive.[Page 887]
President Thieu: I do not mean to say that they will launch an offensive because more troops have been sent from Hanoi. Now there is a lull and they are using the time to wait for new supplies and trainees. But they will not only act up in the same area [MR–I] but also in III Corps and they will use their main forces plus spoiling operations against pacification. They would like to attack Route 4 in Dinh Tuong and capture Cai Lay as a prelude to an attack on Saigon.
Dr. Kissinger: Can you break their offensive?
President Thieu: Yes.
Dr. Kissinger: Now let me turn to another matter, Mr. President: that is the question of leadership in the various Military Regions. Our people are very impressed with your commanders in MR–I and MR–4, but everybody is worried about MR–3. (Hearty laughter on both sides of the table.)
President Thieu: Minh has lost his initiative. The Binh Long [An Loc] battle caused, how do you say, a very [rubbing his knuckles together] “uptight” feeling. I have tried to push them to be more aggressive.
Dr. Kissinger: Mr. President, I get a daily briefing on Vietnam and I have been watching General Minh very carefully since last year. If there is a major setback in MR–3, with all the warnings we have had it would be a bad psychological problem in the United States.
Do you expect that the enemy can secure any major victories in the next two months?
President Thieu: Their only hope is in Hue. Before they wanted to attack Hue but they dispersed their forces in three parts of the country and so they achieved nothing decisive. We may lose some districts but we will lose no provinces. This time look at what happened in Kontum. At Tet they believed with the 320th Division they could overrun Kontum and start the whole [unraveling]process, but we attacked them in Laos instead. But they are very doctrinaire and when they get their orders from Hanoi they have to carry out their plan. The local commanders have no initiative. So in March they sent another division to Kontum trying to attract our general reserve. But they did not succeed. In Binh Long [An Loc] they were unable to overrun the province with three divisions and in Quang Tri they used six divisions with tanks and everything and believed that we would only have the Marines to resist them. They didn’t expect that we could send troops everywhere and very fast. If they cannot take Hue with five divisions, I don’t see how they can take anything in the next two months. And I don’t think the Russians and Chinese can send them all the tanks to replace the ones they have lost.
Ambassador Bunker: General Vogt was saying yesterday that they have lost about 650 of the 750 tanks in their inventory.[Page 888]
President Thieu: In this offensive they will use some tanks and their heavy artillery. But the heavy artillery depends very much on the resupply from the DRV. The rains will slow them down. It is very difficult for them to commit many divisions at the same time.
Dr. Kissinger: Even in the next two months?
President Thieu: Even in the next two months.
Ambassador Bunker: Some of their so-called divisions are really only regiments.
President Thieu: Yes, now in Quang Tri they have six divisions while we have two.
Dr. Kissinger: Do you plan to reinforce Quang Tri?
President Thieu: I will wait for one or two weeks to assess the enemy capabilities. I want to retain flexibility.
Dr. Kissinger: Which division will you send up?
President Thieu: At least one from the Delta.
Dr. Kissinger: Will they fight?
President Thieu: It depends on the mission. No one can compare our other divisions with the Airborne, the Marines and the First Division. The First Division cannot be replaced. There are some regiments that cannot be replaced. For example, the First Regiment in Bastogne. It is against the rule but we make an exception and I have provided him the solution of having five percent of these troops on leave at all times for five-day period. (Laughing) How many times has the First Regiment taken and retaken Fire Support Base Bastogne and Fire Support Base Checkmate?
Dr. Kissinger: Can the First Regiment take this indefinitely? At what point is the morale going to crack?
President Thieu: That is why we give them leave. Moreover, when these units fight together their spirit is very high—the Airborne and the Marines have a high morale because they are fighting together.
[At this point Dr. Kissinger took a 10-minute break.]
Dr. Kissinger: One point about the procedural document. I have some trouble understanding the practical consequences of some of the points you make. Take your Point 3 [which rejects a tripartite GVN/DRV/NLF forum]. I don’t think Hanoi has any intention of discussing the internal political solution in the three-way forum. In the three-way forum they want to discuss relations between the North and the South, timing of reunification and the status of the DMZ. So the first sentence [which, in the GVN document at Tab A, states that internal political issues would be discussed in the 3-way forum] doesn’t apply to their proposal and again I think this should be kept fairly vague. As for your suggestion that there only be a forum between Saigon and Hanoi, they won’t accept that. They will want the NLF to participate.[Page 889]
President Thieu: Why should we accept this?
Dr. Kissinger: To build up your status. It is more important to build your status.
President Thieu: We make a distinction between private talks and secret talks. At secret talks anyone can participate, but in private talks we mean officially arranged private talks.
Dr. Kissinger: Yes, once the talks open, the existence of these forums will become known. I personally think it is more advantageous to you. If you are talking to them in the four-power forum already, why not in the three-way forum?
President Thieu: It must be with Hanoi on the other side.
Mr. Nha: You remember in 1968 we had the two-side formula.
Dr. Kissinger: As a practical matter you can call them whatever you want and they can call you whatever you want. If in a two-way forum you can deal with them as a separate entity why can’t you deal with them in a three-way forum as a separate entity? Once they negotiate with you, they have to accept your status and legitimacy rather than the status of the NLF which will be decided on the battlefield.
Frankly, I think their procedural proposal is the most positive aspect. They want us to agree to the principle of dismantling your government and only discuss with you how to implement this principle. This we won’t accept. But I think these three forums are advantageous to you. If you introduce NVA presence into the forum then you would put them on the defensive as insisting that they need outside troops. I don’t think they would even agree to a forum which excludes the NLF.
President Thieu: The same formula we now have in Paris could be applied in this case. They call it a four-party conference; we call it two sides. We could do that again. We could call the NLF part of their side.
Dr. Kissinger: On the three-party level you could call it whatever you want.
Mr. Duc: If we officially accept a forum in which the DRV is present and in which there are two South Vietnamese entities, we would be in an awkward position.
Dr. Kissinger: Why?
Mr. Duc: Because if you accept the principle—
Dr. Kissinger: Not if the only issues that are raised are relations between the North and the South, reunification and the status of the DMZ. If that is all that is under discussion, then you could take the position that the NLF is part of their delegation.
Mr. Duc: If we accept this formula we accept that there are two governments in South Vietnam. That’s the problem. For the people of South Vietnam it is easy to conceive that we talk with the NLF but they [Page 890] cannot understand why, when we talk to Hanoi, that the NLF must participate as another government of South Vietnam.
Dr. Kissinger: You don’t have to recognize them.
President Thieu: In Paris we maintain that the conference is between Saigon and Hanoi. We do not care if Mrs. Nguyen Thi Binh or Mr. Pham Van Tien is on their side. We neglect [ignore] the presence of the PRG. We have to. It is logical. Now when we talk with the NLF they can say whatever they want about who they are. We don’t care.
Mr. Duc: In Paris we insisted on a two-sided conference. You will remember the whole discussion about the shape of the table.
Dr. Kissinger: Maybe we can avoid “tri-partite.” All of this is irrelevant. Either they accept our version on Point 4 or they don’t. The utility of the forums is to enhance your legitimacy, not to undermine it. We know they won’t accept only a bilateral forum. Maybe we can find a formulation with neutral language, but we do not want a breakup on a procedural issue. None of this would ever take effect until the document is signed.
Mr. Duc: We prefer that the word PRG is not used.
Dr. Kissinger: In practice we on our side use NLF and they use PRG. We can do that. I think between now and August 30 we can work on finding some way of dealing with this problem. We have no problem in calling you the Government of the Republic of Vietnam. In any document we submit we will call you the Government of the Republic of Vietnam and them the NLF. Now as for your problem about “resolve” the principles and general content, I see your point. But we would not go beyond this.
Mr. Duc: Even if you refer everything to us it is not to our mutual advantage that you “resolve” the political questions in your bilateral forum.
Dr. Kissinger: I will see if we can find another word. What we have to avoid is being maneuvered into precisely the position they would like to maneuver us in. They would like to say we continue the war just because of the issue of one person. Therefore, I deliberately want to accept as much of the language as possible but preserve the structure of South Vietnam. Your point about “resolve” is a presentational issue. The real issue is on what question the breakdown occurs. You must have read my briefings after the proposal of January this year. I succeeded in making it absolutely clear that the central issue was whether we were going to ally ourselves with the enemy to overthrow a friend, and I want to be in a position to say this again. This proposal is more likely to become public of it fails than if it succeeds and then, if it becomes public, the whole focus will be on Point 4.
Mr. Duc: If it breaks up and the proposal is published many people will read it word for word.[Page 891]
Dr. Kissinger: I don’t give a damn about “resolve.” I want to be able to say that we agreed with the DRV on practically everything. We don’t mind giving you a veto but we have to avoid the impression of giving you a veto in the next two months. In our own Congressional debate they say that we gave you a veto. Their position is illogical, I agree. It’s your own country. Obviously you must have a veto but that is our domestic situation.
Mr. Duc: I agree—even if you don’t attach importance to the word “resolve” they will invoke it every time. The question is what will Vietnamese and international public opinion think of our relationship if we put the word “resolve” here?
Dr. Kissinger: I understand your point, but it is a question of tactics. What is the reason that I am here? The reason is that there is no settlement yet. As I told you, last year we could have made peace if we had agreed with them to settle your domestic situation. We did not do that. I understand your point and I have no answer. I just don’t want them to break up the conference on the issue of whether you have a veto. You see, we have taken out the part about your having to change your policy because we can prove that is absurd. We rejected these things because they were a substantive point.
Mr. Duc: I have this idea. Why don’t we say that the first forum will “discuss” and leave out the word “resolve.” Then in the final paragraph we can say when one question has been “dealt with” instead of “resolved.”
Dr. Kissinger: I understand your point. You want to take out “resolve” wherever it appears and take out reference to political questions. It is important in your opinion to take out political questions. We could take out “resolve”—that is conceivable. I would like to think about it. I am talking tactics now—not strategy. I am assuming that they want to break up the talks.
Mr. Duc: If you include the political issue you leave yourself open to criticism that you are violating our sovereignty and mixing in our internal affairs and so on.
Dr. Kissinger: But we won’t go further than Point 4.
Mr. Duc: It is a question of principle.
Dr. Kissinger: If that is the case, then we cannot discuss the political issue at all.
Mr. Duc: Yes you can, ad referendum.
Dr. Kissinger: My sincere conviction is that these changes are not in your interest. The issue of 50 percent participation in the government is something the United States people can understand. The issue of whether we can talk about political issues is something they cannot, even if we agree with you.[Page 892]
Mr. Duc: I don’t mean to exclude it. Instead of saying political we could say something like “such other issues.”
Dr. Kissinger: I understand. One approach could be that we would table a procedural document that goes beyond your wishes and you could say that I went beyond my authority. I do not mind your attacking me. Another possibility is that it can be a working document and not a formal proposal.
President Thieu: We are concerned with the propaganda that the communists would make out of this.
Dr. Kissinger: What the communist propaganda does is to present you as a fascist and as having a veto over our policy.
President Thieu: In Vietnam they try to separate me from other people in the country.
Dr. Kissinger: If we separate the procedural point from the main document we could just present the 10 points and see if we can get along that way. We could accept in principle the three forums and make it oral.
Mr. Duc: Even if they are two separate documents, do you think they would ever be published later?
Dr. Kissinger: There are two problems: Do we present a document at all? Or do we talk to their document? It is not even impossible at some point, if we cannot agree [on the content], that we agree here that we will present it and you will publicly disagree with us. This couldn’t be the worst thing that could happen to us on a procedural document. We could take out “resolve.” I think as far as the word “political” is concerned, that it can be taken to mean the whole political structure. We will take out the word “resolve” every time it appears and substitute “has been dealt with.” [Pointing to Mr. Duc] He is tougher to deal with than Le Duc Tho.
Mr. Duc: I remember your phrase in your 1969 article in Foreign Affairs that the choreography of negotiations is as important as substance.8
Dr. Kissinger: I think that is true, but in this instance the choreography requires the impression of excessive reasonableness. We have kept the focus on one issue. We will not betray an ally and we will not impose a communist government. That is why every time I ask a question of Le Duc Tho he is delighted because he thinks I am agreeing with him and he gives me all sorts of things that I can use. For example, [Page 893] that we have to dismantle your governmental machinery, that we have to merge your army with the enemy forces, that they want 8 billion dollars in reparations—4.5 for the North and 3.5 for the South. Everybody will laugh. Just imagine, they asked for $8 billion in reparations over five years. That would be $1.6 billion a year. Our whole foreign aid is only slightly more than $2 billion a year. I asked Le Duc Tho if they wanted this in a document and he said yes, he wants it in a document. I asked Le Duc Tho if his concession was that they would not call it “reparations” and he said yes that was their concession, but that he wants in the document the $8 billion. When I publish this he is going to look like an insolent maniac. I have a whole catalogue of outrageous demands. We want to be in a position of making almost unreasonable concessions. Your future will not depend on legal nuances. Besides, I believe in November our public opinion will shift. Even attitudes toward the DRV will change.
Mr. Duc: Your remarks related to international opinion at large and not an appraisal of our status.
Dr. Kissinger: I agree to take out “resolve” but we have to keep the reference to political questions.
President Thieu: The communists may not understand U.S. public opinion, but they always follow the tactics of negotiating by asking the highest price and then bargaining. Even in 1954 they asked for everything and then settled for much less. They understand that they have to present a high bill.
Dr. Kissinger: They have not been clever. They have followed the strategy of 1968 literally, even with regard to timing. Now they want to settle in October, not in substance but a settlement which leads to another forum. But they are stupid. Now what they are doing is reassuring the reelection of the President. As long as there are secret talks it is impossible for McGovern to attack him. They have not managed to succeed with our public opinion. Their strategy is to ask a high price. Ours is to ask a low one but get it rejected and then they get nothing. You say they put their concessions in their pocket, but that may not be exactly the case. Every year we gave them a better proposal, but every year their military situation deteriorates faster than the proposals improve. The Chinese are clever negotiators; the North Vietnamese are not. Take the 7 points of last year.9 What did it get them? Paper victories. They are no further toward their objectives today than they were four years ago and you are infinitely stronger. In my view we have nearly won the war. How can you be destroyed with improving pacification, larger mobile reserves and your international position [Page 894] growing stronger? As for our domestic situation, our critics attack a man like you who resists because they want to surrender. In 1961 it was the same thing with Adenauer. People were saying he was a fascist and so forth and two years later he was a hero and all of this was forgotten. I speak with total frankness because I want you to understand our situation.
President Thieu: The problem is the difference between public opinion in the United States and public opinion in Vietnam. What can bring a boost to public opinion in the United States could kill Vietnam. U.S. opinion will understand your reasonableness but the problem is how to handle it here in Vietnam. Five years ago no one dared talk about peace in Vietnam. Three years ago I made my July 11 political proposal offering the NLF participation in elections. Two years before that no one would have dared talk about talking to the NLF and now we are talking about elections with NLF participation.
Dr. Kissinger: Your domestic requirements are different.
President Thieu: The DRV and the GVN each are the same. They each have to demand a high price. In Vietnam the idea of a fixed price is very recent. In Vietnam we bargain about everything, even if it is only for 10 cents. The notion of a fixed price is very new.
Dr. Kissinger: Sometimes I have the impression that even if we accepted the DRV proposal they would withdraw it because they would suspect something wrong.
President Thieu: In Vietnam even in stores where there are fixed prices you can bargain, except for medicine. When a price is on a medicine that is the price you have to pay.
Mr. Nha: You agree that we will present the 10 points formally and the procedural part as an unsigned document?
Dr. Kissinger: Yes, and we will leave out the word “resolve.”
Mr. Duc: In the first forum leave out the word “resolve” and the third forum leave out “tri-partite” and make it a U.S./GVN/DRV forum in which the NLF can participate.
Dr. Kissinger: We can also leave out the question of Vietnamese armed forces.
Mr. Duc: Or we could try “a forum between the United States and the governments of Indochina in which the NLF can participate.” And paragraph (c) [about joint U.S.–DRV responsibility]would be left out and in paragraph (d) [about overall, bilateral and tripartite agreements] we would drop “tri-partite” and substitute “multi-lateral.”
Dr. Kissinger: I think we should rephrase it to say “some of the parties may reach agreements with one another.” May I make this procedural proposal. We will redraft both the 10 points and the procedural document leaving out point 4 and send it to Ambassador Bunker. You [Page 895] will do point 4 keeping in mind our domestic necessities and then Ambassador Bunker and I will meet in Honolulu. We have to have your views by the 8th or 9th of September.
President Thieu: Yesterday, you asked about the needs of the VNAF. General Vien has prepared this document. It is in Vietnamese because we did not have time to translate it. (President Thieu hands Dr. Kissinger the document. Translation at Tab B)10 I don’t know if General Vien did it in the spirit of the assumptions you outlined this morning and I have had no time to check it personally.
Dr. Kissinger: I have requested a study in Washington and we will give this matter high priority.
President Thieu: What will we say about our meeting today?
Dr. Kissinger: Nothing.
President Thieu: That we reviewed the general situation?
Dr. Kissinger: We can say we reviewed the general situation including the Paris peace negotiations.
President Thieu: That is fine.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 864, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David Memcons, May–October 1972 [3 of 5]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at the Presidential Palace. All brackets are in the original.↩
- For the August 1 proposal, see Document 225.↩
- Attached but not printed is “The Republic of Vietnam’s Assessment on the US Peace Counter Proposal and Views on the US Counter Proposal on the Conduct of Negotiations.” For the U.S. proposals, see Documents 238 and 239.]↩
- See Document 243 and footnote 8 thereto.↩
- See Document 5.↩
- See Document 136.↩
- See footnote 3, Document 20.↩
- As Le Duc Tho noted, Kissinger argued in the article that “the way [emphasis in original]negotiations are carried out is almost as important as what [emphasis in original] is negotiated. The choreography of how one enters negotiations, what is settled first and in what manner is inseparable from the substance of the issues.” (“The Vietnam Negotiations,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 47 (January 1969), p. 218)↩
- See footnote 4, Document 26.↩
- Attached but not printed.↩