246. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1

SUBJECT

  • My August 14, 1972 Meeting with the North Vietnamese

Overview

The August 14, 1972 meeting with Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy lasted seven and a half hours, the longest session ever except for our previous one on August 1.2 It was essentially a holding action on both [Page 896] sides. I avoided the political issues altogether except for generalities, citing my forthcoming trip to Saigon, and concentrated on questions to elicit their views and clear the record. They confined themselves to joining us in a point by point comparison of our respective positions and made no new moves. This was partly because Le Duc Tho is returning to Hanoi in a few days and partly to avoid my request to shift agreed points to the plenary sessions for working out technical details.

Tho was testy at the outset as he repeatedly accused us of stirring speculation on these private talks and dragging out negotiations for electoral reasons. And his point by point critique of our positions emphasized our differences. But when I suggested his performance was making it difficult to do anything useful in Saigon (it was one thing to believe that only the political issue stood in the way of a settlement; it was another to operate on the premise of a stalemate across the board), he and Thuy became markedly cordial. They emphasized both sides’ good will; the need to find “neutral,” i.e. compromise, positions on the political issues; and the ease with which we could solve all other questions if we could find the right political formulas. They repeatedly stressed that at last we were entering “real” negotiations.

We set the next session for September 15 since Tho won’t be back in Paris until September 10.

Significance of the Meeting

The meeting served several useful purposes even though it produced no significant advances toward a settlement. We tabled three forthcoming documents on (1) general principles; (2) substantive points except for the political issues; and (3) procedural points on the conduct of negotiations.3 These were tailored to the structure and much of the language of their August 1 proposals, without making any significant new concessions. They served to clear away some of the less thorny underbrush if we are to make a settlement; further improved our negotiating record; and gave Tho useful proposals to take back to the Politburo. In addition, I asked some leading, though strictly noncommittal, questions on their political positions which perhaps made them salivate, but in any event produced some patently unreasonable answers that even our opponents would concede were extravagant.

They, in turn, could not be expected to table significant new offers in advance of Tho’s return to Hanoi. Their August 1 documents were the most comprehensive and detailed plans they have ever submitted, however distasteful certain of their elements remain. In the past, they [Page 897] would have stuck with these for six months at least. Even if they had some minor suggestions in their briefcase, they could not put them forward once they saw we were avoiding the only issue—political power in the South—which really concerns them now, and on which they almost certainly expected us to say something. Most importantly, they would not give anything away prior to the policy review in Hanoi. And if they are considering revisions it is useful for Tho to go back after a meeting in which our own position was firmly maintained.

Thus, during the next month there will be an intensive review on both sides, particularly of the political issue. We will see what Thieu can live with in terms of stretching our side’s position far enough to give Hanoi a reasonable and face-saving (though still somewhat risky for us) solution if it is willing to settle short of its demands.

The North Vietnamese will be watching the polls in our country and the developments in South Vietnam and deciding whether to compromise before November. They have an agonizing choice. They can make a deal with an Administration that will give them a fair chance to jockey for power in the South, but refuses to guarantee their victory. Or they can hold out, knowing that this course almost certainly means they will face the same Administration with a fresh four year mandate that reflects the American people’s refusal to cap ten years of sacrifice with ignominy.

In any event, we are sure of at least two more private meetings (they cannot break off negotiations right after we table new proposals) which will carry us well into October. The circumstances surrounding the next private meeting preceded by Tho’s return and my trip to Moscow will give us more momentum in September. During this process we have gotten closer to a negotiated settlement than ever before; our negotiating record is becoming impeccable; and we still have a chance to make an honorable peace. (I am sending you a separate memo on the implications of this meeting and where we now stand.)4

Highlights

—The meeting began with Tho’s carrying to an annoying length their allegations that we were encouraging speculation about the secret negotiations and stretching out the negotiating process for domestic political purposes. He charged that, as usual, we were breaking our promises. Interestingly, however, neither at this point nor at any time in the meeting did they mention our bombing, mining, or the dikes.

[Page 898]

—I rejected their assertions in very strong terms and said that their charges poisoned the atmosphere for a settlement. I pointed out that they could not play the game of public stalemate and private progress to generate pressures on us, and insisted that we had to announce private meetings as they are held. I once again pledged that we would not elaborate or stir any speculation on the negotiations. (It is essential that we continue to observe this commitment, though, as I pointed out to them, we cannot control the press.)

—I then made a 1¾ hour statement, reading and handing over three documents and comparing our positions point by point, except for the political problem.

—First, I gave them a set of agreed principles drawn from our presentation on July 195 and their presentation of August 1 to guide negotiations. These represent a general approach, including both sides’ willingness to coexist, negotiate a settlement, respect South Vietnam’s free political choice, and respect the independence of the Indochinese countries; and our neutrality toward South Vietnam’s political future and our intention to leave no permanent military presence in Indochina.

—Second, I gave them a ten point negotiating document answering each of their points except the political one on which I reserved comment until after my return from Saigon. This followed the outline and much of the language of their proposals of August 1.

  • • It contains all the essentially agreed elements on the subsidiary issues.
  • • On withdrawals, I said our four month period was negotiable and we would modify it next time, but not down to their one month. (With their dropping of a fixed date last time, this is no longer a real issue.)
  • • On prisoners, I emphasized again that the release had to include all men, and account for all missing, throughout Indochina. (Their plan only covers Vietnam on specific issues like this and ceasefire.)
  • • On standstill ceasefire as well, I indicated that we wanted it to cover the whole region. I said that we would consider the timing of a ceasefire in conjunction with our political proposals next time. (They have pressed for it as late as possible, we as early as possible.)
  • • On political questions, we left this point blank in our document, reserving a detailed proposal until after my trip to Saigon and your seeing Bunker in Hawaii. I reiterated that our bedrock principle was that “the political future result from the decision of the South Vietnamese [Page 899] people and not by imposition of the U.S. Government.” If they would accept this framework we could reach a solution. For our part, we would make a great effort to bridge differences, but we would not prejudice the political outcome.
  • • After presenting our proposal, I exhaustively reviewed all of their positions which we had essentially accepted, making a forthcoming record.

—Third, in response to a similar document tabled by them on August 1, I gave them a procedural document outlining the composition and agenda of the various negotiating forums. I pointed out that the disposition of North Vietnamese troops in the South should be discussed in the forum composed of the three Vietnamese parties. They later made the transparent claim that these were under PRG command and thus should not be considered North Vietnamese, but in so doing made their most explicit confirmation ever of their forces in the South. I also pressed hard to shift discussion of details of a ceasefire to the plenary sessions, but they refused (obviously fearing this would suggest progress in our secret talks).

—I concluded by summing up our remaining areas of agreement and differences.

—During a 45 minute break at this point, Tho raised the idea of our meeting in some other location which I had floated at the July 19 meeting. I responded that this was a suggestion we were prepared to consider if it would help the negotiating process and/or other members of their Politburo wished to meet. He seemed interested, and I returned to the subject at the end of the meeting.

—After the break, Tho predictably complained about our not addressing political questions and tried to draw out our ideas. I refused, saying we had to discuss this in Saigon—making the point implicitly that we work closely with Thieu. I confined myself to saying that their August 1 plan had the positive element of dropping some of their preconditions before negotiations (i.e. Thieu need not resign first; and the Communists would talk to the GVN, including Thieu, about political issues). However they retained the negative elements of prescribing in advance the outcome of the political process.

—After a few questions, Tho made his own 1½ hour presentation:

  • • He began by attacking our alleged broken promises again, but I cut him off after a short period.
  • • He then went through all the issues, with his general theme being that we were “still far apart” on many particulars as well as the central question of political power. On the latter issue, he emphasized that in South Vietnam there are two governments, two armies, and three political forces and these had to be reflected in any settlement.
  • • He stressed that the other forums provided in their procedural document of August 1 (like the GVNPRG talks) should not begin until we had reached agreement on all the main military and political issues.

—He emphasized again that ceasefire should only come after an overall settlement, reflecting agreement in all forums, was reached.

  • • On both prisoner release and ceasefire he strongly suggested that coverage throughout Indochina would be acceptable, though their proposal concerns only Vietnam. He said they had to work formally through their allies in Laos and Cambodia.
  • • He, in effect, said that we could never make North Vietnamese troops leave the South.
  • • He was hard on reparations, saying we could choose another word, but that the concept (and perhaps the figure) would have to be part of a written agreement.

—After another brief break, I posed a long series of questions which brought out some extreme formulations on such issues as the political question, local/provincial governments, reparations, and their forces in the South. If they were to stick literally to all these positions (which is unlikely) their demands would patently amount to destruction of the South Vietnamese political and military power, guaranteed victory for the PRG, and demand for our formal compensation for war damages. Their often preposterous positions included the following:

  • • The concept of U.S. reparations (another phrase might be used), and perhaps a specific figure should be written in a peace agreement. This reconfirmed their position on this.
  • • Local governments in South Vietnam should be run by the GVN or PRG in areas they control, and by three segment administration in contested areas. Practically speaking, however, all parts of the country are contested and thus should be governed by three segment coalition governments.
  • • The ARVN is deprived of U.S. aid once there is a ceasefire. It will then be amalgamated with the entire Communist army, and this overall force will be under the command of the Government of National Concord.
  • • Furthermore, the North Vietnamese troops are under the command of the PRG (and therefore presumably will be part of the overall South Vietnamese armed forces). Discussion of their disposition therefore should take place in the second negotiating forum, the bilateral GVNPRG talks.

—During this process I had them repeat twice that there was no mutual withdrawal linkage of any sort with the 1968 bombing halt under[Page 901]standings,6 thus indirectly shooting down the Shriver/Harriman thesis of a “signal” from them in withdrawal of some of their troops in late 1968. Both Tho and Thuy insisted that they had always firmly rejected the concept of mutual withdrawal and any proposal associated with it.

—The meeting concluded with their very conciliatory statements about their good will and the need for mutual compromise. I said we would make a further effort on the political issue, but they should be under no illusion that we would accept their proposals. They would have to move as well. Tho agreed that we should try to find a middle position.

—We agreed on September 15 for our next meeting and then adjourned at 5:00 p.m. after seven and a half hours.

Substantive Details

—As had become common practice, Tho started the meeting by raising a procedural squabble over our supposed lack of good faith in not keeping our promise to keep the private meetings a secret, as evidenced by a speculative article in the Baltimore Sun. I firmly rebutted their charges, pointing out the extraordinary lengths to which we have gone to discourage speculation, and emphasizing the unacceptable nature of their continued charges of bad faith, alone among the many nations with whom we have done business recently. This touched a raw nerve and Thuy responded that Hanoi’s position was different from Moscow’s and Peking’s. For good measure, they added the usual charge about our violating the 1968 agreement, which I countered by citing their own flagrant violations.

—I then said I would reply to the points in their 10-point proposal one by one, excepting the political point, for the purpose of which I was going to Saigon. I tabled three documents and explained them:

  • —(1) A list of agreed general principles to guide a settlement, based on principles they included as part of their 10-point plan, but altered to indicate areas where we both agreed, instead of merely reciting unilateral statements by our side, as their document did. We said we were willing to record these principles as understandings between us. These principles were, in summary:
    • • The U.S. and DRV pose no long-term threat to each other and can coexist.
    • • Both sides agree that the time has come to negotiate a settlement respecting Vietnamese independence and meeting each other’s reasonable concerns.
    • • Both sides respect South Vietnam’s right to decide freely its own political future. The U.S. is not committed to any particular process in South Vietnam.
    • • Both sides are interested in the independence, neutrality, and territorial integrity of the Indochinese countries. The U.S. does not seek to maintain troops, bases or alliances in Indochina after the war is over.
    • • Both sides will respect the agreements reached, and this will contribute to the development of relations between them.
    • • Both sides must create mutual confidence, show good faith and have a realistic outlook.
  • —(2) A new 10-point plan, keyed to their 10-point proposal of the preceding meeting. The two major new elements, in addition to the use of much of their format and language, were:
    • • We left open the number of months following the overall agreement in which total U.S. withdrawals would take place. I said we would make a proposal next time, making clear it would not meet their position of one month.
    • • The Indochina ceasefire would take place at a time to be agreed upon by the parties. I said that we would present our thinking on timing for the ceasefire together with concrete and comprehensive political proposals at our next meeting.
    • • After tabling the plan, I thoroughly went through areas of agreement and disagreement between us, point by point.
  • —(3) A revised document on negotiating procedures, based on the document they presented at the last meeting:
    • • Basically we accepted their concept of negotiating procedures: Once progress is made in our secret bilateral talks, three other forums should be activated: bilateral between the GVN (including Thieu) and the PRG to work on a political settlement and other matters; tripartite talks among the three Vietnamese parties on issues like relations between North and South; and continuing four power talks to work on questions like the details of a ceasefire.
    • • However, we proposed that as soon as a problem was essentially resolved between the U.S. and DRV the parties could agree to refer it immediately to one of the other forums for discussion rather than holding up all other forums until our secret talks had agreed on all main issues as they suggest.
    • • I also pointed out that logic dictated that the question of Vietnamese armed forces be discussed in the tripartite forum, given their divisions in the South, rather than in the GVNPRG bilaterals which they suggested.
    • • Our document also seeks to shift more of the political discussion to the bilateral GVNPRG forum.
    • • I emphasized the importance we attached to the joint DRV–US responsibility to facilitate the resolution of difficulties which may arise in the other forums.
    • • In addition to the four forums presented by them, we suggested the possibility of a wider international forum to deal with matters related to all of Indochina.

—I also emphatically stated that if they continued to count on our elections to force us into more concessions, they would be utterly wrong. We would make a serious effort for peace, but this would not be affected in any way by domestic political considerations.

Following the one-hour break, Tho tried to coax forth our ideas on a political settlement before we went to Saigon. He emphasized the necessity of recognizing the existence of two governments, two armies, and three political forces in South Vietnam, which made the formation of a Government of National Concord necessary. He reemphasized the primordial nature of the political question to them and made it clear he was disappointed that we had said nothing about a political solution in our presentation. He then read through a long document, reflecting their analysis of our 12 points of August 1. At times he was quite incisive in his analysis of our position, but his tone was heavily negative. Notable points as follows.

Tho said there were three major differences between us.

—On the political question, our views were completely different. He delivered himself of some obiter dicta on the Thieu government and said our political proposal of August 1 did nothing to change our desire to maintain that government in power. More specifically, he said:

  • • Our proposals would make some formal changes in the Saigon government but in reality keep it intact. It would not change its policy or its personnel except Thieu.
  • • Elections and any other political process would be carried out within the framework of the present government and its organs and thus could hardly be free.
  • • Our proposals would also preserve the present constitution as there would only be “revisions late in the process,” and how this would happen was unclear.
  • • In contrast, their political proposals would reflect “realities” in South Vietnam, specifically the fact that there are “two governments, two armies, and three political forces.”
  • • Their plan would provide for the formation of a three-segment (equal proportion) government in South Vietnam to take power as soon as a settlement is reached and to conduct internal and external affairs until the general elections they would organize. The election would choose a constituent assembly which would work out a new constitution and set up the definitive government. Thus, he asserted, their plan [Page 904] would give all political tendencies a fair and safe chance rather than loading the dice for the Thieu regime.

—On the troop withdrawal question, he said we still wanted to get DRV troops out of South Vietnam. This we could never implement, since it would be “morally, legally, and politically” wrong to do so. The NVA should be considered as belonging to the PRG for purposes of negotiation.

—On the timing and implementation of the ceasefire, he reiterated their position that ceasefire can only follow total agreement:

  • • Military and political issues should be settled between us before shifting the discussions to other forums; and all the details should be worked out before a ceasefire.
  • • We, in turn, sought to solve only military questions and the general principles of a political solution before a ceasefire. In practice we were still trying basically to separate military issues from political ones.
  • • While the DRV would not speak for Laos and Cambodia, he could assure us that the solution of the Vietnam problem would positively contribute to the settling of the ceasefire, as well as the POW problems in these countries.

—Other, smaller differences were:

  • • Timing of withdrawals, mentioned in minor key.
  • • Cessation of military aid to the Saigon regime.
  • • Reparations, for which the U.S. must accept formal responsibility, though he agreed that we needn’t use the word “reparations” in a formal document.

Tho also rejected our idea of shifting generally agreed subjects such as ceasefire to the plenary session for technical implementation.

—Concerning our new plan which we had just presented, Tho said his preliminary views were that while we had rearranged our points to follow theirs, the resemblance was only literary and not substantial.

After a second, short break, I asked a number of questions designed to get them to clarify their position. The following emerged:

  • —In their view, both the GVN and the PRG would cease to exist after a ceasefire. The Government of National Concord would determine its own aid requirements in accordance with its neutral policy. If we stopped aid, the DRV would also stop its aid.
  • —Three-segment governments would exist at every local level at which political power was contested, but the “fact” of the matter was that in practically all GVN areas, power was contested.
  • —The two contending armies in South Vietnam would be merged and put under the command of the Government of National Concord. [Page 905] DRV forces in the South would be treated for this purpose as part of the “liberation Army.”
  • —Each side could now nominate a certain number of “neutral” members of the government but each name had to be jointly approved.
  • Tho came back again to the necessity of solving the political question first. I pointed out that it was he himself who had proposed solving the questions which could be solved and then coming back to points of disagreement.

As the meeting headed toward a close I registered my disillusionment with their generally negative performance. They could hardly expect me to work hard in Saigon on political issues when they were underscoring differences on other issues as well. This had a salutory effect; their tone changed markedly:

  • —They emphasized that both sides had been showing good will and that we were engaged in serious negotiations.
  • —They emphasized that neutral ground must be found on the tough questions, like the political issues.
  • —They opined that if the political problem could be solved, the other issues would fall into place.
  • —They underlined their desire for rapid progress toward a settlement.
  • —And Tho informed me that he was returning shortly to Hanoi; this was the first time he had accounted for his travels to me.

In this ambiance, I came back to the question Tho had asked during a break. I restated my willingness in principle, if we made more progress, to meet at some future time with him and other members of the DRV Politburo in a neutral location, if all agreed that would speed up final agreement. He said they would consider this suggestion.

We concluded the meeting by agreeing to study further each other’s plans. In discussing the date of the next meeting, Tho said that the date of September 8, which we had proposed, was not possible because he would not be back until September 10. We then agreed on September 15.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 855, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XVI. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.
  2. See Documents 225 and 237.
  3. These three papers are attached as Tabs A–C. Tab B is printed as Document 238 and Tab C is printed as Document 239.
  4. See Document 250.
  5. See Document 207.
  6. See footnote 5, Document 2.