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


  • Where We Are in the Negotiating Process

My separate memorandum to you on the August 14, 1972 meeting with the North Vietnamese2 explains the usefulness of that session, despite the lack of substantive breakthrough, and touches on the implications for the next few months. This paper will give you a fuller rundown on where I think we now stand in the negotiating process and reflects much of the rationale I used in my talks with President Thieu.3

In brief, I think we are much closer than the North Vietnamese to our objectives on the diplomatic front. They seek to gain their negotiating terms either (1) by waiting for McGovern, or (2) pressuring us before the election. We seek (1) an honorable settlement or (2) failing that, a clear record of reasonableness for the American people.

Hanoi’s Objectives

Hanoi has been facing an agonizing dilemma. The North Vietnamese obviously would prefer to wait out our elections, hoping for a McGovern win that will yield them their objectives. This would be the natural course, especially for a nation with no single strong leader to make bold decisions. However, even wishful thinking cannot blot out a gap of 20 percentage points in the polls. Thus, they face the prospect of an Administration that won’t guarantee their victory being armed with a fresh four-year mandate, including a judgment on Vietnam policy, from the American people.

Given this prospect, Hanoi must calculate that due to domestic pressures, this Administration is more likely to be generous before November than afterwards, and they are therefore better off trying to gain concessions now. However, to accomplish this means showing some [Page 917] visible progress in Paris—and this in turn reinforces this Administration’s election prospects.

Accordingly, the North Vietnamese have been trying to treat the negotiations on two planes. Publicly, they are doing everything possible to create the impression of a total deadlock in Paris. This is designed to deprive the American people of hope for an early settlement, and thus serve both their objectives—increase McGovern’s chances and magnify the domestic pressures against us. At the same time, they want private meetings in order to probe for the maximum terms they can get from us between now and November. While they explore our positions, they are unwilling to let any progress made in the talks be registered publicly—whether in public commentary, or energizing the plenary sessions, or opening up other forums.

In brief, they want to combine the reality of private progress with the appearance of stalemate.

This strategy is not working. First of all, we have not let them play the game of public deadlock and secret advance. Much to their discomfiture, we have insisted on announcing the fact of our private meetings (for the legitimate reason that we cannot keep my travels secret). While we have been scrupulous in not commenting on the substance or nature of these meetings, the very fact they are taking place correctly leaves the public impression that serious negotiations are under way. This in turn keeps the opposition off guard and dampens domestic pressures.

Secondly, I have continually warned the North Vietnamese that I will break off the talks if they play domestic politics. This might have had a bearing on the gingerly way they have been treating Senator McGovern to date.

Thirdly, we have so far kept them from making their proposals public. If they had published their August 1 plans, we would have had a serious presentational problem getting beyond their cosmetics and explaining their inherent inequities. This would be particularly awkward while Congress was still in session. Now that we are working with Thieu on a counterproposal, the other side is further restrained from going public. (To help keep them silent I encouraged Thieu to make my reception look somewhat cool so as to reflect give and take on the negotiations.) And after tabling our counterproposal, we can easily demonstrate the unreasonable elements of their plans.

Finally, their objectives clash when it comes to timing. They want any settlement with us to take shape at the last possible moment before November—when they are sure (1) they have wrung every pre-election concession from us and (2) that McGovern has no chance to win. However, the negotiating problems are very complex, unlike 1968 when the bombing halt was the only issue. There is probably too [Page 918] little time left after September 15 for us to conclude more than an agreement in principle. This in turn would open up other forums to discuss the settlement in depth; it would at least reinvigorate the plenaries and probably launch the GVNPRG bilaterals as well. We would have a breakthrough toward peace without their having all the details of a settlement buttoned down. They would have legitimized the GVN and Thieu and would be forced to deal with them from here on out.

In short, I have come increasingly to the conclusion that whatever their other formidable qualities, the North Vietnamese have little strategic vision. They would have been much better off now, for example, if they had accepted our military solution of May 1971—we would have been completely out of Vietnam months ago, well before Vietnamization had run its course. This year once again they appear to have missed their strategic moment. They either should have moved quickly enough toward a settlement to get details firmly in place before November, or they should have published their proposals to pressure us. They have done neither; and time is now working against them.

Our Objectives

We, in turn, have two objectives:

  • —(1) We want to conclude a negotiated settlement, or at least a breakthrough in principle, on honorable terms. In these efforts, we draw the line at imposing a communist government or making its emergence inevitable.
  • —(2) If a reasonable solution is not possible, we want to make the best possible record for public opinion. In this case, we have to ensure that the negotiations break up over the other side’s exorbitant political demands so as to isolate those in our country who would have us accept ignominious terms.

We continue to have a chance for our primary objective. We should know in two more meetings whether a breakthrough is possible. However, even with the best of goodwill, it is difficult to see how we can nail down a comprehensive settlement in the next two and a half months—particularly since Le Duc Tho’s trip has delayed our next meeting until mid-September.

The most that can probably be accomplished is an agreement in principle before November; the complex details of such issues as the ceasefire and political process will take more time to work out. This would open up the other negotiating forums, thus locking the North Vietnamese into direct negotiations with the South Vietnamese government, including Thieu.

On the other hand, if there is no breakthrough, the process in Paris would have brought us two to three months of maneuvering room and [Page 919] a solid negotiating record which, if anything, went beyond safe positions. We have also elicited some outrageous demands from the North Vietnamese that even McGovern could not swallow—the $8 billion dollars in reparations, with our culpability written into an agreement; insistence that the entire North Vietnamese field army is under PRG command; coalition governments at virtually all the local levels, etc.

Thus, I believe we are in a very strong tactical position as the result of the first three private sessions with the North Vietnamese in this series. Our already excellent negotiating record will be further improved when we table our full counterproposal, with political elements, on September 15. Our serious search for a settlement has been reflected publicly in the mere fact of private meetings and my trip to Saigon, depriving Hanoi of its two tier approach to negotiations and keeping our opponents off-balance. And if the private talks now break down in October, we will be in a much stronger position than if we had not made these further efforts and had labored under a Paris deadlock all summer.

The Prospects for a Settlement

At this point, the evidence is inconclusive whether Hanoi is really serious about concluding a negotiated settlement. On substance, they have a long way to go on their political positions to make them acceptable to us and Thieu. But what they have shown to date is not inconsistent with ultimate positions that we could live with. And their movement has not been overly slow, given the complexity of the issues and their traditional glacier pace in changing their positions. They have implicitly recognized the legitimacy of the GVN, and Thieu, in their August 1 substantive and procedural proposals. Our task now is to get them to agree to a general political formula (along with more detailed resolution of the military issues) which avoids a coalition government and shifts the detailed negotiations on a political solution to the GVNPRG forum.

Other aspects of the North Vietnamese behavior in recent weeks suggest they might possibly be considering a basic agreement before November:

They have been relatively restrained in their public pressures on us. They are doing their utmost to knock down any speculation that the private talks are making progress, which is not totally unreasonable given the uninformed positive speculation by high level US spokesmen which we can’t really expect Hanoi to believe is unauthorized. And their vilification of our policies continues in Paris and Hanoi. On the other hand, they have not played their game of last summer when they pressured us publicly on the NLF’s 7 points while negotiating privately on their 9 points. Le Duc Tho has given no interviews, and the communists have generally steered clear of envoys from our [Page 920] opposition (e.g. Salinger saw none of the top people in either the NVN or PRG delegations).
They have not published their new proposals. This gambit would reflect a choice to pressure us rather than deal with us.
They have been willing to let this series of talks stretch out over a considerable period. This continued private activity works against them if they are not serious.
Le Duc Tho has returned to Hanoi. This suggests that the Politburo is reviewing its negotiating position. To do so after only one meeting based on their August 1 ten points, their most comprehensive proposal to date, is unprecedented. In the past, they have stood fast on any of their initiatives for several months.
At our last session, Le Duc Tho evinced some interest in the idea of my meeting other members of the Politburo in some location outside of Paris.

None of these straws suggest that Hanoi is ready to settle on reasonable terms; the odds are still against this. However, these actions are consistent with a desire to settle, and they at least indicate that they want to hold open the option of a settlement until well into the fall.

If they move then, they will, of course, find us a willing partner. If they continue to hold to their unreasonable political position, we will have an unassailable record to present publicly.

The August 14 Meeting

It is as part of this pattern that the August 14 meeting derives its significance despite the fact that it produced no substantive breakthrough:

  • —We tabled forthcoming offers on principles, substance, and procedure. We repackaged their proposals and made a good record, without conceding any core points and avoiding the political issue pending my Saigon trip.
  • —Our questions drew out of them some patently unreasonable demands. And we discredited conclusively the Shriver/Harriman thesis of a peace “signal” in late 1968, with the North Vietnamese insisting that mutual withdrawal was never in the cards.
  • —Combined with our earlier meetings, we have both brought about some significant changes in the other side’s positions and kept them from publishing them.
  • —Furthermore, the chance for a breakthrough remains, for all the reasons cited above.

Likely Scenarios

As a result of our meetings to date, we now have the following advantageous prospects: [Page 921]

  • —After completing our consultation process with Thieu we will table our new plan including political proposals, at the September 15 meeting. Le Duc Tho should return from Hanoi with some new ideas as well.
  • —Each side will have to study each other’s new plans. Certainly we will have presented enough new elements to make it impossible for the North Vietnamese to break off the talks at that point.
  • —There would be at least one, and probably two, more exploratory sessions; this will take us to the beginning or middle of October. We will then know whether a deal is possible.
  • —If the other side is interested in our plan, one of two things will then happen during the month of October:
    • • Either we will sign an agreement in principle and announce it publicly, with dramatic impact; or
    • • We will at least open up the other forums among the Vietnamese parties, as well as energizing the plenary sessions, on the details of various issues. This by itself would have major public impact.
  • —On the other hand, if the talks collapse in October, we can take the offensive—as we did last January—by publishing our proposals and efforts. We would underline our (and Thieu’s) reasonableness and the other side’s intransigence, including some of their preposterous positions that, if taken literally, no American President could accept. Having essentially met the other side’s positions on all issues except the political one, and having been generous on that one as well, we could demonstrate that negotiations broke down over a single issue: their insistence that we effectively guarantee a communist takeover in South Vietnam.
  • —We kept our opponents silent for several months last winter and spring. We can certainly do so for several weeks this fall with an even more impressive negotiating record.
  • —After November, our bargaining position is obviously much stronger. You will be armed with a fresh four-year mandate that includes the American people’s judgment that we should not crown ten years of sacrifice with dishonor.

To sum up. Hanoi is now in the position that (1) the benefits of a breakup in the talks for them have been minimized, if not eliminated; and (2) progress in the talks would ease our domestic pressures but probably not yield a final settlement before November. Either scenario would enhance the already strong prospects for the re-election of this Administration and a renewed mandate.

On the other hand, we have a reasonable chance to achieve a breakthrough toward a settlement with all the positive international and domestic fallout. If not, we and the North Vietnamese have written a [Page 922] record that demonstrates that the U.S. tried everything for a settlement short of betrayal.

  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. XVII. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. Sent for information. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. On Lord’s cover memorandum transmitting the revised draft of the text that was sent, Kissinger wrote: “Excellent. Move forward.” (Ibid.)
  2. Document 246.
  3. See Documents 243 and 245.