263. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1
- My Meeting with the North Vietnamese, September 15, 1972
I met for almost 6 hours with Le Duc Tho on September 15.2 It was in many respects the most interesting we have ever had. They were defensive; [Page 965] they professed eagerness to set the earliest possible deadline for an overall settlement; and they have never been so eager to have early and frequent meetings. They repeatedly, and almost plaintively, asked how quickly we wished to settle and there was none of their usual bravado about how U.S. and world opinion were stacked against them. For the first time in the history of these talks I sensed that they were groping for their next move and their tack was devoid of any apparent, clear-cut strategy. Indeed the tone of our exchanges may prove more significant for the future than actual content of their remarks at this meeting.
On the purely substantive side, we tabled our new proposal building on our August 14 offer but adding the political element which we had withheld at the last meeting pending consultations with Saigon. With your prior concurrence, one element of our political proposal, namely the tripartite nature of the committee to supervise the Presidential elections, was tabled without complete Saigon agreement. This was because of the inordinate delay in receiving Saigon’s comments on our proposals and the fact that without this element our proposal would have had practically nothing new as compared to our January offer.
I also came down hard on their recent handling of POW releases and their recent public statements which have edged on divulging the private negotiating record.
For their part, the DRV also tabled a new proposal. It contained a number of elements including a proposal that the GVN and PRG should continue to exist even after the formation of a Government of National Concord, with the latter acting as a sort of super-government while the GVN and PRG continue to exercise administrative functions over their local jurisdictions. They also added a number of elements of concreteness to their proposal. They were specific for the first time about when Constitutional Assembly elections would take place under their proposed Government of National Concord, namely within 6 months of an agreement; the proposed specific countries for participation in international supervision and guarantee mechanisms; and they advanced a concrete agenda for our future private talks.
At the end of the meeting we agreed to study each other’s respective positions and meet again on September 22 or 25 subject to confirmation. At their suggestion, we tentatively agreed to meet for two successive days in a maximum effort to find a breakthrough.[Page 966]
Despite further movement in their position, their views, particularly on the political issue are still far from ours; but I was struck by the tone and attitude of our meeting. They now appear to have a greater appreciation of U.S. political realities and seem to be more aware of the ever diminishing significance of the Vietnam issue in the context of our overall foreign and domestic policies.
It is not entirely clear what they have to gain by being so eager to pursue the dialogue. Their dilemma is that further talks strengthen our domestic position and negotiating record without in any way restricting our military flexibility, while if they break them off, they have no hope of settling before November which I sense from our meeting is their strong preference.
My surmise is that they are deeply concerned about your reelection and its implications for them but, with their collective leadership, they may be having deep difficulties coming to grips with the very political concessions they will have to make to move the talks off dead center. They continue to pose unacceptable demands, perhaps because they lack imagination, perhaps because they wish to defer the necessary concessions to the last possible moment.
Whatever the case, we are in an unassailable position. By tabling our new proposal we have built an excellent negotiating record. This will be enhanced by the next meeting and their eagerness to talk will carry us into October. At that point Hanoi will face the choice of moving off its political position in order to reach early agreement or having to deal with you after the election.
—I first tabled our new proposal. It essentially builds on our January 25 offer3 with the following new elements of significance.
- • Our withdrawal would be 3 rather than 6 months after a settlement.
- • The committee to supervise Presidential elections would be tripartite in nature with equal representation for the GVN, NLF and a third segment of neutral forces whose composition would be mutually agreed between the GVN and NLF.
- • Political forces would be represented in the new cabinet in proportion to the number of votes received in the presidential election.
- • The committee to supervise the election would remain in existence afterwards to participate in revision of the Constitution.
- • We gave them an understanding that a ceasefire would come after settlement of all political and military issues rather than earlier in the process as had been our original position. Although we portrayed this as a major concession, my own judgment is that objectively at this stage they have more to gain than we by an immediate ceasefire.4
—Le Duc Tho first reaffirmed a DRV statement of policy and principles which their side had tabled on August 1.5
—He then tabled a ten-point proposal which is based on their August 1 proposal. In regard to the new proposal, Tho emphasized the following aspects:
- • First they insist on our affirming respect for the unity of Vietnam lest the country be perpetually divided.
- • Second, on military questions we should agree to withdrawal 45 days from a settlement—this is 15 more days than their August 1 position. They were also very insistent on their demand that we end military aid to the Saigon Government from the time of a ceasefire.
- • On political questions Tho reaffirmed their August 1 position but adding 2 new elements: first, instead of abolishing the GVN and PRG when the three-segment Government of National Concord is formed, the GVN and PRG will continue to run areas under their jurisdiction while the National Concord Government serves as a super-government; second, the National Concord Government will have primacy in foreign affairs but is circumscribed by the GVN and PRG in domestic matters. National Concord Committees would also be established at the local and regional levels. Tho also made the concrete proposal that Constituent Assembly elections under the National Concord Government be held within 6 months of a settlement.
- • Finally, Tho dwelt at some length on reparations and, in what I found to be an astounding example of their arrogance, demanded 1 billion dollars more in reparations for South Vietnam than they had the last time, bringing the total they demand for the 2 Vietnam’s alone to 9 billion dollars, 4.5 for the North and 4.5 for the South.
—Tho also made a number of concrete proposals on such peripheral issues as who would be in the international control and supervisory body and which countries would participate in guarantees of the status of Indochina.[Page 968]
—On procedural questions Tho reaffirmed their position that the key political and military questions must be settled between us first before the subsidiary forums can be opened (e.g. those in which the GVN and NLF would participate).
—We then engaged in a rather vigorous exchange about attitudes towards negotiations. Tho accused us of seeking to delay the talks and prolong the war. I countered that we had worked hard to table a new proposal at every session and it was he who had gone to Hanoi for 4 weeks, making more frequent talks impossible.
—Tho then betrayed an unusual impatience for further meetings when he protested my suggestion that we meet again two weeks from now after we have had a chance to study their new documents. I finally agreed to meet again on either September 22 or 25 subject to confirmation. I pointed out, however, that while the DRV insists it wants to make rapid progress, it refuses to move agreed subjects immediately to subsidiary forums until we have agreed to their political demands. I again repeated our position that the modalities of a ceasefire would be an appropriate subject to refer immediately to the plenary forum. Tho rejected this.
—In specific response to certain points Tho had made, I told him their hopes of a formal commitment to reparations was illusory; I reminded them of the need to consider seriously our proposals and not only demand that we work on a basis of theirs and that our position on the political issue was about as far as we could reasonably go. I also made the point that India would be unacceptable to us as a participant in any supervisory mechanism as they proposed.
—Finally, after asking a few detailed questions about their newest proposal, I proposed to Tho that at our next meeting we concentrate on seeking to find agreed language on those issues where we have reached essential agreement such as the military questions and international guarantees. We would also, of course, seek common ground on the political questions.
—Tho agreed, but emphasized their desire to focus on the political question.
I began by pointing out the other side’s clear violation of our understanding—not to divulge the content of our private meetings, as evidenced in the PRG’s political statement of September 11.6 I emphasized that the problem was not overly difficult for us, but we should all keep to our understandings with each other. I also came down hard [Page 969] on the current POW release, pointing out to them the fact that their choice of method assured them that the U.S. public would react in exactly the opposite way of that they intended. Finally, I agreed to stay over until the next day and continue to negotiate if we did not get a chance to finish our business in one session.
Xuan Thuy felt constrained to reply, saying that the PRG made no mention of private meetings, and at any rate was merely replying to our convention platform on Vietnam. They recalled that this was not the first prisoner release they had made to the Liaison Committee, which he called a “humanitarian” organization with whom the DRV had had regular dealings.
Following these defensive reactions on their part, I presented our new proposal. I outlined its history, emphasizing the difficulties we had gone through in our consultations with Saigon and the fact that we had sought consistently to find middle ground and shape a solution that would be just to both sides. I laid particular emphasis on our new political point, which contained the following new elements:
- —The three-segment composition of the Committee for National Reconciliation, which would organize and supervise the Presidential elections.
- —The date of the Presidential elections would be advanced from six to five months following overall agreement.
- —Proportional representation for all political forces in the new government to be formed after the presidential elections, according to votes obtained in the elections.
- —Revision of the Constitution for consistency with the conditions of peace.
Subsequently, I supplemented our formal political position with a series of unilateral undertakings which we were willing to make.
- —The three segments of the Committee of National Reconciliation would be of equal proportions, similar to the DRV formulation in respect to the composition of the National Concord Government.
- —We would use our influence to assure that revisions would be made in the Constitution after a ceasefire, and that the Committee of National Reconciliation would play a major role in this revision.
- —We were confident that Thieu’s resignation date, specified as one month before elections in our January plan but left vague in our present offer, would be negotiable.
I also underlined the following additional new elements:
- —While the language of our formal proposal continues to say that a ceasefire will be observed “at a time mutually agreed upon,” we were willing to agree with them that a ceasefire should take place only after an overall agreement is signed.
- —We noted that we had advanced the timetable for total U.S. withdrawal from 4 months to 3 months after signature of an agreement.
I concluded our presentation by stressing our desire to end the war rapidly and urging them to approach us in a constructive spirit, so that we could fulfill our responsibility toward our two peoples.
The other side took a break to consider our proposal, during which Le Duc Tho made a point of engaging me in a rather warm conversation, in which he bent over backwards to convey the impression that they were interested in reaching a prompt settlement.
After the break, Tho embarked on a lengthy prepared statement.
—He first took up what he called the DRV’s general principles and policies. He rejected our principles which we gave to them on August 147 but said that he envisaged that each side could issue its own statement of principles and take note of the other side’s statement. In particular, he noted we had failed to mention two points which we had previously discussed (he then gave us a document setting forth DRV views):
- • The fact that the U.S. did not require a pro-US administration in Saigon, and US willingness to commit itself not to return to Vietnam.
- • A statement that the US did not want alliances in the Indochina region.
—Concerning the substantive content of a solution, Tho handed us a new 10-point proposal, following the format of their old plan. Tho said there were 4 important points closely linked to each other. These were:
- • US respect for the unity of Vietnam, as expressed in their point one. Tho called this a question of principle on which they would not cede. He further pointed out that this was stated clearly in the 1954 Geneva Agreements and wondered why we hesitated to mention it.
- • Concerning the military questions, the DRV felt that one month after agreement was long enough for total US withdrawal, but was willing to extend the deadline to 45 days.
In relating their demand that the US end military aid to the Saigon regime at a ceasefire, Tho reaffirmed his statement of last time that in actuality both sides in the South would refrain from accepting any military aid.
—Regarding the political point, Tho said his preliminary view was that we had put forward nothing basically new. He then outlined the new elements in their own new plan. Where their previous plan proposed the abolition of the Saigon Administration and the PRG simultaneously with the formation of a Government of National Concord [Page 971] (GNC), they now proposed that the GNC would be formed above both the GVN and PRG, both of which would continue to exist. National Concord administrations would also be established at all local levels side-by-side with the existing administrations, to carry out internal functions under the competence of the GNC, which would be more limited than formerly envisaged, principally, to the enforcement of the agreement signed by the parties. Foreign affairs would be concentrated in the hands of the GNC. Tho said it was necessary to set the GNC over the two contesting forces to prevent a resumption of hostilities.
—On reparations, Tho said it would be necessary to include specific reference to US responsibility for reparations, although they didn’t insist on that particular word. The DRV plan asks for 9 billion dollars, divided equally between North and South.
—In reviewing other aspects of their new plan, they made the following points:
- • Tho and Thuy claimed that the North Vietnamese armed forces in South Vietnam consisted primarily of Southerners regrouped to the North in 1954, but later admitted there are a substantial number of North Vietnamese “volunteers.” (Thuy claimed, however, that a number of regular army units remained in North Vietnam to defend their rear.)
- • Tho noted that both sides were now agreed on timing of a ceasefire.
- • The DRV plan specified that their conception of an international control commission would include 5 countries, the present three members of the ICC, plus a country appointed by each side. They proposed that Laos, Cambodia, the USSR, China, France, Great Britain, the 5 countries of the International Control Commission and the UN Secretary General participate in a conference to define the international guarantees for the status of Vietnam.
—Tho also presented a more detailed procedural proposal which spells out the specific topics to be deal with in each of their proposed four forums.
Tho then asked what my views were on a timetable for our negotiations. I replied that my view had always been that we should give the existing Kleber forum something concrete to do by giving it the ceasefire issue to discuss in detail, since this would take a long time to work out. They stuck to their position that all problems between us had to be solved first. After I proposed that we should meet again in two weeks, Tho launched into a repeated accusation that we wanted to prolong the negotiations. I pointed out the ample evidence that exists to the contrary. Tho continued to press for my ideas on a negotiating timetable. I suggested that it would be highly desirable if we could reach a settlement by October 15.[Page 972]
As a result of this, we agreed that we would try to reach a settlement between the two of us by October 15, after which the other forums would be opened.
Tho kept repeating that the situation was ripe for a settlement but presented little in the way of concrete ideas on how to go from here to a settlement except to repeat that we should focus on the political issue. We finally agreed that we would try to meet again on September 22nd or 25th. In either case, I will plan on staying two days if the situation warrants.
After another break, I asked a number of questions with the aim of getting an elaboration of their proposals. These were the salient elements of their response:
—By “technical” personnel whose withdrawal they demand, they meant military, not economic, personnel.
—We could discuss inclusion in the formal agreement their oral commitment that the PRG would cease receiving military aid at the same time as the GVN.
I emphasized that if they wanted to reach a rapid agreement they should realize that there were certain points in their position which were unacceptable to us, such as reparations and their political point. They agreed to study what we have said.
I concluded by emphasizing our desire to settle as quickly as possible. To this end, we should make an attempt to amalgamate our separate proposals and get them into concrete form. Specifically, we should do this vis-à-vis the military issues, on which we are essentially agreed.
—Work to agree on an acceptable common text on the military issues.
—Draft a common text on international guarantees.
—Continue our discussion of the political issues.
Tho accepted this agenda, but said we should finish our discussion on the political question before dealing with the others. He said that with solution of the political questions the military questions would be solved as well.
- 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; Eyes Only. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. Kissinger had earlier sent to Haig an untitled, shorter report of his meeting with Le Duc Tho in Hakto 33, September 15, 2005Z, which Haig provided to the President. A stamped notation on the covering memorandum indicates the President saw it. (Ibid.)↩
- The transcript of the meeting is in a September 15 memorandum of conversation, 9:55 a.m.–3:55 p.m. (Ibid., Box 864, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David Memcons, May–October 1972 [3 of 5]) The four papers the DRV negotiators submitted are also ibid. See footnote 3, Document 262.↩
- See Documents 5 and 8.↩
- Nixon highlighted this paragraph and underlined the phrase beginning with “at this stage” to the end of the sentence. He also wrote in the margin: “True militarily but not politically. As far as we are concerned—only a cease fire would have any political effect at this time.”↩
- See Document 255.↩
- See footnote 4, Document 259.↩
- Document 238.↩