271. Conversation Among President Nixon, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger), and the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig)1

Haig: I think we don’t want to have a breach with the man, but I think he’s got to know that he’s [unclear].

Nixon: Well, I think you could make it, of course, as clear as you possibly can, because, after all, we’re his friend and a breach with us is not going to help him. And also, a breach with us would destroy him here in this country. Good God, I mean, he’s got no place to go.

Kissinger: I mean, no one can make it credible that you are betraying a man for whom you risked the summit, Cambodia, Laos—

Nixon: I realize that—

Kissinger: —bombing, mining.

Nixon: —and he’s—he’s got to realize that. The other thing is that he’s got to realize that this, this war has got to stop. I mean, that’s all there is to it. [unclear]We cannot go along with this sort of dreary business of hanging on for another four years. It’s been too long. It’s been too long. I’m convinced of this. I’m convinced of it. If I thought—believe me, if I thought, if I was reasonably sure that immediately after [unclear] going all out—I mean after the election, the goddamn war would end, and the President’s back and so forth, and you wouldn’t be quite as concerned about trying to do something now. But I’m not sure. [unclear]—

Kissinger: We’ve got to do it. If we can’t end it this way, we’ve got to go all-out after the election.

Nixon: I understand that. I know. What I meant is, if I knew that option would work, I would say to hell with this.

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: I would try doing it. But I’m not sure it’ll work, that’s why we’ve got to try this.

Haig: I think we have to make an honest effort to do this—

Nixon: Yes.

Haig: Do all we can without dishonoring ourselves, which I don’t think is possible under the arrangements that we’ve talked at.

[Page 1011]

Kissinger: And, you see, if we have made this effort, and then if you have to go all-out—the strength of your position up to now has been that we’ve always been able to present to the American public both strength and moderation. We’ve always alternated a peace proposal with a tough line. We’ve never been in the position—you’ve never been in the position of Johnson, who was bombing mindlessly day after day, without ever making a peace proposal. So if this doesn’t work, we haven’t—it gives us three, four, six months of, of, of quiet. I don’t think anything less than this will work. Al, you’ve looked over these papers, now what do you think?

Haig: It doesn’t matter what I think. I think it would be awfully difficult to reject what they have given to us in this last session. [unclear] because anybody would [unclear] it seems that they have really given up the objective of [unclear].

Nixon: That’s what—and that’s what he’s got to understand—

Kissinger: And, therefore the argument of saying they don’t want a Communist government there just no longer holds the water—

Nixon: That’s the thing that concerns me about our position at this point, that we cannot say that they are insisting on a Communist government. Because they are getting a chance for a non-Communist government to survive, are they not?

Kissinger: Yeah, of course, what they think is that if they can get Thieu to resign, plus all these changes made, plus keeping their army in the country, that they can create so much chaos that the remnant is going to collapse. And, therefore, our scheme requires that if Thieu agrees to this constituent assembly rule, that then we will require that they have to pull some of their army out of Vietnam, and all of their army out of Cambodia and Laos. And if they don’t do that, we wouldn’t settle. And on that I think we can stand. I mean, they can’t demand both that the constitution be abrogated, and that they can keep their whole army in the country.

Nixon: I would put it to ’em. I guess that you can be just as strong as you want, Al, in this respect. You can be just as tough as you want [unclear]. First, [unclear] make it, make it very clear to him that this has nothing to do with the election.

Haig: Yes, sir. Absolutely, sir—

Nixon: This is why we’re doing it, but that—make it very clear to him, however, that after the election, we’ve got to live with this problem, and we’ve got to have a solution to it. That—that our—that after we get in, we cannot just continue to sit there, that this POW thing is a pretty good indication of the enormous buildup that’s goddamned [unclear]. And—and that we’ve got to have a solution, and we’re going to find it. And that it isn’t going to work that other way, you know what I mean. It’s—therefore, we believe that this is the best thing we [Page 1012] can do [unclear]. What—how do you have it in mind to presenting it to him—?

Haig: Well, I was going to structure it just this way. This is why we discussed it. We’ll start out talking about what the past four years has represented in terms of our interest for a non-Communist South Vietnam, the risks we have taken. [unclear] Then I’ll make it very clear that this is different than 1968, where Johnson had to try to achieve some progress at the negotiating table to help his domestic election chances.

Nixon: That’s right.

Haig: That we are in precisely an opposite position this year, that you don’t need this.

Nixon: Uh-huh.

Haig: But that you want to use your strength, domestically, here, to put pressure on Hanoi for concessions—

Nixon: That’s right—

Haig: —and that they are moving. And that we do have [unclear] some interesting possibilities, it’s not yet acceptable. But that’s what I want to discuss with them. Then, I want to go through the realities of the strategic picture; what we could hope for if we don’t get a settlement; the fact that we are going to have been faced with disabling legislation.

Nixon: But point out that we still wanted—that the last Senate vote should not be reassuring, because it was still a margin of only one vote.

Haig: We give him that—

Nixon: So, in reality—

Haig: At a time when you’re 30 points ahead in the polls—

Nixon: That’s right.

Haig: —we win a vote for cut-off of funds by two votes.

Nixon: That’s right.

Haig: So, that this is—this is very damaging. And I’m going to recall his discussions with me last October, when he said if he felt there was a true peace in the making that he would step down—

Kissinger: And he repeated it on May 8th.

Haig: And he repeated it on May 8th.

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: Or May 10th, whenever he made it.

Haig: Then I will go through our counterpunch, which does not yet get him into the proposal that he sent out. We will go through it in the detail, and, of course, the paragraph [unclear] political arrangements is the toughest, and I will discuss those, but, in reality, what they’ve offered us is a fig leaf for an advisory group that is without [Page 1013] power, and that the South Vietnamese Government would still control the army, the police, and the territories they currently hold—

Nixon: What I mean is that on this case, what I would like for you to do is to say to the President, if you could say: “Now, Mr. President [unclear] asked me here. He’s a pretty shrewd analyzer—analyzer of these things.” Why don’t you [unclear]? “It seems to me like this is the way you might be able to see it.” In other words, put it out that I’ve analyzed this thing, and that I wish to call it to his attention. See?

Haig: That’s right, and if he can’t select the man—well, I won’t get into that—

Nixon: Yeah. That’s right—

Haig: —until we get through the whole proposition.

Nixon: That’s right.

Haig: Now, he’ll have problems with that, because it calls for a constituent assembly and a new constitution, and—

Kissinger: Yeah, but he will, in effect, dominate the election because the electoral law—the election can never take place because its electoral law will be written by a commission—

Nixon: [unclear]—

Kissinger: —which requires unanimity. I don’t see how you can ever agree on any actual laws—

Nixon: [unclear] noted his interest in the proposition. And that he—and, therefore, I think that he should be very, very generous, insofar as what happens after that due to the unanimity proposition. Now, he’ll say [unclear]. And, also, how much of this needs to be public at the present time. [unclear] But the main thing, I guess, Al, that I want you to get across to him, is that he can’t just assume that because I win the election that we’re going to stick with him through hell and high water. This war is not going to go on. Goddamnit, we can’t do it. We’re not going to do it. We’re not going to have our—we’re not gonna have, let alone, our guys getting killed, and our prisoners, so that’s just that. We’re not going to have him get killed. And we happen to have our relationships with the Russians and the Chinese. There’s that, and, also, I’m not going to have it keep us from doing some other things that we need to do. We’ve got to get the war the hell off our backs in this country. That’s all there is to it.

Haig: And off his people’s back.

Nixon: Oh, I feel that, too. Tell him that I know those casualties show 300 a week being killed. I said, “I take no comfort out of the fact that we—our casualties were one last week when his are 300.” I said, “To me, that concerns me and that, I doubt that I’d be here.” I think you now know, I want you to know you can go very far in saying that I believe that he ought to accept this proposition. That’s my view. I [Page 1014] wouldn’t indicate that I’m not going to press him on it, either. I’d indicate that we might just [unclear].

Haig: Well, I think—I think once—

Nixon: And, incidentally, I just want it to be arranged so that Al has plenty of time with him. I want to be sure that he has—

Kissinger: Oh, yes.

Nixon: [unclear]—

Kissinger: Now, we got a cable that he sees him twice. Monday morning—

Nixon: Yeah, yeah.

Kissinger: —and Tuesday afternoon—

Nixon: Well, look, but you better send a message indicating that I want him to take plenty of time [unclear]—

Kissinger: Well, I think once he hears the subject, he’s going to take plenty of time. It’s too much in his interest. I don’t think we should get him all stirred up—

Nixon: All right—

Kissinger: —before Al gets there.

Haig: [unclear] But I don’t think, either, that we should force him into an answer in the first session there, or even the second, necessarily, because this is the kind of thing that he’ll want to think out in the greatest detail. He ought to know that we’re very strong for him.

Nixon: Whatever, he’s got to think. He may not decide at the second session, then you’ll get away, and he’ll sit down and talk with his own people.

Kissinger: That doesn’t make a difference—

Nixon: [unclear] Huh?

Kissinger: We’ll table this proposal anyway the following week, and it doesn’t make any difference what he agrees to.

Nixon: Let’s suppose—yeah, let’s see. Are you going to tell him that you’re going to table his proposal?

Haig: Tell him we’re going to move.

Nixon: How?

Haig: We intend to move. Of course, if it looks like it could cause a public break—

Kissinger: We can’t. It isn’t desirable to have a public break, because—

Nixon: No, that would be bad. A public break would hurt us. That’d hurt us in the election.

Kissinger: That would. Also you’d be accused by McGovern, then, that you strung along with Theiu, and when it served your interest—

[Page 1015]

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —just before the election, you killed 20,000 people.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: So, we should avoid—

Nixon: We can’t do that—

Kissinger: —a public break.

Nixon: What you’ve got to say there is that this—you’ve got to point out that this President has stood by him with no support. The House is against him. The Senate is against him. The media has been against him. The students have rioted. All sorts of hell-raising loose. He’s made these tough decisions. And, now, he’s got to have something from him, in return. We’ve got to have [unclear], an agreement, an acceptable proposition that I think he can live with. That’s really what you get down to.

Kissinger: Mr. President, nobody would have believed that they would make a proposal which would keep the Saigon government in power with its own army and police, but without Thieu. Never have they gone that far before. All their previous proposals were that Saigon has to disappear and that the other government, the Provisional Government of National Concord, replaces it. Because that would have led to a sure Communist takeover. And that was easy to reject. We were never tempted for one minute. You could have settled it in July, announced those terms. We were never tempted for 30 seconds by any of those—

Nixon: [unclear]—

Kissinger: But here we are with—confronted with a proposal of a Government of National Concord that has no power, no police, no army, and, moreover, we won’t even accept the word “government” for it. We’ll call it “Committee” or “Commission for National Reconciliation.”

[Omitted here is further discussion of Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 788–18. No classification marking. The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. The conversation occurred at an unknown time between 5:15 and 6:30 p.m. Haig was about to depart for Saigon to meet with Thieu as President Nixon’s personal emissary.