274. Backchannel Message From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig) in Saigon1

WHS2176/Tohaig 11. 1. Your Haigto 004 is based on an extraordinary misapprehension of the Dobrynin conversation.2 Dobrynin was making his suggestions in this context: (A) the DRV is prepared to maintain the de facto situation if an acceptable face saving formula can be found. (B) How to preserve Thieu as long as possible, give him a chance at reelection and yet permit Hanoi to claim some achievement. [Page 1021] Indirect election for the Presidency is not rpt not a parliamentary system incidentally. But above all the situation is too serious for such nitpicks.

2. We have three objectives: (A) to get a settlement which preserves a non-Communist government in Saigon, (B) failing that to pull the teeth of the DRV proposal so that coupled with an offensive it cannot undermine our domestic position, (C) to delay the breakup of the talks if that proves unavoidable. These objectives are as much in Thieu’s interest as in ours.

3. It is essential to keep eye on these objectives rather than getting side-tracked on fine points. The main problem is to come up with a plan that will preserve the GVN position if the other side accepts it or give us an unassailable record if the other side goes public and launches an offensive. Also it should be sufficiently complex so that it must go back to Hanoi for decision.

4. Thus your basic approach should remain just as we discussed and as reflected in your general and point by point talking papers. You should present our constituent assembly plan as the basic point of departure, and the one we consider most desirable. In any event all of its provisions outside of point 4 (A) are essential.

5. My cable Tohaig 103 was designed to underline the need for giving the other side cosmetic formulations for face saving reasons so they can accept a settlement that preserves the status quo. On Point 4 (A) the constituent assembly approach seems far preferable to us but on this point we are prepared to listen to GVN advice on what is best from their perspective. Thus the second plan you have, i.e. Presidential and National Assembly elections, and the variants in Tohaig 10 should be presented as possible permutations but only reluctantly. All of these variants are illustrations which should be looked at from two perspectives: (1) what happens if they are accepted and (2) how are we postured if the other side rejects them, goes public, and launches an offensive. In this latter case having accepted much of other side’s proposal would make life much easier. Keep in mind that in the constituent assembly approach the Presidential selection is not a central feature and should not be hang up.

6. With reference to your 004 you will see from above that the idea of the assembly choosing the chief executive should be treated as one of the variations, not necessarily the ideal one as perhaps implied in my cable. The basic question is which process lends itself to handling so that it comes out the right way, not whether it meets all the fine points of nomenclature. Thus the question for Thieu in this instance is [Page 1022] not the title given the assembly but whether he can handle a process where the assembly chooses the chief executive.

7. Thieu should understand that he has many safeguards; the unanimity requirement for the operation of the CNR so that political scheme may never be implemented, his control of provincial machinery etc.

8. If Thieu chooses the constitutional assembly route—which we urge strongly—you should ascertain whether the constitution is to be drafted by it or the CNR where he is protected by unanimity rule. But keep in mind the main concept not the details.

9. In short, your operative talking points remain the same with the following amplifications which draw upon Tohaig 10 without reference to Dobrynin conversation:

  • —You should stress the major move in the other side’s position. Though their plan is still unacceptable, its new elements and other signs we have indicate that the other side is prepared to settle on basis de facto situation as long as they can get cosmetics to ease the pain.
  • —You should make clear that point 4 (A) in the constituent assembly plan is illustrative though in our judgement the best solution. You should present other plan with you and variations in paragraphs 3 and 4 of Tohaig 10 as other possible but far less desirable permutations.
  • —You should ask Thieu’s opinions on these various alternatives from the GVN point of view and seek his acquiescence in flexible building block approach for reasons outlined in Tohaig 10. If however he insists on one agreed approach you should stick with the constituent assembly approach.
  • —You should also of course seek his approval of all other constant points in our plan.
  • —Finally we must get his concurrence to an agreed strategy. If pushed we may have to go unilateral.

Warm regards.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1017, Alexander M. Haig Special File, General Haig’s SEA Visit, September 29–October 3, 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only.
  2. In message Haigto 4–A from Saigon, October 1, Haig, responding to Kissinger’s Tohaig 10 (Document 273), observed: “Dobrynin’s discussions are interesting and further confirm fundamental character of shift in Hanoi’s position. It is apparent that what Dobrynin and Hanoi have been telling us is that what they actually have in mind is not a constituent assembly election but the establishment of a parliamentary system through which the resulting National Assembly would choose a head of government.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 856, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XIX)
  3. Document 273.