278. Editorial Note
As Major General Alexander M. Haig, the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs, departed Saigon, having met twice with President Nguyen Van Thieu and his advisers regarding the next round of negotiations in Paris, he sent an initial report on the second meeting (see Document 277) to Henry A. Kissinger, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs. Unlike his upbeat assessment of the first encounter (see Document 276), Haig came away from this meeting subdued. To Kissinger he wrote:
“I recognize that this report will result in great disappointment there. The task at hand is to consider most carefully where we go from here. Undoubtedly, we can proceed unilaterally with either of the counter proposals and I believe the justification has been made for us to do so. However, the outcome of such action must be most carefully considered. In my view it will or could well bring about the collapse of Thieu’s government. I did not anticipate the degree of suspicion generated during the months of August and September. Our actions on 15 September appear to have caused a collapse in confidence, which prevented any rational analysis of the counter proposals I carried with me. There is no doubt that we must now first decide how to proceed at the next Paris session and move accordingly to readjust promptly our overall [Page 1047] relationships with Thieu. We move decisively, to either withdraw support from him or to rebuild breach both through our actions in Paris and a subsequent communication from the President to Thieu. At this point I tend to favor the latter course.” (Message Haigto 12, October 4; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1017, Alexander M. Haig Special File, General Haig’s Vietnam Trip Haigto/Tohaig, September 30–October 4, 1972 [2 of 2])
Kissinger’s responded: “I do not see how we can follow your advice of attempting to regain Thieu’s confidence. We simply do not have time. My inclination is to go ahead with our proposals with strengthened security features. If the package is accepted, we would have a new situation. If it is rejected, we would have a better base on which to stand. We do not have a basis for simply stonewalling at our next meeting.
“I would appreciate your thinking about this and your initial reactions, together with any other assessments which you might have soonest. Am sending as next following message a cable sent to Bunker. Would appreciate your reactions to it soonest.” (Message Tohaig 45, October 4; ibid.)
Before Haig replied he first sent to Kissinger a memorandum prepared by National Security Council staffer, John D. Negroponte, on the United States position in the negotiations. In the memorandum, Negroponte wrote: “It appears we may conceivably be moving towards framework of settlement which will enable us to disengage militarily, get our prisoners back and leave the Vietnamese to slug it out between themselves in a context of reduced main force violence but continued political struggle of intensive brutality.
“Hanoi is blatantly eager to reach agreement in principle before our election; or at least commit us to negotiating course which will preclude any dramatic shifts on our part in the postelection period. In effect, Hanoi will be confined to a protracted warfare strategy in the next year or so and there is nothing inconsistent between the pursuit of such a strategy and an agreement to a main force ceasefire.”
Negroponte concluded that: “Despite the initially disappointing aspects of Al’s meeting with Thieu, I don’t think this development changes the fundamental assessment that Hanoi may be moving towards a separation of political from military questions. If they are really serious, then they will not be deterred from peeling off even more of their political demands and perhaps finally agreeing to simply setting the political questions aside. Face will not be the overriding consideration. As for how to deal with Saigon’s current position, my own initial reaction is that we have no choice but to abide by general outlines of GVN wishes and once and for all confront Hanoi with the proposition that they simply aren’t going to make any money with us [Page 1048] on political questions. To be sure, there is a risk they’ll go public. But that in itself probably requires another Politburo decision and therefore buys us some time. Equally or more likely in my view is that they will agonize about whether to settle on a military basis alone and the chances may be better than even that they will do so. At this point they must be more concerned about saving their skins than in scoring what they must by now know would be futile propaganda points.” (Message Haigto 14, October 4; ibid., Box 1018, Alexander M. Haig Special File, Wire Traffic, September 29–October 4, 1972)
Haig was willing to give Thieu more leeway than Kissinger and argued that time was as much on their side, if not more so, than on North Vietnam’s: “By way of general observation, I do not think that things may be as grim as they appear. We should not underestimate our bargaining leverage with Hanoi or our ability to cope with any public noise they choose to make. If they are in such a hurry, it must mean we have some things going for us. Above all, I honestly believe we must decelerate the negotiating pace a bit. I think we can do some of this without risking a break-up.
“Should we consider postponing your meeting for one week and telling Hanoi we need some time to consider our position? This may give us some more time to work over alternatives with Saigon; to get Thieu’s letter; and to game out our approach a bit more systematically. It would also have reassuring effect on Saigon and maybe enhance our chances of their better understanding our position. I know that the chances of this are slim but Thieu certainly had a point yesterday when he said that we were only giving him 24–36 hours to consider our counter proposal and because of its sensitivity he was confined to examining it with only a handful of people.
“Another point. Is there a way of framing our political offer in a way that places greater emphasis on the security issues? Hanoi wants a political solution which, although it theoretically provides for continued GVN existence, could have the practical consequence of ungluing the GVN. Under unanimity principle, Thieu and the GVN will be held accountable by our press and Congress for not implementing the agreed political provisions, no matter how much the Communists are to blame. Military aid will be cut off even though there is no final political settlement and we have nothing resembling adequate safeguards on withdrawals or the Indochina-wide aspects. This is what really disturbs Thieu, perhaps if we could get more security assurances his attitude could be changed.
“In short what I am suggesting is why don’t we tell Hanoi that we can’t buy their political approach until we have got a better idea of what is in store on the military side. We would take the line that it doesn’t mean we aren’t prepared to be flexible on the political issue [Page 1049] but at this point there are so many unacceptable military elements we just wouldn’t know what we are buying.
“Finally, I have already alluded to the timing of a break with Thieu. If we go that route, and God knows I fervently believe it should not come to that, but if it does, then I think we must reflect on when we should bite that bullet and how it would reflect on everything we have struggled so hard for if it appeared as an act of political expediency on our part as opposed to a deliberate, well-considered post-election decision. Further, if we decide to ignore Thieu and really put the squeeze on him, I believe this is best done after the elections when he will be convinced we mean business and recognize his own leverage is nil.
“One last thought is the timing of McGovern’s plan. It makes me rather suspicious and I wonder how closely it will resemble the DRV’s. If we postponed our meeting a week, perhaps we could find a way to turn whatever McGovern puts out to our advantage.
“There are no easy answers on this and I recognize what an agonizing problem this will be for all of us.” (Tohaig 15, October 4; ibid., Box 1017, Alexander M. Haig Special File, General Haig’s Vietnam Trip Haigto/Tohaig, September 30–October 4, 1972 [2 of 2])
The immediate result of this exchange was a message from Kissinger directing Bunker to see Thieu as soon as possible to convey Nixon’s disappointment in Thieu’s reaction to the United States proposals and strategy at the next Paris meeting, and to get Thieu back on board regarding the proposals and strategy. (Backchannel message WHS 2209, October 4; ibid., Box 870, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Camp David Cables, October 1972) Kissinger also sent Haig a copy and asked him to comment on the message. While en route to Washington, Haig informed Kissinger that:
“Your instructions and the rationale contained therein are precisely the line I took privately with Thieu and the [South Vietnamese] NSC collectively yesterday. It is of course essential that Bunker see Thieu in the wake of yesterday’s meeting. The instructions further underscore the President’s concern that part of your message covering what will occur at the meeting in Paris appears to provide the necessary flexibility for a more refined decision based on careful consideration of some of the thoughts outlined above. I would, however, ask you to consider once more the feasibility of seeking delay of the Paris meeting so that you will have more time to know the outcome we are seeking.” (Message Haigto 15, October 5; ibid., Box 1017, Alexander M. Haig Special File, General Haig’s Vietnam Trip Haigto/Tohaig, September 30–October 4, 1972 [2 of 2])