43. Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

Nixon: At a certain point, we must make a dramatic announcement that—which in effect will say, like something like: “Well, we’ve got to keep our people there until we get our prisoners,” or something like that—

Kissinger: I couldn’t agree more—

Nixon: Now, as a matter of fact, let me be quite candid, [unclear] at this point, having stuck with Thieu as long as we have, if they can’t make it, then it’s a bad bargain, and we just can’t stick around on the ground. It’s going to affect ourselves all over the world. You know what I mean? I think they can make it. That’s my view, but if we stick around—I’m not speaking about getting out now, but I’m speaking about saying we’ll stay another five years with air power and all the rest, it just doesn’t go. It won’t wash. It won’t wash as a, as a use of American strength.

Kissinger: No, but I think that five years is ridiculous. But—

Nixon: That’s what [unclear]—

Kissinger: —I think at this stage, though, we have to balance—well, first of all, in my judgment, I think the April announcement ought to be a nothing announcement.2

Nixon: I agree. Just say nothing. We may not even make one.

Kissinger: Or just a few thousand, and just do it—

Nixon: Well, obviously, we’ll then just say the withdrawals will continue, we’ll have another announcement in May, if everything—

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: The withdrawal has—

Kissinger: Or June.

Nixon: —already begun. Don’t even give a number. Just say, “Withdrawals will be continuing. We’ll have another announcement [unclear].”

[Page 143]

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: I won’t say anything this time.

Kissinger: Because we are—I think that should be a nothing one. By the middle of June, off the Moscow trip, or even later than June, depending on how you need it.

Nixon: It isn’t a question of whether we need it. It’s a question—it has to be then, do you see? You know how the political conventions work. Two weeks before the Democratic Convention begins, they start hearings on the platform.

Kissinger: Well—

Nixon: It is there they will make the issue on Vietnam. Now the issue isn’t worth a damn, but they can make it worth a damn. You know what I mean? They’ll say, “All the rushing in there, well, now we still have 50,000 in Vietnam, and we’re still bombing,” et cetera, et cetera. And they’ll be running over each other to say, “After four years Nixon has still got us in Vietnam and hasn’t ended the war.” We mustn’t give them that issue. We’ve got to defuse it to the point where it’s a nothing issue politically, but you see? And that’s a very different thing from being a nothing issue with [unclear] you talked to the other day. See?

Kissinger: Well—

Nixon: I urge you to think, I have no illusions about what they’ll do with it.

Kissinger: Yeah, but I think—I think this—my own view is, well, first of all we get an all-volunteer army, we can set a figure which can be almost arbitrary—35,000, 30,000—of a residual force. I think we ought to announce going to that in the middle of June rather than now.

Nixon: Sure.

Kissinger: And say we’ll have reached that by the middle of July or something like that. Or the first of August and have it all volunteer. It doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference whether it’s 40 or 30,000 at that point.

Nixon: I saw something in the news summary where, obviously, we thought they would exploit us for it, it said our real problem now is: how we are going to defend the remaining Americans? Now, that’s bullshit. Look here, we can’t defend them now as you well know. Okay, if they get hit with less than 100,000 there, we don’t have any combat forces to defend people there.

Kissinger: So—

Nixon: 10,000.

Kissinger: So, that is—

Nixon: Right?

[Page 144]

Kissinger: So that can be done. Also, we can then see—I share your judgment, almost certainly the negotiations aren’t going to bring any, aren’t going to bring anything. But there’s just a slight chance—

Nixon: [unclear] If this happens soon it could get worse.

Kissinger: Absolutely. If they don’t produce anything then the only thing we have to balance is not to let the thing unravel before November because then—

Nixon: Let—then South Vietnam unravels.

Kissinger: That’s right. Then—

Nixon: [unclear]—

Kissinger: Then we’d really be vulnerable. That, I think, would make us more vulnerable than a small, residual force of volunteers.

Nixon: I agree.

Kissinger: Who the hell can—

Nixon: You understand, nothing is to be done at the cost of unraveling. On the other hand, we mustn’t—we mustn’t go overboard in terms of every time Thieu sneezes then we get a cold. And we’ve got to talk the talk tough—

Kissinger: Well, but Thieu has been pretty good.

Nixon: I know. But we must have—he must have—

Kissinger: But if we can’t get—

[unclear exchange]

Kissinger: Mr. President, I think that would—

Nixon: He’d expect too much.

Kissinger: Also it will—it will draw attention to Vietnam. I’d rather take a trip out there.

Nixon: The best way to do that is to just [unclear]—

Kissinger: Have Haig go out there.

Nixon: Huh? Yeah.

Kissinger: I think that’s better. If I go there—

Nixon: [unclear] I know. Haig can go.

Kissinger: It will make—

Nixon: You see what I’m getting at here? Thieu has got to stand firm on any kind of an announcement we make, having in mind the fact: don’t give the Democrats an issue.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: Don’t give the anti-war people an issue, Henry. That’s all we’re saying.

Kissinger: I couldn’t agree more. But if we can, I think you’ll—

[Page 145]

Nixon: And we might get—we might get a negotiation out of it—

Kissinger: Right—

Nixon: —[unclear]—

Kissinger: We’ll come out—if things break right, we’ll come out of Moscow in a very strong position. It isn’t just—

Nixon: It’s not Moscow, as you know. The underlying goal is not whether we’re right on Moscow or China, that helps us a great deal, but in terms of a political issue, Henry, it’s like a—well, [unclear] it’s like the ITT thing, nothing to the damn thing at all. ITT stock went down 12 points, and it’s never recovered as a result of the trust settlement we imposed upon them. But they’re making it an issue. Now, that’s what this is. See, in the campaign they’ll be made issues, not real issues. So we must not look at the merits. We must look to the politics of it.

[Omitted here is discussion on the importance of Nixon’s trip to the People’s Republic of China and the forthcoming U.S.-Soviet summit.]

Nixon: What we have got from a public standpoint, and Thieu has got to understand it, we’ve got to let it appear that we’ve got to keep a reserve force there because of POWs.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: That’s the only justification of it. Say, “These volunteers are staying there because of their buddies in the North.” People will support that. You noticed even that—even McGovern 3 had to come to that the other day. Even Humphrey has had to come to that. But if they say, “We are keeping a reserve force there for the purpose of surviv—of assuring the survival of the Thieu government,” that is a very risky thing. That is the real reason. You and I know that—

Kissinger: But I don’t exclude, Mr. President, that in June or July, we could just offer this total withdrawal for the POWs and get it hammered out—

Nixon: We could do that. And I didn’t put that in there, because I don’t want to—I do not want to do anything that will push the government down the tube. If we could do that, knowing that that’s a straight POW [deal] for that, I would do it. But you’ve always said, and I agreed—

Kissinger: Yeah, but that was a year ago. We’ve got—

Nixon: You have always said, though, however, and I agree, that once we offer that they’ll say, “Yes, we will do that provided you stop [Page 146] the bombing.” And that we can’t do. But on the other hand, if in June, Henry, that would solve—I don’t care, it could be 50,000. You could leave 50,000 there if you could say in June, “We’re now down to this force. We will retain this force until—and as soon as we get the POWs we will remove the force.” Period.

Kissinger: I think—

Nixon: We could say that.

Kissinger: I think—

Nixon: That would be enough. I wouldn’t need a thing more.

Kissinger: Well, let me take it—

Nixon: Volunteers in order—in order to get the POWs. Now, let me say, though, I’d only get—the other side of that, that I mentioned at length [unclear] which I—I’ve thought this out very carefully—it depends what we say. You remember we only have to live with that for three months. For three months we let that be the position, and Thieu’s governing. Then in November, win or lose, we’ll bomb the hell out of the bastards. Now, that’s exactly the way I feel about it. There’s not going to be anymore screwing around.

Kissinger: Well, you see, we’ve gone since then another year. I, frankly, would like an offensive to take place now, Mr. President for—

Nixon: That’s what [Sir Robert]Thompson wants, I know—

Kissinger: Because if we had the offensive now and we didn’t lose, we would be—we would know they couldn’t do one in October. My nightmare is that they are husbanding all this stuff, and even though October isn’t a good year—a good month, that they’ll take it on in October.

Nixon: Yes.

Kissinger: Although, it’s a hell of a gamble for them to take, because if they don’t tip you over in October, then they’ve had it.

Nixon: And if it works.

Kissinger: You see, they’re just—

Nixon: You understand, they’d take it either way, because if they think that as a result of losing the election, if we should lose the election because of their offensive, that I am just going to roll over and play dead, they’re crazy. I’m still President until January. And I’ll do what I—to hell with the goddamned [unclear]—

Kissinger: You also—

Nixon: [unclear] right in the butt.

Kissinger: The price they’ll pay if you don’t, if they wait this late, is that they’ll pay if your image as a leader will be, in foreign policy, will be so cemented that they may be putting themselves away in an isolated position.

[Page 147]

Nixon: Yeah, maybe. Do you think that they’re even rational, though, Henry?

Kissinger: Yeah—

Nixon: That’s our problem. You have always thought they were. I never did—

Kissinger: I think they’re rational [unclear]—

Nixon: I think they’re no different from the Koreans. I thought the Koreans were crazy, but I think these people [unclear]—

[unclear exchange]

Kissinger: No, but, Mr. President, in fact they’ve been right so far; they haven’t lost by being so tough.

Nixon: No.

Kissinger: It’s a miracle that we have held on, given our domestic opposition—

Nixon: Yes.

Kissinger: I mean, if you had said on—

Nixon: And we’re down to—what are the casualties this week?

Kissinger: Two.

Nixon: Hmm. Again, two.

Kissinger: We have lost—

Nixon: Do you think one day—isn’t there one week when there’s going to be none?

Kissinger: Oh, yeah.

Nixon: Goddamnit, there could be one—one week, can’t they? Well—

Kissinger: Mr. President, we have had fewer casualties all this year than in any week last year—than any week in the first six months of last year, and less than one percent of the casualties we had when we came in.

Nixon: I know.

Kissinger: 60–70 percent of all the casualties in your administration were incurred in the first year, 48 percent in the first six months. In other words, I think we should go on the offensive. We should say these people—every quarter, every area in the world, when we came in was in turmoil. We quieted them all down. If you had said that you could pull 520,000 troops out of Vietnam, which is what you have done—

Nixon: I know.

Kissinger: —and not lead to collapse, I think it would have been considered unbelievable.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 685–2. No classification marking. The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. The transcript is part of a larger conversation, 9:03–9:51 a.m.
  2. Kissinger was referring to the next announcement of U.S. troop withdrawals from South Vietnam. See foonote 2, Document 38.
  3. Senator George S. McGovern (D–SD) was running against Humphrey for the Democratic nomination for President.