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

[Omitted here is a brief exchange on political leadership in the Pentagon.]

Kissinger: It is clear that there’s a massive attack.

[Page 163]

Nixon: Well, we knew that yesterday.

Kissinger: They’ve now got 50 tanks near Dong Ha.

Nixon: I noticed this morning, it says Abrams considers the situation is grim, which he, of course, shouldn’t say.

Kissinger: Of course. I’ve asked him to—

Nixon: And—and, of course, the press is using the terms they did in Laos—rout, disarray, and so forth, and so forth. I don’t think it’s that bad, but nevertheless I don’t know.

Kissinger: I think—

Nixon: The GIs, they say, are voicing opposition to the war. And Abrams—and Abrams, or MACV, is saying that ARVN was taken by surprise. Now, for Christ’s sakes, we’re in charge of the goddamned intelligence out there. We can’t—the military can’t cop out on this one, Henry.

Kissinger: That’s right—

Nixon: And, goddamnit, the only thing I want to be sure is that Laird isn’t going to say that. We’re sure that they had the orders to do that bombing since we came back from China.

Kissinger: Right. They’re—no, he isn’t going to say that, because he’s been sitting on every attempt to do any bombing.

Nixon: Okay.

Kissinger: No, the opposite is much more. They have not let over here any disquieting information. For example, I cannot believe that they did not have the information that they were building up right near the DMZ.

Nixon: Yeah. They never talked about it—

Kissinger: But they were afraid you’d order an attack—

Nixon: They were talking about B–3 and a lot of other things.

Kissinger: And last week, on Thursday,2 I told Haig, “This is the attack.” He called Pursley, that peacenik General aide of Laird’s. He said, “Oh, we just have a lot of alarmist reports.” It wasn’t until Saturday at midnight that they confirmed to me that this was more than isolated attacks.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Kissinger: I made a fool of myself with Dave Kraslow,3 even, who called me. And I said, “Let me just check the Pentagon.” And he said, “They are coming across the DMZ.” I checked with Moorer and Laird

Nixon: Well, you told me the same thing.

[Page 164]

Kissinger: I told you the same thing.

Nixon: We’re withdrawing on the basis that we’re under artillery fire and so forth.

Kissinger: That—that’s what I told you, I gave you the information.

Nixon: Well, there’s no reason for us to lose our cool, Henry. We’ve managed to have [unclear]—

Kissinger: Mr. President, if you lose your cool in a crisis, it’d be the first time you’ve done it—

Nixon: The point is—the point is I just want to be sure. Now, have they started the bombing attacks or not? What’s happening?

Kissinger: That’s what I want to find out. I have the uneasy feeling that Laird has called Abrams and told him that his promotion to Chief of Staff is coming, and that he’d better do what Laird tells him. And because we gave him the authority—

Nixon: What the hell does Laird want to do, lose?

Kissinger: Well, Laird himself isn’t so bad, but he has his peacenik General.

Nixon: Yeah, Pursley. And Pursley wants to lose? Is that it?

Kissinger: Basically, yeah. He’s Clifford’s protégé4 and—McNamara’s and Clifford’s, but above all Clifford’s. And—

Nixon: Well, we can’t do that.

Kissinger: But I’ll get—

Nixon: I could send a message directly to [unclear]—to Abrams right now.

Kissinger: Well, I think, Mr. President—

Nixon: We’re not going to let Laird get away with this.

Kissinger: No, but listen, all—

Nixon: You called Laird this morning?

Kissinger: Yeah—no, but I—

Nixon: You call him and raise hell. I just—I called, as a matter of fact, I called you at 8:30 and you were in staff meeting, and I raised holy hell that I had asked for that this morning and I expect it over here. And I want it on the double.

Kissinger: Well—

Nixon: If you get him off his ass—

Kissinger: I think, Mr. President, you should not call because—

Nixon: You call him—

[Page 165]

Kissinger: —because if they start leaking, you ought to be kept out of it that you ran day-to-day military operations.

Nixon: No, but we’ve got to run them.

Kissinger: We’ll run them. I’ll take care of it. I’ll—by the end of the day these guys are going to be shaped up. I have a 10 o’clock WSAG meeting here. If you would consider letting me bring in Rush and Moorer, say at 10:45, for five minutes, if you could tell them you’ll hold them personally responsible or something like that.

Nixon: Rush won’t do anything. I told Laird [unclear].

Kissinger: Well, I’ll get Laird under control—

Nixon: Goddamn Laird, we should throw him out of there as fast as we can.

Kissinger: Once Laird knows what’s going—that if we go through this, by the end of the day, they’ll—

Nixon: Was he aware of the time—?

Kissinger: We’ll—I’ll have him shaped up and I’ll get it done. They’ll be attacking by tonight, I’ll guarantee you, if they have to, to walk over—

Nixon: There’s got to be something we can hit.

Kissinger: They’ll attack—

Nixon: With our [unclear]. What in the name of [unclear]. What the Christ is—?

Kissinger: Well, I talked to John Ehrlichman this morning and, you know, he asked me what the situation was. He said, “Why don’t they fly?” I said, “Because of the weather.” He said, “Hell, they flew all over the Battle of the Bulge dropping bombs during blizzards.” And he’s right.

Nixon: He’s got it. There’s something wrong, something wrong here. That’s all right. It isn’t lost. It’s just a question—

Kissinger: Oh. It’s really—

Nixon: [unclear] They’re withdrawing, and they’re having the attack and let these goddamn press—the press is just reveling in this. Now if you—I’d hit that, but, frankly, though, you’re letting the press up there I see.

Kissinger: Well—

Nixon: They’re seeing—of course, they’re reporting that. Some of the press have been there now—there’s—now, you’re sure it was a messenger that—? You said you sent it through the DOD? Did it get through—?

Kissinger: And through Moorer.

Nixon: Did it get through to them to knock off this business of having press men being carried up there by American helicopters to cover this thing?

[Page 166]

Kissinger: I am sure they’re not carried by American helicopters, but I’ll check that—

Nixon: [unclear] Well —

Kissinger: I’ll check.

Nixon: It’s a huge operation. We should—we should not make the press’ job. Just put it on the basis it’s too dangerous for ’em. [unclear]—

Kissinger: But I think, Mr. President, that so far, they’ve lost 10 miles—15 miles. This is their new division that was only formed last year. It’s the Third Division.

Nixon: Right. Why the hell do they have a poor division out there?

Kissinger: Because, no one expected them to come across the DMZ in force. Their good division is protecting Hue and Da Nang.

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: We’ve always expected that they might take one, or two, or three provincial cities.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: We could lose Kontum City. In fact I expect us to lose Kontum

Nixon: And Quang Tri?

Kissinger: And we might lose Quang Tri. But, in a way they’re—

Nixon: Those goddamned cities aren’t worth a damn—

Kissinger: —they’re attacking close to the centers of—close to their own border—

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Kissinger: —shows how far they’ve been pushed out. And I think we shouldn’t panic now. We—what—in a way it’s a godsend. We should give them a tremendous punishment.

Nixon: Yeah. Because—

Kissinger: I believe—

Nixon: It’s a godsend because they could’ve done this, what they’ve done now, they could do next October. Although the weather would still be bad, it wouldn’t be as good then as now, would it?

Kissinger: Well, in October it will be about like now. It will be the end of the rain.

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: They can—

Nixon: It’s the same thing.

Kissinger: —do it in October.

Nixon: It’s just as good, well, to have it right now.

[Page 167]

Kissinger: It’s just as well. We can now precipitate. I’m going to get Dobrynin in and I’m going to tell him, I’m just going to threaten him with the non-ratification of the Berlin treaty.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: I’m going to say, “Now this is it.”

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: And—

Nixon: Having in mind the fact that, you agree, we still want to drive a hard bargain on the summit. Oh, they want that summit [unclear]—

Kissinger: Mr. President, they can no more afford to not have that summit.

Nixon: They can’t trade Vietnam for this. The Chinese—you’ve already sent a message now?

Kissinger: No, that’s going tonight. Or, or as soon as I get them on the phone, we’ll get somebody up there to deliver it.

Nixon: Oh, I see.

Kissinger: I think we could play this into an end of the war.

Nixon: I think you’re right.

Kissinger: I think it’s a—

Nixon: I think you’re right but, I’ll tell you, it will provided this bombing attack that we put on is one of the—is the best, is the finest goddamn thing that’s ever been, for the military, that’s ever been done. Should I get the Chiefs in, pray tell?

Kissinger: No, if you’d just let me bring Moorer in for five minutes.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Kissinger: And just tell him you’ll accept no excuses, you want a massive effort. And—

Nixon: Why? I’m going to scare him with it [unclear]—

Kissinger: And that you’re—

Nixon: —any good.

Kissinger: Oh, no—

Nixon: Well, he’ll go back and—

Kissinger: That’s good, sir—

Nixon: —we need Laird [unclear]. Maybe you ought to get Laird in with him.

Kissinger: No, get—if you get Rush and Moorer. Rush

Nixon: [unclear] nice guy that Rush and Moorer wanted. If Moorer wanted it, what do we say?

[Page 168]

Kissinger: Yeah, but they, they need this so that they can say they’re carrying out your direct order.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: Then Laird won’t challenge it. If you get Laird in he’ll give you so much bullshit that you won’t ever be—you know, it could just take you half an hour to stick out—

[Omitted here is discussion of plans for handling the press on the North Vietnamese offensive.]

Kissinger: If the ARVN collapses, we’ve done everything we can, Mr. President—

Nixon: We lose if the ARVN collapses. Don’t say—that’s just a, that’s a—that’s a question that we can’t even think about. If the ARVN collapses a lot of other things will collapse around here. If they were going to collapse, they had to do it a year ago. We can’t do it this year, Henry.

Kissinger: Right. They’re not going to collapse. I know—

Nixon: You see what I mean? We can’t take it.

Kissinger: I agree. That’s why we’ve got to blast—

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: —the living bejeezus out of North Vietnam. We will gain nothing for restraint—

Nixon: That’s right—

Kissinger: —and it would be—

Nixon: That’s right—

Kissinger: I think if we shock the bejeezus out of them, we can get Japan—

Nixon: [unclear]—

Kissinger: —Hell, we can get Russia and China to help us, because they cannot want to have this whole thing. But we’ve got to get them to move now.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: And Laird is already saying the 48-hour strike won’t be done now at least ’til Friday.5 We’ve got to hit fast.

Nixon: Why?

Kissinger: Well, partly weather, partly because he says he needs the air assets in the combat zone. But if we build enough of a fire under the Chiefs, they’ll get it done. Maybe we can wait ’til Wednesday, but we ought to hit soon.

Nixon: Yeah.

[Page 169]

Kissinger: I’ll go and get that briefing now.

Nixon: Well, well—

Kissinger: And I’ll report to you.

Nixon: Like I say, let’s don’t talk about, “Well, if the ARVN collapses we’ve done everything we can.” Yeah, that’s fine with regard to this, but we’re playing a much bigger game. We’re playing a Russian game, a Chinese game, an election game—

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: —and we’re not going to have the ARVN collapse.

Kissinger: I agree.

Nixon: It isn’t going to hurt us. This, this, this kind of an attack isn’t gonna hurt us if provided, provided we, we, we fight back and the ARVN holds.

Kissinger: Mr. President, by May 1st we’ll be through it. I think it will lead to negotiations—

[Omitted here is discussion of the President’s schedule.]

Nixon: But, on the other hand, this is the time to really get tough and to see it through. And—

Kissinger: But you could say—

Nixon: I’m not. And—

Kissinger: I—

Nixon: As I’ve said, don’t, don’t—we’re not gonna be weak, we’re not leave you down in the—

Kissinger: Mr. President—

Nixon: —you’ve got to be confident about this—

Kissinger: I’m absolutely—I’m confident.

Nixon: You’ve got to expect some, some things. But it’s just as I told you, you’ve got this usual situation when the press contemplates—

Kissinger: Well, we’ve got our usual situation—

Nixon: It’s a hell of a damn hard thing for the press, though, to play against Americans. Americans aren’t getting killed there now. What they’re saying is that, “Well, this proves Vietnamization isn’t working.” It doesn’t prove anything of the kind.

Kissinger: Well—

Nixon: Christ, this is in the north of the country. As nobody—anybody who has been to Vietnam—for Christ’s sakes, there’re not enough Vietnamese up there to flip a goddamned [unclear]. There’re only a few thousand—

Kissinger: Mr. President, it is impossible to defend 600 miles of a frontier against every attack without giving ground somewhere. The attacker always has the advantage that he can concentrate.

[Page 170]

Nixon: What—and this is the final thing—what does your report show this morning? Is it still going, is it—?

Kissinger: The report this morning shows that they’re pouring in a lot of tanks and artillery—

Nixon: Yeah. Yeah.

Kissinger: But they seem to be—

Nixon: Are they taking any losses—?

Kissinger: In every unit there—

Nixon: Are they slowing down at all? What is it?

Kissinger: Well, that—let me get to the briefers, and it will only take 10 minutes.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 700–2. 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, 8:54–9:09 a.m. Portions of the transcript are printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 79.
  2. March 30.
  3. Washington Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times.
  4. Clark Clifford, Secretary of Defense, March 1, 1968–January 20, 1969.
  5. April 7.