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

Nixon: Hi, Henry.

Kissinger: Hi. We had just a good WSAG meeting.2 You’ve really charged these guys up now.

Nixon: Did we get some weather, did you say?

Kissinger: Well, we’re getting some weather, but they are really pouring in naval ships now.

Nixon: Did he [Moorer] get the point with it?

Kissinger: Oh.

Nixon: Did you tell him about the—is he ready for a mining exercise?

Kissinger: He’ll have a plan first thing in the morning. He said thank—tell the President—

Nixon: Leak it.

Kissinger: “Not since ’64”—No, I’m—we’re doing it even better. I’ve told him to start loading mines in the Philippines—

Nixon: Good.

Kissinger: —on ships.

Nixon: How about—?

Kissinger: That will leak it.

Nixon: How about having—telling Helms. Did you tell him that?

Kissinger: Yep, that’s good.

Nixon: Would you mind giving Helms the word that I—?

Kissinger: Helms, of course he’s a bit of a whore, but he’s thrilled. Now, Rush asked to see me yesterday, asking me to see me after the meeting. He said he reviewed the whole record. And, he said whatever you said yesterday was an understatement; Laird has been playing games with us.3 And—

Nixon: And about giving the reports of—

Kissinger: Yeah.

[Page 192]

Nixon: —both sides.

Kissinger: And also the request for authorities. You see, one reason I was so leery is they wanted to hit logistics and SAMs. Laird didn’t approve it; he just wanted to hit SAMs. And to me the price just was too high for that.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Kissinger: Well, I just want you to know that. This thing—

Nixon: What is it? Have they got—they’ve gotten a little charged up then?

Kissinger: Oh, God. We—they’re now. We have one question, I don’t really—

Nixon: Yeah?

Kissinger: —know whether I need to bother you with it. I think we ought to put in some more aircraft.

Nixon: Well, where the hell is it?

Kissinger: Well, the choice is to move 36 Marine planes out of Japan or 54 from the United States Air Force. The Marines would have to—

Nixon: Bring them—

Kissinger: —bring in 500 more people with them because of they don’t have their ground support—

Nixon: They are to be stationed in—in this country—?

Kissinger: In Da Nang—

Nixon: In-country? If we can do it—

Kissinger: In order to move the Air Force out.

Nixon: Yeah. The Air Force thing is not considered to be an increase in our complement there, is it?

Kissinger: Not—no. Maybe a hundred people, but that would be—

Nixon: Yeah?

Kissinger: —absorbed by the withdrawal.

Nixon: The Marines are better. The Marines will do a better job. Let’s do whatever does a better job. What do you think?

Kissinger: All right.

Nixon: First you’re going to raise more aircraft. Oh, the Air Force isn’t that bad. Let’s not [unclear]. We shouldn’t blame those pilots; they’re brave. The poor sons-of-bitches are all POWs and this and that. You know? They fought well. It’s these goddamn airplanes that are no good.

Kissinger: Well, they’re both using the same planes. Let me check with Haig who he thinks will do the better job.

Nixon: But would you give me it quickly? Would you say that—

Kissinger: Well—

[Page 193]

Nixon: —would you say, first, that Moorer is charged up now? Huh?

Kissinger: Absolutely. And the whole admiralty. I said, I repeated what you had said this morning. I said, “The President said he doesn’t want to be told about political campaigns or anything else. He has the responsibility for the security of this country. He has concluded that for us to be run out of Vietnam would undermine our foreign policy. And he has an obligation to do the right thing. So all you people are obliged to do is to tell him what the right thing is.”4 And—

Nixon: Except pouring them in.

Kissinger: Except pouring them in. I said, “Anything short of ground combat we want to do.”

Nixon: So what’d they say?

Kissinger: “There’s not—you are responsible for telling all your subordinate commanders—

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Kissinger: —that they should think of things to do.” He said, “God, I haven’t heard”—Moorer said, “I haven’t heard this since ’63”.

Nixon: Oh, yes. He’s heard it from me.

Kissinger: Well—

Nixon: He forgets it.

Kissinger: Yeah. And—

Nixon: Very well.

Kissinger: Well, they are now, they—they’re moving 20 B–52s out there.

Nixon: Good.

Kissinger: They’ve already moved 18 F–4s.

Nixon: Good.

[Page 194]

Kissinger: They are moving—

Nixon: Are they moving another carrier?

Kissinger: Well, the other carrier they think would take too long.

Nixon: All right, fine.

Kissinger: And they’d have to move it—

Nixon: These four would be enough, probably.

Kissinger: These four would be enough—

Nixon: And how about the fleet? Can they get some more of them? Get some more than four destroyers? Let’s put in—

Kissinger: No, no. They’ve already—

Nixon: —put in 100 destroyers.

Kissinger: They’ve already got 10 destroyers there; they’re moving 8 more down, plus 3 cruisers. And—

Nixon: Well, that’s a hell of a lot of firepower.

Kissinger: That is. And you remember these have 5-inch guns. And, I told him to start hitting logistics installations in Dong Hoi, to start hitting the airfield in Dong Hoi.5

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: He said, “Do you mean it?” I said, “Of course we mean it.”

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: And—

Nixon: Is Dong Hoi an airfield? Can it be reached by, by this—?

Kissinger: Yes.

Nixon: Have we done it before?

Kissinger: Never.

Nixon: We haven’t? Why not?

Kissinger: Because of the bombing understanding.

Nixon: Oh, you mean we haven’t. But it was done by Johnson, I presume?

Kissinger: Right, but never by naval gunfire, because—

Nixon: The naval gunfire, it seems to me, would be better than bombing.

Kissinger: Yeah. Oh, yeah. We should really pour it in there now.

Nixon: Geez.

[Page 195]

Kissinger: They’ll scream like crazy. But I think—my view is this, Mr. President, this is not going to break open the war.

Nixon: Your view also is, I think, correct, that we ought to delay a 48-hour strike because the weather has been bad.

Kissinger: I—

Nixon: Has there been any improvement in the weather? You say they got 200 strikes off. I hope that Moorer didn’t go drop ’em over the boondocks—

Kissinger: No, no—

Nixon: —because of the number of strikes.

Kissinger: No, no—

Nixon: Goddamnit, that isn’t what I was telling him.

Kissinger: I’ve talked to—I’ve talked to Moorer, incidentally. He thinks if we give him unlimited authority to hit up to the 18th parallel—

Nixon: Yeah?

Kissinger: —in other words, just extend it 5 more miles—

Nixon: Do it!

Kissinger: He’d prefer that to the 48-hour strike all over South Vietnam.

Nixon: All right, fine.

Kissinger: And it gives us a better position because we can then say we’re just supporting the immediate combat zone.

Nixon: That’s right. We’re supporting the combat zone and that’s all.

Kissinger: And we can then, as we—

Nixon: And then we can do more in a smaller—

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: —place.

Kissinger: That’s right. And—

Nixon: And then also it’s a signal to them we might do more later. Now, you see, the mining, though, will really be the—will really be the thing that’ll tick them off. We’ve got to—I think that one has got to come—

Kissinger: But we should wait at least a week—

Nixon: —quite soon. Quite soon. I’m not so sure we have to even wait. I’m not so sure [unclear]—

Kissinger: But it wouldn’t take effect, Mr. President, for a month or two.

Nixon: I know, but you know we’re in a position now where—

Kissinger: Well—

[Page 196]

Nixon: —a bold play is going to make the difference.

Kissinger: But I think, Mr. President, they’ve given us a chance. They threw down the gauntlet and if we now break them, if the South Vietnamese can form a line, this is beyond contention—

Nixon: Did you tell Moorer about my theory about retreating?

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: You see, I read again last night. I went back to, deliberately, and read Churchill’s chapter about March 21st. And as you know, [Lieutenant General Sir Hubert de la Poer]Gough, a great one of the British military commanders, the hero of ’16, was cashiered as a result of the damn thing. And then—and Churchill finally said it, it was a—and then he pointed out why it was a German defeat and a Brit—and an allied victory. He said for the first time in the war since Ypres, he said that the Germans lost 2 to 1 on the offensive in casualties to the British, and 3 to 2 in terms of officers. But look, but look—but look what it looked like, I mean what it looked like in terms of the battle. The Germans captured, Henry, in the first four days of that battle, they captured 60,000 British. Captured 60,000. Captured over a thousand heavy guns. They killed and wounded 200,000 British in the course of the day. And every body said, “a great German victory.” Ludendorff was whining. He [unclear] and it was a hell—and, as Churchill said, it was a defeat.6

Kissinger: Well—

Nixon: And we’ve got to—

Kissinger: Mr. President, I agree—

Nixon: But how—let me tell you, the other point that I, which I particularly noted, Churchill made the point of retreat. And he said, they kept going back, and they kept going back, and they gave up ground, but they won [laughs] the war. The hell with the ground! Unless it’s—unless it’s Hue, or—you know what I mean?

Kissinger: Hue and Da Nang you can’t lose—

Nixon: Did you—did you tell—did you tell him that? Has he—have they been figuring about a strategic retreat?

Kissinger: Yeah, I’ve told him, and of course, Thieu’s interest, he doesn’t want to lose any cities.

Nixon: All right.

Kissinger: But—

[Page 197]

Nixon: We’re trying to win the war—

Kissinger: I believe, Mr. President, if we can hold the line, as long as it doesn’t mean the loss of Hue and Da Nang, if we can hold the line then we’ve got them out in the open where they are concentrated; there’s no jungle there. And we are going to grind them down. And if they then have to withdraw north of the DMZ, Mr. President, we will be able to do to them politically what they did to us after Laos.

Nixon: They invaded and retreated?

Kissinger: They invaded and retreated. No one will care how many casualties.

Nixon: The North Vietnamese—the South Vietnamese have got to attack—

Kissinger: And—

Nixon: —to drive them out.

Kissinger: And if we get that done, then we must offer a negotiation fairly quickly after that. And then we may be out of the war before the end of the year.

Nixon: That’s irrelevant. [unclear] Henry, getting out the war before the end of the year doesn’t make any difference from a political standpoint. If we’re not out before the election, then I’ll have [unclear]—

Kissinger: That’s what I mean—

Nixon: —can go on four years [unclear]—

Kissinger: No, no. What I mean is before the election—

Nixon: —we can do the right thing—

Kissinger: I mean before—

Nixon: We’ve got to. We’ve got to, in terms of before the election, the only thing that is going to do us any good is to do it in June, before the Democratic Convention. That’s when we have to have our big announcement, you know. That’s why I say it. That’s what we’re talking about it here. So as to—It’s the—the war is not the problem; it is the issue that is the problem. You see my point?

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: And the main thing is to have this battle now in B–1 [Front], where we kick the stuffings out of the bastards.

Kissinger: So, that they can’t come—

Nixon: And win one.

Kissinger: And, so that they can’t come back before the end of the year.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: But before the election—

[Page 198]

Nixon: But I think that in terms of the—but I think that in terms of the negotiation, if this battle moves fairly fast, if there’s any chance for it to move, if the weather breaks, my guess is that you’ll have your negotiation quite soon.

Kissinger: That’s what I think.

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: That’s what I think. That’s exactly my opinion.

Nixon: When will the Warsaw thing be announced?7

Kissinger: Well, that will take us a week to announce—five days. We’ve notified them today. We’ve notified State to notify Warsaw. Of course, it came in through Warsaw channels, not through State channels.

Nixon: Hang on.

Kissinger: But the major thing is not to tell Laird he did right. Well, not to tell him he did wrong, either. Just have him forget about the past. The major thing is to get this battle won.

Nixon: Yeah.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 701–14. 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, 12:13–1:15 p.m.
  2. See Document 56.
  3. See Document 54.
  4. Later that day, Moorer made certain that senior commanders from Honolulu to Saigon understood the President’s new policy, telling them: “According to high-level thinking in Washington, we have entered into an entirely new situation with respect to the conflict in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese have departed from their previous concept of protracted war and have now, in total violation of the previous understandings, launched a major invasion across the DMZ by main force units, including a significant part of their reserves. Consequently, it is necessary for all commanders and all staffs to give this problem their continuous attention. We do not expect to lose this one and, consequently, must bring as much air and naval force to bear as possible in order to give the enemy a severe jolt. We must take a new look at old plans previously discarded because of lack of authority and, in addition, come forward with as many imaginative recommendations as possible.” (Message 7951 from Moorer to McCain and Abrams, April 4, also sent to Rosson, Clay, Clarey, Mack, McNickle, and Cooper; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1016, Alexander M. Haig Special File, General Haig’s Visit to Vietnam, April 14, 1972)
  5. Located in southern North Vietnam, Dong Hoi contained military barracks, an airfield, and an important bridge, and was a major logistics center with a railway terminal just south of the city.
  6. President Nixon was probably conflating two of the major 1916 battles on the Western Front—taking the date of March 21 from Verdun (February 21–December 18) and his talking points about the British from the Somme (July 1–November 18). British troops did not take part in Verdun. General Sir Douglas Haig commanded the British forces at the Somme. See footnote 11, Document 13.
  7. A reference to Nixon’s planned stop-over in Poland after the summit meeting with Brezhnev.