59. Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
[Omitted here is discussion of Haig’s view of the Marine Corps and close air support compared to the Air Force, how many troops to withdraw in the next round, and Kissinger’s recent telephone conversation with Nelson Rockefeller in which Rockefeller recommended going after Haiphong.]
Nixon: I have a feeling the weather is going to break. It’s beginning to break here. [laughs] Not that means anything half way around the world, but in some ways it’s bound to start to break, Henry.
Kissinger: It’s got to break.
Kissinger: It’s got to break—
Nixon: It’s going to break—
Kissinger: —and at any rate—
Nixon: —and then all hell will break loose out there.
Kissinger: If we can get—I—I was talking to Haig. It really is unbelievable, Mr. President. Every single idea has come out of this office here or out of my office; I mean out of the White House—
Nixon: I know that.
Kissinger: Nothing from Abrams, not one thought on what to do. He does this by the numbers. We have a computer out there.
Nixon: Who? Who? Who?
Nixon: Oh! Yes, yes, yes. That’s what I said to—[Page 204]
Kissinger: Haig says, correctly, if he were out there he’d be flying over the battlefield and throw[ing] monkey wrenches out of the plane, on the theory that it would hit somebody.
Nixon: Yeah, that’s what I mean. Why don’t we just drop personnel bombs and figure that it’s [unclear]? And I—well, coming back to my—the proposition I wanted to talk to you about, to be sure we understand that they are—the proposition that we—that our call should figure out where a line can be drawn.
Nixon: And plan to get back to them. Now, incidentally, I noticed from the news summary that indicated that we have withdrawn from what they call 16 bases. That’s good. That’s what they should do. They should get out of those 16 bases,2 whatever it is.
Kissinger: That’s right.
Nixon: Now, if they feel that Quang Tri, or whatever it is, is significant and it’s worth holding, hold it, but that I’d be in a position of giving up [unclear]—it’s, it’s—I’d rather them give up territory, win the battle. That is the way to fight battles.
Kissinger: That’s right.
Nixon: The Russians have won wars that way. The Germans have won ’em—
Kissinger: That’s right—
Nixon: The Brit—French. Christ, Napoleon didn’t always attack. Huh? Not always.
Kissinger: He almost always attacked.
Nixon: Well, he believed in the theory of attack, because he usually had smaller forces.
Nixon: But on the other hand—
Kissinger: Well, he was sometimes on the defensive—
Nixon: He’d do the sleight of hand now and then.
Kissinger: Well, actually, his best campaign, which he lost, but it was a miracle that he fought it so long, was when he had 60,000 against 400,000, and he withdrew into France, and he threw his 60,000 back and forth and was really defeating them. The trouble was, every time [Page 205] he defeated one of them, if he lost even 5,000 men he was weakened to a point where he couldn’t—3
Nixon: And finally at Waterloo—
Kissinger: —sustain it. But that was before Waterloo—
Nixon: Or the Battle of the Nations?
Kissinger: No, he—at the Battle of the Nations they were still fairly even, but he had no cavalry left, so he lost that. Then, after he lost the Battle of the Nations he withdrew into France. The Austrians came in from the south, the Prussians and English came in from the north. He stood in the center and first defeated the Austrians, then he threw the whole army north against the Prussians. He beat the Prussians, then he moved back against the Austrians. And he was holding them off for six months with these lightening strikes.
Kissinger: But then the Austrians decided to hell with it and just formed a line and ground ahead. And so he—they didn’t have their forces divided.
Kissinger: At Waterloo, well that was just screwed up. He nearly—he should have won Waterloo—
Nixon: He should have won. Well, anyway, that’s a war of a different time, but basically it’s like football. Strategy never changes with football or—you know what I mean? You—you give ground in the middle of the field, hold the line at the goal line, and then score a touchdown.
Nixon: That’s the way it’s done.
Kissinger: Yeah. I think if we can really get to work on them, Mr. President—
Nixon: I think that will—
Kissinger: —if we—
Nixon: The point is, you see, Henry, this gives us one hell of an opportunity, an opportunity to really clobber them, something we’ve been wanting to do—
Kissinger: Right.[Page 206]
Nixon: —and now, by God, they have walked into it.
Nixon: They’ve just been hitting in the B–3 Front. We couldn’t do it, but we can clobber them up and down over that DMZ—
Kissinger: That’s right.
Nixon: —like nobody’s business.
Kissinger: That is right. And I think we can just level that area south of the 18th parallel.
Nixon: Do you have any, any thoughts with regard to, to anything more? Now, just think a minute. We don’t want to force anything. Anything more? If you—let me, let me suggest one thing that I had in mind that you might get. Rogers isn’t going to have a press conference—
Nixon: —is he?
Kissinger: No, no.
Nixon: Christ. He should. He should step up to the damn plate—
Kissinger: Well, except he’d just—
Kissinger: —make it [unclear]—
Nixon: Right. One thing I would like for you to work out, to get out, maybe through State in their briefing tomorrow, is this: How much of the population is under the control, still, of Saigon? Do you know what I mean? Now, you know, when we talk about the losses and so forth and so on, I think it’s just as well to keep the perspective a little clear. Would you—do you agree?
Kissinger: Exactly. Actually—
Nixon: It must be 85 to 90 percent.
Kissinger: Nelson [Rockefeller], incidentally, thinks that the public is on our side.
Nixon: Is it? [unclear] It doesn’t make any difference. I wouldn’t care if was 10 percent on our side, because I don’t know if they want to be doing it, and I know that at this point we cannot top this. You think of—I mean, I—as we said earlier, Henry, that we would weaken. You wouldn’t have a viable foreign policy for a reason when an asshole like Muskie, who knows better—McGovern, who doesn’t know any better—but when Muskie says, in effect, “Don’t react here. I hope we don’t do anything precipitate.” Henry, he’s a guy that might be sitting in this chair. You realize—
Kissinger: Mr. President—
Nixon: —that if we should lose here, that the United States will never again have a foreign policy? We don’t go fight anyplace.[Page 207]
Kissinger: Mr. President, if McGovern—if Muskie sat here—the worst is if Humphrey sat here. Let’s take somebody who acts tougher. He wouldn’t do anything. He would find excuses—
Kissinger: —to do nothing, and the whole thing would come apart. All it would take for you is to take a laissez-faire attitude and the Pentagon would be, in effect, doing what they did in Tet; just be paralyzed, not hit back.
Nixon: Is that what they did? Paralyzed?
Kissinger: Absolutely. We are the ones that are energizing it out of here.
Nixon: I don’t think they would have been hitting back or thinking. How—what would they have done had we not called them in and said get off your ass?
Kissinger: If we had not called them in, they would have hit the SAMs in a belt of 15 miles—4
Kissinger: —instead of 45. They would not have hit logistics installations. They would have limited it to three or four days. They would have kept a ceiling on sorties. They wouldn’t—certainly not have sent additional planes out. They would have said publicly—
Nixon: They would not have sent them out—
Kissinger: —that we are not going to reinforce, that the withdrawals continue. They would have done just enough to make us look impotent and not enough to do anything successful.
Nixon: One of the things about it, Henry, what we are doing has got to make us look—this point, as I’m sure you get out of that banged up territory that we have, is that the South Vietnamese Government isn’t gone. Is it? But the point is—
Kissinger: From this point it’s not even under severe pressure yet.
Kissinger: I mean all the—[unclear] is in the northernmost province, the one that’s closest—and Joe Alsop says, correctly, when a government puts its whole army on foreign soil and if it then doesn’t win, this is an act of desperation. This is not—no longer an act of policy. And I tend to agree with him—[Page 208]
Nixon: I agree with him. I agree. I think this is one of those things that if [it] isn’t the last gasp, they are supermen. They are not supermen.
Kissinger: This is the last gasp, Mr. President. If we hold firm and if we scare the Russians enough, but for that we have to act ferociously, and I even wonder whether we shouldn’t give a pop to Haiphong.
Nixon: Well again, where do you put it?
Kissinger: Well, just bomb the goddamn town.
Nixon: All right.
Kissinger: For 24 hours—
Nixon: We could do that. We could really do it. I’m perfectly willing.
Kissinger: Let me look into that.
Nixon: All right. If there’s anything you could hit in the Haiphong area, now let me say, anything that we could hit.
Kissinger: Just level the goddamn docks.
Nixon: Well the point is, it depends whether ships are there, Henry, civilians and all that sort of thing.
Nixon: Yeah. Understand, I’m for it. I’m—would you prefer to do that to mining?
Kissinger: No. Mining would be better, but also that would get us—
Nixon: It would last longer—
Kissinger: —a first-class crisis.
Nixon: Well, let’s think. Let’s think. What will the pop to Haiphong do, Henry? Just think about it. I’m all for it. But understand, I, I thought that all through, though—
Kissinger: Well, Mr. President—
Nixon: We’re going to do the—we’ll—I’m prepared to blockade—
Kissinger: We have—
Nixon: —we’re prepared to mine. I’m prepared to take out that railway to China—
Kissinger: We have to nav—we have to navigate, Mr. President, if we’re doing something that’s spectacular and scares them—
Kissinger: —and something we can sustain.
Kissinger: If we bomb day after day—I’ve checked the military. They prefer to bomb day after day south of the 18th parallel than to [Page 209] make one massive effort and have to knock it off. And I think that makes sense, because that way they can work on the whole system—
Nixon: That’s right.
Kissinger: —and grind it down. And I think we—on the whole, I lean toward systematically grinding them down, and then giving them a big pop, and then knocking the whole thing off. By the end of the month—what I think is, by the end of the month, if we have broken their back in the 18th parallel, we could give them a big pop up north and then knock the whole thing off and say, “Now we’ve done it,” if the mil[itary]—if the offensive has stopped by then.
Nixon: I think the pop shouldn’t come now. Think of it. What—what would it do? Let’s just think if we did it now. What’s it going to do to put the hellish pressure on Russians? [pause] What do you think?
Kissinger: Well, let me find out. Let me get some reconnaissance.
Nixon: Fine. Is there anything short of it? I mean is there anything in the Haiphong area you could hit? Something, understand, that’d be a shot across the bow? You know what I mean? That’s what I’m thinking.
Nixon: Just let ’em have one. More will be coming. In other words, with the bombing they inflicted, they have violated the so-called “understanding.”5
Nixon: Totally. They’ve done it other times, but this time it’s for real. They came across the DMZ. Correct?
Nixon: Does anybody say that there was not an understanding about not violating the DMZ? Nobody. That’s one thing. They may chat—they chatter about other understandings but this one there was. Correct?
Kissinger: Yes, sir.
Nixon: All right. They violated it. All right, since the understanding is violated we ought to hit something in the North we haven’t hit before. That’s the thing I’m concerned about. That’s why, you know, I felt hit the 19th parallel or whatever it is. But let’s come again. Maybe the idea of hitting something in Haiphong is better. What would you do just with one shot? One—
Kissinger: I think you could do it—[Page 210]
Nixon: —with one run?
Kissinger: —with one, one shot. Just take out some docks because there the symbolism is more important than anything else.
Nixon: Let’s see, you take out the docks then you have great squeals from people here saying: “Don’t bomb Haiphong.” Right?
Kissinger: That’s right. And you’d certainly get a violent Chinese response. You’d certainly get a violent Russian response.
Nixon: Hmm. People respond when a friend hurts.
Kissinger: That’s right. But let me see what ships are in there.
Nixon: Well, let’s just let State do it at secretary-level tomorrow, huh? I figure Bill [Rogers] wouldn’t, wouldn’t go on the damn thing. You know, goddamnit, though, it’s really not fair. It’s really not fair. You know, here we—here we are, Henry. Somebody ought to step up and say, “What can we do to help?” At least Mel is willing to do that.
[Omitted here is discussion of Rogers’s dealing with the press, his role in the coming Presidential campaign, Laird making campaign speeches, Rogers building up the State Department, a message to the Chinese and the Russians, a North Vietnamese request for a meeting in Paris, Kissinger writing a book about the Vietnam War, and what Zhou Enlai may have told the North Vietnamese.]
Kissinger: One thing we must do, Mr. President, just symbolically, is go in with B–52s north of the DMZ.
Nixon: Oh, I ordered it. Was there any—was there any question about that—?
Kissinger: Because that will be a signal to them—
Nixon: Well, that’s what I mean. Let me say that, that’s at least one shot across the bow that’s cheap as hell.
Nixon: Now, would you please put that down in—?
Nixon: Can’t we do that even tomorrow?
Kissinger: Well, we have to suppress the SAMs first. We need a day of this, of working on the SAMs, and then we go in with the B–52s.
Nixon: All right. Can you find some of the extra targets up there?
Nixon: Why not take Vinh out for example? Can we do that—?
Kissinger: [unclear] beyond that.
Nixon: Well, but boy, I mean, this is music to my ears. I’ve been pressing for it for a long time. Let’s put some B–52s north of that, north of the DMZ.[Page 211]
Nixon: That tells them what’s going to be coming. Doesn’t it?
Nixon: It’s a warning: “Look here, you knock this off or we’re going to continue to move.”
Nixon: We’re also in a very good position. You realize all this bombing can be justified as being solely for military purposes?
Kissinger: But this is the beauty of it. This is where they made their mistake. If they had struck in Kontum, all we could have done is two or three days. Now they’ve hit on the demilitarized zone and we’re just not going to let go for a few weeks. And they—This is an act of desperation on their part. Now, Alsop told me that John Vann thinks, he’s in correspondence with him, that, you know who he is—
Nixon: I know John Vann, yeah.
Kissinger: —who’s in charge of the 2d of the B–3 area.6 He says our air attacks have so demoralized the North Vietnamese that they haven’t been able to launch a concerted attack.
[Omitted here is discussion of H.G. Wells and whether one’s level of education makes one more or less bellicose.]
Nixon: Now that’s a problem. It’s supposed to rain tonight, but maybe it will rain and clear it up or make it worse.
Kissinger: Oh, I think it’s got to turn, Mr. President, because this is the time of the [unclear]—
Nixon: Goddamnit, it’s got to turn. It’s the same thing. You know, when it does turn what’s going to happen?
Kissinger: Well, when it does turn, you know, get out everything that flies—
Kissinger: —then we’re going to shore up what they got on the battlefield and we’re going to hit north of the DMZ, and we’re just going to clobber them.
Nixon: Look, if it rains, if you get any—once you get another report on the weather, is there any point where we can keep hitting them?
Kissinger: About 8 o’clock tonight.[Page 212]
[Omitted here is a brief, unrelated aside.]
Kissinger: At 8 o’clock tonight.
Nixon: Do you get a report on the weather?
Nixon: Who sends it to you?
Kissinger: I check with the—Moorer calls Abrams. If—if this isn’t fought more aggressively in another, by early next week, you might want to consider relieving Abrams. We just cannot play these games with the supremacy of the field commander. I know it’s rough and brutal, but that guy just does it too much by the numbers.
Nixon: He’s had it. Look, he’s fat, he’s drinking too much, and he’s not able to do the job. I [unclear].
Kissinger: He shouldn’t be the one who said they’ve come up with all the ideas. There’s one idea that’s come that we’ve—that’s been carried out this week that didn’t—
Nixon: Can you call Moorer today saying I’m just waiting for those ideas he’s supposed to get? Has he got some more? Incidentally, would you also ask Helms if he’s got any with regard to any activities? Then I want you to tell Helms about the mining exercise.
Nixon: Well, tell me about that and look into the Haiphong thing [unclear]—
Kissinger: I’ll have that looked at immediately.
[Omitted here is discussion of the weather, the performance of the Air Force and Navy in the air war, command arrangements, and the pilots who are shot down and become prisoners of war.]
Nixon: I’ve been trying to figure as to—we’re sort of busy these days. Try and get the weather. Goddamnit, if any of you—if you know any prayers, say it for weather out there. Just get that weather cleared up over there. The bastards have never been bombed. [chuckles] They’re going to be bombed this time. Of course, we’ve got to have weather.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 702–7. 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, 3:45–5:06 p.m.↩
- South Vietnamese Forward Support Bases just south of the DMZ.↩
- Nixon and Kissinger were discussing the Battle of Leipzig, October 16–19, 1813, also known as the Battle of Nations, in which an allied army of approximately 370,000 Russians, Prussians, Swedes, and Austrians fought Napoleon’s 198,000 troops. Napoleon lost the battle, suffering 73,000 casualties to the allies’54,000.↩
- Kissinger was referring to a string of surface-to-air missile emplacements 15 nautical miles north of the DMZ.↩
- See footnote 5, Document 2.↩
- The term “2d” refers to the U.S.-designated Military Region 2 (MR–2). “B–3” refers to a North Vietnamese-designated area in the highlands, the B–3 Front, which was located within MR–2.↩