81. Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
[Omitted here is discussion of backchannel message 65 from Haig in Saigon, the North Vietnamese offensive and Nixon’s trip to the Moscow Summit, and Hanoi’s offer to resume the plenary session and send Le Duc Tho to Paris if the United States stopped bombing North Vietnam. Portions of the transcript are printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 113.]
Kissinger: Mr. President, I think you’ve always done what you said you would do. And I have every—no, I think that’s what you will do—
Nixon: Look, Henry—
Kissinger: —and I think that’s what you should do.
Nixon: Look, Henry, you see, if you—when you really carry out, Henry, to your, to the extreme, your analysis, that you can’t have the North Vietnamese destroy two Presidents, and in that it isn’t really quite on all fours because Johnson destroyed himself, and in my case I will not do it that way. I will do it, frankly, for the good of the country. But nevertheless—
Kissinger: No, no, but that is for the good of the country. That’s why I’m saying it, Mr. President, with all my—
Kissinger: —loyalty I think we cannot have these miserable little bastards destroy confidence in our government.
Nixon: Sure. Well, anyway, I was going to tell you that I’m convinced that the country—you see, for me, let me be quite—Kennedy, even leading a nation that was infinitely stronger than any potential enemy, was unable to conduct a very successful foreign policy because he lacked iron nerves—
Kissinger: That’s right.
Nixon: —and lacked good advisers.
Nixon: All right. Johnson was in the same position for other reasons, because he didn’t have any experience. Now, I am quite aware [Page 261] of the fact that because of the—what is happening here and the rest, I mean that, that there is a limit, a very good chance—I mean I don’t, and it doesn’t bother me one damn bit from a personal standpoint—there’s a very good chance that sitting in this chair could be somebody else. It could be a Muskie; it could be a Humphrey; it could be a Teddy;2 one of those three on the Democratic side. And on the Republican side it won’t be Agnew or Reagan, but it—Rockefeller probably couldn’t get the nomination, I don’t know who, who they would nominate, but nevertheless, but here’s the point: I have to, I know that, I have to leave this office in a position as strong as I possibly can because whoever succeeds me, either because of lack of experience or because of lack of character or guts, heading a weaker United States would surrender the whole thing. You understand—?
Kissinger: No question. I know—
Nixon: So that is why, that is why what I have to do, I have to do it not only to assure that if I am here we can conduct a successful foreign policy, I have to do it—and this is even more important—so that some poor, weak son-of-a-bitch sitting here, with the best of intentions can conduct it. It will be hard enough for Hubert Humphrey in this chair, it will be hard enough for him to conduct a foreign policy of the United States that’s knocked the hell out of South Vietnam. It’ll be very hard because he is a gibbering idiot at times; well-intentioned but gibbering. Muskie has proved that he has no, no character. And Teddy is a—well, unbelievable, I mean. It’s his up and down. Now, what the—what the hell can you do? So, you cannot leave—you just can’t leave the thing. Now, under these circumstances, as I’ve often said, that it may be that [clears throat]I’m the last person in this office for some time, until somebody else is developing along the same lines, I mean, who’s tough and experienced, who will be able to conduct a strong, responsible foreign policy. So goddamnit, we’re going to do it. And that means—that means take every risk, lose every election. That’s the way I look at it, just as cold as that. Now people say, “Oh well, if you win you’re going to lose your path.” I’m not sure, but the main point is, we have no choice, you see?
Kissinger: That’s my view—
Nixon: The foreign policy of the United States will not be viable if we’re run out of Vietnam. That’s all there is to it.
[Omitted here is additional discussion of the offensive, the Middle East, the Soviets, and the prospective summit.]
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 709–8. 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, 8:58–9:34 a.m.↩
- Nixon was referring to Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D–MA).↩