83. Conversation Among President Nixon, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger), Secretary of Defense Laird, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Moorer)1

[Omitted here is President Nixon’s discussion with Secretary Laird regarding Laird’s testimony the next day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.]

Nixon: Now, one thing that’s very important, it seems to me, [unclear] in the event that, and who knows who we’ll get support from, but in the event the enemy starts to move back, rather than having our bombing subside, is to keep it at the maximum. The time to hit the [Page 273] goddamn enemy is when it—it’s when you can shoot them in the back. And boy we’ll let them have it. Right?

Moorer: Yes, sir. But I’ve already talked—

Nixon: You understand? Now, you remember what they did to the poor damn South Vietnamese when they were getting out of Laos.2 I want to give it to them ten times right in the butt.

Moorer: Right.

Nixon: You see?

Moorer: Exactly. Don’t worry.

Nixon: And this is an opportunity because our tendency will be that after the battle cools and all that just say, just sort of let them, you know, let them out later on. But boy if they start moving around if they’re in—I don’t know where or whether you can see them or anything. You can see some of them, can’t you?

Moorer: Well, you can—

Nixon: Up in I Corps, I would think now you’d, you ought to be able to see ’em and knock their brains out.

Laird: Hell, they’re hitting out there. In the last 24 hours they’ve been doing a good job.

Nixon: Have they?

Laird: Sure. If—the weather has been good, you see.

Moorer: We ought to follow them all the way [unclear]—

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: We don’t have the weather, I know—

Laird: Even when we had a 2,000-foot ceiling, I think I should stress more of the fact that those South Vietnamese were in there flying with those old, older planes because you can’t fly a jet in there.

Nixon: I know—

Laird: But they were down there flying sorties and doing a damn good job.

Nixon: [unclear]

Laird: When you came in as President, Mr. President—

Nixon: Yeah?

Laird: —there were 182 aircraft that the South Vietnamese could operate.

Nixon: What do they have now?

Laird: Over a thousand. And they’re maintaining them.

Nixon: This is great.

[Page 274]

Laird: And they’ve been trained to fly them, and they’ve been trained to maintain them. It’s really quite a—

Nixon: Well, that way you can point them out as Vietnamization succeeding on the ground, but it’s also—it’s succeeding in the air. And that the—

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: —we’re going to leave a South Vietnam able to defend itself against future invasions by itself. That’s our game. That’s our goal. Right? But, I, I, I—

Laird: I don’t think you should turn this into a bloodbath—

Nixon: The idea—the idea, too, Mel, of you and the Admiral talking, and of great pride in Americans risking their lives, you know, to save their men. [unclear] Now, if the POW thing comes up, well, you know what to say about that.

Laird: Well, I’ll go with the humanitarian thing. That’s the only way I can handle the POW question—

Nixon: I know, but I mean don’t ever get into the business of we’re trading them. Well, we just stop there. And that silly proposal where if you stop the bombing you would—that we’ll come back and talk. Now, we—they sold us that once. They ain’t going to sell that to us again. That’s the way I’d put it. Look, they sold us that once in 1968, before this administration was here. Stop the bombing and we’ll talk. This time we’ve got to have some negotiation. If they want to negotiate, and if they want to stop their invasion, we’ll negotiate. Right? Stop the bombing and negotiate.

Laird: Well, I—I’d like to be a little harder on that [unclear]—

Nixon: Sure, it’s all right with me.

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: What do you want to say to them?

Laird: Just stopping the invasion at the DMZ, I don’t think it’s quite enough by itself—

Nixon: I agree.

Kissinger: Then to withdraw?

Laird: Yeah, I think they’ve got to withdraw across the DMZ.

Nixon: Oh, absolutely.

Laird: You see, I’d like to take it—and then if somebody wants to change that, let somebody else change it and [unclear].

Kissinger: They’ve got to withdraw those three divisions—

Laird: Right—

Kissinger: —that came across the DMZ

Laird: And I would much rather take that position and then let somebody else overrule it—

[Page 275]

Nixon: They have to withdraw the forces that they’ve moved across the DMZ. Totally.

Laird: Right.

Nixon: Right—

Laird: That’s the way I’d like to say it.

Nixon: And you take that and I back it all the way.

Laird: Well I—you might want to get off that.

Nixon: Hell no.

Laird: I don’t want to get off it.

Nixon: Now, that’s the bargaining position we’re using.

Laird: And I [unclear]

Nixon: I think that, incidentally—I think that—I think the point—

Kissinger: It’s a good point.

Nixon: The point, Mel, that you, and you all, have got to have in mind on this, is something that I’m sure you know. We’re—it became rather easy to just let this thing go its usual course and grind down, but we have deliberately put everything on the line. We’re putting on the line even our relationship with the Soviet on this. And we’re doing it quite cleverly because, to put it candidly, if the Soviet Union is allowed to get away with supporting a country’s—one country’s invasion of another country, a naked invasion of another country, without a reaction from the United States, if it happens then, the United States, from that time on, will not have a credible foreign policy with the Soviet Union, it isn’t—the summit—isn’t worth a damn. It’ll happen in the Mideast next. All they’ve got to do with all this—you put in—as you well realize, if they put in Soviet personnel operating those SAMs in the UAR, Israel is going to have one hell of a time. And, so if you—if the Soviet Union is allowed to get away with this, basically the—what we—by stopping this kind of aggression here, we reduce the possibility of this kind of aggression in other parts of the world. If we do not stop it here, the risk of this kind of aggression being tried in other parts of the world—indirect aggression—is infinitely escalated. And so this is really essential in our whole program of trying to build a peaceful world. Now, as far as the Soviets are concerned, we’re glad to talk to them, all that and the other thing, but we cannot tolerate a situation where they’re doing that. Does that line bother you, Henry?

Kissinger: Well, I think taking on the Soviets in terms of equipment is all right. Charging them with engaging in the aggression itself, that goes a little further.

Nixon: Well, supporting—

Kissinger: Supporting it.

Nixon: Supporting them in this—

[Page 276]

Kissinger: Yeah, and encouraging it.

Nixon: Well, I think we need to say so.

Laird: Well, they’ll get into the problem of questioning, too, about Vietnamization, and logistics, and so forth. I think we can turn that into a plus. I go over the logistics report every morning and look at the—we’ve got a good program moving there, and not only in artillery, but the air, and logistics, in all these areas the South Vietnamese are performing well.

Nixon: [unclear]

Laird: They had help—

Nixon: If there’s something now I would say about Vietnamization, I’d say, I’d just smile at them and say: “You know, gentlemen, you’ve been rather interested in reading the stories over the last two weeks, and some of the gentlemen of the press wrote their leads too early that Vietnamization had failed.” I said: “Vietnamization has not failed. The proof of Vietnamization is not how it does when there’s no battle, but how it does when they’re under attack. And now, that they’ve been under attack, they have sustained the attacks, they have fought well, and are fighting back, and Vietnamization is going to succeed.” I think if you could say that, that’s very helpful.

Kissinger: Was there any action overnight, Tom?

Moorer: Not any significant action. We knew at An Loc they’ve withdrawn, the North Vietnamese have. So it’s a relatively quiet—

Kissinger: Withdrawn a bit?

Moorer: A bit, yeah, but we’re going to have more fighting there, but, nevertheless, they did not carry out their objective of capturing the city.

Nixon: Yet. I mean—

Moorer: Yes—

Nixon: —they’re still, they’re still shooting at it, though, huh?

Moorer: Yes, sir, but they are not making, you know, essentially human wave assault lines and penetrating the perimeter. They’ve drawn back.

Laird: And we have other forces in there. We’re now—they’re receiving [unclear]—

Nixon: We’re pounding them with the air in there.

Moorer: Very hard. Yes, sir.

Laird: The 21st Division is moving into the area. They’re in contact now. And—

Kissinger: They’re what, four—seven kilometers from the front—?

Moorer: Yeah. Right. Seven.

[Page 277]

Nixon: Are they going, are they moving on the roadways? I thought they were stopped on the roads.

Moorer: Well, they’re moving on the road [unclear]. They’re also moving to clear the road, to prevent the North Vietnamese from coming in. And I told Henry this morning that, that thing I told you last night, I think they did the right thing, because if they had raced in, then the 7th Division could have come in behind them, between them and Saigon, and that wouldn’t have been—

Nixon: Yeah.

Moorer: —good at all. So, what the, what the 21st Division has been moving up the road, but maintaining their, well, protecting their flanks in the process. Because, Mr. President, they have, the North Vietnamese, have the three Cambodian divisions—the 5th, 7th and, 9th—plus this 271st Special Regiment, which came all the way from Hanoi in this total infiltration they just conducted.

Kissinger: Which is what, an artillery regiment?

Moorer: No, no. It’s an infantry regiment, plus an artillery regiment, plus a tank battalion, and—

Nixon: Yeah.

Moorer: —all in this general area.

Nixon: Let me just say one thing that the—what is also on the line here—I’ve said that American foreign policy—what is also on the line, as I’m sure you know, is the whole future of the—and putting it in melodramatic terms, the honor of the armed services of this country.

Moorer: Right.

Nixon: The United States with all of its power has had 50,000 dead. If we get run out of this place now, confidence in the armed services will be like a snake’s belly. So we can’t let it happen. And that’s why at this point these [unclear] have to realize how much is on the line. Let’s see if it works. How long in case we have to go to a blockade? How long would it take for you to impose one?

Moorer: Oh, sir, I think just 48 hours or less.

Nixon: Good. Okay. It affects—does that mean everything? Mining, ships, and so forth?

Moorer: Well, a blockade we wouldn’t mine. [unclear] if we, if we—

Nixon: Well, I thought you could supplement it with mines.

Moorer: Yes, sir, we could. But I think if you mine you wouldn’t have to blockade.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Moorer: I mean, I don’t think both would be necessary. I think we could do it either way.

[Page 278]

Nixon: Hmm.

Kissinger: The advantage of mining is you don’t have to stop ships.

Nixon: Yeah, this is how it will look, Henry, in terms of mining. If—if a blockade is not [unclear], but the advantage of a blockade is that you can let through hospital, and that kind of, you know, and food and so forth. On the other hand, if your blockade is going to be total, you might as well mine.

Moorer: Right.

Laird: Well, then if you mine, Mr. President, in order for the mining operation to be effective, you have to, I believe, use airpower over there.

Nixon: You mean to take out the—

Laird: And that’s a recommendation—

Nixon: On shipping? No, airpower [unclear]—

Laird: I’m not—

Moorer: On the barges, since they might anchor outside and try to take some barges to—

Laird: Because they can, they can lift it in all through—

Nixon: I see.

Laird: —through the minefield, and they can, they can do that there. And so I think you have to take those ships.

Nixon: Well, these are things that you’ve all thought through.

Laird: We’ve gone through all of these plans and—

Nixon: Good.

Moorer: But this would stop big ships from going in to the piers. Definitely.

Laird: But that’s not all of it. They still would be able to get their supplies in.

Moorer: But not at the same rate, though. Not at the same—

Nixon: You’re prepared to do either? To blockade or to mine, right?

Moorer: Yes, sir, and very short notice.

Laird: We’ve got a lot of equipment out there now, Mr. President. We can do it.

Nixon: Yeah, I think, I understand that we do have a Navy after all.

Moorer: I’m sorry there was ever any doubt, Mr. President. [laughter]

Nixon: I knew about it. I just wanted it at the right place at the right time. Well, okay—

[Page 279]

[Omitted here are Moorer’s discussion abut the rescue of a Navy pilot shot down off the coast of North Vietnam, and Nixon and Laird’s discussion of Navy gunnery practice near Puerto Rico.]

Nixon: Well, we appreciate what you’re doing and remember: don’t lose. That’s all. It’s the only order you’ve got. Not now.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 710–4. 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, 5:02–5:50 p.m.
  2. Nixon was referring to Operation Lam Son 719 in February–March 1971.