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

[Omitted here is a discussion of whether Laird, Pursley, or Abrams leaked information to the press about the bombing campaign; a Chinese diplomatic note protesting the bombers’ route over Chinese islands in the South China Sea; the impact of the bombing on American public opinion; the military situation in South Vietnam; the failure of the Air Force in the conflict; the effect of the bombing on North Vietnam and the Moscow Summit; Senator Mansfield’s commitment; and how to respond to Indian criticism of the bombing.]

Kissinger: Our decision next week will have to be, if I come back from Moscow2 without anything—which the odds favor that I won’t get anything—then are we—

Nixon: Then what do we do?

Kissinger: —are we just going to subside?

Nixon: Oh, no.

Kissinger: Or are we just going to bomb, or blockade, or something like that, them to smithereens? Now, I believe, Mr. President, after what we’ve cranked up, if we simply back off—

Nixon: We won’t. No, no, no. I see. I see what you mean.

Kissinger: I mean, that’s a big question. Now, if they give us—as you remember yesterday, I told you we should not lightly knock off the Russian Summit.

Nixon: I know.

Kissinger: But—

Nixon: We could.

Kissinger: No, I don’t think we should do it.

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Nixon: The only thing is, I’m thinking that—I’m thinking that the Russian Summit may have something in it for us, provided we have given Hanoi a hell of a good bang. That’s what I mean.

Kissinger: Yeah, but we haven’t given Hanoi a good bang yet.

Nixon: Not yet. Not yet. We’ve given them enough of a bang for your trip, but not for mine.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: That’s how, you know, that’s the magnitude.

Kissinger: No, for my trip, we are in good shape.

Nixon: Well, you have two choices then: We either have the choice of what we call a three-day strike kind of an operation, which could be a hell of a thing, you know, let everything that flies knock the bejeezus out of the things up there; or, we have the choice of a blockade. Now, if you have a blockade, you’ve got to look down the road to see what the Russians—and what do they have to do? What do they say? Of course, these are the things that you’ll have down in your paper, as you know.

Kissinger: Well, what I have to do, Mr. President, in Moscow, though, is to give them the impression that you may well have a blockade.

Nixon: Yeah, I know. I’m just trying to think, through—

Kissinger: You’ll never get as much—

Nixon: I thoroughly intend to do either the blockade or the, or the strike, you know. We’re—you—we were between the two. Yesterday, you were raising the point that the blockade would take too long and we’d be in constant—

Kissinger: You see, the trouble—

Nixon: —confrontation and all that sort of stuff. Well, I’m not so sure—

Kissinger: You see the trouble—

Nixon: —want to be sure.

Kissinger: But so would they. You see, the trouble is, right now, we have a plausible force out there.

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: If we don’t do something with it for two months—

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: —we’ll have to start pulling them out again. And—

Nixon: Well, let me tell you what my feeling is—the reason I’ve gone through this exercise with you. You see, what we really confront if you don’t get something out of Moscow, probably our only choice is a blockade.

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Kissinger: I’m afraid there may be a lot in that.

Nixon: And—but, it’s a—so, maybe it will go on for six months. I think the American people would rather have a blockade going on for six months than—but with the blockade, would the things give us our prisoners? Well, we’d have to set it up in a pretty tough way, I mean, in a clever way. Well, we’ll have to see.

[Omitted here is discussion of a meeting that afternoon in the Rose Garden with the table tennis team from the People’s Republic of China and of public demonstrations against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war.]

Nixon: You see, on the blockade, Henry, we’ve got the force out there to do it. You see, now, I can’t get over this Laird thing—

Kissinger: You see, they [the Soviets] are leery of a confrontation, Mr. President. They ordered all the ships that are coming into Haiphong to slow up.

Nixon: I heard that from Moorer. Yeah—

Kissinger: And I saw—

Nixon: I wonder if that’s true.

Kissinger: No, I saw the intercept. I saw the order they sent to their merchant ships, not to proceed very [unclear]—

Nixon: They must be afraid of a blockade then.

Kissinger: Yes.

Nixon: Or mining.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Do you agree with the fellow, though? This is only a technical matter, but Moorer, he seemed to favor mining over a blockade.

Kissinger: Well, if you mine, then you may have the problem that they’ll send minesweepers down.

Nixon: Then you have to bomb them, huh?

Kissinger: And you have to police them. Mining avoids the problem of daily—

Nixon: Confrontation.

Kissinger: Of daily confrontation with the Russians. That takes care of shipping, also, with a lot of other countries.

Nixon: Well, mining plus bomb—bombing. Blockade—blockade sounds better, diplomatically. You know what I mean? It sounds stronger.

Kissinger: The advantage of the—if you blockade, there ought to be, you know, a week of heavy raids to run down their supplies and to reduce ’em; five days, three days of heavy raids. God, a few more days of raids like we had yesterday and they’d be in—they really hurt.

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[Omitted here is discussion of Laird and bombing North Vietnam, the effect of the bombing in the North and the ground war in the South on the negotiations in Paris, the Moscow Summit and the Vietnam war, the improvement of Air Force performance under General Vogt, and the military situation in South Vietnam. Also omitted is the President’s brief telephone conversation with Laird about how to deal with the press vis-à-vis the continued bombing of North Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 711–3. 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, 9:20–10:02 a.m. Portions of this transcript are printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 121.
  2. Kissinger was scheduled to depart for Moscow to meet with Soviet leaders to plan Nixon’s official visit in May. While Kissinger was in Moscow, April 20–24, the President prohibited U.S. bombing in the Hanoi–Haiphong area.