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

[Omitted here is discussion of bombing North Vietnam, the ground war in South Vietnam, and Kissinger’s forthcoming trip to the Soviet Union in relation to the negotiations in Paris.]

Kissinger: And, you see, next week the mere fact, Mr. President—

Nixon: Um-hmm?

Kissinger: —that the Soviets discuss Vietnam with me—

Nixon: Um-hmm?

Kissinger: —in the week that we bombed Hanoi and Haiphong, which these sons-of-bitches are condemning—

Nixon: Now they will ask, “At whose initiative is this meeting taking place?” I think we’ve—that I’ve got to make this another thing. We’ve got to say that it was at their initiative. I don’t want it to appear that we went hat in hand to Moscow.

Kissinger: No. Well, Mr. President, I—

Nixon: Or we can just say mutually.

Kissinger: I’d say it was, was mutual. These things always are mutual. We have, it’s important—what they are doing is really screwing Hanoi.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: I mean, imagine if they were bombing Iran—

Nixon: Um-hmm?

Kissinger: —and then you received Gromyko here at the White House the same week that they’re bombing one of our allies, what impression that would make on the Shah. There’s no possible—

Nixon: Yeah, and if the Chinese ignore it. Let me go over a few of the items now—

Kissinger: [unclear]—

Nixon: Take some notes. One thing, that on the very limit of what we want to get out of these bastards, we’ve got to get something [Page 290] symbolic on the POW thing. Now, what I would say is if we could get the POWs that have been there five years, or something like that, or sick POWs. In other words, we’ll release so many if they release, and something along that. The second point is that we’ve got to, and, and, and—

Kissinger: That I must include in the proposal.

Nixon: Huh? Just include that in the proposal.

Kissinger: Yes.

Nixon: Yeah. We just need something. It’s a human—it’s a humanitarian gesture. You understand?

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: Don’t you think we can include it—?

Kissinger: It’s essential.

Nixon: I don’t think you’re going to get it.

Kissinger: No, I’ll—no, no. I think we must hold out—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: Mr. President, we’ve got some sweating on our—

Nixon: Well, we’ll—we’ll, we’ll—we will do this.

Kissinger: I must—the risk, with your permission—

Nixon: Yeah?

Kissinger: —but because it’s your risk—

Nixon: Yeah? Yeah.

Kissinger: —if I fail there, it may be because I’m turning the screw too much, rather than not enough. Now—

Nixon: No, no. If you turn it too much—there’s no greater pleasure, frankly, that I would have than to leave this office to anybody after having destroyed North Vietnam’s capability. Now, let me tell you, I feel exactly that way, and I’ll go out with a clean conscience. But if I, if I leave this office without any use of power, I’m the last President—frankly I’m the only President, the only man with the exception of Connally, believe me, who’d have the guts to do what we’re doing. And you know it and I know it. The only man who’d have the possibility to be President, and Connally’s the only other one who could do what I’m doing. Reagan never could make President to begin with and he couldn’t handle it—

Kissinger: Connally would do it without your finesse, though.

Nixon: Well, Agnew, Agnew would—

Kissinger: Agnew. Well, Agnew would have [unclear]—Agnew would be in a worse position than Johnson was—

Nixon: Yeah, but you know what I mean. The point is, as you know, as considering electability, I’m the only person who can do it. Now, [Page 291] Henry, we must not miss this chance. We’re going to do it, and I’ll destroy the goddamn country, believe me. I mean destroy it, if necessary. And let me say, even the nuclear weapon if necessary. It isn’t necessary, but you know what I mean. What I mean is that shows you the extent to which I’m willing to go. By—by a nuclear weapon, I mean that we will bomb the living bejeezus out of North Vietnam, and then if anybody interferes we will threaten the nuclear weapon.

[Omitted here is discussion of domestic opposition to bombing in Vietnam, the coming election, and post-election policy for Vietnam, as well as additional discussion on the Moscow Summit. The President and Kissinger also talked about how Kissinger should approach Soviet leaders in his April 20–24 trip to Moscow, negotiations with the North Vietnamese in Paris, and American public opinion on the situation in Vietnam.]

Kissinger: Mr. President, you’ve played this with a nerve that’s [unclear].

Nixon: Well—

Kissinger: The safe thing for you would be to let—well, the seemingly safe thing—

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: You mean, to let South Vietnam fall?

Kissinger: Yeah. Already we’ve done our best [unclear].

Nixon: Yeah and that we’ve done our best, you know, to get the Americans out, as hard as we can, and Thieu has to face that. Huh?

Kissinger: That’s right. That point you made—

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: I think the—I think that’s quite true, quite true. Well, I know, but the thing is that Laird is so totally wrong. I think based on what I’ve—with what we’ve seen, South Vietnam, it might have survived, who knows?

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: But I just don’t think it would have survived, not if we hadn’t moved that stuff out there—

Kissinger: Not a chance. You’ve talked to Haig. I’ve talked to him. That situation in Military Region 3 was touch and go.

Nixon: Touch and go, but he thinks that our power may have tipped the balance.

Kissinger: Yep.

Nixon: Does he?

Kissinger: Absolutely, and our reinforcements, and—

[Page 292]

Nixon: And, of course that stuff pouring out there now must just scare the living—don’t you think, but it must give ’em pause—?

Kissinger: Right. From the point of view, also, of this exercise, Mr. President, it’s happening perfectly, because I was wrong about the Midway. It’s only coming out there next Monday. So we don’t—right now, we haven’t pulled back from anything yet.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Kissinger: So, they must think you are just getting into the blockade [unclear].

Nixon: Um-hmm.

[Omitted here is discussion of the President’s schedule and arrangements at Camp David, including the cover story for Kissinger’s trip to Moscow.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 713–1. 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, 3:27–5:01 p.m. Portions of this transcript are printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 126.