91. Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig)1

[Omitted here is discussion of the Moscow Summit and Thieu’s view of it, and the status of the negotiations in Paris.]

Nixon: What is the situation? I was reading a story in the paper this morning about “town falls” and all that bullshit.

Haig: Right, sir.

Nixon: What is that out there? That’s a [unclear] much expected, et cetera, et cetera.

Haig: This is—this is the area in southern I Corps and northern II Corps, Binh Dinh.

Nixon: Is it anything like Hue? Is that what’s involved?

Haig: No, sir. It’s an area that the Vietminh hold—a Vietminh stronghold, in Binh Dinh Province. It’s an area that we know. It’s always been pacified the least. It’s the toughest area—

[Omitted here is a brief conversation with the President’s steward.]

Haig: It’s the toughest area. Well, that outpost, it’s [unclear]—

Nixon: You can’t bomb there?

Haig: Oh, yes, they have close air support in there. They have a hell of a lot going in there now.

Nixon: I see.

Haig: And that thing is not overrun. As of this morning they’re still fighting, but they’re badly outnumbered. And it’s, it’s going to be a tough one. It’s not as severe—

Nixon: How many North Vietnamese are in South Vietnam at the present time would you say?

Haig: I’d say about 120,000, sir. I’ll have to get you precise figures.

Nixon: Nobody else will give it a look. Oh, we will. We will. In the end we’ve got to with all the air and the rest. It really depends on their arms. For Christ sakes, you can stop 120,000.

Haig: Yes, sir. You know they—we have that fighting there. The Koreans, who are trying to open up the road on that Route 19, and got a bloody nose at the An Khe Pass.

[Page 296]

Nixon: They failed then?

Haig: Well, they had to reinforce. They got there and they’re in a tough fight there. And that’s not bad. I’d like to see the Koreans—

Nixon: It’s about time. Have they had any casualties at all since the war began?

Haig: Well, yes, they did in the early days. They had quite a few. [unclear] fighting. Now, they’re into it and they’ve got to reinforce. The other place where it’s very active today is in III Corps again, the area that’s dangerous—

Nixon: An Loc?

Haig: An Loc. There’s fighting in the town again. They sent an ARVN battalion of Marines down, an airborne battalion south of the town got badly hit. And they’ve come back into the town. And also the enemy is attacking at Dau Tieng as I indicated they would. They slipped by and they hit it this morning. And that’s a tough fight going on right now. We’re—we can expect this for another couple of weeks, sir.

Nixon: Yeah, but I mean, I just want to know whether or not the South Vietnamese are fighting well.

Haig: They’re fighting, yes, sir. They’re fighting well. And the 21st Division is fighting well. This Minh, who’s the Corps Commander, is just a sorry son-of-a-bitch.

Nixon: I understand.

Haig: And he’s developing—

Nixon: But, basically, in the An Loc area and the rest, they’re—they are—you say they’re—you say the battalion got a bloody nose, which means what? That they were—just was it put out of action?

Haig: No. No, sir. But it got—it got mauled. They had a lot of casualties and had to come back in. They were—

Nixon: Did it give any casualties?

Haig: Pardon, sir?

Nixon: Did they dish out any casualties?

Haig: Oh, yes. We had 190 air sorties in there last night alone in that one area. So, they’ve just been banging the hell out of it. And there were 18 B–52 strikes in support of that action. So, we—we’ve just got to be clobbering them.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Haig: But they fell back and used those four days to regroup and now they’re trying to take it again.

Nixon: In—in III Corps?

Haig: Exactly.

[Page 297]

Nixon: But your point is that each time that—when this happens they don’t have as much punch the second time, do they, Al?

Haig: No, they don’t, sir.

Nixon: First of all, their morale goes down some, doesn’t it? After you’ve taken a hell of a mauling?

Haig: Their morale goes down. The—

Nixon: They don’t have much equipment, do they?

Haig: Equipment is down. They’re still knocking out tanks there. They knocked down, I think, 13 last night. But this is going to be a tough fight and it’s going to stay tough. But I think we’re going to do it.

Nixon: We will with all the power we’ve got there in the air—

Haig: That’s right.

Nixon: It’s got to just, just pulverize those bastards.

Haig: That’s, that’s an incredible number of sorties to put in there. 18 B–52 sorties. Geez.

Nixon: On top of the—

Haig: 190 fighter-bombers—

Nixon: Yeah.

Haig: —and gunships that are always on station.

Nixon: Yeah. That’s in that III Corps area—?

Haig: Yes, sir.

Nixon: Is it true that the South Vietnamese are flying with their—are flying about half of the tactical air sorties?

Haig: Yes, sir. They have been.

Nixon: Are they flying pretty well?

Haig: Well, it’s 42 percent. It’s not quite half of it—

Nixon: Are they fighting pretty well?

Haig: They’re—

Nixon: Do they fly pretty well?

Haig: They’re flying very well and their support has been better than ours because they’ve been able to come in lower.

Nixon: But their planes are not as good as ours [unclear].

Haig: Hell, they’ve had some planes shot down because of it. They—

Nixon: But they go in there, do they?

Haig: They’re going in and the ARVN troops are very high on them, [unclear] the ones—the commanders I talked to, very high on them. Now, they’re getting a little tired, and we—that’s why it was good we reinforced, because they’ve been going at full bore. In I Corps everything’s there, except for that southern province there, which we [Page 298] knew was going to be tough. That—that’s a guerrilla stronghold, and always has been, and it’ll stay tough.

[Omitted here is discussion of news reports on the Vice President’s speech.]

Haig: It’s hard not to, but these are all infinitesimal things. Those firebases that were overrun in the first days that they reported? They weren’t firebases. They were goddamn OPs that were put up there to watch infiltration and to keep the eyes and ears open, and, Jesus, they just weren’t intended to be held. They were not defensive positions.

Nixon: In the meantime, when you talk about a town falling it’s probably not worth saving.

Haig: [unclear]—

Nixon: [unclear] I actually believe in the strategy at An Loc. Do you think they should try to keep An Loc? I wonder if it isn’t—if it makes sense to back out of the town and bomb it to smithereens.

Haig: In a military sense—

Nixon: Right. It’s psychological—

Haig: —it doesn’t make sense—

Nixon: It’s psychological. It’s like Verdun.

Haig: For Thieu, he can’t. He just—Thieu is the man who has put out these orders, and for him it’s psychologically essential that he hold. We could give up some stuff in II Corps. Hell, that place is—if they lost Kontum or Dak To City it would be a very minor incident.

Nixon: On the other hand, I suppose trying to hold them has its points. In one sense, in that we certainly are punishing the enemy if he’s willing to take the heat.

Haig: [unclear]—

Nixon: The only thing is that—what I was thinking, Al, our purpose here is not to hold territory; it’s to destroy the enemy. If you could retreat and get the enemy in a more exposed position for bombing, then I’d retreat and then destroy it and go back in. Doesn’t that make sense?

Haig: That’s the way—that’s the way the book says to do it, and that’s the way I would do it.

Nixon: Well, you think they won’t do it?

Haig: They won’t because of the psychology of it.

Nixon: Well—

Haig: And on the other hand, it’s not so bad because they still have to concentrate around these.

Nixon: And, maybe, too [unclear]from here. Their guys will fight and—

[Page 299]

Haig: It takes a good, disciplined army to be able to withdraw and fight. Once you start moving back, and I think that’s another problem Thieu’s confronted with—

Nixon: Hmm.

Haig: —these little guys are good in defense if they have good, strong positions, and they dig in and hold. And they—you’d need a very sophisticated army to be able to withdraw—

Nixon: Um-hmm. Um-hmm.

Haig: —and fight well.

Nixon: I know. You know—of course, there are reasons in it for Thieu, but beyond that, the Germans did it fantastically well against the Russians, you know, in World War I.

Haig: They were so professional. That’s right.

Nixon: But Jesus Christ, I mean they would draw back, you know, and then just clobber the shit out of them. The Russians would come marching in and they’d just kill ’em, just kill ’em.

Haig: Well, they—

Nixon: The Russians armies would go, in World War I, in both on the Northern Front, the Eastern Front and also even the [unclear]. They’d have an enormous victory and number of something, and the Germans would reinforce and just knock the bejeezus out of them. In other words, remembering the maxim of war is not to hold territory but destroy the enemy.

Haig: Exactly.

Nixon: That’s something we have to do out there—?

Haig: That’s the way they’re fighting that way in I Corps—

Nixon: Huh?

Haig: They’re fighting that way in I Corps. This, this division commander in the 1st Division,2 he’s crazy. He said, “Hell, I don’t care about these firebases.” He said, “As long as I can kill them if they are concentrating on it, then I’ll keep it up, but when it gets too hairy I’ll pull back and we’ll hold it at the next one.” He hasn’t pulled back from one yet, and they’ve killed about 2,500 in [Fire Base] Bastogne. And they, incidentally, opened the road to them yesterday and completely re-supplied and put reinforcements in. So, that’s a good strong position, still.

Nixon: This town down in III Corps, it’s—well, we can’t worry about it. Now, Abrams has got it all, certainly, charted out, and they’ll fight—

[Page 300]

Haig: They’ll fight—

Nixon: —and lose some, win some.

Haig: [unclear]—

Nixon: What—what good do you think this strategy does? It’s more psychological than anything else, is that correct? Do you consider it psychological or what?

Haig: Yes, but I think—

Nixon: Psychology is important, is it not—?

Haig: Psychology’s important, especially now where Henry is.3 The news will get to them while Henry’s there and that’s, that’s good. The other thing is this thing is going to get more of a logistics exercise—

Nixon: Yeah. And every time we can reduce their logistics thing—

Haig: And what’s going to happen is—and I think they’re in there to hold. That’s their strategy, isn’t it? They’re sitting at a high point and then go on—

Nixon: Can we? Hell, yes. You mean to hold—stay in South Vietnam? To hold the line—?

Haig: Stay there this time and to get their infrastructure built back and to destroy pacification and Vietnamization. And that’s why their logistics are going to become a more—

Nixon: What the hell have the Russians agreed to on it? Seriously, what in the hell did they agree to?

Haig: Well, here’s what I would hope, sir.

Nixon: Yeah?

Haig: If we could get them to agree [unclear], the Vietnamese would go back, the North Vietnamese.

Nixon: Go back? From where? Just from I Corps, you mean?

Haig: No, status quo ante before the attacks started, which would mean III Corps and I Corps. II Corps, they were in there and, hell, that’s worthless country anyhow. And it’s going to be mucked down in rain here very shortly. Then we would stop bombing. And hold—and everyone would negotiate; hopefully get some prisoners back—

Nixon: That’s good—

Haig: —as a token exchange.

Nixon: Well, that’s good [unclear]—

Haig: And hold this for a year, with a Soviet firm guarantee in writing. God, I think you—then they would have had the course, [Page 301] because you would get absolutely swept into office on the head of something like that. Kennedy and the doves would be licked. And then they’d be faced with a four-year President who they know goddamn well won’t put up with a second round.

Nixon: Well, there’s one other course of action we may have to handle and that is if we can get this, through this point—

Haig: That’s right. That’s right—

Nixon: If I can keep this, as you know, as support for [unclear], but in my view, then you’re faced with the blockade problem. My own feeling is that a blockade, that public support for it now will probably be higher than at a later time. But on the other hand, it may be the best time to throw the blockade is about three weeks before the election.

Haig: I—

Nixon: You see the point? [unclear] then nobody can find out. And on the basis, “now we’re doing this ’til we get our prisoners back.” You see? Then you’ve got something very, very tough. Before that we can’t say we’re going to blockade and lift it when we get our prisoners, but you destroy South Vietnam. But at that point, you could—if they make an issue out of prisoners, we blockade and say: “All right, we’re going to keep to it until we get our prisoners back.”

Haig: That would be all right if—I don’t think a blockade would, would solve this thing in the short run.

Nixon: No?

Haig: In a military sense or in a political sense. In a military sense, we’ve had several studies made now. An awful lot of this stuff can come through China, even the—

Nixon: Sure—

Haig: —Soviet stuff.

Nixon: By air, too.

Haig: And by air. So we, we shouldn’t fool ourselves about that. It’s great now to get the Soviets’attention. They have to—

Nixon: Yeah, but we’ve got their attention. I think we’ve got their attention. Correct—?

Haig: Totally. Totally.

Nixon: And we’ll find out.

Haig: And the thing in the long run, that is going to discourage everyone, is to kill those bastards down there. Just wipe ’em out.

Nixon: 100,000 is a lot to wipe out, Al.

Haig: Yes.

Nixon: Well then, they could do it to them, couldn’t they?

Haig: Well, if they lose—

Nixon: They’re just sitting there—pound away.

[Page 302]

Haig: When you hear these prisoners, there’s nothing left in the villages but wounded veterans. The wounded veterans are telling the few kids that are left to go and hide.

Nixon: They say that?

Haig: Yes. The young girls have no men, so they have a social problem. The young girls are consorting with older, married men and having illegitimate children. The society is very disrupted by that—

Nixon: This is in the VC country you mean?

Haig: It’s in North Vietnam.

Nixon: Oh.

Haig: In the North. One prisoner just, he said, “it’s an incredible situation.”

Nixon: The men are gone?

Haig: No, no young men.

Nixon: Of course not. [pause] It drives me to think they’ve had, at least, to have 500,000 in there.

Haig: That’s right. And they claim that when they came down they all knew they were going to die. They do have deserters up there and the training centers are deserting. They have short training. They’re not ready for it. They get down on the battlefields, some of them are wandering around; that’s how these RF and PF are killing them. They don’t know what they’re doing.

Nixon: What is the situation with regard to the bombing of the Hanoi and Haiphong? Do you buy the proposition that actually it stiffens their resolve on absolute victory?

Haig: I think it has that effect in the short term. But this country has been through it before. They’ve had it. I think at this point in time it’s not so much so. They’re just sick of it, too. And when the 1968 bombing halt came, we had run it through so long initially it did anneal them, and made them fight harder. But by 1968, when we stopped bombing, they were, they were on their knees. And that was showing, too—

Nixon: Well, as a matter of fact, too, the type of bombing that we intend to do, that we’re doing now is really more effective than the ’68 bombing, isn’t it?

Haig: Oh, yeah—

Nixon: Right? What I’m getting at is [unclear] the 1968 bombing was picking out of targets and all that sort of thing.

Haig: It’s entirely different.

Nixon: Because this strike was an enormously effective strike compared to most of those. Or was it? Am I wrong?

Haig: Hell, it was. First place, our techniques are better. Secondly, instead of Robert McNamara, as he used to do, sitting at the desk picking the targets, you’ve allowed the field commanders—

[Page 303]

Nixon: Commanders—

Haig: —to do this and they’re doing it more effectively without, what I call, are debilitating these strikes. And that’s what they had all during the ’68 period. They just constantly shifted the targets, and they were all run from here where the people didn’t know what the hell they were doing in a close [unclear] were oriented on restraint. I think we’ve done an awful lot in these few strikes that we’ve put in there, especially when you put B–52s in. That’s just—

Nixon: That was not done?

Haig: Never done.

Nixon: I take it that’s an enormously potent ordeal, isn’t it?

Haig: Yes, sir.

Nixon: And that hits even up there.

Haig: It was a—it’s just a frightening weapon. It’s a frightening weapon when you’re on the ground. I’ve used it close in to our troops, and I’ll tell you it’s—

Nixon: It’s really something?

Haig: God, you know, you just see these shockwaves. The whole ground trembles and you get no warning because they’re up higher and you can’t see them when they’re coming. You just hear all of a sudden this whistling, an eerie whistle.

Nixon: And the ground shakes?

Haig: And the whole ground shakes. It does get your attention.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 714–14. 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, 12:30–1:07 p.m.
  2. South Vietnamese Major General Pham Van Phu, Commander, 1st Infantry Division, Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
  3. At the time Kissinger was in Moscow preparing for the upcoming Summit meeting in May. Much of the discussion in Moscow related to the North Vietnamese offensive and U.S. reaction. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Documents 125170.