92. Message From President Nixon to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) in Moscow1

CPD–203–72. Memorandum for Henry Kissinger from the President.

I am dictating this message personally to you rather than transmitting through Haig so that you can directly sense my views with regard to the state of play in your historic journey.

[Page 304]

First, there is no question whatever among any of us here about the skill, resourcefulness and determination you have displayed in conducting your talks to date. I have read each one of your messages carefully and have been enormously impressed with how you have had exactly the right combination of sweet and sour in dealing with them.

Second, as Haig has already indicated, I have no objection to your staying until 1500 Moscow time or even until 1700 or 1800 Moscow time, provided that you determine that your staying on may make some contribution on Vietnam.2 It is important for you to arrive at Camp David before midnight on Monday so that we can go back to Washington and thereby maintain our cover and have time to prepare the announcement for Tuesday noon and Tuesday evening,3 as well as getting your recommendations with regard to what I should say on Wednesday or Thursday.4 As I am sure it has occurred to you, your hosts have already gained one of their goals—that of having you stay longer in Moscow on your first visit than you stayed in Peking. Of course, this is of very little concern to us and a few more hours makes no difference on that score.

It was predictable that they would give no ground on Vietnam although it seems to me that their primary purpose of getting you to Moscow to discuss the summit has now been served while our purpose of getting some progress on Vietnam has not been served, except, of course, in the very important, intangible ways you have pointed out—the effect on Hanoi of Moscow receiving you three days after we bombed Hanoi–Haiphong, of course, the obvious result of keeping Peking balanced vis-à-vis Moscow.

As far as what they have agreed to—sending messages to Hanoi, I suppose that in the long run this might have some beneficial effect. At least it enlists them in the diplomatic game in a way that they have refused to become enlisted before. However, we cannot be oblivious to the fact that while they have agreed to send messages, secretly, they will be continuing to send arms, publicly, and the latter fact will be the one our critics at home on both the left and the right will eventually seize upon.

[Page 305]

Whether your hosts were in collusion with Hanoi is, of course, a question none of us can answer without knowing their innermost thoughts. But as far as the observers who will be trying to appraise the success or failure of your trip and later the summit, if it comes off, there is one hard fact that stands out—anyone who gives a murder weapon to someone he knows is going to kill with it is equally responsible for the crime. You and I might have reason to believe that both Peking and Moscow would like to de-fuse the situation in Southeast Asia but cannot do so for reasons of which we are aware. On the other hand, in dealing with our own opinion at home, this sophisticated analysis makes no dent whatever.

On the domestic front, the way the scenario may develop is as follows:

The announcement of your trip on Tuesday noon will be a bombshell. But the primary interest in it, unfortunately, except for a few sophisticates, will be whether anything was accomplished to bring the Vietnam war to an end.
The announcement later in the day that we are going back to the conference table, unless it is handled very skillfully, could be extremely detrimental when coupled with the announcement of your Moscow trip. The demonstrators—and, as you have heard, the “uproar” we all feared is far less than anticipated, have all been calling for us to go back to the conference table. When we announce six hours after announcing your trip to Moscow that we are going back to the conference table, the doves who will never be with us will say that we finally have rectified a bad error that we made in ever leaving the conference table; and the hawks will be desperately disillusioned because they will think that Moscow twisted our arms to get us to make this move, particularly when we have said we wouldn’t be going back except with the understanding that we have a private meeting but this is going to pose a very serious public relations problem for us which I will have to tackle in any remarks which I make on either Wednesday or Thursday.

After the first shock of the announcement of your trip wears off—by the end of the week a chorus will arise from both the doves and the hawks raising two questions: First, what did Kissinger discuss with the Russians? (and here there will be insistence that you inform the Foreign Relations Committee and all others on this score) and (2) what did the Kissinger trip accomplish in terms of getting progress on Vietnam?

You and I know that it has to have accomplished a considerable amount indirectly by the message it sends to Hanoi and also that it may open the door for future progress on Vietnam where the Soviet may play a more helpful role. On the other hand, we must batten down the hatches for what will be a rising chorus of criticism from our [Page 306] political opponents on the left and from our hawk friends on the right for going to Moscow and failing to get progress on the major issue.

I have deliberately painted this picture at its worst because, of course, we must prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Haig makes the point and I share it to an extent, that Hanoi will be under enormous heat to be more forthcoming in their private meeting with you on May 2nd. On the other hand, they may hold firm. It is then that we will have to make the really tough decision. It is my view that if they give no more than they have given on the twelve previous meetings they have had with you—and I believe those meetings were constructive of course but not on the decisive issue—then we will have to go all-out on the bombing front.5

That is why it is vitally important that your hosts know that all options—repeat—all options as far as actions against the North are open in the event that the meeting of May 2 turns out to be as nonproductive on the really critical issues as have the previous meetings you have had with the North Vietnamese.

Going back to our major goals, I could not agree with you more that the summit in terms of long term interests of the US is vitally important. However, no matter how good a deal we get out of the summit on SALT and on the other issues, we must realize that now the Soviet summit, far more than the Chinese summit, due to the fact that your trip directly dealt with Vietnam, will be judged as a success or failure depending upon whether we get some progress on Vietnam. My feeling about the necessity for resuming attacks on the Hanoi–Haiphong complex in the event that the May 2 meeting is a dud is as you can recognize quite different from the decision I made with regard to activities we would undertake prior to, during and after the China visit. For four weeks before we went to China, for the two weeks that we were there or on the way and for three weeks after we were there we made a decision, which I think was right, not to be provocative in [Page 307] our bombing of targets north of the DMZ even though we knew from all intelligence reports that an enemy build-up was going forward. I think that decision was right at that time.

[Omitted here are brief comments concerning SALT and Kissinger’s trip to China.]

We have painted ourselves into this corner—quite deliberately—and I only hope that developments will justify the course we have followed.

In sum, we risked the summit by hitting Hanoi and Haiphong. After we have gone through your meeting of May 2, we may be faced with the hard decision to risk it again and probably damage it irreparably because we may have no other choice if that meeting turns out to be a failure.

I cannot emphasize too strongly that except for a few sophisticated foreign policy observers, interest in what we are able to get on a SALT agreement, trade, a better communiqué than the French got, etc., will not save the summit unless one way or another we are able to point to some progress on Vietnam. Of course, I am aware of the fact that if your hosts still want to go forward with the summit, despite the actions we may have had to take after May 2, we will do so because we know that the substantive agreements that we will reach at the summit are in and of themselves substantively very important even without progress on Vietnam. What I am trying to emphasize is that we must face the hard fact that we have now convinced the country that Soviet arms and Soviet tanks have fueled this massive invasion of South Vietnam by the North. Having done so, it is only logical that our critics on both right and left will hammer us hard if we sit down and meet with the Soviets, drink toasts, sign communiqués, etc., without getting progress on Vietnam.

However it all comes out, just remember we all know we couldn’t have a better man in Moscow at this time than Kissinger. Rebozo joins us in sending our regards.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Personal Files, Box 74, April 1972, Kissinger Trip to Moscow. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Also printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 157.
  2. Nixon recalled in his memoirs the following about Kissinger and his performance in Moscow: “If he had followed my instructions and insisted on a Vietnam settlement as the first order of business, perhaps Brezhnev would have dug in, called his bluff, and told him to go home—and that might have meant the end of the summit, with everything that it could accomplish, while still producing no progress on Vietnam. This was a risk I had thought worth taking. In any event the summit was held, and undoubtedly it owed a large measure of its success to Kissinger’s negotiations during this secret visit to Moscow.” ( RN, p. 592)
  3. April 25.
  4. President Nixon addressed the nation on April 26; see Document 99.
  5. Kissinger responded the next day to the President’s memorandum: “I agree completely with your strategy. If the plenary session and the May 2 private meeting fail to make major progress we must make, before the end of that week, a major onslaught on Haiphong. The question is whether we are in a much better position now. I have no doubt that Moscow is pressing Hanoi to be responsible. I am certain that Moscow will try to avoid a confrontation with us over Vietnam though there is a limit where things will get dicey. [This sentence was underlined by the President.] We have used the summit ruthlessly as a means of pressure. And on the summit we have harvested concessions. The major issue is not what they promise but what they will do. I have no doubt they got the message.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Personal Files, Box 74, April 1972, Kissinger Trip to Moscow) Printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 161.