125. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Nguyen Phu Duc, Special Assistant to President Thieu
  • Pham Dang Lam, Chief of GVN Delegation to Paris Peace Talks
  • Tran Kim Phuong, Ambassador to the U.S.
  • Nguyen Xuan Phong, Deputy Chief of GVN Delegation to Paris Peace Talks
  • Vuong Van Bac, Ambassador to the United Kingdom
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Major General Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Ambassador William Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Department of State
  • Ambassador William Porter, U.S. Chief Delegate to the Paris Peace Talks
  • Hayward Isham, U.S. Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks
  • Peter W. Rodman, NSC Staff

Ambassador Lam: Saigon gave us this memorandum to give you which indicates our instructions. [Hands over the memorandum at Tab A]2

Dr. Kissinger: Thank you. [Reads it] I have seen Le Duc Tho this morning3 and told him what I told you yesterday I would tell him, and I also requested a meeting for my delegation and me for tomorrow afternoon—to which he agreed. In the light of this reply I will now ask him for a private meeting at 10 o’clock tomorrow, and I will request a postponement of the full meeting for one week. If there is a breakdown, the consequences for your government will be disastrous, and you will bear full responsibility.

I also want to read you a message I have received from the President, of which I will give you a copy:4

[Page 450]

November 24, 1972

“I have checked today as to the attitude of the leading Democrats and Republicans who support us in the Senate on Vietnam. In preparing them for the consultation which must take place once agreement is reached we have informed them of the key elements of the October 8 agreement: the return of our POWs, a ceasefire, and a formula under which Thieu remains in power and all South Vietnamese have an opportunity to participate in a free election to determine what government they want for the future. The result of this check indicates that they were not only unanimous but vehement in stating their conclusions that if Saigon is the only roadblock for reaching agreement on this basis they will personally lead the fight when the new Congress reconvenes on January 3 to cut off all military and economic assistance to Saigon. My evaluation is that the date of the cut-off would be February 1. They further believe that under such circumstances we have no choice but to go it alone and to make a separate deal with North Vietnam for the return of our POWs and for our withdrawal.

“These are men who have loyally supported us on November 3, Cambodia, and Laos, and May 8. They have great affection for the South Vietnamese people and great respect for President Thieu personally, but they point out that the votes in the Senate this past year for appropriations for support of the effort in Vietnam have been won only by great effort and by very small margins. They also point out that this time the House cannot save appropriations because the Senate would block any House move to restore funds which, incidentally, in view of the makeup of the new House, is highly unlikely, by simply letting the appropriations bill die in conference.

“This message, unless you have strong feelings otherwise, should be immediately passed on through the South Vietnamese negotiators to Thieu. Tell him the fat is in the fire. It is time to fish or cut bait. We do not want to go it alone. I personally want to stand by Thieu and the South Vietnamese Government but as I have told him in three separate messages, what really counts is not the agreement but my determination to take massive action against North Vietnam in the event they break the agreement. The North Vietnamese troops in the South mean absolutely nothing in that eventuality. If they had no forces there at all and I refused to order air retaliation on the North when infiltration started to begin, the war would be resumed and the outcome would be very much in doubt.

“You must tell Thieu that I feel we have now reached the crossroads. Whether [Either] he trusts me and signs what I have determined is the best agreement we can get or we have to go it alone and end our own involvement in the war on the best terms we can get. I do not give [Page 451] him this very tough option by personal desire, but because of the political reality in the United States it is not possible for me, even with the massive mandate I personally received in the election, to get the support from a hostile Congress to continue the war when the North Vietnamese on October 8 offered an agreement which was far better than both the House and the Senate by resolution and directive to the President during this last session indicated they thought we ought to accept.

“Tell Thieu that I cannot keep the lid on his strong supporters in the House and Senate much longer. They are terribly disturbed by what they read and hear out of Saigon. It is time for us to decide to go forward together or to go our separate ways. If we go separate ways, all that we fought for, for so many years, will be lost. If, on the other hand, he will join us in going forward together on the course I have laid out we can, over the long pull, win a very significant victory.

“The third option of our trying to continue to go forward together on the basis of continuing the war is simply not open. The door has been slammed shut hard and fast by the longtime supporters of the hard line in Vietnam in the House and Senate who control the purse strings.”

[Dr. Kissinger then hands them a copy.]

This is all I have to tell you. I will see Le Duc Tho at 10 o’clock in the morning and seek a postponement of one week. If he refuses a negotiation, we have no choice but to go our own way. If he accepts a negotiation you have one week for consultations.

If you wish to get in touch with me before 10 o’clock, you are free to do so.

Ambassador Bac: Do you think he will accept?

Dr. Kissinger: I don’t know. It is fifty-fifty. You give us no choice.

Mr. Duc: Did you give him our November 19 proposal about withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops and demobilization in two phases?5 What was his reaction?

Dr. Kissinger: I told him. He said there were no North Vietnamese in the South and the only forces are southerners or the sons of southerners who regrouped in the North. I told you yesterday this was an absurdity. I told him today that it was a lie, which we went along with only because it has the advantage of not claiming any North Vietnamese right to keep forces in the South. It is the principal subject we have discussed. Out of twenty hours of conversation with him we have spent almost sixteen on this. The only context in which we can discuss it is the withdrawal of some troops in MR–1. As I have told you I think [Page 452] this is a bad deal for you. The prisoners you have are a tangible reality; the withdrawal of a few troops is not, because they can easily reinfiltrate—not legally but practically.

If the provisions on Laos and Cambodia and the DMZ are maintained they cannot maintain their forces in the South. If these provisions are not kept, adding an additional provision that is not maintained won’t help.

The only context in which they are willing to negotiate is in the context of demobilization, and in negotiation with the PRG. There is no chance whatever that they will go beyond this.

What do my colleagues think?

General Haig: That would be tantamount to surrender.

Dr. Kissinger: They tell us that they have given up their demand for the immediate resignation of President Thieu and the installation of a coalition government, and stripped their political demands to nothing.

Mr. Duc: You say the agreement is a surrender for them, but there are a number of obligations for the United States and South Vietnam, but what obligations are there for North Vietnam?

Dr. Kissinger: The ceasefire, respect for the DMZ, Laos and Cambodia, and a political process. In all other negotiations they have constantly demanded the resignation of Thieu and a coalition government. As a result of this agreement, the legitimacy of the GVN is established, the possibility of unlimited American aid is legally maintained for the postwar period, and the possibility of strong American action to defend the agreement is preserved. I told President Thieu that we should treat this as a joint victory. You have managed to turn it from a victory into a setback.

If the President—who has supported you all alone, all along—has lost his patience as this letter indicates, imagine how the others are.

You [Ambassador Phuong and Mr. Duc] can come back with us if you like. We are trying for a 4:00 p.m. departure.

Mr. Duc: I tried to get here earlier.

Dr. Kissinger: If there is another negotiation or not, you have run out of time. I will leave Friday morning6 for Paris again.

Mr. Duc: Whatever the decision President Nixon has to take, we remain grateful for all your help, particularly Vietnamization, which has succeeded. But for us to accept an agreement that does not explicitly deal with the North Vietnamese troops, our Government could not explain to the people.

[Page 453]

Dr. Kissinger: I will ask him for one week. If he accepts you have a deadline. If he refuses, the negotiations are at an end and the consequences described in the President’s letter will take place.

You have had seven weeks to work with us.

Mr. Duc: The North Vietnamese troops do not have to be mentioned by name, but the agreement can refer to a general comprehensive formula.

Dr. Kissinger: “Non-South Vietnamese forces.” We have submitted every single change you wanted, but the limit to what they will agree to is maybe “demobilization on a one-for-one basis” and to have the Council’s members “appointed equally by the two sides.” Maybe they will withdraw some forces out of MR–1 in conjunction with release of civilian prisoners. Maybe they will accept this, maybe they will refuse.

Mr. Duc: You think their refusal is unreasonable?

Dr. Kissinger: We have to look at it from our point of view. For four years, by maneuvering and manipulation, we have managed to keep the Congress from passing resolutions requiring United States withdrawal in exchange for our POWs. This was my nightmare. On October 8 I thought that their acceptance of our proposal plus your enthusiastic support would make the American people so proud of what we had achieved that they would enable us to support your government. Imagine now the attitude of a Mid-westerner who reads every day that we are accused of betrayal. If it is portrayed as a worthless agreement, how can the American people support it?

What is your protection? Your protection is our unity. Your protection is our enthusiastic support. You won’t be able to wave a document at them, whatever is in it. The North Vietnamese fear is whether the B–52s may come again; if we convince them of this, the agreement will be kept. If we can’t convince them of this, all your 69 changes mean nothing.

We think we are watching a suicide. You are losing your public support. Why did we want an agreement in October, in November and now? The election meant nothing. If we got it now it would be our success. If it happens next March, every liberal newspaper in the country would think it had brought it about.

It has to be an agreement that you say is a success.

If we had wanted to sell you out, we had more opportunities for this. We have fought for four years and sent you another billion dollars of aid.

Mr. Duc: We never said it was a sell-out.

Dr. Kissinger: That is the impression you are giving in America.

[Page 454]

Mr. Duc: You say the best guarantee is not a scrap of paper but your willingness to retaliate. I am not arguing with this. But if there is no provision about the North Vietnamese troops, on what basis could you retaliate?

Dr. Kissinger: In the agreement there are the following provisions: respect for the DMZ, respect for Laos and Cambodia, a ceasefire, a ban on the introduction of military personnel into South Vietnam, and military equipment on a replacement basis. In addition, there is the unilateral statement we gave you yesterday in which we announce that we do not recognize any right of North Vietnam to keep troops in the South. And in his speech announcing the agreement, the President would say that if there is any violation we would respond violently.

I must tell you, the next thing our opponents will do is try to undermine any remaining obligation of ours to you. The more we disagree, the easier it is for them.

Ambassador Lam: You said you have gotten no response at all from Saigon. I am obliged to be more precise, because I have transmitted to you Saigon’s responses. Saigon’s decision not to respond concretely is a choice, a decision between accepting the agreement or not accepting the agreement. If it does not deal with the two main questions it is a difficult choice for us, to weigh the pros and cons.

Dr. Kissinger: I understand your motives. You are in a difficult position. The argument is not between you and me. The argument is now exactly as the President put it. This is now the case. We have told you since the end of October where we should go. We have been on a confrontation course when we should be cooperating. There is no other choice any more. If the talks break down the consequences will follow. If there is one more meeting either we will have your answer or we go unilaterally. We will do our best to get another meeting. But I can add nothing to the President’s letter. It explains the situation, what we have to do, and why we have to do it. It will destroy you and all we have done. Al?

General Haig: Mutual confidence between us is the key and this has broken down.

Mr. Duc: No, we still maintain confidence in you.

Dr. Kissinger: Not actively.

Mr. Duc: The disagreement is because Vietnam is an important problem for you but a vital matter for us.

Dr. Kissinger: If you say your vital interests are ruined, they will be ruined. The agreement is better than anything we thought we could achieve or than Congress was willing to support. Look over the Congressional debates: did any of our supporters ever argue that your government had to be maintained or that military aid had to be maintained [Page 455] or that anything had to be done for Laos and Cambodia? The only issue was withdrawal for prisoners and the question of a ceasefire.

Bill, you testified before Congress. What is your reading?

Ambassador Sullivan: I told Ambassador Phuong the very same thing in Washington two weeks ago, exactly as the President said. I want to say three things. If you had driven out the North Vietnamese you would, of course, be in a different position in a ceasefire. Secondly, an agreement that does not limit your sovereignty and includes provisions that prevent the reintroduction of the NVA and keeps your prisoners …

Dr. Kissinger: We hope.

Ambassador Sullivan: We had this on October 22. Le Duc Tho looks at this not as a North Vietnamese but as a leader of the Lao Dong party, and he has to worry about his cadre in the South. The only thing he can point to to Madam Binh or to Nguyen Huu Tho is the leverage of their troops.

So you ask, is there any realism in North Vietnamese forces being permitted in a ceasefire situation while preserving the principle that they must withdraw? I say yes, because there is an opportunity to negotiate them out, using the leverage of the prisoners which President Thieu has always said could be a minor problem.

If you face this situation saying “We don’t have confidence in ourselves and don’t have confidence in the U.S. to back us up,” then how can we have confidence in you? Many leaders in Congress lost their offices, defeated because they supported you.

Dr. Kissinger: Allott lost, and Margaret Chase Smith and Jack Miller. These are serious losses.7 They had seniority and stood by us.

We kept the war going by always keeping North Vietnam in the position of looking unreasonable on issues that Americans could understand, like overthrowing an ally. But even that would not last beyond next year.

There is another fact. We cannot keep all our carriers there beyond January because of the operation of the military establishment.

Ambassador Sullivan: You have the example of South Korea. In 1953 Syngman Rhee did not like the agreement and did not trust us. But we have kept every commitment to South Korea, and today South Korea is in the strongest position and North Korea has come to them and done things they have always said were contrary to their principles.

[Page 456]

Dr. Kissinger: Let’s face it. A unilateral deal will be only our prisoners in exchange for our withdrawal.

Ambassador Sullivan: The military aid bill won’t come up until about June. On economic aid we never got a bill last year, only a continuing resolution. Therefore we have to submit new bills on January 3. They may never come out of Committee.

Mr. Duc: Let me discuss the troops. North Vietnam violated the agreements they made on Laos.

Ambassador Sullivan: A piece of paper.

Mr. Duc: They did not keep it. They won’t keep this one.

Ambassador Sullivan: Do you know this? Because the 1962 agreement was forced upon them by Khrushchev. They violated it from the first moment. But this time I am convinced it is different. One part of my mind says you can never trust them, and there is plenty of experience with that, but another part of my mind says it is different now.

Dr. Kissinger: Let me make a more fundamental point. We have no more time for debate. We do not believe you can start another round of discussions. There is no more time for working groups and memoranda. The President will tell you the same. Hopefully Le Duc Tho will agree to another meeting. Hopefully, we can bluff him with a threat of air attacks—which we did. By the latest by next Thursday, we will have a common position or we will go alone.

Mr. Duc: I did not mean to start a debate but you say we should try to portray it as a victory.

Dr. Kissinger: You have made it hard for yourselves now.

Mr. Duc: But it says nothing about the big issue of North Vietnamese troops.

Dr. Kissinger: I would point to the demobilization provisions. I would say that we had repelled North Vietnamese aggression. I would claim victory.

Mr. Duc: We repelled the offensive but the North Vietnamese troops are there.

Dr. Kissinger: The North Vietnamese troops are in small enclaves and along the DMZ. You turned it into a formidable force by talking about it.

Mr. Duc: Though there is nothing in the agreement that gives them the right to stay there, in Vietnamese eyes it is there indirectly. You and all our allies have to leave. It mentions three Indochinese countries …

Dr. Kissinger: The “three” is out.

Mr. Duc: But the intention is there.

Dr. Kissinger: It is up to you to say it is four.

[Page 457]

Mr. Duc: The agreement talks about “the question of Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam.” The word “South” is suppressed but the two South Vietnamese forces are to discuss them.

Dr. Kissinger: That is a good point.

General Haig: It is a good point but it is no longer pertinent. We have got a problem. We can no longer afford this. The key is the kind of support we gave you on May 8. You are depriving us of the ability to support you.

Ambassador Porter: It is incredible that you are on a march to disaster instead of marching with us.

Dr. Kissinger: Look at October 26. You all misunderstood what I was doing. I was preventing President Thieu from being isolated. I was saying that the concerns are ours, not just yours. Or else you would have been killed. It would have been easy to say that President Thieu was the one.

And then we see your press attacking me.

Mr. Duc: No.

Dr. Kissinger: We know who Nha is. We know it is instigated from the Palace.

After October 26 liberal members of the press called me and General Haig and didn’t believe what was in it. They accused me of lying because North Vietnam could not have agreed to it. Everything they had been writing before then assumed that a coalition government would have to be imposed. The left cannot accept that this is a good agreement because, if so, it was all worthwhile. So the left attacks it. The right, which isn’t all that unhappy with the agreement, watches you, and now they won’t support the agreement. You are getting support now only from left wingers who are using it not because they support you, but to attack us. But you wait until the talks break down. Then you will see that all the people who joined some of the criticism you have made are not your friends.

The choice isn’t between this agreement and the continuation of the war. It is between this agreement and a Congressional cut-off of aid. We don’t like it. Your choice is to join with us or destroy yourselves. These are facts. I tried to tell you this in Saigon. General Haig tried to tell you this in Saigon.

General Haig: One other thing is not understood. At present Hanoi is licked, defeated.

Mr. Duc: Militarily, not politically.

Dr. Kissinger: Militarily and politically, because the cadres know what they fought for. When I first told Le Duc Tho our proposal for a ceasefire some years ago, he laughed: “Did we fight for twenty years to stop fighting? We have fought to bring about a political solution. The [Page 458] objective of war is victory.” Yet now he is pushing for a ceasefire without a political settlement. His cadre knows what this means. The fruit of ten years of revolutionary war is a ceasefire with your government still there.

They are pleading with us for economic aid. Do they think they can get economic aid from us if they are fighting our ally?

Mr. Duc: Economic aid is not a sufficient incentive.

Dr. Kissinger: Their objective is to destroy you. But North Korea’s objective is to destroy South Korea. The key isn’t what the intention is. In peace, over five years, which Vietnam will advance more economically? North Vietnam will always want to destroy you unless you wipe it off the map. We are not children. Our common objective is to prevent it. That is what we are on the brink of totally jeopardizing.

Mr. Duc: Suppose we demanded that the whole Hanoi politburo had to resign and the government had to be dismantled and then new elections held. And then we dropped this demand. This would not be proof of goodwill.

Dr. Kissinger: You are partly right. But to the American people … A poll was taken during the campaign which asked: “Do you support the GVN if the resignation of President Thieu is the only obstacle to a settlement”? Only eight percent said yes.

Mr. Duc: President Thieu has argued for mutual withdrawal at Manila and at Guam.

Dr. Kissinger: He has done it courageously, but we have run out of time. I will be back here leaving Friday morning.

Mr. Duc: I shall come.

Dr. Kissinger: The President will see you on the day of your arrival.

Mr. Duc: I assume I can be there on Monday or Tuesday.8

Ambassador Sullivan: That is cutting it fairly close.

Dr. Kissinger: That is your business. We offered you a ride on our plane and thought it was accepted. But it is up to you.

Do not believe that by protracting your arrival it will change by one hour.

Mr. Duc: No, we are not. I need instructions from President Thieu on what I am to say to President Nixon.

Ambassador Sullivan: Can’t you await them in Washington?

Mr. Duc: I am under instructions to await them here.

Dr. Kissinger: You are playing a delaying game with an inflexible schedule. Any time you use is your own.

[Page 459]

I would appreciate, in view of the importance of this, you may want to stay a few minutes and go over with General Haig and Ambassador Sullivan what we have conveyed to you, just to make sure you have understood what we have said.

Mr. Phong: We think we got it.

Dr. Kissinger: It is up to you.

Mr. Duc: Can you have another working session with them on the issues we raised?

Dr. Kissinger: No. It will break up. The only way to avoid a breakup is to delay a week. If I go back on the issues …

Mr. Duc: Does he maintain “an administrative structure of three equal segments”?

Dr. Kissinger: There may be a failure of communications. We gave him a new Vietnamese word and we will insist on it. He did not reject it, but I cannot be sure. But we think we can get “three equal segments equally appointed by the two sides.”

Mr. Duc: Can you tell us by tomorrow what his decision is on it?

Dr. Kissinger: I frankly think it is better not to negotiate tomorrow. It would be a great mistake. If he gives you it (“administrative structure”) he will ask for something back.

Our only hope is that at the last session we say: “This is our position. We concede on this and insist on that. This is our final offer.” If we ask for things one at a time, he will come back one at a time. If they really want peace they may agree.

Ambassador Phuong: One thing I would like to ask. Yesterday you talked about three options. What happened to Article 8(c)? Is it in or out?

Dr. Kissinger: Article 8(c) we want in. Of the three options, option one was to reject the whole thing. This is not realistic. Option two is to drop Article 8(c) if they withdraw 100,000 of their forces.

Ambassador Phuong: Yesterday that was option three.

Dr. Kissinger: Yes, you are right. I tried that with Le Duc Tho today. He laughed. The other option, our preferred one, is to say: we maintain Article 8(c); we add the phrase “appointed equally by the two sides” to the political chapter; we add “demobilization on a one-for-one basis” and “the parties will do their utmost to accomplish this within three months”; and we have an understanding with them to have you release some prisoners in return for some withdrawal from MR–1. So our preferred one, which yesterday was option 2, would keep Article 8(c).

Ambassador Phuong: The withdrawal would be a small one.

[Page 460]

Ambassador Sullivan: In proportion to your release of their prisoners.

Dr. Kissinger: We have not up to now agreed to have “three equal segments.” That would be our concession.

There is one thing: in the Laos and Cambodia chapter they have rejected the phrase about “the principle that Indochinese forces shall stay within their frontiers.” We might try—we can think if we have a week—using some phrase without the word “troops,” such as “the Indochinese countries will not use military pressure against each other.”

Incidentally, when we reminded him about demobilization and “return to their native places,” he denied he ever said it.

Good. I will meet with you again tomorrow.

[After closing pleasantries, the meeting ended.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 858, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XXI, Briefings of South Vietnamese. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusive Eyes Only. All brackets are in the original. The meeting was held in the library at the Ambassador’s residence, 41 rue du Faubourg St. Honoré.
  2. The memorandum, dated November 24, is attached but not printed.
  3. See Document 124.
  4. The message quoted here, transmitted in Tohak 84/WHP 149, November 24, 1455Z, is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 857, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XXI (2).
  5. Presumably the South Vietnamese memorandum given to Bunker; see footnote 2, Document 112.
  6. December 1.
  7. Senators Gordon L. Allot (R–CO), Margaret Chase Smith (R–ME), and Jack R. Miller (R–IA) lost their re-election bids in 1972.
  8. November 27 or 28.