13. Backchannel Message From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker)1

WHS 2218. Deliver immediately upon opening of business.

We have reached point where it is necessary that I have your best estimate of what we may be able to get Thieu to do with respect to the estimated 30,000 political prisoners he holds in South Vietnam under conditions of a possible settlement which would include a tripartite committee arrangement functioning on a unanimity principle but with the continuation of Thieu and the GVN with all existing powers and assets. Obviously, a major problem for Hanoi involves Thieu’s willingness to release at least a portion of the political prisoners in conjunction with a cease-fire, combined with the fig leaf political arrangement described above. Please give me your best judgment as to what flexibility Thieu may or may not have with respect to political prisoners, to include how far he may be willing to go and how best to approach him on eliciting such a commitment. So far, we have held firm on this issue. But I think if Thieu could indicate a willingness to release a significant number, though by no means all, we could get major political concessions.

Prior to my arrival in Saigon, now tentatively scheduled for Wednesday night,2 I will be seeing Minister Xuan Thuy and anticipate that the other side will propose a political formula which will require far less of Thieu than the alternate arrangements outlined to him by Haig during his recent visit.3 This would be combined with a ceasefire in place to go into effect as early as two weeks from the time that an overall agreement in principle is arrived at. In view of this likelihood, it is essential that Thieu understand now that we could have settled the conflict long ago under terms which would have removed him from power. Therefore, he cannot approach his upcoming meeting with me in the context of a confrontation but rather with a positive attitude in which we can confirm arrangements which will consolidate and solidify his future control. I am confident that such political arrangements [Page 139] are in the offing from Hanoi and Thieu must be put off his current confrontation course with us and at the same time be prepared, in return for Hanoi’s political concessions, to show a reasonable flexibility on the modalities of a cease-fire in place.

Thieu must understand that the period ahead is not parallel to the 1968 period either for him or for us.4 You must, therefore, do your best to posture him along the following lines:

  • —Under no circumstances will the United States drop Thieu nor does it consider him expendable in whatever arrangements may be finally settled on. The only man who can force us to drop Thieu is Thieu himself.
  • —Within this framework, however, Thieu must cooperate and work in a constructive way with us to insure that his position is solidified and to demonstrate some degree of flexibility on the modalities of a cease-fire arrangement.
  • —There can be no doubt in Thieu’s mind that if the other side confirms acceptable political arrangements substantially less than Haig discussed with him, that the President is determined to seek a settlement on cease-fire terms now, with or without Thieu. If it is the latter, it will only be the result of an unreasonable intransigence on the part of Thieu which is neither justified by the circumstances nor in the best interests of his people. We want nothing more than a settlement that strengthens Thieu’s long-term position and the capacity of the GVN to survive. We will not sell him out. But he must be under no illusions that he can stare us down. A great deal depends on the spadework which you can do between now and my arrival Wednesday night to get Thieu off the confrontation course which he has apparently adopted.

Please see Thieu immediately so as to commence the posturing now.5 You should draw selectively upon all the foregoing. However, with respect to Thieu’s flexibility on the release of political prisoners, you will wish to treat this more circumspectly by merely feeling him out in general terms so that he doesn’t at this juncture dig in his heels in [Page 140] an intransigent position. With respect to this question, I primarily want your personal judgments on how much we can expect from Thieu.

Warm regards.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 857, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XX [2 of 2]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only.
  2. October 18.
  3. Haig visited Saigon October 1–4 to review contingencies that might arise in the upcoming talks. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume VIII, Vietnam, January–October 1972, Document 278.
  4. Reference is to President Johnson’s decision in October 1968 to stop the bombing of North Vietnam, and Thieu’s announcement on November 3 that he opposed the bombing halt and would not participate in the negotiations. Kissinger’s point to Bunker was that since Nixon was overwhelmingly favored in the 1972 election, the administration had little to gain by accommodating Thieu and Thieu thus had little leverage with the United States. On this basis, Kissinger hoped to persuade Thieu to go along with the agreement he had negotiated and the President had approved.
  5. Bunker met Thieu on October 14 and reported the conversation in backchannel message 187 to Kissinger, October 14, 0850Z. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 44, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Cables, January 1970–November 1972)