132. Memorandum for the President’s Files by the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig)1


  • The President’s Meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff


  • President Nixon
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Gen. Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Melvin R. Laird, Secretary of Defense
  • Kenneth Rush, Deputy Secretary of Defense
  • Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, USN, Chief of Naval Operations
  • General Creighton W. Abrams, Chief of Staff, Army
  • General Robert E. Cushman, Jr., USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps
  • General Horace M. Wade, USAF, Vice Chief of Air Staff

Following press photographs, President Nixon introduced the meeting by pointing out that circumstances had prevented adequate exposure between himself and the Joint Chiefs. He complimented them on the presentations they had made on foreign policy.

The President then said that the meeting would be confined to thinking about contingencies for South Vietnam. It was especially important that there be no debriefing of the contents of the meeting. The problem was endemic. The Beecher story in Wednesday’s New York Times 2 was a flagrant contravention of the U.S. agreement with the North Vietnamese. Therefore, the planning that results from the meeting should be done by the Chiefs themselves. It should encompass two contingencies:

  • —The first is if the talks break off. What military action should be taken?
  • —The second is if the talks succeed but the agreement is subsequently violated. What action should be taken?

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The President then stated that Dr. Kissinger would brief the details of the agreement. The main problem facing the United States is the provision of necessary funds. Secretary Laird interjected that the requirement for funds must be kept quiet until the negotiations are concluded. President Nixon continued that Dr. Kissinger would give the outlines of the agreement. He noted that he had spoken to General Westmoreland several weeks ago,3 and that General Abrams, like General Westmoreland, had long agonized over the war. Westmoreland felt a total withdrawal should be insisted on, and that all of Thieu’s political concerns must be met. But the fact is, the President continued, that the U.S. has stayed one step ahead of the sheriff, just missing fund cutoffs. During the recent Presidential campaign, the opponents were demanding more of the U.S. than Hanoi was demanding. While the American people have proved that they do not like the war, they have also proved that they reject surrender and humiliation.

On May 8, the U.S. laid out three conditions for peace; one, a ceasefire; two, return of American prisoners of war and an accounting of the missing in action; and third, assurance that the people of South Vietnam will have the right to determine their future without the imposition of a communist government or communist coalition. The proposal made by Hanoi on October 8 meets these requirements but now Saigon and some in the U.S. say this is not enough. The facts are, however, that if the American people knew all the details of what has been offered, they would never continue to support a prolongation of the war.

Secretary Laird responded categorically that he agreed with the President’s judgment completely. The President continued by asserting that an American President can only go so far. The Congress controls the purse strings. As of January 3, 1973, when the Congress reconvenes, continuation of the war is no longer a viable proposition. It is important that America’s military express pride in the accomplishment of the proposed agreement. If all of the sacrifices are not to be in vain, the military cannot criticize it. The American left will do this with the view towards making it appear that the war itself was useless. The proposition is a good one, but our determination to enforce it is what is really critical—the settlement of the Versailles, the settlement of World War II and even the Korean settlement were not based on the provisions contained in the formal document, but the conviction behind the document. Thieu is now having problems with language. He wants to bargain with us. Dr. Kissinger will now review the agreement.

Dr. Kissinger stated that he would touch upon the agreement’s main provisions, the changes made in Paris last week, and what is in [Page 486] store for the coming week. The first operative chapter contains the provisions for a ceasefire:

  • —There are to be no reconnaisance flights over North Vietnam although they are authorized in the South. The WSAG has developed a coverage plan which will provide surveillance of North Vietnam.
  • —There are provisions for a 60 day U.S. troop withdrawal which permits the continuation of economic aid.
  • —Originally, the civilians in paramilitary functions were included in the withdrawal provisions. Now, as a result of stories in the press, Hanoi is insisting that all civilians involved in technical, logistical, training, and other functions must also be withdrawn. We have not accepted this demand and we will not.
  • —There is a provision for the dismantling of U.S. military bases.
  • —There is a provision for no reenforcement of troops which affects primarily North Vietnam, and there is a total ban on infiltration.
  • —Matériel can be replaced on a one for one basis and at the last meeting we included categories of equipment destroyed, damaged, worn out or used up. Thus we can maintain the high equipment levels currently achieved.

Secretary Laird remarked that there are 500 helicopter engines in South Vietnam as a result of the step up in delivery. Dr. Kissinger continued by noting that while it is impossible to increase the numbers of equipment, equipment can be replaced on a one to one basis. Quantity can be maintained and force modernization accomplished. Also, the U.S. has prepared a unilateral statement that it will gauge its adherence to those provisions in relation to the flow of supplies into North Vietnam. The President noted that the day’s intelligence indicates that Hanoi is moving 87 tanks into the South. Dr. Kissinger commented that this would be prohibited under the agreement. The President commented that, of course, this point can be made on paper but it really means nothing. What counts is the knowledge that Saigon is getting U.S. support and that Washington is intent on enforcing the paper commitments. Also whether the war resumes depends on Chinese and Soviet intentions. There is now a distinctly different relationship between the major powers. Both Peking and Moscow have other fish to fry. We now have substantial new leverage on the Soviets. Also the agreement provides that we will furnish aid to North Vietnam after the settlement. This adds additional leverage. But the contract is only as good as the will of the parties. The settlement which we are speaking about is not just the specific treaty itself. It is a series of interlocking understandings with other powers and reflects the strategic realities related to the conflict. It is these realities of power that count, not political mechanisms such as the ICCS. Unfortunately, Thieu is now hung up on the language cosmetics.

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Admiral Zumwalt asked if these strategic points can be made by the JCS. The President agreed. Dr. Kissinger added “except the part about the Chinese role and that of the Soviets”. The President said to just refer vaguely to the strategic advantage. Dr. Kissinger stated that we have almost made an arrangement with the Soviets and have some understanding with Peking with respect to their support for Hanoi.

President Nixon then recalled that Mr. Duc had made the point that President Thieu thought we would abandon our former policy to contain the People’s Republic of China and, therefore, the danger was greater. The President had contradicted this. It is obvious that we have been able to do more from within than from without. The Shanghai communiqué4 confirms this. The PRC has proclaimed the abandonment of the use of force. Thieu has picked this line up from the American right wing and also from liberals such as Joe Kraft. The fact is that the U.S. dialogue with China is an incentive for China to behave.

Dr. Kissinger continued his presentation of the agreement by indicating that the agreement provides for a continuation of U.S. military aid. There also is a chapter of the agreement on U.S. prisoners of war and missing in action. Prisoners are to be released and accounted for within the same 60 days as our troops are withdrawn. This includes Laos. North Vietnam insists that there are no POWs in Cambodia. With respect to political prisoners, some 38,000 are in Saigon’s jails. It was originally agreed that this would be handled through negotiation between the two South Vietnam parties. This is Thieu’s main asset in getting North Vietnam troops out of the South. But Hanoi has now withdrawn this clause. The U.S. cannot accept this action. It would also have the disadvantage of mixing civilian political prisoners with American POWs. We believe that we can get this back in the agreement.

Admiral Zumwalt then asked whether the agreement provided for inspection of grave sites. Dr. Kissinger explained that there is a provision that each side will cooperate on this issue and that teams are provided for in the ICCS chapter for laying out this responsibility. The President noted that the prisoner provisions are good.

Dr. Kissinger then reported that the next chapter covered the political provisions and much of this involved obligations for North Vietnam’s insurance for self-determination, provisions that the people can decide their political future, the fact that there will be no imposition of personalities by foreign countries, and it provides for the establishment of a committee which has no power. President Nixon stated that President Thieu had spent half of his letter on the CNCR. He alleges that it is a camouflaged coalition government. The fact is that it does not affect [Page 488] the conduct of foreign affairs. It affects elections and it contains provisions for a built-in veto; thus in a practical sense it is meaningless. Thieu continues in power. The CNCR is not a government and anything it does is dependent upon unanimous agreement.

Dr. Kissinger noted that Hanoi has fallen off completely from what had been its long standing political demands. Thieu now stays in power and he maintains his government apparatus, the army, the courts and elections will depend on a consultative provision. The composition of the council is based on a 50/50 selection between the two parties. Its tasks are meaningless ones, such as to promote the implementation of the agreement and to organize elections. But the timing and type of election and the offices for which they will be held is decided by the two parties. The agreement provides that the committee will be formed three months after the settlement. This is the essence of the political section. The CNCR is eye wash. The American left criticizes that the committee cannot work. In this sense they are correct. It is merely a fig leaf. It is difficult to see how Madame Binh could accept it after ten years of bloody struggle. All she has obtained is membership in a committee that has no power. The President stated that the U.S. spokesman must accept it and be proud of the agreement. At the present time it is the left that is carping.

Admiral Moorer asked whether or not the agreement will provide for the establishment of the DMZ. Dr. Kissinger replied that he would touch on this later. The next chapter, he explained, dealt with the reunification of Vietnam. There is a provision that it will be peaceful and without military pressure. It notes that the DMZ is a provisional line and not a political boundary. At the same time it requires that South and North Vietnam respect the DMZ pending reunification. Thus there are two key provisions—one, the DMZ exists, two, the DMZ must be respected. The rest of the chapter is of minor importance.

The next chapter covers the establishment of international supervision machinery. It is three times as long as the political chapter. There are provisions for the establishment of two-party machinery for matters involving the two parties, for a four party committee for matters involving the four parties, and an international commission is also established to deal with disagreements. There are provisions for independent investigations if necessary. The machinery is more elaborate. We are now insisting that the protocols associated with this machinery be signed concurrently with the agreement itself so that the machinery can be in place before the ceasefire.

The next section deals with Cambodia and Laos. It includes:

  • —one, reaffirmation of the ’54 Accords on Cambodia and the ’62 Accords on Laos. All foreign troops must be withdrawn and all territory respected.
  • —two, it requires respect for the territory of both countries and no encroachment on South Vietnam.
  • —third, foreign troops must be withdrawn.

There is a separate arrangement which provides that this settlement must occur in Laos within 30 days and we intend next week to squeeze this to 15 days. President Nixon remarked that Souvanna had described this as a complete North Vietnamese surrender.

Dr. Kissinger then reported that there is also a demobilization provision in the political section. Thus, with respect to North Vietnamese forces they cannot reinforce legally, they cannot rotate, they cannot infiltrate through the DMZ, Cambodia or Laos, and there is no legal way for them to remain in South Vietnam. President Nixon remarked that Hanoi has painted itself into a corner. Since they say there are no troops in the South they have no right to be there. Thieu thinks they will cheat and perhaps a few thousand could get through but not a major infiltration which would affect the military balance. Dr. Kissinger stated that the fact is that the agreement does not legalize the presence of North Vietnamese troops in the South. They claim they have none there. This is a lie, of course, but contrary to some misunderstandings there is no legal basis for their being there. Therefore, we can retaliate strongly if they move troops in. There is no way for them to do so without violating at least three specific areas of the agreement. The President indicated that he had told Thieu through Duc that there is a sound basis of retaliation if the agreement is violated. Dr. Kissinger stated that the basis is far better than it was as a result of the ’54 Accords because we are now part of the agreement.

Admiral Zumwalt asked whether or not even a new tank would be allowed. Dr. Kissinger stated that this would be authorized if it were a replacement but its movement would have to be agreed upon mutually and coordinated through specific locations. The President asserted that the fact is Hanoi can do no more in the South without more manpower.

Dr. Kissinger stated that Hanoi cannot keep its army in the South. It must either attack or withdraw. If it is the former they violate the agreement, even General Vien agrees to this. Also the demobilization provisions are clear so the handles are there to get the forces out of the South. Hanoi insists they cannot admit they have troops there, but they therefore cannot put any more in and they cannot admit in the agreement itself that they have to take them out if they are not there. This is a matter of principle with Hanoi and we have provided de facto arrangements.

President Nixon stated that Hanoi is faced with a decision. A resumption of fighting will be at the expense of U.S. retaliation. The agreement will be made as strong as possible but the U.S. could never rely simply on an agreement. It will be viable only if Hanoi does not [Page 490] wish to risk a resumption. President Nixon noted that Admiral Moorer had prepared contingency plans for three-day and six-day strikes against the North. They should now review these plans and strengthen them to include the resumption of mining and the use of B–52s over Hanoi. If Hanoi violates the agreement, the U.S. response must be all out. We must maintain force in the area to do the job. It cannot be a weak response but rather must be a massive and effective one. Above all, B–52s are to be targeted on Hanoi. Secondly, we must look at our planning in the longer term if the agreement is not upheld. There should be plans for various levels of violations, various forces should be included but no ground forces.5 We are to put our best people in the residual detachment of U.S. personnel. Thieu is specifically worried about this. Our best team is required. We must also keep a residual intelligence capability in Thailand, in South Vietnam proper and off its shores. We must have our own unilateral capability to prevent violations.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Vietnam.]

Finally, the President asked Secretary Laird for his views on Congressional support if the agreement on Vietnam failed. Secretary Laird replied that further Congressional support would be impossible. The President judged that our aid would be cut off in two weeks. Admiral Moorer remarked that he remembered well the situation in 1968. The U.S. said it would do certain things if Hanoi failed to abide. It did not. Therefore, in this area we must keep adequate retaliatory capabilities in being. Contingency plans were prepared in two forms—one, if the agreement fails, and two, if we got an agreement but it was violated. Admiral Moorer continued that we should immediately cost out the agreement so that the funds can be provided within the euphoric atmosphere of the settlement. The President agreed and told Admiral Moorer to be prepared for either contingency.

The meeting then adjourned.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Box 90, Memoranda for the President, Beginning 26 November 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting was held in the Oval Office. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting ended at 11:34 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  2. The only article by William Beecher in The New York Times on Wednesday, November 29, was entitled “Laird Says Draft Will Call Fewer Than 10,000 in ’73,” p. 1. Nixon probably meant the Thursday, November 30, Beecher story, “U.S. Aides Report Yielding by Hanoi on Truce Issues,” p. 1.
  3. See Document 33.
  4. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 203.
  5. Moorer drafted for his files a memorandum for the record the next day. In a handwritten note at the bottom of the last page, he recorded: “I was instructed to prepare contingency plans: 1. Resumption of strikes on NVN if negotiations fail. 2. Punitive and retaliatory strikes if negotiations succeed & agreement subsequently violated.” (Memorandum for the record, CJCS Memo M–68–72, December 1; National Archives, RG 218, Records of the Chairman, Moorer Diary, July 1970–July 1974)