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

Haig: Good morning, sir.

Nixon: Hi. So what’s the development this morning? We’ve got to go over the evening?

Haig: Well, we’ve had a very discouraging development with a speech by Thieu this morning to the National Assembly,2 in which he just flatly reiterated his earlier condition; rejected the U.S.-Hanoi draft peace proposal; listed the worst—

Nixon: Parts of it?

[Page 571]

Haig: —worst parts of it; can’t accept the presence of North Vietnamese troops; described the CNCR3 as a disguised coalition, which it is not.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Haig: Stated that he could never sign a peace treaty which did not clearly delineate the responsibilities of Hanoi to cease aggression against the states of Indochina; would never sign; offered a counterproposal, which was purely a red herring, that he would have a cease-fire through Christmas and New Year’s—

Nixon: [unclear]

Haig: Release all of the North Vietnamese prisoners.

Nixon: [unclear]

Haig: Yeah. And then start talks between all the parties, locally, to resolve issues.

[Omitted here is a brief discussion between Nixon and Ziegler.]

Haig: Now on Henry, I think he’s very well postured and understands exactly what you want, and agrees completely. He said that they got a message from the North Vietnamese this morning that they still had no instructions. He said that if that’s the case, he’s, of course, going to continue on until they get those instructions. If they represent any—any indication of disagreement, if—if they are totally intransigent and impossible to deal with, and include stating that this is Hanoi’s view, not just the negotiator’s view, and represents his new instructions, he said he thinks we just have to recess, quietly, come back quietly, state that we’re—

Nixon: [unclear]

Haig: —coming back for consultation and that we’ll continue to keep contact through the regular channels during this period, and then start the—start the military up. Now he’s quite concerned. Bunker came in, incidentally, and said that—and he wrote his recommendations after Thieu’s speech—he said, now, in light of this, that no one short of the Vice President can come over, because Thieu’s thrown the traces over.4

Nixon: True. Thieu’s what?

Haig: He’s—he’s obviously thrown the gauntlet down to us.

Nixon: Hmm.

[Page 572]

Haig: So, it would be foolish to be worried about his sensitivity. And Henry’s view is that—and he wanted—and I’ve written a memo which is coming out of the typewriter, because I’ve just got this message—

Nixon: Yeah?

Haig: His view is that we’ve now got ourselves a very, very tough problem with Thieu.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Haig: If we send the Vice President over, he could be rebuffed, and we’ve got to decide whether to go ahead, assuming we get a good agreement, try to push Thieu into it, recognizing that there’s some risk that we’ll have to crush him. So, that’s a serious consideration, because we could end up losing all that we’ve been trying to accomplish. On the other hand, his instincts, initially, are that we should go ahead. That we decided to do that, and it would make the agreement.

Nixon: What does Bunker, in fact, suggesting? That we just go ahead with the war?

Haig: No, Bunker is—no, Bunker is—he wants to go along with the agreement.

Nixon: That’s what I mean, of course. Yeah.

Haig: But, he hasn’t given us a good assessment of what this speech means in terms of Thieu’s ability to now back off this limb he’s stepped out on. I think Bunker

Nixon: I’m not as concerned about this speech as others. [unclear] he’s just got to stick out there. I mean, I understand. I understand that it’s tough, and all that sort of thing. I know exactly, but it doesn’t—[unclear] says this, he says this, but when you finally come down to it, and you get every goddamn [unclear] that’s all there is to it. We’re now getting to the point, Al, where we can’t—where we cannot afford, ourselves, unless it is a totally unreasonable position on the Communist part, because they may hit him. Even then, it’s going to be tough.

Haig: No, I think—

Nixon: We can no more—we can no more just say, “Well, because he won’t take this we’re going to continue this war then.” There’s no way I could.

Haig: No.

Nixon: There’s no way.

Haig: No, I think we have to go ahead. Try to get the agreement. Above all, not break off the talks, even if they are intransigent. If they’re not, and we get an agreement, then we’ve just got to bring Thieu along, whatever it takes. And if we risk the—

Nixon: How do you bring him along, Al? Look, when you say, “bring him along?”

[Page 573]

Haig: Well, I think the Vice President is now the only thing. Yesterday, I would have felt otherwise.

Nixon: Yeah, I know.

Haig: Uh—

Nixon: When—where—well, particularly after your message, [3 seconds not declassified] which indicated where Thieu is headed. He may be—he may be going up and down, too, you know?

Haig: That’s right.

Nixon: He may be in one of those volatile conditions where he’s one day, “yes,” and one day, “no.”

Haig: But, now, there’s no other emissary that will give him the kind of leverage he needs to step off his position. The Vice President—

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: And we cannot risk my doing anything.

Haig: No, absolutely not. You can’t—

Nixon: No, no. I can’t get into the game.

Haig: No. We have to go to just the next best thing.

Nixon: Well, if they told Henry they had no new instructions this morning, I suppose there’s nothing that’ll come out of the meeting today.

Haig: Maybe not. Or they may get them before this, the 3 p.m. This was in conjunction with the two technical discussions. And they played it fairly honestly. I mean, they just made that simple statement, which—

Nixon: Of course, they read Thieu’s statement, and that encourages them, too, to be tougher, doesn’t it?

Haig: Of course it does; that’s the trouble. And they may, just now, have shifted their strategy to try to split us out from Saigon, keep it in stalemate ’til the Congress comes back, and then play it for his downfall or a cutoff of assistance. And we can’t discount that. That could be what they’re doing.

Nixon: Um-hmm. Thieu [unclear]—as much as I—and I’ve reached this conclusion is: we’re now past the point of no return as far as we’re concerned. We have, basically, we have nursed him along. We have really played for all of his fears, and so forth. True, he’s come along at times, but, I mean, he’s let things come out—

Haig: Right.

Nixon: —[unclear] he shouldn’t during the election and so forth. At this point, we provided all the funds, we provided—in the buildup to this meeting we stood by him when nobody else in the world is standing by him. Now, it’s all over. If that’s the way it’s going to be, so it will be. I think there’s a—the key point is that we have stood by him. [Page 574] We proved that we [unclear]. I don’t think that on the basis of American honor, and that sort of thing, we could do that. If he now falls, if it should come to that—he may fall, but will not today. I think one thing that, out of that country, something would survive. [unclear] I think his intransigence cannot be, could not possibly be something that everybody there’s going to accept.

Haig: No, he’s insisting on total victory. That’s exactly what the conditions are that he’s laid out. We’ve never shared that view. I mean, he knows it. In fact, he’s never insisted on it.

Nixon: I only wish we could, but there’s no way we can get it.

Haig: And I also think he’s—he’s playing for the big stakes, and he’s going to push us right up to the goddamn brink, which he’s doing now. And we can’t—we can’t back down there anymore than we can back down to Hanoi. We’ve got to—

Nixon: Back down to him? Never. And, back down in Hanoi? Never. Neither one.

Haig: No.

Nixon: Right now, they both hurt.

Haig: It may be a moot question, because Hanoi may just end up being totally unable to bring themselves around, and to be just plain, arrogantly negative, which is what they were yesterday. I don’t think they will, although it’s conceivable. It’s to their advantage in any event to get a settlement, especially in the light of Thieu’s statement, because they’re going to find out that they’re going to be in the white hats and Thieu is going to be in the black hat situation. So, I’m inclined to think that the overall impact of Thieu’s intransigence will be to make Hanoi want to settle.

Nixon: Yeah, that’s another way to look at it.

Haig: That’s right.

Nixon: Unless—well, it could be—it could be that they wouldn’t want to settle it, based on the fact that they think that he’s not going to go along, that’s going to cause us great problems. What I mean is this: one way they could play it, in order to destroy our public support, or attempt to, is say, “Well, in the light of Thieu’s statement, there’s no reason for us to continue these negotiations. He obviously won’t negotiate anything but total victory, so we’re breaking off talks.” And that’s one’s a—

Haig: They could do that although—

Nixon: —that puts us on a tough, damn wicket here.

Haig: That’s tough wicket. But I don’t think that’s the way they’ll go, because it puts them in the position of having to give Thieu other than a puppet status. I think what they would prefer to do would be to get a settlement, then have Thieu, the recalcitrant, on the fringes, so that [Page 575] they look like a peaceful country. They’ve been able to work out their differences with the United States, and except for this little son-of-a bitch in Saigon, who’s a demagogue, we’d have peace. That isolates Thieu a little more consistently, with their theory. Now, it may not turn out that way.

Nixon: Yeah. Well, Al, as far as I’m concerned, if they come along, any kind of a basis that they—if they have any kind of a basis that they have agreed to as to what we were talking about when you first returned—

Haig: Right, sir.

Nixon: —then we go. And we just go hard, and then, frankly, we isolate Thieu. We have to do it.

Haig: Right. Well, that’s Henry’s view right now, too. He did say that he thinks that we should definitely send the Vice President.

Nixon: Yeah.

Haig: But, before doing so, he should come back and we should consider jointly, or very, very carefully, where that scenario will spin out. Now, I’ll start considering that today and some—

Nixon: Don’t start talking to the Vice President.

Haig: Oh, God, no. Oh, no.

Nixon: Don’t get him all stirred up one way or another—

Haig: No, no, no.

Nixon: That’s—the thing to do, unless this thing is going to work, if it’s going to work then we’ll—we can brief him damn fast.

Haig: Absolutely. That’s it.

Nixon: Because it’s best not to have him think. He’s got people that he’ll talk to that haven’t any brains, and, you know—

Haig: We’ll just keep him—he doesn’t know any of this and we won’t tell him—

Nixon: Besides, he’ll talk to Reagan5 and to people like that.

Haig: Yeah. The simple facts are, sir, that if we have to go this way, there’s nobody better than the Vice President, because if we have a confrontation with Thieu, we’re going to have to watch our right flank and the left flank. And he’s the best man to be—

Nixon: That’s right.

Haig: —to be the vehicle for it.

Nixon: He can come back and be the man that fights the Right for us, because they love him—

[Page 576]

Haig: Right. But I do think we’d better—we don’t have to worry about a schedule, or prisoners, or anything else [unclear]—

Nixon: No, no. On the schedule thing is not something I’m concerned about. I didn’t want to leave any impression when I asked about the prisoners. I’m just curious as to whether it was six months—

Haig: No, I think Henry’s been more concerned about it; you’ve never been. You’ve made it—

Nixon: [unclear]

Haig: —very clear all along that—

Nixon: In the schedule, I mean, in fact, I’m perfectly happy with his having the talks continue for a while. Just go ahead. Just keep talking. Keep talking. As long as there’re any—the only thing—the only thing I am concerned about is the fact that we have to continue talking without doing something new. And you reseeding the bomb—the water—or the harbor, and doing some bombing, and so forth. You figure that that would be an inevitable, almost an inevitable, cause for breaking off the talks?

Haig: Well, no, I don’t, sir. I think we ought to wait and see what happens today. If they get instructions from Hanoi, and they stay negative, then I think that’s justification for doing it, and they’ll understand it, without it risking what has already been a tough decision for them. On the other hand, if they—if there’s still progress today, I don’t think we should do it, ’cause that puts an additional strain on the system up there that I don’t think we should do. But if there’s no progress and that represents Hanoi’s view, and Henry comes back for a recess, then I think we should start right away. As soon as he—as soon as he gets back, first with the reseeding, and with very heavy air strikes. Now, we can measure that carefully, too. Then they won’t break off the talks. Or if they had—or if they do, they would have done it in any event. And that we have to be careful of. If they come back with Henry, or react tough today with instructions from Hanoi, or if they do not, we have to very careful to keep them in the position that they don’t go public, because there will be no way Henry can quietly break it off, if Hanoi comes out and says that the thing has stalled out, and that they’re breaking off the talks, and that the U.S. demands are unreasonable. That’s something we have to be very careful of—

Nixon: With them going public on the basis of their more intransigent attitudes, I would think we would be able to handle it.

Haig: Oh, we can handle it, but there will have to be some explanation for it—

Nixon: Yeah, some. What I meant is that the way that it stands, we’re [unclear] damn hard to settle now, but their going public hits it.

[Page 577]

Haig: Well, why, that’s the main incentive for Henry’s gracefully getting away, saying he has to come back to consult with you, so that they don’t feel that they can do anything, even if they’re intransigent.

Nixon: And then we bomb.

Haig: Then we come back. And then we can bomb. And then we can explain what the problems are in a low-key way, and get the jump on them. We don’t want them to get the jump on us. That’s going to take a little careful maneuvering by Henry if the decision is that we have to take a recess. What he should do is just say, “Well look, I have to go home. You’ve been a lot tougher than we anticipated. I’ll have to discuss this with the President and with our allies, and we’ll keep in contact with you through our special channel.” Then we’ll take the lead, and we’ll decide here. What he should say should accompany the military action.

Nixon: Well, I guess in retrospect—I mean, we needn’t be retrospective too long—the results, in retrospect, Al, I mean, we should not have allowed Henry to feel so compulsive about that election deadline. He felt deeply, you know, that that would help the election. That was his problem.

Haig: Well, that, he felt, and there’s some justification for this. I disagree completely with the election line, but it isn’t my business—

Nixon: Yeah.

Haig: —to be an expert on it. But, he also felt, and there’s some justification for this, that they were working against that deadline, and that we’d get our greatest concessions from them. Now, their attitude since would suggest that he may have been right. But it doesn’t mean that those concessions were enough to bring it to a—to where we accepted it. We could have taken it—

Nixon: The whole point is—the whole point is, we had to get another way you could pull out. Suppose we say, “All right, you’re being unreasonable.” [unclear] negotiate when you want, and let it be one hell of an inflammatory issue right up until the election. Then we would have won, just about like we did.

Haig: Sure.

Nixon: And say, “Now, we have a mandate. Settle or else. You’ve got 48 hours.” If they don’t settle, then bomb the hell out of them—

Haig: Right.

Nixon: —and then they would have had to settle. See that? That, to me, would have been the preferable way to do it—

Haig: Exactly.

Nixon: —rather than to create the impression before the election that they were being reasonable, that we were very close to the settlement, [Page 578] you know, “peace is at hand,”6 and all that stuff, and then some assholes would interpret that as meaning we were held to the fact, that we had created the impression that we were going to have peace. That, therefore, after the election our hands were tied, because we had an obligation or a promise to get it. You see, we didn’t need to be in any position to promise peace. There’s no reason to. [unclear] worried about that—

Haig: No, it was precisely that issue that was a source of your strength, the fact that you had done everything right.

Nixon: That was the point. We did not have to have the peace issue working for us. We did not have to be promising peace. We did not have to be doing a damn thing. All we had to be doing was being the hardened—hard nose, then. But, as a result of the—we got the worst of both worlds. We softened our hard nose position. [unclear] pretending to be reasonable, they said we were lying. Well, that’s water under the bridge. The point is, now, I don’t know what changes Hanoi. I mean, you know, you remember we did the mining and bombing stuff for four months so that they would be willing, be ready to talk. You still think that, don’t you? You think that’s why they’re talking now?

Haig: Of course.

Nixon: The mining and the bombing? Of course, we knocked it off, on the other hand—

Haig: We lost a hell of a lot. We, starting in October, by God, if we hadn’t been bombing—

Nixon: What?

Haig: —in a way that really means something. No, I think your—I think the bombing and the mining is what made the difference, plus the fact that they failed in their, failed in their offensive, plus the fact that you’ve got them isolated from Hanoi and Peking—or, from Moscow and Peking. It’s all these things, not any one. But the one that’s eroded them most seriously is the bombing, and the effect of bombing.

Nixon: Sure.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 820–5. No classification marking. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Haig met with Nixon in the Oval Office from 9:57 to 10:21 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The editors transcribed the portions of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. See Document 160.
  3. Haig meant the NCRC, or National Council for Reconciliation and Concord.
  4. In backchannel message 294 to Haig, December 12, 0815Z, Bunker assessed the advisability of Agnew coming to Saigon as Nixon’s emissary. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 413, Backchannel Messages, From Amb. Bunker, Saigon, Sept. thru Dec. 1972)
  5. Ronald Reagan, Governor of California.
  6. See Document 73.