16. Telephone Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
Kissinger: Mr. President?
Nixon: How are you getting along in your briefings?
Kissinger: Well, I’ve had a—I’ve had an hour with—
Kissinger: —Abrams. And he’s fully aboard, enthusiastically aboard.
Nixon: That’s been very important.
Kissinger: And he’s coming in. And he’s leaving tomorrow night. He thinks he needs a day to work with Bunker, and—
Kissinger: —he’s full of ideas of how we can do this, technically.
Nixon: Yeah?[Page 145]
Kissinger: And, you know, how to shift over the air control, and so forth—
Nixon: Yeah. Yeah. Let me ask a couple of questions—
Kissinger: —and we—
Kissinger: —I was really very heartened by him. I read him all the provisions on the military side.
Nixon: Right. What about the govern—What about the political side?
Kissinger: Oh, I haven’t told him any of that, but—
Kissinger: —that’s no good. I’m using that office as a club, by telling them what their old proposals were.
Nixon: Yeah. I see.
Kissinger: He’ll go along with the political side. There’s no question on that.
Kissinger: The political side is a smashing victory. I mean there’s no—there will be no one who will question the political side.
Nixon: [unclear] the only problem I see there is—from our standpoint is—which I want to be sure we’re adequately warned on is—is the use of the word “coalition” in any—any form, shape, whatever.
Kissinger: It’s not mentioned.
Nixon: Oh, I know it isn’t in that. But I meant in terms of the—of what the press says, what the pub[lic]—what is said by either side, and so forth. The—
Kissinger: No, we can’t—
Nixon: The point being—the point being—I don’t mean what the other side says. But we say—the point being that, once that is said, then the indication will be by our—our critics that, well, that we could have gotten this four years ago. You see? The coalition business. That’s why the coalition thing has got to be, has got to be in your own briefing. If we come to a briefing it’s got to be very, very tough. This is not a coalition government under any circumstances—
Kissinger: No, that’s not—nothing changes anyway. Right? The only thing that happens immediately on the political side is the negotiations between Thieu and the others.
Nixon: I understand that. I understand that there’s a Council of National Concord,2 but they’re going to—[Page 146]
Kissinger: Yeah, but it doesn’t come into being—
Kissinger: —until Thieu has negotiated it with the other side.
Nixon: Right. And, basically, that is not a government, either. But the point is—right?
Kissinger: Right. Oh, right.
Nixon: Yeah. But the point that I make is that, as you can see, that is the point that has to be very carefully—we’ve got to be straight-arming him on that issue so that we don’t run into any problem there.
Kissinger: With that, I am confident that the political side is in excellent shape. I mean, in fact, there is nobody in this country who could imagine that we could get this political settlement.
Nixon: Yeah. Well, that’s my feeling. That’s my feeling. That’s my feeling.
Kissinger: It’s the thinnest face-saver.
Nixon: Um-hmm. Um-hmm. Um-hmm. With regard to the questions you’d raised earlier with Bob,3 let me just run over it briefly, because I made a few—I had a few thoughts on it last night. First, to keep it all in perspective, we should understand that, that the major consideration should be the making of a settlement.
Nixon: The making of a settlement is not going to hurt us in the election, and it isn’t going to help us significantly. You know, who can tell? But the main point is what could hurt, really, is to go down the road and then—and then fail.
Nixon: That is why I think even before going to Saigon,4 I would—I think we have to be fairly, fairly sure that—that, well, not fairly sure, but at least have a pretty good chance of making it go. If you go to Saigon, and it doesn’t go, of course, then—I mean, you can’t even really consider going to Hanoi, because if you do, it escalates it to a point where we just couldn’t, we just couldn’t—
Kissinger: I agree.
Nixon: —stand it. But if you could go to—and I don’t know, but what—you think Abrams can do a little softening up before you get there—[Page 147]
Nixon: —that’s the point.
Kissinger: No, no. But he and Bunker can start analyzing. You see, after we get Thieu’s agreement—
Kissinger: —there’ll have to be a hell of a lot of work done.
Nixon: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Kissinger: And we could then focus Thieu not on how he’s going to stonewall the agreement, but how is he going to shift certain categories of things, who is going to take them over, and so forth.
Nixon: Right. Right. Right. What does Bunker think? What’s his view about whether—well, he doesn’t know about the political thing is, but what is his view about Thieu’s reaction to this?
Kissinger: I haven’t checked on that with him yet, but we have—
Nixon: At least you have Bunker’s reaction. I don’t mean Bunker’s. I don’t mean that—I meant Abrams’s view.
Kissinger: Well, Abrams says it’s hard to predict.
Kissinger: He thinks that Thieu ought to accept this, that this is a great opportunity for him.
Kissinger: He’s enthusiastic.
Nixon: Right. Right.
Kissinger: And on the political side, we’re in—I assure you, Mr. President, there’s no sophisticate who will not see that this is the thinnest form of face-saver for the other—
Nixon: Right. Right.
Kissinger: Thieu stays, there’s no coalition government, the negotiations start. Then they form a sort of a half-ass committee.5
Nixon: I know.
Kissinger: If it ever comes into being.
Nixon: That’s right. Right.
Kissinger: But—So, we’ve had another little message from the North Vietnamese—
Nixon: Is that right? Yeah?[Page 148]
Kissinger: —last night, screaming about the five changes I’ve given them.6
Nixon: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah—
Kissinger: But if—the thing could fall apart on Tuesday.7
Kissinger: In that case, of course, I come back from Paris.
Kissinger: The thing could fall apart in Saigon. In that case, I come back from Saigon. I agree completely that I shouldn’t—
Nixon: You can’t escalate that that high, because otherwise we’re—then we’re then where the fat’s in the fire, and it’ll appear as if Thieu is with the people—the person that torpedoed it.
Kissinger: I agree.
Nixon: Yeah. And I, incidentally, the—on the other side, I don’t—there need be no concern about the political effect. We just can’t think in the terms of the fact: “Well, gee whiz, it’d be better not to have this politically.” Sure, it’s risky. We don’t need it. We’re going to win without it, and very heavily. But the point is that you’ve got to take a risk to get the damned war over. And if there’s more, if there is—if this is the best settlement we can get—which I think it is—and if this is the best time, when the forces will be the strongest to get it, then the thing to do is to push it and get it. That’s my attitude.
Nixon: You see?
Nixon: We’re in this. We’re in that situation where, where we’ve just got to say what it really comes down to, Henry, is the merit of the settlement. If it’s the right settlement, and this is the best time, do it now.
Kissinger: I would—
Nixon: If it’s the right settlement, and we should do it at a later time, put it off later. The—as far as what—as the election is concerned, don’t be bothered with it, either way. There’s only—there’s only one [Page 149] thing on the election, as I say, and it would not be fatal, and that would be to have either Thieu or the North Vietnamese to blow it.
Kissinger: Of course, if we can—one risk we run is the one point that Mel made to me was, when I went into all the refinements we were getting, he said: “Listen, you have to face one thing. If they offer us this deal publicly—”
Kissinger: “—we’ll be forced to accept it, without refinements.”
Nixon: I agree with that. That’s what I mean. I’m not sure how far you can really insist on the refinements. So—
Nixon: Just—and so you do the best you can. We know that. Just like you did in Shanghai.
Kissinger: Now, from a security point of view, Mr. President, there’s absolutely no question that we’d be better off six weeks from now when—if these guys in Third Corps8 ever would get off their asses.
Nixon: They’re not going to.
Kissinger: But, it’s a high-risk thing, because six weeks from now, the other side may feel that they can hold us up, and string us along the way they’ve done for three years—
Nixon: That’s right.
Kissinger: —in the negotiations.
Nixon: That’s right. That’s right.
Kissinger: And, as you said, there is a time for settling.
Nixon: Always. Always—
Kissinger: And it is. If Thieu—the horrible tragedy is that if General Tri had survived9—
Kissinger: —last year, we would be throwing our hats up in the air, because then the situation in every Military Region, it is excellent.
Kissinger: And in [Military Region] Three, it should be good. There are two divisions that, I bet, haven’t lost a hundred men in the whole offensive, that have never fought, and that have never moved off their duffs.[Page 150]
Nixon: Right. Right.
Kissinger: That’s what breaks your heart in this.
Nixon: It sure does. Well, in any event—
Kissinger: You can’t be sure that they’d be moving off their behinds in the next six weeks—
Nixon: Um-hmm. No sir, you’re not too sure what the North Vietnamese can do. Now look, they—the main factor is that they, from everything I can see and from what you have said, the North Vietnamese are under great, great pressures to settle, too.
Kissinger: Right. Now, what I’m doing this morning, Mr. President, in the interest of speed, I’ve asked Dobrynin to come in.
Kissinger: And I’m giving him a letter from you to Brezhnev10—
Kissinger: —saying that if we could get some assurances about the cut-off of military aid.
Kissinger: I mean not cut-off, but restraint—
Nixon: Like, refraining like we do, basically—
Kissinger: That’s right.
Nixon: The same restraints.
Kissinger: Then we would be in a good position to—
Nixon: Very good.
Kissinger: —to speed up the settlement.
Nixon: Right. Right.
Kissinger: It was very interesting. I told you this. He came in yesterday and read me the cable that he had had from the North Vietnamese of where we stood in the negotiations.11[Page 151]
Nixon: Yeah? Yeah.
Kissinger: And it was pretty accurate, except the sly bastards put in some things as still unsettled that are already settled.
Nixon: Yeah. Yeah—
Kissinger: So that they can claim some victory afterwards.
Nixon: Sure, sure. That’s always the case in settlements, but it’s irrelevant. Once you settle, people have—see a—heave a sigh of relief in the end. Believe me.
Nixon: A sigh of relief. The damn thing’s got to be brought to an end, Henry.
Kissinger: Well, I—
Nixon: That’s what we really come down to, and so I know that, you know, all these political considerations, you just don’t think of those.
Kissinger: But I—
Nixon: Except—except for the one point at saying not to think about it. Don’t let political considerations delay it. The only thing is remember that the main—that we have no—that we have no pressures to push it, either way. Either way, we have no pressures to make a settlement, and so you do it on the merits, which is a pretty good position for you to be in.
Nixon: You do it on the merits, and the other point is that—the one hooker, of course, is that we cannot have a collapse in South Vietnam prior to the election. That wouldn’t be helpful.
Kissinger: That won’t happen.
Nixon: It’d be harmful. I don’t think it would. Do you?
Nixon: I mean Thieu isn’t going to blow it that high, would he?
Kissinger: No. If he—frankly, if he blows it, I’ve got to go—I’ve got to come back.
Nixon: That’s correct—
Kissinger: I’m starting to push it to a confrontation with him now.
Nixon: Where would you come to then?
Kissinger: Then I’ll get Le Duc Tho back to Paris, have one more meeting with him, and tell him we’ll move on it after the election.
Kissinger: It’s an unsatisfactory way of doing it, because then they’ll stiffen their terms, I’ll bet.[Page 152]
Nixon: Yeah. See, there you’d—you do run the risk, too, that they might decide to go public—
Nixon: —and say Thieu is at fault. However, that’s dangerous for them, too, because, even with that, we’re not going to lose. [chuckles] Okay.
Kissinger: Well, it’s—it’s—one other thing I told Bob this morning that would be a possible compromise that might have to be done, because Thieu is absolutely adamant, or it’s as if he wants to save his face and wants to be able to pretend he had some role, I might have to come back from there and then start the whole circuit again. Meet once more with the North Vietnamese—
Kissinger: —in Paris, so that we can—
Kissinger: —pretend his changes were taken into account.
Kissinger: Go to Saigon—
Nixon: And then to Hanoi.
Kissinger: And then to Hanoi, and that would make—
Kissinger: —that would delay the thing—
Nixon: A week.
Kissinger: —by six days.
Kissinger: No, six days then.
Nixon: That’d be no problem. That has some advantages, but, on the other hand, you just do whatever. If you can make the deal, do it now. If you can’t, do the next best thing.
Nixon: And it’s going to be tough titty—
Kissinger: Politically it’d be better for you to do the latter?
Nixon: Henry, don’t even think of the politics. Let me say: either has an advantage.
Nixon: Doing it a little earlier doesn’t—well, no, either way. Politically—politically it would have an advantage in—only in the sense of the merits, because between October 1st and November the 7th, there isn’t so much time for it to blow.[Page 153]
Nixon: That’s the only point that I see there, but that’s on the merits again.
Nixon: So just do it on the merits. Everything’s on the merits.
Nixon: To hell with the politics.
Kissinger: —we’ll do it on the merits, and if I can have that flexibility, then I’ll—
Nixon: I understand.
Kissinger: —I might go on that route, on that circuit again.
Nixon: Right. Right. I understand that.
Nixon: You should have that flexibility and just keeping it all in terms of just discussing the matter.
Nixon: But I think—I’m really—I really feel that we’ve just got to push this now for all it’s worth and make it if we can.
Kissinger: Right, Mr. President.
Nixon: Good deal. All right. Good luck. Goodbye.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 149–14. No classification marking. According to his Daily Diary, the President was at Camp David and he and Kissinger, who was in Washington, talked by telephone from noon to 12:14 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The editors transcribed the portions of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.↩
- The National Council for National Reconciliation and Concord.↩
- See Document 15.↩
- Kissinger was scheduled to visit Saigon after the negotiations with Le Duc Tho.↩
- The National Council for National Reconciliation and Concord.↩
- Lord gave Xuan Thuy the changes on October 13; see footnote 2, Document 10. The North Vietnamese message, conveyed to Kissinger via Guay and Haig on October 14, 2239Z, stated: “The U.S. side’s demand for some substantive changes is actually aimed at changing the content of two Articles which have been agreed upon. This is contrary to the principle that once an agreement has been reached, neither side is allowed to change the content agreed upon; and if there are minor technical issues to be discussed, they should not change the content which has been agreed upon.” (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])↩
- October 17, during Kissinger’s meeting with Xuan Thuy in Paris.↩
- III Corps Tactical Zone, also known as Military Region 1.↩
- Lieutenant General Do Cao Tri, III Corps commander during the 1970 Cambodian incursion, was killed in a helicopter accident in February 1971 before he could assume command of the failing South Vietnamese incursion into Laos.↩
- According to Kissinger’s Record of Schedule, he and Dobrynin met in the White house Map Room at 12:23 p.m., at which time he handed over a draft of the letter. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76) The letter requested that Brezhnev use his influence to persuade the North Vietnamese to sign the agreement. At 2 p.m. Kissinger called Dobrynin to tell him that he and the President were adding two sentences. After providing him with the additions, Kissinger also asked that he return the draft as it was the only copy he had. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Box 16, Chronological File) The letter is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XV, Soviet Union, June 1972–August 1974.↩
- According to Kissinger’s Record of Schedule, he and Dobrynin met in the White House on October 14 from noon to 12:55 p.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76) At 1:45 p.m. Dobrynin called Kissinger and they continued to discuss the North Vietnamese cable. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Box 16, Chronological File)↩