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

Nixon: Well, the [unclear]earlier. Have you got Henry’s message?

Haig: No, his message hasn’t come in. I called about it. It’s very long, very long.2 He’s laid out all kinds of things that we should be doing, and how we should proceed from here; Henry’s thoughts on Thieu; Henry’s thoughts on the military action; Henry’s thoughts on how [it] should be handled publicly, and what we’ll have to cope with; how to keep the dialog going with them to keep from breaking. You know, a lot of the press reporting is—it’s encouraging in a way because obviously nobody’s telling anybody anything, and these guys are wrong as hell. They’re—

Nixon: They’re all saying that we’re close to a settlement.

Haig: [chuckles] Yeah.

Nixon: They’re all wrong.

Haig: They’re all wrong.

Nixon: But they may be right.

Haig: They may be right.

Nixon: You know what I mean? They may be right in the broad sense, in the sense that a settlement is inevitable. They are wrong in the [Page 597] timing; a settlement is not inevitable right at this time. That’s kind of my feeling about it. What do you think?

Haig: I think that, sir. I’ve been through all the intelligence that we’ve had since the 6th of October, the raw reports. It’s just inconceivable to me that Hanoi’s going to be able to pick up and go on the way they’re going and that they do want this because they’ve instructed all their cadres, they’ve reorganized their forces in the South, broken down into small units, everyone’s been briefed and oriented.

Nixon: Yeah. So, what does that mean?

Haig: Well, I think they’re going—they’re going to play on what they anticipate to be pre-Christmas anxiety on our part, and, we [unclear]—

Nixon: What I mean is this: let me say that I’m talking about Henry’s long message and so forth, Al. There is nothing to be gained by going through a tortured examination of what went wrong and this and that and the other thing. You know what I mean is that—

Haig: Yeah.

Nixon: —just forget that. I am not interested in all that.

Haig: No, sir.

Nixon: There’s nothing to be gained of going over: well, they gave on this, and we gave on that, and they’re sons-of-bitches, and so forth. Just forget all that. All that—all we have to be concerned now is where to go from here? And the point is that—I told you when I went through this—he’s got to go to the meeting tomorrow. You sort of got off—got off to him my thoughts, did you?

Haig: Yes, sir. I sent that message to him3 and told him to use it as he sees fit, sees fit—

Nixon: Yes, if he thinks it wise, of course. You can’t tell if it’s wise unless you’re really there, of course.

Haig: No, that’s right.

Nixon: He’s got the sense of it. He’ll know.

Haig: He did. He was quite explicit in saying that the thing would be done amicably—

Nixon: Yeah.

Haig: —which lessens the chance that they’ll go public with an attack. Although they’ve reacted quite sharply with Thieu today.4

Nixon: What are they saying?

[Page 598]

Haig: Well, they said this was an unreasonable demand, the United States was responsible for it. Then, Madame Binh did the same thing, except she said that she, that—she sort of implied that we shouldn’t allow him to do this, trying to keep his foot between us.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Haig: But Hanoi was a little more—

Nixon: Um-hmm?

Haig: —more direct in its attack on both Thieu and ourselves, as they mean being a puppet of ours, and an extension of our view, claiming that we really didn’t want to settle, and that we’re building up with military supplies, and civilians acting as military—tens of thousands, they say, and that we don’t really want peace and that we just want to continue to Vietnamize.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Haig: Which is fairly consistent with their approach to the table.

Nixon: Um-hmm—

Haig: They’re making these same kinds of—

Nixon: Al, what’s your—when you really come down to the fundamental thing, first of all, Henry has got to get the talks moving on tomorrow and then out of the way if possible.

Haig: That’s right.

Nixon: Then he will come back. After he comes back then presumably he will be—there’ll be—there will be a letdown here. Everybody will think it was going to go, but that doesn’t worry me. I mean, we can take a letdown.

Haig: Hmm.

Nixon: And so on. And with—do you see, he mustn’t think it’s the end of the world because the talks don’t succeed—

Haig: No, no.

Nixon: —right now? I mean, I don’t think—you left Henry in that frame of mind when he left, or is he—? His hopes were pretty high on Saturday5 when he left, or even after he got back—?

Haig: They were—they were high Saturday.

Nixon: Because when you came back you obviously were [unclear]—

Haig: And I must say, based on the session Saturday,6 it was [Page 599] just a question of whether we bought a compromise, or folded,


Nixon: That’s right.

Haig: —they did, but that was it.

Nixon: And then nothing happened.

Haig: Then nothing happened. They reopened the same issues we had hammered out Friday and Saturday so laboriously.

Nixon: What in the hell do you think happened? I guess nothing in between. I don’t know.

Haig: Well, I—you know, we’ve done a hell of a lot of things that must be driving them up the wall in an objective sense. I mean, Christ, we have put in a billion dollars worth of equipment. We had to—

Nixon: [unclear] Come on—now then, though then—so we were disappointed Saturday. Henry obviously got a hell of a letdown on Monday. See, I can tell more by his reactions from this than by reading 30 or 40 pages of—

Haig: Of course.

Nixon: —why—you know what I mean. You can, too. We all know what it is. Now, the reason he’s down and discouraged is he raised his hopes high. Now his hopes are dead. Now they’re dashed. Well, they should have never been high and they never should have been dashed in my opinion. I think it’s always about where it was. Am I wrong or not? If I am, well, then I’ll start reading all this stuff.

Haig: No, I think—

Nixon: [unclear]

Haig: No, I think you’re exactly right, sir. I think this thing, we just got to—all the indications are that they want to settle and I think they will settle. But they’re Communists, and every goddamn nickel they can make from us, they’re going to try to get. And they don’t mind if it takes two months, a month, a week. They’re going to get the best deal they can get.

Nixon: So how are we going to position Ziegler tomorrow [unclear]? Did Henry give any guidance on that?

Haig: Well, he claims that he has guidance in here. I think we should merely say—and I’m sure his guidance will say this—that he’s returned for consultations.

Nixon: Well, I’ll be in in the morning early enough. As soon as I get in, I’ll call you, you come in, we’ll have a good talk about it.

Haig: Yes, sir.

Nixon: You and I will get Ziegler positioned.

Haig: Right—

[Page 600]

Nixon: “He’s home for consultation, but there’s still some knotty issues remaining.” I think, frankly, we ought to say we—no, no, we can’t say we’ve made progress, if they’re going to deny it. No, I mean, I don’t know. It is true that there has been progress—

Haig: There has been progress, and I could—I think we could say that—

Nixon: “We have made some progress but there are still some knotty issues to be resolved and we’re trying to resolve them.”

Haig: That’s right.

Nixon: “He’s come home for consultation.” “When will they be resumed?” “Just as soon as we—when both sides agree they would serve a useful purpose.” That’s what I’d say, just like that and get out of the room.

Haig: Exactly. And then when there’s just [unclear]—

Nixon: Now, let me come to the key point: you really don’t feel we should bomb again? Don’t you? You see the real problem you got there is that if we do, the bastards could use that as an excuse for not talking. And, yes, they might [unclear]. I don’t know.

Haig: No, sir. I’m afraid, depending on what is really the cause of the hang-up, if it’s this whole array of things, I think we should start racking ’em. And recognizing it’s going to be tough. But, hell, we’ve taken a lot tougher than this.

Nixon: [unclear]—

Haig: It’s not going to be—it’s not going to be that tough.

Nixon: N-n-n-no, no. Well, the election is over. Forgetting the election and that sort of thing, sure it’s the Christmas season. [unclear] but we’ll just say we’re doing this because they—we want, we want to get these negotiations going. Look, I don’t know. What do we say? Why do we say we’re bombing more? What—what’s our—?

Haig: Well, I think we have to—

Nixon: We’re not going to say a damn thing; we’re just going to start doing it. And they’ll say, “Le Duc Tho was over there,” and we’ll say, “Well, there was a buildup, an enemy buildup.”

Haig: There was a buildup—

Nixon: That’s what I’d say.

Haig: There was a buildup. The talks had gone on for an extended period, beyond what we thought would be necessary. We can’t risk dawdling tactics. We’re prepared to stop it just as soon as we get a settlement. Of course, it’s going to stop.

Nixon: But then we must not stop bombing the North until we get a settlement.

Haig: Until we have it on the line—

[Page 601]

Nixon: That’s the point. We must not do it. Now that’s the point, the mistake we made, to stop this damn thing before we had a settlement, Al.

Haig: And we’re going to get—we’re going to get pressure from Dobrynin. I am confident Henry’s going to come back with some theories as to why we shouldn’t do it. We have to consider that. He may know something we don’t know. Or he may get some assurances from Le Duc Tho that we don’t know about.

Nixon: Right.

Haig: But, my own instincts are that they only understand one thing. And if they’re going to try to play us right up to the Congressional return, that will be even tougher to start again then when these men are back in town. And we get into a weather problem. The B–52s are great around the clock, sir, but they need escorts and the escorts are weather sensitive. So while it’s technical—technically feasible, it’s not, not the kind of thing you can do without reason, with some kind of reasonable weather. Hell, we’ve got another complication as I sat down to try to war-game this: Thieu’s calling for a cease-fire. There has habitually been a holiday cease-fire, and we’re going to have to wrestle with that one, how to manage that problem. And I think that’s, quite frankly, what Hanoi’s very conscious of. They don’t want us to start bombing. They realize, now, that they’ve got a gap that can—

Nixon: When does the cease-fire run? From when to when?

Haig: Well, he offered—ordinarily, they run it Christmas—

Nixon: Through New Year—?

Haig: —midnight the day before Christmas to midnight the day following Christmas. Then they have another one at New Year’s. There have been occasions when they’ve had them longer. They’ve run them right through the period.

Nixon: [unclear]

Haig: Thieu offered that today, but that was in conjunction—

Nixon: He offered the longer one?

Haig: But that was in conjunction with this POW exchange.

Nixon: No shit, he’s done it. They’re not going to give us any POWs.

Haig: Now, Henry thinks—

Nixon: That damned thing. He knows better than that.

Haig: That he knows.

Nixon: Huh?

Haig: That was the red herring to take the heat off of him and show his magnanimous spirit. Now, we may have to send the Vice President out to, still, to brutalize this guy.

[Page 602]

Nixon: Yeah. About what [unclear]? I mean even before we have a settlement?

Haig: To say, “Look”—

Nixon: What will he tell him?

Haig: —“by God, we want you to know we’re going, and are you going to persist in this? That it’s going to be your destruction. And we’ve got to take military action. We’ve got to concert on that to get maximum pressure on Hanoi.” Well, I think we have to think about this. Maybe I should do that, I don’t know. But I think Thieu right now is so far off the reservation that it’s going to take some more tending.

Nixon: I agree. Maybe you have to do that. Maybe using the Vice President for that is—

Haig: Maybe premature.

Nixon: But Thieu has got to be told in the coldest possible terms. What in the hell, has he paid any attention to this stuff? And, but—well, it’s hard. We always knew it was going to be hard. It’s just a little harder than we expected. What happened is that Henry got his hopes a little higher than he should have before the election.

Haig: That’s right. That’s right—

Nixon: I never thought—I didn’t, you know. I didn’t, as you know, have very high hopes, and I don’t think you did either—

Haig: You never have, and I never have.

Nixon: Huh? Did you ever have—?

Haig: I never have.

Nixon: Really? I never did. I remember when Henry came in, remember he said, “Well we got three [for]three over there.”7 I waited—the next morning he cooled off a little. He knew that it was a little bit exuberant. What the hell? You got nothing but a slap on the face from Thieu when you went out there, right? But you know, there comes a time when it must end.

Haig: That’s right. That is absolutely—

Nixon: That was really the theme of Bunker’s call, wasn’t it?

Haig: Yeah.

Nixon: As I understood it, he said well—

Haig: That’s right. We’ve backed this guy. We’ve given him everything. It’s time for him to stand up and face it.

[Page 603]

Nixon: That’s right. But we really have, Al. Even Abrams, he sits sort of like a silent rock and never says anything, but even he said it on one occasion that I can recall, he said, “Well, we’ve got to cut him loose to see what he can do. The time has come. He’s depended on us too long.”

Haig: Yeah, well, I agree with that—

Nixon: Isn’t that really it?

Haig: Yes, sir. And I agree with him completely. We’re just going to have to—have to manage that in turn. But I think we’re in a hell of a lot stronger position than they are, sir. I really do.

Nixon: Than the North?

Haig: I think we’re in great shape and we’ve—

Nixon: Why?

Haig: —got to stay confident and—

Nixon: Why are we in a better position here?

Haig: Because they are hurting very badly in the South. They’re—

Nixon: Goddamnit, if we just get the bombing going again.

Haig: That’s right. They can’t face that.

Nixon: That’s why they’re being—if they’re being amicable, the reason they’re being amicable is because of their fear of the bombing. I don’t think there’s any other damn reason to talk. I want you to get that across to him. I—just tell Henry that I do not want him to do anything that will limit my option, [sneezes] very clear option, to resume intensive bombing in the North. And that—you know, in a sense, that’s really better than having to have that option open than to have—than to pay a price to have them say something pleasant as he leaves.

[Omitted here is brief discussion about press views of the settlement and closing comments.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 821–1. No classification marking. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Haig met with Nixon in the Oval Office from 5:50 to 6:10 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The editors transcribed the portions of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. Document 163.
  3. Document 167. Kissinger in his memoir mistakenly stated that the message was for the meeting on the December 12. (White House Years, p. 1441)
  4. Haig was referring to the North Vietnamese reaction to Thieu’s December 12 speech.
  5. December 9.
  6. The reason for the “Saturday” reference is unclear because Kissinger’s December 9 report enumerated accomplishments in that day’s meeting with Le Duc Tho (see Document 152). His report on the December 12 meeting concluded that the negotiations had stalemated and the United States should begin bombing North Vietnam again (see Document 163).
  7. Kissinger said this when he met with Nixon, Haig, and Haldeman the evening of October 12 on his return from the breakthrough negotiations in Paris. See Document 9. Haldeman also recalled that Kissinger announced to the President that he now had three for three in terms of diplomatic triumphs: in China, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam. ( Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition)