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

297. Ref: WHS 2273.2 Deliver opening of business December 15.

On receipt of your message, I requested and received appointment with Thieu. He has no problem with limiting the Christmas ceasefire to a twenty-four hour truce. He added that whether or not we wish a twenty-four hour truce at the New Year holiday is entirely up to us; the GVN does not need it. I mentioned the fact that the President is considering some forceful military response to the North Vietnamese stalling tactics in Paris and that any extended ceasefire would frustrate these actions. Thieu agreed and expressed satisfaction that the President was contemplating such actions.
I continued by saying that the President is greatly disturbed by what he construes to be Thieu’s negative attitude toward the negotiations; that if it continues it will force him to reconsider our whole relationship. [Page 685] I said that the President had asked me to stress this point because he wants to be completely frank about his position and wants to make it clear that if this attitude continues it cannot but threaten the fundamental character of our future relationship.
Thieu expressed some surprise and said that he had not intended to be negative, but had been under pressure to state the GVN views from members of the Assembly because of their ignorance of what was going on in Paris and allusions widely reported in the press to “a final round” of negotiations.
I said that the terms in which he had stated his position were so clearly negative to the draft agreement which we are negotiating that it ran the risk of being interpreted as an open break with us. I recalled that the President, you, and I had pointed out to him many times the risk of a cut off of funds from Congress involved in such a course. If this occurred, obviously, the GVN would not survive. The problem then is finding some practical method which will enable us to continue our support. All negotiations involve compromise and one should never take a position publicly from which he cannot recede, no matter how tough he may be in private. I reminded Thieu that he had agreed with me at our last meeting that the GVN as a practical matter could handle NVA troops in South Viet-Nam, were faced with a practical situation and would have to work out a way of handling it. Even though the DRV agreed to withdrawal, which they clearly are not willing to do, it is doubtful whether such a provision could be enforced. Identification of NVA would be difficult and many undoubtedly would change into black pajamas and melt into the population.
Thieu re-stated his well known position about the difficulty, politically and juridically, of accepting the presence of NVA troops in South Viet-Nam. He said that he had instructed Ambassador Lam to ask the other side what alternative would they propose if they did not wish to admit the presence of their troops in the South, e.g., in respect to demobilization, over what period, and what manner would they be willing to carry this out? Thieu admitted that if the war continues the GVN could handle NVA troops in South Viet-Nam. The difficulty would arise in the case of a ceasefire and a political confrontation in which the NVA political cadres would remain and continue to stir up trouble, engage in guerrilla and terror tactics and intimidate people. This is the problem he faces in signing an agreement which acknowledges the right of North Viet-Nam to have troops in the South.
I responded that I could not believe that he was saying that with all the resources at his command, the overwhelming preponderance of troops, of police, of PSDF, of popular national support that he could not successfully counter the political activities of the NVA troops no matter what these might be. If they engage in the kind of activities he described, [Page 686] it would be a clear violation of the agreement and he had the President’s assurance of our swift and strong reaction should this occur.
Thieu said that he realizes he faces a dilemma—not to sign the agreement and risk a cut off of aid by Congress; or to sign and risk political reaction and deterioration in South Viet-Nam. The adverse political effect of signing, he said, represents not only his own opinion but is shared widely by members of the Assembly and political parties (as mentioned in my 02953 reactions to Thieu’s December 12 speech are by no means all favorable to the course he is taking). Thieu said that the worst he had hoped for was disengagement by the U.S., withdrawal of all U.S. troops, cessation of all U.S. military action, and exchange of prisoners, but provision of aid which would allow the GVN to fight on alone and try to work out political arrangements with the DRV and NLF. This would be difficult for the GVN, but would provide a chance for survival.
I noted that he had implied in his speech that it was an obligation of the U.S. to continue military and economic aid under the Nixon Doctrine. I said that on the contrary it was my view that if we considered we had arrived at a satisfactory agreement for ending the war that the President and Congress would consider that our responsibilities under the Nixon Doctrine had been fully complied with in view of the massive aid provided and the sacrifices incurred. I said the crux of the question was not what he or we want, but what we can negotiate. The problem is to end the war and do it in a way which will assure the GVN of U.S. support. Without that support, there is no chance for GVN survival; therefore, it is essential to find a solution which will provide it. Clearly we want him and the GVN to survive, but he will have to make this possible. If it is going to be possible, there must be an end to the kind of confrontation between us which has taken place. Negotiation involves compromise and obviously we are not going to be able to get all we want.
The conversation was amicable and I hope some of it got over. Thieu said that he had instructed Ambassador Phuong to come to Saigon to give him a more detailed account of the past week’s negotiations than he had been able to receive through reports from Paris.
Warm regards.
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 413, Backchannel Messages, From Amb. Bunker, Saigon, Sept. thru Dec. 1972. Top Secret; Immediate; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only.
  2. In message WHS 2273, December 14, Kissinger directed Bunker to request an “immediate appointment” with Thieu to tell him that the Christmas cease-fire could be no longer than 24 hours and that the President was increasingly unhappy with his attitude toward the negotiations. (Ibid., Box 858, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XXII (2))
  3. The text of Bunker’s backchannel message 295 is in Haig’s message to Kissinger, Tohak 179, December 13 (Document 168).