206. Backchannel Message From the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

Haigto 9. After being told I could see Thieu between 11:00 am and 11:30 am today, we were constantly placed in a holding pattern which finally culminated in an audience at 3:30 pm.2

Ambassador Bunker and I met alone with Thieu and Nha. Thieu apologized, stating that since he had in effect received an ultimatum in the form of President Nixon’s letter,3 he found it necessary to meet with his Cabinet, Chief Justices and other key governmental figures. These meetings took place yesterday afternoon and evening and again this morning. As a result of the meetings, he decided to send a personal letter to President Nixon which he gave me in a sealed envelope and which he asked I deliver in this form to the President. A copy of President Thieu’s letter is attached.

As you will see from the letter, he has not directly rejected President Nixon’s ultimatum but has attempted to waffle by urging that we insist on the total and verified withdrawal of all North Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam in the same time frame as U.S. and allied forces would be withdrawn. He also insists that there be no recognition of the PRG as a separate government in the South.

Thus, Thieu has again performed in identical fashion after suggesting to both Bunker and myself yesterday that he would, in effect, go along in the pragmatic recognition that this was the only way to obtain continued U.S. assistance.

Thieu’s action now makes our options very clear. We can proceed with the course you outlined prior to my departure, i.e., inform Hanoi just before the first of the year and announce publicly at that time that we have attempted and failed, through a lack of cooperation by both parties, to obtain a comprehensive agreement. In the light of this failure and the largely successful completion of Vietnamization, we are now prepared to withdraw all remaining U.S. forces in return for the release of all U.S. prisoners held in North Vietnam, South Vietnam and Laos [Page 769] and pending this release of prisoners, the U.S. Government will continue to bomb North Vietnam and enforce the sea blockade.

There is, of course, another option and this would consist of immediately applying economic and military pressures on Thieu. This, however, is risky business since its ultimate outcome could result in Thieu’s overthrow or collapse as other South Vietnamese leaders begin to comprehend that his leadership is slowly strangling South Vietnam. I would not favor this course. However, we will bring with us a list of economic steps which could be undertaken.

On the military side, we could commence immediately, concentrating our air assets exclusively against the North and to support Cambodia and Laos. We have the option of doing this precipitously or gradually. In either event, we should certainly be able to function completely in Thailand before really applying the screws since Thieu could insist, with justification, that we remove our facilities from South Vietnamese territory. Other military measures might include the early withdrawal of additional American forces. In my view, any combination of these actions can only result in Thieu’s finally succumbing or his downfall. As exasperating as Thieu’s performance has been, I believe this course of action would be self-defeating in the extreme and could only place in doubt the whole record of our sacrifices in Southeast Asia.

In a purely objective sense, Thieu is on the side of the angels since he is merely insisting on the withdrawal of foreign forces from South Vietnamese territory as a precondition to a peace settlement. For this reason, I do not believe the U.S. can engage in a strangulation process. It can, with honor however, maintain that we have completed the process we set about four years ago. Thieu is more than capable of handling the North Vietnamese threat given the necessary will to do so. Thus, I believe we should now concentrate our efforts on disengaging from the conflict under the proviso that our prisoners are returned. The issue of further U.S. economic and military support to Thieu should be directly linked to support given by its allies to Hanoi, although I visualize we will be subjected to great criticism from that vocal minority which insists that North Vietnam has a right to intervene in the South, we will be on a principled course which any objective observer would consider fair and worthy of the sacrifices in American blood that this conflict has entailed.

The foregoing does not change my earlier judgment that Thieu would ultimately bow to U.S. pressure if his survival were at stake. I do not think, however, that we should test his mettle on this issue. It is neither worthy of nor consistent with our great power status although the temptation is great in view of his irrational and totally self-serving behavior.

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I am delighted to join the same club that you were initiated into in October.4

Warm regards.

The text of Thieu’s letter to the President is as follows:

Dear Mr. President,

General Haig has brought me your letter of December 17 and has explained to me your considered judgment of the state of the peace negotiations.

From your letter and his presentation it appears to me that we are placed in a situation where I am faced with the choice either to join you in accepting the agreement under its present form or you will proceed in a separate course which will serve the US interests alone.

Let me assure you first, Mr. President, that I have an abiding gratitude toward you for what you have done for the cause of freedom in Viet Nam in the past four years. I have complete faith in the Nixon Doctrine, and believe that the Government and people of South Viet Nam have fully done their share to implement that doctrine for the defense and preservation of freedom.

As a result, on the military field we have taken over the fighting and will replace all the US troops in a few months; on the political field we have joined the United States in all the peace initiatives that have been made, and we have constantly shown our generous and forthcoming attitude in actively cooperating throughout the negotiations conducted by the United States Government with the Communists in the past months.

The objections which we raised to the unreasonable demands of the Communist aggressors are due to the fact that our survival is at stake and that the unjust conditions posed by the Communist aggressors go counter to the basic positions which our two governments have jointly taken for a long time, in this common struggle.

As I have spelled out to you in my previous letters, through your emissaries and Ambassador Bunker, as well as through my personal emissary to you in Washington recently, we consider that for a settlement to be fair and honorable, and to be consistent with the purposes which we have set out together in this struggle, the agreement should embody these three major principles:

—The NVA has no right to be in South Viet Nam, and should totally withdraw to North Viet Nam concurrently with other non-South [Page 771] Vietnamese forces, in accordance with our joint communiqué at Midway in July [June] 1969.
—There could not be clauses or wordings in the agreement which could be interpreted as the recognition of the PRG as a government parallel to the GVN in South Viet Nam.
—The composition and functions of the CNRC should not be those of a super-coalition government in disguise.

In this context, I must say in all candor that it would be unfair to force the Government and people of South Viet Nam, by an ultimatum, either to accept the draft agreement under the sudden complete termination of assistance from our principal ally in the face of a ruthless enemy who continues to be aided by the entire Communist camp, and who has not abandoned his aggressive and expansionist designs.

In all sincerity it seems to me that neither course of action will bring about the just and fair settlement of the war that we have been striving for, which could justify the enormous sacrifices that together our two countries have made for so long.

We are aware however of your great desire to end this war even though the settlement conditions are imperfect. Therefore, with maximum goodwill and as the very last initiative, we are ready to accept the agreement as of December 12 provided that the so-called PRG cannot be considered as a parallel government to the GVN in South Viet Nam and that the question of the North Vietnamese troops in the South be resolved satisfactorily, that is those troops should withdraw totally from South Viet Nam within the same delay as for the allied troops under effective supervision. The political questions can thus be settled by the two South Vietnamese parties as stipulated in the agreement as of December 12, even though we feel that the clauses under their present form are to our great disadvantage. The withdrawal of the NVA however is indispensable because there can be no self-determination unless all the Communist aggressors leave South Viet Nam in fact as well in principle.

We believe that the new great concessions which we take, as mentioned above, are important risks for peace which we assume. These concessions demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt the deep desire of the South Vietnamese people for a peaceful and honorable settlement.

I must say that the South Vietnamese Government and people absolutely cannot go beyond these new important concessions, because otherwise it would be tantamount to surrender.

I shall appreciate it deeply if the United States Government would side with us and present our new initiatives to the Communists with vigor and conviction. We believe that our new position deserves very serious consideration.

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If the Communist aggressors continue to be stubborn and reject this offer, international public opinion as well as domestic opinions in our respective countries will realize better who is the obstacle to peace.

Sincerely, signed Thieu
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1020, Alexander M. Haig Special File, Gen. Haig’s Vietnam Trip, Tohaig/Haigto & Misc., December 17–22, 1972 [2 of 3]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only.
  2. A memorandum of conversation of the meeting, December 20, is ibid., Box 860, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XXIII, Haig-Thieu mtgs.
  3. Document 189.
  4. In a telephone conversation with Sullivan at 12:58 p.m. on December 20, Kissinger said: “Look, you might want to know that Haig has joined the October Club,” adding: “He went through a day of euphoria” and then “he’s had his teeth knocked in too.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Box 17, Chronological File)