243. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Winston Lord, NSC Staff
  • Tran Kim Phuong, Ambassador of the Republic of Vietnam to the United States

Ambassador Phuong: I am sorry to disturb you. Thank you for seeing me.

Dr. Kissinger: Your Government has managed to enrage the President almost beyond belief.

Ambassador Phuong: Why?

Dr. Kissinger: For sending your Congressmen to lobby here.

Ambassador Phuong: I …

Dr. Kissinger: Not you.

Ambassador Phuong: They can hear views on their own.

Dr. Kissinger: We don’t object to that, but rather the other effects. The only reason the funds have not been cut off is because of White House efforts. We have been holding the fort with people like Mansfield and Fulbright. Your people will drive Congress into open opposition.

Ambassador Phuong: I don’t think Saigon believes that the funds would be cut by the White House. I have explained this to them.

[Page 883]

Dr. Kissinger: But our ability to control our Congress will be reduced by your Congressmen.

Ambassador Phuong: It helps us to explain the situation. President Thieu understands fully that the funds would not be cut by the White House, but by the Congress. That is why he wants to send Congressmen here.

Dr. Kissinger: It will have the opposite effect. How many are coming?

Ambassador Phuong: I don’t know. I only know that Tran Van Do and Bui Diem will be here in a couple of days.

Dr. Kissinger: Who will they see?

Ambassador Phuong: I have no idea yet. Mr. Do is a former Foreign Minister, and he should call on Secretary Rogers. He is also a very good friend of Senator Aiken and will have a private meeting with Aiken. We will make the arrangements.

Dr. Kissinger: And Bui Diem will be here too?

Ambassador Phuong: Yes. I don’t know who he would like to see.

Dr. Kissinger: I tell you, it is impossible to disassociate the President from your President, but you have almost managed to do it. And Nha has put a pack of lies out of the Palace. For example, there are two stories. One, that when I was in Saigon I said that I had succeeded in Moscow and succeeded in Peking and there was no reason I shouldn’t succeed in Vietnam. This was in Time Magazine.2 You know that’s a lie. I know it came from Nha. You know it’s a lie.

Ambassador Phuong: I hadn’t heard about this.

Dr. Kissinger: You know. You were there.

Ambassador Phuong: You did not say it.

Dr. Kissinger: Another story was that I continually interrupted your President at the NSC meeting.

Ambassador Phuong: At the one I attended the President asked your views and you explained. I was there on the 19th and 20th of October.3

Dr. Kissinger: Those are the times of the NSC. You know that those were both lies, and we have the transcripts of those meetings. My intention is to build up President Thieu, not knock him down. I am not an opponent. If there are more stories—no matter who inspires them— [Page 884] against the White House, we will start attacking. The party is over. We have taken everything we are going to take.

Ambassador Phuong: Let’s be more precise. First, you say that Nha told the newspapers that you said that you had been successful in Moscow and Peking and therefore you would be in Saigon?

Dr. Kissinger: I read it in Time in the last issue.

Ambassador Phuong: Secondly, that you treated the President badly and that you continually interrupted and infuriated him. I know that’s not true at the two meetings that I was there with you.

Dr. Kissinger: It was not true at the other meetings. I have great respect for President Thieu. For four years he has kept the war going. We must keep him in office. I want, and I think it is essential that he stay. We may have different opinions on whether the agreement is good or bad, but as far as I am concerned he is the only possible leader. All this is beside the point. You are almost giving us no choice. If this keeps up we have no choice. There is no excuse. I have read stories from Nha in the Vietnamese press and have heard them from newsmen. I know the source. They have appeared in the Daily News and in Time. I know these came directly from Nha. That is a fact. Others he leaked out. He must grow up. This is not a contest between Nha and me.

Ambassador Phuong: I am sorry. I didn’t see these stories, and I will check on them and report to Saigon.

Dr. Kissinger: I am deadly serious. We have staked our whole domestic position. If we had wanted in October to put you down the drain we would not have to do the things we are doing.

Ambassador Phuong: With regard to our Congressmen here …

Dr. Kissinger: You are infuriating the President.

Ambassador Phuong: I think that it will be helpful rather than have any opposite effect.

Dr. Kissinger: They must not go and attack the President’s policies.

Ambassador Phuong: They will explain why we still object to the agreement.

Dr. Kissinger: You know what the President said. If we get a few more modifications he will agree to the agreement.

Ambassador Phuong: We know.

Dr. Kissinger: General Haig told your President what we would do then.

Ambassador Phuong: You saw the letter of President Thieu.4

Dr. Kissinger: We are not going to answer it.

[Page 885]

Ambassador Phuong: Why?

Dr. Kissinger: Because we have explained our position a hundred times, and we always get the same answer.

Ambassador Phuong: It is very difficult. I personally feel the presence of North Vietnamese troops is very important.

Dr. Kissinger: Yes, we raised this for three months. There could have been a settlement. We held out for your issues. There were no strictly American issues. First there is the DMZ, and secondly there is the method of signing the agreement. We have not told anyone about these. We would be scared about it, the reaction.

Ambassador Phuong: Why not just say we don’t want to mention the PRG in the agreement?

Dr. Kissinger: I happen to agree with you, except the American people won’t understand. They don’t even know what the PRG is. We have done this, and we won’t yield, but we cannot keep our prisoners in North Vietnam because of the issue of the mention of the PRG.

I have told you a thousand times and it does no good. Mr. Nha is the only one with access. If we had signed the agreement in November and sprung it on the American public we could have defended you a hundred times better than now. We will raise the North Vietnamese troops, but I will tell you the answer. If we had not raised this issue, we could have settled in November.

Ambassador Phuong: The letter from President Thieu to President Nixon stated very clearly that he is willing to accept the political provisions.

Dr. Kissinger: I understand.

Ambassador Phuong: But the North Vietnamese troops remains critical. I was in Saigon. You left Paris on the 13th [of October] and I was in Saigon on the 14th. When General Haig came, Thieu had a meeting with the NSC and the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice. And we discussed President Nixon’s letter5 in a small circle. President Thieu analyzed the whole situation. The President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice all agreed that we could manage the political provisions at present. It was difficult for us to do anything without something on the North Vietnamese troops.

Dr. Kissinger: Two things. One is personal. You should never keep a senior official waiting for four hours.

Ambassador Phuong: You?

[Page 886]

Dr. Kissinger: General Haig and me. I have been in many countries, and I have never seen that happen anywhere.

Ambassador Phuong: I know the whole story about the 21st of October.6

Dr. Kissinger: General Haig had a meeting at 11:30 and was finally called at 3:30.7 He had to change his whole schedule.

Ambassador Phuong: As for General Haig, the letter from the President which we gave to General Haig was not ready because the discussion was lasting from 9:00 o’clock on.

Dr. Kissinger: If only someone had called, but he was kept waiting.

And I had to wait from 4:00 o’clock to 9:00 p.m. for a meeting.

Ambassador Phuong: That was on the 21st?

Dr. Kissinger: I think so.

Ambassador Phuong: That evening he said that he would see you the next morning. He saw you at 8:00 o’clock before you went to Phnom Penh.

Dr. Kissinger: I was not told until 8:30, and I was leaving the next morning.

Ambassador Phuong: The President told the Embassy. Only an hour after that did we know that you were leaving.

Dr. Kissinger: It’s a minor point. Next time there should be more attention paid to feelings.

Ambassador Phuong: I will send these comments to Saigon. In the case of General Haig I want to confirm that the President did not yet have his letter ready to give to General Haig.

Dr. Kissinger: If you had told me in October about one rather than 68 objections the chances were a thousand times better of succeeding rather than scattering our influence across every nit-pick of Mr. Duc.

Ambassador Phuong: One single point about North Vietnamese troops can involve many changes.

Dr. Kissinger: I have been telling you since October that I am not your problem.

Ambassador Phuong: I fully realize that.

Dr. Kissinger: But you keep up your vendetta. I am the one that can save South Vietnam. First now, and then after an agreement. If we settle the two issues next week …

Ambassador Phuong: The DMZ and the signing?

[Page 887]

Dr. Kissinger: … we will agree.

Ambassador Phuong: No matter what happens on North Vietnamese troops, even if there is no mention of one-for-one or return to their native places, if these are dropped, if they accept the two issues you raise, you will agree?

Dr. Kissinger: We will give them a unilateral statement on North Vietnam troops, the one we gave you.

Ambassador Phuong: It was given to me by General Haig.

Dr. Kissinger: If they agree to the procedure for signing …

Ambassador Phuong: How about the Preamble? If it states the concurrence of the GVN you must get our agreement first. You just can’t put it in if we do not agree. Then we would have to publicly deny it.

Dr. Kissinger: We have reached the point where we are willing to face those consequences. If that happens you know what will happen here. So this is the situation. You are going to wreck the whole domestic structure if you keep going. We believed, and we still believe, that we can make the agreement work with our cooperation.

They will not keep many of the provisions and you will not keep many of the provisions. Therefore it will wind up the way you want it, a military ceasefire. I don’t think many of the provisions will be implemented, do you?

The blindness in Saigon—how long can they keep this going?

Ambassador Phuong: I conveyed this to Saigon.

Dr. Kissinger: Look at the situation here. If we had reached an agreement before Congress had returned, we could support you indefinitely. Even so, if we can reach them before Congress really is in operation we can maintain economic, military and political support for you, for many years, and probably indefinitely. All these fine points in my view are irrelevant. Under the alternative the North Vietnamese troops stay in your country anyway.

Ambassador Phuong: President Thieu realizes this.

Dr. Kissinger: Therefore the only question is under what circumstances is it best to deal with these conditions? We are under no illusions. They are a bunch of SOBs. They are the worst I have ever met. It is a pleasure to bomb them. I don’t trust those guys. You know what is happening in the American press and the TV commentators and news magazines and newspapers, day after day. That’s the problem. I predicted this in October. How long can we keep the Russians and Chinese quiet? What if the Russians and Chinese start a big offensive of propaganda against us? I know in Saigon that they think I’m so clever that they then think up the surest way not to accept the agreement. We have reached a point where we will not go to Saigon anymore. We will send others.

[Page 888]

Ambassador Phuong: I believe General Haig explained things to President Thieu and President Thieu agreed that he would not insist on getting all the troops out, that some could stay in. The whole question of troops is very serious and dangerous. We realize this also. The whole Government of Vietnam has engaged its prestige and the personal prestige of Thieu is also engaged.

Dr. Kissinger: Why? We told them not to do this.

Ambassador Phuong: It is very difficult. If something could be done on the troops, then personally I think there is some chance. You know it.

There is no agreement for the time being. Whenever there is agreement you would submit it and ask for a yes or no answer?

Dr. Kissinger: Of course.

Ambassador Phuong: Then what would happen? I tell you frankly now that Thieu could not possibly sign because it would very much go beyond his power to accept it alone.

Dr. Kissinger: I will tell you what will happen. But you will not believe me—not you, but your colleagues in Saigon. It’s a personal fight.

Ambassador Phuong: I’m sorry it’s personal.

Dr. Kissinger: You know. Let’s not kid ourselves. I know what I’m saying. I don’t feel it, but they seem to feel it.

Ambassador Phuong: You put it on Mr. Nha.

Dr. Kissinger: It’s probably the President too.

Ambassador Phuong: No. The President is very clever, and he’s also very cool-headed.

Dr. Kissinger: You’re right. I put a lot on Nha.

Ambassador Phuong: President Thieu is cool and legalistic.

Dr. Kissinger: I admire him. No one else could lead Vietnam. He is a great man, and I have nothing against him. But he has wrongly analyzed the situation. He should have accepted the agreement and claimed a victory.

You know Vietnam better than I. My experience with agreements is that every legalist makes a hundred objections. Once an agreement exists it has its own reality. What matters is how it is implemented rather than particular clauses.

Ambassador Phuong: At the end of October it was not possible.

Dr. Kissinger: No, probably it was not possible at the end of October. He was probably right. November was different.

Ambassador Phuong: In my personal view, having talked to President Thieu and various people, there is now no possible way out unless something is done about the North Vietnamese troops. This is a very sensitive issue.

[Page 889]

Dr. Kissinger: For two years you never raised it.

Ambassador Phuong: Yes we did. If I can make an observation on your press conference of December 16, which I read, you said that on January 25th the US and the GVN had a joint 8-point proposal which did not demand withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops.8 But there was a principle.

Mr. Kissinger: It was a principle, but it was that after a ceasefire the Indochinese parties would implement the principle that troops should stay within their national boundaries. Not at the ceasefire, but afterwards.

Ambassador Phuong: (Paraphrases the principle.) It never says “after” or “before” in the text.

Dr. Kissinger: The idea was always that it would be after.

Ambassador Phuong: We did not pick on that because we wanted to keep a united front. Our Congressmen here will pursue the same lines. They will not attack the White House. They have to explain to your Congress so that it knows exactly what happened.

Dr. Kissinger: If you put out stories in Saigon, we will put out others.

Ambassador Phuong: We will not do that. We are not here to attack the White House. We will just explain why we object to the agreement because of the presence of North Vietnamese troops.

Dr. Kissinger: With just a ceasefire, Thieu and you must accept North Vietnamese troops anyway. You say to make another type of agreement; if we do that, then the troops stay anyway.

Ambassador Phuong: Because there would not be so many ceasefire clauses and there would be no recognition or implication of the PRG, and the PRG would not be officially at an international conference.

Last time I was here you said at the end of the meetings with Mr. Duc, you told us that you believed that our stand was only for show.9 That is not correct, particularly with regard to the North Vietnamese troops.

Dr. Kissinger: You have managed to convince me.

Ambassador Phuong: That’s why I’m afraid that if nothing is done it will be terribly difficult for Thieu to accept anything, even if he wanted to back down. It is not possible now because of the position of the Senate and the House. If whenever you make an agreement with North Vietnam you put it to him, and say it’s the best that can be [Page 890] achieved and it’s along the lines of the letter from President Nixon, and then you ask him for a yes or no, I am quite sure President Thieu would not be able to do it. He will refer it to the House and Senate. If he refers the agreement to the House and Senate of Vietnam it will be difficult for him. But when he refers it very likely they will all like to put up a higher price.

Dr. Kissinger: That’s where we are heading unless the talks break down. You may be saved again by the North Vietnamese, temporarily.

The reason we acted as we did in October was that we saw what would happen in January. We were afraid that China and Russia would not hold back indefinitely. We have a two billion dollar deficit for appropriations. If we presented it now, as it should be by law, it would be rejected. We are hiding it, which is illegal. We will do it in April, but you know what will happen in April. We knew this was what we would be up against.

Ambassador Phuong: President Thieu knows also.

Dr. Kissinger: No one here wants the Nobel Prize. Saigon has attacked me as betraying you, and I am attacked here as being a murderer.

Ambassador Phuong: During the interval, have you communicated directly with the North Vietnamese since the 15th of December?

Dr. Kissinger: Just to set up the meeting. There has been no substance.

Ambassador Phuong: The DMZ—you are asking for the same language as before?

Dr. Kissinger: We are asking what we had before.

Ambassador Phuong: Excluding what they asked for concerning discussions about modalities, movement across the DMZ? If they drop this, you will accept the language?

Dr. Kissinger: Yes.

On the PRG we are proposing that the US and DRV jointly sign a document and that you sign a separate document without a Preamble.

Ambassador Phuong: So you would say the United States Government, with the concurrence of the GVN.

Dr. Kissinger: And you would sign separately.

Ambassador Phuong: We sign alone.

Dr. Kissinger: They have not accepted this either.

Ambassador Phuong: Once Le Duc Tho proposed it.

Dr. Kissinger: Then he withdrew it.

Ambassador Phuong: And then he asked for four-party signing.

Dr. Kissinger: Yes.

[Page 891]

Ambassador Phuong: How about the protocol on the ICCS?

Dr. Kissinger: We will try for the same procedure, with no mention of the PRG.

Ambassador Phuong: And you hope to have a 5000-man force?

Dr. Kissinger: You have seen our protocol. We will stick to it. They will give us their ideas today.

Ambassador Phuong: You are leaving Sunday?10

Dr. Kissinger: You will be there?

Ambassador Phuong: I would like to ask a question.

You remember in the last series. Ambassador Porter said that there would be no more briefing as before.

Dr. Kissinger: I must ask the President. They were not helpful. We got nothing from Saigon.

Ambassador Phuong: You got some information from us. Our position was clear. President Thieu told it to Ambassador Bunker, and Bunker told the same questions to Thieu. President Thieu’s instructions from Saigon were that as long as the questions of principles were not solved it was not possible to discuss other questions. Our approach is different. I understand. If the principle is not agreed and we refer it to Saigon, they refuse to answer and say that the North Vietnamese troops question must be solved.

Dr. Kissinger: Saigon hasn’t decided whether I or Le Duc Tho is the enemy.

Ambassador Phuong: No. I am the middleman. It is really our position. We are not at the table. We don’t know what is happening.

Dr. Kissinger: Saigon doesn’t believe what I tell you.

Ambassador Phuong: When?

Dr. Kissinger: I know it’s true. They don’t believe me. They think I am trying tricks. Then it turns out on December 16 that it was true, but by that time the talks broke down, and it was too late for you to do something. Saigon also doesn’t give me something because they are afraid that I might give it away. It is too late to be charming about these things.

Ambassador Phuong: The question of North Vietnamese troops was raised at the very beginning by Saigon.

Dr. Kissinger: I told you. Has anything happened different from the way I told you? Saigon thinks, that clever Kissinger, he wants the Nobel Prize. We will wear him out and get to President Nixon. Why [Page 892] give him anything which he will then give away? He will be taken by Le Duc Tho.

Ambassador Phuong: I have never heard President Thieu say anything to me like that or about you wanting the Nobel Prize.

Dr. Kissinger: It makes no difference. It is not a personal matter. I happen to admire President Thieu. It is a tragedy. We have produced a horrible tragedy.

Ambassador Phuong: Will you continue the series of briefings in Paris?

Dr. Kissinger: The President is not very eager for it.

Ambassador Phuong: Lam had asked me about it.

Dr. Kissinger: Will your Ambassador from London be there too?

Ambassador Phuong: I will tell you.

Dr. Kissinger: You’re there to watch each other rather than me.

Ambassador Phuong: No. They wanted to be absolutely sure about what you told us. Ambassador Lam does not understand too well.

Dr. Kissinger: There are three possibilities. The first is that we will not brief at all. The second is that it will be done by me. The third is that it will be done by Ambassador Porter. We tried to have constructive conversations with Saigon but we just got insolent replies. So I will ask the President, first, whether there should be any briefing, and if there is any briefing, who should do it. Maybe it will be Ambassador Porter.

Ambassador Phuong: Ambassador Porter told us last time that there wouldn’t be further briefings so we need some clarification from you. I hope to have it as soon as possible.

Dr. Kissinger: I will give it to you Friday.

I have great confidence in you. You have the best feel for the situation here.

Ambassador Phuong: The question is really a decisive matter for Saigon.

Dr. Kissinger: (Showing Ambassador Phuong several letters attacking him which were on his desk.) I get fifty of these a day.

Ambassador Phuong: Me too. I get letters every day.

(The Ambassador then left the office.)

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 859, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XXIII. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting was held in Kissinger’s office in the White House.
  2. The article includes this statement: “Kissinger reportedly insisted that ‘we were successful in Peking, we were successful in Moscow, we were even successful in Paris. There is no reason,’ he added, ‘why we cannot be successful here.’” (“Chronology: How Peace Went off the Rails,” Time, January 1, 1973)
  3. See Documents 27 and 32.
  4. See Document 206. Kissinger’s analytical précis of the letter, prepared for Nixon, is Document 208.
  5. Document 96.
  6. Kissinger’s scheduled October 21 meeting with Thieu was postponed until the next day; see Document 42.
  7. The meeting of December 20; see Document 206.
  8. See Document 182.
  9. See footnote 2, Document 134.
  10. January 7.