249. Memorandum of Conversation1
- Tran Van Do, Former Foreign Minister of the Republic of Vietnam
- Bui Diem, Former Ambassador to the U.S. from the Republic of Vietnam
- Tran Kim Phuong, Ambassador to the U.S. from the Republic of Vietnam
- Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
- Mr. Winston Lord, NSC Staff
Mr. Do: Thank you for taking the time to see us.
Dr. Kissinger: I always like to see my old friends. Ambassador Bui Diem and I have fought many battles here together, on the same side.
Mr. Do: We are still on the same side.
Mr. Diem: We really appreciate your taking the time to see us.
Dr. Kissinger: Well, as you know, I am going to Paris shortly. I think I know your concerns. You are welcome to state them, but I am familiar with them.
Mr. Do: We know that you are going to Paris to resume talks with Le Duc Tho. The President sent us here to discuss first the notion that people think that President Thieu and the South Vietnamese people are the obstacles in the negotiation. In fact, we have a sincere desire that you will be successful in your negotiations in order to achieve an honorable peace for you first and liberation of your prisoners of war, and for us to have a just, lasting peace with the conditions that can preserve our independence, sovereignty and freedom. That’s the main thing. I think you agree with this.
Dr. Kissinger: Completely.
Mr. Diem: Before coming here, I had long talks with President Thieu and in spite of the fact that we come here in a private capacity, we hope to bring to you first a message from the President. We understand very well the situation, and he understands all the difficulties and reiterated to me many times that in negotiations there should be some sort of compromise. At the same time, he is insisting on some of these points that he thinks constitute vital points for Vietnam. We hope that in the next round of negotiation you will take into consideration these things.[Page 908]
Dr. Kissinger: You (Diem) particularly know that it is me who has kept the government together on behalf of South Vietnam, who cancelled innumerable instructions, who short-circuited problems, etc. You were here for three years; you and we went through some tough times together. It is not the people at State and Defense who have defended you.
So I agree with you. But what is the actual situation? I have been trying to explain to our Vietnamese friends that we consider fundamental the freedom of South Vietnam; we want you to be free. My judgment has been, and every day it has been proven correct, the problem is that unity with the United States and not this clause or that is what is important. Of course, we want to improve the agreement. But more important than everything else is the ability of the United States to defend you over an indefinite period, together with you. What is important is what we can say about the agreement, and what Saigon can say, and that depends on our authority.
Now I know that in Saigon when I pushed in October and November for an agreement they said that I wanted the Nobel Peace Prize. I know all that has been said and from whom. That wasn’t the reason. The reason was I felt that if we could end the war in a surprising way that our critics…. You know that no one in this country thought we could end the war and keep President Thieu in office, and all thought that there would be a coalition government. We thought that if we could end the war honorably, with your government in office and with clear obligations in the agreement, that we would have so much authority afterwards that if we said that North Vietnam was violating the agreement, we could bomb them and no one would challenge us.
I want to be honest. Our view is that your government should have stood next to us and thanked us for what we had done even if it didn’t mean it, so that for America which had lost 50,000 lives it would be a Korean type situation. Who knows today about what the armistice was all about in Korea? If Korea is attacked, we would defend it. Why should we do this in Korea and not in Vietnam? There is no reason. You know that the liberal Democrats and the press want to destroy you. Because of various reasons we are now engaged in endless arguments and now the opposition is building tremendous pressure on us.
I know you want North Vietnamese troops to be withdrawn. We will raise this again, but I do not think they will agree. If we wanted to sell you out, we could have done this in November. Negotiations failed then because we were defending your point of view. I have been telling the press something else, because I didn’t want your government to be portrayed as the obstacle.
We will present your views again, and we will fail again. In either case, they will not withdraw their troops; in either case they will cheat. [Page 909] They are treacherous and want to destroy you. We take for granted that this is what they will do. The question is not a matter of their intentions, but what we can do to prevent them jointly. For that you have already nearly destroyed our ability. The improvements since October are not worth the loss in our authority that this struggle has provided.
I am being brutally frank. If this goes on much longer, Congress will cut off the funds. Resolutions are already being prepared. You are creating a situation where this agreement is being seen by the public as a defeat for us and for you. This is why we wanted to have the agreement before Congress came back. You above all, Mr. Bui Diem, my friend, know that in this country, it’s the White House rather than anyone else that is your friend. We will next week—assure you—again present your case, and it will again fail. That has to be my prediction. Now you will see the Congress.
Then the question is, suppose we do get an agreement with some of the elements that your Ambassador knows about, what would Saigon do? For all of us dedicated to the freedom of South Vietnam, we must close ranks, we really have to. As I explained before … there is a very complicated theory invented by someone that we want a united Vietnam to block China. I read it in President Thieu’s speech of December 12. Frankly that is insane, totally insane. China is not strong enough to attack anyone for five years. Why whould we cooperate with the Soviet Union to create a united communist country in Southeast Asia with 40 million people, after we have lost 50,000 dead and hundreds of thousands wounded? That is not therefore our intent. There is no such deal.
Why do the liberals want to destroy you? It is because they know very well that if the present governmental structure can collapse, they can destroy in effect American foreign policy. We are the only administration capable of conducting a strong and effective policy. If we are discredited and our policy shown up to be no good, we will never be able to do anything forceful anywhere else. Thus we are not merely interested in your defense for your sake. It is in our own interests that the Communists not take over Saigon. So there is no complicated plot with Russia and Hanoi against Saigon, because for us it would be as politically bad as it would be for you, although for you it would be humanly worse.
That is not our intent. We have been cold-blooded. We have calculated that to survive you need our assistance, at least as long as they get assistance from their Communist allies. Now how do you get our assistance? In the name of war our aid will be cut off in the first three months. In the name of peace there is more chance. The Communists have no intention of keeping the major provisions. The agreement will never be fully implemented. With an army of over a million and [Page 910] controlling a large part of the territory, we think you can handle a ceasefire, at least for a long enough period until there are violations of the agreement. And there is no question about who will violate it. We thought that in the name of an agreement we would be better able to help than in the name of war. That is our cold-blooded appraisal.
We have lost enormously in recent months as a result of the fight between you and us, and as a result of our domestic situation, the authority of the President and myself whom you need to run the policy has been set back. The children in Saigon think they can hack away at us. That will be their disaster, not ours. I have tried to tell the Ambassador all of this. You talk to Congress and see what reaction you will get.
Ambassador Phuong: I am glad you brought up this point about the theories being attributed to you. I will be frank. Somehow Saigon knew about these theories from Paris and Paris attributed them to you.
Dr. Kissinger: Who?
Ambassador Phuong: It is difficult for me. In any event they were not Vietnamese.
Dr. Kissinger: Why would I tell the French?
Ambassador Phuong: When I was in Saigon last time, I strongly disputed the thesis. That’s why I am glad you raised it today.
Dr. Kissinger: I found that thesis in the President’s speech. I am supposed to be a balance of power man and if one interprets that theory you do not support the stronger against the weaker, but you side with the weaker mischief. It is totally insane.
We all know what France wants. They want to pick up the pieces. They cannot bear the defeat of 1954. They think they can get back in to South Vietnam and they are pushing semi-neutralists and playing with semi-Communists. That is obvious. That is not my view.
Ambassador Phuong: I was very surprised to hear this thesis and I strongly disputed it according to my own judgment. It was not correct. I am glad you brought it up today.
Dr. Kissinger: There is not one shred of truth in it. We wish to preserve the independence and freedom of South Vietnam.
Mr. Do: It is our common objective. If I am not being indiscreet, about the first point, the sovereignty of South Vietnam, two independent states of Vietnam. What do you envisage on this point?
Dr. Kissinger: Our position is that we recognize the sovereignty of South Vietnam. We recognize the government of Saigon as the only government of South Vietnam. In the clauses of the agreement there is a certain ambiguity which North Vietnam will interpret their way. Here is my view. We will try to clarify this as much as possible in the [Page 911] agreement. My honest opinion is that at some point we must decide if the attempt to clarify too much and its becoming a major issue means whether we aren’t better off to say leave it ambiguous and cite the whole post-war record of our attitude towards Saigon, and say it has never changed and we will continue to do that. At some point it is more important what we say than what we try to get accepted and then the Communists reject.
Mr. Diem: Do you think they will drop the language about the modalities of movement across the DMZ?
Dr. Kissinger: That is another example. At first we had in the agreement only that it was a dividing line, provisional, but according to the Geneva Accords. It was not perfect but it referred back to the Geneva Accords. But we tried to clarify this. The reason I didn’t try to do this at first is that I was afraid that the transit question would be raised. We would have said that these are the same provisions and that the only status of the DMZ is the one of 1954. Now we said that the DMZ must be respected, and they want to discuss the modalities of transit. Now we are in trouble because the second sentence removes the significance of the first sentence. Now they will discuss the DMZ with Madame Binh and abolish it. This is an example. If we had stuck with the October agreement, we would have been able to maintain for all eternity that we have maintained what we said in the Geneva Accords. This served us well in March and April, so an attempt to gain specificity hurt us. We will reject that position.
Mr. Diem: President Thieu mentioned this point.
Dr. Kissinger: We have rejected it already. If we confined it to “civil” movement, then it would imply that military movement is prohibited, and in this case we will discuss it with you. But we have no reason to believe they will accept that. Maybe they will want to drop both.
Mr. Diem: And go back to the October draft?
Dr. Kissinger: But that’s not so good anymore.
Ambassador Phuong: If “civil” is in there, there must be a very strict provision.
Dr. Kissinger: Yes, but they are violating it now anyway. The only use of provisions is to give us a pretext to act. We do not assume that they will honor the provisions. Do you?
Ambassador Phuong: No.
Mr. Diem: The President said that he had no illusions.
Dr. Kissinger: Neither do we.
Mr. Do: Another point concerns the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops. I know your opinion.[Page 912]
Dr. Kissinger: We want them out too.
Mr. Do: Yes. I understand. It is difficult for them first to say that they have them in South Vietnam and secondly to demand a total withdrawal. I would like to know more details. What do you think you can obtain? I’ll be very candid. President Thieu is very concerned and attaches much importance to this problem.
Dr. Kissinger: We are now in a very difficult negotiation at this point. Again speaking honestly, there were so many issues that were raised by your side, that it was hard to concentrate on any one. But let us forget that for now. There is a demobilization provision which can be used.
Ambassador Phuong: That is too vague. There is no language getting at the problem.
Dr. Kissinger: It is too vague.
Ambassador Phuong: If we could obtain something like one for one and return to their native places, I think there would be a lot of improvement. As of now, it is too vague.
Dr. Kissinger: As I have said, we will of course give a unilateral statement that they have no right to have their troops in South Vietnam.
Mr. Do: What is the best safeguard against the jeopardy if the war resumes weeks or months after the agreement? That is what we want to know.
Dr. Kissinger: The best guarantee is what we do. I believe that if they keep the provisions concerning withdrawal from Cambodia, Laos and no infiltration, they will not be able to resume the war. But if they break those provisions, it won’t help to have another provision that they won’t keep. There is no way they can resume the war without breaking the agreement. Because our estimates are that their present forces are only at 30% strength, and they are not allowed to introduce new men under the agreement and they are supposed to withdraw from Laos and Cambodia.
Mr. Diem: And there must be an effective supervisory force, and not one of 250 men as they propose.
Ambassador Phuong: Because this should be a way to make them move out. If there is no language to make them go out, then when there is infiltration it will be difficult to prove.
Dr. Kissinger: We know now when they infiltrate because we have good information.
Ambassador Phuong: How do you prove it?
Dr. Kissinger: To whom?[Page 913]
Ambassador Phuong: In order to justify your actions.
Dr. Kissinger: It frankly depends primarily on the authority of the government. The liberal Democrats wouldn’t believe us if we delivered 10,000 live North Vietnamese. It depends on whether the American public believes us. India, Europe, the Swedes—we can’t convince them of anything, because they do not want to be convinced. That is reality. Reality is what the U.S. and a few countries in the area believe, Indonesia and maybe Japan. That seems to be the reality to me.
Mr. Diem: President Thieu understands this problem very well. I am not speaking on his behalf—I leave that to my colleague, the Ambassador—but I understand his concern is how to turn around the present situation in view of all the difficulties that we know about. How do we turn things around?
Dr. Kissinger: In Vietnam or here?
Mr. Diem: On the problem of the withdrawal of the North Vietnamese forces, taking account of all the factors, Washington’s position and North Vietnam’s position, our position, etc. Is there any willingness on their part for them to be regrouped in two or three zones?
Dr. Kissinger: You know they are SOBs. Excuse me for using that language. We are not talking about nature’s noblemen. They are the most miserable bastards. I have had a concentrated course for three years. I have never seen people who could lie so much. They are totally treacherous.
Maybe if we fought for another two or three years we could get regroupment. Our painful judgment in October, given the total situation we faced, our domestic situation and the fact that we have been living off the fact that the Soviet Union and China were both not interfering too much … If either turned against us our domestic situation would have become totally unmanageable. For all these reasons, unsatisfactory as the agreement even seemed to us, we thought it was a better way to maintain support than the other route. In any event under the other alternative, that of continuing the war, this would still keep North Vietnamese troops in your country.
Thus the agreement buys time.
Messrs. Diem/Do/Phuong: It would provide a new basis for continuing U.S. support.
Dr. Kissinger: That is still our firm intention. (To Phuong) Mr. Ambassador, will you be in Paris next week?
Ambassador Phuong: I am afraid I will not be able to come. Ambassador Lam can maintain contact with Ambassador Sullivan.
Dr. Kissinger: They have three Ambassadors watching me in Paris.[Page 914]
Mr. Diem: I hope to join you there.
I talked at great length with President Thieu, and he understands frankly the vital necessity to stay close together.
Dr. Kissinger: We need to stay together.
Mr. Diem: We understand.
Dr. Kissinger: First, we have to stay together and secondly, you must know who your real friends are, who is needed to control the Congress and talk with the press and to make decisions and to control the bureaucracy. You must identify those people and not turn against them, the ones who, whatever disagreements there may be over the agreement, are essential to you.
I would use the demobilization provision never to implement the committee. You could say as long as you /North Vietnam/+4phave your troops here, we can’t have a political process. That is how I would do it. If there is no withdrawal of troops then you could say it is senseless to have a political process.
Ambassador Phuong: First of all, we need some language like one-to-one and return to their native places.
Dr. Kissinger: (To Diem and Do) How long are you here?
Messrs. Diem/Do: Two to three days. We hope to go to Paris after you.
Dr. Kissinger: Don’t believe a word the French tell you. I don’t tell the French my intentions so don’t believe any rumors.
Someone put out the word in Saigon that I told a Frenchman contemptuously who are these South Vietnamese? I have been told that this has been reported in Saigon.
Messrs. Diem/Do/Phuong: That is correct.
Dr. Kissinger: That is a totally outrageous lie. I never said that.
Ambassador Phuong: I am glad to know that.
Dr. Kissinger: I couldn’t have said that to the French, because I don’t wish to give the French our views. It is a total lie. No one certainly has said anything critical about your leadership.
We have been through so much together. I don’t have the feel, of course, for the situation like you do, but I know what the situation means to you.
Messrs. Do/Diem/Phuong: We are happy to hear what you have to say.
Dr. Kissinger: I have heard talk about it.
Ambassador Phuong: You were correctly informed.
Dr. Kissinger: Ninety percent of my time in Paris was spent on the troops. We could have been out of there on November 22nd if we didn’t bring up the question of troops.[Page 915]
Mr. Do: I know you were busy.
Ambassador Phuong: Just one clarification. The remark attributed to you was that you were not just talking about the troops question but the whole agreement.
Dr. Kissinger: That is even more ridiculous.
Messrs. Do/Diem/Phuong: They were talking about the future of the South Vietnamese.
Dr. Kissinger: I conducted two years of secret negotiations with Le Duc Tho. What was the issue? For a whole year he proposed a secret deal to overthrow your government. He said if we do this secretly everything else could be done. We could write any provisions we want. We rejected this. We went through the agony for three years until we finally achieved the integrity of the South Vietnamese Government. Why would I now make a contemptuous gesture?
(To Diem) You were here during Cambodia and Laos. If you collapse for whatever reason, even if it was your own fault and not our fault, our opponents would say why have you lost 30,000 men? Thus, for the most selfish reasons we are tied to your survival and integrity and the idea of being contemptuous is outrageous. We could have had a pleasant administration; instead we had 300,000 demonstrators, and I have had to move out of my apartment because of the demonstrators outside. Therefore, don’t believe these stories. Things are difficult enough already. Don’t believe them. Please report this to your government.
Ambassador Phuong: Certainly. On these two points I am glad you brought them up. On the second one I didn’t know as much.
Dr. Kissinger: I heard about it indirectly.
Ambassador Phuong: Your theory about blocking China I strongly disputed because of my own analysis.
Dr. Kissinger: Look at the India/Pakistan war. Why did we support Peking? Because we thought that India was dominated by the Soviet Union, and we didn’t want all of Asia Soviet-dominated. Why therefore would we cooperate on Indochina with the Soviet Union?
Mr. Diem: One last question. We realize fully well all the difficulties. The media is very active, and this is a very sensitive week. We are trying to avoid them.
Dr. Kissinger: You should avoid saying anything critical against the Administration.
Mr. Diem: We won’t say anything.
Dr. Kissinger: Do you want to say you were here?
Messrs. Do/Diem: They already know that.[Page 916]
Dr. Kissinger: It was nice to see you again.2
(At this point the meeting broke up cordially. The South Vietnamese left to get their car and Dr. Kissinger took them to the exit. They met Egon Bahr from Germany on the way out.)
- 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 at the White House.↩
- Bui Diem later wrote about the meeting: “Kissinger’s tone that morning was sharp, his mood defensive.” He continued: “When I told him that although the troop problem [that North Vietnamese forces would remain in the South after a cease-fire] was perhaps not so important to the United States, it was a matter of life and death for us, he answered again that he understood, that he would put it on the table again and do what he could. But this seemed to me a ritual response, uttered without any discernible conviction.” Diem concluded: “It was a disheartening meeting, devoid of any sign that Kissinger felt strong enough after the Christmas bombing to open up a new area in the talks, scheduled to reconvene in three days.” (Diem, In the Jaws of History, p. 310)↩