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

220. Ref: Hakto 32.2

Two hour meeting with Thieu, which began at 0800, was postponed from yesterday and followed his emotional telephone call last night in which he accused members of Kissinger’s and Haig’s staffs and Embassy personnel of leaking statements concerning peace proposals to political personalities here. Meeting began with Thieu in tense and highly emotional state. He spoke in Vietnamese with Nha acting as interpreter. The frankness of the discussion on both sides, however, brought the problems and issues more clearly into focus and Thieu’s attitude became more relaxed as we examined the alternatives before us. We both left with impression we had finally made a breakthrough.
Dr. Kissinger began by expressing his amazement at Thieu’s telephone call the previous night, and fact that Thieu should have suspected that he and General Haig had incited their staffs to undermine Thieu’s position in the light of the support which Thieu had been given by the President, Dr. Kissinger and General Haig despite the strongest kind of bureaucratic, Congressional, and public opposition. Never had he, as a representative of the President, been subjected to such treatment as he had experienced here in the last four days—nor as indeed the Ambassador had experienced in the last month. We believe that in our support of President Thieu and the GVN we have together achieved great success. We have gone to great lengths to secure planes—to Iran, to Korea, to ROC—and we are providing additional equipment to ensure the survival of the GVN and Thieu himself. Our purpose is to make peace together, to work out an agreement to this end and to determine a common strategy.
Dr. Kissinger read the message which he had received from the President in which the President said that after close study of the agreement he believed it was in the best interests of both of us to accept it; [Page 241] gave assurance of his support to Thieu; welcomed a joint meeting after our elections; and said that he believes the current proposal offers the best chance for peace and the opportunity in the spirit of Midway to go ahead together.3

Kissinger said he had not read the President’s message earlier in order to avoid the appearance of pressuring or armtwisting. While it is true that we have moved at a somewhat accelerated pace, we have done so to avoid having Hanoi present a plan which we would have been forced to accept. The idea that we would come here to undermine Thieu or the GVN is simply beyond comprehension. Dr. Kissinger had agreed to the schedule which he had mentioned to President Thieu at the first meeting4 and to continue discussions in Hanoi because he believed it would induce Hanoi to make concessions. This had, in fact, occurred. Hanoi’s interview with de Borchgrave was admittedly a breach of confidence and the fact is that we have no more trust in the Communists than Thieu. As a result of developments here and in Hanoi, however, Dr. Kissinger has cancelled his earlier appointment. We now face two alternatives:

We can work during the next two days on changes which seem practicable; in this case he would send a message to Hanoi pointing out that some changes are needed, or
He can return to Washington in which case Hanoi will undoubtedly publish the full plan.

We can delay matters by attributing our delay to technical problems which still require to be worked out, but the main problem this poses is that a settlement which can now be claimed as a victory will then be distorted as having been dragged out of us.

President Thieu responded by saying that last night when he telephoned, he was holding a Cabinet meeting to issue prompt directives to cope with the flagrant activities of the Communists in the countryside. [garble—The] Communists knew of the agreement and some members of the opposition were spreading rumors and leaking some essential points about it. He had confidence in the accuracy of his intelligence. The interview by de Borchgrave was proof that Hanoi did not respect their agreement with us, and were in fact paving the way for a coup or an offensive immediately after a cease-fire. Some Americans here might be acting for their own motives or perhaps had been bought off.
He (Thieu) had appointed a task force to present the GVN suggestions to us. Subsequently the Vice President5 had convened the National Security Council to study the points presented by the task force and our response to them at the morning session. Today Thieu plans to convene the National Security Council to hear a complete report on the status of the proposals.
To Dr. Kissinger’s query as to which course Thieu believed we should pursue, the latter said he would answer in a direct, frank manner. He does not know the needs of the United States or the facts of our relations with the Soviets or China, nor does he know all that went on in Paris. He is understanding of our problems but there are two things which the GVN and the people of South Viet-Nam cannot accept: 1) The presence of North Vietnamese troops in South Viet-Nam. They will be considered a Trojan Horse available for military and political action against the South Vietnamese people, and 2) While under the proposed agreement it can be said that internal political matters are left to the South Vietnamese people and the GVN can agree to the National Council of Reconciliation and Concord, it cannot agree to a composition of three equal segments. If Hanoi chooses to publish these proposals, everyone in South Viet-Nam, except a small minority, will oppose them—but the minority will be eliminated.
The issue is the life and death of South Viet-Nam and its 17 million people; in the U.S., the issue is to support President Thieu or to abandon him. We should not pay attention to his own personal position, but he does not know how he can accept these two points as they stand. He must abide by the Constitution; if he accepts the two points he is sure the people will not accept them.
Dr. Kissinger pointed out that the North Vietnamese forces have been greatly reduced in number, can easily be dealt with by the numerically vastly superior GVN forces which outnumber the enemy by at least a ratio of 11 to 2, that infiltration is prohibited and that the enemy forces will be reduced by attrition. Moreover, Pham Van Dong himself has referred to the NCRC as an “electoral commission” and it should be treated with irrelevancy. Dr. Kissinger said that we are conscious of Thieu’s great patriotism and are committed to the preservation of his Presidency. The attraction of the proposed agreement is that it will do this whereas we are now fearful that he is embarked on a course which leads to great danger.
We have obtained concessions from Hanoi which we had heretofore believed impossible. For example, they have accepted our proposals on Cambodia, including withdrawal; Thieu’s resignation has [Page 243] been superceded by the present agreement; our draft concerning prisoners in Laos and Cambodia has been accepted; and we believe there is a 50–50 chance that they will accept a change in the tripartite composition of the NCRC. The tragedy we now face, however, is the fact that if the plan becomes public, Congress will certainly cut off aid. We are already $4 billion and by January will be $6 billion in the hole because of added costs of the war. We believe that if we present this proposal as a victory we can prevail; if not all that we have striven for will be lost.
Dr. Kissinger received at this point text of the President’s letter (which he read to President Thieu) in which the President urged Thieu to give his most careful consideration to our proposals—that rejection would have the most serious effect on the President’s ability to provide support.6
Thieu asked about the replacement of weapons. Dr. Kissinger pointed out that in Article 7 “equality” had been rejected by us and that we had also deleted “for purposes of peace”. Both of these changes had been accepted by the other side. Hanoi had also dropped their position on the release of all civilian prisoners; dropped the provision for formation of the NCRC in 15 days, and for the holding of elections in six months.
We are taking other measures to back up the GVN, such as keeping our entire air force in Thailand and propose destruction of the Chup plantation in order to destroy the enemy’s base area; and to speed up our expenditures in Laos.
Dr. Kissinger reiterated that we want to preserve him (Thieu) because we think he is essential to the future of South Viet-Nam. The contradiction we now face is that the North has lost the war and acts as if it has won, while the South has won the war and acts as if it has lost. We must give the impression that we are dominating events; that we have achieved politically our January 25 proposals and militarily our May 8 proposals.
Thieu replied that he had considered all that Dr. Kissinger had said and will now have to report to the National Security Council. He cannot give a definite answer to the question of what strategy Dr. Kissinger should pursue because he does not know all U.S. interests—this he must leave to President Nixon.
In Viet-Nam the timing of a cease-fire is not as important as its terms. If there is no provision concerning withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops, Thieu said that he could sign the agreement and then attempt to force the National Assembly and the military to accept it. He could not, however, sign without notifying the National Assembly and [Page 244] the military. Under the GVN Constitution the National Assembly must agree to any peace settlement. He does not know just how to solve this problem.
Dr. Kissinger responded that he is convinced there is no possibility of doing anything about the withdrawal of NVN forces. Thieu, however, can give the provision (9 h) a unilateral interpretation stating that the GVN reserves its rights with respect to the North Vietnamese forces. He believes, however, there is a 50–50 chance of getting agreement on the composition of the CNRC. Dr. Kissinger said that he would now send a message to Hanoi saying he is in Phnom Penh and cannot give an answer regarding his arrival there. This will provide 12 hours grace. Dr. Kissinger repeated that if he does go to Hanoi it will be with a minimum of publicity; he will meet with no one except leaders and Thieu should announce that he has gone with Thieu’s concurrence. We should also issue a statement to the press saying there is no disagreement between us.
On the other hand, if he returns to Washington he will have to spend all his time explaining why we have rejected the agreement. In the meantime, all of the additional equipment we have promised is moving. In announcing our agreement to the peace proposal, we would say again that we recognize only the GVN as the legitimate government in South Viet-Nam, our support of President Thieu, and that President Nixon has invited him to meet with him after our elections. President Thieu can declare the cease-fire subject to the National Assembly ratification. On the other hand, if Dr. Kissinger returns to Washington and we attempt a holding action, it can be for three weeks at the most and we would then face a worse situation.
Thieu replied that he has been trying to avoid the kind of situation that we ran into in 1968. He has convened members of the National Assembly and politicians to inform them of developments in order to avoid a confrontation. He has been asked provocative questions which he has avoided answering and hopes that we can have some influence on the foreign press. Dr. Kissinger reiterated that none of us have talked to the foreign press, that the press is violently opposed to President Nixon and to President Thieu, that the American press has a vested interest in defeat in Viet-Nam. One reason we want an agreement is to confound the attitude of the press and liberal opinion in the U.S.
Thieu then said we would meet again at 1700 this afternoon. There is little question that Thieu is more keenly aware of the dangers of a confrontation with us and that a meeting of the minds is essential. We both left the meeting more encouraged that Thieu will be trying to find a way through his problems.
I know that there has been concern about the enemy’s intentions to mount a high point during October. There is, however, a large gap between the enemy’s intentions and his present capabilities. We have reviewed the situation countrywide with each of the OSA regional chiefs and with OSA Director. We have also reviewed the situation with General Weyand. Our conclusion is that despite Communist instructions and efforts by the enemy to carry out these instructions, he has been unable to do so effectively and has suffered heavy casualties in the effort.
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 backchannel message Hakto 32/210 from Saigon, October 22, 0240Z, Kissinger wrote to Haig: “We have just finished two-hour meeting with Thieu that was tense and highly emotional. However, I think we finally made a breakthrough and can keep original schedule with his support. Bunker will send you a full account.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 59, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Trips, Kissinger, Henry, 1972, October, Chronological File)
  3. See footnote 2, Document 34.
  4. See Document 32.
  5. Tran Van Huong.
  6. See the attachment in Document 39.