224. Minutes of the Secretary of State’s Regionals Staff Meeting1


(The meeting was convened at 8:31 a.m., Secretary of State Kissinger presiding as Chairman.)

Secretary Kissinger: I’ve got to make it a fairly short meeting. I want to make a few observations about yesterday evening’s speech.2

I think we all know that Viet-Nam has been a national tragedy and that the phasing out in Viet-Nam and Cambodia is probably the last act of a national tragedy. And in doing this we have to keep in mind many factors. We have to keep in mind how we are perceived by the Vietnamese because that involves 6,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who had every reason to believe that they were working with a more or less permanent institution.

It matters how we’re perceived by other countries, whether the United States just walks away and won’t even give ammunition to people who have fought with them. And, finally, it depends on how we are perceived by our own people, not just in the headlines of the day but when the mothers ask themselves what they lost 50,000 people for.

So for all of these reasons, we have to do what is right, no matter how unpopular it is. And what is right at this moment seems to us to put ourselves into a position where no matter what happens in Viet-Nam, we retain some influence over events. If the President last night had said what so many Congressmen say he should have said—namely, “We’ve done enough; we can no longer give military aid,” I think Phil Habib will agree there will be a total uncontrollable, chaotic collapse in Saigon starting this morning. Once the President decided he was not going to do nothing, he might just as well ask for what the rights on this are because the opposition on the Hill is not hinged on a figure; it’s hinged on the principle. And it didn’t make any sense to ask for the $300 million which was already necessary when there was no emergency. He had done that. And the opposition on the Hill—I don’t know whether Phil agrees with me—wouldn’t have been significant if we had passed the supplemental immediately.

[Page 795]

On the contrary, they would have said, “That’s what you asked for in January. How could it possibly make sense under conditions of collapse?” So if you look at it from the point of view of the President and of an Administration that has a long-term responsibility, I think you will come to the conclusion—at least, we came to the conclusion—that we had these choices: We could do nothing. We could ask for the 300 million supplemental. We would ask for the 300 million supplemental and say, “We’ll be back for the other 500 million in a few weeks if this 500 million stays.” Or we could ask for the full amount now. “We want to get the debate over with. We won’t ask for the 300 million now and then come back for 500 million later.”

Phil Habib is going to be testifying between now and Christmas, and it does not change the nature of the situation in any significant respect.

I repeat: Whatever outcome around this table is preferred, there’s a military outcome that’s got to be that amount. If there’s to be a negotiated outcome, it’s got to be that amount, because only a negotiated outcome—because only some fear of the North Vietnamese that we might reenter might induce them to give slightly tolerable terms. If there’s an evacuation, we’d have to go there too. So whatever option we were going to follow, we had no choice.

Moreover, the President feels very strongly, and I feel very strongly, that in this crisis of democracy which we are facing, the Executive must be perceived to have done the right thing and have asked for the right thing—and done something that it can justify.

Bob, you were at the NSC meeting3

Mr. Ingersoll: Yes.

Secretary Kissinger: —and you know that these decisions weren’t lightly taken. So I want you to understand that this is not just a minor matter to us and that in this vicious debate that is now going on in America how we are perceived by other countries is of no insignificant proportion.

Now, I happen to believe that the news reports we get about how other countries don’t care and are glad we’re getting out of South Viet-Nam are total balderdash. The countries that are most concerned have the least reason to tell us that they’re concerned, especially in print. And, besides, the question is usually wrong because no one gives one goddam about Saigon; and if Saigon had gone ten years ago, there isn’t a European who would know where it is much less—but the conclusion, as the United States winds up a ten-year effort, can only [Page 796]reflect on our wisdom, our competence, our reliability, our steadiness, our strength—all of which they depend on.

Well, I have said all of this because I know there are many people in the Department who have had very strong feelings against the Viet-Nam war. I’m trying to suggest that it’s no longer now a question of whether you are for or against the Viet-Nam war for, in my judgment, it’s going to come to a conclusion within the foreseeable future, but it has more to do with the dignity and self-respect of the United States—and, above all, with our ability to conduct an effective foreign policy after it is over—and whether we are perceived by other nations to be steady and strong and capable. And that’s going to be our big task in this Department. We will have to conduct a somewhat sterner foreign policy now.

We’re going to assess what we should do. That’s not the issue. But what I do want for the immediate future is that all brilliant intellects that are assembled in this Department constrain their flights of fancy and concentrate on the gravity of the problem and not say that the sum the President should have requested is $687.50 million or that he made a horrible mistake by going for this sum or plead all over the place about how they don’t want a debate on the many variations of offers, of many ideas that we can think of. But, on the whole, every time that I argue the point, when I think the Department is really getting good morale, somebody leaks something that makes me question it.

But assuming this meeting had taken place before the Carlucci leak, I would say—I mean, we’ve done well in these months. Let’s get your Bureaus behind this thing. And let those of us who have to testify do it with dignity and conviction because I think we did the best thing that could be done.

Now, when I say this, it’s not addressed to Phil Habib, who’s been a hero, and for whom this must be more heartbreaking than anyone else, because I remember him in 1965 when all of this started and he tried to put it together. And I think he deserves all our gratitude for what he’s done. But for the many people in each of our Bureaus who no doubt have strong views on the subject, let them remember now that it’s not a time for gimmicks. This thing is not going to go its course; its course is reasonably predictable. And what we are trying to do is to manage it with dignity and to preserve a basis for which we can conduct the foreign policy, in which people can have some confidence in us.

That’s what’s now at stake for us.

Phil, do you want to add anything to this?

Mr. Habib: No, sir. You’ve done it. I agree with everything you’ve said. We’re going to get a very difficult time from the Hill, but I think—

[Page 797]

Secretary Kissinger: You know, I just had breakfast with Hubert Humphrey and he said, “I was proud of you. That was the right thing to do, but I can’t support you.”

Mr. Habib: He won’t support it.

Secretary Kissinger: You know, there’s an ambivalent feeling.

Mr. Sisco: Well, Henry, a number of these people I think do have consciences, but I don’t think that from Humphrey

Mr. McCloskey: Why the hell didn’t he do that last night?

Secretary Kissinger: They would have beaten us to death if we had come in with a figure of $287 million and ten cents. Every argument that I heard on television last night was as valid against one dollar as against $700 million—

Mr. McCloskey: That’s right.

Secretary Kissinger: —because if we had given too much aid, then the amount is totally irrelevant.

Mr. Habib: I think we’re going to get two principal arguments: No. 1, “We’ll give you what you want for humanitarian purposes.” That salves their consciences. The second thing they’re going to do is say, “Of course, if you get rid of Thieu and you get a peaceful settlement—you know, something to tide you over—that would be a different matter.” And as things get rougher on the ground as they will, we’ll get more and more of the latter argument that’s going to come up. There will be people who will try to find a way to negotiate for you a political settlement—which is nothing but, you know, but a turn toward the terms for the VC.

It may come to that. It is a way in which you can sort of cut it off with the least hardship—but that will be something that the Vietnamese will discover for themselves.

Secretary Kissinger: Phil, if we have learned anything, it is that people do not give you credit for carrying out what they said they wanted when you do it. For all of us who negotiated the agreement in 1972 [1973], if there was one message that everyone said to us it was “Just get us the hell out of there.” If we were criticized for anything, it was for holding out for too stiff terms. Everyone said, “Just get us the hell out of there. We’ll pay any amount. We’ll do anything.” Does it keep anyone today from saying, “The agreement was a disaster”?

I’m not concerned about the personal situation; I’m concerned about what the American people will think even the 85 percent who now want us out, when it’s all gone and when their government has cooperated in killing off the people with whom it fought for ten years whom it put into office—whose country was torn up—the millions of whom it killed—I know all these arguments; we’ll get all these arguments. And many of the people who make them deep down know they’re wrong and are trying to vindicate themselves.

[Page 798]

We have no choice except to persist. We’ve put a cutoff date on it. So at least the agony is terminal. And it’s not compromisable because, you know, if they say to us, “Will you take 600 million?” you know damn well, Bill, no matter what they give us, the probability is that not 30 percent of it could get to Viet-Nam before the next phase occurs. Don’t you think so, Bill?

Mr. Hyland: The next phase has already started.

Secretary Kissinger: We’re not talking about it. We’re not talking about money that is likely to be spent. We’re talking about how the United States is likely to be perceived around the world after a ten-year effort, and that is not a matter of indifference. Right now, the Soviets are scared that in our frustration we will react violently. But then the Soviets catch on that we become so weak that not only do we react violently but we sort of wallow in our defeat and that far from lashing out at them we sort of draw the lesson, say “That’s a pretty good thing, you know, once you get defeated.”

I heard yesterday, “You’ve got to give aid to Israel because they win their wars, but we can’t give aid to other countries that are losing their wars.” Well, on that goddam theory it’s a wonder that the Soviets are not in Bonn already. On that theory the Nazis would have taken over the world.

So it’s not a minor problem. It has really now become a major moral issue, how we stand.

We’re going to lose; there’s not a chance of our winning on the Hill. And there would have been no chance of winning on the Hill no matter what we asked for—let’s not kid ourselves.

Mr. Habib: If I had thought there were, I would have persuaded you to ask for less, but I don’t think that’s the issue.

Secretary Kissinger: Phil, you weren’t getting a cent of the 300 million—

Mr. Habib: No.

Secretary Kissinger: —and if we had said immediately, “Give us the supplemental,” the next question would have been: “Mr. Habib, will you kindly explain to us how $300 million is essential when whatever is good could have been the right amount? And if you know it’s not the right amount, why in God’s name are you asking us to give an inadequate amount?” And if you had said, “We’ll ask for $400 million now and 300 million later,” the mere fact that these Congressmen would have had to vote twice in three months would have been enough to drive them crazy. And if we had asked for 300 million and gone to Thieu and said, “Listen, boy, you needed 300 million in January and we’ve come now, after several weeks of study at an NSC meeting, and we have concluded that by some miracle the 300 million you need before [Page 799]an offensive is just the amount you need after an offensive,” that would have collapsed Saigon.

So we have no choices. And if we’re not going to get it, we might just as well not get the right amount.

Mr. Habib: I think we’re going to get something out of some of the committees, but a floor fight is bad. We ought to think about how we’re going to fight the battle in the committees first.

Secretary Kissinger: We’re not going to be vicious. We’re not going to accuse anybody of having been wrong. I have no intention, when this thing is over, of turning it into a vendetta and going around the country. I think people are going to feel badly when it’s over. I don’t think there are going to be many heroes left in this. But this Department, as long as I’m in it, is now going to stand for what’s right. We have no other choice in the world. We are in a very difficult situation. We have lost an enormous amount of prestige. Is there any Assistant Secretary who doubts this?

Bill, do you think in Latin America this is not an enormous reflection on us?

Mr. Rogers: It is.

Secretary Kissinger: And quite apart from this, they don’t give a damn who owns South Viet-Nam. If we had never been in there, I don’t think it would have made any bloody difference to them. It is an enormous reflection on us. We’ve got to put our foreign policy together now again. We’ve got to be a country again that people will be proud to be associated with, which I do not believe is the case today.

We’re a country that some countries have to be associated with. Unfortunately for them, in their perception, what do they have to be proud to be associated with us the way it was in the Kennedy period and the way it was even at some periods a few years ago? I don’t see that. And that means that this Department has to reduce its masochistic instincts—if I may say so—for a bit, and those of you who leak your Bureaus—I mean, we should try to instill some of this ideal for the next few weeks and not have everybody run around emoting and get across that we’re—

Mr. Habib: The problem for the Department is that they get sniped at from other places in town.

Secretary Kissinger: I know.

Mr. Habib: It’s disgraceful the way other people are sniping at us from other places in town. The White House people are trying to make it out as if they had a lock on wisdom all along. Defense—the Pentagon—is trying to tell us that if we don’t do certain things fast enough, God help us. If they have an accident, they’re going to blame us.

[Page 800]

Secretary Kissinger: No doubt. The Pentagon has said, “It’s your fault.” I’ve heard it three times.

Mr. McCloskey: The story in the Post is that Dean called in and asked for the authority and was routed to the Pentagon.

Mr. Habib: And that we delayed. The Pentagon put out a statement to the wire services that they wanted to move faster and that we—the State Department—were delaying the matter.

Secretary Kissinger: Why was it delayed, as a matter of fact?

Mr. Habib: It was delayed because Dean came in with a message saying, “I can’t do it at this time,” and all his military advisers agreed.4 And I told that to Schlesinger. I talked to Schlesinger twice yesterday in accordance with your instructions. I said, “I have to trust the judgment of the man on the ground.” He said, “He needs 24 more hours’ time. I’m going to give him 24 more hours.”

Secretary Kissinger: You did the right thing, Phil. There is absolutely no question that what is going on in town now is that everyone is trying to position himself.

Mr. Habib: And I’m beginning to get calls from generals over there saying, “Why do you have to have helicopters? Why don’t you use the airport? The airport is open.” Christ, the airport is being shelled every minute! I said, “O.K., John. You’re the man.” Finally, I called Dean yesterday, I want you to understand.

Secretary Kissinger: Look, Phil. Everything you did you did on my orders, and I’m fully responsible—

Mr. Habib: Within the terms of your guidance.

Secretary Kissinger: —and I’m fully responsible for it, and what you did is absolutely the right thing.

Mr. Habib: At one stage evidently the military was sending messages out telling him to do it differently, and I said to him he was to abide. I called him on the telephone saying, “Look, you’re to abide by the orders from us.”

Secretary Kissinger: Everyone can say—I’ve gone through this Viet-Nam thing many, many times.

Mr. Lord: Someone has got to get control over the White House. This is distressingly familiar.

Mr. Eagleburger: We’re being described as the toughest people in town. It doesn’t happen very often! (Laughter.)

Secretary Kissinger: I haven’t seen today’s press.

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Mr. McCloskey: There’s none of that in today’s press; but for two days before the speech there were stories about an intramural fight and that we were the heavies, personified by you, and the guys over there were in the white hats and they were trying to tell the President to be moral about it. (Laughter.)

Secretary Kissinger: That’s true. And, after all, we all know what the President did. Moreover, it doesn’t make a goddam bit of difference, because a year from now no one will know who was up, who was down—what the issue was. Believe me, a year from now all this crap that’s being put out will not make any difference. All that will make any difference is whether somebody steered a steady course. And what this country needs now is to look at some people and be able to say, “By God, they tried to do the national interest.” And if that’s the worst charge they’re going to make against the Department, we are well on the road to becoming the preeminent institution in this thing that we ought to be.

We’ve got a massive problem in the Middle East; we’ve got a massive problem in Southeast Asia. There’s no way we can survive it by being tactical. I know all these guys around town and I know their position—that if one guy breaks a leg in the evacuation it will be our fault. We’ll just have to take that.

O.K.; I’ve got to see the President.5

Mr. Ingersoll: Let me say one thing on this matter of parole. We’ve got people out who are going to this country. May we go to the committees and talk about that now?

Secretary Kissinger: Yes.

Levi is positioning himself too.

Mr. Ingersoll: I know.

(Whereupon the Secretary’s staff meeting was concluded at 8:51 a.m.)

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Transcripts of Secretary of State Kissinger’s Staff Meetings, 1973–1977, Entry 5177, Box 7, Secretary’s Staff Meetings. Secret. Kissinger chaired the meeting, which was attended by all the principal officers including the assistant secretaries for the regional but not functional bureaus of the Department or their designated alternates. List of attendees attached but not printed.
  2. See Document 217.
  3. See Document 212.
  4. Document 216.
  5. Kissinger met with the President from 9:12 to 10:10 a.m. They discussed, among other things, Sihanouk’s possible return to Cambodia and whether the Ambassador should stay behind after the evacuation from Phnom Penh. The memorandum of conversation is in the Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversations, Box 10.