33. Telephone Conversation Between President Nixon and the White House Chief of Staff (Haig)1

Nixon: Hi, Al. I wondered if you had any further thoughts on it after—in reviewing the intelligence on the things? From what I see, I don’t see anything changed from what you told me.

Haig: No.

Nixon: It doesn’t seem to—in fact, if anything, it seems to have tapered off considerably. But I don’t know. But maybe the first reports were wrong; maybe the second are wrong. [Laughs] What’s your view?

Haig: Well, my view is that there is slightly less reason for, for quick action. But I think we ought to hold off on that decision another 24 hours.

Nixon: Um-hmm. The problem that I have with it, actually, is this: that I don’t know whether the action, at this point—whether the provocation is adequate. That’s—you see what I mean? I don’t—I never—

Haig: Right.

Nixon: —never have any damn doubt about action, but you just can’t just get up and do something because of a whim, or what appears to be a whim.

[Page 153]

Haig: No, I think we ought to, ought to watch it very carefully. I know that they’re intensely trying to look for any changes in the status quo, one way or the other.

Nixon: You mean the intelligence people?

Haig: Yes, yeah. We just haven’t gotten anything, and I don’t think we really have enough to make a decision here—

Nixon: Yeah. What is—now, I haven’t bothered Henry. He’s in Mexico, isn’t he?2

Haig: Yes, sir.

Nixon: Yeah. And—

Haig: He’s there, and he’s—he’s watching the thing. I’ve talked to Scowcroft

Nixon: Yeah.

Haig: —and he said that Henry’s inclination is to—just to watch it. Although he’s still inclined to think we’re going to have to do something.

Nixon: Yeah.

Haig: I just finished 45 minutes with Ambassador Phuong, who—

Nixon: Yeah.

Haig: —just came back from Saigon.

Nixon: Yeah.

Haig: And, I was quite encouraged by the discussion. One, he said that, that they’re very confident—the South Vietnamese. Two, that the morale of the South Vietnamese military is high and, and, and strong. And, three, that he doesn’t believe that they have any intentions of seriously upsetting this thing, but that he thinks they’re going to just keep pressing in every direction to see what they can get away with.

Nixon: Yeah. I see. The problem I have, Al, actually is that it gets down to the point that I don’t want to be influenced in this by the sort of the bravado type of thing, which, you know—

Haig: That’s right.

Nixon: —psychosis, which Henry goes through at times. You know? I mean, having, you know—the idea that, well, we’ve said we might do something, and now we’ve got to do something. Well, we don’t have to do a goddamn thing, you know. [Laughs] You understand what I mean?

Haig: [unclear]

Nixon: Now, if—so, we mustn’t do it simply because—in order to prove that what he has told Dobrynin and others and so forth that [Page 154]we’ve got to demonstrate. You see, even if, on the other hand, there is an action—I mean, if there’s—we just got to have some pretty solid stuff. But—

Haig: Well, I don’t—

Nixon: And, actually, I don’t know. From him—from his sitting down, there, I don’t know whether his judgment isn’t going to be all that good on it, as on an up-to-date matter.

Haig: No, I don’t, sir. I don’t either, and that’s one of the odd—oddities of this current moment.

Nixon: Yeah, it is. Isn’t it?

Haig: If he really—

Nixon: Yeah?

Haig: —feels that something must be done, then he should be back here—

Nixon: Yeah.

Haig: —when it is done. That, I have no question about. But, I would say that—what I would do, sir, is I’d just watch this again.

Nixon: If there’s nothing, certainly, then, we’ll wait 24 hours and—

Haig: That’s right. We have, we have time. We have four or five more days, and, and it wouldn’t make an awful lot of difference if it happens in the, in the midst of the other thing.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Haig: If, if—

Nixon: Yeah, the whole point is that—yeah, there are other reasons, though, to—we may have to take the, take the good of it at—well, while we can. I—if I really thought—look, here’s the other point that we have to have in mind, Al, that, that—so we say we’d do this in order to indicate that, maybe, we’d do something later. Well, now, there’s been enough written, and it’s quite on the mark, by even our friends, like an Alsop3 and others, that—to the effect that, well, after we get everybody out, and after we’ve withdrawn everything, then you damn near have to get congressional approval to do something.

Haig: Yes.

Nixon: You—you see that, don’t you?

Haig: Yes.

Nixon: You see, because we have a cease-fire, right?

Haig: That’s right.

Nixon: And for, for them just to up and say, “Now, because of this and that,” you say, “For what purpose are you doing it?” Well, you’re—[Page 155]for the purpose of [laughs]—you see? I’m—I think we have a—I think we’ve got a problem there that may not have occurred to Henry. I—it’s always occurred to me. I mean—

Haig: It’s a real problem.

Nixon: And, of course, we have, as you know, we’ve assured Thieu that we would do things. But, do you have any serious doubts in your own mind that we’d really—we would really have to go to their aid, in this case, with—if—let’s face it: one of the reasons we were able to do what we were able to do is because they had the prisoners, and we had some troops there. Now, when they’re all out, when all the prisoners are out, you’re going to have one hell of a time.

Haig: That’s right.

Nixon: I mean, without going to the Congress, right?

Haig: No, I agree with that, sir—

Nixon: Hitting the North, now—now in the—in—in—in the event—in the event there’s a massive reinstitution, and so forth, of the—of, of military actions, that’s something else again. But—but I’m speaking now that, that, that the idea that, well, by doing something now, that indicates we might be trigger-happy late—later. I don’t think that argument is quite as strong as Henry has—see, he’s thinking as to how it used to be, and not as to how it will be, I think.

Haig: Well, that’s right, although there is something to be said for that, that logic. That, that [unclear]—

Nixon: That at that—I know, if we do something now. But my point is: it was more believable before, because we had people there. But, at, at a time when we don’t have anybody there, it’s going to be damn tough.

Haig: Yes. Absolutely.

Nixon: That’s the point. I mean, it’d mean—they’re, they’re smart enough to know that we will have to get some sort of approval. Well, in any event, I haven’t decided. We’ll take a look at it, and, and—

Haig: Yes, sir. I really don’t think it’s that crucial in terms of timing, because it’s not going to be that clean a difference.

Nixon: Well, look, it isn’t that clean of difference because it’s—

Haig: I think the whole thing will rest on our ability to justify, through provable violations that are serious in character.

Nixon: Well, the provable violations—what, what he’s basing everything on, at the present time, is the infiltration of equipment, correct?

Haig: That’s right, sir.

Nixon: Now, on that—

Haig: Individual replacements.

[Page 156]

Nixon: What?

Haig: Phuong told me he didn’t think—he thought these are—these were replacements to replace other people that are going to go back home.

Nixon: Well, they aren’t even allowed that, I guess, under the thing, are they?

Haig: No, they’re not—

Nixon: Yeah—

Haig: —but it certainly makes the character of the—

Nixon: Yeah. [Laughs]

Haig: [unclear]

Nixon: It doesn’t increase the threat, does it?

Haig: No.

Nixon: All right. Well, we’ll keep in touch. But, it is—I say, it is rather curious that—if Henry feels as strongly about it, that he’s there rather then here, too.

Haig: Well, it’s a nice insurance policy, and that’s what he’s thinking of. Of, you know—

Nixon: You mean an insurance policy in the sense of—

Haig: No longer [unclear]—

Nixon: —warning them?

Haig: Yes.

Nixon: Yeah, yeah.

Haig: It’s just that simple, I think.

Nixon: Yeah. But, you—but, you’re not convinced that it’s worth doing, yet?

Haig: No, I’m not. If, if—the indications are it’s less of a problem [unclear]—

Nixon: Yeah, than we—than it was last week?

Haig: That’s right.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation No. 37–170. No classification marking. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Nixon spoke to Haig on the telephone from 4:23 to 4:39 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The editor transcribed the portion of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. Kissinger was in Acapulco, Mexico, from March 17 to 26.
  3. Joseph Alsop, journalist and syndicated newspaper columnist.