34. Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft)1

Nixon: I was—sit down. I was wondering what the situation is with regard to our—infiltration, and so forth. [unclear] Henry’s back [unclear].

Scowcroft: Yes, sir.

Nixon: [unclear]

Scowcroft: Yes, there, there has.

Nixon: The point is—the question is: what are the provocations, exactly?

Scowcroft: Yes, and I think, I think the reduction is based on the climate season—

Nixon: Right.

Scowcroft: —rather than on—

Nixon: Yeah.

Scowcroft: —any representations that we have made.

Nixon: Yeah. Yeah.

Scowcroft: As near as we can figure out, their infiltration has been, this year, just like it was last year. And that there has been no—in other words, the cease-fire—the agreement, had no effect at all on what they’ve done. It is, apparently, tapering off.

Nixon: Yeah. What is it—has he—have you had any message from Henry as to what his present feeling about it is?2 He’s there?

Scowcroft: Yes. Yes, I have. He is inclined to think that maybe we should delay a day, instead of—I think [unclear] Thursday and Friday—Friday and Saturday.3 He’s afraid, I think, that if we don’t do something now, that we’ll be in worse shape next fall. And that this is, perhaps, the best time to send them a signal that’s unmistakable. There is a consideration that—about the Laos situation, and Ambassador Godley has, has pointed out to us that the 23rd is the date that the new Laotian Government is supposed to be formed.

[Page 158]

Nixon: That’s right.

Scowcroft: That—

Nixon: It’d be a pretty good—pretty bad time to hit them then.

Scowcroft: That’s what he says: that some Laotians want you to encourage a postponement to the 25th, or the 26th. There, apparently, may be some acceleration in the last POW release. The PRG have now recommended the—or, proposed the 25th—

Nixon: Yeah.

Scowcroft: —for theirs.

Nixon: The 25th?

Scowcroft: The 25th. That’s Sunday the coming week. Now—now, Henry doesn’t really think that a strike would interfere with the POW release.

Nixon: Of course, nobody knows.

Scowcroft: I think that the closer the two are together, the more difficult it makes it for them to, to go ahead with a release. But, I—

Nixon: But, in any event, he’s had some second thoughts about the terms, at least as far as the timing.

Scowcroft: Yes, he has. And, as a matter of fact, I—I’ve got here just, just a very brief paragraph, here.4 He says: “I believe Godley makes a good point with the possibility of time fouling—fouling up the Laotian negotiations. However, none of the considerations advanced last week have really changed,” which is, which is true. “I don’t believe the North Vietnamese decision on withdrawal will depend on one series of strikes. Another danger is that they will delay release of the POWs. The counter argument is that they would tend to be much more ruthless next fall. The President should be made aware of the Godley argument. We should not, in any case, go before Thursday night. My recommendation, on balance, would be that we go then.”

Nixon: That’s right.

Scowcroft: “The other possibility would be to do it next week, after the POWs are out.”

Nixon: Well, except that what Henry’s overlooking is the fact that it’s—I mean, this makes this one less effective, too. With the—the use of the—after they are out, the, the, the support, here, for any kind of strike is way down.

Scowcroft: It’s way down, and I think it also—

[Page 159]

Nixon: And it breaks the cease-fire, don’t you think?

Scowcroft: That’s right.

Nixon: Even though it’s in Laos.

Scowcroft: That’s right.

Nixon: The point is, therefore—also, the argument is that if you just—if you hit now, is that the idea being that, well, if you hit now, with the POWs still there, that sort of puts them on notice that, maybe, we might do it again. That’s going to evaporate, in, in my opinion. I mean, we have to be candid about what—what’s really going to happen, due to the fact that the Congress will, will insist upon an approval of any major strike—I mean, with any strikes—after the withdrawal is complete.

Scowcroft: I think I—that’s at least right—

Nixon: That’s now. But you maybe be able to do this, depending how the Congress will vote on the use of American air power. In other words, to help South Vietnam. Cambodia, we can get away with, for a while. Laos, not after the—if they get a cease-fire there, now. But, as far as the use of American air power against North Vietnamese forces coming into the South, unless there is a raw, naked invasion [unclear] it’d be terribly—it would be impossible, really, to get it without a Congressional uproar. You see, that’s the, the point of that. The, the argument that you can make—the, the arg—it’s, it’s a very nice argument to say that, “Well, by, by hitting now, we demonstrate that the President is the kind of guy who will use power.” Fine. It may demonstrate we’ll use it now, but it does not necessarily demonstrate we’ll use it later.

Scowcroft: No, the circumstances are—

Nixon: That’s the problem.

Scowcroft: —are very different.

Nixon: And the circumstances will be substantially changed, and that’s, that’s something we have to consider. So, the real question is whether it’s worth doing just by its own sake.

Scowcroft: Yes. I, I think that—

Nixon: By its own sake. Not because of the calling card for next November, but by its own sake; whether it’s really worth sending these planes over to knock out a few trucks and tanks, or whatever the hell they’ve got on those roads.

Scowcroft: Uh—

Nixon: I know. That’s the question.

Scowcroft: In terms of its military effect, I don’t think it is worth it.

Nixon: That’s the point.

Scowcroft: You know, we’d—

[Page 160]

Nixon: We’ve hit for years—

Scowcroft: —we’d hit them on the road for the first day or two, and, and—

Nixon: Yeah.

Scowcroft: —they would hurt modestly, but—

Nixon: Look, we’ve done it for years.

Scowcroft: —you know, we’re, we’re talking about a few more days of something to, to make up for what we’d lose in a—what they would lose in a—

Nixon: A strike. Right.

Scowcroft: —strike. I—I feel that, that if we’re going to strike, it, it really needs to be before the last POW release. So—

Nixon: Yeah, well, I think [unclear]—

Scowcroft: I think afterwards, as you say—

Nixon: Afterwards, I, I think all hell would break loose—

Scowcroft: Well, I do too—

Nixon: —here, for, for the strike. They’d say, “What the Christ are you doing it now for?”

Scowcroft: That’s right.

Nixon: Well, unless it was tied directly into something, something in Laos, like—

Scowcroft: Well, and that—and that’s not likely. We’re not likely to have any one, one incident around which we could coalesce—

Nixon: So—

Scowcroft: —support for a strike.

Nixon: —basically, let’s face it: this infiltration is not directed against Laos; it’s directed against South Vietnam.

Scowcroft: That’s right. That’s right.

Nixon: So, my point is: why do you do it, then? If you do it now, for what purpose? To let them know that, watch out, you’re going to lose it again? I guess you can’t. I don’t know. I don’t know whether it’s going to be very believable after the rash of stories that are [unclear] come out, without question. [unclear] the last American leaves there, the whole feeling of Congress and the country would be, “Now, for Christ’s sakes, we’re out of Vietnam. Let’s don’t go back in.” [unclear]—

Scowcroft: There’s no—there’s no—

Nixon: That’s right. And, I just don’t—I don’t—I don’t buy that argument. You know my thesis, and all, but that’s, that’s going to be the fact. [unclear]—

Scowcroft: There’s no, no question about that.

[Page 161]

Nixon: And—

Scowcroft: I think—

Nixon: See, Henry’s often—always is [unclear] thinks, well, we did it in December, and we’re clear. It was quite risky then. And it did work [unclear] difficult things.

Scowcroft: Um-hmm.

Nixon: Well, this time we wouldn’t—that we were interested in. To whit: POWs. That was a major difference [unclear]. Then, get a settlement.

Scowcroft: Yeah. That’s right.

Nixon: But, now, why are we doing it?

Scowcroft: Um-hmm.

Nixon: To guarantee the settlement? Of course, we’ve told Thieu we’d do it and all that. But, we’ve also told the American people that we’ve gotten them ready to defend themselves, and they’ve got an air force and all the rest, and they [the American people] say, “Why the hell don’t they [the South Vietnamese] do it?”

Scowcroft: Well, that, and—though, there’s no question about that. I think, on the other side, the argument would be that they obviously are pushing against the agreement. They’re, they’re testing—

Nixon: That’s right.

Scowcroft: —to see what they can get away with; to see how far they can go. And, that if we hit them now, we will have registered something with them that—

Nixon: Indicating that, maybe, we can be pushed too far.

Scowcroft: That’s right. And that, maybe, it would forestall them doing something later on, which they otherwise would do, having decided that they can get away with almost anything, because we didn’t react, this time.

Nixon: Right. That’s the argument.

[Omitted here is further conversation regarding Vietnam and Kissinger’s schedule.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation No. 885–6. No classification marking. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Nixon met with Scowcroft in the Oval Office from 5:45 to 5:59 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The editor transcribed the portion of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 33.
  3. March 22–25.
  4. Message Hakto 3 from Kissinger to Scowcroft, March 20; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 31, HAK Trip Files, March 12–16, 1973.