37. Telephone Conversation Between President Nixon and the White House Chief of Staff (Haig)1
Nixon: As you know, I’m leaving for California soon, and I just read a very ominous memorandum from Henry about his concern about the North Vietnamese buildup, and all that sort of thing, and so on.2
Haig: Right, sir.
Nixon: And at what’s happening in Cambodia. Now, you may recall when we made the decision last week not to do the Trail, Henry, at that time, was sort of pushing for it, but then he backed off some when they had that 23rd day—oh, you know, in Laos. I still think it was wise that we probably didn’t do that. I don’t know that we had the provoca—I mean, the—I mean, I don’t think we had the public provocation set up obviously. But I don’t know. What do you think?[Page 173]
Haig: I think that last week’s timing was not—
Nixon: It wasn’t the right time.
Haig: It wasn’t right. It just—
Nixon: Yeah, yeah.
Haig: It was an awfully tough one and—
Haig: —a tightly balanced one.
Nixon: Right. Everything is that. In any event, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. But, what is your present evaluation, Al, as to yourself as you look at the whole situation?
Haig: I’m getting increasingly concerned about Cambodia.
Nixon: Cambodia? But what about the—what about the thing—you see, these intelligence reports, you know, the thing you had talked about, now, they, they seem to be going almost overboard in the direction of indicating that everything is going to hell in a hat. I’m not—I don’t know that it—you know, they’ve—I, I—it’s just hard for—you—you know, you’ve been analyzing them. I don’t know. What—what do you see in the thing—?
Haig: Well, I—
Nixon: —and, incidentally, what the hell is the South doing? Good God, they’ve got a hell of a big army. I mean, yes, sir, are they—aren’t they doing a little fighting themselves?
Haig: Yes, they are—
Nixon: The number of incidents is actually down some, is it not? Or, not much, but—?
Haig: No, the incident rate has been slowly and very mildly decreasing.
Nixon: But only mildly, right. I noticed; that’s what I meant. Some, but just very slowly. Yeah.
Haig: But I think the, the danger is that there are a combination of reasons for it in Cambodia. There have been a series of violations across the board in Laos, South Vietnam, and, of course, no action at all in Cambodia, although we didn’t expect that, initially. The areas that worry me the most are the, are the broad applications of the overall agreement in Laos, and in South Vietnam, with infiltration, incidents, refusal to, to investigate. And this—when you combine that with what could be happening in Cambodia, it is reason for some concern. I—I really—I think it is. But I don’t think it’s a—it’s an immediate thing in the sense of we’ve got a crisis.
Haig: I think we have an obligation to take a look at every kind of leverage we can—[Page 174]
Haig: —apply to this.
Nixon: You see, the problem we’ve got, Al, here, is on the—that we, we mustn’t get into is the, the sort of the crisis mentality that, that like on Cambodia, that, well, we’ll start to, start to bomb on the—well, we’re bombing the hell, there, out of it already, you know.
Haig: That’s right.
Nixon: Good God, I don’t know. Are they hitting anything? What is the situation—?
Haig: Well, there are indications that they’re hitting it so hard that they’re driving a lot of the North Vietnamese into South Vietnam. You know, in that—
Nixon: That’s not good.
Haig: —[unclear] area. Well, no. That’s good, I think.
Nixon: It’s good to get them out of there, huh—?
Haig: It disrupts them, and it keeps them under pressure. And, it takes some of the heat off of Lon Nol.
Nixon: To what extent do you feel that—would you feel right now that we ought to start hitting the—well, I don’t mean like today, but maybe next week—start hitting the Panhandle again?
Haig: I—I wouldn’t discount that. No, I wouldn’t, sir. I think—the thing that I’m not aware of is what we’ve said to our customer up there in Hanoi. If we’ve given him good, strong warnings, I think—well, if we do anything, it’s got to be—we’ve got to make a lot of things evident to him that we’re nearing the breaking point.
Nixon: Yeah. Well, of course, I, I put a very strong warning in that speech last night.3
Haig: That’s right.
Nixon: And they can’t just ignore—ignore that.
Nixon: I think—I—strong warnings have gone, I can assure you. Private warnings—
Nixon: —goddamn strong.
Haig: Well, then, I—I, I think we should take a very careful look at all of the possible leverage we have. And, we don’t have to—it shouldn’t be done in a crisis atmosphere, but in a very steely way.[Page 175]
Nixon: See, we got this problem; you have to face it. We’ve got it growing, building up with the goddamn Congress, now. They all want to stop us doing anything in Cambodia.
Haig: That’s right.
Haig: We can’t do this justified on the Cambodian situation. The only way we’ll ever get away with anything, if there’s a decision to do it, is in the context of a sacred agreement—
Nixon: Well, the fact—I think we’ve got to do it, not to save Cambodia, but because they broke an agreement.
Haig: Exactly right.
Nixon: And that we are keeping an agreement, and that they violated an agreement, and we’re, therefore, continuing ahead. I think as long as it’s air operations, that people will generally support it, too.
Haig: Yes, I do too. I don’t think it—there would be a problem with—you know, if we had decided that earlier, that, if we hit Laos, or something. Hell, that’s not going to be much of a stir.
Nixon: Yeah, if—except that, before the POWs are out, the one problem, rather symbolically, that would have been very bad is that it—before they were out—that you’d lose some planes and have some more.
Nixon: You know?
Haig: And, I think a lot of people will—would say, “Well, you’re dumb—”
Haig: “—to have done it that—”
Nixon: That’s right.
Haig: “—that way.”
Nixon: But now, now, again, at this point, we can just have to take a damn hard look if these guys are willing to.
Haig: I think so. I think this—if it were, over time, to really seriously erode, the price would be incalculable. It just would be very serious. And that we’ve always played for enough time for other events to—just to—
Nixon: Overrun it, yeah.
Haig: —pull away from our, our obligations worldwide. And that’s what we’ve got to have. We’ve just got to have that.
Nixon: You can’t have it collapse, like, immediately.[Page 176]
Nixon: That’s the point. And, you sure, sure as hell can’t have it collapse. Well, as you know, we’ve been very tough with the Russians, and they claim they’re pulling the string, but I don’t know. I doubt it.
Haig: It—there sure isn’t an awful [laughs]—much sign of any, anything—
Nixon: Well, it’s—and, it, it, it maybe, maybe they’re pulling the string at the pipeline, but they’re—pulling the string, but the pipeline is so full, that it hasn’t had any effect yet.
Haig: Yes. Yeah. Well, I think we should do a very thorough job. Actually, Henry’s kicked one off in the WSAG.4 I’m not confident that it’ll be the best thing in the world, but—
Nixon: You mean a, a study?
Haig: Yes. It’s a—he’s formed a little interdepartmental group—
Nixon: Yeah, I know.
Haig: —to solve it.
Nixon: They won’t come out. That won’t do much. But, anyway, we’ve got to get something, and we’ll have to—we got to line up our, our forces within the government on this, Goddamnit.
Haig: This is right.
Nixon: As we can’t have any, any flinching once we—
Nixon: Now, now, one thing that’s been mentioned, as probably Henry’s talked to you, that I might, might, might want you to go out there to Cambodia and take a look.
Haig: Well, that’d be fine.
Nixon: I don’t know what the hell you—but what the hell are you going to find out? I mean, what can we do? They can’t—
Haig: It’s just the—
Nixon: They’ve got to get Lon Nol the hell out of there, some way or other, but you can’t overthrow him. But, but—
Haig: I don’t think we should rush on it in the context of the recent flurry on the Hill. It’ll just look like a—
Haig: And it will—
Nixon: I get your point.
Haig: —increase that syndrome, that we’re doing it for Cambodia.
Nixon: Right.[Page 177]
Haig: We don’t want that.
Nixon: You could go out and look at both.
Haig: That’s right.
Nixon: That’s what—you might just visit all the areas. That’s the way, I think, you’re—I mean, if you took a trip, I think you should visit all.5
Haig: That’s right. So, it’s just—
Haig: —just an overall assessment.
Nixon: That’s right. Fine. Well, certainly, if the DRV continues this kind of asshole stuff, which I—we, we, we [laughs]—we’re off the hook on the aid thing. That’s for damn sure.
Haig: Oh, yeah.
Nixon: And that’s, that’s—I don’t know if they want it or not. But, if they, if they do want it, good God, they are—they aren’t going to get it. Not—not as long as they’re rolling—doing this. And another thing, too, is that these POWs are now gonna be talking about how they’ve been lacerated, and—
Haig: Well, you see, that’s right. And that’s going to build up a hell of a—you know, among the average American, yesterday’s television, and this morning’s, is going to raise a hell of a lot of hackles with these monkeys, because this was brutal treatment. And, I don’t think you’re going to find a lot of people that are, are going to be patient with—patient with their, now, violating these agreements.
Nixon: If they’re in violation, no way.
Haig: That’s right.
Nixon: No way.
Haig: That’s why we have to—that’s the theme we have to use, and we have to start drawing attention to it where it’s happening. We did that last week. You gave a good shot last night. We’re looking at every possible military preparatory—
Haig: —in character. And that’s what we’re doing over here right now. We’re working on a paper—
Nixon: Right. Right, right. That’s—what’s Abrams’ evaluation? Or, is he—about the same as yours?[Page 178]
Haig: I, I think so. I think so. He—he’s concerned about it. He knows we can’t have the thing happen quickly, but he’s also—he, he doesn’t panic and doesn’t—
Nixon: He also knows—I guess what we got to also realize, Al, is that if Vietnamization meant anything, good God, the South Vietnamese, looking at their situation, ought to be able to do something here. I don’t know.
Haig: They could. There’s no question about that. And they’re, they’re—
Nixon: Hell, they’ve got—
Haig: —not going to get upset here in a, in a six-month period. It just couldn’t happen. They’re—
Nixon: Yeah, Henry was saying that he’s—in his memo this morning, I think he’s gone a little bit overboard. Here he says that he thinks that there might be even a North—a big Communist offensive in April. Hell, that’s, that’s three weeks—two weeks away.
Haig: Well, the Intelligence Community is—what CIA came in with—they said there could be—
Haig: —an offensive in April.
Nixon: Jesus. I just—I don’t—
Haig: Thieu will probably make that point to you.
Nixon: Yeah, so? So, what does he want us to do, send our forces back in?
Haig: No, I don’t think so.
Haig: No, I don’t—
Nixon: He wants us to bomb?
Haig: I’m not sure that he wants anything other than, maybe, understanding if he takes some action.
Haig: I—I don’t think we’ll get any panic from him.
Nixon: Well, as a matter of fact, I don’t give a damn if he takes some action. I mean, as far as the cease-fire is concerned now, and—if they’re breaking it, he can break it. I mean—and, he could take some rather effective action, couldn’t he?
Haig: Oh, yes. He could, he could take those missiles out of Khe Sanh, and he could put a—
Nixon: With his own air, couldn’t he?
Haig: With his own air. He could put some heavy strikes in around that MR–3. In Tay Ninh, they’ve been constantly taking on this little ARVN unit there, and pounding the hell out of them. They won’t let [Page 179]any investigators in, and, you know, but it’s not—none of this is major. It’s the—it’s the compounding of the whole—
Haig: —the whole picture.
Nixon: Cambodia, the real problem there, basically, is getting a government, Al. Good God, we’re putting money in, and we don’t have any advisers there. That’s—
Haig: That’s right.
Nixon: I don’t know.
Haig: The same strategic considerations that drove us in ‘70 are—could appear if that country went Communist.
Nixon: Of course. Of course. Well, ok, Al. Thank you.
Haig: Yes, sir.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation No. 44–120. 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.↩
- Document 29.↩
- Nixon addressed the Nation about Vietnam and domestic problems the evening of March 29; for text of the speech, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1973, p. 234–238.↩
- See Document 36.↩
- Haig visited Bangkok, Vientiane, Phnom Penh, and Saigon April 7–11.↩