281. Editorial Note
At 8:45 a.m. on December 12, 1971, the Presidentʼs Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger met with President Nixon in the Oval Office of the White House to discuss developments in South Asia. Kissingerʼs deputy Alexander Haig joined the conversation later. The conversation, which lasted nearly an hour, dealt at some length with Nixonʼs desire to mount a public relations campaign to brand India as an aggressor. Nixon spoke of what he viewed as the damning report on Prime Minister Gandhiʼs meeting with her Cabinet in which she outlined Indiaʼs war aims, and Kissinger said that he had asked Helms to “put it out through covert channels.”
Nixon and Kissinger spent some time discussing the hot line message to be sent later that morning to Brezhnev. Nixon said: “Basically all weʼre doing is asking for a reply. Weʼre not letting the Russians diddle us along…. All weʼre doing is to reiterate what I said to the Agriculture Minister and what you said to Vorontsov.” He asked Kissinger “does that sound like a good plan to you?” Kissinger replied: “Itʼs a typical Nixon plan. I mean itʼs bold. Youʼre putting your chips into the pot again. But my view is that if we do nothing, there is a certainty of disaster. This way there is a high possibility of one, but at least weʼre coming off like men. And that helps us with the Chinese.” Nixon said: “Thatʼs right. And if it goes down the tube now weʼll have done the best we can.” Kissinger concurred: “If it goes down the tube [it will be] because we canʼt get anyone to support us. By tomorrow our fleet will be in the Indian Ocean.” After a discussion of Southeast Asia, Nixon returned to South Asia and expressed the conviction that the Chinese, the Soviets, and the Indians needed to be shown that the “man in the White House” was tough.
The conversation focused heavily on China and what the Chinese Government could be expected to do as the crisis unfolded. Early in the conversation Kissinger said: “I called Bhutto yesterday evening after we talked just for the record, and I said I donʼt want to hear one more word from the Chinese. We are the ones who have been operating against our [Page 780] public opinion, against our bureaucracy, at the very edge of legality…. And if they want to talk, they should move some troops. And until they have done so we donʼt want to hear one more word.”
Haig entered in the middle of the conversation with the news that the Chinese wanted to meet on an urgent basis. Because Nixon and Kissinger were on the point of leaving for the Azores, the Chinese proposed a meeting in New York between Haig and Chinese Ambassador Huang Hua. The Chinese initiative in calling for a meeting was “totally unprecedented” Kissinger said. He concluded that the request meant “theyʼre going to move. No question, theyʼre going to move.” The tenor of the conversation changed at that point from the earlier expressed concern that China would not make the necessary military moves to help restrain India to a concern over the implications of the military action China had apparently decided upon.
Nixon responded to Kissingerʼs conclusion that China had decided to move by commenting: “Well, this may change our plans a bit—no it doesnʼt change our plans at all.” The plans he referred to were his plans to travel to the Azores to meet with French President Pompidou. Nixon instructed Haig to “get up there” to meet with Huang Hua. Nixon asked Haig if he agreed that the Chinese request for a meeting “means they are going to move.” Haig concurred with Kissingerʼs assessment. That raised the question of the likelihood of Soviet military action against China in the event of Chinese military moves that menaced India. Kissinger said: “If the Soviets move against them and then we donʼt do anything, weʼll be finished.” Nixon asked: “So what do we do if the Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?” Kissinger responded: “If the Soviets move against them in these conditions and succeed, that will be the final showdown. We have to—and if they succeed we will be finished. Weʼll be through.” Kissinger tentatively suggested: “Then we better call them [the Chinese] off.” But he quickly concluded: “I think we canʼt call them off frankly.” Haig said: “I think that if you call them off, if we donʼt give them some assurances, … the price you pay for that is almost as bad as if you” Kissinger interjected: “If we call them off, I think our China initiative is pretty well down the drain.” Nixon agreed: “Thatʼs what I think.” He added: “And our China initiative is down the drain. And also our stroke with the Russians is very, very seriously jeopardized.” Kissinger went on: “If the Russians get away with facing down the Chinese and if the Indians get away with licking the Pakistanis, what we are now having is the final—we may be looking down the gun barrel.” More hopefully Kissinger noted: “Itʼs the Chinese view which they expressed to Bhutto yesterday that the Soviets will back off.” He added: “I think the Soviets will back off if we face them.” Nixon said: “Well thatʼs the point. The reason that I suggested that the Chinese move is that they talked about the Soviet divisions on their [Page 781] border and all that sort of thing. You know that the Soviets at this point arenʼt about to go ripping into that damn mess, having in mind the fact that theyʼre gaining from the Indian thing.”
Kissinger said: “Well weʼve got to trigger this quickly, so that we are positioned, and not at the tail of the Chinese. Otherwise we have no moral authority whatsoever for supporting the Chinese.” Nixon asked: “Bhutto asked the Chinese to move too didnʼt he?” Kissinger responded: “They are not doing it because of us.” Nixon said: “Thatʼs what I mean. Let me just get that straight right away. Why are the Chinese moving?” Kissinger answered: “We asked, but thatʼs not the reason theyʼre doing it.” Nixon concurred: “The way you put it Henry, the way you put it is very different as I understand. You said look weʼre doing all these things why donʼt you threaten them. Remember I said threaten, move a couple of people”…. He added: “We have to scare these bastards”…. Kissinger stated: “I said we will prevent pressures on you from other countries. But it is immaterial who made them do it. We didnʼt make them do it. They are acting for the same reason they jumped us when we approached the Chinese border in Korea.” Nixon asked: “Is that what you think Al?” Haig responded: “Yes sir.” Kissinger said: “Itʼs exactly the same situation. But leaving aside whether we made them do it or not, we did not make them do it, my feeling would be the same, Mr. President, if I had not talked to them on Friday. They donʼt move that fast….This has been building up. My feeling is, Mr. President, leaving completely aside what we said, if the outcome of this is that Pakistan is swallowed by India, China is destroyed, defeated, humiliated by the Soviet Union, it will be a change in the world balance of power of such magnitude that the security of the United States for, maybe forever, certainly for decades—we will have a ghastly war in the Middle East.” Nixon interjected: “Now we really get into the numbers game. Youʼve got the Soviet Union with 800 million Chinese, 600 million Indians, the balance of Southeast Asia terrorized, the Japanese immobile, the Europeans of course will suck after them, and the United States the only one, we have maybe parts of Latin America and who knows.” “This is why, Mr. President,” Kissinger said “youʼll be alone.” Nixon responded: “Weʼve been alone before.”
Kissinger asked Nixon if, given the menacing developments that appeared to be breaking in the South Asia crisis, he should stay in Washington rather than accompany Nixon to the Azores. Nixon felt that it was important that he be perceived to be making the decisions. Hence leaving Kissinger behind to deal with the crisis “wouldnʼt do.” Haig was therefore instructed to respond to the Chinese request and to schedule a meeting. Kissinger said: “Weʼve got to get this triggered quickly. So that we are positioned. I mean this leaves no doubt now what weʼve got to do.” Nixon agreed: “Right. Now letʼs come back to [Page 782] this for a minute. You say that they want to see Al, tell him they are going to move. What they want in the way of assurances, they maybe want something more direct. Well, let me see, the Kennedy memorandum of November 5, 1962 [unclear] and thatʼs what theyʼll think.” Kissinger said: “Theyʼll believe you.” Nixon continued: “The point is, the fact of the matter is when I put it in more Armageddon terms than reserves, when I say the Chinese move and the Soviets threaten and we start lobbing nuclear weapons, that isnʼt what happens. That isnʼt what happens. What happens is that we then do have a hot line to the Soviets, and we finally just say now what goes on here?” Kissinger said: “We donʼt have to lob nuclear weapons. We have to go on alert.” Nixon agreed. Kissinger continued: “We have to put forces in. We may have to give them bombing assistance.” Nixon added: “One thing we can do which you forgot. We clean up Vietnam at about that point.” Kissinger concurred: “We clean up Vietnam. I mean at that point we give an ultimatum to Hanoi, blockade Haiphong.” Nixon said: “Thatʼs right.” Kissinger continued: “Now that will hurt China too but we canʼt worry about that at that point.” Nixon interjected: “Well, weʼll say it was for the purpose of protecting Americans.” Kissinger said: “And above all, we have to give the Chinese the sense that if the Russians threaten them, the worst thing, we cannot desert them then move against Haiphong, because that would then say that the U.S. and China….Weʼll pick up North Vietnam in the process of that. I mean, North Vietnam will be finished then. If Russia and China are at war, we can pick it up at any time.”
Nixon upon consideration concluded that “Russia and China arenʼt going to go to war.” Kissinger rejoined: “I wouldnʼt bet on that Mr. President.” Nixon said: “Well, let me put it this way. I have always felt that India and Pakistan, inevitably would have a war. And there can always be a war in the Mideast. As far as Russia and China is [are] concerned there are other factors that are too overwhelming at this particular point for them to go at each other.” Kissinger demurred: “Well, Mr. President, the Russians first of all are not rational on China. Secondly, if they can get a pretext to wipe out China then your trip and everything else is an incident. Your trip in their minds was an incident on the road where they would isolate China, and then could turn against China in ʼ73–ʼ74. Now that works fine with us because it puts China over on our side and we could play. But if they see an” Nixon interjected: “What are you trying to suggest here? Are you trying to get to the point that maybe we tell the Chinese we wonʼt back them?” Kissinger responded: “No, I think we have to tell them we will back them.” Nixon asked: “What do you think Al? You think we should tell them we wonʼt back them and discourage them?” Haig responded: “I think they may premise action on three things. One is they said the Soviets are cowards. The United States stood the Soviets down recently [Page 783] in Cuba and in the Middle East.” Nixon asked: “Do they know that? You told them that, is that right?” Kissinger answered: “No, they said that to Bhutto.” Nixon said: “If you think they believe that then they got the message where nobody else did.” Kissinger said: “The Chinese respect you.” Nixon asked: “How the hell do they know that we stood them down in Cuba, for example? You must have told them that.” Kissinger responded: “I told them that.” Nixon asked: “How about the Middle East? How do they know we stood them down there?” Kissinger answered: “Well, because they see what happened…. When all is said and done, they know that Syrian tanks pulled back unconditionally.” Reverting to Nixonʼs earlier question, Haigʼs advice was: “Tell the Soviets today the direction in which we are moving, and itʼs going to up the ante of concern.” Nixon said: “Suppose the Chinese move and the Soviets threaten, then what do we do?” Haig responded: “Well, weʼve got to move I think beforehand with the Soviets.” Haig counseled that the Soviets should be warned that “a war would be unacceptable.” Kissinger concurred: “As soon as the Chinese move, we have to tell them that. We canʼt tell them before the Chinese move, because it would look like collusion.” Nixon agreed: “Thatʼs right, thatʼs right, OK.” Nixon and Kissinger agreed that the message they were planning to send to Brezhnev would have to be strengthened. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Recording of conversation among Nixon, Kissinger, and Haig, December 12, 1971, 8:45–9:42 a.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 637–3) The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. A transcript of this conversation is published in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–7, Documents on South Asia, 1969–1972, Document 177.
Acting on the instructions he had received from the President, Haig met in New York with Chinese Ambassador Huang Hua on the afternoon of December 12. Contrary to expectations, Haig learned that the Chinese initiative did not mean that China had decided upon military action in support of Pakistan. Instead, Huang Hua indicated that China was prepared to support the United Nations procedure Kissinger had outlined in the December 10 meeting, which was to ask for a cease-fire and mutual troop withdrawal but to settle for a standstill cease-fire. (Memorandum of conversation; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 849, For the Presidentʼs File, China Trip, China Exchanges, October 20, 1971). The full text of the memorandum is in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972.