104. Editorial Note
After his meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on January 23, 1971, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger assessed several developments that might affect the “future of Soviet-American relations.” Five days earlier, President Richard Nixon had tentatively approved Lam Son 719, a military operation in southern Laos spearheaded by the South Vietnamese army but supported logistically by U.S. forces to interdict supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and attack the North Vietnamese in Lao sanctuaries. The President worried, however, that plans for an invasion of Laos might complicate plans for a summit in the Soviet Union. Nixon called Kissinger at 2:16 p.m. on January 24 to discuss his concerns. The transcript, while recording only “the tail end of the conversation,” includes the following exchange:[Page 309]
“K: What I will do is keep this thing [Lam Son 719] going forward and keep the others committed to it and then you cancel it if you agree as your decision and not as a result of anybody’s pressure on you.
“P: … I think we want to go the summit route and risk the fact that we may not have one or … The best legacy we could leave is to kick the hell out of Vietnam. [omission in transcript] Before 1972.
“K: We should think beyond 1972.
“P: We’ve got to think in terms of the fact that every day we are here we’ve got to do those things that no one else will do. [omission in transcript]
“K: I dictated a conversation I had yesterday [with Dobrynin] and I think you will find it significant. In the meantime I’ll keep planning on going forward with the clear understanding that final orders will not be given for another 10 days.
“P: In terms of the announcement I think you are absolutely right. Let that come naturally. My own view is that if we do choose the summit route, once we have done the Cambodian [Laotian] thing then in our interest it is better to get the announcement a little earlier than a little later.
“K: When—about the middle of March?
“P: Yes, March 15. March 15 gives us a ride on it. April 15 troop thing is going to be a dud. I am not going to make it.
“K: With the other announcement, you don’t really need it. I think we can do it around March 15 and by that time we should have shown enough progress in the two areas we discussed and of course you can have launched the Vienna talks. By that time the basis will be in place or they will never be in place.
“P: Let’s see what these options are: We will discuss them at very top level—only among ourselves, first.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 8, Chronological File)
The next morning at 10:33 a.m., Dobrynin called Kissinger to deliver a message from Moscow on the Berlin negotiations:
“D: I received the following reply. The reply goes like follows: the name of the representative who might handle this matter from your side [Rush] as well as from our side [Falin] was not mentioned and will not be mentioned. This is for sure. For your personal information, the boss of that man and himself [Brandt and Bahr] were generally informed of the possibility of a letter on the subject. They warned to handle information with extreme care.
“K: I appreciate this. I will proceed as discussed and make an appointment later this week.
“D: When do you expect this man?[Page 310]
“K: I will let you know when we meet. I talked to the President on Sat. [January 23] and his response was positive.
“D: We will meet this week.
“K: Good.” (Ibid.)
After his telephone call with Dobrynin, Kissinger took several procedural steps on Berlin, including sending a member of his personal staff, James Fazio, to Bonn on January 27 to arrange for Bahr and Rush to visit Washington as soon as possible. (Memorandum from Fazio to Kissinger, undated; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 59, Country Files, Europe, Ambassador Rush—Berlin, Vol. 1 [2 of 2])
Nixon called Kissinger at 11:24 p.m. to discuss the day’s events. After an exchange on their plans for Laos, Kissinger reported on his plans for Berlin, as outlined with Dobrynin that morning:
“K: And I am proceeding with Rush. I had Mitchell—I am sending a letter to him by messenger so that it cannot leak.
“P: Good. “K: And also a letter to the other fellow [Bahr].
“K: And told them both to come over here on some other pretext.
“P: Good. “K: And then we get that game plan working.
“K: I think that with that is—Dobrynin called me this morning. I told him he had to keep me informed about everything that they were doing so that we do not make any missteps. He told me what they had told the Germans and it was just that they might try to see what they could work out with us together with them. Which is all right. They told it to Bahr.” (Ibid., Box 29, Home File)
Despite some progress on Berlin, the White House remained preoccupied with preparations for the operation in Laos. After a series of meetings on January 26, Kissinger reviewed the situation at 6:25 p.m. with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. Although no record of the conversation has been found, Haldeman provided the following account in his diary:
“Henry got me into the office, just as I was going home, to go over the general plan of what they’re really up to. They’re planning a major assault in Laos which, if successful, and Henry fully believes it will be, would in effect end the war because it would totally demolish the enemy’s capability. The problem is that it will be a very major attack, with our troops massed heavily on the Laotian border, and the question is whether the heat generated in Congress and across the country will be worth it. Henry’s point is that our action in Cambodia, etc., [Page 311] cleared things up so we’ve got no problem in ’71, but could have them in ’72. This new action in Laos now would set us up so we wouldn’t have to worry about problems in ’72, and that of course is the most important.
“Henry does feel that there’s one alternative, which is that we’ve discovered the enemy has our plan and is starting to mass their troops to counteract. By going ahead with our planning and letting them go ahead with their counter-planning, we can draw them into a monumental trap and then move in and bomb them, maybe with the same effect as going ahead with the plan. This of course would be a much more salable alternative domestically. The problem with either of these plans is that all of a sudden the Russians have come around, and Henry had a very productive meeting with Dobrynin that’s resulted in their agreeing to move ahead on setting a Summit for midyear, plus a basic SALT settlement and a couple of other items that we’ve been after them on. The massive Laotian attack would probably abort the whole Soviet effort, and the question is whether the Summit, etc., is worth more to us or whether winding down the war is. This is the tough question that Henry’s got to face now, and he asked me to think about it tonight and talk to him about it some more tomorrow.” (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries, page 239)
No evidence has been found to indicate that Kissinger and Haldeman talked about this “tough question” the next day.
During a telephone conversation at 7:24 p.m. on January 27, Nixon and Kissinger discussed how the “big play” on Vietnam might affect their game plan for the Soviet Union:
“P: This would be all in one package. We are doing this—but clear it with Thieu so he understands—announce the whole program of withdrawal right now but in order to do this we have to destroy the enemy capability. Of course, it still has the disadvantage of our Russian friends.
“K: At least it gives them something to think about, there are limits. There are reports that another group of ships on its way to Cuba. If they keep playing these games with us … and it makes it a little worse for them to …
“P: Think it is probably—it is another way to play the game.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 8, Chronological File)