177. Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

[Omitted here is discussion of several issues, including Kissinger’s schedule, Vietnam, and the Middle East.]

Kissinger: Chou En-lai gave an interview to that ping-pong team2—he’s such a subtle guy—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —in which he said that this begins a new era of Chinese-American relations.

Nixon: Really?

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: [laughs] To a ping-pong team?

Kissinger: [laughs]

Nixon: You know, what they’re really—

Kissinger: Right—

Nixon: —they’re really trying to drive at: irritating the Russians.

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: Two questions: I don’t know, but are we unnecessarily irritating the Russians about this right now?

Kissinger: Well, I am slightly—I’m thinking this, Mr. President. Well, first of all, my call to Dobrynin was a good move.3

Nixon: Well, you think that may have been too eager?

Kissinger: Oh, no.

Nixon: No, I wondered, in light of this, that whether or not you—

Kissinger: No, I just called him to congratulate him on the Central Committee election and—

[Page 510]

Nixon: Yeah, but I mean, you call him and then today we—wham.4

Kissinger: Well, I think what I might do is to get this fellow Vorontsov over here again and say, “Now, look, our top priority is the relation with you.”

Nixon: That’s right. And that this is something that’s been in the works for six months.

Kissinger: And now let’s not miss the opportunity.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: I might do that because Dobrynin is coming back. But he’s coming back with some instructions, because—first, Vorontsov. The way this call came to pass was this: I told Vorontsov—it’s too boring, the technical details—how Rush was going to talk to Abrasimov, because we have to be able to get rid of interpreters for that. And I just want to make sure that they didn’t screw it up.

Nixon: Sure.

Kissinger: Then he said that he had noticed I had said some friendly things about the Brezhnev speech and that pleased him very much.5 And he slobbered all over me. And he said the Ambassador would come back with new instructions on Sunday.6 And they hope—

Nixon: He said we should pay attention to Brezhnev’s speech?

Kissinger: Yes. And he said, “Now, you noticed that we were paying constructive attention.” Because I had said on Air Force One—

Nixon: Oh, yeah.

Kissinger: —that it was a conciliatory speech, coming, when I was coming back from California.

Nixon: And he said we should know?

Kissinger: Right. Then I said as a joke, I said, “You know, your Ambassador gave me his phone number in Moscow, and I lost it, and it’s too late in the day now anyway to call him”—there’s an eight-hour difference—“otherwise, I’d congratulate him for his, on his election to the Central Committee. Why don’t you do it for me?”

Nixon: That’s fine.

Kissinger: A half-hour later, they called over and they said, “The time difference doesn’t, is of no account. Why don’t you call him? It would please him very much,” and gave me the Moscow phone number—

[Page 511]

Nixon: Oh, the phone number. Good.

Kissinger: —which, as you know, they don’t give out Moscow phone numbers.

Nixon: No, no.

Kissinger: Well, I called him in Moscow. I said, “I just want to congratulate you.” And I said, “I just want to tell you I discussed some procedural things with your man here.” And he said, “Was it about the exchange of letters, because I’ll have something to say about that?” I said, “Oh, no. They’re just purely technical things.” And he said, “Well, I’m coming back with new instructions on Sunday.” He was very—Haig listened into it, on it. And he said it was—

Nixon: Of course, the instructions—well, we’ve been through this before Henry.

Kissinger: Well, it looks—

Nixon: The instructions could turn the other way too.

Kissinger: I doubt it. They could but I doubt it. I’m looking at it from Brezhnev’s point of view. Now, Brezhnev has two choices. He can’t continue the way he’s going. He’s got to break out, one way or the other, just as we do.

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: So he’s going to go either very tough, which I think is premature for him, or he’s going to go the way we want him to go. Not to help—certainly not to help us out. You see, I’m beginning to think we can get that Ambassador into Peking before the year, before another calendar year has passed.

[Omitted here is further discussion of China, including support from Mansfield and opposition from the Department of State.]

Nixon: Be sure that this one—they [Department of State] have been screwing us so much on leaks. Now, we’re about to screw them on this one. For this thing, just a little lightly.

Kissinger: Yeah. Well, I think this China thing is completely confusing our opponents also. That’s a tremendous break that—

Nixon: You really think it is?

Kissinger: Oh, yeah. They just can’t tell what else is going on. And, of course, they’re right.

Nixon: What’s going on—

Kissinger: I think, Mr. President, this is going to have a significant backwash on Hanoi.

Nixon: That’s the point that I think you—that I hadn’t thought of, but you’re right. They’ve got to worry about our looking at China. They don’t—no Communist trusts another Communist. He doesn’t trust his own mother. Isn’t that right?

[Page 512]

Kissinger: They—and no Vietnamese trusts any foreigner, so they must think that they could become an insignificant plaything.

Nixon: Hmm.

Kissinger: And they must figure, as they correctly do, that unless the Chinese, who are very worried about the Russians—see, I think if Brezhnev jumps anyone, it will be the Chinese. Not us.

Nixon: He’s not going to jump us—

Kissinger: If—

Nixon: —as we get re-elected.

Kissinger: Yeah. And if he’s not going to jump us, he’s got to go the other way with us. Anything else will look like stagnation. And he needs some sort of big leadership ploy. It’s a—in my view, it’s a coincidence of needs.

Nixon: And his aim—

Kissinger: We need a leadership ploy and he needs one.

Nixon: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

[Omitted here is discussion of domestic politics, including rhetoric on Vietnam and draft legislation on the ABM system.]

Nixon: On ABM, I must say, throw at them what we know privately. But that means that in our discussions with this son-of-a-bitch [Dobrynin] when he comes back, you’ve got to—if there is just—you’ve got to remember, there isn’t much to deal with. To me, the worst of both worlds would be for us to get nothing.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: Nothing. To be beaten in the House—in the Senate on the thing. We could just forget any kind of thing, you know. Then SALT is dead. Absolutely dead. I think you should know that, while you must play the game, that we’re going to go forward with the ABM in your talks with him. You got to assume, they’re for immediate agreement on it.

Kissinger: Oh, I recognize that, Mr. President.

Nixon: Well, let me say, now, we have to recognize it not because it’s right but because we can’t get it otherwise. That’s all there is to it. That’s all. We’ve got it figured out.

Kissinger: Yeah. I thought they’d give us one more year of—they just—you see, if—

Nixon: Henry, if you get any kind of a letter or any kind of a, even a half-assed statement, you could get another year. That’s good.

Kissinger: Well, we’ll get a half-assed statement by June 1st.

Nixon: How do you do that? We can say—

Kissinger: I think—

Nixon: We can say—

[Page 513]

Kissinger: I don’t know why I’m so confident, because if they figure we’re going to lose it anyway, why should they make a deal?

Nixon: Yeah, well, maybe they’re not so sure. They—we’ve surprised them before. I think maybe that’s part of it. But I think you should know it’s awful tough. The ABM one is very tough because of the way the damn split has come. If we were—just figure—if we could just figure what happened on, in our states, it’d be fine. But the two Southerners that we lost—

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Goddamn.

Kissinger: Lawton Chiles.

Nixon: And Lloyd Bentsen. Then they may be better, better than they seem so far.

Kissinger: He may vote with us on that.

Nixon: Might they? They were very mad.

Kissinger: I think he’ll vote with us on that.

Nixon: Put the heat on but—Bentsen may. I think you ought to—I think that when he [Dobrynin] gets back, he probably will have something to say. But I don’t want this damn Chinese action to infuriate them so damn much—

Kissinger: No, well—

Nixon: —that they figure they got to keep us waiting a month.

Kissinger: They are tough customers, Mr. President. They don’t play it that way.

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: And I think from—our experience with them now has been that whenever we put it to them—I’m—when he comes back, I’m going to tell him that if we don’t settle it in two weeks, I’ll send him back to the State Department. Might as well go for broke on it.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: That I won’t deal with him anymore. If we can’t settle a simple matter like a SALT exchange of letters in this channel, there’s nothing worth doing.

Nixon: That’s right. That’s right.

Kissinger: Now, if it fails, it fails.

Nixon: That’s an impediment.

Kissinger: With this luck, they’ll—but I don’t think it will fail. And really, I think these Russians are so tough that if we—

Nixon: Yeah?

Kissinger: —if they have any sense of insecurity on our part—they will be impressed by this Chinese thing—

[Page 514]

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: —if we give them a way out.

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: We’ll get them that message to say that our priority is Soviet relations and that’s it’s really up to them—

Nixon: I think you could get that to Vorontsov.

Kissinger: Yeah, I’ll—just so—because they’re meeting tomorrow.

Nixon: He’ll dutifully report it.

Kissinger: Yeah. Thursday is the Politburo meeting there.

Nixon: Right. The Politburo meeting.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Another thing: they did launch that raid yesterday, or they’re going today, or what’s—?

Kissinger: They’ve started the movement, yes.

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: The first part of it is inside South Vietnam—

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: —down the Ashau Valley.

Nixon: Well, you’re right about one thing. We are not interested, Henry, at this point—particularly at this point too—[in] anything, whenever they’ve got to take any risks on our casualties.

Kissinger: Yes.

Nixon: It just isn’t worth it now.

Kissinger: No.

Nixon: We’ve got too many other fish to fry.

Kissinger: No, no. We’ve got—you know—

Nixon: Yeah, but even there, we could—

Kissinger: —I’ve always been for a tough policy on Vietnam—

Nixon: So have I. Already—

Kissinger: —but we’ve got to cool it a bit there now.

Nixon: We always have—actually, Henry, we’ve given them everything now.

Kissinger: I know.

Nixon: I mean, they’ve fouled everything up. We just got to—we have to do a little bit, little bit different game.

Kissinger: Yeah. I told him that. We can’t have it. We can’t have many helicopter losses, because we’re now, if we get—this Chinese thing is deflating matters. With half a break, we should get that SALT thing wrapped up in two weeks.

Nixon: The SALT thing, huh? You think the China policy—the SALT thing will have one enormous wallop.

[Page 515]

Kissinger: That’s two weeks more, and then, if the SALT thing works, we’ll have the summit by the middle of May, and then we have the summer free.

Nixon: [The] whole thing will pack a wallop such as you can’t imagine.

Kissinger: Well, that’s good. And on SALT, State won’t be to leak a damn thing because they won’t know it—

Nixon: Sure.

Kissinger: —until you’re ready to do it.

Nixon: And the summit, they won’t be able to leak a thing, because—

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: —they won’t know it either. You know, I think we should—while on the summit, just as soon as it gets down to any kind of an understanding, we ought to get it out. Do you understand?

Kissinger: No—oh, no question.

Nixon: Don’t let it hang around any, because Beam is good at that. State, too, you know. You can’t trust any of our people.

Kissinger: Yeah, but they don’t talk to Beam. Yeah—

Nixon: Don’t let it even get around in any channel.

Kissinger: Oh, no. No.

Nixon: It’s just got to be—

Kissinger: No. No, no.

Nixon: The summit thing has got to be—the moment that it’s firm, we’ve got to get an agreement to announce it, Henry. Any time you’re ready. Don’t try to pace the summit announcement. The summit announcement should come just as quick as we can get it.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Don’t have to wait.

Kissinger: Yes, I agree.

Nixon: We don’t have to wait. I mean, there was a time before we didn’t want to have it go. But now, you see, then we don’t—we’re not doing any more in Vietnam. So, therefore, we don’t have to keep it for that reason.

Kissinger: The reason, the only reason, would be entirely your own: whether you wanted SALT and summit to close on it, on top of each other.

Nixon: No, I’d like to have them one day after another.

Kissinger: Yeah, well that’s—

Nixon: Think we can do it? I don’t care whether—

Kissinger: That, they probably won’t want to do, but—

[Page 516]

Nixon: I know. I don’t care. That’s my—it shows you how little difference it makes.

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: The main thing: what pace it is, is not important now. That will set them talking. I mean, the press corps here will be writing spec stories, and so forth, fighting to get out, over there, and trying to, you know, determine who’s going to get to go, and who’s going to cover it and all—an American President to visit Russia. If it comes, do you realize what that’s going to be? The damnedest show you ever saw in the world.

Kissinger: One thing—maybe another thing I ought to tell Vorontsov, which I haven’t told Dobrynin yet, just so that we get it into the system, that August is no longer possible for a summit. We’ve got to have it in the first half of September.

Nixon: After Labor Day.

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: We can leave—that I have a very important—I have a schedule right through Labor Day, but I can leave the day after Labor Day. You know, let’s just put it that way.

Kissinger: So that we don’t waste any exchanges of—

Nixon: Yeah. I wouldn’t fall on that but that’s a good point [unclear].

Kissinger: Just—one reason why it’s a pleasure to deal with these sons-of-bitches is you know that you can’t hurt their feelings.

Nixon: No. No.

Kissinger: And you can—you can get them mad. And that’s why perhaps it would be useful if I saw this guy today.

Nixon: That’s quite interesting.

Kissinger: All our experts were again wrong. All of them said it would hurt us with the Soviets—Laos would hurt with the Chinese, with the Soviets, and with everybody else. It hasn’t. It—if anything, it’s helped with the Chinese.

[Omitted here is further discussion of Vietnam, China, and the President’s schedule.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 479–1. No classification marking. The editors transcribed the portion of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Nixon met Kissinger in the Oval Office on April 14 from 9:10 to 9:45 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  2. During a reception in Beijing on April 14, Zhou told members of the American table tennis team that their visit to China had “opened a new page in the relations of the Chinese and American people.” (John Roderick, “Premier Tells U.S. Team ‘Friendship’ Begins Anew,” New York Times, April 15, 1971, p. 1)
  3. See footnote 5, Document 176.
  4. On April 14, the White House announced a series of measures designed to “create broader opportunities for contacts between the Chinese and American peoples,” including the lifting of several trade and travel restrictions. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1031, For the President’s Files—China/Vietnam Negotiations, Exchanges leading up to HAK trip to China, December 1969–July 1971)
  5. See Document 175 and footnote 3, Document 169.
  6. April 18.