332. Transcript of a Telephone Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

P: Henry.

K: Mr. President.

P: Any later reports?2

K: No, I have spent a good part of the evening reading the Intelligence Reports and I have written a memorandum which you will get first thing in the morning of my assessment of the situation.3 I have also asked CIA to prepare one but I have not seen that yet.

P: Yes.

K: My instinct tells me, Mr. President, whatever it is it isn’t the death of Mao. [5 lines not declassified] Now we know it was not us and we know it is not anyone we are watching so it my have been the Soviets. So it may have a military significance. There could have been a clash or they may genuinely think that the Soviets are getting ready to jump them.

P: Right.

[Page 1001]

K: You remember t—[omission in transcript]

P: About this time of the year would be the time to do it, wouldn’t it?

K: That’s right. And when I was there, they told me that was one of their concerns that after the announcement of your trip they thought that their neighbors might jump them and we know from a particular source we have [less than 1 line not declassified] which is infallible [less than 1 line not declassified]

P: Right.

K: That they went on full alert the day that they announced your visit. So it may be that. Of course, it may also be a Leadership struggle. They may not want that many people in Peking for a parade while the struggle is going on.

P: Yes.

K: I think there is the possibility Mao is dead, but there just isn’t any reliable—there is no news at all to all practical purposes, except for these fragments like the ones I read you this afternoon or the later one, only in terms of it coming to my attention—[less than 1 line not declassified] that gives them about four days warning of an air stand-down which does not sound like a death to me.

P: Yes. Okay. Well, of course, we should have a contingency in the event—well, any contingency in the event that their announcement affects our operation.

K: Exactly. I am going to get a group together tomorrow to do exactly that.

P: It could well be that they are just jittery about the Russians.

K: It could well be that, Mr. President.

P: It may be they would be well advised to—

K: Well, if they were jittery about the Russians and if that is all this is, then it actually means our game is succeeding.

P: Yes.

K: And that will help the later evolution quite a lot. It does indicate how sensitive we have to be to their requirements on announcements and so forth.

P: Yes. I think rather indicates why they wanted [October] the 14th.4

K: Yes.

P: They must have known this at the time they requested the 14th.

[Page 1002]

K: Oh yes. They stood down starting the 10th.

P: They told you on the 13th.

K: Exactly.

P: I see. You didn’t know on the 13th they ordered the stand-down?

K: Well, I knew either on the 13th or shortly afterwards, Mr. President, but at that point it seemed like perhaps a normal precautionary exercise. But this protracted stand-down—but even that—the stand-down by itself would not have been so decisive unless it were very much longer protracted but it was the cancellation of the October 1st parade which is totally unprecedented in any Communist country. In the Soviet Union once they cancelled the military part of the parade but they have never cancelled the celebration.

P: And in this instance, they have actually publicly ordered the cancellation of the parade, have they?

K: Exactly.

P: That is why people are reading a significance into it.

K: That is why. I did, for example, get a report last week saying that all pictures of Mao were beginning to disappear but that again Mr. President would not be consistent with his death. What interest would anyone have after he is dead to do anything with him except to build him up as a Diety?

P: Yes. And of course reports about his pictures disappearing may have been Taiwan-oriented.

K: Exactly. This is why I didn’t feel I should run into you with every agent report. These were agent reports. These were not evaluated reports. At that time, I was watching the stand-down. That seemed interesting to me, but we have gone through those periods before—not on the Chinese side but on the Russian side in 1969. They stood down for two weeks in Siberia [1½ lines not declassified] and it may be just a war of nerves.

P: My view is the Russians would never think of jumping, having in mind our trip.

K: Well, of course, they had a Summit announcement set for 1968 but that was with a Lame Duck President on the day they invaded Czechoslovakia. But that was with a Lame Duck President. Unless they jump them, Mr. President, then we would have to go hard right.

P: On the Russians?

K: Yes.

P: Oh hell yes. We are not going to have any damned condominium with the Russians, don’t you agree?

K: Absolutely. If they did that, we should rally our allies and knock off all détente and build up the defense budget and rally the American people and [fight] the war in Vietnam brutally.

[Page 1003]

P: Yes. Well, good.

K: But I don’t think that is going to happen.

P: No. I am inclined to think it is going to work out in some way.

K: Well, so far we have no evidence that anything is happening.

P: You may get a reply from them too.5 However, I would say now that if you don’t get a reply within a week then there is something screwed up. I would say about a week, wouldn’t you say?

K: Yes. If by the middle of next week if we have not had a reply then we are getting into a zone where it is going to be technically tough to arrange.

P: As far as your trip is concerned?

K: Yes. But something is clearly screwed up. That you can tell already because they have always been meticulous in their reply. It is very fast or at least if they didn’t reply they did something planned.

P: You could have a group of younger officers that—you know after all the country is in a sort of miserable condition, let’s face it and it just may be that a group of younger officers came to their senses—hardliners—and said well the hell with them, we’ll throw them out.

K: Yes and if it has we wouldn’t know any of them.

P: We wouldn’t know any of them and they—if they are hardliners, they are going to hardline on the Russians too.

K: There is no question that a reconciliation with the Russians seems to me the least likely outcome.

P: That, in my view, would be the greatest danger.

K: Yes, but that is the least likely outcome. You remember, every time we have thought we were drawing closer the opposite has happened. And I don’t believe that—if the Cultural Revolutionists are making a coup, then they will be very hardline to the Russians. They will also be hardline to us. Of course, one other possibility, Mr. President, on the more hopeful side, is that Chou-En lai is cleaning out the Cultural Revolutionists preparatory to your visit.

P: Sure.

K: I mean that would fit the evidence too—that Chou En-lai knowing of my visit for which he wants to be ready—and of your visit, is [Page 1004] consolidating his position. And if that is the case, all the signs are consistent with that too. And he would want to make sure—

P: Yes but certainly, too, they must have read—I think my press conference came at a very important time6 because he—whatever is happening—they read that and I think if anything that would strengthen his hand.

K: That is right and Chou En-lai is the only leader who has been seen performing his normal functions in the last week.

P: Has he still been performing them?

K: Well, he has been seen running around Peking in his normal way and none of the military leaders have been seen anywhere.

P: He has been seen?

K: He has been seen and their Acting Foreign Minister has been seen, which would tend to strengthen the position that maybe if a purge is going on it is by Chou En-lai of his opponent.

P: Yes. You know on the Vietnam side. I have really been cogitating a lot about that. I become more and more intrigued with the idea that rather than thinking in terms of an announcement in January that we might announce in December or November a pulldown to 100,000 for whatever date we want to select—and just say we will have another announcement later.

K: That is another possibility.

P: You know put it—that would be February I suppose.

K: That’s right.

P: Anyway, and then having said that we say that I also think in January that if these fellows are still as intransigent as hell, we just might risk the whole ball—you know the more I think of it we might just risk the whole ball on the idea that if they are still screwing around with the prisoners rather than to go on the deal while prisoners for Thieu’s head rests that we just simply say, “now look here, we got enough, we have heard everything,” you know give out the whole record. Say now we give them an ultimatum. Get these prisoners or—that is until they do we are going to blockade them. By that I mean—by blockade I mean maybe it is mining and the cutting of that railroad and take out those power plants. Goddamnit, you could have a lot of public sentiment for that.

K: Well, with respect to the first, Mr. President, as much time as we can buy in November the better off we will be. With respect to what we do—I think in any event whenever you announce your final thing [Page 1005] we ought to break off in Paris and just keep a liaison team there. At that point, there would be no sense in keeping Porter in Paris.

P: Yes. We would say withdraw our Ambassador. And we will just have a liaison office there. That they have refused—

K: Which in itself will be a tremendous thing for the prisoners.

P: And that in the meantime that our patience is running out on that. We are going to retain forces until we get the prisoners and, then I would go—I really think there is one place for the American people and it would serve a double purpose to support us and that is it would cause ripples with the Chinese and Russians but maybe not so much as we think. We would simply say now damnit we want those prisoners and then by blockading or quarantining is the word I’d use and we will lift the quarantine when we get the prisoners. Now that really very seriously limits their ability to wage a spring offensive.

K: Right. It will depend, Mr. President, on how our relationship to the Chinese and Soviets has developed at that point.

P: True. True.

K: And if we have to give a lot away to one or the other. But certainly it is an option that we should keep very much in mind.

P: Yes. Well, I want that prepared.

K: Right Mr. President. It will be done.

P: Another thing. It seems to me that we might try a little war of nerves. You know, we went through that business of the loading those damned mines and moving the carriers and all that sort of thing—the mine sweepers, etc.

K: Right. I remember—in 1969.7

P: Well. Let’s try it again. I would like to see Moorer have that on salvo again.

K: Right Mr. President.

P: We could move planes and a helluva lot of other things around [as] if we are ready for a helluvan offense.

K: I will talk to Moorer first thing in the morning.

[Omitted here is discussion of Vietnam and economic policy.]

[Page 1006]

[P:] Another thing I want to be able to say in Detroit if I can. I would like to give them some hope on East-West trade.8

K: Yes. That you can do Mr. President because you can point out—I will get you the figures—that this year alone we have already approved over $.5 billion, in addition to the other programs, and there is more in the works.

P: Well, the Kama River thing. They are terribly interested in that you know and anything we can say on that in positive, I would like to say out there if I could.

K: Well, the problem is on that Mr. President, we are not the problem. The problem is that this whole thing is getting renegotiated. But there is one contract in for Swindler-Dresser Corporation for some $285 million on top of the foundry which we have already approved, which is part of the Kama River project. You will be able to tell them that we have given close to $400 million—I mean approved that—for one project alone.

P: Well, why don’t you do a little talking point on that particular matter about East-West trade and what the prospects are for the future. Will you do that?

K: Exactly. Of course. I will do it first thing in the morning.

P: I won’t need it until late in the afternoon.

K: Right Mr. President.

P: I’ll be working tomorrow in the EOB and if anything develops you can reach me.

K: Of course. I will let you know the second we know anything.9 This may be a false alarm Mr. President. This may be a purely military exercise. Or it could be a purge of Chou of his opponent.

P: Or it could be a purge of Chou by his opponent. Although his presence doesn’t seem to me—

K: That is inconsistent with his presence.

[Page 1007]

P: That is right.

K: One would have to assume that he is the stronger of the people right now. I mean having ridden through the Cultural Revolution it would be hard to know what would weaken him now.

P: Yes. But you remember Mr. K went when nobody expected him to.

K: That’s true.

P: So you never know what is happening in the goddamned countries, do you?

K: That is true but he had had a whole series of failures.

P: Chou, in my view, is looking pretty damned good in the world today. You know he has been seeing Western people. He is getting a helluva press in the world and you know, that ought to impress these people.

K: That’s right. And he is damned near indispensable Mr. President. He has run the goddamned country.

P: And the Chinese—they are getting, in my view, as most sophisticated observers are saying, a helluva lot out of their meeting with us. I notice where some jackass from the American [Friends] Service Committee said that Chou would insist that the U.S. withdraw from Asia.

K: On that is total nonsense. He has read the Reston interview.10

P: Yes. Well, we finished that interview off.

K: That is the truth.

P: Well, let’s get Moorer to work on some contingency plans, will you?

K: Right Mr. President.

P: Also, but in any event, as far as contingency plans, let’s have a few naval maneuvers up from there.

K: Right Mr. President.

P: The Navy can move around and put some mine sweepers up there and a few other little odds and ends.

K: I will talk it over with Moorer the first thing in the morning.11

P: Okay.

K: Right Mr. President. Goodbye.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 29, Home File. No classification marking.
  2. During a meeting in the Oval Office at 4:16 p.m., Kissinger reported: “Something funny is going on in China, Mr. President. They have—there is a stand-down on civil aviation there for nearly a week now. And today they have cancelled the October 1st parade on their national holiday. We’ve had other reports that they’ve been taking down pictures of Mao.” After speculating on the possibility of Mao’s death, Nixon asked Kissinger if a rival leadership group was “taking it out on Chou En-lai for his American initiative.” “Conceivable,” Kissinger replied. “But those are the guys who are also the most—no, they are the most anti-Russian too. The Cultural Revolutionists were the ones that physically peed on the Russian Ambassador.” Nixon observed: “Well, put yourself in their position: either side has got, it would seem to me, has got to play this game with us.” (Ibid., White House Tapes, Conversation 449–17) The two men further discussed the impact of these developments during a meeting in the Oval Office at 5:02. Kissinger: “We’ve got everything linked together, just as you said. We’ve got the Middle East. We’ve got everything in the game now.” Nixon: “Well, if the Chinese should knock this thing off, what does that do to the Russians? They’ll still want the visit?” Kissinger: “Oh, yeah. But we’ve just got a little less pressure on them. With a visit, I think if the visit to China is in the cards, the Russians are going to be most eager to—not most eager. We have a pretty good chance now of bringing off that ploy which I have in my memo to you. If the visit to China is not in the cards, they’ll be a little less eager. They’ll be a little less under pressure. On the other hand, they might figure, they better use this time to get us lined up. It would be better for us, if there were no turmoil in China.” (Ibid., Conversation 449–20)
  3. Printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 157.
  4. Reference is to the date Huang Chen suggested in Paris on September 13 for the announcement of Kissinger’s trip to China. See Document 326.
  5. Huang Chen gave Walters the Chinese reply in Paris on September 23. “Despite the press speculation on Chinese events which originated in Paris and the denial issued by the Chinese Embassy there that Mao was ill or dying,” Walters noted in a memorandum for the record, “I did not bring up current events in China and neither did they.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 849, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, China Exchanges, July–October 20, 1971) The full text is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–13, Documents on China, 1969–1972, Document 25. See also Walters, Secret Missions, pp. 537–538.
  6. See Document 308.
  7. Reference is presumably to maneuvers associated with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test of October 1969. Documentation is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXIV, National Security Policy, 1969–1972. See also William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball, “Nixon’s Nuclear Ploy,” pp. 28–37, 72–73.
  8. The President conducted a question-and-answer session for the Economic Club of Detroit at 8 p.m. on September 23. Although he did not address the issue of East-West trade, Nixon advised the audience that recent developments in China probably would not affect his plans to visit Beijing. (Public Papers: Nixon, 1971, pp. 965–980)
  9. During a meeting in the Executive Office Building the next morning, Kissinger gave Nixon his memorandum on the situation in China (see footnote 3 above) and commented: “Well, I’ve reviewed the thing a little more until I’ve—and I’m beginning to think—this is a good summary of what we know.” “The two most likely possibilities are either that Mao is ill, which I don’t believe,” Kissinger later concluded, “or that Chou is purging his opponents.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 279–2) Six weeks later, John Holdridge confirmed in a November 6 memorandum to Kissinger that Lin Biao, Mao’s heir apparent, had been killed in a mysterious airplane crash in Mongolia on September 12. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 524, Country Files, Far East, PRC, Vol. II)
  10. See Reston, “A View From Peking,” New York Times, August 8, 1971, p. E11.
  11. No record of a conversation between Kissinger and Moorer on September 22 has been found.