113. Conversation Between President Nixon and his Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

Kissinger: Good morning, Mr. President.

Nixon: Hi.

Kissinger: We had another cable from Haig.2 It says, “Obviously the fat is on the fire at your end. We will need the coolest of nerves from here on in. From my perspective it is essential that we continue to play our hand with the utmost calm and confidence. As you know several occasions in the past have involved similar risk taking although there has been less opportunity for events to be influenced by spasms of uncertainty on the domestic scene. On balance the military situation here is now well under control. As I reported yesterday, in the near term the enemy will only suffer severe setbacks.” And then the rest is all technical stuff. And he’s discussed with Abrams this idea of a troop withdrawal of 20,000, of an announcement, which would get us down to 5 by July 3rd, which would get us down to, to where we could say that we’ve withdrawn 500,000 troops. And he thinks it can be done but he wants to let me know tomorrow. And that I would recommend you announce at your press conference, if you have one next week.

[Page 354]

Nixon: Yeah. [unclear]

Kissinger: Now, last night, after you had retired, Dobrynin came in with a Russian message—3

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger:—which he said, since they don’t want to say too much publicly—It’s rather tough; it doesn’t have any concrete things. But after five pages of tough talk, which is standard tough talk, he said they’d transmitted our considerations to Hanoi and they’ll give us a reply as soon as—which is amazing because in the past they always took the position that they weren’t. Now my recommendation is that we say to this there will be no answer. They know what our policy is and we are just going to pursue it. And if that’s going to be their attitude, I think, I can tell them now, nothing will come out of the discussion.

Nixon: He seems to understand. Dobrynin. Dobrynin must be certain that we’ll go.

Kissinger: I think, I think it puts us domestically—The reasons you had for deciding to go: I don’t agree that it’s two for them and one for us; it’s two for us and almost nothing for them.

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: And what do they get out of it? They receive me 3 days after we bomb Hanoi and Haiphong.

Nixon: Yeah. In any event, the, as far as, when Dobrynin came, comes in, your trip is still on?

Kissinger: Yeah. Oh, yeah. They didn’t cancel it.

Nixon: Fine.

Kissinger: They didn’t do anything. It’s just—What I think they did, Mr. President, is to send this first part—

Nixon:—to Hanoi.

Kissinger:—to Hanoi to say, to show, because publicly they’ve been rather mild. The CIA has—

Nixon: The Chinese have been mild as well. Chou En-lai [unclear].

Kissinger: Very mild.

Nixon: Compared to what we’re used to getting.

Kissinger: Now, let me read you this CIA analysis4—and the CIA is always alarmist. “Moscow has given its population only [unclear] of the U.S. air strikes on Hanoi and Haiphong. Publicly the Soviets have not acknowledged damage to their ships at Haiphong.”

Nixon: How many were there? Were there 40?

[Page 355]

Kissinger: Yeah. Soviet—

Nixon: They were—

Kissinger: Poor things.

Nixon: That’s not too damn bad.

Kissinger: That’s good.

Nixon: I think it’s good.

Kissinger: Yeah. The protest failed to mention the strikes on Hanoi or anywhere else in North Vietnam. Its concentration on the damage to Soviet shipping, its failure to mention any injury to Soviet personnel, and its delivery at the low level of deputy foreign minister, indicates that the Soviets did not want to over-stress the implications of the air strike on U.S.-Soviet relations. Maintaining Moscow’s recent public reticence about aid commitments to North Vietnam, the TASS statement merely noted that the USSR met its international duties. The analysis of Chou’s remarks is: “Chou’s remarks add little more than a compendium of clichés used by the Chinese over the past year to describe the war. It makes no mention of Chinese assistance, of President Nixon, or of damage to the Soviet ships.” Then Hanoi has made a public statement saying that their friends in the world would in time condemn the United States. In time. And the CIA says, “[unclear] appears to be another call for greater support from the USSR and China. In this connection, the North Vietnamese have been playing the Soviet aspect of the raid.” And so forth. Now one problem we have, I hope Rogers goes in there determined and tough.5 This is the one—

Nixon: Huh. God only knows what he could do.

[Omitted here is discussion of Rogers’ pending testimony that morning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Nixon’s side of a telephone conversation with Rogers on his testimony, and a brief exchange afterwards on Rogers and the proposal to blockade North Vietnamese ports.]

Nixon: When I say I’m for a blockade, you don’t, you think I’m just gassing. But I—

Kissinger: Mr. President—

Nixon: But I’m totally committed to a blockade—

Kissinger: Mr. President, I don’t think you’re gassing.

Nixon: —at the end of this week.

[Page 356]

Kissinger: you’ve done—Well, we have to wait until I get back from Moscow but—

Nixon: That’s what I meant. That’s the end of this week.

Kissinger: No, I’ll be back Sunday night.6

Nixon: That’s the end of this week. Oh, the first of next week.

Kissinger: The first of next week.

Nixon: I mean, as soon as you get back from Moscow, if it’s a hard line, rigid attitude, blockade them.

Kissinger: Mr. President, I think that you’ve always done what you said you would do. And I have every—No, I think that’s what you will do and I think that’s what you should do.

Nixon: You see, if you, when you really carry out, Henry, to your, to the extreme, your analysis, that you can’t have the North Vietnamese destroy two Presidents. In that, it isn’t really quite in all [unclear] because Johnson destroyed himself and in my case I will not do it that way. I will do it frankly for the good of the country. But nevertheless—

Kissinger: No. But that is for the good of the country. That’s why I’m saying that, Mr. President, with all my loyalty—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: I think we cannot have these miserable little bastards destroy confidence in our government.

Nixon: Well, anyway, I was going to tell you. I am convinced that this country—You see, for me, let me be quite—Kennedy, even leading a nation that was infinitely stronger than any potential enemy, was unable to conduct a very successful foreign policy because he lacked iron nerves—

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon:—and lacked good advisers.

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: All right. Johnson was in the same position for other reasons because he didn’t have any experience. Now, I am quite aware of the fact that because of the, what is happening here and the rest, I mean, that, that there is a very good chance—and I don’t, and it doesn’t bother me one damn bit from a personal standpoint—that there is very good chance that sitting in this chair could be somebody else. It could be a Muskie; it could be a Humphrey; it could be a Teddy; one of those three on the Democratic side. Now on the Republican side it won’t be Agnew or Reagan but it, Rockefeller probably couldn’t get the nomination. I don’t know who they would nominate, but nevertheless, but [Page 357] here’s the point. I have, I know that, I have to leave this office in a position as strong as I possibly can because whoever succeeds me, either because of lack of experience or because of lack of character, guts, heading a weaker United States would surrender the whole thing. You understand?

Kissinger: I know.

Nixon: So that is why, that is why what I have to do—I have to do it not only to assure that if I am here we can conduct a successful foreign policy. I have to do it—and this is even more important—so that some poor, weak son-of-a-bitch is sitting here, with the best of intentions to conduct—It will be hard enough [unclear] next year. It will be hard not for him to conduct a foreign policy of the United States that’s knocked the hell out of South Vietnam. It will be very hard because it is a jibbery nation at times; well intentioned but jibbery. Muskie has proved that he has no character. And Teddy is, well, unbelievable. [unclear] Now, what the hell can you do? So you cannot leave the, you just can’t leave the thing. Now, under these circumstances, as I’ve often said that it may be that I am the last person in this office for some time, until somebody else is developing along the same lines, I mean who’s tough and experienced, who will be able to conduct a strong, responsible foreign policy. So goddamn it, we’re going to do it. And that means, that means, take every risk; lose every election. That’s the way I look at it. Just pull the plug. Now people say well if you win or lose I’m not sure. But the main point is, we have no choice, you see?

Kissinger: That’s my view.

Nixon: The foreign policy of the United States will not be viable if we are run out of Vietnam. That’s all there is to it.

Kissinger: Mr. President, that is exactly my point of view, selfish, shortsighted, personal point of view.

Nixon: We shouldn’t, we shouldn’t—

Kissinger: Your incentive is not to do it.

Nixon: We shouldn’t make a deal.

Kissinger: And my incentive is—I have less at stake but—

Nixon: I know. Your incentive is to not have all these great foreign policy initiatives flushed down the tubes.

Kissinger: Exactly.

Nixon: Which is exactly what’s on the line.

Kissinger:—and is what we’re concerned about. Public position, one would say—

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger:—one could remain—

Nixon: The Man of Peace, the Generation of Peace all that stuff.

[Page 358]

Kissinger: Although, Mr. President, I must say one thing. You are taking less heat this week than you would if Hue had fallen. The first week, the worst heat we took, it began to build up, was when all these little pip-squeaks were saying Vietnamization was a failure.

[Omitted here is discussion of domestic politics, press coverage, and the military situation in Vietnam.]

Nixon: I think you ought to tell Rabin you heard the President say it. I want you to get Rabin in and say you heard the President say it. To the leaders, he said, if he’s said it a dozen times, he said it once, and I always start with Israel and then I go to Europe. But I say if the United States fails in Vietnam, if a Soviet-supported invasion succeeds there, it will inevitably be next tried in the Mid-East and the United States will not stand there either. That’s what’s on the line. And they should know that. And I think we should get some of our Israeli friends to start to support us.

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: What do you think?

Kissinger: I think so.

Nixon: Don’t you believe this is true?

Kissinger: I’ll call Rabin. Now to go through—

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger:—immediate tactical issues.

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: Do you agree, Mr. President, that I call in Dobrynin and say there is not going to be any reply to this?

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: “The President is determined. You know his course. There is no sense in engaging in rhetoric.”

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: “And we will not reply to this. And I must tell you informally if this is what you are going to say to, in Moscow, my trip is going to be a waste of time.”

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: Because we will not be able to make progress—

Nixon: The point is, it’s just the usual thing that we should stop the bombing of Hanoi.

Kissinger: Oh yeah. Yeah. It’s—They had to do it, Mr. President, because—

Nixon: And just say, just say we did it. Why don’t you put it more like I talked to Chou En-lai: “Look, the President read this and rather smiled.” Look, just say, “He smiled and said, he said, ‘They have to say this, he said, but,’ and then he turned cold and said, ‘There will be [Page 359] no reply to this. If the Russians want to talk settlement, fine. But if they want talk to this way, there isn’t going to be a summit.’”

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: I’d be very tough. ‘Cause I’d very much like to see Johann [Franz Josef] Strauss. I like the old fart.

Kissinger: Right, right.

Nixon: You understand?

Kissinger: [laughter]

Nixon: Don’t you think that’s the way we play it?

Kissinger: Absolutely.

Nixon: I think Dobrynin expects you to play that way, doesn’t he?

Kissinger: Oh, Dobrynin. When he said, “I’ll bring you this,” he went on to say, “We have to do this in confidential channels because they’re not saying much in public channels.”

Nixon: Well, Bill asked me whether Humphrey responded. We have responded to the Russian note, haven’t we?

Kissinger: No. He had sent over a cable for clearance.7 I held it last night because it was just too anxious, saying you had retired, which was true. And that you would clear it in the morning. And what you said was yes.

Nixon: Hmm.

Kissinger: I mean what you said was exactly that. You cleared it in the morning, this morning.

Nixon: Let me tell you about your trip. I realize it’s not two for them and one for us in terms of cosmetics. It may be two for them and one for us in other terms. But, nevertheless. Basically because looking at their big game, the China game, what they want is Henry Kissinger in Moscow because you went to China.

Kissinger: Oh yes.

Nixon: You see? That’s what’s in it for them. And you’ve got to realize. Don’t undersell what the hell we’re giving those sons-of-bitches. Now, the other point I make, Henry, is, however, we’re doing it for our own reasons. Our own reasons are, you’re going to go and then we’ll blow it.

Kissinger: Of course.

Nixon: And I’ll blow it. Hell, maybe the day you come back; I might do it in the press conference.

[Omitted here is discussion of plans to announce Kissinger’s trip to Moscow and of the President’s schedule.]

[Page 360]

Nixon: I think that with the Russians, there’s one weakness in our game plan with Hanoi. We haven’t got a goddamn thing we can do this week.

Kissinger: Oh, no. Well, first of all, we are holding in the South, Mr. President.

Nixon: You think we are holding?

Kissinger: Oh yeah. And that is the worst for them. And—

Nixon: But that’s only temporary, you know, holding.

Kissinger: I don’t know. I think it’s, I think it isn’t temporary.

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: But secondly, we are bombing the southern part of North Vietnam intensively.

Nixon: Is there any bombing that you could do, changing even the pattern this week, so it looks like it’s a different kind of strike? Is that something that could be done? Could we have another B–3 type strike? Just so it’s—

Kissinger: In the South or in the North?

Nixon: In the South.

Kissinger: Oh, in the South. Easily.

Nixon: Yeah. I would like, I think what I meant is, I want something that can be described as a massive, different kind of a strike. Is there any place where you think we could do it?

Kissinger: I’ll get off a message right off.

Nixon: Put it this way. That this week—You see what I mean?

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: I don’t want you to go over there—Well, frankly people won’t know you’re there. I don’t want the people here to get the impression—You see what we’re up against.

Kissinger: But next week they’ll know why you did it.

Nixon: I know. But this week they’ll be writing, because of Russian and Chinese protests, the United States didn’t do it again. You see my point? We can’t be in that position. Now, we can ride a week of it, I guess.

Kissinger: We can ride a week of it. If they accuse you of being both too tough and too soft at the same time—And then next week, I think if we can avoid—I mean, we’ve really put it brutally to them. It isn’t—We haven’t shown any softness. And they know, I mean, they know you now, Mr. President. They know when I come back without anything to show for it, we’re going to blow the lid off, particularly having proved that we’ve made every effort.

Nixon: Hm-hmm. Now, the last thing to consider before we try to do a Wednesday thing. You see the deep-down decision you’ve got to [Page 361] make is whether, do you want to conduct the Moscow talk in a way that will enable us to have a Moscow summit or in a way that will make it, leave us no choice but to blockade and flush the summit? Now there’s one point that’s very important. If the summit is canceled, I want to cancel it. I don’t want them to.

Kissinger: Well, what I would like—

Nixon: That’s got to be like the U–2. You understand?

Kissinger: What I would like to suggest, Mr. President, is this. I think we should conduct the summit part of the talks in a very conciliatory and forthcoming manner in such a way that they get a maximum panting after the—

Nixon: That, that I understand.

Kissinger:—after the summit.

Nixon: I understand all that. All of that.

Kissinger: On the Vietnam thing, on the other hand, we should be tough as nails, because the middle position, we will not impress these guys with conciliatoriness. They were not passing messages while Johnson was drooling all over them.

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: So I think we should do both simultaneously. On Vietnam, we should be very tough. What I’m playing with now—

Nixon: What do we get out—what do get out—what are we—Sorry.

Kissinger: Well, what I think, if we are—

Nixon: We certainly have got to have a cease-fire while we’re in Moscow. That’s my point.

Kissinger: Oh, one outcome, Mr. President, that I think we might get is to say, to offer to the Russians, we’ll go back to the conditions of May, of March 29th. That is to say, the North Vietnamese withdraw the three divisions they put across the DMZ, north of the DMZ; they scale down their military actions to the levels they were on March 29th; this is guaranteed by the Soviets; we in turn stop the bombing of the North; and we resume plenary sessions in Paris.

Nixon: That’s a good deal.

Kissinger: That would be a damn good deal, Mr. President.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: It would be such a defeat for the North Vietnamese, if they are to stop their offensive.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: And it makes us look damn good in domestic opinion.

Nixon: Withdraw—

[Page 362]

Kissinger: If we say—

Nixon: Withdraw across the DMZ, those forces across the DMZ. After all, we can’t tell them to get out of everything.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: And we’ll stop the bombing of the North in return. Because we will have—

Kissinger: But they have to scale down military actions—

Nixon: We will have shellacked the North by that time anyway.

Kissinger: That’s right.

[Omitted here is further discussion of the military situation in Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 709–8. No classification marking. According to his Daily Diary, Nixon met with Kissinger in the Oval Office from 8:58 to 9:24 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The editors transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. Reference is to backchannel message 0065 from Haig in Saigon to Kissinger at the White House, April 17. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 1014, Haig Special Files, Haig Trip Papers—4/14–4/19/1972 [2 of 2]) The excerpt read by Kissinger is nearly identical to the corresponding text sent by Haig. Regarding Haig’s trip to South Vietnam, see Document 111.
  3. Document 110.
  4. Not found.
  5. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that morning, Rogers argued that the North Vietnamese attacks in the South “dropped the pretense that this war is in any sense a ‘popular uprising’ and have exposed it as a naked aggression of the most flagrant type.” (Department of State Bulletin, May 8, 1972, pp. 668–671)
  6. April 23.
  7. Document 114.