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

Kissinger: I was talking with Dobrynin.2 Bill has done very well, Mr. President.3

Nixon: That’s the report we get. I’ve been thinking that I don’t—What’s your, what’s the purpose of your conversation with Dobrynin? Just to go about getting this message?

Kissinger: Yes. And just to keep the—

Nixon: And you’ve done that—

Kissinger: I’m not finished yet because he—

Nixon: Well, I don’t want you to offer this or even suggest that there is a chance that we might go on this interim idea—

Kissinger: Oh, no.

Nixon: —that an exchange for a—Let me tell you the weakness in that. I’ve written it out here.4 The weakness in that, in view of Haig’s report, is that it sees it tactically in the short run, but does not [Page 382]adequately look, in my opinion, at the long run, the risks. In the short run, it would be a great gesture and we could punish our critics very, very heavily, if we could get them to withdraw from I-Corps across the DMZ. Then we would give up the bombing of North Vietnam and there would be some reduction in fighting and we would go back to the conference tables. All right. The difficulty is that the enemy’s capability still to launch significant offensive action is there. That, you know, it doesn’t much matter how much time you’ve got. The difficulty is too that the pressure on the Russians is enormously lifted as far as this confrontation is concerned. Oh sure, we can go to Moscow and we can agree on SALT and a lot of other things. But the point that I make is that having taken the heat that we have already taken for escalation, I think what we have to do is to escalate all the way.

Kissinger: Well, Mr.—

Nixon: Unless, what I’m saying is, that I think the position that you’re going to have to be in in Moscow is not the one being willing to back down. In other words, let us sell them, let us sell—Let them sell to us talks for halting the bombing, which is what this really gets down to.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: After all—Now wait a minute. They invaded; that’s true. We bombed them; that’s true. But when you finally get down to it, we’re giving up the bombing and we go back to talks; and pressuring the Russians is not going to be very great. And my view is, what I really want, you know, I want to caution you with Dobrynin: it’s going to be, it’s going to have to be tougher than that, Henry. At least, right now, the time, you can’t let the time flee by, Henry. We have to have the blockade. I don’t give a goddamn about the election. We’ll blockade those sons-of-bitches and starve them out. And that’s what we’re going to do.

Kissinger: Well—

Nixon: I’d rather do that than have any talks going on this summer. Talks this summer are not going to help us.

Kissinger: Well, you have to make this judgment, Mr. President. If—First of all, I agree with you that nothing should be said about this interim solution to the Russians now. That should be the result of a stalemate.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: And I’m not going to make any proposition to the Russians now.

Nixon: Sure. I understand. But I just don’t think that—

Kissinger: But that should be said in Moscow if it’s said anywhere. But, if I may make this suggestion, Mr. President: if we convince the Russians that they, that we are asking something that they cannot in the best [Page 383]will in the world deliver, then we may force them into brutal preemptive action to bring you down this year. That may be their only hope.

Nixon: I know that.

Kissinger: No, no, but—

Nixon: Meanwhile, we’ve lost the war.

Kissinger: Well, if they think they can bring you down—I’m just giving you the case for the other side—then all they have to do is endure 6 months of a blockade. That they can probably do.

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: So, what, that interim solution has this advantage, Mr. President. First, it will be seen as a clear defeat for them.

Nixon: You see, that’s temporary. Go ahead.

Kissinger: I know it’s temporary. Secondly, it gets us through the Russian summit. After all, the reason you can do this now is because of the China summit. And it’s just awfully hard to paint you into the position of a warmonger. It gets us through the Russian summit with some notable successes. We can build into the Russian summit a lot of things, like a Middle East settlement, that we have to deliver next year, which they’ll be just as reluctant to break next year.

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: Then, Mr. President, after your election, I’d go all out with the North Vietnamese.

Nixon: Yeah, but the point is, we’d still have the war on our hands all summer long. As Haig says, which is the disturbing thing in his memorandum; you read it to me yesterday and I quite agree with him. He says, well, after, we’ll hold now; and then we’ve got to get ready for another offensive in July. We’re not going to take any offensive in July.

Kissinger: No, no. No, no, no, no.

Nixon: [unclear] no offensive in July.

Kissinger: No, no. Part of this deal would have to be a reduction in Soviet deliveries and a guarantee that there would be no offensives this year. All of this year. We’re not talking about now.

Nixon: If we get that, fine.

Kissinger: We’re talking about the rest of—

Nixon: [unclear] I don’t mind having a little [unclear] out there [unclear]—

Kissinger: No, no.

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: Oh, Mr. President, if we can only get this offensive called off with no promise about July. Nor can we accept—I’d go a step further. We cannot accept a Hanoi comment either; we have to get a Soviet public assurance. Now then this would also change the negotiating [Page 384]position. Because then I believe, Mr. President, Hanoi would feel that by its own actions—maybe you’ll be brought down, but you cannot be brought down by Hanoi’s actions. Therefore it is probable that you’ll be President after November; that having acted this violently now, there is no telling what you will do in November. And—

Nixon: You know, their gamble is that they can have the war going on and they’ll still have the POWs up until November. And that under those circumstances the possibility of our surviving the election is very, very low. You see my point?

Kissinger: I think if they are pulled off this attack now, they, particularly if they get ground down more as they do every day—I mean this deal couldn’t happen before May 5 to 10 anyway, in which case much of their offensive would have broken its back anyhow. So I, so I think that for you to do—The reason a blockade will work is if you can endure it. If they think they need only to wait 6 months, they might just stick it out until November. This is what worries me about the blockade, Mr. President. And, you remember, I had some dealing toward it in ‘69. You weren’t postured well diplomatically to do it in ‘69. And I strongly supported your not doing it. But this is the reason why I think an interim solution in which—But we should throw in the prisoners anyway.

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

Kissinger: But I frankly believe, Mr. President, that your enormous skill has been that you have been extraordinarily tough. That if—You walked up to all the tough ones but at the same time maintained a peace posture so that they couldn’t put you into the position of just chopping away at you. The reason that people trust you is because they know that you have done everything. And therefore, all things considered, I think it is in our interest not to get the Russian summit knocked off as long as we can do it while preserving our essential integrity in Vietnam. That is the major thing.

Nixon: Yeah. I agree.

Kissinger: And if this Moscow meeting does not work at all—

Nixon: Or maybe we’ll blockade in September, you mean?

Kissinger: No. I would think if the Moscow meeting doesn’t work then I think we—No, I mean, [if] mining doesn’t work, then you might want to go to a blockade.

Nixon: We might have to, you see.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: You can’t hold the card.

Kissinger: That’s right. I’m not—We certainly should keep the posture that you will go to a blockade. I think we’ve really got their attention.

[Page 385]

Nixon: That’s for sure.

Kissinger: But I—

Nixon: Maybe that’s all I want you to get back from Dobrynin. And—

Kissinger: we’ve brought this thing a hell of a long way—

Nixon: I had a very nice visit with the Polish Ambassador. And I appreciate what he’s worked out in that respect, but we—

Kissinger: Mr. President.

Nixon: To bring that fucking, for that little ass-hole to come in here, this Polish Ambassador, not that he’s a strong man, but for him to come in here this day is fine.5 Now they may knock it off, but I don’t want to let them.

Kissinger: They won’t knock it off.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: The Russians may knock it off but the Poles will do it only if the Russians do. And I don’t think the Russians will right away. I think we’ve got the Russians concerned.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: I can tell him, Dobrynin

Nixon: Is Dobrynin talking about knocking it off now?

Kissinger: No, no.

Nixon: Better not.

Kissinger: No, no.

Nixon: Because if he could get any deal with this, remember I’ll move first.

Kissinger: Yeah, but, Mr. President, for me to be received in Moscow 3 days—

Nixon: I agree but—

Kissinger: —after the bombing of Haiphong is unbelievable.

Nixon: Yeah, well, of course, some of the papers this morning were saying that the Russian leaders were out of town over the weekend and that’s why they didn’t react to the bombing. So, they don’t—

Kissinger: Baloney.

Nixon: They know.

Kissinger: we’ve got this Brezhnev message.6 They just don’t know anything in our papers.

[Page 386]

Nixon: Thank God. I’ll see you later.

Kissinger: Right.7

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 709–19. No classification marking. According to his Daily Diary, Nixon met with Kissinger in the Oval Office from 12:15 to 12:28 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The editors transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. According to his Record of Schedule, Kissinger met Dobrynin in the Map Room at the White House from 12:07 to 12:15 p.m. and—following his conversation with the President in the Oval Office—from 12:30 to 1:24 p.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–1976) No substantive record of the meeting has been found.
  3. See footnote 5, Document 113. Haldeman wrote in his diary entry for April 17: “He [Nixon] is very pleased with Rogers testimony on the Hill today. He did a good job, took a hard line, although before he went up, the P was very concerned about whether he would do so. As it turned out, he was really very good.” (The Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition)
  4. Not found.
  5. Nixon met Polish Ambassador Trampczynski in the Oval Office on April 17 from 10:34 to 10:45 a.m. During the meeting, Nixon formally received and accepted the Polish invitation to visit Warsaw after the Moscow summit. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary)
  6. Document 110.
  7. At 2:15 p.m. Kissinger went to the Old Executive Office Building to brief Nixon on his meeting with Dobrynin. In spite of his hard-line stance on Vietnam, Kissinger reported that Dobrynin was “slobbering all over me” and had “conceded all the agenda items for the summit.” According to Kissinger, the damage to Soviet shipping in the Gulf of Tonkin was, in fact, “worse than they’re admitting,” including the apparent deaths of two Soviet citizens. Nixon: “What about this business about the two Soviet citizens? Look, now if they want to have a reason to break off the summit—.” Kissinger: “Mr. President—.” Nixon: “—they can use any goddamn line they want.” Kissinger: “Mr. President—.” Nixon: “If they use it now, then we do have to go hard. You realize then we have no choice.” Kissinger: “Mr. President, we’ve given them so many reasons to break off the summit. If they were looking for a reason—They are in the worst possible position to have a confrontation with us.” Nixon: “Why?” Kissinger: “If they [unclear] now, they lose the German treaties, European security conference, they lose the credits, they lose—.” Nixon: “Maybe they’d lose the possibility of a Mid-East settlement.” Kissinger: “They lose the possibility of a Mid-East settlement. They lose [unclear] the Chinese. And for what? We will never have them in such a position again.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, April 17, 1972, 2:15–2:28 p.m., Executive Office Building, Conversation No. 331–2)