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

[Omitted here is discussion of the military situation in Vietnam, including worldwide reaction to the U.S. bombing campaign.]

Kissinger: Maybe something will come out on the Vietnam side on this trip. I’m not optimistic but, hell, you’ll destroy them.

Nixon: Let’s talk just a bit about the, before your conversation tomorrow which you will have.2 The more I think about it incidentally that—You know Scali’s3 getting so concerned about the Chinese, ping-pong team, he and others [are] worrying about whether Moscow is going to get mad and so forth. If they do, we better learn it now.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: I mean, if they’re going to use this as provocation—The other thing I think we ought, we have to know, is this. That you mustn’t have, as I told you, any doubts about the Haiphong strike because we would have been in too weak a position with your going to Moscow if we did not have the strike.

Kissinger: No question.

Nixon: You remember—

Kissinger: That’s what [unclear]

Nixon: [unclear] why we ordered the goddamn thing.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: We had it in mind, but you remember, we wanted to give them a pop in order to convince Dobrynin

Kissinger: —that you were out of control.

Nixon: That’s right. You told him that last week, is that not true?

Kissinger: Yeah, but—

Nixon: Now, if you had just continued the LairdAbrams thing, of pounding the South when the weather was good, you realize that wouldn’t have scared them at all.

[Page 391]

Kissinger: On the contrary, it gives them an incentive to stay in because it makes Hanoi more dependent on them, which is what they want.

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: They run no risk whatsoever, because if Hanoi wins they will get the credit and if—

Nixon: And we’ll be embarrassed.

Kissinger: That’s right. And if Hanoi loses—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —it will become more dependent—

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: —on them.

Nixon: Having said that, Henry, the—I’ve been trying to take a longer view too. It seems to me that your position in going to Moscow is very strong. I mean it’s strong because of Haiphong. It scares them.

Kissinger: Exactly.

Nixon: It scares them that we might do something more.

Kissinger: And because I told them we’d do something by May 1st now—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —if they didn’t. So we’ve got—If I come back without anything, we’ve got to do something wild next week.

Nixon: Hit them again.

Kissinger: Wild.

Nixon: Hit the same thing.

Kissinger: For several days.

Nixon: That’s right. Now, having said that, you know, the problem is that—but I’m trying to keep a broader perspective. There is the chance that we cannot get that. First, that, even if we enlist them, that they will not be able to do enough to get Hanoi to negotiate seriously before November. Let’s say we play that game out. All right. Then the real question is what do we do about the summit? Is there something in it for us still? The answer would have to be yes. We would have to go back to our line that the war has to be settled in Hanoi, not in Moscow or Peking. In other words, putting all the pressure we can on Moscow and Peking, but knowing that we have very little. But then we could go back to Moscow in a reasonably strong position due to the fact that we would in the meantime have been goddamn tough on Hanoi and would have beaten their offensive. You see, that’s the way the game plan would have to come out. We will have to beat their offensive before we go to Moscow. Let me put it this way. Either out of your trip Moscow begins to help us on the war, or, or we will have had to give Hanoi a hell of a shock in terms of beating their offensive so that I don’t [Page 392]go there hat in hand. Because if we go there—But assuming that that, assuming that game plan, which is possible, assuming that the offensive has been petering out, assuming that we have continued and [are] cracking pretty good. I mean, you see, you’ve got two, you’ve got the idea that Moscow, as a result of what we’ve done, will be triggered into trying to get something under the conference table. I hope so. It might happen. On the other hand, it might not happen. If it might not happen, I think that’s what we’ve got to look at to see what our option is because this will, also [has] got to do a great deal. It seems to me that if it doesn’t happen with great reluctance I would have to say we still have to play the Moscow string out. I think we should play it as if we would not go to Moscow unless they give help on Vietnam, openly, publicly.

Kissinger: But that won’t be our position next week. Our position next week will have to be, if I come back from Moscow without anything, which the odds favor, that I won’t get anything, then—

Nixon: Then what do we do?

Kissinger: Are we just going to subside?

Nixon: Oh, no.

Kissinger: Or are we just going to bomb or blockade, or something like that, them to smithereens? Now, I believe, Mr. President, after what we’ve cranked up, if we simply back off—

Nixon: We won’t. No, no, no. I see, I see what you mean.

Kissinger: I mean, that’s the big question. Now, if they give us—As you remember, yesterday I told you we should not lightly knock off the Russian summit.

Nixon: I know.

Kissinger: But—

Nixon: We could.

Kissinger: No, I don’t think we should do it.

Nixon: The only thing is, I’m thinking that, I’m thinking that the Russian summit may have something in it for us, provided we have given Hanoi a hell of a good bang. That’s what I mean.

Kissinger: Yeah, but we haven’t given Hanoi a good bang yet.

Nixon: Not yet. Not yet. We’ve given them enough of a bang for your trip, but not for mine.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: [unclear] That’s the magnitude.

Kissinger: Now, for my trip, we’re in good shape.

Nixon: Well, you have two choices then. We either have the choice of what we call a 3-day strike kind of an operation, which could be a hell of a thing, you know. Let everything that flies knock the bejeezus out of the things up there. Or we have the choice of a blockade. Now if we have [Page 393]a blockade, we’ve got to look down the road and see what the Russians and—What do they have to do? What do they say? Of course, these are the things that you’ll have down on your paper, you know.4

Kissinger: Well, what I have to do, Mr. President, in Moscow though is to give them the impression that you may well have a blockade.

Nixon: Yeah, I know. I’m just trying to think though—

Kissinger: You’ll never get as much—

Nixon: I thoroughly intend to do either the blockade or the strike, you know. We’re, you, we were between the two. Yesterday, you were raising the point that the blockade would take too long and we’d be—

Kissinger: You see the trouble—

Nixon: —in confrontation and all that sort of stuff.

Kissinger: You see the trouble—but so would they. You see the trouble is right now we have a plausible force out there.

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: If we don’t do something with it for 2 months—

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: —we’ll have to start pulling them out again. And—

Nixon: Well, let me tell you what my feeling is, the reason I’ve gone through this exercise with you. You see what we really confront is if you don’t get something out of Moscow probably our only choice is a blockade.

Kissinger: I’m afraid there may be a lot in that.

Nixon: And—but it’s a, so maybe it would go on for 6 months. I think the American people would rather have a blockade going on for 6 months than—but with the blockade, would the things give us our prisoners? Or would we have to set it up for free? By the way, I mean, in a clever way. Well, we’ll have to see.

[Omitted here is discussion of a meeting that afternoon in the Rose Garden with the table tennis team from the People’s Republic of China and public demonstrations against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.]

Nixon: You see, on the blockade, Henry, we’ve got the force out there to do it. I guess, you know, I can’t get over this Laird5

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Kissinger: You see they [the Soviets] are leery of a confrontation, Mr. President. They ordered all the ships that are coming into Haiphong to slow up.

Nixon: I heard that from Moorer.

Kissinger: I saw—

Nixon: I wonder if that is true.

Kissinger: No, I saw the intercept. I saw the order they sent to their merchant ships not to proceed very—

Nixon: They must be afraid of a blockade.

Kissinger: Yes.

Nixon: Or mining.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Do you agree with—this is only a technical matter with Moorer. He seemed to favor mining over a blockade.

Kissinger: Well, if you mine, then you may have the problem that they’ll send minesweepers down.

Nixon: Then you have to bomb them.

Kissinger: And you have to police them. Mining avoids the problem of daily—

Nixon: —confrontation.

Kissinger: —of daily confrontation with the Russians. That takes care of shipping also with a lot of other countries.

Nixon: Well, mining plus bombing. Blockade. Blockade sounds better diplomatically. You know what I mean. It sounds stronger.

Kissinger: The advantage of—If you blockade, there ought to be, you know, a week of heavy raids to run down their supplies and to reduce, 5 days, 3 days of heavy raids. God, a few more days of raids like we had yesterday and they’d be in, they really hurt.

Nixon: Well, we’re prepared to give it to them.

[Omitted here is discussion of political leadership in the Pentagon and of press coverage on the military situation in Vietnam.]

Kissinger: I don’t know what the Russians are going to do and indeed I don’t know what the Russians can do.

Nixon: Well, look, they desperately, I think, want you, you in, you, I mean, in Moscow.

Kissinger: That’s for sure. And they—

Nixon: It’s fine if Dobrynin’s going with you in that plane. It’s just as well.

Kissinger: And they eagerly want the summit. Those—

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: —three things we know.

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Nixon: we’ve got the one thing. The one thing, let me say, that you can do while you’re in Moscow, if you could, the very least you can get out of it is this. All right, the President will come to the summit. You understand? But he wants you to know that before he comes to the summit [phone rings] we are going to blast the living bejeezus out of them and we don’t want to hear anything but the most mild [unclear]. Is that clear? You see what I mean?

Kissinger: I don’t think I should tell them what we’re going to do.

[Omitted here is Nixon’s side of a telephone conversation with Laird and further discussion of the meeting with table tennis team from the People’s Republic of China and the military situation in Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 711–3. No classification marking. According to his Daily Diary, Nixon met with Kissinger in the Oval Office from 9:22 to 10 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The editors transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. Reference may be to Kissinger’s meeting with Dobrynin the following afternoon; see Document 126.
  3. John Scali, Senior Consultant on Foreign Affairs.
  4. Document 125.
  5. Nixon met Laird and Moorer in the Oval Office on April 17 from 5:13 to 5:50 p.m.; Kissinger also attended the meeting. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary) A memorandum of conversation, in which Nixon urged Laird to “keep hammering away at the fact of the massive invasion by North Vietnam backed by heavy Soviet equipment,” is ibid., White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Box 88, Memoranda for the President, Beginning March 19 [1972]. A tape of the conversation is also ibid., White House Tapes, Conversation among Nixon, Laird, and Moorer, April 17, 1972, 5:13–5:50 p.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 710–4.