183. Editorial Note

On May 2, 1972, Assistant to the President Henry Kissinger met privately with North Vietnamese delegation leaders Xuan Thuy and Le Duc Tho in Paris. In a memorandum to President Nixon that day, Kissinger reported that the meeting “was thoroughly unproductive on substance but served to bolster further our negotiating record. I laid out various approaches for discussion, all of which they rejected. They made very clear that they were not prepared either to deescalate the fighting or offer anything new concerning a settlement. In light of their intransigence, which is almost certainly keyed to the fluid military situation and possibly the expectation of further unilateral concessions on our part, I broke off the private talks until either side has something new to say or their offensive stops.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 854, Files for the President—Lord—Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive—Camp David—Vol. XIII) A full transcript of Kissinger’s meeting with the North Vietnamese is ibid. In his diary, the President recorded his reaction: “I have sent Henry a message indicating that I thought he should think seriously on the plane on the way back about our breaking off the summit before the Russians make that move.” (For this diary excerpt, see Nixon, RN: Memoirs, page 600)

En route to Washington from Paris on May 2, Kissinger received from his deputy, Alexander Haig, the following message:

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“I have just had third meeting with the President this morning. He has asked me to set up a helicopter to meet you at Andrews [Air Force Base] and bring you to Navy Yard where he can discuss results of your meeting over dinner aboard the Sequoia. He has added Haldeman and myself to party. Unless he insists otherwise, I will be at Andrews upon your arrival to give you some personal insights on his attitude as of the time of your arrival.

“During meeting which was just concluded (1:30 p.m. Washington time), the President asked that you think carefully about where we stand on the way back. He is adamant that there must be a two-day strike starting Friday [May 5]. He insists this is necessary for the following three reasons:

  • “(1) It is essential for public opinion here so that he and the executive do not look like pitiful giants when all the news is recounting ARVN losses. He is also convinced as a result of polls that the American people favor strong bombing actions against Hanoi/Haiphong.
  • “(2) He is convinced that the strongest message must be conveyed to Hanoi and the Soviet leadership, especially in the face of the intransigence which you met in Paris.
  • “(3) He believes that our carrying the war to the North Vietnamese heartland cannot but help reassure what may become a sagging South Vietnamese morale.

“The President asked me to convey to you that the political question at this point is his growing conviction that we should move to cancel the summit now. He is beginning to believe that there will be no letup in the enemy offensive before the Moscow summit, and he stated that while he recognizes the argument that it keeps the critics off balance to proceed with the summit, on the other hand, toasting Soviet leaders and arriving at agreements while Soviet tanks and weapons are fueling a massive offensive against our allies is ludicrous and unthinkable.

“I pointed out to him that while Vietnam remains a crucial issue, it is not an overriding one and that, above all, he must think in terms of assessing the weekend’s activity together with your response from the North Vietnamese today. There is some logic to the view that today’s rigid intransigence is more a reflection of weakness than of strength. I also pointed out that we need to carefully assess all options and not to proceed down a course which will cost us both the summit and not achieve what we are seeking with respect to Southeast Asia. I do not find that the President is rigid in his view as was the case during your trip to Moscow. He seems much more serious and calculating in assessing the options. I am sure that the thesis which he has outlined above is not a conviction but rather a ‘devil’s advocate’ position which you will wish to consider most carefully between now and tonight’s dinner.” (Backchannel message TOHAK 2, May 2; National [Page 678] Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 22, HAK Trip Files, HAK’s Secret Paris Trip, 2 May 72—To/From)

Back in Washington, Kissinger drafted a memorandum to the President on May 2 entitled “Our Options with Moscow in Light of Vietnam.” (Ibid., Box 74, Country Files, Europe, U.S.S.R., Moscow Summit 1972 (2 of 2)) This memorandum was not sent to Nixon, presumably because Kissinger discussed his recommendations regarding the summit during dinner that evening from 6:35 p.m. to 8:58 p.m. with the President and Haig on the Presidential yacht Sequoia. (Ibid., White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary) Notes of the meeting have not been found, but it is described in Kissinger’s memoirs. Kissinger noted the course of the discussion following his report on his meeting with the North Vietnamese:

Nixon was still eager for B–52 strikes against Hanoi and Haiphong starting Friday, May 5. I did not believe a one-shot operation would meet our needs; I urged Nixon to wait until Monday and to give me forty-eight hours to develop some plans for sustained operations. In addition, I knew that General [Creighton] Abrams was opposed: As usual, he wanted to throw all B–52s into the ground battle in the South. How specifically to react was primarily a tactical question. But Nixon, Haig, and I were all agreed that a major military move was called for and that we would decide on its nature within forty-eight hours.

“What concerned Nixon most was the imminent Moscow summit. Haunted by the memory of [former President Dwight] Eisenhower’s experience in 1960, he was determined that any cancellation or postponement should come at his initiative. My view was that we had no choice; we would have to run whatever risk was necessary. If Le Duc Tho was right and the collapse was at hand, we would not be able to go to Moscow anyway. We could not fraternize with Soviet leaders while Soviet-made tanks were rolling through the streets of South Vietnamese cities and when Soviet arms had been used decisively against our interests for the second time in six months. I had sought to give Hanoi every opportunity for compromise and the Soviets the maximum incentive to dissociate from Hanoi. That strategy would now have to be put to the test. We would have to break the back of Hanoi’s offensive, to re-establish the psychological equilibrium in Indochina. Whether to pre-empt the expected cancellation or leave the decision to the Soviets seemed to me a matter for Nixon’s political judgment.

“He was adamant that a cancellation by Moscow would be humiliating for him and politically disastrous; if it had to be, we must cancel the summit ourselves. He ordered preparation of a set of severe retaliatory military measures against the North Vietnamese; since I told him that these could well cause the Soviets to cancel, he instructed me to plan on the assumption that he would preempt Moscow. He would [Page 679] address the nation early the following week to explain whatever military moves he finally decided on, and announce his cancellation of the summit. SALT would go forward, however; it could be signed in a low-key way at a lower level. And so the fateful Sequoia meeting ended.” (Kissinger, White House Years, page 1176)

In his diary entry for May 2, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman also noted a conversation he had had with Nixon that day: “We then got into the problem of the Summit. The P[resident] feeling that because of the Paris problem Henry got into yesterday and Henry’s recommendation now, which is that we cancel the Summit, that we’ve got to at least consider doing so.” (The Haldeman Diaries, page 451)