185. Conversation Between President Nixon and his Chief of Staff (Haldeman)1

[Omitted here is discussion of press criticism and initial discussion of the Moscow summit.]

Nixon: Well, Henry got nothing out of them over there2 as he expected. I expected it. I understand he’s terribly disappointed.

Haldeman: I’m not surprised—

Nixon: Why would he—

Haldeman: —but I think poor old Henry, I think he really thought he was going to get something.

Nixon: Well, he found [unclear exchange] and this and that. I’m going to talk with Haig this afternoon.3 He’s quite—

Haldeman: It really did do nothing?

Nixon: He said it was the most unproductive of all meetings he’s had. I demanded we overthrow Thieu.

Haldeman: They didn’t even serve warm tea.

Nixon: No. But the point is, Bob, we have got to realize that on this whole business of negotiating with North Vietnam, Henry has never been right. Now, I just can’t help it, but just have to say that, just a straight out flat conclusion.

Haldeman: Well, Al never thought he was going to get anything.

Nixon: Well, I didn’t either.

Haldeman: Al told me before Henry left, he said, “It’s probably a good exercise, but I don’t think he’s—

Nixon: And he’s not going to put it out this time, naturally, he—because it would raise hopes that things were going on. We don’t want to raise any hopes. You know, that’s the line, as I said, that the P.R. types around here. Thank God I talked to Al about it, but I didn’t take that line in Dallas. I mean, in San Antonio.

Haldeman: Yeah.

[Page 683]

Nixon: Because we have, we have to take the hard line now [unclear]. That’s all we can do. We have no other choice. And if you start indicating anything about ceasefire or coalition government or anything like that, we’re not going to go down that course. Good God almighty, you realize what happens to your negotiating position, the peaceniks and all the rest. They’ll be in there harder than anyone. But we’ll just keep crackin’ in there.

Haldeman: Go ahead with your big ones now?

Nixon: we’ll have to. What the hell else do you do?

Haldeman: you’ve got to.

Nixon: What the hell else do you do? you’ve got to do it for American public opinion. You’ve got to do it for South Vietnamese, keep their morale from dropping. And you’ve got to do it in order to have some bargaining position with the enemy. And also, the thing [unclear] feel strongly about it, I think we better cancel the Russian summit. Now this is the one that just breaks Henry’s heart, because—

Haldeman: What about postponing?

Nixon: Well, then they’d cancel.

Haldeman: You could make it look like you were—if you postpone indefinitely, just announce that you will not go to the summit under these conditions.

Nixon: Yeah, yeah.

Haldeman: Don’t say, “I’m canceling it.” Don’t say, “I’ll never go.” But say, “Under the present conditions I will not go, and therefore I have canceled my plans for the May 27th departure, or whatever it is, May 20th departure, and what becomes of the summit depends on what happens in other places.” Then they can come back and say, “We cancel the summit,” but you’ve still taken the initiative.

Nixon: Oh, I have. You see, all of this is very painful, I know, to all of our people around here. It’s terribly painful to Henry, because he sees basically our whole foreign thing in great jeopardy; I mean, all of our seeds, and this and that. But, on the other hand, we’ve got to look at what else we should do. And what else do you do is to, you know, continue to just to whack them out there and have the Russians cancel the summit—that’s the worst of both worlds.

Haldeman: If you cancel the summit, you gain something from them. If they cancel it, it hurts you.

Nixon: If they cancel it, it looks like we—peace has suffered a great blow because of our failure in Vietnam, the President’s stubbornness and smallness. If, on the other hand, I say I will not go to the summit so long as there is any—so long as we have a massive offensive being supported by the Soviet Union.

[Page 684]

Haldeman: And the Shah [of Iran] and all of those other folks too.

Nixon: Well, that’s [unclear]—

Haldeman: Yeah.

Nixon: Well, Henry has a point—and Al thinks there’s something to this point, he sees more to it than I do—that maybe he’s right that to a certain extent you keep the critics off balance as long as they think we may be up to something in the negotiating realm.

Haldeman: Right.

Nixon: He may be right.

Haldeman: Well, I think that’s right. But I don’t—it keeps that narrow fringe of critics off balance, and its important to keep them off balance.

Nixon: Yeah.

Haldeman: But that doesn’t buy you public support. Your general—

Nixon: I don’t think so either.

Haldeman: Your general public support is so—of course, the public wants peace. And that’s one problem you’ve got with canceling the summit—

Nixon: Yeah.

Haldeman: —is that they—

Nixon: Is that they want the Soviet summit.

Haldeman: Because they think that’s a peace—not just Vietnam, but other areas. [unclear exchange]

Nixon: They want—they’re mixed, they’re ambivalent about it, they want peace on the one hand—

Haldeman: That’s why postponing it rather than canceling it might put you in a better posture too. If they cancel it, it’s they who’ve destroyed it as part of the peace thing. But you’ve taken a strong position in saying “I won’t sit down with them under the present conditions.” Well, the other side of that is what’s happening on the military side.

Nixon: Well, I got [unclear]. It’s, as usual, it’s not—its hairy, but not nearly as frightening as the press indicates. You get the whole thing under Al’s—Al, whose great business [unclear], he says just keep it up, that’s all. Thieu’s going to stand. See, the point of the military thing is this. What the hell else do you do? Get out? Overthrow Thieu? Jesus Christ, you can’t do that.

Haldeman: We can’t. He can.

Nixon: Oh, yes, as part of the South. But, you know if he just runs out now, suppose he goes off and says I resign, perhaps the whole thing collapses. Your men are in great, great danger to the remaining Americans. No, we’ll just hold tight, don’t get panicked, you know what I mean?

Haldeman: Yeah.

[Page 685]

Nixon: Our people shouldn’t be so panicky. These are the way wars are. They go up and down. It’s tough; damn hard. And you can’t make good news, whatever it is, on the other hand. But there’s one thing I’m sure of we need: that strike on the Hanoi–Haiphong area. I think that just adds up on all scores. They don’t negotiate now, Christ, how are you going to improve your negotiating position. How are you going to get the—So, we’ll work on it.

Haldeman: [unclear]

Nixon: Well, it’s my job. But look, we have to face it. Henry’s judgment has not been good on this. His judgment has been terrific on most things. He thought he was going to get something out of the Russians when he went over, you know that.

Haldeman: And he didn’t get a drop.

Nixon: You remember? And I kept—that’s why I sent those goddamned cables. I knew he wasn’t getting anything. I said, “For Christ sakes, don’t give them what they want unless you get something that we want.” Well, it was all right. So, second point, he’s—and I told Al this morning, I said, “Al, aren’t you glad I didn’t make that SALT announcement?” And I sure am. Never wanted to anyway—making the SALT announcement.

Haldeman: Did Henry want you to make it—was he the one that was—

Nixon: Oh, yes.

Haldeman: Wanted you to go on—

Nixon: [unclear] he finally agreed yesterday morning.

Haldeman: [unclear]

Nixon: Yes. Oh, I hit him on the ground that—

Haldeman: Keep it away from Gerry Smith?

Nixon: Oh, also, yeah. I think here he was very personally involved because he wants to be sure that the White House gets the credit and so forth. My point is, Bob, that I don’t think there’s a hell of a lot of credit in it. I don’t think people give much of a shit about SALT. Do you?

Haldeman: Well, it’s a plus, but it isn’t a—

Nixon: It didn’t get any play last [unclear]—

Haldeman: Ron calls it a [unclear]. Nobody’s going to change their votes because of it.

Nixon: Yeah, it didn’t get much. Particularly when the enemy’s not knocking ground over there. No, the press is a big deal here, they’re just trying the usual thing, to divide the President from, you know, his hard-line soft-line. And also, they’re trying another one to build Henry as the peacemaker if we get it, you see? [unclear] At any rate, it isn’t going to come. And the reason they’re selecting Henry to beat Bill now is that they’ve given up on Rogers. That’s really what it gets down to. [Page 686]They know that they can’t go to him. They know that Henry isn’t going to be able to come. They know that Henry’s spoken. That’s why—

Haldeman: Henry’s so visible.

Nixon: Henry’s got to be able to understand this, that when he was—he didn’t I must say, to his credit, he didn’t talk to the press he wasn’t inciting them. But the purpose of raising Kissinger isn’t to help us, it’s to screw us. Right?

Haldeman: Absolutely.

Nixon: I’d keep Scali going on the other line—that the President’s in charge.

[Omitted here is discussion of press criticism. Haldeman and Nixon then discussed draft wording for a statement that unless the offensive was discontinued, the President would delay opening of summit with Soviets. Nixon then suggested that while there was interest in the summit, the American people did not want their President to go to Moscow while South Vietnam was under assault by the North Vietnamese using Soviet supplied guns and tanks.]

Nixon: I can’t see, I just can’t see—it’s just been hard for me to get this through to Henry—I just can’t see myself being in Moscow toasting the goddamn Russians, signing the SALT Treaty in the Hall of St. Peter, when Vietnam is under serious attack. Do you agree or not?

Haldeman: I think I do. My basic—I very, totally do.

Nixon: [unclear exchange]

Haldeman: I’m just trying to raise the other side of this. I don’t know how you argue the other side. I don’t see how you can argue—

Nixon: Well, can you compose the question, or a quick 500-word—500-sample—that we can run with immediately. You can do that, can’t you?

Haldeman: Yeah.

Nixon: What I’d like to do is to say is that “in view of the continued Communist invasion of South Vietnam, which is supported by massive Soviet aid and military equipment, some,” and I’m not thinking how to word it, some, or do you believe the President should—no, as you know, the President is scheduled go to the Soviet Union for a summit meeting. So, did you get that—but should he postpone the—his—meeting with the Soviet leaders until after the offensive—unless the offensive is discontinued. In other words, try to get it in the way, unless the offensive is discontinued, there are some that say that unless the offensive is discontinued, the President should refuse—should cancel—don’t say postpone or postponed, don’t give them several, don’t give them 18 questions, in other words make it one—his visit to the Soviet Union, or should not go forward with or should delay—to postpone his visit to the Soviet Union until the summit is—you’re going [Page 687]to word those things—will you try to get some wording out like that? Let’s just get a feeling of what kind of public opinion we’re faced with on that, see? I have a feeling myself that despite their great interest in having a summit, the people still don’t want their President to go there when we’re under a hell of an assault from Soviet guns and tanks. See my point?

Haldeman: Yup.

Nixon: Now, you just put it very succinctly. Do you believe the President should cancel his—postpone—his meeting with the Soviets, cancel it until—

Haldeman: That’s it. Cancel until the offensive—

Nixon: Cancel it until the offensive is discontinued. The summit meeting with the Soviet leaders—until the offensive in Vietnam is stopped or discontinued or something like that. Or, do you believe he should go forward with his meeting with the Soviet leaders, regardless of the fact that even as the offensive in Vietnam continues. We’re going to be in the position, in my view—this is the second week, we don’t get there until the 22nd—in other words, we’ve got 3 weeks; we’re going to be in a position then when the offensive will have frankly run its course, and they will not have succeeded. I still think that’s the case. When I say not succeeded, they will have succeeded in the public’s mind in many ways, and part of the Second Corps. But any person that knows that a goddamn thing about the country knows that all that matters in Vietnam are Third and Fourth Corps. That’s where the people are. Anyway, that’s the way it is. You did get your poll off, didn’t you—the poll up to the Congress, and so forth?

Haldeman: Yes, sure did. With a lot of background.

Nixon: [unclear]

Haldeman: I didn’t see any. Well that’s what I wanted. We got it out yesterday. [unclear] I did that.

Nixon: [unclear] The purpose of this is really to affect our own people’s morale, and so forth. You see? I certainly would like to have some public record but I don’t think we’re going to get it. But everyone—Colson’s group knows the importance of it. Now that’s something that should be played, you understand? That’s not Polyannish.

Haldeman: That’s right. That’s public opinion. That’s what people—

Nixon: That’s right. You see, putting out the polls, it’s not taking the Pollyannaish line. It’s should we kick these bastards or not.

Haldeman: That’s right.

Nixon: So that’s a pretty good one.

[Omitted here is a discussion of SALT and Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 717–19. No classification marking. According to his Daily Diary, Nixon met with Haldeman in the Oval Office from 12:08 to 12:42 p.m. The editors transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. Reference to Kissinger’s meeting with Le Duc Tho in Paris that day; see Document 183.
  3. See Document 186.