186. Conversation Between President Nixon and his Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig)1
[Omitted here is discussion of Kissinger’s impending return from meeting with the North Vietnamese in Paris and of the battle for the city of Hue in South Vietnam.]
Nixon: The thing that I’m—I think Al we’ve got to just awfully toughen up to, is this summit thing.
Haig: I see.
Nixon: You see we only have about 2 weeks before we have to leave, right?
Haig: And also, I, I don’t share Henry’s judgment that the Hue battle is going to be 10 days before it develops. I think it is going to develop very quickly.
Nixon: Um-hmm. You think we’re going to have a battle for Hue?
Haig: Yes, sir.
Nixon: Do you think—Well, it may be held, don’t you think? Or it may be lost, what do you think?
Haig: If they have the forces to do it—
Nixon: To hold it?
Haig: To hold—
Nixon: To hold it or to lose it, or both?
Haig: Well, to hold it. I don’t know whether they have the will to hold it. That’s the big question. If the enemy follows up very, very quickly, and puts a lot of pressure on them.
Nixon: Well, one thing about Hue, I know that it is a hell of a symbol because of being the old capital and all that sort of thing. But we have to remember, the damn place was half taken over in ‘68. In other words, it’s been fought over before.
Haig: Oh, yes, it has.
Nixon: I’m not trying to be Pollyannaish about it—[unclear exchange]
Haig: No, it wouldn’t be a strategic tragedy.
Nixon: That’s about what I mean. What is really the place is the Third and Fourth Corps. But then you come to this. How can you [Page 689] possibly, how can you possibly go to the Soviet Union and toast to Brezhnev and Kosygin and sign a SALT agreement in the Great Hall of St. Peter when Russian tanks and guns are kicking the hell out of our allies in Vietnam? Now that’s—I ask you, how in the hell can you do it?
Haig: It’s impossible to do if there’s that kind of a decisive battle still underway.
Nixon: Well, shouldn’t we then—Frankly, I think we should tell Henry tonight that—I don’t know, just mention the fact that I want him to think about this on the way back, that I have a view of the reaction he’s had that we will of course go through, go forward with a strike. It will be a 2-day strike however, not—rather than, rather than one on Friday and rather than one on Monday. Second, that I think the strike is necessary for three reasons: they issued a memo a month earlier by the domestic opinion in the United States—to have to, at least, to have some bargaining position with the Vietnamese and to a lesser extent the Soviets. And also for the giving the South Vietnamese some—a shot in the arm at a time when their morale desperately needs it. However, the critical question that we must discuss tonight is my growing conviction—use those terms—that we should move to cancel the summit. Now, I do not anticipate that there will be any significant change at any level in the enemy’s activities before going to Moscow. And I can-not—and while I recognize the argument that going to the summit keeps the, keeps our critics off balance, and that canceling it will give them ammunition, on the other side of the coin, going to the summit, toasting the Russians, having signed an agreement with them at a time that they are, that their tanks and weapons are fueling a massive offensive against our allies, our ally, I think is simply unthinkable. There’s no good choice, I realize. But I just wonder what you think, Al. I mean, I think that what we have to realize is that Henry’s judgment has been really fantastically good on so many things—I mean, the China initiative, playing of China against the Soviet Union, and so many other things—but I think we have to realize that his judgment with regard to negotiations with the North Vietnamese has been faulty. Throughout he’s always been hopeful, and he’s always read more into it than was there. A lot of people have been wrong about it. In any event, it’s his folly. Now, I don’t think we have any good choice, and I, and the only choice we’ve got is to frankly see it through on the military side. Now, of course, seeing it through on the military side assumes that if we are to be successful and that the South Vietnamese will not collapse. But also, in order that—so we agree. But on the other hand—what we do can perhaps make the difference in determining whether they do collapse or not, because the will—I really think they get a hell of a shot in the arm by our stronger position against the enemy, in the enemy’s heartland. And that brings me to [Page 690] the blockade thing. I mean, we’ll blockade the sons-of-bitches, and that’ll be—it’s a terrible risk, I know.
Haig: It’s a risk. It’s a terrible risk in two senses. One is it’s going to be a political price—
Haig: And two is, is it going to be decisive?
Nixon: Two—if it will work. If it’s going to work, to hell with the political price. You know what I mean? That’s all, that’s all it is. If it isn’t going to work, it isn’t worth doing. We can huff and puff all we want, but goddamn it, if its going to fail, that’s what I mean.
Haig: Well, that’s what I’m afraid of. That’s my major concern.
Nixon: What you mean is, your concern is that we’ll fail not because we fail in our blockade or our air but because the South Vietnamese will go out from under us. Is that it?
Haig: Well, a combination of two things. One is, that they have enough supplies there to keep them going through a critical period. It may be necessary to get these [unclear]
Nixon: In the end. Right.
Haig: And that there are alternative means for them, if the Chinese want to step in.
Nixon: All right, that’s the argument against the blockade. What is the argument against the bombing? Not the same, is it?
Haig: No, I—
Nixon: That should be—
Haig: I don’t have one there. I think, I think the bombing is not going to be decisive. But it plays another card in terms of Soviet risks in involvement, which they must take seriously. And then we’ll have to assess their reaction. It’s quite obvious that they’ve had no luck with Hanoi, if they’ve tried, and I’m not sure that they did.
Nixon: you’re really not sure that they did or not?
Nixon: I, I’ve never—I think that they said, in that wire to Henry. I’ll never forget what Brosio said to me 20 years ago, he said that the Russians are the biggest liars, the best actors.
Haig: It’s a simple calculus to me. What is worth more to them? To humiliate the United States? To risk your re-election—a man that they know is tough and is not going to be taken in by them? Or to go on and quote “save Brezhnev’s policies first in Europe”—the Berlin treaties and all that go with it? And—
Nixon: And the SALT agreement. [unclear exchange] And all that with China—that they, rather than China, have the—the China thing is in the background [unclear exchange]. But all of those are basically intangibles, aren’t they, comparatively?[Page 691]
Haig: Well, they’re not necessarily sacrificed as a result of going the route that they’re going. They’re all reconstructable within a 2-or 3-year period.
Nixon: Somebody else. And much easier.
Haig: And much easier. [pause] Well, quite frankly, if I were in Moscow, and I were driven by the convictions that I think they’re driven by, I’d screw us. [pause] That tells you what [unclear] I think, but that’s the inclination I have. I think we’ve seen nothing new to cause us to think otherwise. I think we have to—Then you’ve got another set of circumstances that follow that is do you, do we believe that the whole thing is that important to them that they’ll stand up and break the summit and try to squeeze us in other places if we take this strong stand. That’s even a cloudier picture.
Nixon: You mean like Berlin?
Haig: Yes, sir.
Nixon: Or Cuba?
Haig: Cuba, which they’ve already started.
Nixon: What are they doing there?
Haig: they’ve got a nuclear-capable submarine in Cuban waters now. So they’ve started there. Their [unclear]—
Nixon: Of course the other side of the coin which Henry will argue very strongly is that we shouldn’t sink our whole foreign policy because of Vietnam.
Haig: That’s right. And it’s a good argument.
Nixon: It is a good argument.
Haig: It’s an argument that oughtn’t to be taken lightly.
Nixon: But how in the hell, how in the hell can you avoid it? How in the hell—
Haig: The question is—
Nixon: I don’t see any way out.
Haig: The question is what will sink it more decisively.
Nixon: Yeah, but let’s look at Vietnam for just a moment. How in the hell, how do you see any other way out? I mean, Christ, they’ve surrendered. We can’t go in [unclear]. What did you have in mind on that?
Haig: I don’t see any solution, unfortunately. If they hold the adamant position to overthrow Thieu, set a date, it just seems to me that that’s something that would kill them here, domestically, internationally—
Nixon: Oh, internationally too. Forget the goddamn domestic thing. We’ll handle that. I mean, that, that is the most important thing anyway. But internationally, Al, what the hell would the United States be if we overthrow Thieu and set a date? What in the hell would we be?[Page 692]
Haig: You know, they [unclear] about the dominoes. But Thailand would be gone in 6 months to a year, Cambodia, Laos.
Haig: Indonesia would be next.
Nixon: Yeah. No question. And Singapore, Malaysia, the [Taiwan] Straits, you’re goddamn right it would go. It would strike terror in the hearts of the Koreans. And frankly, let’s face it, in the Mid-East, things would heat up.
Haig: Well, I think that’s liable to happen in any event. That’s another thing we better keep our eye on. Then again, the kind of stand we take here is going to have an impact on that. It certainly requires, in the short term, a strong, solid crack.
Haig: Which may or may not be enough.
Nixon: Yeah, which may—that’s right, maybe not.
Haig: I think we’d be deluding ourselves if we think a 2-day strike on Hanoi and Haiphong is going to change their determination.
Nixon: I agree. I agree. On the other hand, it does, to a certain extent, help us in all of these three areas. But I think—
Haig: It does.
Nixon: And particularly on the bargaining position. You’ve got none now; you might have some later. I don’t know. I don’t know, but you might. That’s the point, right?
Haig: That’s exactly right. But you can’t afford not to do it. It will help, but it’s not going to be decisive. Now, it just might be, but my judgment would be no, especially if they continue to maintain momentum here and knock off Hue. If that happens, I’m more inclined to think they are going to keep trying to press at any cost while they’ve got the enemy—their enemy—reeling a bit.
Nixon: Right. Well, the thing—The difference between the two armies is quite clear. They’re willing to do by whatever means to sacrifice every goddamned North Vietnamese, and the South Vietnamese just don’t want to pay the price.
Haig: They don’t want to pay the price. [long pause] See, I think that if they would just stand there and fight, and bring this air in, I know damn well they could hold.
Haig: I just know it.
[Omitted here is discussion regarding tactical operations and the bombing in Vietnam.]
Haig: we’ve got to have a greater sense of urgency to bolster these little guys up. They need that bolstering.[Page 693]
Nixon: Well, I still come back to the fact that this goddamn strike will help in that respect, too.
Haig: It will help.
Nixon: I mean, their morale [unclear] this massive strike on the North. [unclear] The first one did. Yeah.
Haig: It was very evident to me, every place I went, they were riding high. And it helped the central government, because Thieu must now be at the point where he is going to start unraveling.
Haig: I think Henry does have to think about this very, very carefully.
Nixon: The summit?
Haig: Yes, sir.
Nixon: Yeah, yeah.
Haig: I don’t think we should do it precipitously, because—
Nixon: Oh no, no, no—
Haig: —I think we won’t know for a few days.
Nixon: But I think we need to think about it because we can’t—shit, we can’t just—
Haig: If you do it, it ought to be in terms of just leveling Hanoi and Haiphong and not just stopping with 2 days.
Nixon: Just continue it?
Haig: No. Make an assessment of the 2 days and then start.
Haig: And then just keep digging on. As long as they’re keeping the heat on, we keep it on.
Nixon: Yeah. In other words, we continue to hammer that area.
Haig: And if you ever make that decision, I think you have to have a concurrent decision that the summit is off, because I don’t think that they can take that head in terms of summitry.
[Omitted here is additional discussion on bombing in North Vietnam.]
Haig: So there is considerable Soviet restraint—fear of you; fear of what you might do.
Nixon: I think that may be so—that Henry may be right. It may be that Brezhnev does want the summit.
Haig: I think he does. I don’t think that they meant leaving out one. They’ve done things there like—
Nixon: they’ve taken a lot from us.[Page 694]
Haig: They really have in the last 3 months.
Nixon: We have hit them, hit their—the fact that they are supplying, and I hit them publicly in the Canadian Congress, and Parliament, and a hell of a lot of other places, you know. We did it in our speeches—Rogers, Laird, and all the rest.
Haig: And they’ve been extremely restrained about building up international opinion against the bombing of the North. They just haven’t said very much. So there’s no question that’s where they’re going, and that’s they way they’d like to go, and we can’t take that lightly. That’s why I think we have to plan worst case/best case/medium case, having to go through it, assess it as we can very, very carefully, because they’ll scream, and we may get some reaction there that will be indicative of what we should do next. [pause] In the final analysis, it’s really to keep these little guys on the ground there standing and fighting—
Nixon: That’s right. It always is; it’s always that way. We know that. [unclear] somewhere or others, as they get to the wall—their backs to the wall, I just think that they’re going to face a hell of a choice themselves. If they fight, they’re going to be taken over, and there will be a hell of a bloodbath, correct?
Haig: Oh, I don’t doubt that. It’s started in every area they’ve taken over.
Nixon: Has it?
Haig: And it’s [unclear]—the shooting of, you know, like public officials. I mean police RF/PF [Regional Forces/Provincial Forces] units just go. And that’s the way they operate.
Nixon: Well, they operate through terror. All the Communists do, for Christ’s sake. They’ve done it in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, East Germany, right? Goddamn it, how the hell do these bastards get in charge in the world, or the world they have? The Chinese have done it. It’s brutality, fear—it’s why so much is on the line.
Haig: Well, I don’t know.
Nixon: Oh, Henry can make a powerful case. Well we just can’t let Vietnam bring down a second President. But there are worse things, worse things.
Haig: Well, what you’ve got to do is what’s needed, because there isn’t very much worse, given the options.
Nixon: There is what?
Haig: There isn’t much worse than that—in this country.
Nixon: Much worse, what do you mean?
Haig: Than the thought of your not being here.
Nixon: You mean that’s worse?
Haig: That is. That, to me, is a vital national interest when you consider the alternative.[Page 695]
Nixon: So, you say that You’d find a graceful way to get out of Vietnam. Win the election. You’d do it? Is that what You’d say? And live to fight another day?
Nixon: Well that’s true. We can’t find a graceful way out. That’s the point.
Haig: [unclear exchange] the difference.
Nixon: [unclear exchange] this trip. Hell, Christ, after he went there, we should just tell them to kiss our ass—kiss their ass, right? [pause] After the Soviet [pause] Do you think Porter should walk out Thursday?2 Is that the plan?
Haig: If he just walks out he makes a blast. He’s got—Henry’s given him talking points, we’ve sent him through the Department. He doesn’t need too much urging anyhow. He’s very good. He’ll walk out, and then on Friday afternoon—it’s good that we do it that way, otherwise it would look loaded if we had gone Thursday.
[Omitted here is further discussion on the enemy offensive inside Vietnam and the South Vietnamese response to it and Kissinger’s return to Washington.]
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 717–20. No classification marking. According to his Daily Diary, Nixon met with Haig in the Oval Office from 12:42 to 1:20 p.m. The editors transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.↩
- May 4.↩