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

Nixon: Looking at the last point first,2 because it could turn out to be the most important. He’s certainly right in the short run. In the short run, if I go on television and say there’s Soviet tanks and guns and they’re shooting on civilians and the rest, people will say a damn courageous act.3 We need to mobilize our hawks.

Haldeman: Hell, Eisenhower gained points on the U–2 summit cancellation when they canceled out. [unclear exchange]

Nixon: In the long run, what we’ve got to look at is what happens. Now, if canceling the summit, and nothing’s sure, would substantially increase the chances of bringing the Vietnam thing to a successful conclusion, I would do it in a minute. If, on the other hand, canceling the summit is only marginal in terms of bringing it to a successful conclusion, then—

Haldeman: Then you’re losing a lot of long-range pluses.

Nixon: What?

[Page 711]

Haldeman: Then you’re losing a lot of long-range pluses.

Nixon: Well, not too big pluses, except you’re buying a lot of long-range negatives.

Haldeman: Okay.

Nixon: The long-range negatives being that—

Haldeman: A collapse of the Nixon foreign policy.

Nixon: A collapse in foreign policy, but also, a massive, when you cancel the summit, upgrading of some [unclear] and all those—the Soviet propaganda force I’m not referring to the shitasses that Henry talks to, but I’m referring to all over the world, demonstrations and so forth and so forth—would unleash enormous tensions. You’d have embassies and, well you know what I mean, they’d really start raising holy hell with us because they’d figure, “What the Christ? Nixon has drawn the sword; we have no interest in whatever.” So we’d have meetings. That’s the point that I think we have to have in mind.

Haldeman: Is a postponement of the summit not a possibility?

Nixon: A postponement or if you cancel it you fundamentally postpone it too. You can postpone the agreement.

Haldeman: Postpone it to June?

Nixon: You see? No. You could say I’m postponing the trip until after the offensive is over. So what would the Russians say—you don’t want to come now, screw you. Do you see my point? Either you do it or—you can only postpone it to a degree.

Haldeman: So they say screw you. There’s a chance that they don’t.

Nixon: No. I think that if we cancel the summit or postpone the summit, which I think any way you call it, it’s a dodge, it’s going to lead to—

Haldeman: Massive Soviet propaganda.

Nixon: Massive propaganda. It also bears on the failure or success of our Nixon foreign policy. Now the whole policy comes down through channels as a result of his insistence on fighting this terrible war in Vietnam. Now—

Haldeman: That’s the line.

Nixon: In a sense, that cost is too high to pay, in a sense. It’s too high to pay, because you can confuse the Vietnam thing to an extent.

[Omitted here is discussion of personal items and Kissinger’s analysis.]

Nixon: At first blush you make the announcement, you’re going to have a hell of a lot of hawkish sentiment in this country. Say—

Haldeman: It won’t last—that won’t hold very long. That’ll give you a blip.

Nixon: What the hell has happened to the Nixon foreign policy.

[Page 712]

Haldeman: But you then get the erosion. The press will just, they’re already trying to set it up that you gambled all the neat pieces that you were putting together are in grave danger coming apart. The cancellation of the summit would be the maximum signal that they have come apart, and they, to them, that would give them a rallying point to build that case on. And they are so—you know, they leap on anything they get; anything they can get their foot in at all.

Nixon: Sure.

Haldeman: That—so it would erode over—You’d get a good blip. I think you would get a hell of a bounce at first—a strong move by the President—

Nixon: Courageous.

Haldeman: Not going to kick us around and that kind of stuff. But then, you have to do that in early May.

Nixon: Second thoughts would be very, very difficult.

Haldeman: Would build up, and then the Democrats at the convention in July would say, “Here we are, a President who was going to go to Moscow and bring us a generation of peace has now bogged us down in an unwinnable, desperate war in Vietnam.”

Nixon: See, Henry is, if I can analyze it correctly, he doesn’t even know this, but put yourself in his position. He feels, and he says as well, and I’ve tried to explain this to Henry, that it’s U.S. policy too; I think that he’s, because he failed, I mean because they did not come true as he had hoped they would in both Moscow and Vietnam, he wants to say in effect “goddamn you, you can’t do this to us,” get my point? So it’s a bravado act basically. So we say we’re going to cancel the summit.

Haldeman: It’s a good, short-term bravado act.

Nixon: Now, on the other hand, let’s look at it this way. Assuming the situation in Vietnam, assuming if we don’t go to the summit, we’ve got to hit the Hanoi–Haiphong area as sure as hell, then goddamn Laird is playing his usual games, saying we can’t find targets and so forth. He is a miserable bastard, really.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 718–4. No classification marking. According to his Daily Diary, Nixon met with Haldeman in the Oval Office from 10:02 to 10:50 a.m. The editors transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. Reference is to a memorandum from Kissinger concerning options regarding the summit; see Document 183.
  3. In a conversation earlier that day, Nixon told Haldeman that: “Kissinger has reached the conclusion, which we all knew, is to rather than to bomb is to announce that we are not going to this Summit. Now, that’s a tentative conclusion at this point.” Haldeman asked “And not bomb?” Nixon responded: “But not bomb after that. I tended to agree certainly with that last night. However, I wanted to see this poll. Here’s the whole point. Why then if not going to the Summit is going to be a plus, it is worth doing? I mean, my point, is, if people still want you to go, in spite of things in South Vietnam. See what I mean? And with the accomplishment of it all, Henry is obviously very disappointed at what happened, in looking at things, he can’t go. He’s unhappy that he can’t go. That’s his position.” Haldeman answered “There is a counter-argument which is that not going is going to be played as the collapse of the Nixon foreign policy.” Nixon agreed: “Exactly. Well, that’s the point—the point is, I’m sorry, I was noting last night, trying to get Kissinger, and the point is, what would we get for canceling? Canceling the Summit certainly looses the doves, it hardens the opposition on the war in Congress. Frankly, it’s the hook that prepares the way for bombing. But the key is what happens then. I mean, if we lose—if canceling the Summit, then we go off and bomb, and then we win the war, then if that’s the key winning the war, we’d do it in a minute. The key question is are there going to be—that canceling the Summit, of course, would have an immediate reaction, very courageous and would be the right thing to do, wouldn’t—not playing around. On the other hand, in the final analysis, all that really matters is the failure or success of the policy.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, May 3, 1972, 7:58–8:09 a.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 718–1)