195. Editorial Note

From 3:04 to 5:35 p.m. on May 4, 1972, President Nixon, his Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman—joined by the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs Haig a half hour after the conversation began—discussed the impact of the war in Vietnam upon the upcoming Moscow summit. Nixon contended that either side would cancel the summit in light of the air strikes being ordered against North Vietnamese Army units. He noted:

“That strike should have gone off last week. It didn’t go. But it’s got to go. Now I want to tell you what I have in mind; it is to go. I don’t care what the Russian answer is, it is to go. Then it is to go for two days, but not for two days and then wait to see if they negotiate. It is to go for two days, and then we will wait a little, but we’ve got to get back to the battle [Hue]. I realize that. And then, if the Russians cancel, we’ll blockade. We will blockade and continue to bomb. But we are now going to win the war, and that’s my position … If it costs the election, I don’t give a shit. But we are going to win the war.”

The President added that he could not allow the war to be lost. “We are going to cream those bastards, and we’re going to cream them good,” he proclaimed.

The conversation then turned to the domestic and international impacts that a cancellation of the summit would wrought. Kissinger noted that the Soviets were out to destroy Nixon. He believed that the situation in Vietnam would bring this intended consequence about. The [Page 738]discussion then turned to Kissinger’s meeting with the North Vietnamese. “Their strategy is to deprive the American people of any hope,” Kissinger stated. But Kissinger recommended that the administration first blockade, since, as he put it, “You can say that the Russians might accept the likelihood of a blockade.” Being “leery” of an air strike, Kissinger added: “What I would do—What I am now, at least, putting to you for your consideration is do a blockade. That is at least something totally different … Then you still have to bomb.” Nixon responded, “I know.” Kissinger believed that with a blockade first the President would not run up against a “massive emotional reaction” that would be generated by the bombing.

Later in the conversation Nixon expressed regret that he did not follow his instincts and order extensive bombing in the past, but he did see some merit to the proposal of the blockade. “You see, Henry, this appeals to me so much more than breaking off the summit and then doing it,” he related. “The reason is that, goddammit, we’re just not using rhetoric this time.” Kissinger replied: “My worry about the 2-day bombing strike was, whether you let—The first strike you did on Hanoi and Haiphong was to get their attention. You’ve given them 3 weeks to get their attention. They haven’t delivered. If now we do a 2-day strike, and then they say, ‘all right, you’ve got our attention again,’ and sucker us through a summit, then we are in June and we are still in an inconclusive situation.”

Nixon thought that the summit would inevitably be canceled, and thus the U.S. Government had to do it before the Soviets did. He contended that he could not go to the summit when the Communists were in positions of strength, especially in Vietnam. “I’m putting it quite bluntly now; I’m being quite precise,” he remonstrated. “South Vietnam may lose, but the United States cannot lose. Which means that basically I have made the decision that whatever happens in South Vietnam, we are going to cream North Vietnam.” Since the bombing was essential for taking out roads, rail lines into China, and petroleum stockpiles, a blockade would not work without consequent bombing. Nixon noted his position: “We know that we can lose the summit, and still not lose the country. But we cannot lose this war without losing the country. Now, I’m not thinking of myself but I’m thinking of the country. So I return, we cannot lose the war. Having started on that proposition, what do you have to do? For once, we’ve got to use the maximum power of this country against a shit-ass little country to win the war. We can’t use the word ‘win’ though, though others can, but we’re going to use it for the purpose.” The blockade would be the key to a positive outcome. Noting that the North Vietnamese had consistently rejected “every offer of peace possible,” Nixon related that there was little choice other than all-out bombing. He was aware of the results of the bombing, which included that “the Russians would cancel [Page 739]the summit. [The] Russians could get very tough with Berlin,” and that “they might fart around in Cuba.”

In response to Kissinger’s prediction that the Soviets would cancel the summit at the inception of air strikes in Vietnam, the following discussion ensued:

Nixon: “Now you see the problem is, it is true we’re risking the summit for a blockade. But, on the other hand, on balance, I think if we have the blockade, we have a plan which we know militarily will accomplish our goal which is not losing this damn war.”

Kissinger: “Mr. President, I am not even sure—my Soviet expert thinks that a blockade is somewhat less risky than bombing because the Soviets don’t have to challenge it. But probably it risks certain—I would agree with my Soviet guys—that the trouble with the bombing and that sort of thing is that the North Vietnamese are practically asking us to bomb.”

Nixon: [unclear exchange] “The trouble’s with the bombing first and the blockade second, because you’re for bombing if we blockade.”

Kissinger: “Oh, yeah.”

Nixon: “The trouble’s with the bombing first, go ahead.”

Kissinger: “The trouble with the bombing first is that the North Vietnamese are practically asking us to bomb them. There must be some collusion between them and the Soviets at this—at this point, even if there wasn’t any earlier. They must have the whole propaganda machine revved up. But leaving that aside, you bomb for 2 days and then stop, or bomb for 3 days and then stop, then the North Vietnamese—then the Russians say all right, we’ve got the word and will discuss it with you at the summit. Then we’re again, if they don’t cancel, then we’re in the same box we were at the beginning.”

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: “You can’t bomb again until after the summit they launch another series of offensives. That’s the box I was in, in Moscow. What else? They say nothing, and then you keep bombing, and they’ll cancel the summit because of the bombing, which is the most neuralgic form of behavior. And on top of that—”

Nixon: “See, it was the bombing, you’ll recall, that brought Johnson down.”

Kissinger: “—So, I think that if you blockade first—I think the basic decision you have to make, which is also the one John Connally mentioned to us, is are you going to win this war and are you going to do whatever is necessary not to lose the war? Once you’ve made that decision, the rest is tactics, which works better. I think the blockade gives you a chance to state your case. It gives the Soviets a minor opportunity to back off it, if they want to. After all, they did back off [Page 740]in Cuba when challenged with a blockade. It—And then you start bombing systematically, just running down their supplies, you don’t have to do a horrendous strike because you can operate like a surgeon. We just put one aircraft carrier out there with no other job but to take out the POL first. If we mine the harbor and, say, arm the mines in such a way that they are set for 4 days from now, that forces the ships out of there, because if they are not they are going to bottled up in the harbor now. Then we go after the docks. And—So we can reduce Haiphong to a shell and we can systematically destroy their war manufacturing capacity. The thing that killed Johnson was that they were pumping in stuff faster than he could destroy it, and that they were fighting a guerrilla war, so they didn’t have to keep large amounts of supplies flowing south, and because Sihanoukville was open, so they didn’t have to—”

Nixon: “we’ve cut a lot of that out.”

Kissinger: “With Sihanoukville closed, with all of their stuff having to come down the rails, or the roads, and with Haiphong closed, and with their reserves being systematically destroyed, something’s got to give. Now, that’s the argument for the blockade. And I think if we go tough, we’ve got to give the maximum shock effect and get it over with.”

Nixon: “Now, just one question. What do the Chinese do?”

Kissinger: “Well, the blockade incidentally has the additional advantage that it forces Hanoi closer to the Chinese. And therefore, what will happen? The Chinese will scream. The Chinese may even open up their southern ports as a replacement for Haiphong and permit stuff to come in at that port. That will take months, however, to bring [unclear]. But there’s a good chance that they would—

Nixon: “You don’t see the Chinese moving manpower in there? I didn’t think so either.”

Kissinger: “No, besides it wouldn’t make any difference. They wouldn’t get enough of them down. But I don’t think they’d do manpower. They would open, in my judgment, one of their southern ports as a replacement for Haiphong.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Executive Office Building, Conversation No. 334–44)