205. Editorial Note
From 12:13 to 1:15 p.m. on May 8, 1972, Assistant to the President Henry Kissinger, Secretary of the Treasury Connally, and President Nixon met in the Oval Office to discuss Vietnam and U.S.-Soviet relations. Connally entered the room as Nixon and Kissinger were discussing United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s efforts to put a resolution on Vietnam before the Security Council. Kissinger speculated that actually the Soviets had put forward this resolution. “The Russians want it to keep you from acting, clearly, or to put the maximum obstacles against you,” he noted. “Now, we can easily handle the Security Council today.” Kissinger then added: “The only marginal [Page 775] utility of delaying 24 hours is to pull the teeth of your Cabinet members who were going against our plan. You know, the way your position is now that Rogers is saying he was for it if it succeeds and against it if it fails.” He also noted that both Secretary of Defense Laird and Director of Central Intelligence Helms opposed the action.
The President then requested Connally’s evaluation of the situation. Connally noted: “The safest thing is always to basically to let the status quo remain the status quo of whatever the hell develops. That’s the safest thing. That’s your basic bureaucratic approach that you never want to disturb that. That somewhat is reflected in both [Secretary of Defense] Mel[vin] [Laird] and [Secretary of State] Bill [Rogers]’s attitude. Secondly, I think you have to assume that Bill really would not like to see the summit come off, the Russian summit—he’d like to see it postponed, for whatever reason, but he’d just like to see it go by the boards. Third, I think there’s some argument to be made on behalf of Mel’s argument that it would cost us a hell of a lot. But, dear God, this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.” Both Kissinger and Nixon agreed that this course of action would be less costly. Connally underscored that 90 percent of the matériel coming into North Vietnam actually came through the ports. Thus, bombing damage in fact was minimal and consequently a blockade just might work.
Connally noted that he could not support the continued degradation of the U.S. and GVN military position. Nixon then asked Connally whether it would have been better to enact the bombings even if “South Vietnam goes down anyway.” In response, Connally said: “Well, the argument is that at least we send a message to other aggressor nations that they’re going to suffer some damage.” Kissinger agreed that it was better off to do it anyway, as it would prevent American troops from being caught by the North Vietnamese. Nixon added that the bombing would be a card to get back U.S. POWs. Kissinger, arguing for the importance of the blockade in addition to the bombing, noted: “Well, Mr. President, if you do the blockade and the ARVN still collapses, then you trade the blockade for the prisoners, and at least you’ve got a half-way reasonable negotiation.” He added that the blockade may in fact mitigate a GVN collapse as it would be a “shot in the arm.” The conversation continued:
Connally: “There’s another advantage. This way, if Russia wants to help, and I really believe they want to help, I just believe that, this gives them an argument to say to Hanoi, now, we told you, we knew you, we just say you’ve got to come to grips with us now. And it seems to me it gives them a powerful argument to use with Hanoi.”
Nixon: “It’s a possibility. Now, let me put it this way. As far as the Russians helping, we know that given the course—the present course of events they aren’t going to help.”
Connally: “Of course they’re not.”[Page 776]
Nixon: “Now, our doing this may make them more difficult. But that’s almost impossible for them to be much more difficult. If there’s at least a chance that it does allow them to do something, would you agree, Henry?”
Kissinger: “That’s right—what—they will cancel the summit, in my judgment, although it’s not totally excluded.”
Nixon: “That’s 40–60, 30–70?”
Kissinger: “I would rate it higher—I’d rate it 80–20. But they may then say that now they’ve done their duty, that that’s the only thing they’re going to do to us, and continue bilateral relations with Hanoi.”
Nixon: “You have here—you should have the contingency plan ready for what we say when they cancel the summit.”
Kissinger: “I’ve got a statement already.”
President: You should have a statement ready, and so forth.”
Kissinger: “It’s ready.”
Nixon: “I should not have to make it.”
Kissinger: “No. These literally are statements I can brief on it.”
Nixon: “You should read from it, exactly. Exactly. Because I think John’s smelled a rat pretty clearly, and Bill, he’s not interested in that Soviet summit.”
Kissinger: “Well, because he knows we’ve got it all settled and he doesn’t want to be in the position of Peking. Because actually the fact is we’ve got—”
Nixon: “we’ve got a hell of a summit.”
Kissinger: “We can announce two agreements every night.”
Nixon then noted that there was in fact a 40–50 percent chance that the South Vietnamese would collapse in the absence of military action. However, on the diplomatic side, if the blockade was enacted, then he obtained some leverage with which to use to obtain POWs. Also, on the military side, a blockade would hamper Hanoi’s military operations and be an immediate encouragement to the South Vietnamese. “Better off for having tried,” he believed.
Connally said that the administration might be accused of ruining its new Soviet and Chinese policies, but that accusation was untrue. He believed that the American people wanted an end to the war, and especially to get out by November, and thus would support even the bombing. The Nixon administration could no longer look toward a peaceful resolution with Hanoi, as North Vietnam had virtually humiliated the United States. Only “military pressure” would work at this point, Connally asserted. He advised the President to inform the American people that he would not permit the humiliation and defeat of this nation, an action the public would then understand. Nixon thus [Page 777] decided to render his speech at 9 p.m. that evening. He promised to show it to Rogers and Laird prior to its televised broadcast.
Connally left the meeting at 12:59, and Kissinger a few minutes later; Haldeman entered at 1 p.m. Nixon discussed Connally’s views with Haldeman. Haldeman agreed that it was better to end up in a stronger position. He also complained about efforts by Rogers to forestall Kissinger getting credit for the summit, and even argued that Rogers would try to have it canceled on this basis. Nixon added that he thought that Laird opposed the summit as well. Nixon noted the advice of Kissinger not to go to the summit when the Soviets were aiding the enemy offensive in Vietnam. But Nixon thought that it might be okay to go and talk anyway, as Vietnam and the summit were inseparable. However, it was not apparent that South Vietnam would hold out through the opening of the summit. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, May 8, 1972, 12:13 –1:15 p.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 721–11)