208. Editorial Note

At 9 p.m. on May 8, 1972, President Nixon addressed the nation in a televised speech on the situation in Southeast Asia. Nixon noted the efforts his administration had taken to secure a peaceful resolution in Vietnam and included the following description of the Kissinger secret trip to Moscow the previous month:

“On April 20, I sent Dr. Kissinger to Moscow for 4 days of meetings with General Secretary Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders. I [Page 784] instructed him to emphasize our desire for a rapid solution to the war and our willingness to look at all possible approaches. At that time, the Soviet leaders showed an interest in bringing the war to an end on a basis just to both sides. They urged resumption of negotiations in Paris, and they indicated they would use their constructive influence.”

However, Nixon added, the North Vietnamese subsequently had refused to entertain any approach from the American side and in fact had launched three military offensives in South Vietnam within a 2-week period. Given that the only way to “stop the killing” was for the United States to act “to keep the weapons of war out of the hands of the international outlaws of North Vietnam,” Nixon declared:

“I therefore concluded that Hanoi must be denied the weapons and supplies it needs to continue the aggression. In full coordination with the Republic of Vietnam, I have ordered the following measures which are being implemented as I am speaking with you.

“All entrances to North Vietnamese ports will be mined to prevent access to these ports and North Vietnamese naval operations from these ports. United States forces have been directed to take appropriate measures within the internal and claimed territorial waters of North Vietnam to interdict the delivery of any supplies. Rail and all other communications will be cut off to the maximum extent possible. Air and naval strikes against military targets in North Vietnam will continue.

“These actions are not directed against any other nation. Countries with ships presently in North Vietnamese ports have already been notified that their ships will have three daylight periods to leave in safety. After that time, the mines will become active and any ships attempting to leave or enter these ports will do so at their own risk.”

Nixon also ensured that the implications of his actions especially bore significance for the Soviet Government:

“I particularly direct my comments tonight to the Soviet Union. We respect the Soviet Union as a great power. We recognize the right of the Soviet Union to defend its interests when they are threatened. The Soviet Union in turn must recognize our right to defend our interests.

“No Soviet soldiers are threatened in Vietnam. Sixty thousand Americans are threatened. We expect you to help your allies, and you cannot expect us to do other than to continue to help our allies. But let us, and let all great powers, help our allies only for the purpose of their defense, not for the purpose of launching invasions against their neighbors.

“Otherwise, the cause of peace, the cause in which we both have so great a stake, will be seriously jeopardized.

“Our two nations have made significant progress in our negotiations in recent months. We are near major agreements on nuclear arms limitation, on trade, on a host of other issues.

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“Let us not slide back toward the dark shadows of a previous age. We do not ask you to sacrifice your principles, or your friends, but neither should you permit Hanoi’s intransigence to blot out the prospects we together have so patiently prepared.

“We, the United States and the Soviet Union, are on the threshold of a new relationship that can serve not only the interests of our two countries, but the cause of world peace. We are prepared to continue to build this relationship. The responsibility is yours if we fail to do so.”

The full text of the speech is in Public Papers: Nixon, 1972, pages 583–587. Earlier drafts of the speech containing Nixon’s handwritten revisions are in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 494, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1972, Vol. 2; ibid., Box 127, Country File, Vietnam, President’s May 8, 1972 Speech; and ibid., White House Special Files, President’s Personal Files, Box 75, President’s Speech File, Monday, May 8, 1972 Vietnam Speech [1 of 2].

Nixon carefully cultivated the support of Congress on this move. Immediately prior to the speech, in a meeting with the Congressional leadership held in the Roosevelt Room of the White House that lasted from 8:11 to 8:28 p.m., Nixon discussed the actions he was embarking upon in Vietnam. (Ibid., White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary) According to notes of the meeting contained in a May 8 memorandum for the President’s files from speechwriter William Safire, Nixon stressed that he would “continue to pursue” diplomatic options and indicated “the Russians and North Vietnamese are aware of this, and they can choose to use it.” (Ibid., White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Box 88, Memoranda for the President, Beginning May 7, 1972) A May 8 memorandum from the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Kissinger to the President contained a briefing for this meeting and an attached decision-making sequence. “The Soviet Union has been completely unhelpful as an intermediary,” Kissinger asserted. He also made the following recommendation: “After the discussion is completed you will want to emphasize that you intend to stand absolutely firm and that we need the unified support of the Congress and American people in our resolve to end the conflict on an honorable basis.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Subject Files, Box 128, Vietnam, President’s May 8, 1972 Speech)

In a plan for the public framing of the speech outlined in a May 7 memorandum sent to Haldeman, Nixon noted that “the most important assignment you and every member of the staff have for the next two or three weeks is to go all out presenting and defending the line I will be taking on Monday night and attacking the attackers in an effective way.” (Ibid., White House Special Files, President’s Personal Files, Box 75, President’s Speech File, Monday, May 8, 1972 Vietnam Speech [1 of 2]) Kissinger endeavored to explain the speech in a press [Page 786] briefing on May 9. A paper entitled “Themes for HAK Presentation,” May 8, set guidelines for the “basic posture” of the briefing as “cool, firm, patience exhausted, determined, not at all defensive.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Subject Files, Box 127, Vietnam, President’s May 8, 1972, Speech) Kissinger described the press briefing in his memoirs:

“I briefed the press the next morning in the East room of the White House. Important though explanations to our public were, they also served a vital diplomatic function. Every statement was part of an effort to persuade Moscow and Peking to acquiesce in our course and thus to move Hanoi, by isolating it, to meaningful negotiations. Our most important concern, of course, was the summit, now less than two weeks away. I adopted a posture of ‘business as usual.’ I explained that we had not heard from Moscow—nor could we have—but that we were ‘proceeding with the summit preparations, and we see at this moment no reason from our side to postpone the summit meeting.’ We recognized that the Soviet leaders would face ‘some short-term difficulties’ in making their decision, but we, for our part, still believed that a new era in East-West relations was possible. Because I did not want to embarrass the Soviets I sidestepped a question about whether on my visit I had forewarned Brezhnev of our intended actions. I simply stated that after my visit the Soviet leaders could not have been ‘under any misapprehension of how seriously it would be viewed if this offensive continued.’” (White House Years, page 1190)

The full text of Kissinger’s press briefing is in Department of State Bulletin, May 29, 1972, pages 752–760.