209. Minutes of Cabinet Meeting1
This was a day of intense activity and rife speculation throughout the White House. With the newspapers filled with ominous battlefield reports from Vietnam, Secretary Rogers had been hurriedly and [Page 787]publicly called back from Europe, and the NSC had been called into a session this morning which lasted three hours.2 Late in the afternoon the President requested television time at 9 o’clock EST to address the Nation on Vietnam.3 The Cabinet was assembled for 8:55 p.m. in the Cabinet Room, to watch the address on two television sets especially set up for the purpose—one in the northeast corner and the other in the southwest corner, of the room. The President had indicated that he would join the meeting after the conclusion of his speech.
Before the speech, the members of the Cabinet and the senior staff present milled about, talking, joking, but with somewhat more of an air of apprehension than usual. Both sets were tuned to NBC, and if it was a precedent to have a Cabinet meeting with two TV sets in the Cabinet Room, it must have been even more so—in these few minutes before the President started—to have them tuned to “Laugh In.” Ollie Atkins,4 with a still camera, and another photographer with a movie camera, took pictures before and during the President’s address.
A moment before 9 o’clock, the Vice President suggested we all take our seats—and all promptly did so. A sort of invisible diagonal line drew itself across the Cabinet table, with those on one side watching the northeast set and those on the other side watching the southwest set. The President came on, and complete silence fell over all in the room as he spoke, with each face turned intently toward one of the screens. When the speech was over the mood loosened somewhat, but all continued to watch the NBC commentary that followed—including an unsuccessful effort by anchor man John Chancellor to make intelligible contact with NBC correspondent Ed Stevens who had been watching in Moscow.
After only a few minutes the President was announced—and he bounced into the room, still made up for television, looking cheerful and ebullient, and he was greeted by loud applause.
Seated in his chair, alternately smiling and serious, but looking quite at ease, he motioned silently for the TV sets to be turned off, and then expressed his regret that it had been impossible to fill all of the Cabinet members in on what he was going to say in advance. He noted that this was an occasion in which “everything was on the line—it was a close call.” But now the decision has been made, the action has been taken, and it is essential that we have a unanimity of support within the Administration—that we speak with one voice, and not indicate any turning away from the hard line that has been taken. He noted that this was a hard line with a very forthcoming peace offer—if the [Page 788]enemy will accept a cease-fire and return the POWs we’ll stop all offensive action and get out in four months. The only thing we don’t offer is to impose a Communist government on the South Vietnamese (“They phrase it differently, but it comes down to that.”).
“There’s one other thing I’d mention,” he said, “in terms of the speculation about the Summit. We’re aware of the risks. We also must realize that an American President couldn’t be in Moscow when Soviet tanks were rumbling through the streets of Hue—unless he could do something about it.”
He added that we have put the proposition to the Soviets very directly: we are prepared to go forward and to negotiate on SALT, etc., and even with the Summit—so the responsibility is their’s as to whether it goes forward or is postponed. “There will be a Summit someday. We’ll see.”
He explained that like all important things, this was not easy. Also, we couldn’t be sure. We had to weigh everything. It finally came down to a decision that this was the best course of action at this time—to protect our national interests, to get back the POWs, to have some leverage, and to prevent the imposition of a Communist government.5
At this point the Vice President broke in to say: “You can depend on the Cabinet for support absolutely. You have been careful to give adequate notice of every step that you contemplated. I thought your appeal to the Soviets was particularly brilliantly phrased.”
The President seemed pleased at this comment, and noted: “I wrote every word of that in Camp David myself Saturday night.”6
He also noted, referring back to a point he had made in the speech, that “when you stop to think of it, there are no Soviet soldiers in Vietnam—there are 60,000 Americans—so it’s our ox that is being gored.”
[Omitted here is further discussion of the speech.]
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Box 88, Memoranda for the President, Beginning May 7, 1972. Confidential. Drafted by R.K. Price, Jr., a Nixon speechwriter. The time is from the President’s Daily Diary, which indicates that the President met with Cabinet and White House officials only from 9:28 to 9:44 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) In his diary Haldeman provides a long account of the meeting. (The Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition)↩
- See Document 204.↩
- See Document 208.↩
- Oliver Atkins, the official White House photographer.↩
- In his diary entry for May 8, Haldeman recorded: “At the Cabinet meeting, the P explained the background, said that as far as the speculation on the Summit was concerned, we were aware of the worst there, that an American P couldn’t be in Moscow while the Soviet guns and tanks were in Hue and we should say we’re prepared to go forward and negotiate or to continue with the Summit or whatever, and the responsibility now is with the Russians. The decision wasn’t easy, you can never be sure. The case for bombing, or doing nothing at all, all had to be weighed, but this is the best course at this time. To defend our interests, to get the POW’s and to put an end to the war.” (The Haldeman Diaries pp. 456–457) In a May 9 memorandum to Kissinger, Nixon wrote: “Now that I have made this very tough watershed decision I intend to stop at nothing to bring the enemy to his knees. I want you to get this spirit inculcated in all hands and particularly I want the military to get off its backside and give me some recommendations as to how we can accomplish this goal.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Personal Files, Box 3, Memoranda from the President, Memos—May 1972)↩
- May 6.↩