217. Conversation Among President Nixon, his Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger), White House Chief of Staff (Haldeman), and Secretary of State Rogers1

[Omitted here is unrelated discussion of the President’s meeting that day with Soviet Minister Patolichev.]

Kissinger: He [Patolichev] came in for what was supposed to be a courtesy visit and he literally talked for 45 minutes.2

Nixon: Forty-five minutes about every little thing, that you know, he’d talked about, this fellow, with Peterson and Stans.

[Omitted here is further discussion about the same meeting.]

Nixon: The Russian response was not an official response yet, as I understand they have delivered through Patolichev.

Kissinger: It was an official response.

Rogers: It was a government—[unclear exchange]

Nixon: I think we should say, see, they took 3 days to respond to us, and I think we will take 3 days.

Rogers: I think really the question is whether we should give them a quick and sort of noncommittal response, which we can do. [unclear]. Or just delay. I think maybe a delay will make it look as if we are thinking of something. There isn’t a hell of a lot to say, because their statement was fairly mild.

Nixon: Well, didn’t you think it was?

Rogers: Yeah.

Nixon: As did all the people around here—Helms thought it was mild, too—the whole bunch.

Rogers: Well, I think what we ought to do, Mr. President, I’ll have Atherton send over to you a response, which is quite appropriate, and [Page 809] decide that issue. And then just have Ron hand it out, and Bob Mc-Closkey hand it out, or wait ‘til later.

Nixon: Your feeling is that it should not be—

Kissinger: It’s the right level—

Nixon: Henry had the feeling that you should because [unclear]—

Rogers: I don’t—

Nixon: They didn’t do it at their high level. [unclear]

Rogers: Oh, they just made an announcement—a government announcement, that’s all, and that appeared in TASS.

Nixon: I think that maybe you and Henry can work out the drill there as to what level and when.

Kissinger: I think we could wait until they hand it to us officially and then in a low-key way reply to that.

Rogers: Yeah. I don’t understand why didn’t they hand it to us before they published it. That’s sort of interesting.

Kissinger: I think, frankly, they’re not eager for a reply. I don’t think they want a long debate with us on it.

Rogers: I don’t know.

Kissinger: That’s my impression.

Nixon: You think they may—

Rogers: I really just don’t know. It’s mild enough in one way. On the other hand, it would be a perfectly good way to delay if they’re going to take some other action. In other words, they can play it both ways, so—

Kissinger: It’s a holding action.

Nixon: They can’t. We’ll soon know. They have a—I will say this, my guess is they would consider it a rather risky business, I mean, in terms of their own interest, to wait until, say Tuesday3 or Wednesday of next week to cancel the summit. I think they’re going do it. I think they have to do it tomorrow or Saturday.

Rogers: Well, they could provoke something. They could send mine sweepers down, and challenge us. And I suppose, we challenge them. And they could call it off, or if they’re committed to go ahead with the minesweepers, then we’ll look as if we backed down. I think one of the things that we’ve got to be sure about—and I spoke to Henry about it earlier—if we’re not going to answer, then I think we’ve got to get all our people to keep quiet because there’s going to be a hell of a temptation to say, they blinked, this is the winner, or something like that.

[Page 810]

Nixon: We won’t comment on it at all.

[Omitted here is further discussion of the media.]

Rogers: There are two or three specific things I’d like to talk to you about today. One is, the Security Council has turned off—that doesn’t have a chance. It never did. And the Russians are against it. The Chinese are against it. And it doesn’t make any sense to begin with. I think we shouldn’t appear to be thinking negative on it. I mean, we’ve got to make it clear that somebody else has turned it down. But I don’t think you have to worry about that as even a possibility.

On the Incidents at Sea negotiations,4 they’ve come to an impasse based on the Russian position that we’ve got to talk about fixed distances. This is something you decided some time back. The Defense Department has been against it for reasons I don’t think are very good. The Russians say they’ve got to know by 6 o’clock whether we talked about it or not. My own recommendation is that we ought to talk about it. We have our own—

Nixon: Hasn’t [Secretary of the Navy] John Warner?

Rogers: Yeah. We have our own. Mr. President, it’s really a matter of what we—how close we can come to their ships with our planes and how close we can come to their ships with our ships. Now what we’ve suggested, the position of the State Department is that we had at least a discussion about that and not have any limitations that are not already imposed by ourselves on ourselves. In other words, we have limitations, I know, I think, on overflights.

Kissinger: The problem is that this was looked at very carefully, and the problem with it is that the intelligence people, for reasons which may or may not be good, are violently opposed to these—to fixed limitations, partly because of some penetrations of the waters which are, in any event, illegal. And, I mean—

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: Well, ah, it—

Nixon: You say by 6 o’clock tonight?

Rogers: Henry, my intelligence people say that that’s exaggerated. In the first place, I think we have rules ourselves—you can’t have planes that fly closer than within 300 feet to another ship—it’s just dangerous as hell. And I thought it was that why not at least talk to them about the restrictions that we have on ourselves, not by disclosing anything? Well, if don’t—don’t have—

Nixon: Could we—

Kissinger: Could we get—

[Page 811]

Nixon: Could we talk about it? That’s what I mean. Let’s talk to them about it.

Kissinger: I think the view is, really, that if you talk to them about it you’ve already have given it in. Could we get a position within our government and get a good paper to you, which gives the arguments in a more systematic way because I’m not in detail up on it and I’m not sure whether Bill is.

Nixon: Well, what is that—intelligence, you mean military intelligence and so forth?

Kissinger: I think that they’ll agree to extend it 24 hours.

Rogers: I think they would if we say we’d let them know tomorrow.

Kissinger: If we tell them we’ll let them know by tomorrow.

Nixon: Let me just see if I—because my main problem is going to be keeping the military happy, the military intelligence people, and so get me something so that I can say that at least I put it there.

Rogers: I think that the Russians have a good point, because they say well, if we’re not going to talk about it, then there’s no point of having the rule of reason. Hell, that’s what we have now. Why not have some limitation, at least talk about how many feet we should separate from each other. All right, let’s do that.

[Omitted here is discussion of a possible cease-fire in Indochina, including a proposal for a “Geneva-like convention.”]

Nixon: When would that convene?

Rogers: Well, it would be any time you wanted it to. I’m just thinking of form. Now, the British have already posed it. The Russians have resisted it. Although Alec Home has just made this proposal to the Russian Ambassador, who says he wants to think it over and get instructions from his government. The British are also talking to the Chinese about it. Now, I think, we don’t have a problem publicly. I think the real problem is, is this something we would like to do to accomplish is this—

Nixon: Tell you what I’d like to do. I’d like to—I think a lot depends upon, in my view, as to what does happen, and we should know within 3 days certainly on the Russian thing—if the Russian thing goes forward, then I think we might have a few things which tentatively might be under consideration. I just have a feeling that we should not move over the next 3 or 4 days in any of those directions. I think, I think what I’d like to do, if we can, is to keep, at all, to keep a posture where we’re taking a very strong position. We’ve made a very forthcoming offer for a negotiated settlement. And I would not try to spell it out too much at this point—like they say, well, what is a cease-fire? Is it in place; is a withdrawal, and all the rest? And that’s why [Page 812] it’s so important from our point of view that we get them into this conference business, because I think they caught Mel on that a little.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Rogers: Yeah.

Nixon: Well, anyway, what we want to do, I’d rather just leave them, because that’s going to be, if they do fight—

Rogers: Well, Mr. President, I wasn’t really talking about making any public comments about it or anything of that kind. I’m really talking about whether it’s a possibility even when you go to the Soviet Union. If, of course, if there’s something else that you’re working on, then—

Nixon: No. We don’t even know if we’re going.

Kissinger: There’s nothing’s going on that I know of.

Nixon: Out there. Out there.

Rogers: It seems to me that this is something we ought to think about is the possibility for you to discuss, it seems to me—

Nixon: At the summit?

Rogers: Yeah. At the summit. Or it might be that something will come out of the summit. You see, the conference in ‘54 dealt, in a sense, with the same issues. It dealt with the issue of cease-fire, and they discussed the matter for 4 or 5 months, and then there was a cease-fire. Then they add the problem of regrouping, and whether it would be in place or not, and that type of thing. Now, if we were looking for a device to gain some time, and somewhat of a face-saving device particularly for the Russians in lieu of your statement because that does put them on the spot—if they do anything now, it’s going to appear that they did it as a result of your strong stance. Probably from this standpoint, it looks as if there’d be nothing down. If they’re looking for some kind of a device to get a little time and go ahead with the acceptance of your proposal—which is certainly fair, I don’t know how anybody could expect you to do more—then the Geneva-type conference, not necessarily exactly that, but the Geneva-type conference makes some sense. Furthermore, the Paris negotiations is a forum not very appropriate because Laos and Cambodia are not involved at all. So that a Geneva-type conference, which included both Laos and Cambodia, and in a sense turned out pretty well because they even permitted French troops to stay in Laos and Cambodia and South Vietnam.

Nixon: Mm-hmn.

Rogers: Small contingents, but still some troops, which—so that there’s a lot of analogies which would be appropriate for this type of thing. And my suggestion merely is that we think about—not say anything about it—as far as the British, we’ll be asked about that—I’m sure I’ll be asked Monday about it—and there I just think we can say, “Well, [Page 813] the President’s made it clear that he’s prepared to take part in a conference, and he said so in his speech.” And not get tied down exactly to any—

Nixon: I actually haven’t given it any thought. You’ve got any reactions to it? As I say, I’d look at any proposal.

Kissinger: I think we ought to think about it.

Nixon: I personally—there’s only one reason I’d like to get a little thought because the British have been damn good, you know.

Kissinger: It’s still different from ‘54, because the French, for example, at that time, they were a principal. Now they are sort of secondary as far as we are concerned. But I think we ought to study it, and have another opinion on it.

Nixon: On a total in-house basis. [unclear]

Rogers: Well, I think it’s worth considering because if could let the British take the lead they could talk to the French. If we propose it to the French, they’ll be negative, because they want to have the damn thing in Paris. But the British are quite—you know, we couldn’t have a better ally. And if we indicated to them that this was something we thought was desirable.

Nixon: I would say that this, to a certain extent, would indicate that we’re not thinking negatively. Start with that proposition. Second, that we have doubtless been negotiating for so long, and for so long that we’ve got blinkers on and might have missed something.

Kissinger: I think we ought to look at it.

Nixon: I’ll look at it.

[Omitted here is discussion on the war in Vietnam, including strikes on POL and railroad targets in North Vietnam.]

Nixon: The main thing, it seems to me, is that we must use ultimate power at the time that we have most support because support erodes as time goes on, and before the Senate or somebody does cut us off. And, also, because the psychological impact on the North Vietnamese may be a hell of a lot greater if they think maybe we’ll do it.

Rogers: What do you think about on Monday putting the bead on the Congress for endangering the summit in case they take some action. That’s not a bad thing to say, “Look, why don’t you lay off now that everything seems to be moving along all right.” If Congress acts adversely, it may have some effect, not really low key it.

Nixon: Well, I think you can say, you know, the way I think about it is this. You can put it in a rather general sense. You can say that the President has gone to China under restrictions, he’s attempted to—we’re breaking our backs negotiating with the North Vietnamese, he’s negotiating—this is the series of negotiations with Hanoi we prefer. But the Senate must think very, very carefully—or the Congress—before [Page 814] taking any action which undercuts the President’s ability to negotiate. We’re willing to negotiate. And whenever the Congress acts, all it does is an incentive for the enemy not to negotiate, and therefore, about anything. And on the summit, it’s just unconscionable for these people to be undercutting—the Russian thing is still not on.

[At this point, the President is interrupted and asked to sign a document by an aide.]

Kissinger: All the newsmen have their teeth practically dropping out of their mouths with the Russian bite. Next week, you, everyday, are more visibly preparing for the summit. Who in God’s name is going to pass a resolution? I can’t believe it.

[Omitted here is discussion in which Kissinger recommends that “next week I would hard-line it,” because there were 10 days until Moscow and notes that Dobrynin told reporters that he didn’t need to discuss the summit and there was no question that the summit was going ahead.]

Nixon: What about Bill’s point about Dobrynin lying to Kennedy [in 1962]?

Kissinger: Mr. President, first of all, I’m not sure that—well, Dobrynin is perfectly capable of lying.

Nixon: Oh, sure. So am I.

Kissinger: And he’s perfectly capable of saying if they want to cancel the summit. Now, you can say the German treaties are ransomed in that circumstance. If that’s so, they can’t cancel it before the 19th.

Nixon: It’s too late.

Kissinger: Now, then, supposing they cancel you on the 20th, while you’re on the way. What have they then gained by it? I think the whole American people, if you then turn around and come back and turn on them, you’ll have everybody with you. It’s one thing if they had turned on you this week, they could say Vietnam. But next week, when you have done nothing in additional, when you can tell them you can give them these assurances they’ve received it all, we’ve planned on it and are preparing it, for them to flush our whole policies down the drain and make you a hero in the process is almost inconceivable to me. This week they had a good possibility of doing it. Next week they would pay an additional price, which isn’t worth it. Moreover, they—

Nixon: Well actually, Henry, I think they’ve got to cancel it and then move on it tomorrow or the next day.

Kissinger: If they haven’t canceled it by Monday, and I don’t see how they can now cancel it before Monday because they—we got the Brezhnev answer,5 which is a—he read it to them.

[Page 815]

Nixon: He doesn’t know that.

Kissinger: No, he doesn’t need to know there was a letter.

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: So, we’ve got the Brezhnev answer. It’s mild. I’ve worked out with Dobrynin three principles, which he’s accepted: we won’t do anything other than what we’re already doing. We won’t attack Soviet ships.

Nixon: Did he mark that down?

Kissinger: We won’t attack Soviet ships and we won’t interfere—in ports—and we won’t interfere with Soviet ships on the high seas. I said to Dobrynin this letter can be interpreted in two ways. That we can’t do anything, that we have to stop what we are doing or that we shouldn’t do anything additional. The first we can’t do, the second we can do. He said, “I interpret it the second way.” Now this is a record of total treachery if they—

Nixon: But also being totally treacherous with me is a hell of a lot more dangerous than being totally treacherous with you.

Kissinger: Yes, but what’s in it for them, Mr. President? With the case of Kennedy, they were sneaking missiles into Cuba. In this case, they’re just cutting off a summit, and what do they gain by waiting 10 days? Well, you can say they are gaining the German treaty.

Haldeman: Getting the German treaty, and they could get propaganda from going to go to the maximum humiliation of the President, which would be to cut him off while he’s en route. Actually—

Kissinger: But I think that would help. If, on Wednesday morning, the Russians had put out a statement saying we were preparing in good faith for the summit—

Haldeman: That would’ve hurt us.

Kissinger: The Vietnamese people are an oppressed people, that the Americans are bombing it and we will not receive the raper of American—of Vietnamese—you know.

Haldeman: [unclear]

Kissinger: They haven’t done that. They have not started a press campaign against you. No meetings of indignation. And that’s a—

Haldeman: That’s another thing we knew was going to happen. They have stirred up demonstrations in this country.

Kissinger: Sure. You’d expect them to do that. Oh, no, You’d expect them.

Haldeman: You would have expected it, that’s right, but they haven’t been terribly effective in doing that. And that must have registered on them to—to attempt to see whether they could do it.

Kissinger: But they haven’t done a big thing in Russia. They haven’t attacked you in their press. And, in other words, they’ve been [Page 816] in a very low gear. Now, you know, I expected them to cancel the summit, so I’m not—but I expected them to do it in direct relation to your actions.

[Omitted here is discussion of the day’s press reports, leaks to the media, and Secretary of the Treasury Connally’s position.]

Kissinger: It is not inconceivable, Mr. President, that next Friday they’re going to cancel the summit. But it would be such a mean, petty move. So inconsistent. Another thing Dobrynin says, he says, “of course you didn’t ask us the question, so we saw no reason to give you the answer.” So I said, “well, Anatoly, we’ll be glad to ask the question.” He said, “No, why make us make a formal decision in response. You have said publicly you are continuing your preparation for the summit. Our leaders know you have said this, our leaders haven’t canceled it—why raise the issue?” And I think that’s right.

Haldeman: And their guys, for sure at the bureaucratic level, are going ahead, because our advance—we have an advance team in Moscow. They’ve been there for a week now. And they’re going over every kind of minute [detail.] they’re arguing over where the car can drive, going through what rooms are going to be assigned to who, and where the security can set up. We can set up—we’ve got complete—we got a hotline right now in the White House boardroom to Moscow—I can get them faster than I can get my office.

Kissinger: It’s conceivable that they will cancel you on Monday. I would say, after Monday, the chances go from 70 percent by 5 to 10 percent every day.

Nixon: Anyway, we’re not going to worry about it. In the meantime, the strategy over the weekend will be for everybody to pipe down if they can.

Haldeman: Yeah.

Nixon: And you, incidentally, you can go over and—you’ve got to have your talk with Connally. But other than that—

Haldeman: Sure.

Nixon: Just so you can have my analysis. And, I think in the meantime, both you and Henry keep the lid on everybody here. I’d also suggest that with congressional people, that Henry spend some time tomorrow with [Senator John] Stennis.

Kissinger: I’ll call Stennis. I’ll talk to him. I’ll meet him.

Nixon: And just say, say, “Senator, let me just tell you right now that there’s a lot going on and it would be terribly helpful if you would just pipe down.”

[Omitted here is further discussion on the situation in Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 723–16. No classification marking. According to his Daily Diary, Nixon met with Kissinger, Haldeman, and Rogers in the Oval Office from 3:51 to 4:44 p.m. The editors transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume. In his diary Haldeman recorded that Rogers asked for this meeting to show that he “is not cut out” of decisions in Vietnam. “We set up the Rogers meeting. The P had me sit in and we didn’t really accomplish much. The P told Rogers not to have a press conference this week, emphasize that we have to turn off all of our PR apparatus on any comment on the Soviet answer or any interpretation of the Soviet attitude.” Haldeman continued: “The general feeling now, even on Henry’s part, is that the Summit is going to be on rather than off, and so there’s a level of optimism on that part.” (The Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition)
  2. See Document 215.
  3. May 16.
  4. See Document 214.
  5. See attachment to Document 214.