235. Paper Prepared by the National Security Council Staff1

VIETNAM

I. The Soviet Perception

The April conversations with Brezhnev in Moscow, subsequent developments in Paris, and the Soviet reactions to your May 8 decisions, all provide considerable evidence on how they see their interests affected by Vietnam and about the influence they have, or do not have, in Hanoi. Their conduct in recent weeks has been ambivalent and contradictory, reflecting the predicament that they have largely caused for themselves.

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Moscow has played a generally irresponsible game on Indochina throughout the years of the conflict. The Soviets clearly have seen Vietnam as a tremendous drain on our resources and our attention. At relatively little cost to them, they have helped to fuel a war that for years preoccupied us while they could pursue their strategic buildup and global influence.

The Soviets have supported Hanoi for other reasons over the past seven years. They have been engaged in a contest with Peking to reestablish Soviet credentials as the steadfast supporters of national liberation. Brezhnev accused China of wanting to use Vietnam to disrupt the Summit in Moscow, and he implied the Chinese had this kind of influence in Hanoi. And to Moscow a Hanoi-dominated Indochina with influence in Southeast Asia would be a counter to China in the Asian power balance.

Yet, the Soviets almost from the start have also seen the potential dangers of the Vietnam war. The war always carried the potential of direct US-Soviet confrontation. And, short of that, there was the threat that the conflict would dominate their relations with the US and become linked to other issues. To preserve some of their own freedom of action and limit the risks of confrontation, they may have preferred negotiated solutions as long as the outcome met Hanoi’s minimal terms and held promise of an eventual takeover by Communist forces.2 They have played an occasional marginal role in the negotiating process, mostly on procedural issues and obviously never willing to really squeeze their ally. At the same time, in order to compete with China and to keep us tied down, the Soviets have provided arms that enabled the North Vietnamese to continue the struggle and to escalate it.

There was always an inherent incompatibility in these Soviet objectives. Soviet attempts to play both sides of the issues finally brought them to the crisis of the last month. They are dangling from the horns of their self-made dilemma:

  • —On the one hand, the Soviets were acutely aware that the North Vietnamese offensive might jeopardize the summit. Brezhnev’s letters in April reflected this concern.3 Their request for me to come to Moscow was an attempt to guarantee the summit by arranging new private talks with Le Duc Tho.4 The North Vietnamese rejection of the suggestion that I meet with Le Duc Tho in Moscow, however, was a rebuff to Soviet intervention (in rather insolent language), and Brezhnev spent considerable time with me trying to solve the procedural problems.
  • Brezhnev obviously hoped that the resumption of private meetings would inhibit us from further action and have a correspondingly debilitating effect on the GVN anti-communist fabric.
  • —The effort to move back onto a negotiating track was reinforced by Brezhnev’s attempt to disclaim any responsibility for DRV war planning and to minimize the impact of Soviet supplies. He claimed that they had never been asked to participate in planning DRV strategy and that Soviet supplies were limited in types of weapons.5 He offered to show me a recent list of Soviet equipment, but then withheld the document.
  • —The Soviet blame China for their dilemma. In private, Brezhnev asserted that Chou En-lai visited Hanoi to call off the offensive before your trip to China and then, afterward, returned to Hanoi to ensure that the offensive would disrupt the Moscow summit. (This is reminiscent of Dobrynin’s claim last January that Chou En-lai, in effect, broke up the private talks with Le Duc Tho last year.)6
  • Brezhnev recommended—as a Soviet suggestion only—a standstill ceasefire as the most feasible, immediate solution. This was before the North Vietnamese had captured Quang Tri, and the battle took a turn for the worse for the GVN at the end of April and early May.
  • —As reported to you after the April trip,7 the Soviets did not commit themselves to put pressures on Hanoi either for deescalation or a final settlement. They did transmit our procedural proposal to resume the plenaries and private talks and said they would also convey our substantive approach at the secret meeting, i.e., deescalation and a return to the status quo ante March 30.
  • —On May 2, as you know, we met with complete stonewalling from Le Duc Tho.8

The upshot of the meetings in Moscow and Paris strongly suggests that the Soviet influence in Hanoi has been limited, or at least they have been unwilling to apply full leverage to date. There is probably some bitterness over the Soviet role, as the arrogant tone of Hanoi’s April message to Brezhnev turning down a USNVN meeting in Moscow and Le Duc Tho on May 2 made clear. As for the timing of the North Vietnamese offensive, Moscow clearly is not happy with it and would not have wanted it to jeopardize the summit. However, their massive supplies to Hanoi still makes them accountable.

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Reaction to the Mining

Your decisive actions of May 8, coupled in your speech9 with the promising vistas for US-Soviet relations, have so far produced two principal reactions from Moscow: restraint concerning our military moves and an apparent willingness to get involved in the negotiating process.

The background of Soviet frustration with Hanoi and profound suspicion that China was exploiting Vietnam to destroy our relations with Moscow, helped to shape the Soviet reaction to the mining.

As a result of the April conversations in Moscow, the Soviets were on notice that we would not engage in fruitless discussions with Le Duc Tho, but would move massively to protect our interests. I made clear that if there were no progress at the May 2 meeting, you would have to move decisively and also turn to the right for domestic support. At one point Brezhnev seemed to understand this and he did not contest the principle that Great Powers must protect their interests.

Your letter to Brezhnev in the wake of the failure of the Paris talks reinforced this point, and his reply,10 though more testy about accepting any responsibility, indicated that Moscow’s first concern was the effect on the summit.

When finally confronted with your actions of May 8 and the choice you posed both in your speech and in your private letter to Brezhnev, the Politburo faced an agonizing decision. By accepting me in Moscow and publicizing the fact, and by continuing the dialogue with you on the summit and Vietnam, Brezhnev reinforced his personal commitment to a successful meeting. As he said in Moscow in April, only China would gain from a failure of the Moscow meetings. Moreover, the turn of events in Bonn—with the treaty ratification suspended—must have added weight to the arguments for a restrained Soviet reaction.

The Soviets had to make a basic choice between preserving at least some semblance of a great power relationship with us, or sacrificing their Western policy to secure their position in Hanoi. They must have been greatly concerned that, given the effect of the mining and the consequent dependence on China for rail access, their position in Hanoi would be gradually undermined in any case.

As of now the Soviets have chosen to give priority to their Western policy. They have accepted certain humiliations: refusal to challenge our mining by military means, refusal to take the initiative in [Page 900]postponing or cancelling your visit, and refusal to give Hanoi a clear commitment to maintain their supplies.

Moreover, after an ambiguous history in the negotiations, Moscow has now apparently been prompted by the threats posed by the North Vietnamese offensive and your mining decisions to take a more active diplomatic role.

Since your May 8 speech, the scenario has been as follows:

  • Concerning our military actions, you are familiar with the relatively restrained TASS statements;11 the Patolichev meeting; the ongoing technical and substantive preparations for the summit; and the private messages which, though tougher, have not laid your visit on the line.
  • Their May 11 and 12 private notes,12 however, could have certain ominous implications. While leaving the summit on, they reserve the option to disrupt it and US-Soviet relations generally. Both communications carry the implication that the test to be applied by Moscow is not only whether we attack Soviet ships in Haiphong but whether we somehow guarantee Soviet ships safe passage into and out of the port. They can pick their time on this second test, and it will most probably not be before your trip. They could press you hard on this in Moscow, however.13
  • Our private responses have been that our orders are to prevent attacks against Soviet vessels and we will do our best to avoid damage to them. We have also pledged not to attack Hanoi or its vicinity during your visit abroad. However, major North Vietnamese escalation during this period would be viewed with the “utmost gravity.”
  • Concerning the negotiations, the Soviet May 14 note proposing the unconditional resumption of plenary sessions in early June and parallel private talks,14 puts Moscow into the negotiating process. They claimed not to have talked to Hanoi on this ploy, but this seems doubtful since Xuan Thuy was in Moscow on May 13 and Le Duc Tho a couple of days earlier in Paris said the North Vietnamese were willing to resume public and private talks.15
  • Our May 15 response stressed the need for a private meeting first (we proposed May 21) to make sure there would be progress before agreeing to resumption of the plenaries. We suggested a public announcement [Page 901]after the meeting to meet the Soviet need for public evidence of USDRV negotiations prior to your own talks with the Soviet leaders.16

The current situation could change, of course, and the Soviets may see developments on the battlefield as weakening your position in Moscow. But on balance one must conclude that the Soviets in their reaction have put themselves in a weaker position by clearly signaling that Western policy is predominant and inserting themselves into the negotiating exchanges.

One brief note as regards the DRV perception. If the battle in the South proceeds inconclusively for the next three weeks, as it has thus far, then Hanoi will perceive your visit to Moscow as a severe political and psychological setback and very difficult to explain to the DRV people and cadre. Assuming no further Soviet or PRC measures to counter the actions you have taken, and taking into account the less than fully supportive official statements they have made thus far in response to Hanoi’s May 11 appeal to its allies to “act resolutely,” the fact of your visit could severely exacerbate already existing fears in Hanoi that DRV interests will be compromised by great power collusion.

II. Issues and Talking Points

A. Basic Approach

The Soviet line is likely to be acrimonious:

  • —They will have to protest bitterly against the mining and the dangers to Soviet life and ships. Although their chief concern is that bombing will result in Soviet casualties, they may also press the suggestion of our escorting Soviet ships through the mine fields.17
  • —They will strongly urge you—if not squeeze you—to lift the mining, without any concessions, perhaps with a vague indication that Hanoi might then negotiate your terms of May 8. Brezhnev has argued we did not give the private talks a chance.
  • Brezhnev may also bear down on his idea of a simple ceasefire as the best approach—it should look more appealing to him on the ground now than in late April, but the mines in Haiphong obviously complicate the issue.

Your basic strategy is to keep Moscow enmeshed in the Vietnam problem by giving the impression that your actions are all but uncontrollable unless the war is brought to an early and honorable end. A measured approach would only lead the Soviet leaders to believe that they can continue their unhelpful course and still enjoy non-Vietnam fruits. You must [Page 902]convince them that you will see this crisis through, with determination on the military front and flexibility on the negotiating front.

Thus, your essential objectives are:

  • —Persuade the Soviet leadership that you are determined to keep the military pressures on until your May 8 conditions are met.
  • —Thereby engage Moscow—because of its concern over its other, broader interests—in helping to bring about a settlement.
  • —Specifically, to engender Soviet help in the separation of military issues (i.e. ceasefire, withdrawal, POWs) from political questions; and failing that, in finding a political solution within the framework of our January proposals (i.e. no overthrow of Thieu but rather a competitive process).18
  • —In short, to interweave the themes that: (1) you will not be deterred from your course until the conflict is ended, (2) you are willing to do business with Moscow on a wide range of issues, and (3) the major threat to these promising bilateral prospects is the war that continues only because of the unreasonable demands of their ally.

Your position with regard to negotiations will have to be tailored to whether there is a May 21 secret meeting in Paris and what transpires at it. In any event, you should convey the following:

  • —Your position of May 8 is firm and you are determined to persevere in this course.
  • —As for the Soviet role, we hope they can work for a positive resolution of the Vietnam problem, preferably by settling military issues alone, or alternatively with a reasonable political solution.
  • —Great Powers must move decisively when their interests are challenged, and the Soviets apparently have understood this.
  • —The Soviet Union must assume a responsibility, whenever they supply massive armaments, and they must be prepared to deal with the consequences when they fail to exercise such responsibility.19
  • —You could have easily linked Vietnam to all aspects of Soviet-American relations, and there is no doubt that the failure to achieve an honorable settlement clouds our relations with the USSR.
  • —But you have not sacrificed Soviet-American relations and the prospects for a new era, and the fact that you are in Moscow indicates the Soviets have analyzed the situation in the same way.20
  • —The most productive course is to move on to those areas of continuing interest to Soviet-American relations because our course in Vietnam is set.
  • —The North Vietnamese offensive has clearly served to threaten the interests of major powers over issues that can no longer concern them.
  • —We should not let another small country—whose own legitimate interests can be met if it would leave something to history—destroy all the progress in US–Soviet relations that we have made and can make.

B. Specific Aspects

The Soviets are certain to raise the specific question of mining and will have explicit views of their own. On other Indochina issues they will likely be more general and simply echo support for the DRV negotiating position. For the purposes of this paper, therefore, except in the case of the mining, we outline the DRV position on specific negotiating issues rather than the Soviet.

1.
The Interdiction of the Flow of Supplies to the DRV, Including the Mining of DRV Ports
a.

Legality

Soviet Position: They will certainly attack the mining of the approaches to DRV ports as illegal, jeopardizing freedom of navigation and the high seas and endangering the security of Soviet and other vessels navigating on the shores of the DRV. They will insist that it be lifted without condition, and point to the dangerous consequences.

U.S. Position: The mining in which we have engaged is not illegal and none of the actions we have taken are designed to restrict freedom of navigation on the high seas. You will want to make the following points:

  • —Mining is not illegal and both sides have previously used it in the present conflict.
  • —The actions you have taken are entirely within the internal or territorial waters of North Vietnam. Their purpose is to interdict the delivery of supplies within such waters and you intend to take actions to prevent the landing of cargo.
  • —These actions were not directed against any third country nor have they in any way been designed to impede freedom of navigation on the high seas.
  • —There is no intention to threaten the security of foreign vessels and they were given ample time to vacate DRV ports before activation of the mines; they now leave or enter DRV ports at their own risk.

b.

Interference with Civilian Cargoes, Foodstuffs, Medicines, etc.

Soviet Position: The Soviets argue that our measures deprive the DRV of the opportunity to receive aid for its people, foodstuffs and other supplies for its peaceful population.

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U.S. Position: There is no way to differentiate between various types of cargo without taking measures interfering with third country shipping beyond North Vietnam’s claimed territorial waters. Your talking points on this issue are:

  • —There was no other way of interdicting the delivery of supplies without taking measures interfering with third country shipping beyond North Vietnam’s claimed territorial waters.
  • —Our purpose is not to subjugate or starve the DRV people but to stop the flow of military supplies and products essential to the pursuit of their aggression such as petroleum. Hanoi imported 390,000 tons of POL in 1971 and an estimated 152,000 tons in the first quarter of 1972, a jump of 50% from the 1971 rate.)
  • —If these actions bring some suffering to the DRV people, this flows directly as a consequence of the suffering they have chosen to inflict on South Vietnam. Since the beginning of their current invasion alone, they have caused more than 20,000 civilian casualties, rendered 700,000 people homeless and begun the systematic execution of GVN officials in areas temporarily under their control.
  • —All this hardship could end if Hanoi were to accept our reasonable peace terms.

2.
Negotiations (Subject to modification if there is a May 21, 1972 secret meeting in Paris.)
a.

Cessation of Current U.S. Actions Against the DRV

DRV Position: These actions must stop immediately and unconditionally. They are in violation of the 1954 Geneva Accords and the U.S. pledge in 1968 to unconditionally stop all acts of war against the DRV.

U.S. Position: When we stopped the bombing in 1968 it was made repeatedly and unmistakably clear to the DRV that in order for the bombing halt to continue, the following circumstances would have to obtain: (a) complete respect for the DMZ; (b) no rocket or shelling attacks against major South Vietnamese cities and (c) prompt and productive negotiations to include participation of the Republic of Vietnam. Our response to their invasion has been in self-defense against their violation of these understandings and the 1954 Accords.21 Your talking points are:

  • —You do not want to get into a sterile debate about circumstances leading to the current situation, except to say that their invasion is a flagrant violation of the Geneva Accords and the 1968 understandings and we are responding to that situation.22
  • —In view of their role as an occasional intermediary at that time, Soviet diplomats themselves can attest that the DRV understood perfectly well under what circumstances the 1968 bombing halt would continue.
  • —The actions you have ordered against the DRV will cease once all American prisoners of war held throughout Indochina are returned and an internationally supervised Indochina-wide ceasefire has begun.

b.

Withdrawals

DRV Position: The U.S. must unconditionally set a specific terminal date for the withdrawal of all U.S. and allied troops, advisors, military personnel, weapons and war materials and those of other countries allied with the U.S. and dismantle all U.S. bases.

U.S. Position: The U.S. is prepared to withdraw all of its remaining forces in South Vietnam within four months from the implementation of an Indochina-wide ceasefire and the return of all U.S. prisoners. Your talking points are:

  • —We are prepared to withdraw our forces from South Vietnam and cease all acts of force throughout Indochina four months from the implementation of an Indochina-wide ceasefire and the return of all U.S. prisoners.
  • —We will not retain any U.S. or allied bases, but we will not dismantle any GVN basis.
  • —[The Soviets could conceivably raise the question of U.S. forces stationed outside of South Vietnam, e.g. Thailand and the 7th Fleet. We wish to retain maximum flexibility here for the purposes of keeping a retaliatory capability against ceasefire violations and because some of these forces serve a dual purpose related to our general force posture in Asia and other commitments there as well. If asked about this matter, your talking points would be:]23
  • —We will not negotiate with Hanoi about our forces stationed outside South Vietnam. Obviously the activities of such forces against Communist military activities in Indochina will be halted as part of an internationally supervised ceasefire.
  • —Some of these forces could eventually be withdrawn once effective and viable guarantees have been established to ensure the status of Indochina.

c.

Internal South Vietnamese Political Matters

DRV Position: The DRV demands as a precondition for talks with the Saigon administration (a) the resignation of President Thieu, (b) a change in Saigon’s “war-like” policy, (c) setting free those persons arrested on “political” grounds, (d) disbanding Saigon’s machine of “oppression and constraint,” (e) an end to pacification, and (f) disbanding of “concentration camps.”24

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After this has been accomplished, and before there is an end to the fighting, the Provisional Revolutionary Government will immediately discuss with the Saigon administration the formation of three segment government of National Concord to organize elections, elect a Constituent Assembly, work out a Constitution and set up a definitive government of South Vietnam.25

U.S. Position: Given the other side’s unreasonable political demands we believe a military settlement alone is the most practical course now. This would leave political matters to the Vietnamese themselves. As for the political issues, we believe in a solution which reflects the true balance of indigenous political forces in South Vietnam and our January 25 proposal was designed to provide the basis for achieving this. We are prepared to listen to reasonable counterproposals and will abide by any outcome of any political process agreed to by the GVN and other Vietnamese. We will not accept the dismemberment of the present GVN led by Thieu as a precondition of such discussions. Your talking points are:

  • —The DRV/PRG position poses unacceptable demands by insisting on the dismemberment of the present GVN as a precondition for talks leading to the settlement of internal political problems.
  • —In effect, the other side is asking that the organized anti-Communist structure be dismantled and the PRG be left as the only organized political force before internal political talks have begun or there is a ceasefire.
  • —We will not accept these preconditions; but we are prepared to listen to constructive counterproposals and we will abide by and endorse any political arrangement the GVN and PRG can work out between themselves.
  • —We believe the most rapid way to end the war is to settle military issues alone and leave the political questions to the Vietnamese themselves.

d.

Foreign Policy

DRV Position: South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos should be neutral. [They exclude the DRV itself from this prescription.]

U.S. Position: All countries of Indochina should adopt a foreign policy consistent with the military provisions of the 1954 Geneva Accords. Your talking points:

  • —Once the fighting is settled, we are prepared to see a nonaligned Indochina. We are prepared to discuss these concepts concretely, e.g., no foreign bases or troops or alliances.
  • —This could include great power involvement. We could provide guarantees for whatever accords are reached including noninterference, and international supervision and restraint or limitation on arms shipments and resupply.

e.

International Supervision and Guarantees

DRV Position: The DRV position simply states that there should be international supervision without further qualification. It also states that there should be an international guarantee for the fundamental national rights of the Indochinese peoples, the neutrality of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and lasting peace in the area. It is quite evident, however, both from the sequence of the DRV’s negotiating points and its rather deeply entrenched view that the war must in the first instance be settled between the parties directly involved in the conflict, that they do not visualize a strong external supervisory or guarantee mechanism. Their clearly preferred course is to simply accomplish their objectives, perhaps then allowing an international body to exercise perfunctory supervisory and guarantee functions.

U.S. Position: Our position is that there should be international guarantees of the military aspects of whatever agreement is reached, including the cease-fire and its provisions, the release of prisoners of war, the withdrawal of outside forces from Indochina and the implementation of the principle that all armed forces of the countries of Indochina must remain within their national frontiers. We also take the position that there will be an international guarantee for the status of all the countries in Indochina and we are prepared to participate in an international conference for this and other appropriate purposes.

The Soviets may raise the question of an international conference since, as Co-Chairman of the Geneva Conference, they have been approached by the UK, the other Co-Chairman, on this subject. It is doubtful at this stage that any useful purpose could be served by pressing for an international conference since the DRV is so likely to reject the concept at least until we are much closer to a settlement. They have been consistent in their insistence that the war must be settled directly with us. Moreover, until the DRV demonstrates to us that it has something positive and concrete to offer, agreement with the Soviets to hold a broader conference would simply open the prospect of another inconclusive negotiating forum. Your talking points are:

  • —We will insist on international supervision of any military settlement, particularly the cease-fire provisions and the return of POW’s. We believe that in the first instance ceasefire modalities must be negotiated directly with the DRV, leaving the international aspects for later resolution.
  • —As regards a reconvening of the Geneva Conference, we are not opposed in principle but do not believe it would serve any useful purpose at this time and doubt the DRV would agree to one at this juncture.
  • —Eventually, we would favor a conference of this type to arrange for international guarantees for the status of Indochina.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 487, President’s Trip Files, For the President’s Personal Briefcase, May 1972, Part 1. Secret; Exclusively Eyes Only. A notation on the paper indicates the President saw it. According to a May 16 memorandum from Kissinger to Nixon, this was part of the fourth briefing book for the summit sent to the President. (Ibid., RG 59, S/P Files: Lot 77 D 112, Box 335, Lord Chronology, May, 1972)
  2. The President underlined this sentence.
  3. See Documents 107 and 110.
  4. The President underlined this sentence.
  5. The President underlined this sentence and heavily underlined most of the rest of the paper.
  6. See Document 39.
  7. See Document 169.
  8. See Document 183.
  9. See Document 208.
  10. Documents 190 and 200.
  11. The President underlined “TASS statements”.
  12. See the attachment to Document 214 and footnote 4, Document 221.
  13. The President wrote a checkmark in the margin next to the last two sentences.
  14. See footnote 3, Document 224.
  15. The President wrote “Talks—no unless guarantee of progress” in the margin next to this paragraph.
  16. For information on the U.S. response on May 15, see footnote 2, Document 226.
  17. The President underlined this clause and wrote a checkmark in the margin next to it.
  18. The President wrote a question mark in the margin next to this paragraph.
  19. The President wrote “S Korea” in the margin next to this sentence.
  20. The President underlined this sentence and wrote an “X” in the margin next to it.
  21. For information on the July 1954 Geneva Accords which ended the hostilities in Indochina and provided for a temporary partition of Vietnam pending a nationwide election in the summer of 1956, see Foreign Relations, 1952–1954, vol. XIII, Part 2, pp. 1859–1861 and ibid., vol. XVI, pp. 1505–1546.
  22. For the understanding that brought about the complete cessation of bombing on October 31, 1968, see ibid., 1964–1968, vol. VII, Documents 161, 165, and 169.
  23. All brackets in the source text.
  24. The President wrote “What about Hanoi’s warlike policy?” in the margin next to this paragraph.
  25. The President wrote “North too?” in the margin next to this paragraph.