271. Memorandum of Conversation1
- Leonid I. Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU
- Nikolai V. Podgorny, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet
- Aleksei N. Kosygin, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR
- Andrei M. Aleksandrov-Agentov, Assistant to the General Secretary
- Viktor M. Sukhodrev, Interpreter
- A Second Soviet Interpreter/Notetaker
- The President
- Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
- Winston Lord, Special Assistant to Dr. Kissinger
- John Negroponte, NSC Staff Member
General Secretary Brezhnev: We can continue our discussion. What is the plan for tonight?
The President: Of course, there is some unfinished business on SALT which I hope can be resolved at the working level. If not, we will have to finish it in the morning.
General Secretary Brezhnev: After our discussion of yesterday I believe we agreed in the main on some acceptable points on SALT.2Gromyko and Smirnov on our side will talk to Dr. Kissinger, and both sides agree to instruct our delegation in Helsinki.
I did learn that Gromyko was not able to meet with Kissinger because Kissinger was busy, so perhaps after tonight’s meeting they can get together, unless, of course, Dr. Kissinger thinks up something more to complicate matters.3
The President: That discussion, of course, has been very difficult because on both sides it involves our vital interests. We have to be very careful and you have to be very careful to make an agreement we can both live with. I think we have a basic understanding, but it is [Page 1048]important to get it cleared up so that we can proceed with the signing on Friday.4
General Secretary Brezhnev: That is how it looks.
The President: I think we have made a good start on European matters and we should be able to discuss it further at one of our meetings, probably Friday. Then tomorrow we should have further discussions on trade. If we could get that wrapped up we could have some announcement on Saturday. We could at least announce the Commission tomorrow and whatever else we can agree to on Saturday.
General Secretary Brezhnev: Of course it is quite true we must bring to a conclusion all that we have been discussing. Of course, in the international field there is the Middle East and Vietnam. These are acute questions but nevertheless it is necessary to discuss them.
The President: I think it is important to discuss both these subjects in this small forum because these are issues where we have some basic disagreements. It is important to discuss where we disagree and where we can find agreement.5
Several times during the course of our meetings, General Secretary Brezhnev has mentioned that Vietnam is a difficult issue and that because of developments that have occurred there the possibility of constructive progress at this meeting might have been jeopardized. I know it was very difficult for the Soviet leaders to look at the situation in Vietnam and make a decision nevertheless to continue our discussion as we have continued it at the highest level on other matters.
On the other hand, I believe one of the rules that both our countries must bear in mind in the future is that we must at all costs avoid what may be very important but what is essentially a collateral issue preventing progress on other issues that are overriding in our relations. We certainly did not choose this particular time to have the Vietnam situation flare up. The choice was by the North Vietnamese. Under the [Page 1049]circumstances I was left with no choice but to react as we did react. I realized this posed a very difficult problem for the Soviet leadership.
We were faced with a situation where 60,000 U.S. troops would have been endangered had not strong action been taken. We were also faced with the continuing problem where as many as 1,000 or more are missing in action and not accounted for, most or many of whom are known to be prisoners of war. And despite the withdrawal of 500,000 United States soldiers since I took office and after offer after offer in the negotiations, 149 public meetings in Paris and 13 private meetings which Dr. Kissinger conducted produced absolutely nothing from the North Vietnamese except for an ultimatum for us to get out under conditions which we will not accept.
Our position now is very forthcoming. We believe it is fair. As a matter of fact, the General Secretary in his conversations with Dr. Kissinger in his visit a few weeks ago suggested the consideration of a ceasefire. All we ask now is a return of and an accounting for our prisoners of war and a ceasefire. Once that is agreed to, we will withdraw all Americans within four months and cease military actions. We cannot go any further than that. Nothing further is negotiable on that point.
We could talk at great length about the wisdom of the American position in Vietnam. I know the views of the Soviet leaders. You know ours. No useful purpose would be served by going over past history. We now confront the fact that we have taken every step to bring an end to what is the only major international issue which clouds relations between the United States and the USSR. It is our intention to end the war by negotiations; but negotiations must be fair to both sides. There cannot be an ultimatum to us to impose on the South Vietnamese a government the North Vietnamese cannot impose by themselves. If the North Vietnamese are unwilling to end the war that way [by negotiations],6 then I will do whatever I must to bring the war to an end. Anything we do we will have in mind our desire not to exacerbate the relations between us. To this end we rejected the idea of a blockade which would have involved Soviet ships. During this meeting, for example, we stopped bombing the Hanoi area because of our desire to avoid any incidents embarrassing these talks. We have now reached the point where we see no way to deal with the North Vietnamese except the course I have chosen. Now the choice is theirs. They can have a peace which respects their independence and ends the conflict throughout Southeast Asia. Or we will have to use the military means available to us to bring the war to an end.[Page 1050]
Let me be very frank. I am aware of the fact that the Soviet Union has an alliance with North Vietnam. I am aware that the Soviet Union supports the ideological views of the North Vietnamese. Of course, I am also aware that the Soviet Union has supplied military equipment to North Vietnam. All of this I understand as an international fact of life. We happen to disagree about that area. On the other hand, as two great powers which have at present so many positive considerations moving in the right direction, it seems to me that the mutual interest of both the United States and the USSR would be served by our doing what we can to bring the war to an end. Candidly, I realize that the Soviet Union, because it does have an alliance with North Vietnam and because it supplies military equipment, might be able to influence them to negotiate reasonably. But up to this point, looking at the evidence, I would have to say we have run into a blank wall on the negotiations front. So the situation is one where we have to continue our military actions until we get some assurance that going back to the negotiating table would produce some negotiating progress. If we can get that, then we might reconsider our present policy.
Let me conclude that I don’t suggest the Soviet Union is responsible for the fact that the offensive took place at this time. I only say that it did take place and we had to react the way we did. So we can see how this kind of situation can be very embarrassing to our relations in the future where the irresponsible acts of an ally could be supplied with arms and get out of control at some future time. I want you to know that I’m very frank on this subject because I know that our Soviet friends disagree with me, but I know they’d want me to express myself very frankly and I have.
We could, of course, welcome any suggestions, but we would respectfully suggest that each of us in such a situation must put ourselves in the position of the other one. There may have been other times when the Soviet Union has felt it had to act decisively to protect what it believed were its interests. We may not have approved with the action, but we have not allowed incidents to mar our relationship. Now in this instance, we ought to get this out of the way as quickly as possible so we can have progress in other fields. That progress will go forward anyway, but it will go forward faster if Vietnam is not clouding our relationship.
In the final analysis we must recognize that when people say stop the war, we don’t want to continue the war. They do. We want the war to stop now if they stop. It takes two to stop a war. We have been ready for three years. Now they must decide whether they want to stop the war or to take the consequences of not stopping it.
I have finished.
General Secretary Brezhnev: Well, Mr. President, we have indeed touched upon a very very acute and serious problem, because this is [Page 1051]a problem of war. More especially it is a problem of a war which is poisoning the general international situation as a whole and because it is having an effect on relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. I wish to emphasize it is particularly important to note this at this precise moment when cruel bombing has been resumed and where once again very cruel military actions have been taken against North Vietnam. I had occasion to talk about this with Dr. Kissinger, but we want to take this opportunity now to emphasize that not only we but most of the nations of the world are calling this a shameful war and quite rightly calling it aggression.7
There is perhaps indeed no need for us to go into all the details of the past, but there is one point that we should like to emphasize and that is the new escalation of the war, particularly the bombing of North Vietnam started by you at the very time when the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, our Prime Minister, was in Hanoi . At that time, North Vietnam wasn’t doing anything.
You have just given your own assessment of this war and your own explanation for the war. We must most resolutely and forthrightly tell you, Mr. President, that our assessment is of a fundamentally different nature. You have heard on more than one occasion our assessment of this war in the statement of all the leaders of the Soviet Union. Perhaps we do not wish at this time to engage in polemics here on this subject, but we must say that we shall not depart from our assessment because we are profoundly convinced that it is right.
I agree, as I have said before, that we should not delve deep into the past; but certainly the fact is that the Geneva Accords8 which established the basis for peace in Indochina were grossly violated. And it would be appropriate to mention where these agreements were violated. It is a fact that the elections in South Vietnam envisaged by the Geneva Accords were not held, and it is no secret why this was not done. It was quite clear at that time who would win the election and on which side lay the support of the Vietnamese people.[Page 1052]
The question arises why shouldn’t the Vietnamese and not someone else determine who leads the government of South Vietnam? Why is it that recipes for a solution of the question in Vietnam do not come from the Vietnamese themselves but instead come from Washington? Now that is certainly rather strange logic. After all, no one invited the U.S. into Vietnam; you went into Vietnam with an enormous army and then the Americans started saying they were defending themselves. Actually the fact is they went into a country not belonging to them and then said it was self-defense. That is very strange. On what laws was this based? There are no such laws. And this can be qualified as nothing short of pure aggression.
Now you say you want to end this war and quite calmly put forward the idea. But this is at a time when you are carrying out cruel bombing raids not only in the direct theater of battle but also against the peaceful civilian population. All this you say is your method of ending the war. Surely there is nothing in common between these actions and ending the war. They can only amount to a deliberate effort to destroy a country and kill off thousands, millions of innocent people. For what sake is this, by what right is this being done? It would certainly be interesting to hear for the sake of what the U.S. invaded Vietnam. Why is it waging the longest war in the history of the United States? It is a war against a very small country far from the U.S. which does not threaten the U.S. in any way whatsoever. What country could justify such actions? I am sure no nation could find any just explanation for what is being done. And that is probably why all countries call the U.S. the aggressor and probably rightly so. I don’t want to hurl more epithets on you. There have been quite enough epithets heaped on you as it is. But how can the methods you use now be called a method of ending the war in Vietnam? Today is not the time for such acts.
All of this is not to mention the fact that your actions affect some of our interests directly.
Chairman Kosygin: Just today I contacted the Minister of Merchant Marine, and I received a report around 2:00 p.m. that one American bomb fell 120 meters away from one Soviet vessel, in another case 350 meters away and another no more than 500 meters away from Soviet ships. In fact, your planes are blatantly buzzing and bombing near Soviet ships, and all of this at a time when you are here in Moscow conducting negotiations with us.
General Secretary Brezhnev: If underlying your explanation in which you try to show us your desire to end the war was a genuine intent on the part of the U.S., we are sure that a power of the stature of the U.S. with a big and able diplomatic apparatus could find a way to come to terms with the Vietnamese to end the war. But if we now [Page 1053]look into the process of negotiations to date we see that you have emphasized one idea: that Vietnam must accept your conditions for settlement. Why? Why should the Vietnamese accept American ideas for a settlement? After all, they are not demanding part of American territory as part of a settlement and they are not demanding any other benefit as a price for a settlement. They suggest the war be ended and a coalition government with the participation of all three forces be established in the area and that be followed by the free expression of the will of the South Vietnamese people. But all that has not been accepted.
Just recently, I saw a proposal on the Vietnamese side that the Paris negotiations be continued, but the U.S. together with Saigon rejected the idea of further negotiations on a settlement in Vietnam. Surely this doesn’t reflect the desire of seriously trying to end the war. It is manifest of the new aggressive aspirations on the part of the U.S. in Vietnam and that is done in the way that all nations in the world reject the positions taken by the U.S. But, of course, if the U.S. and the President of the United States is willing to be branded everywhere in the world as an aggressor, then of course there is practically no way the matter can be discussed.
Then again on the other hand you are here and we conduct discussions on many issues to try to reach agreements. You yourself admitted how difficult it was for us to decide to hold these talks in such conditions. It is certainly true we are allies of the DRV and we are meeting our international duty and that is something we will continue to do to the hilt. Here I want to emphasize that no bombing can ever resolve the war in Vietnam.
It does seem to appear the U.S. is upholding some interests of its own in Vietnam. Because I certainly don’t think if the U.S. earnestly desired negotiations on the basis of realistic conditions, if the conditions were right for negotiations, I don’t believe the Vietnamese would not agree to return the prisoners of war. It is certainly a fact in the normal course of things that prisoners of war are returned after the end of a war. That’s the way we acted at the end of World War II. When the war ended we returned the prisoners we had on our hands.
Surely Vietnam is a heavy burden on the hearts of all people, and perhaps particularly so the Soviet people who went through a sad period and lost 20 million in World War II. Of course, the U.S. had an easier time in World War II. I believe if the U.S. had suffered the way the Soviet people had, then perhaps you would look at matters about Vietnam differently than at present, but of course God forbid that you ever have to suffer what the Soviet people suffered in World War II.
You were quite right; it was certainly difficult for us to agree to hold this meeting under present circumstances. And yet we did agree to hold it. I want to explain why. We felt that preliminary work prior [Page 1054]to the meeting warranted the hope that two powers with such economic might and such a high level of civilization and all the other necessary prerequisites could come together to promote better relations between our two nations. And we could also use our beneficial influence to lessen tensions everywhere in the world, to counteract crisis situations in the world in the future and ones that may already exist. This is why we are holding our meetings and we felt this could also apply to problems such as Vietnam. At first we felt the latest measures taken by you in Vietnam were by accident or in irritation. But after hearing your explanation we feel our views beginning to change because it seems to us on the one hand the U.S. wants to improve relations with us and improve the international climate generally, but while continuing the cruel conflict in Vietnam. Surely these two things are quite incompatible.
Now what I would like to say now is this. I don’t think it is realistic to believe we could register in our joint document that the two sides set out their respective views on Vietnam because that would not be understood by many countries. Countries would think either you registered your own views to continue the war of aggression endlessly or people would think we acquiesced. I know you did this in China in the communiqué, and you wrote the clause that “the two sides set forth their views.” It certainly is a fact that China does not have a principled foreign policy of its own. It wants to set various countries at loggerheads. It acts in its own interests and does not really pursue a principled foreign policy. I’m sure you understand that as we do. But the fact is that we are not China.
We have said on many occasions, and notably in our exchange of letters, that the war in Vietnam can never bring any laurels to the United States—never. If you personally, Mr. President, did want earnestly to end the war I have no doubt that without any assistance on our part you could come to terms with the other side without any loss of prestige. You could reach a peaceful settlement.
This is how matters stand at the present time. We want to sign important documents with you in which we say we want to solve all differences through negotiation, not war, and advise others to follow that path. At the same time you will be continuing the war in Vietnam, continuing to kill innocent people, killing women and children. Now could that be understood? All this is when we continue a policy to lessen tensions in the world and ensure peaceful conditions. In order to achieve these goals, we want to extend a hand to you and accept your hand offered in cooperation. How can we advise other countries to follow a policy along these lines when you are doing what you do in Vietnam? Why are all the peaceful civilians being killed in Vietnam? Both our governments condemned Hitler when we fought together as allies. [Page 1055]Now 29 years since the end of that war there is another war. One is simply hard pressed to fathom this.
It’s surely doubtful that all of the American people are unanimously supporting the war in Vietnam. Certainly I doubt the families of those who were killed or those who were maimed and remain crippled support the war. In the name of what is that being done? Could the prestige of the U.S. fall if the U.S. imposed a peaceful settlement on Vietnam? Certainly not. The prestige of the U.S. would rise if you took this course. And I believe that line would be earnestly welcomed and saluted by the whole world.
I am sure if the U.S. Government, the U.S. President, applied what I call a true spirit of genius and if you could impose peace on the area, I repeat emphatically that U.S. prestige would soar. Look at the situation of DeGaulle when he ended the war in Algeria. When he came to power the war had been going on for seven years without giving France any laurels. When he extricated France from the war he immediately became a national hero.
We are speaking quite frankly because we are politicians and must be frank. We don’t put forward any conditions. We only ask that the war be ended. We have no proposals of our own regarding a government in Vietnam. We feel that’s for the Vietnamese to decide. They have proposed a coalition government. We believe it is entirely their own business, not ours. So we make no demands on you on this matter. We don’t say there has to be a communist government in Vietnam. Whether their government is communist or non-communist, that is their business.
Dr. Kissinger told me that if there was a peaceful settlement in Vietnam you would be agreeable to the Vietnamese doing whatever they want, having whatever they want after a period of time, say 18 months. If that is indeed true, and if the Vietnamese knew this, and it was true, they would be sympathetic on that basis. Even from the point of view of the election in the United States I submit that the end of the war at this particular time would play a positive role whereas escalation will not. As for sending in new waves of bombers against Vietnam, they cannot solve the problem and never can.
Another factor to take account of is that outside of Vietnam there are other states, some small, some big, which will not accept the defeat of Vietnam. That too is something that should be foreseen. We are after all mere human beings and cannot vouch at all times for the situation. We cannot foresee in detail everything that will happen tomorrow. Our heads are not electronic computers, which will always be absolutely precise in calculations to the smallest degree. Who can guarantee that we can foresee all the twists and turns of policy a thousand years ahead? Certain things are perhaps eternal. Who will decide personally who will kill whom? After all, Hitler started the war for [Page 1056]living space but ended up with no space at all. I told Dr. Kissinger that logic was a science and asked him to convey this thought to President Nixon. And in these discussions of the situation, logic too must have a part to play.
Chairman Kosygin: Mr. President, I fully associate myself with what Comrade Brezhnev said on the most important question of Vietnam. Some six years or so ago our present interpreter translated my conversation with President Johnson at Glassboro, and I must say I am reminded of my conversation there by today’s meeting. President Johnson also told me he wanted to end the war in Vietnam and he too advanced many conditions for ending the war. After two days of discussion at Glassboro I remember telling him my opinion, “You don’t want to end the war; you want to do more fighting. Well, try it,” I said. “Let’s see what it comes to.” He said he would strangle Vietnam and see what happens. In short, he spoke from a position of strength. I am sad to say that I must point out today you are also conducting the war from a position of strength, speaking from a position of strength.
Well as I say, six years have passed since that meeting with President Johnson. Since then something in the vicinity of one million Vietnamese have been killed in that war. Perhaps you have lost one hundred thousand of your own men and spent hundreds of billions of dollars. What has all that led to? What have you achieved? And here we are again around a table with a U.S. President and the conversation is very similar as it was with President Johnson six years ago. To be very frank, you are acting even more cruelly than was Johnson. But this certainly won’t result in any success.
The North Vietnamese could have easily invited other nations to come to their help. There were many proposals from various quarters to help the Vietnamese militarily. The Chinese were very anxious to go into Vietnam to fight against the U.S. Despite all the problems, despite their predicaments, the Vietnamese have never agreed to let others intervene in the war. That surely should be analyzed from the point of view of its historical significance. If the U.S. went in at the request of no one but mercenaries as head of that country, North Vietnam, despite the insistence of China to send in troops and other countries to send in volunteers—both socialist and non-socialist countries—never gave consent to that. Now that is a very significant fact and should be analyzed. It is certainly in favor of Vietnam.
General Secretary Brezhnev: Their attitude is motivated by a desire to lead matters to a peaceful settlement and their unwillingness to let the situation develop into a major war, to let themselves be led into a major war.
Chairman Kosygin: Mr. President, I believe you overestimate the possibility in present circumstances of resolving problems from a [Page 1057]position of strength. There may come a critical moment for the Vietnamese when they will not refuse to let in forces of other countries to act on their own side.
The President: That threat doesn’t frighten us a bit, but go ahead and make it.
Chairman Kosygin: Don’t think you are right in thinking what we say is a threat and what you say is not a threat. This is a question of a major war, and we say this, we don’t say it as a threat. This is an analysis of what may happen and that is much more serious than a threat.
Mr. President, when you came to office we were of the opinion you as a politician of long-standing would take advantage of the possibilities, and we think the possibility is still there since you were not a party to unleashing the war. We still think there is something you can do in order to end the war and to bring peace to that area. And if an attempt is made to resolve the matter as you explained, that is to say if they do not agree and you do use strength, in short you would simply destroy Vietnam; that is something quite frankly that would entail no glory either for the United States or yourself, Mr. President.
Now wherein lies the basic issue? You say you are prepared to withdraw your troops and this the Vietnamese are now welcoming. Now you say you want to secure the return of American prisoners of war. Quite recently, Premier Pham Van Dong made a statement that as soon as the war is over the Vietnamese are quite ready to release all prisoners. So there is a solution to that problem too.
The third question is that of a government. They say they are willing to set up a government of three elements. Dr. Kissinger knows just several days ago Pham Van Dong’s statement was made public, and that is what he told me when I spoke to him. So one thing remains. You still need to retain the so-called President in South Vietnam, someone you call President, who has not been chosen by anyone.
The President: Who chose the President of North Vietnam?
Chairman Kosygin: The entire people.
The President: Go ahead.
Chairman Podgorny: As for the President in North Vietnam, the late President Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam was even admired by the South Vietnamese and regarded as their President.
Chairman Kosygin: For the sake of him [Thieu], you want to send under the axe hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, maybe even a million, and your own soldiers, simply to save the skin of a mercenary President, so-called. We have known the Vietnamese leaders for many years very well—Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong, Le Duan. They are all very serious-minded and dedicated and with great experience in the struggle and devotion to their people.[Page 1058]
General Secretary Brezhnev: Of all the proposals, of every point put forward by the Vietnamese, in none of them did the PRG or DRV pose as a condition that they want to secure the reunification of North and South Vietnam; never have they said so. In fact they are ready to formalize this in an appropriate agreement and give a pledge to this effect. If this is so, for what sake are they still being killed?
Chairman Kosygin: Mr. President, perhaps just to conclude this subject, you demand that they give their constructive proposals and they expect your constructive proposals. That’s where the difficulty is created. Why not try while in Moscow to formulate some constructive proposals we could pass on to the Vietnamese.
[The President offers cigarillos to the Soviet leaders who politely decline. There is some light banter.]
If instead of continuing to support the so-called President, you could formulate proposals which would really enable to bring the war to and end, would that not be a veritable triumph for you on your return to your country from this visit? Think how much both of us would contribute to mankind. We proceed on the assumption that you have another four years ahead of you as President. We believe that you do have another four years. From the point of view of history this is a brief period, but if you could find a constructive solution you would go down in history as a man who succeeded in cutting through this knot which so many American Presidents have been unable to disentangle. Then think of the prospects opened up for our two countries, our joint ventures in many areas of the world? Isn’t it worth achieving this by sacrificing the rot that is the present government in Saigon?
Chairman Podgorny: If I might just take a few minutes. Today we have had very frank discussions, but perhaps they have been more acute than others.
The President: That’s good.
Chairman Podgorny: But it is always better to hear directly from a statesman his views on the world rather than hearing what radio and TV have to say on what he has to say. Of all my colleagues here I am the one who has been in Vietnam most recently. While there I discussed a variety of subjects, both international and bilateral. It was at that time the news came of your forthcoming visit to China. It was only from me that the Vietnamese learned about our understanding on your present visit to Moscow and when they heard you were coming to Moscow they were very favorably inclined because they felt the Soviet leaders could have a completely frank talk with the President and they thought that perhaps the two sides could find some ways to promote a solution to the Vietnam problem although there was no thought that just we two could jointly solve the entire problem. But it was felt something might come out of these discussions which could [Page 1059]in some ways be helpful and conducive to finding a solution at the Paris talks.
Now I don’t want to repeat what my colleagues said. It is certainly true that Pham Van Dong and Le Duan, the present leaders of North Vietnam, are men of common sense. They lay no claims, and said so to me, to unification with South Vietnam. They only want the freedom and the independence of South Vietnam, the freedom of the Vietnamese people themselves, to settle all their own problems. As they put it, they felt it would be good to set up a three-element government there and prepare conditions for free elections in South Vietnam.
There is certainly no need for me to say that although it is a small nation the Vietnamese are a heroic people, and I trust that you also recognize that they are a freedom-loving and heroic people. Regardless of the number of your planes and naval forces which have been brought to their shores, they will never give up their fight for independence. They have in fact been fighting throughout their lifetime and throughout history for freedom and independence. For a long time they fought China. For many years they fought France. At long last in 1954 after the Geneva Accords the dream appeared that they could enjoy freedom and independence and decide how to live by themselves and what form of government to choose. It is sad that their dream did not come true.
The most recent measures taken by the United States against Vietnam, of course, are as Comrades Brezhnev and Kosygin have already said—they are unlawful. They constitute nothing but aggression, as they are considered everywhere. It’s hard to find any country in the world which supports these measures. What’s more, these measures are not only against Vietnam but also against other countries which have friendly relations with Vietnam and these countries cannot react calmly to what goes on. The new escalation of the United States cannot resolve the issue, the bringing in of new air and naval forces. So surely some other methods must be sought to end the war, methods based on negotiations aimed at solving the problem and ending the war going on.
I don’t think anyone could really believe that these new drastic measures in North Vietnam can be aimed at protecting 60,000 Americans in Vietnam or to secure the freedom of prisoners of war in Vietnam. I don’t think many people are convinced that these are indeed the true reasons for these measures.
Mr. President, you explained your position and motives for taking these measures in Vietnam. We have set out our own position and attitudes on this question. I am afraid we have not convinced you we are right. You may rest assured you have not convinced us you were right in taking those measures. But since your visit is taking place in [Page 1060]circumstances when all questions are taken up with a desire to soften the situation in all areas, perhaps it would be worthwhile for you to give more thought to possible measures the United States could take to end the situation in Vietnam, a situation which at the present time becomes more grave and intolerable daily. In the context of these talks the events of Vietnam certainly place us in a very awkward position.
In conclusion may I just say we don’t doubt that if instead the United States really took resolute measures to end this war and bring about a peaceful solution, no country would ever think, and that includes the Vietnamese, the United States had capitulated in Vietnam.
General Secretary Brezhnev: Mr. President, I feel perhaps it is a good thing to end the discussion for today. We have probably on both sides spoken out our views on the substance.
I for one want to close with the following thought. You are quite familiar, Mr. President, with the wrath of our people in connection with Vietnam and the demands of socialist countries. You are familiar with their indignation at your aggression and the war in Vietnam. They demand that the bombing end and a peaceful solution be found. I must say frankly that wrath is still in the hearts of the Soviet people, and no order given to the people eradicate this sentiment. We certainly have on both sides taken this into account in our discussions at such a high level, and we cannot abstract this from all other questions because after all we agreed prior to the meeting not simply to discuss bilateral matters but also international problems. Now the other day you yourself said the most difficult problem between us were Vietnam and the Middle East, and I feel today we have said some sharp things to one another. And that is natural because the subject itself is very acute. Also a lot of things said were useful and reasonable.
Man is a creature endowed by nature with a wonderful quality of intelligence. If a man approaches a matter not from a selfish point of view, but objectively looks at all that has been discussed between two statesmen, he can find a reasonable way out of any predicament. I think we can both agree that today we cannot say we have completed discussion of this problem or found a solution for it. Therefore perhaps it would be expedient to end this discussion now and have dinner. I shall say the night brings counsel. Perhaps we can return to this subject tomorrow or the day after. We should try to make a new effort to find a solution.
Chairman Kosygin: At least we should try to engage in a constructive search for a solution.
The President: Let me add I think our discussions have been very helpful in setting forth our points of view. I appreciate the fact that our hosts have been so direct and honest and candid about what they don’t like about our policy and why. Because that’s the kind of discussions [Page 1061]we should have at this level. Even after Vietnam is settled—and I trust it will be settled soon—we will perhaps have to have discussions like this about other subjects, either we or our successors. I can assure you on our part we will continue our search for a negotiated end to the war as we have been searching in the past three and one-half years.
As you know we were somewhat disappointed after Dr. Kissinger visited here in April and the Soviet leaders were instrumental in getting North Vietnam to meet with him privately. But rather than being more reasonable, the North Vietnamese were more intransigent than ever before. We find that hard to understand. As a matter of fact, to show our own position, the General Secretary will note I picked up directly his suggestion of a ceasefire and proposed that we would withdraw all forces within four months and discontinue all military actions in exchange for a simple ceasefire. They rejected this out of hand. I think, however, the General Secretary’s suggestion was a good one and we will continue to pursue it.
I would just like to leave one thought regarding what our motive really is. I know I won’t impress our hosts with any sentimental diplomatic doubletalk, and I never indulge in that. But as men who have come up the hard way, as I have, as practical men and honest men, you will have to take into account the record. As President Podgorny pointed out, I didn’t send 550,000 men to Vietnam. They were sent by President Johnson and President Kennedy. I have withdrawn over 500,000 men from Vietnam. That is certainly not an act of war. It is an act of moving toward peace. By Easter of this year I had cut out air sorties in Vietnam by 40% despite evidence of a very big buildup which I know did threaten our forces, many of which are stationed in the northern part of the country. Because I didn’t want an incident to occur before the meeting with Soviet leaders, I used total restraint and did not react strongly on the military front.
Then the North Vietnamese on Easter weekend, in violation of the 1954 Accords, to which reference was made, and the 1968 understanding on the bombing halt,9 massively moved across the DMZ, and under those circumstances I had to take the actions I considered necessary as Commander-in-Chief to stop the invading forces. I would simply emphasize the point suggested earlier of the possibility that the action I took was because of irritation; if that were the case, I would be a very dangerous man in the position I am in. The decision was taken in cold objectivity. That is the way I always act, having in mind the consequences, the risks politically.[Page 1062]
Our people want peace. I want it too. I want the Soviet leaders to know how seriously I view this threat of new North Vietnamese escalation. One of our great Civil War generals, General Sherman, said “War is hell.” No people know this better than the Soviet people. We are deeply aware of the bitter tragedy visited upon the Soviet nation in World Wars I and II. By those standards this is just a small war. But it has cost the U.S. 50,000 dead and 200,000 wounded. And since this offensive began, 30,000 South Vietnamese civilians, men, women and children have been killed by the North Vietnamese, using Soviet equipment.
I would not for one moment suggest that the leaders of the Soviet Union wanted that to happen. What I am simply suggesting at this high level and very critical time in history, our goal is the same as yours. We are not trying to impose a settlement, government, on anybody. We are trying by a simple ceasefire to end the war, in other words, to impose a peace.
I would say finally that Prime Minister Kosygin’s suggestion that we think matters over is one we will take under consideration. I think we might well discuss it again, perhaps Thursday or Friday.10 But the main consideration must be this: We cannot—and I don’t think the Soviet leaders seriously recommend we do so—send Dr. Kissinger to Paris for a private meeting with the knowledge that nothing is going to happen. We have to have an indication that they will talk, something they have never done with us. We don’t mean they have to come to surrender. We just want them to come and talk, as we are doing. They have never done that in any meetings with Dr. Kissinger, let alone the public meetings. If we can break that impasse, then we will end the war quickly at the negotiating table. That’s the problem.
We don’t ask the Soviet leaders to find a formula for bringing the war to an end, but your influence with your allies could be considerable. I am trying to indicate we will be reasonable at the negotiating table, but we cannot go there and be dictated to by the other side. That’s all we’ve had so far. But we will think it over, and maybe Dr. Kissinger out of his brain will come up with a new proposal.
Chairman Kosygin: He’s got to find one. Given the desire, it can be done.
The President: Maybe you can help us.
Chairman Kosygin: What kind of brain is it that does not produce a new proposal?
The President: I think we have held up our hosts too long with this discussion.[Page 1063]
General Secretary Brezhnev: Well, we have certainly had a most serious discussion on a problem of world importance. I wish to reemphasize that what’s been said is useful, taking into account the level of our discussion and the frankness of both sides. I do believe it is correct that this will not end our discussion of this topic; think things over in an endeavor to find a solution. After all there is more than one solution to any problem. One must find the most reasonable solution. We understand by your last remark that you are prepared to look at this and we understand you are prepared to do this.
The President: No question.
General Secretary Brezhnev: Mr. President, on the eve of coming to this country we did note that you had decided not to harden your position on bombing during your visit here. But unfortunately that has not been the case and I hope you can appreciate our attitude toward this and its significance.
Dr. Kissinger: To what does the General Secretary refer?
General Secretary Brezhnev: Haiphong and Hanoi.
Dr. Kissinger: We told your Ambassador we would not bomb in a certain radius of Hanoi, a certain number of miles from Hanoi. And I am not aware that this has been done, and if so you should tell us about it.
The President: We made a commitment.
General Secretary Brezhnev: It has been in the TASS communication.
Chairman Kosygin: I refer once again to the Minister of Marines’ report on our ships being buzzed and bombs being dropped near them and American aircraft imitating bombing dives against our ships.
The President: We will check. That’s against our orders.11
General Secretary Brezhnev: You can appreciate our feeling on this matter, because when one of our ships was damaged and some people were wounded before your visit we lodged a protest with you, but we didn’t say one word about this in the Soviet press. The entire world knew about it.[Page 1064]
Chairman Kosygin: Another thing, there is not a single ship on the way to Vietnam now carrying military equipment—not one shell—only flour and foodstuffs, no armaments whatever.
[The meeting ended at 11:00 p.m. and the party went upstairs to dinner, where the conversation was devoted entirely to non-substantive matters.]12
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 487, President’s Trip Files, The President’s Conversations in Salzburg, Moscow, Tehran, and Warsaw, May 1972, Part 2. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting was held in General Secretary Brezhnev’s dacha, Zarech’ye, Moscow. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting was from 7:55 to 11:00 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files)↩
- See Documents 262 and 263.↩
- See Document 273.↩
- May 26.↩
- Kissinger recalled that “Nixon decided to put Vietnam squarely on the table. If he had not, the Soviet leaders surely would have; they were loaded for bear.” He wrote that once the subject was Vietnam, “the easy camaraderie vanished; the atmosphere clouded suddenly from one second to the other. Each of the three Soviet leaders in turn unleashed a diatribe against Nixon, who, except for two one-sentence interruptions, endured it in dignified silence.” Kissinger commented that he suddenly thought that “for all the bombast and rudeness, we were participants in a charade. While the tone was bellicose and the manner extremely rough, none of the Soviet statements had any operational content. The leaders stayed well clear of threats…. The Soviet leaders were not pressing us except with words. They were speaking for the record, and when they had said enough to have a transcript to send to Hanoi, they would stop… . The fact is that except for their bullying tone in this session the Soviet leaders treated Vietnam as a subsidiary issue during the summit.” (White House Years, pp. 1225–1228)↩
- All brackets in the source text.↩
- In his memoirs Nixon wrote that everyone had been in a good humor when they got back to the dacha and Brezhnev had suggested they have a meeting before dinner, which had been scheduled for 8. “For the next three hours the Soviet leaders pounded me bitterly and emotionally about Vietnam.” He recalled that he “momentarily thought of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when Brezhnev, who had just been laughing and slapping me on the back, started shouting angrily that instead of honestly working to end the war, I was trying to use the Chinese as a means of bringing pressure on the Soviets to intervene with the North Vietnamese.” (RN: Memoirs, p. 613)↩
- 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.↩
- For the October 31, 1968, understanding that ended the bombardment of North Vietnam in exchange for the convening of four-part talks on Vietnam and certain other guarantees, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. VII, Documents 161, 165, and 169.↩
- May 25 or 26.↩
- Following the meeting Kissinger cabled Haig in Washington, and reported Kosygin’s accusation that U.S. bombing activities had been taking place close to Soviet vessels berthed in DRV ports (presumably Haiphong). He said that Nixon had assured the Soviet leaders that such activities, if true, were not authorized and that he would check into these allegations. Kissinger asked Haig to send them any relevant information and noted that it went without saying that “every effort must be made to avoid incidents while we are in Moscow.” (Telegram Hakto 28, May 24; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 480, President’s Trip Files, The Situation Room—President’s Trip, USSR, Iran, Austria, Poland, May–Jun 1972, HAKTO File) In telegram Hakto 35, May 25, Kissinger ordered: “All bombing within a five mile radius from the center of Haiphong is prohibited until the President returns to the United States.” (Ibid., Howe Vietnam Chronological File, Box 1089, May 25, 1972)↩
- Haldeman’s diary records that the President had him in the next morning (May 25) to review the previous night’s meeting and said that “he had been very tough on Vietnam and that this was the first time K had seen him operate like this.” Later Nixon told Kissinger to give Haldeman a report on the session. Kissinger said that “the P had been very tough and did a magnificent job, and that he was very, very cold after they blasted us on Vietnam, and he just sat there and let them run out their strength, and had done it superbly.” (The Haldeman Diaries, p. 464)↩