38. Conversation Between President Nixon and His Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

Kissinger: Dobrynin called me.

Nixon: He did?

Kissinger: Yeah. Through Haig. Said he had a—he needs a long conversation with me. I made some jokes about India—Pakistan. He said, “Let’s put it behind us. Let’s work positively for the future.” And I’m having dinner with him tomorrow night.

Nixon: So he doesn’t appear to be negative about it?

Kissinger: Not at all. No. One massive problem we have is in Vietnam. We had a message from Abrams today. They’re putting in every reserve unit they have. Everything. They’re stripping North Vietnam.

Nixon: The North Vietnamese?

Kissinger: Yeah, they’re stripping it bare and—

Nixon: What can we do?

Kissinger: Well, he wants to bomb the southern part of North Vietnam where they have their logistic buildup. So we’ve got to look at it tomorrow. I want to talk to Dobrynin and tell him, “Look, if this offensive”—of course, they want to put it to us.

Nixon: I think they want to put it to us. My view is that we may have to risk the Chinese thing, Henry. I—

Kissinger: It’s my view too, Mr. President.

Nixon: I just don’t believe you can let them knock the shit out of us. I mean, the Chinese—the Chinese aren’t going to cancel the trip.

Kissinger: No.

Nixon: they’re not going to cancel the trip because—

Kissinger: I don’t think you should go quite as far north but we should, as we did in the last attacks—I think we should let him do something. I think we—

Nixon: Henry, you remember I—

Kissinger: Particularly after your peace speech.2 I don’t think you should do it.

[Page 120]

Nixon: Wouldn’t do it now. We’ll wait until after the peace speech. I think you’re right.

Kissinger: I’d wait until they’ve—

Nixon: Did they respond with—to our speech with increased buildup?

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: I think so too.

Kissinger: That’s my understanding.

Nixon: Just simply—What does Abrams—does Abrams have a plan?

Kissinger: Well, he has targets. And I think they probably are going to make an all out—and then they’re going to settle. If they don’t tip it then, they’re going to settle. They’re going to settle either way, because if they win, of course, they’re going to—and if they don’t make it, then they’re going to—

Nixon: When you speak in terms of the win, what are they doing? What do you envision?

Kissinger: Well, what they could wind up doing is have a massive attack in the II Corps and come across the DMZ and across the—and go all out in I Corps. Now we ought to be able to handle it with massive air. If they go across the DMZ, of course, they’d be violating the understanding totally.

Nixon: Yes.

Kissinger: And, of course it’s also conceivable that Dobrynin brings us a message tomorrow. I don’t really believe it. Not on Vietnam. He’s—But he was very conciliatory and very—somewhat apologetic.

Nixon: About what?

Kissinger: India–Pakistan.

Nixon: You think so?

Kissinger: Yeah. I said to him, “You know, Anatoly, every time you leave town I know you’re doing something mischievous ‘cause every time you’re out of town things are in crisis. He said, “Oh, I can tell you some interesting things.” He said, “Let’s put it behind us. But as a friend, I’ll give you a lot of explanations which will—”3

Nixon: he’ll probably say that Kuznetsov tried—

Kissinger: Well that I believe. But that, in fact, there’s no doubt. Because we have the telegram from the Soviet Ambassador to India, [Page 121] Pegov, who told the Indians on Friday, which was the 10th that they should take Kashmir as quickly as possible. And on Sunday Kutznetsov showed up and everything began to turn. So the signals were clearly changed after your conversations with that Agricultural Minister.4

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: There’s no question. No question.

Nixon: Let me ask you, is there anything that—there’s nothing you can do with Dobrynin on that damn Vietnam thing. Not a damn thing—

Kissinger: Well, I’m gonna … Well, I’ll see him tomorrow.

Nixon: you’re going to have to see him tomorrow night?

Kissinger: Tomorrow night. For dinner. I’ll call you.

Nixon: Is your present thinking though that we still go ahead Tues day night? That’s what we want to do?

Kissinger: I think so. Oh, no question about that.

Nixon: [unclear] I mean, in relation to the Dobrynin conversation, will that change anything?

Kissinger: Well, unless he has a message that they are ready to start talking in which case—but that’s inconceivable to me. They wouldn’t send it through him.

Nixon: You think that what they’re really doing is—what Abrams says is a massive buildup?

Kissinger: Biggest buildup in 4 years. Every reserve division they’ve got. Literally, they’ve stripped it. If we could land one division up North we could drive to Hanoi.

Nixon: And where are they all? He says—

Kissinger: Well they’re coming down—

Nixon: How’d they get there so fast?

Kissinger: Well some are on the train and some are just north of the DMZ. And they’ve built a road across the DMZ, which they don’t need for infiltration—

Nixon: Well what the hell. Why aren’t we hitting the road?

Kissinger: Mr. President, this has been one of the—

Nixon: What in the name of God are we doing about the road?

Kissinger: Well, oh yeah, we are bombing it. But it’s one of the worst disgraces, that here the great U.S. Air Force can’t keep a road from being built. They still haven’t finished it completely so I don’t think they’ll start the DMZ attack yet. Our judgment is, or the intelligent judgment is, that they’ll start their attacks in Vietnam in February, and in the [Page 122] Second Corps area in March, and the I Corps area. I think they’ll have knocked it off by May 1st. They will not—My judgment is that the Russians will not want you to come to Moscow—they’d like you to be in Peking.

Nixon: Peking—

Kissinger: With egg on your face. But, if we set up these negotiations on the Middle East properly, they’ll need you to deliver on it. If you’re the one that delivers, you need to be strong. If we—That’s why we have to set up trade and the Middle East in such a way that you are the one that has to deliver it after the election.

Nixon: Coming back to this immediate problem, I see no choice but to, do what Abrams recommends on that. The—

Kissinger: We kicked the Russians in the teeth when we had to for the national interest and we’ll have to do it to the Chinese.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: But I’d do it after the peace offensive.

Nixon: Yeah. Yeah, I think you’re right. That isn’t going to make that much difference, is it?

Kissinger: I think we should send a note to the Chinese when you give your speech and a note to the Russians. And—

Nixon: If they’ll [unclear] escalation we will have to respond in kind?

Kissinger: Yeah. And we hope—

Nixon: It’s not [unclear] against them.

Kissinger: And we hope that they’ll use the affair to help us… to help our settlement.

Nixon: Who will you do that through? Have Walters deliver it in Paris?

Kissinger: Walters in Paris and I can give it to Dobrynin on Tues day5 just before your speech.6

Nixon: I’d do it beforehand. That’s what I’d do. I really would.

Kissinger: Well, the warning I can give Dobrynin tomorrow, but I think the speech with the request—we don’t want to—

Nixon: Yes, yes, I know.

Kissinger: Because otherwise—

Nixon: What will you tell him tomorrow?

Kissinger: Well, I’ll tell him—

[Page 123]

Nixon: Do we think, for example, that our air strike did any good? We do, don’t we?

Kissinger: Yeah. I’ll tell him that what—I’ll say now look, you’ve watched the President. Time and again he’s done things, which you would have not predicted. Run enormous risks, and I’ll tell you now he’s going to do it again if this Vietnam offensive comes off at the scale at which we’re now seeing it develop.

Nixon: Incidentally, what are the South Vietnamese doing in terms of preparing to meet the offensive? Are they—

Kissinger: Well, he’s changed a commander of the second—of two of the divisions in II Corps.

Nixon: Has he?

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Has he—the commander change been—They must be pretty good now, the South Vietnamese.

Kissinger: Well, in I Corps they’re pretty good but that’s where they may run into a lot of tanks. This may be a replay of the—

Nixon: We have tanks there now, remember? we’ve been delivering tanks to [unclear].

Kissinger: No, no. That should be a gory battle but, you know, it would be a lot of publicity in this country.

Nixon: Look, if it doesn’t involve Americans, it’s all right. They’re going to have publicity on it anyway.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the Moscow summit.]

Kissinger: I told Dobrynin—I said, “I saw you applauding the defense program part.” He said, “No, you must have been watching this [unclear].”

Nixon: Did he say anything?

Kissinger: I said it as a joke. I knew he hadn’t applauded. But it was a good story.

Nixon: Well, we had one little hooker in there, for the good of the Russians too. We said, “We’re for limitation of arms, looking to the future.” We want to reduce arms. Dobrynin should know that.

Kissinger: Oh, yeah.

Nixon: That we’re willing to talk about that.

Kissinger: Mr. President—

Nixon: He didn’t object to the speech, did he?

Kissinger: Oh, no.

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: Mr. President, I have—one thing is clear to me ever since my meeting with the [Soviet] Cultural Minister [Ekaterina A. Furtseva]. [Page 124] What we did in India–Pakistan, I don’t care what it does here, we’ve got new respect from the Russians. She’s now sent me presents and a note of [unclear].

Nixon: Did she?

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Great.

Kissinger: And Dobrynin. I can tell how he slobbers. He says, “I have some very interesting communications for you and it’s terribly important. We have a big agenda. Let’s get right to work.” And he wanted to come for breakfast, as you know. He said—but he said he needs most of the morning, so I said, no, why don’t we do it—

Nixon: At least it’s—at least the summit is still on. You know, you hear about these people that—I—

Kissinger: I told your staff this morning that I thought we would have more results—

Nixon: They kept saying—they kept saying, “Well, because of India–Pakistan Dobrynin will come back and tell you to go to hell.” Well if they do then we know where we are.

Kissinger: Mr. President, there is absolutely no chance—

Nixon: they’ve got [unclear].

Kissinger: He told me—I had told his minister, his Trade Minister—I dropped in at Sam’s for drinks with his Trade Minister and I said, “You know the President is prepared to do things that are beyond the imagination of everybody. On the other hand, if you don’t stop these propaganda attacks on us, we can only conclude you—you want—you don’t want improved relations and in that case we’re not going to trade.” So we’ve got to get Dobrynin back. We’ve got to get him back. He’s the only guy that can straighten it out. And Dobrynin said he really had intended to stay another week, but they made him come back right after that conversation because they are determined to have this thing develop. So—

Nixon: Why don’t you talk to him about Vietnam and give, you could give ‘em almost anything right now. The trade, of course, you could give them.

Kissinger: Oh, yeah.

Nixon: But damn it, they don’t want to play. I don’t know what we can do. We don’t have any cards there, Henry, nothing but the damned air force. We’ll use it. We’ve got to use the air force—

Kissinger: Mr. President, I think the demonstration of impotence, of getting them out of Vietnam physically—

Nixon: What’s that? I couldn’t hear you.

Kissinger: I mean—

[Page 125]

Nixon: If the demonstration what?

Kissinger: Of being run out physically. It would be too great.

Nixon: Oh, we can’t do it.

Kissinger: Of course, I think they will be—after this shot—I think they…

Nixon: they’ve got to settle.

Kissinger: Yeah. That’s it.

Nixon: Don’t you think so?

Kissinger: they’ve got to settle this summer. One way or the other. I think in making your planning, you can pretty well assume one way or the other it’s going to be—

Nixon: [unclear] we get number three?

Kissinger: It’s going to be—

Nixon: Remember we always talked in terms of two and three.

Kissinger: Well, we got the two. I think we’ll get number three.

Nixon: You know, it’s interesting when you think, when you put down, you read the little foreign policy section in that speech. It’s a pretty goddamn good policy, isn’t it?

Kissinger: It was very strong.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: And very thoughtful.

Nixon: And you know we’ve said our commitments will be minimal. We will not enter in militarily, but we will do this and that. And also we’ve got in—we’ll use our military—we’ve got it all down there. People know exactly what we will do and what we won’t do. And it’s damn strong. And of course, as you know, the kicker is an interest.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Oh. It’s what—That means everybody gets it. I might decide that our interests were threatened in Bolivia, right?

Kissinger: It was no—

Nixon: See the interest is the thing that they—that the peaceniks will… Well, some of them will be smart. But a lot of peaceniks will say, “Ah, thank God we’re not going to intervene.” Bullshit. We’ll intervene in any place—

Kissinger: [unclear]—

Nixon: If [unclear].

Kissinger: Well, with you as President, I—

Nixon: they’d be scared to death I might do something foolish.

Kissinger: Foolish hasn’t been your record but something tough.

Nixon: I wish we could do something tough in Vietnam. I don’t—Well, goddamn it. That air force plus the South Vietnamese should be [Page 126] able to do it—I don’t think the North Vietnamese are that strong. I can’t believe—

Kissinger: We ought to do—

Nixon: —in Laos, in Cambodia they could be that strong.

Kissinger: What we ought to do is get a series of 1 or 2-day strikes. I don’t think we can do 5 days at a clip, but—

Nixon: No, I—we can’t—As I told you before, I really think that the last 2 days of the last [unclear] it wasn’t fatal, but it didn’t help us. I don’t think it was worth [unclear] continuing. It looked like we just—Hit ‘em for a couple of days and then stop. As you noticed that, we stopped the bombing. They quit talking about [unclear] for 3 days.

Kissinger: Yeah. In 2 days, we can do 1 week. And then 2 weeks later, another day. They’ve just got to—

Nixon: I think that the fact—the reason I asked you about the other one, Henry, I think the fact that we did that 5 day—

Kissinger: Oh, that was very—

Nixon: Gave them some pause.

Kissinger: Oh yeah—

Nixon: —Don’t you think it worried them a little? They needed some [unclear].

Kissinger: I think we may have to hit them early in February. I don’t think it’s—

Nixon: Well that means next week maybe, though.

Kissinger: No, the week after your proposal.

Nixon: Oh, you want to wait that long?

Kissinger: Oh, maybe at the end of the week. I’d like to give your proposal a little more ride. I think they’re going to—

Nixon: Yeah, I think we should let it ride the weekend, if we can. How about that?

Kissinger: And, if they hit us, then maybe we hit them for 5 days. You know, if they respond to your proposal with an all-out offensive.

Nixon: That’s right. But we—and you’re agreed you could hit that—I don’t want to say—I don’t want to threaten in my speech if you think I should.

Kissinger: No, you should not.

Nixon: I don’t think I should be threatening at all in the speech.

Kissinger: No, no.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 652–17. No classification marking. According to his Daily Diary, Nixon met Kissinger in the Oval Office from 6:08–6:36 p.m. The editors transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. For Nixon’s January 25 “peace” speech, see Public Papers: Nixon, 1972, pp. 100–106.
  3. In a telephone conversation between Kissinger and Dobrynin, January 20. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 371, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)
  4. Nixon met with Soviet Minister of Agriculture Vladimir Matskevich on December 9, 1971; see Document 23.
  5. January 25.
  6. For the full text of the “Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union,” see Public Papers: Nixon, 1972, pp. 41–74.