73. Editorial Note
On March 30, 1972, North Vietnam began its long–awaited spring offensive as regular army units steadily advanced into South Vietnam along three fronts: across the Demilitarized Zone toward Dong Ha and Quang Tri, from bases in Laos toward Dak To and Pleiku in the Central Highlands, and from bases in Cambodia toward Loc Ninh and An Loc northwest of Saigon. President Nixon and Assistant to the President Kissinger were meeting in the Oval Office from 9:58 to 10:45 a.m. when Kissinger received a note on the invasion. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary; Nixon, RN: Memoirs, page 586; and Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition) Nixon and Kissinger then discussed the news.
Kissinger: “It looks like they are attacking now in Vietnam.”
Nixon: “The battle has begun.”
Kissinger: “Yeah. Right at the DMZ. And [unclear] again. I made them check whether the, of course the weather is too bad for us to bomb. We must have the world’s worst air force.”
Nixon: “What’s the situation? They, is this the, this is an attack on a broad front?”
Kissinger: “It looks that way. They have attacked eight fire–support bases, which is usually the way these things start. And they are attacking within range of the SAMs and all—”
Nixon: “How are they doing?”
Kissinger: “It appears they’re doing fairly well, but, you know, the first six hours of an attack, you know, who can tell?”
Nixon: “How’s the ARVN doing? Doing fairly well?”
Kissinger: “Yeah. That’s what they say. They say it’s really acting well but—”
Kissinger: “—but you can’t believe that. I think if this is a real attack, we should hit the SAMs in North Vietnam—”
Kissinger: “—that are protecting—And we told them we were going to do it.”
Nixon: “That’s right.”[Page 235]
Nixon: “Well, I don’t see why we don’t do it right now.” [unclear]
Kissinger: “Well, let’s wait until the end of the day to see whether it’s a real attack or just a blip.”
After considering various diplomatic and military means to stop the invasion, the two men linked the war in Vietnam to relations with the Soviet Union. Kissinger mentioned that “Brezhnev wrote you a letter this week [Document 72] which is very, very conciliatory.” Nixon then raised Kissinger’s meeting that afternoon with Dobrynin, including plans to consult the Soviets on the President’s proposed trip to Warsaw.
Nixon: “First of all, do your best to cut the deal on Poland.”
Kissinger: “I think I can handle that.”
Nixon: “But the second thing—And then say, and you can point out that, he can have, he need to be not concerned about what I say on Poland. He can be very sure. There’s no problem on that. That we’ll be totally discrete. But that I think we’re going to be in a terrible position if we turn it down. Second point is, I think you should tell Dobrynin that, we’re rather surprised by this attack. I’d tell him [unclear], and you can say, ‘Look, you don’t know what—the President has said he wants to make the best possible arrangement with Brezhnev. We’re all on—we’re on the same track. But an attack on North Vietnam may make it impossible. It may spoil it.’”
Nixon: “I’d play it very hard.”
Kissinger: “In fact, at the end of his letter, he had a rather mild expression of hope that we wouldn’t bomb North Vietnam. And I can just take off from that and say—”
Kissinger: “—we have showed great restraint.”
Nixon: “Great restraint since this. Now, instead we’re going to have to do it. And it’s only because they’re attacking. And you’ve just got to keep, have them knock off this attack or we’re going to bomb them. But I’d tell him, ‘Now look, Mr. Ambassador, I cannot vouch for what he won’t do. I mean don’t think that it’s going to be limited to what we have done before.’ Throw that in again. ‘If these attacks continue, I believe I owe it to you to say that don’t assume that it will not be—that it will be limited to the kind of a bombing we’ve done before.’” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, March 30, 1972, 9:38–11:10 a.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 697–2) The editors transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.