79. Conversation Between President Nixon and his Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

[Omitted here is a brief exchange on political leadership in the Pentagon.]

Kissinger: It is clear that there is a massive attack.

Nixon: Oh, we know there is.

Kissinger: they’ve now got 50 tanks near Dong Ha.

Nixon: I noticed this morning, it says Abrams considers the situation is grim, which he, of course, shouldn’t say.

Kissinger: Of course. I’ve asked him to—

Nixon: And, of course, the press is using these terms they did in Laos—rout, disarray, and so forth and so forth. I don’t think it’s that bad but nevertheless I don’t know.

Kissinger: I think—

Nixon: The GIs, they say, are voicing opposition to the war. And Abrams, or MACV, is saying that ARVN was taken by surprise. Now, for Christ’s sakes, we’re in charge of the goddamned intelligence up there. We can’t—The military can’t cop out on this one, Henry.

Kissinger: That’s right.

[Omitted here is discussion of the military situation in Vietnam and of political leadership in the Pentagon.]

[Page 251]

Kissinger: they’re attacking close to the centers of, close to their own border, shows how far they’ve been pushed out. And I think we shouldn’t panic now. What—In a way it’s a godsend. We should give them a tremendous punishment.

Nixon: Yeah. Because—

Kissinger: I believe—

Nixon: It’s a godsend because they could’ve done this. What they’ve done now they could do next October. Although the weather would still be bad, wouldn’t be as good then as it now, would it?

Kissinger: Well, in October it will be about like now. It will be the end of the rain.

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: They can—

Nixon: Same thing.

Kissinger: —do it in October.

Nixon: It’s just as good, well to have it right now.

Kissinger: It’s just as well. We can now precipitate. I’m going to get Dobrynin in and I’m going to tell him, I’m just going to threaten him with the non–ratification of the Berlin treaty.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: I’m going to say, “Now this is it.”

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: And—

Nixon: And keep in mind the fact that you, that we still want to drive a hard bargain on the summit. Oh, they want that summit. [unclear]

Kissinger: Mr. President, they can no more afford to not have that summit.

Nixon: They can’t trade Vietnam for this. The Chinese—you’ve already sent a message now?

Kissinger: No, that’s going tonight. Or as soon as I get them on the phone, we’ll get somebody up there to deliver it.2

Nixon: Oh, I see.

Kissinger: I think we could play this into an end of the war.

Nixon: I think you’re right.

Kissinger: I think it’s—

[Page 252]

Nixon: I think you’re right but, I’ll tell you, it will provided this bombing attack that we put on is one of the, is the best, is the finest goddamn thing that’s ever been, the military, that’s ever been done.

[Omitted here is discussion of political leadership in the Pentagon and plans for handling the press on the North Vietnamese offensive.]

Kissinger: If the ARVN collapses, we’ve done everything we can, Mr. President.

Nixon: We will. If the ARVN collapses? Don’t say—That’s just a, that’s a question that we can’t even think about. If the ARVN collapses? A lot of other things will collapse around here. If they think we’re going to collapse, we’d had to do it a year ago. We can’t do it this year, Henry.

Kissinger: Right. They’re not going to collapse. I know—

Nixon: You see what I mean? We can’t take it.

Kissinger: I agree. That’s why we’ve got to blast—

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: —the living bejeezus out of North Vietnam. We will gain nothing for restraint—

Nixon: That’s right. That’s right.

Kissinger: —and it would be—I think if we shock the bejeezus out of them, we can get Japan—

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: —Hell, we can get Russia and China to help us, because they cannot want to have this whole thing. But we’ve got to get them to move now.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: And Laird is already saying the 48–hour strike won’t be done now until Friday.3 we’ve got to hit fast.

Nixon: Why?

Kissinger: Well, partly weather, partly because he says he needs the air assets in the combat zone. But if we build enough of a fire under the Chiefs, they’ll get it done. Maybe we can wait ‘til Wednesday but we ought to hit soon.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: I’ll go and get that briefing now.4

Nixon: Well, well—

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Kissinger: And I’ll report to you.5

Nixon: Like I say, let’s don’t talk about well if the ARVN collapses. That’s something we can’t have. That’s fine with regard to this. But we’re playing a much bigger game. We’re playing a Russian game, a Chinese game, and an election game.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: And we’re not going to have the ARVN collapse.

Kissinger: I agree.

Nixon: It isn’t that urgent. This kind of an attack is not urgent pro vided, provided we fight back and the ARVN holds.

Kissinger: Mr. President, by May 1st we’ll be through it. I think it will lead to negotiations.

[Omitted here is discussion of the President’s schedule and of the military situation in Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 700–2. No classification marking. According to his Daily Diary, Nixon met with Kissinger in the Oval Office from 8:54 to 9:09 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The editors transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. Lord delivered the message to representatives of the People’s Republic of China in New York that evening; for text, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 219.
  3. April 7.
  4. Kissinger attended a briefing by JCS representatives from 9:16 to 9:40 a.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–1976, Record of Schedule)
  5. Kissinger reported to Nixon on his JCS briefing from 9:49 to 9:59 a.m. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation between Nixon and Haldeman, April 3, 1972, 9:18–9:59 a.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 700–3)