80. Editorial Note

On April 3, 1972, Assistant to the President Henry Kissinger met Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin in the Map Room at the White House from 5:37 to 6:15 p.m. to discuss the impact of the North Vietnamese offensive on U.S.–Soviet relations. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–1976, Record of Schedule) In the Executive Office Building earlier that afternoon, Kissinger and President Nixon discussed their plans to enlist Soviet support in Vietnam during the meeting with the Soviet Ambassador:

Nixon: “When are you going to see Dobrynin?”

Kissinger: “5:30.”

Nixon: “When are you, when are you—are you passing a message to the Chairman?”

Kissinger: “Right. Well, we’ve got the Russians really in a bad bind because they want the Berlin treaty ratified. And I’m going to tell Dobrynin, ‘Russian tanks, Russian artillery, including [unclear], including in there, because of air strikes, because of Brezhnev’s letter,’ we can’t do it [unclear], that’s true, but I’ll say—”

Nixon: “That’s right.”

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Kissinger: “And I’d say, ‘this is it now.’ [unclear] Every time we’ve laid down the law to them—”

Nixon: “they’ve done something.”

Kissinger: “—they’ve done something.”

Nixon: “Whether they can do anything now with these people, I don’t know. Because these people probably see [unclear] the thing that they can stroke with Russia and China. Well, maybe they can.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, April 3, 1972, 12:55–1:28 p.m., Executive Office Building, Conversation No. 328–25) The editors transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.

Although no substantive record has been found of the 5:30 meeting, both Kissinger and Dobrynin later described the conversation in their memoirs. According to Dobrynin, Kissinger had requested the meeting on an urgent basis and was “unusually agitated.”

“On behalf of the president, he [Kissinger] wanted to inform the Soviet leadership that North Vietnam had launched large–scale military operations across the demilitarized zone, penetrating ten to fifteen miles to the south. The president, Kissinger said, will therefore have to take military countermeasures, and he hoped that Moscow would not regard them as hostile to its own interests, nor would they affect our relations on the eve of the Moscow summit. Kissinger added that the advancing North Vietnamese troops were ‘armed 90 percent with Soviet–made weapons,’ and the North Vietnamese command had gambled nearly all its regular troops on the offensive.” (Dobrynin, In Confidence, page 243)

According to his own account, Kissinger accused the Soviets of “complicity in Hanoi’s attack.” He also emphasized, however, the importance of linkage between North Vietnam and West Germany.

“If the offensive continued, we would be forced into measures certain to present Moscow with difficult choices before the summit. In the meantime we would have to call off some steps of special concern to Moscow. For example, Moscow had asked us to send a message to West German leaders to urge the ratification of the Eastern treaties, scheduled for a vote in about a month’s time. We had been reluctant to intervene to such an extent in Germany’s internal politics. We used the North Vietnamese offensive as a pretext to avoid what we were reluctant to do in any event. Under current conditions, I told Dobrynin, we could not be active in Bonn. Moscow could not ask for our assistance in Europe while undermining our position in Southeast Asia. The Kremlin was put on notice that North Vietnamese actions might jeopardize some fundamental Soviet goals.” (White House Years, page 1114)

After Dobrynin left, Nixon telephoned Kissinger at 6:20 p.m. to review the meeting.

“P: Hi, Henry. You finished with your meeting?

K: Yes, are you in your office?

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“P: No, I’m over at the residence. I will be over there in a half hour or so if you want to wait until then.

K: Well, no. I told him what you said and he said, ‘Isn’t it amazing what a little country can do to wreck well–laid plans.’ I said, ‘The President wants you to know we will under no circumstances accept a defeat there and we will do what is necessary not to.’ He said, ‘What do you want us to do?’ I said, ‘First to show restraint and secondly you have to ask yourselves whether this isn’t the time to bring an end to the war. There is, after all, when I look around the world I see no areas where we should be in conflict.’ He said he did not either—not even in Vietnam. Then I brought up the Berlin thing. I said, ‘Look, here we are. We get the ratification thing coming up in Germany, the President has been asked to write to Brandt, but he can’t under these circumstances and he wants you to know if we should lose in Vietnam that is the last concession we will make this year.’ He said, ‘You aren’t going to lose. In our assessment you can’t lose.’

“P: I think he’s right.

K: I think we are going to see this through.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 371, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)

The two men continued to discuss Vietnam and the Soviet Union when Kissinger called Nixon at 7:10 p.m. After assessing the effect of weather conditions on American air and sea operations, the President underlined his determination to avoid defeat in Vietnam.

“P: I will do everything necessary including taking out Haiphong.

K: The more we shock them the better.

“P: Is there anything we could do in the Haiphong area?

K: I think it is still too early. I think the Russians will do some thing. They are not going to risk everything.

“P: They will [not] risk Summit, Berlin, German treaty—correct?

K: That’s right. I told Dobrynin. We can’t consider sending a message to Brandt under these conditions.

“P: I won’t.

K: I don’t think you should send it anyway—so any excuse. I think if we don’t hear from them [the Soviets] about Poland tomorrow we should just do it.

“P: That I am sure about. Why do you think they delayed on it?

K: They may not have had a chance to have everyone together—or they may just be cute. They may be going to Poland now.

“P: I don’t think our going to Poland will change anything. Tell them tomorrow. We can’t hold it any longer—it’s starting to leak.” (Ibid.)