89. Editorial Note
On the morning of April 10, 1972, President Nixon prepared for a televised address to the nation on the North Vietnamese offensive. In handwritten notes for the speech, Nixon emphasized that the “massive invasion”—supported by Soviet tanks and guns—was intended to impose a Communist government on South Vietnam. “If Soviet supported indirect aggression succeeds here,” he wrote, “it will be tried elsewhere, U.S. credibility will be mortally damaged and danger of more war increased.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Personal Files, Box 74, President’s Speech File, Monday April 10, 1972, Vietnam) At 8:57 a.m. the President discussed the speech, and his efforts to influence Soviet strategy on Vietnam, with Assistant to the President Kissinger in the Oval Office. (Ibid., [Page 275] White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary) The two men also reviewed the news, relayed by Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin the previous day, that Moscow had emphasized to Hanoi the importance of a private meeting in Paris on April 24. Although Kissinger was “very impressed by this Dobrynin move,” Nixon adopted a more cautious approach.
Nixon: “The thing that concerns me about your talk with Dobrynin is that it may be the same malarkey that they’ve given you, Henry, and given us for, since we started private talks over 2 years ago. You’ve had 12. They use these damn talks for the purpose of sort of stringing us along.”
Kissinger: “But stringing us along—”
Nixon: “[unclear] And on the private talk. And I would urge you, if you’re going to see Dobrynin again, you’ve got to tell him that they’ve got—not that they’ve got to talk seriously, say they’ve got to settle now.”
Kissinger: “Yeah, I told him.”
Nixon: “You see, what I’m afraid of is that they’re going to get into this thing again. We’re going to haggle around again about 8 points, 10 points, 14 points, 6 points, and so forth, and we don’t have time. We’ve got time for two more meetings and that’s all.”
After an exchange on reaction in the United States to developments in Vietnam, Kissinger reported: “I told Dobrynin yesterday. I said, ‘The President is determined. We’ve withstood demonstrations here time and again. We’ll withstand any demonstration and the more pressure is put on us, the faster we’ll act because that just shifts the time. This is not President Johnson. Under no circumstance—.’ I was brutal with him.” The two men continued their discussion of domestic opinion on Vietnam, including the President’s plans to emphasize the Soviet role in a televised address.
Nixon: “You understand that we’re going to have to face something else. As a result of this we’ll get attacks. And, you know, one of the things that helped us in China was that we had good polls before we went. We’ll get attacks. We will suffer in public opinion. And that will hurt us on our Russian thing.”
Kissinger: “No it won’t.”
Nixon: “I know it’s just a small thing. On the other hand, we—It doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference due to fact that, as far as I am concerned, by the time the Russian summit comes off, we will know how this thing has come off one way or another. And if we’ve lost, the hell with it. If we win in Vietnam, I don’t give a damn what the polls show.”
Kissinger: “Mr. President.”[Page 276]
Nixon: “The Russian summit [unclear]—”
Kissinger: “We are facing—”
Nixon: “I’m just pointing out what, that’s the argument that Haldeman made to you.”
Kissinger: “I know. But polls won’t help you in Russia; only geopolitics will. The fact is, if this succeeds, that Soviet arms will have overturned the balance on the Indian subcontinent and will have run us out of Southeast Asia, I don’t care what your polls show.”
Nixon then rehearsed his draft of the speech, including the passage on Soviet assistance to North Vietnam.
Nixon: “‘If, for example, a Communist country with the support, or any country with the support of Soviet arms is allowed to take over a neighboring country, to conquer a neighboring country, and is not stopped, then that tactic will be used all over the world. It will be used in the Mid–East. It will be used in the Americas. It could even be used in Europe.’ Therefore, what we are talking about is the critical time, you know, to stop. Now that’s what this game is about. You see the crap that Safire and all the rest of these people write, it’s all too, it doesn’t go to the heart; the State stuff has never gone to the heart of it. As Haig was saying to me yesterday, when I was talking to him along these lines. He said, ‘The difficulty is you’re the first one that’s been President since this goddamn war started, who has seen it in the correct sense of it’s being, of the Russian role.’ ‘You see,’ he said, ‘they all took the Harriman line, that the Russians—.’ I remember Lodge. Henry, I was in Vietnam seven different times, since—more than you were, as a matter of fact.”
Kissinger: “I know. Much more.”
Nixon: “Lodge was there five of those different times and on five different occasions. And on the other case, the other occasion, Taylor told me; and on the other occasion, this fellow Porter told me because it was the line. He told me, ‘Now the Russians really don’t want this. The Russians really want peace out here. The Russians don’t want the Chinese to move Vietnam.’ I think that’s all bullshit. I think the Russians—it isn’t a question that the Russians aren’t thinking that much. The Russians just want to win. They are supporting them and they’ll go as far as they can go. The difficult—And that’s what the Indian thing showed us. I mean, the reason that Rogers and all those State Department people made the mistake on India, Henry, was that they did not see, properly estimate what the Russians want to do. The Russians were willing to take great risks to knock over Pakistan and support India because it [unclear] around the world. The Russians are doing that every place. That’s what was involved in Jordan. It was a Russian move, not a Syrian move. You knew that; I knew it. And this is a Russian move. Now what I’m really getting down, I’ve talked around a lot. If that [Page 277] point were to be made, you’re goddamn right. It would shake them to their eyeteeth. And that might mobilize American public opinion.”
Kissinger: “Mr. President.”
Nixon: “You see my point?”
Kissinger: “I believe it’s premature to do this now.”
Nixon: “You agree with my analysis?”
Kissinger: “I agree completely with your analysis.”
Kissinger urged Nixon, however, to drop the televised address and instead send a signal to the Soviets at the signing ceremony for the Convention on Biological Weapons later that morning. Although Nixon thought his draft statement for the ceremony was “the most gooey, gooey shit I ever saw in my life,” Kissinger recommended adding several sentences that the Soviets would understand “as being relevant to the situation.” “What will help us with Hanoi and Russia,” he explained, “is the feeling that, Jesus Christ, this guy is going crazy.” After approving this recommendation, Nixon raised the Soviet response to U.S. military operations.
Nixon: “First, do you think the fleet movement had some effect on this with Dobrynin.”
Nixon: “And he really thinks we’re going to blockade?”
Kissinger: “That’s right. I believe, Mr. President, that we on—Sure they’re using these talks. But as long as we bomb the bejeezus out of them in the meantime, they’re not keeping us from doing one thing that we should be doing. Not one. I’m not recommending that we stop one military operation. We now have to break their back. The only thing I’ve become very leery about is your speech—or any public appearance by you now.”
Nixon: “Well, I’m not going to say anything about the war in any public appearances.”
Kissinger: “No, no. I mean any public appearances about the war.”
Nixon: “Oh, yeah.”
Kissinger: “I mean, Philadelphia, Ottawa—that’s all fine. I think, incidentally, I should cancel my trip to Japan for this reason.”
Nixon: “I agree.”
Kissinger: “The Russians will never believe that you are planning a blockade if I am in Japan.”
Nixon: “That’s right. Oh, hell yeah. Also your canceling the trip to Japan, that’s a goddamn good signal to the Russians.”
Kissinger: “That’s what I mean.”
Nixon: “That’s a goddamn good signal. They’ll think we’re here plotting something.”[Page 278]
Kissinger: “That’s right.”
Nixon: “What Dobrynin said to you was, whatever the hell he said, ‘What do you want?’”
Kissinger: “No, no. But he didn’t give me the usual malarkey you’re not interested in.”
Kissinger: “He said, ‘Give me something concrete we can do.’”
Kissinger: “I said—”
Nixon: “[unclear] the bombing, but he said they can’t do that.”
Kissinger: “No, he didn’t say that. He said, ‘Can’t you talk and fight at the same time.’ I said, ‘No.’”
Nixon: “You said, ‘This President won’t do that.’”
Kissinger: “I said, ‘This President isn’t Johnson. He won’t do it. Now, it’s got to be settled.’ He said, ‘Well, can’t you wait to settle ‘til the 24th? Must you take irrevocable steps before the 24th?’ Well, Mr. President, since you and I know we’re not doing, going to do any irrevocable steps before the 24th, but I didn’t even promise him that.”
Nixon: “No sir.”
Kissinger: “I said, ‘It depends entirely on what, how this develops. It is now going to end. We are not going to put up with any more. They have turned the screw one too many.’”
Kissinger: “‘You have gone too far. And what you now have to decide is—.’”
Nixon: “You let him know that we were aware of the fact that they were putting in Russian tanks and Russian—Does he know that I, that that’s what I’m looking at—the Russian role, Russian tanks and Russian guns?”
Kissinger: “And that’s why I think just one or two sentences, which they’ll understand in your speech because this is on worldwide, would help.”
Nixon: “Good.” (Ibid., White House Tapes, Conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, April 10, 1972, 8:57–9:55 a.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 705–2)
During a meeting of the Washington Special Actions Group at 10:13 a.m., Kissinger reported that Nixon would “say a word about the Soviets” at the CBW ceremony. “The President is planning to say that this is a good agreement,” Kissinger explained. “He will probably say something to the effect that the great powers should not do anything to en–courage—either directly or indirectly—aggression. He won’t refer specifically to Vietnam.” (Minutes of WSAG Meeting, April 10; Ibid., [Page 279] NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box H–116, WSAG Minutes, Originals)
Shortly before noon, Nixon followed this script at the Department of State auditorium as Dobrynin listened from the audience. After stating the “enormous significance” of the agreement, the President declared that the goal of world peace depended on two propositions: 1) that every nation must renounce the use of force; and 2) that every great power “must follow the principle that it should not encourage directly or indirectly any other nation to use force or armed aggression against one of its neighbors.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1972, pages 525–526) Before returning to the White House, Nixon approached Dobrynin to deliver a more direct message in private. “Afterward Nixon took me aside to say that he stood behind what Kissinger had told me about Vietnam the day before,” Dobrynin later recalled. “He only wanted to add that in going through the crisis, he wanted our two governments to keep themselves under control so as to do the least possible damage to Soviet–American relations. Although the president was not specific, I came away with the feeling that the White House was preparing to launch dramatic new actions against North Vietnam.” (Dobrynin, In Confidence, pages 243–244; see also Nixon, Nixon: Memoirs, page 589)
Kissinger elaborated on Nixon’s remarks in a telephone conversation with Dobrynin at 12:26 p.m.
“K: Anatol, one thing the President did ask me to tell you in answer to what it is that can be completely done. Our view is whatever is completely done must be done quietly. Any public pressure on us can only make matters worse. We don’t want a huge propaganda campaign started. One way we judge the seriousness is if they have something to say, say it on the 24th.
“Dobrynin: They come …
“K: I don’t see any chance in talking to them if they make a public proposal.
“D: I understand your point.
“K: No, this is in a friendly spirit as to what can be done. We want to find something you can reasonably say to them.
“D: I understand. And secondly can I receive word from you … on another matter about the American correspondents. We are prepared to accept up to 100 correspondents.
“K: Including television.
“D: They didn’t say anything about that. They just said to tell Dr. Kissinger we are prepared to receive 100 correspondents. So perhaps I have to check back with them.
“K: Good.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 371, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)[Page 280]
According to his memoirs, Kissinger told Dobrynin that the United States “would not stand still for the tactic by which Hanoi had whipsawed us in the last two series of secret talks. If Hanoi once again published new proposals in the middle of negotiations, the secret channel would be at an end. Dobrynin used this occasion to mention that we could take a hundred reporters to the summit in Moscow. Clearly, nothing had yet happened to change the Kremlin’s priorities.” (White House Years, page 1118)
Nixon and Kissinger met again in the Oval Office at 12:44 to link decisions on the Soviet Union and Vietnam. Kissinger remarked that Dobrynin was “really slobbering,” satisfying the U.S. position on a number of bilateral issues, including the number of press representatives. Kissinger further reported that the Soviet Ambassador wanted a briefing on the President’s “personal likes and dislikes” and that Irina Dobrynin wanted to meet Pat Nixon. Nixon quickly called his wife to arrange a meeting for the following afternoon; Kissinger called Dobrynin to make the necessary arrangements. Kissinger then continued to report on his telephone conversation with Dobrynin.
Kissinger: “[I told him,] ‘One thing you can tell them [North Vietnamese] is if you, if they make a public proposal before the 24th, we’re assuming they’re not serious.’”
Kissinger: “‘If they are serious, then they make it to us and we’ll treat them decently. But if they try to bring public pressure on us the only result will be that we will accelerate what we’re doing because it will foreshorten the time we have available. We will not hold still for these salami tactics.’ He said, ‘What if they want to do both?’ I said, ‘They can’t do both.’ Mr. President, we have—”
Kissinger: “Yeah, but I think we have a chance now. We really have a chance.”
After reviewing initial press coverage of the CBW ceremony, the two men discussed various signals to the Soviets, including military exercises in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Kissinger: “Another thing we’re doing now, Mr. President—”
Kissinger: “—this is with your approval. We’re beginning to follow, not harass, every Soviet ship that approaches Hanoi. We’ll just fly over it—”
Kissinger: “—and occasionally send a destroyer after it as if we were practicing interceptions.”
Nixon: “Hm–hmm. Hm-hmm.”[Page 281]
Kissinger: “But we won’t come close. I mean they can’t object to it.”
Nixon: “I know.”
Kissinger: “And we’re loading mines again.”
Nixon: “I’ll bet you, incidentally, that Smith, the disarmament boys at ACDA are probably just shitting their pants because of this thing today, because we should have kept the emphasis on peace and all that. The hell with them.”
Kissinger: “Mr. President—”
Nixon: “What sense does it make to sit there with the Soviet Ambassador at a time they’re raiding South Vietnam and say that they made a great contribution to peace by signing the silly biological warfare thing, which doesn’t mean anything? Now, you know it and I know it.”
Kissinger: “Mr. President, you’re going to come out—You see, anything you do now—They made a horrible mistake. They should have done it after the Moscow summit. Because anything you do now, you can wipe away with the Moscow summit. The Soviets aren’t going to cancel the summit. Inconceivable.”
Nixon: “Well, if they do—We might cancel it. That’s the other possibility.”
Kissinger: “That’s the other possibility.”
Nixon: “You understand, as I told you—”
Kissinger: “If you come to Moscow, having stared down Hanoi—”
Nixon: “Yeah. But if we come to Moscow not having crushed South Vietnam, we can’t go, Henry. There ain’t no way.”
Kissinger: “There’s no way you can then go. But I—”
Nixon: “After that, the U.S. is finished as a—”
Kissinger: “If we can hold another—”
Nixon: “The U.S. will be finished as a world power. It’s that bad.”
Nixon: “It isn’t like the British in the Boer War. People told me about that. And it isn’t like the French and Algeria—”
Kissinger: “The British won the Boer—”
Nixon: “I know. But my point was that many said they shouldn’t have fought so hard and all that sort of thing because it didn’t make any difference. My point is though that they couldn’t keep it up; maybe they could and maybe they didn’t. But my point is, I don’t think we’ve really ever had a situation where so much was on the line, because the credibility of U.S. foreign policy is on the line. It isn’t the domino theory. It isn’t anything else. It really is a test. It’s a test like the Spanish civil war never was. And that’s a different era, a different time. But it’s really a test as to whether a nation supported by Soviet arms is allowed to get away with naked aggression.”[Page 282]
Kissinger: “That’s right.”
Nixon: “And if they get away with naked aggression they’re going to try it next in the Mid–East.”
Kissinger: “That’s right.”
Nixon: “You know goddamn well they will.”
Kissinger: “That’s right. Of course, I told Dobrynin yesterday, ‘If you’re going to play this game, let me be honest with you. Supposing we started pouring weapons into Israel and told them there are no restrictions.’”
Nixon: “That’s right.”
Kissinger: “‘How long do you think your friends could last? Then you would say our problem in the Middle East. Now that’s the world we’re going to be in.’ Now, this is the best month for it to happen. The Soviets—If the Soviets start a major crisis with us, their Berlin treaties are down the drain.”
Nixon: “And he knows that?”
Kissinger: “That’s right. So this is the worst month—”
Nixon: “Does Dobrynin [know we could ruin] the Berlin treaties—”
Kissinger: “Two phone calls and I’ll ruin them. Look, Ken Rush and I between us could ruin those treaties in one afternoon.”
Nixon: “Could you really, Henry?”
Kissinger: “Oh yeah.”
Kissinger: “So they just are in a hell of a spot.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, April 10, 1972, 12:44–1:06 p.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 705–13)