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207. Conversation Among President Nixon, his Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger), and the Ambassador of the Republic of China (Shen)1

[Not transcribed were the first 36 minutes of the tape, which included Nixon’s conversation with Haldeman concerning International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) and Nixon’s conversation with Ziegler on press briefings, busing, and the Florida primary. Haldeman and Ziegler departed the Oval Office as Kissinger entered.]

Kissinger: Before you see him [Shen], I didn’t want to bother you, but I should tell you that the Chinese [PRC] have called us, that they have an urgent message to give us, which can only be delivered by their Ambassador.2 So I have to send somebody else up there. And the North Vietnamese have asked to see us, almost concurrently. I’m really very worried that this public linking of Taiwan to Vietnam, which we promised them we wouldn’t do, which State did on Thursday [March 2].3

Nixon: Which what? State did?

Kissinger: You know, the State Department spokesman said that the 6,000 troops [on Taiwan] would be unrelated. You hinted at it.

Nixon: Yeah, I hinted at it, I did. I take some responsibility on it. Yeah.

[Page 833]

Kissinger: But they didn’t—yours wasn’t picked up. Yours was repeated by Hugh Scott in sort of a mushy way.4 But—well, we’ll have to see, but it makes it important now that we don’t add salt to the wounds and let—I think you should just say to him [Shen] what I’ve repeated. You know what I’ve said to him, you repeat that assurance. But I wouldn’t say another quote he can give.

Nixon: Well, that’s why I wondered whether we should see him.

Kissinger: Well, the way things were at noon—well, whatever damage has been done has been done, and we’ll find out in the message. It may simply be that they’ll tell us it’s a funny coincidence. But they [PRC leaders] told us, they told me that when I put in [into the Shanghai Communiqué] the phrase “as tensions diminish” that it couldn’t be linked to Vietnam, and it may be—I also sent them a message, as you requested, that we wanted to announce the Paris contact; it may simply be funny coincidence, it may be their answer. It’s highly subjective.5

Nixon: Well, let me say you can’t worry about every meeting.

Kissinger: No, no. The level at which they want to deliver it concerns me.

Nixon: Yeah. When do you have to get it?

Kissinger: We’ll get it at 7.

Nixon: Tonight?

Kissinger: Yeah. And the others, we were going to deliver theirs at 8, their time, 8:30, and when we got there, they said it isn’t 8:30, it’s 10:30. But the North Vietnamese message, we’ll have in another hour and a half. There’s no sense worrying about it now. And I wasn’t going to tell you if you hadn’t seen this fellow until after we had the message.

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: I think that would be too [unclear]. I think it’s important.

Nixon: Why not just not sit down when he’s here?

Kissinger: No, I’d sit down for 10 minutes. He put off his departure, he tells me. Just give him your regards and say we have—it may be something perfectly technical.

[Page 834]

Nixon: I hope so.

Kissinger: But if even if it isn’t—

Nixon: Of course, we’re trying our damn level best, as you know.

Kissinger: Oh God, I mean—

Nixon: We’re, I haven’t said one word except that, of course, unfortunate thing that got picked up. But State then puts it out on the record, their statement was made publicly.

Kissinger: Their statement was on the record. Yours was a quotation from Scott in a sort of vapid way. But, I don’t want to do them an injustice. It might not be that.

Nixon: Well, let me say this: Let’s keep our balance on these things. Henry. After coming this long road with us and our going down a long road with them—

Kissinger: I’m not so worried.

Nixon: They’re not going to, say discontinue relations.

Kissinger: Oh, no. That’s true.

Nixon: At this point, I mean they—

Kissinger: No, but what they may do is to—it may be another delay in the Vietnam talks. That’s the thing that worries me more. So that it doesn’t—

Nixon: The Chinese wouldn’t be doing that. I mean, what you’re hearing from them, that’s—hell, I don’t care what we’re hearing from the goddamn Vietnamese. They’re—I’ve never felt they were going to do anything anyway. But I mean, we hope for the best. But what I meant is, if you don’t, we not getting—

Kissinger: No, I think what the Chinese may do is to send us a blast to the effect that they had always said Taiwan and Vietnam were not related and that they want to officially state that our interpretation of something or other—

Nixon: Well, that wouldn’t—

Kissinger: Well, it depends on how far they carry it.

Nixon: Yeah. We can confirm that we—

Kissinger: As long as they keep it in a secret channel, we can live with it.

Nixon: We can confirm that that is our understanding too, and that this public statement that was made was not authorized.

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: That was an interpretation by a Senator and the other—

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Of course, Scott’s going there.

Kissinger: Well, Scott we can handle. It’s important that—

Nixon: No, the fact that he said it though, that’s what I mean.

[Page 835]

Kissinger: Well, if we get a note, that’s one reason, they said we could pick it up any time before 5 tomorrow evening. As long as we get—If we get it, I’ll just tell Rogers and send him the note if it’s a blast, so that he can guide himself at his press conference. That wouldn’t hurt.

[At this point in the conversation, Kissinger left the Oval Office to greet Ambassador Shen. Omitted here is an exchange of pleasantries.]

Shen: Well, Mr. President, I’m going back to Taiwan tomorrow—

Nixon: Yeah.

Shen: And I just want to know if there’s any message you have for my President—a very great old friend of yours. Also, if there’s anything you want to say to him for his ear only. I’ll mention your trip to the mainland and anything concerning Taiwan that you may or may not have discussed with Chou En-lai and the others.

Nixon: Well, I think that the important thing to first tell him is that, I know that when Green was there—Ambassador Green was there—that he indicated that he did not want to see him, that he wanted to see Kissinger.6 I think that you should know that when we came back I told Dr. Kissinger to talk to you.7

Shen: Yes.

Nixon: And he has talked to you. Of course, I have a record of the conversation. I knew what he was going to say before he talked to you. And I want you to tell the President that Dr. Kissinger’s conversation with you represents my view. I mean to say it’s an accurate description of what we talked about, and that the, and also, of course, my public statement when I returned.

Shen: Yes.

Nixon: Which is the public statement that I made. But I think that the more important thing is that he naturally, and I can understand this, knowing that Dr. Kissinger sat in on all the talks, and also that Dr. Kissinger had conversations before I got there, where no commitments were made. As a matter of fact, none were made this time, except indicating expressions of [unclear]. That you—he now, through you, and through my authorizing Kissinger, because he can’t fly out there, of course, that you are able to convey to him the facts of the matter. I think that’s the thing. Don’t you agree, Henry, with that? Because you see, it’s important that he not feel that we sent [went?] to see him on a matter, which is very important to him because somebody that he didn’t feel had the information. Naturally, Green we had filled in on the basic facts. But Green sat in on the Secretary’s talks, and not mine. And Kissinger was in on every minute. There was no conversation that took [Page 836]place with Chou En-lai or Mao, of course, where Henry was not present. And I authorized Henry to tell you the substance of the whole thing. So, I think that we could have that, that you could convey to him the, in addition, of course, my personal regards, that you could convey to him, say that Dr. Kissinger has briefed you and that these are the facts of the matter. Now, of course, all this, you hear all sorts of talks about secret deals and so forth. You know I covered that in my remarks when I came home. What Dr. Kissinger told you are the facts; that’s the fact of the matter. And you should rely on that statement. If he were to go to Taiwan, he would tell [unclear] exactly what he told you. Is that correct, Henry?

Kissinger: Absolutely. I told the Ambassador that what we have on the public record the facts [unclear] we’ve now said it through every organ of our government.

Shen: Mr. President, we’re grateful to you for your government’s continued interest in a peaceful settlement. Now, did Chou En-lai say anything on the steps he planned to renounce force or propose what he intended to do and how he could tackle the problems of—Any indication of anything? [unclear]

Nixon: [unclear] On the subject of Taiwan, I think that there is no other subject that is more thoroughly covered by the communiqué, and what Henry said in his backgrounder in Shanghai. What I indicated, when we talk about peaceful settlement, that is something which we’re—well, for example, I think it can be said that despite great disagreements, the two things in which President Chiang and Chou Enlai agree on is the fact there’s one China, that’s one thing they can agree on. And the second thing is that therefore settling the problem [unclear] between the two. But in terms of how to do it and so forth, I would say that there was no discussion on that, that is something they don’t think is our business frankly.

Kissinger: Well, except that we put in the communiqué two things, which are very clear. One is we reaffirmed our interest in a peaceful settlement—

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: In this case, which is after all saving our commitments. Then secondly we put in the phrase “with the prospect of a peaceful settlement in mind.” So if the words—If you know your compatriots, the word prospect was not idly chosen.

Nixon: The Chinese, they’re very careful about words.

Shen: [laughter]

Kissinger: They were not given a carte blanche to launch a military attack on Taiwan, quite the contrary.

Shen: What kind of time frame does this thing have, I mean—

Nixon: None set, as a matter of fact. None set. That was not discussed. That would be—in other words—when you say do it now, do [Page 837]it next year, I mean it’s a question of—And in fact, what we’re trying to do now is put everything in that was there. We knew, on their part they knew too, that’s a highly sensitive issue and felt it should be covered. But there was no discussion of should we do this now, next year, 2 years from now, 3 years from now, 4 years from now, 5 years from now, no kind of time frame.

Shen: Now, Mr. President, you’re familiar with our history and our relationship with the Communists over the last 40 years.

Nixon: Oh, yes.

Shen: And you know the situation that exists there better than anybody else in the world.

Nixon: Yeah. Yeah.

Shen: If you were in my President’s shoes what would you do, and what would your advice to my President be about how to handle this thing? I mean, I hope it’s not too much of a—

Nixon: Well, I know. Let me say I think along the following lines.

Shen: Yes.

Nixon: What would you do? And, I would say in the first instance, I would say that I would not raise the question of whether there is a U.S. commitment. I would accept that. Because if you raise the question, and force a vote, to do that is to create in this country, and also create in the PRC, the necessity [unclear]. We have stated the situation, and Kissinger on Chinese soil stated there wasn’t [unclear]. Now the moment that you raise the question you hurt your own cause. I have to say that quite candidly. I understand your concern, you understand, but if you raise the question it will only hurt your own cause. The second point is that in terms of what he does, what you do with regard to the mainland, I frankly do not have an answer, a view on that. In fact, Henry and I talked about that on the way back, and I said Henry, I meant we were asking ourselves the same question, how can this thing be worked out? And do you have any thoughts on it. Henry, since you and I have talked about it?

Kissinger: First of all—

Nixon: Because the Ambassador is certain to raise exactly the question I raised. You understand this. We’re in a delicate position because both governments consider this to be an internal problem. So what— And I know there’s some that say, well the United States should step in and set up some [unclear]. Some say that.

Kissinger: I told the Ambassador, first of all, we made it clear to the people in Peking, we called their attention to a phrase in the World Report, we’re not urging either side to do something.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: So that means in effect they cannot count on us for, they can’t expect us to exercise any pressure to negotiate. Secondly—

[Page 838]

Nixon: Or to find a formula.

Kissinger: Or to find a formula. Secondly, I think we have to be realistic about the prospects. First, if you ask yourself what would have happened if the Chinese had done to us what the North Vietnamese do? Some of the people who now support you in the Democratic Party would be the first to start organizing peace conferences about our being tied up with another old aged military dictator. I’m just telling you the scenario.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: And really undermining the commitment, they would have done to us what they’re doing on Vietnam.

Nixon: And with no deadline at all.

Kissinger: And with no deadlines. Supposedly they had played a deadline game with us and used Quemoy and Matsu and other things as a lever. Thirdly, in the period ahead, say 4 to 5 years, as I told you when we met, many things can happen. You are under no pressure to settle. Mao could disappear. Chou could disappear. Or both could disappear. So that this is not an issue that we have the impression will be very urgent in any intermediate [immediate?] time frame. And therefore it would be a mistake for you to panic or do anything rash.

Nixon: Well, I would not be belligerent. And second, I would not quarrel with our statement to the effect that there is a commitment. We’ve made it. And when you keep raising it, all you do is cause us to answer and we say, well, we’ve covered that. But if you keep raising it, you’re going to force an eventual failure, which would not be in anybody’s interests. You see, there’s, as you know, Mr. Ambassador, there’s a tremendous isolationist movement developing in this country. And I’m having a helluva time ending Vietnam in the right way. As you know, ending it in the right way is important because if we don’t end in the right way America will withdraw from the Pacific. Period. Because of enormous frustration. Now, so it is in other things. If the new isolationists in this country get the impression that we’re going to become involved in a great conflict because of the defense commitment anyplace—it could be Japan, Philippines, even Thailand, Korea, Taiwan—you can have, you can set in motion forces that you and I, that none of us want to set in motion. It’s for that reason that I think that your Foreign Minister made a very good statement when he said that he accepted the proposition and that the United States keeps [unclear] its commitment will be kept. And if I were to come—so I would start with that process. The second problem, with regard to how would we resolve it. Believe me, it would be—I just don’t know. I have no answer to that problem. And incidentally, they didn’t ask us. Right?

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: They didn’t ask us how to resolve it. They must be—you must be thinking about it. What ideas you might have as I would say [Page 839]would be certainly extremely interesting. But we are not going to try to intervene and force it either way. I think that’s the proposition. I think that’s a pretty clear assessment.

Kissinger: Except for the statement that we are opposed to the use of force.

Nixon: Oh, well, that’s a different matter.

Kissinger: That we will resist it.

Nixon: No, but I meant intervene to force a peaceful settlement.

Kissinger: That’s correct.

Nixon: You see, that’s the difference. This isn’t like the Israeli-Arab thing, where we are attempting to try to broker it. You know? Here we are not trying to broker anything. That’s the difference that I think you should have in mind. Now, where it goes from here, I think has to develop over a period of time. I wouldn’t be panicking. I wouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to produce an agreement.

Kissinger: [unclear] There’s no obligation to do anything. And there’s no obligation—I mean first of all everything we said we stated unilaterally, not as an undertaking to the PRC.

Nixon: There’s no treaty.

Kissinger: Secondly, it’s very carefully drafted, if you read it carefully.

Shen: Yes.

Kissinger: And thirdly, we are under no obligation whatever to—

Nixon: It’s unilateral on their part too, you see? Both sides— there’s a Taiwan section as well as a Korea section, a Japanese section, a South Vietnamese section. It’s all unilaterally stated; we agreed to disagree, you see? Because their position on Taiwan, you know is stated hardline.

Shen: We know that. [laughter]

Nixon: Oh, not as hard as it has been, because they didn’t use the force line in it. Very significant.

Kissinger: They didn’t attack the defense treaty. And also there’s a slight nuance, they said Taiwan is a province of China, and we didn’t say that. We said a part of China.

Nixon: I wrote that in. I used the word “part” instead of “province.”

Kissinger: [unclear exchange]

Nixon: They say they agreed to it; they do not object to it. Of course, it depends on where you are as to whether you say province or part, isn’t it?

Kissinger: It’s slightly less, we just wanted to—

Nixon: Province indicates downgrading to Americans, and it would not indicate that to the Chinese because you think of the whole country being province, province, province, you know? But in our [Page 840]country, the word province, and in most, it means a lower level, you see? Not an equal level.

Shen: Any personal word for my President?

Nixon: By all means, to him and to Madame Chiang my best wishes for their health. I’m amazed when I get reports from the Vice President and other friends who go out there, they say he’s just as sharp as a tack, and I’ve always been impressed with that. And I wish him good health, and we know this is a painful time, and we know that this trip was a very difficult thing for him. We had to take a long view of what the great forces are that are operating here, also recognizing that we’re looking at the long view—a peaceful resolution of these problems. We may be able to be more effective if we’re talking to the PRC than if we’re not talking to them. That’s really the philosophy. The peaceful resolution is important. In the event that we have the use of force in any part of the world, in any part of Asia, in view of the Vietnam experience, it may be, we know what I would do if I were here, but I’m a little bit tougher than some, but I would have serious doubts about what other presidents might do. That’s the real problem, you see? So with a peaceful resolution we think is very, very important, and that’s what this trip is about. But—

Kissinger: [unclear]

Nixon: Many times. But in terms of both, my very best wishes.

Shen: Your continued friendship?

Nixon: Oh, absolutely. Our friendship, personal, without question, as well as the [unclear]. We have a treaty, but we also have personal friendship. They know that and they will continue to have it. You’ve got a long journey ahead of you.

[The meeting closed with a discussion of Shen’s trip and schedule.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 678–4. No classification marking. The editor transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. According to Howe’s March 6 memorandum of conversation, Huang responded to issues raised in a March 3 message from the United States (see footnotes 3 and 4, Document 204), agreeing to disclose the Paris channel on March 10 and to invite Congressmen Ford and Boggs to China. Huang also raised concerns over security in New York and the death of a member of the PRC delegation. Howe’s memorandum of conversation and Haig’s March 7 covering note to Kissinger are ibid. NSC Files, Box 849, President’s Files—China Trip, China Exchanges. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. E–13, Document 110. For additional details on the death, see footnote 3, Document 213.
  3. Possible reference to a report in The New York Times, which reads in part: “Mr. Bray said there should be ‘no surprise’ if American forces on Taiwan, earmarked to support the United States operations in Indochina, continue to be withdrawn as the conflict winds down. He said that of the 8,200 United States military men on Taiwan, some 6,000 ‘related directly and uniquely’ to Southeast Asia. The balance, he said, are related to defense commitments on Taiwan.” (Tad Szulc, “Rogers Assures Taiwan on Defense Commitment,” The New York Times, March 3, 1972, p. 3) For Rogers’ comments to Shen, see footnote 4, Document 205. Nixon’s own statement, made upon his return to the United States, reads in part: “With respect to Taiwan, we stated our established policy that our forces overseas will be reduced gradually as tensions ease, and that our ultimate objective is to withdraw our forces as a peaceful settlement is achieved.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1972, p. 382)
  4. For Scott’s statement, see Robert B. Semple, Jr., “2 Senate Leaders Will Go to China; Invited by Chou,” The New York Times, March 1, 1972, pp. 1, 16. The article reads in part: “According to Senator Scott’s account of this morning’s meeting at the White House, the President insisted that the communiqué was not meant to imply a simple withdrawal of American troops unrelated to other developments but, rather would be linked to a decrease in tensions in Asia—particularly in Vietnam. The present American force of 8,000 men, according to Senator Scott’s account, would be reduced to 2,000, with total withdrawal contingent upon a ‘peaceful settlement’ of differences between Taiwan and Peking.”
  5. Reference is to the March 3 message to the PRC, which was delivered in New York. See footnotes 3 and 4, Document 204. In fact, Huang Hua did not mention the linkage between the war in Southeast Asia and the United States on Taiwan during the March 6 evening meeting with Howe in New York; see footnote 2 above.
  6. See Document 215.
  7. See Document 205.