43. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • General Brent Scowcroft
  • Lawrence Eagleburger
  • Winston Lord
  • Jonathan T. Howe
  • Richard Solomon
  • Peter W. Rodman

Mr. Kissinger convened the meeting in order to discuss the note received from the PRC the previous evening (Tab A)2—its implications with respect to Cambodia, his prospective trip to Peking, and the course of Sino-U.S. relations; and how the U.S. should respond.

Mr. Kissinger began by pointing out that the note had to be read against the background of the course of the U.S.-Chinese relationship over the past several months. This note was clearly intended as a cancellation or postponement of the Kissinger trip and an opting-out by the Chinese of any involvement in negotiations for a Cambodian settlement. This was a complete reversal of the Chinese position on both counts.

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On each and every previous Kissinger trip to China the Chinese had proposed that he meet with Sihanouk. Sihanouk has now said, in a speech on July 10,3 that we should negotiate with the Khmer Rouge and not with him, Mr. Solomon interjected. That is true, Mr. Kissinger replied. But on each previous trip, especially in February 1973, Cambodia had been discussed extensively. At the end of May we had made a proposal and the Chinese had said they would convey it to Sihanouk once he returned from his travels.4 Their message of June 4 went to the extraordinary length of reciting our proposal back to us to make sure they understood it correctly—something they had never done on any other subject.5 Therefore this note represented a reneging on a clear assurance.

What had happened in the interim? Mr. Kissinger asked. The Congressional vote to cut off the bombing had destroyed the balance in Cambodia. It was clear the Chinese couldn’t deliver.

The bombing cut-off had fundamentally changed the situation in Cambodia. Formerly, Sihanouk’s utility to the Khmer Rouge had been that he gave them legitimacy which they had not had. Now they didn’t need legitimacy; they saw they could win. Sihanouk’s utility to the Chinese had been that he gave them influence over the Khmer Rouge and could resist other outside influences. The utility of the Chinese to us was that they had some control over Sihanouk. Sihanouk’s utility to us was that, once he returned to Cambodia, he might be able to keep things balanced. Ironically the Chinese needed the Lon Nol group—this was a restraint on Sihanouk and on the Khmer Rouge. The Congressmen had totally misjudged the situation. Now this was all lost. Sihanouk couldn’t deliver the Khmer Rouge and the Chinese couldn’t deliver Sihanouk.

With respect to the trip, the Chinese had virtually agreed in June that it would take place in early August. They had invited us to choose any date we wanted. We had then proposed August 6. They had spread [Page 301] the word around that it would be early August and had even leaked the date of August 6th to the press in Peking. But then Huang Chen was called back the beginning of this month and we received the note that they couldn’t reply on a date until he got to Peking. We had yet to receive a reply to our proposed dates for the trip and for the announcement. We had first proposed July 16th for the announcement. But July 16th had come and gone. The Chinese had to know that this delay in replying, and the turn-around on Cambodia, meant a postponement.

This was a conscious decision, Mr. Kissinger concluded. The question was whether it reflected only the Cambodian issue or something more fundamental that was happening to the relationship. Brent had told Han Hsu that Dr. Kissinger’s authority would be undermined if he came back empty-handed on Cambodia and that he and the President were the key men who embodied American support for China for the right reasons. All this talk about 25 years of mutual estrangement was crap. What the Chinese wanted was support in a military contingency. We might not be able to pull it off, but at least he and the President understood this. Alex Eckstein6 and other chowder-headed liberals loved China but if you asked them about military actions in a contingency they’d have 600 heart attacks. Liberals kept talking about how isolation was so psychologically disturbing to the Chinese. It might have been psychologically disturbing to us, but it wasn’t to the Chinese. For 3,000 years it didn’t bother them to be isolated. They’ve been self-contained more than they’ve been in contact with the rest of the world, and they have the self-assurance to handle it quite well.

To cancel a Kissinger trip was a major international event. It had to be a major decision for them. To assess this question—this was the real reason Mr. Kissinger had called together this group.

Mr. Solomon pointed out the disastrous Magnuson conversation with Chou En-lai.7 Chou had been visibly angered by Magnuson’s attempt to engage him with the Congress against the President. Magnuson [Page 302] had talked for 45 minutes about Cambodia in spite of everyone else’s efforts to get off the subject. While Chou attacked the U.S.-Soviet nuclear agreement, and uttered some harsh words about the Cambodian bombing,8 Magnuson stressed the role of Congress in cutting off the bombing and repeatedly urged Chou to “Be patient. It’ll be over soon.” Jenkins and Holdridge, Mr. Solomon noted, thought that the tone of the note may have reflected their irritation at Magnuson’s performance. Mr. Kissinger said he had thought that was a stupid point. There was something more fundamental underlying this. He suggested that from a coldly calculated Chinese point of view they now saw a paralyzed President unable to provide firm support in matters affecting their security. This may have made them now question the value of our relationship. General Scowcroft emphasized that the Chinese wanted firm action from the U.S.

Mr. Solomon turned again to the Cambodian aspect. Sihanouk had displayed his own powerlessness and admitted he could be only a figurehead in asserting that we should now talk to the Khmer Rouge. This was probably true. In addition, the Chinese might not want him to expose his weakness in negotiations with us, as they probably hoped to use him as a point of influence in Cambodia in the future. Nor would the Chinese leadership want to expose themselves to criticism from domestic or foreign sources for pressuring an evidently successful “people’s war” into compromising negotiations on the eve of an apparent victory. Certainly not before a Party Congress.

Mr. Eagleburger suggested that the unfortunate juxtaposition of press leaks here about the “delicate negotiations in progress” and the Kissinger trip to Peking may have provoked a change in the Chinese attitude. He asked if some members of the Chinese leadership might not be saying that China had, wittingly or unwittingly, been used by the Americans to obtain a 45-day extension of the bombing.

Mr. Kissinger responded that the bombing cutoff was the decisive thing, not the bombing extension. We had been bombing the bejesus out of them since May. There had in fact been no intensification of the bombing since the Congressional vote. General Scowcroft confirmed this. Next to us, Mr. Kissinger continued, the ones most hurt by the bombing cutoff were the Chinese. Before, our bombing gave them and Sihanouk something they could deliver to the Khmer Rouge, namely a bombing halt worked out with us. Now if the Chinese try to exert their influence for a settlement it comes across as a brute big-power play between us and them.

[Page 303]

Mr. Lord commented that to him the language in the note didn’t seem especially harsh. Mr. Rodman mentioned that the language was their standard line on Cambodia, which was not new. They had always been relatively abusive to us on Cambodia in their public statements. Mr. Kissinger said he was sure the Chinese didn’t like the bombing. But this was nevertheless in marked contrast to all their previous exchanges with us on the subject and with the experience we had had with them on Vietnam. On Vietnam when they had harsh things to say in a message, they would always have other things to say, or would make clear in other ways that this did not hurt our relationship. This time, the failure to reiterate the invitation, and indeed the failure to reply at all to our date proposal, was a major step, and very puzzling.

Commander Howe noted that we had established a clear link between movement on Cambodia and the trip. They were on the spot and couldn’t deliver. By commenting only on Cambodia they may have been trying to make a clean break and separate the two issues. They wanted to make a “principled stand.”

Mr. Lord asked what the tone of the previous few months had been. Mr. Kissinger reiterated that it had been totally positive and that this note was something new. Mr. Lord asked how they had taken the Brezhnev visit. They had taken it all in stride, Mr. Kissinger replied. They didn’t like the nuclear agreement but had said so in very restrained fashion. General Scowcroft pointed out how extensively we had consulted with them on that.

Mr. Solomon stated that there was no other evidence of a basic shift in the line toward the U.S. On the contrary, three days before, Mao himself had taken the unusual step of receiving a Chinese-American nuclear physicist, and then Chou had had a banquet for him. This was an unmistakable signal to the Chinese people and overseas Chinese that the Sino-U.S. relationship was still on. And Madame Mao’s appearance with Ambassador Bruce at the basketball game a few weeks before showed that the very people who might have been challenging the rapprochement with the U.S. were now solidly lined up with it.9

Mr. Kissinger commented that this was all people-to-people stuff and did not exclude a shift in the political line.

Mr. Kissinger returned to the issue of the Chinese seeing a paralyzed President. They might want to provide themselves with a little more flexibility, particularly with respect to the Russians. There was no [Page 304] question about the significance of turning off a Kissinger trip, particularly after the Brezhnev summit. Mr. Rodman pointed out that the Chinese message was a response to a question we had put, namely, what could we expect on Cambodia? They were giving us an honest answer. We had linked the trip with Cambodia. It was now being left to us how to respond. Mr. Kissinger reiterated that the Chinese response was unmistakably a postponement of the trip. They could have done any one of a number of things to take the edge off the Cambodian note. Responding in any way to our proposed date would have done this. They could have said, “We can’t do anything for you on Cambodia but we are glad to have you on August 6—or some other date.” Mr. Rodman suggested that they might not want to propose August 6 knowing it was now impossible for us to come. General Scowcroft stated that there were a hundred other ways they could have played it.

Mr. Eagleburger concluded that we were simply not going to be able to answer Mr. Kissinger’s question as to why the Chinese had behaved in this way.

The discussion then turned to how to respond. It was agreed that we should answer the Cambodian note in strong terms and also postpone the trip. Mr. Kissinger said that we should have Bruce deliver a tough note on Cambodia which would express regret that for the first time in our relationship the Chinese word had not counted. We should just list all the things they had said before—their assurances that they would convey our proposal to Sihanouk. There had been no change in the situation. The idea that we had to communicate with Sihanouk through Mauritania was absurd. Sihanouk was in Peking. And the Chinese themselves had said they couldn’t contact Sihanouk when he was abroad because it wasn’t secure.

We should try to find out what their message means about our relationship. We should have Bruce go in and sound out Ch’iao Kuan-hua about the status of our relations generally. We should say we are asking Bruce to have a general review of Sino-American relations. If they answer, we’ll find out. Even if they give us no answers, that in itself is an answer. Either way, we learn something. We should have Bruce deliver a stern message on Cambodia and then raise the other questions orally. We should do that next week, on the 24th or 25th.10

It was agreed that we had no choice but to postpone the trip with a cool note. On the 21st we should give a note to Han Hsu here doing this, Mr. Kissinger said. There was some discussion about whether we should propose a date after September 1st, or propose “some time in the fall,” or ask them to propose a time period. The note should be “ice [Page 305] cold.” The second question was whether we should propose the text of a joint announcement or ask them for their proposal on an announcement. This would put them on the spot. A formal announcement would have a heavy impact. But we had to have some announcement, Mr. Kissinger said, or at least some answer to give to press queries, because as August went by there would surely be a flood of press questions. We could just say that because of scheduling difficulties the two sides agreed to postpone until September.

Postscript: At 5:00 p.m. on July 19, Han Hsu delivered a second Chinese note (Tab B)11 proposing that Mr. Kissinger come on August 16. By the end of the day it was tentatively decided to respond to the two Chinese notes in sequence, as they had done—replying to Cambodia on one day and proposing a September trip on the second day. It would be done here, on paper, with Han Hsu. There was now no need for Bruce to raise “fundamental questions” with Ch’iao.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 95, Country Files, Far East, China Exchanges, July 10–Oct. 31, 1973. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place in Kissinger’s office at the White House.
  2. Attached but not printed is a note that Han Xu handed to Scowcroft on July 18 at 6:30 p.m. In the note, the Chinese Government expressed support for Sihanouk’s demand that the United States end its military involvement in Cambodia and declared its unwillingness to communicate the U.S. point of view to Sihanouk under present circumstances. The Chinese blamed the inability to settle the Cambodia question on the U.S. Government’s unwillingness to accept Sihanouk’s “reasonable demands,” and asserted, “It is up to the doer to undo the knot. The key to the settlement of the question s held by the United States, and not by others.”
  3. See “Sihanouk Tells U.S. To Negotiate With the Cambodia Communists,” The New York Times, July 12, 1973, p. 3.
  4. On May 27, Kissinger told Huang Hua, “We are prepared to stop our bombing in Cambodia, and we are prepared to withdraw the very small advisory group we have there. And we are prepared to arrange for Lon Nol to leave for medical treatment in the United States. In return we would like a ceasefire—if necessary, say for ninety days—a negotiation between the Sihanouk group and the remainder of the Lon Nol group; and while this negotiation is going on in Cambodia, we would authorize some discussions between the staff of Ambassador Bruce and Prince Sihanouk in Peking.” (Memorandum of conversation; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 94, Country Files, Far East, China Exchanges, May 16–June 13, 1973) Kissinger reiterated this proposal in a meeting with Huang Chen on May 29. (Memorandum of conversation; ibid.)
  5. Huang Zhen read the U.S. proposal on Cambodia during a June 4 meeting with Kissinger, lasting from 3 to 3:30 p.m. (Ibid.)
  6. Alexander Eckstein, an authority on the Chinese economy at the University of Michigan, led a delegation to China that aimed to promote Chinese-American cultural exchanges during a month-long trip. See “U.S. Scholars End a Visit to China,” The New York Times, January 7, 1973, p. 9.
  7. Solomon, who accompanied the delegation, reported that “the Magnuson delegation almost certainly made a negative impact on the Chinese regarding its general intellectual level.” Solomon continued, “Magnuson’s repeated assertions of the independence of Congress and the obvious interest of many Senators and Representatives in using trips to the PRC for their own domestic political purposes, very likely has left PRC leaders with a contemptuous feeling toward our governmental system, and a belief that they could use these men against an Administration position which they did not like.” (Memorandum from Solomon to Kissinger, July 18; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 95, Country Files, Far East, China Exchanges, July 10–Oct. 31, 1973)
  8. See footnote 3, Document 41.
  9. In mid-July 1973, Mao met with Chinese-American physicist Yang Chen-ning. (See “Meeting with Mao,” The Washington Post, 19, 1973, p. C–17) Jiang Qing attended a Sino-American basketball game on June 19. (Telegram 349 from Beijing, June 20; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 95, Country Files, Far East, China Exchanges, June 14–July 9, 1973)
  10. See footnote 4, Document 44.
  11. Attached but not printed.