69. Editorial Note

During the autumn of 1969, President Nixon and his Assistant for National Security Affairs Kissinger searched for ways of achieving a negotiated settlement to the war in Vietnam by escalating, or by giving the appearance of escalating, the war, thereby encouraging the North Vietnamese to be more conciliatory in the Paris peace talks. In his memoirs, Nixon stated, “After half a year of sending peaceful signals to the Communists, I was ready to use whatever military pressure was necessary to prevent them from taking over South Vietnam by force. During several long sessions, Kissinger and I developed an elaborate orchestration of diplomatic, military, and publicity pressures we would bring to bear on Hanoi.” ( RN , pages 393, 398)

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Kissinger’s memoirs include a slightly different version of events. “Nixon tried to play for all the marbles; and as was not infrequently the case, he began it with a maneuver that appeared portentous though it reflected no definitive plan. In short, he was bluffing.” Specifically, Kissinger recalled that the administration tried to create the impression that the November 1 anniversary of the United States’ halt on bombing North Vietnamese targets “was a kind of deadline.” The President, Kissinger wrote, “dropped less than subtle hints that his patience was running out and that if no progress had been made in Paris by November 1, he would take strong action. So far as I could tell, Nixon had only the vaguest idea of what he had in mind.” (White House Years, pages 304–305)

Nixon and Kissinger, in a manifestation of linkage, gave Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin the impression that they were about to escalate the war on the assumption that the Soviets could and would pressure their North Vietnamese clients to reach a settlement in Paris. Kissinger held a meeting with Dobrynin on September 27. According to the memorandum of conversation, President Nixon, by prearrangement, called during the meeting. Once the conversation was completed, Kissinger told Dobrynin, “To us Vietnam was the critical issue. We were quite prepared to discuss other subjects, but the Soviet Union should not expect any special treatment until Vietnam was solved.” Kissinger, after expressing regret “that all our efforts to negotiate had failed,” informed Dobrynin that President Nixon “had told me in his call that the train had just left the station and was now headed down the track. Dobrynin responded that he hoped it was an airplane and not a train and would leave some maneuvering room. I said the President chooses his words very carefully and that I was sure he meant train.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, President’s Trip Files, Box 489, Dobrynin/Kissinger 1969 [Part 2]) The full memorandum of conversation, which Kissinger sent to Nixon under a covering memorandum, October 1, is published in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XII, Soviet Union, January 1969–October 1970, Document 85. See also ibid., volume VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970, Document 125.

Nixon called Kissinger after the latter’s meeting with Dobrynin. According to the transcript of the telephone conversation, the President asked Kissinger if Dobrynin clearly understood “the fact we are going the hard route?” Kissinger assured Nixon that the Soviet Ambassador understood as Kissinger “had been very tough on him.” Kissinger then summarized their conversation. “D[obrynin] had asked what K[issinger] thought of the Sino-Soviet problem” and “whether he thought they (the Soviets) were going to attack the Chinese. K had replied that, as a historian, he thought the Soviets were considering it.” Later during their conversation, Nixon and Kissinger discussed the merits and timing of “making the tough move” regarding the war in [Page 255] Vietnam. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, President’s Trip Files, Box 489, Dobrynin/Kissinger 1969 [Part 1])