54. Memorandum From the Counselor of the Department of State (Sonnenfeldt) and the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hyland) to Secretary of State Kissinger1


  • Foreign Policy in the Next Phase2

In examining both the short and longer term implications of the current crisis we start from the proposition that Indochina will fall under communist control and be subject to the influence and direction of Hanoi.3

Three interlocking sets of implications need to be considered: (1) internally, how a defeat in Vietnam, whatever its form, will impact on the present American mood and what the consequences are likely to be for national policy; (2) externally, how it will impact in Asia, especially on major power relations; and (3) finally, what it means for our global posture.

The Domestic Perspective

As disappointing and frustrating as it may be, the hard political fact is that the popular mood and the dominant Congressional opinion are to accept the defeat of SVN as historically inevitable. It is not all that surprising that, given the polarization of opinion, the trend that has prevailed is one of disinterest and disengagement.

Seen in a longer term perspective, we are reaping in the harvest of the aberation of American predominance in the postwar era: as we return to a period of retrenchment and consolidation, which was articulated in the Nixon Doctrine,4 it follows that there will be those countries who either cannot or will not help themselves, and will therefore collapse. Southeast Asia, an area in almost constant turmoil since the Japa[Page 283]nese invasion, is a classic vacuum of power, where indigenous forces have had only an outside chance of organizing a cohesive political, economic and military structure.

Our involvement in Southeast Asia was a particular historical distortion, if only because our general posture in Asia has oscillated between period of moralizing accompanied by inaction or bursts of quasi-imperialism followed by lapses into passivity. In particular, we have never resolved the historical debate over whether the US should ever become engaged on the Asian mainland.

The net result has been that our Asian-Pacific policy has been characterized by incoherence or ambivalence. Moreover, the very sources of domestic support that insisted on a crusading mission in the postwar period were among the first to become disenchanted when that policy finally encountered a problem incapable of immediate resolution. With growing nostalgia Truman is lauded for the Marshall Plan and the Korea intervention, but Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon are damned for Vietnam, though the political-ideological rationale was the same in each instance.

In short, the agony of Vietnam coincides with and contributes to another massive swing of opinion toward a kind of utopian revolt against power politics in Asia, disguised as a moral preference for humanitarianism and interdependence. The Tonkin Gulf resolution was the zenith of the previous era, and the vote of the Democratic Caucus inaugurates a new period.5

If this is so, then the domestic problem is not to allow the final phase of Vietnam to escalate into such a national trauma that the result will be a total paralysis of policy-making. We cannot galvanize this country into a new attitude on Vietnam; we cannot afford a period of national mourning over the defeat, nor can we afford to treat it as a cause for a permanent split between the White House and the Congress.

The real danger is that the catharsis of Vietnam will lead to a permanent coalition of domestic forces that will block policies we may [Page 284] have to undertake in the aftermath, and that every foreign policy issue will become a partisan-political confrontation.

We have to take an unqualified stand on questions of aid and on the moral issues of deserting a friend, but at the same time, it is extremely important that we not transform an inevitable failure into the collapse of the general design of policies that have been developed and pursued since 1969.

In sum, we have to begin limiting the damage. We must be careful in our rhetoric not to exaggerate what happens in Vietnam for two reasons: (1) the balance of power is not yet changed in any fundamental sense, and (2) if we are bent on convincing ourselves that we have suffered a monumental setback, others will almost certainly believe it.

The Asian Perspective

The climax in Indochina will no doubt lead to endless analyses and debates about our Asian-Pacific policy, and for now we can only set forth some preliminary possibilities.

First of all, we should be careful not to overestimate the immediate consequences. There is a kernel of truth to the argument about self-inflicted dominoes. No doubt the other states of Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, will begin to accommodate themselves to the new realities; but, in fact, each of them had already begun this process: certainly Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia.

Given the attitudes in this country and the realities of our power position, we should be very chary of reinforcing a series of undefined commitments, simply to offset the failure in Vietnam. If we are destined for a policy of more selective commitment and a redefinition of our security perimeter, then we cannot be tempted into a policy of total engagement, only to face still another failure.

Thus, in Thailand, if there is a move to force or ask us out, we should be wary of trying to persuade the Thais to take a stand which we will not support when challenged.

At the same time, we should now give major attention to some neglected aspects of our policies—particularly the Philippines and Indonesia, since by almost any definition these countries will play a role in our security and in the balance of power in Southeast Asia.

But the heart of our policy is still Northeast Asia: the power relationships of China, the USSR, Japan and the US.

In reexamining this relationship, we should bear in mind that the present correlation evolved over at least the last decade, beginning with the split between Peking and Moscow. Thus, it is not a transitional arrangement, but one in which each of the participants arrived at their present position after a careful consideration of national interests. For [Page 285] this reason it is reasonably stable—and events in Vietnam, as such, will not be likely to disrupt it.

Of course, there will be fluctuations and nuances; one party can move slightly closer to another. And there are elements of particular instability, in Russian and Chinese leaderships, and the power balance of a relatively weak China, which will also change over time.

In the short term—the coming decade—certain facts will prevail: the Soviet Union’s power will increase enormously compared to both Japan and China; ours will recede relatively, if not absolutely. Russia also has more flexibility than the other actors: while maintaining a relationship with us, it is quite conceivable for the Soviets either to reconcile themselves to China, or opt for a Japanese axis (more likely). It is also conceivable that Japan will either be forced, or decide to choose between Moscow and Peking.

Our problem, therefore, is to consider how we wish the four power relationship to develop: the inescapable conclusion seems to be that for the next decade we will want a Sino-Japanese-American relationship arrayed tacitly against the USSR, even though in the decade that follows we may well have to choose a Soviet-American coalition.

In this sense—based on an assumption that the Soviet Union will be an expanding power in Asia—it also follows that we do not wish to see accretions to that power, whether through links to communist movements, economic ties, or political influence. It also follows that we will wish to see a more normalized relationship between China and the non-communist Asian countries. And, finally, we will want to involve Japan in relationships outside Northeast Asia and deliverately use Japan as a means of exerting indirect American influence.

In this general context two major problems arise:

In Korea, we must find a new opportunity to define our security guarantee, lest there be an inclination for the North Koreans to misread our position, and emulating Ho Chi Minh, use Chinese and Russian competitiveness to commit those countries to a Korean adventure.

—How to manage the Taiwan problem in the wake of Vietnam? Will China be tempted to profit at our expense by hardening its position, on the calculation that domestic opinion in the US will abandon Taiwan (e.g., Senator Jackson); can we really continue a slow disengagement? This may be more complicated now because the Taiwan question will be read in Asia, not only as an extension of our China policy, but as conveying a frame of mind in the US.

In sum, are our security guarantees in Asia still valid, and which ones: in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, SEATO? À la Dean Acheson we will be called on in the coming period to define our forward line of defense. In doing so, we also will want to keep in mind we [Page 286] may be defining a legacy for another Administration, a legacy that should contain certain well defined commitments and strong points that will not be repudiated. And this means more rather than less Congressional involvement in working out a post-Vietnam posture in Asia.

Global Perspectives

The question of our credibility in the world cannot be dealt with in this particular memorandum in any detail. It is a matter of demonstrating by our behavior that we are not in headlong retreat. This will have to be applied to minor issues as well as major ones. But the following problems are more urgent:

In the Middle East, we have to guard against over-reacting to Israeli irresponsibility; we are in some danger of persuading the Arabs that not only are we “reassessing” against Israel, but that our Indochina performance suggests we will eventually abandon Israel under pressure.

The USSR: Fortunately, we have reassurance of the CSCE in the short run, and perhaps SALT in the longer term, so that our immediate problem is tactical: not to be panicked into concessions, but also not to be excessively intransigent simply to show our toughness of pique.

In China, it is difficult to know what precise efforts would impress Peking, and restore our credibility. Given China’s obsession with a strong Western front against the USSR, an effort to regenerate NATO, including Spanish admission, and even Portuguese exclusion, might be the most immediately impressive; also British entry into the EEC should help, but we might want to reconsider MBFR, as well as any unilateral drawdowns of weapons under the Schlesinger plan.

—Finally, there is the NPT, and our drive to strengthen it. Do we want to pressure Japan at this particular time; if India is destined to become a nuclear power of sorts, can we insist that Japan become a permanent non-nuclear power, given our own declining position in Asia.

—In South Asia, we will be confronted with Diego Garcia in the Congress, and demands that we negotiate with the USSR, etc. We have to decide whether to take a stand on this. It is a particularly important token of our policy in the eyes of Peking.


It is fruitless to speculate in this particular memorandum whether Vietnam is overrun, collapses for lack of leadership and will, negotiates an accommodation, or even survives through another year.

—In our policy we will have to give some new consideration to the tired, semi-phony argument of Asian Titoism. It was totally erroneously applied to a country that had not fulfilled its revolution, but it may have some validity if there is one Vietnam.

[Page 287]

—We have two possible interests: (1) we should encourage, as possible, tensions between the Vietnamese and the Chinese, simply because we do not want any basis for the revival of a communist movement spreading across Asia; (2) on the other hand, we do not want the Asians to look to Moscow for reassurance against Vietnamese hegemony; we should prefer that they look to China. Operationally this means that we should encourage some role for Sihanouk, to the degree we will have any influence, and we should be prepared to deal with one Vietnam if it is established.

Which brings us back to the operational problem of what our political position will be in the current crisis. If it should come to negotiations, what are our interests? Not to be involved at all, to become involved and try to salvage what we can, or even to face the inevitability of a communist dominance and work for a separate communist entity in South Vietnam? Given the problems of Korea, and the insurgencies in other parts of Asia, we have to be very careful not to gain the reputation for playing the honest broker between communists and non-communists in Asia.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of the Office of the Counselor Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Lot 81D286, Box 3, HS Chron, Official—Apr–June, 1975. Secret; Sensitive. Kissinger’s initials appear on the memorandum alongside his handwritten comment: “Excellent—Let’s discuss soonest.” Notations in the upper right hand corner of the first page read: “direct to C” and “Secto 3.”
  2. We have given this memo to W. Lord and P. Habib, but wanted you to have this draft before you leave for California. [Footnote is in the original. Kissinger accompanied Ford to California.]
  3. North Vietnam began a major military offensive in March; by early April, North Vietnamese troops were approaching Saigon.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 9.
  5. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, P.L. 88–408 (78 Stat. 384), signed by President Johnson on August 10, 1964, authorized the President to take necessary steps, including armed force, to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and prevent future aggression. The New York Times reported on March 14, 1975, that both Senate and House Democrats voted in party caucuses against further military aid to Vietnam and Cambodia. (John Finney, “Aid to Cambodia Is Set Back Anew in Congress Votes,” p. 1) The joint resolution, a response to torpedo attacks on the USS Maddox and C. Turner Joy, passed the Senate (88–2) and House (416–0) on August 7, 1964. Johnson signed Joint Resolution 1145 into law on August 10. For additional information surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Resolution, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume I, Vietnam, 1964, Documents 255308.