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Attempting the Impossible, August 1969–September 1970


1. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 863, For the President’s File—Vietnam Negotiations, Camp David Memcons, 1969–1970. Top Secret; Sensitive; Nodis. Attached to an August 6 memorandum from Kissinger to President Nixon reporting on the meeting. ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970, Document 106)

Nixon and Kissinger employed Jean Sainteny as an intermediary in establishing the secret negotiations with North Vietnam (Memorandum from Kissinger to President Nixon, July 14, 1969; Ibid., Document 97). Initially, Nixon and Kissinger wanted Sainteny to travel to Hanoi on their behalf to deliver a letter from Nixon to Ho Chi Minh, but the North Vietnamese would not give Sainteny a visa. Instead, Sainteny delivered the letter to Mai Van Bo in Paris. (Kissinger, White House Years, pp. 277–278)

In this first negotiating session with Xuan Thuy, Kissinger established a practice he was to follow throughout nearly all subsequent meetings, providing Nixon with both the transcript of the discussion and a reporting memorandum summarizing the major outcomes.

In his memorandum for the President about the meeting, Kissinger noted several “points of particular significance.” He noted first that “Xuan Thuy did not hit back hard at my statements about the necessity for us to take actions of gravest consequence if there is not major progress by November 1. He did say that if we do not agree to a solution on the basis of the NLF ten points, they will have no choice but to continue to fight. But he did not press the point strongly.” The November 1 reference is to a possible major military move against North Vietnam, at that point a general concept, which would in September and October be developed into a major political-military planning effort.

Kissinger further summarized the principal substantive aspects of the North Vietnamese position: “Xuan Thuy emphasized the question of troop withdrawals and political settlement, calling for unconditional U.S. withdrawal and on the removal of Thieu, Ky and Huong. He also expressed particular interest in our views on neutralization.” In addition, “Xuan Thuy for the first time hinted at some linkage between the withdrawal of our forces and theirs (points two and three of their ten points). While he was vague on specifics, the message was clear and significant.” Finally, Xuan Thuy, speaking for the North Vietnamese in Le Duc Tho’s absence, made it clear that they should meet again if progress could be made. ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970, Document 106)


2. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 852, For the President’s File—Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. II. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. No drafting information appears on the memorandum of conversation. The meeting took place at 11 Rue Darthé, one of the residences of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Paris. Kissinger sent Nixon this memorandum of conversation on February 25 and explained in an attached note that because the conversation was so lengthy, he had “indicated the most important remarks by a line in the margin.” (Ibid.)

During the meeting, Major General Vernon Walters, Defense Attaché at the Embassy in Paris, translated Kissinger’s remarks into French, and then the North Vietnamese interpreter translated the French into Vietnamese. The process was reversed when Le Duc Tho or Xuan Thuy spoke. (Walters, Silent Missions, p. 515)

Kissinger met Le Duc Tho for the first time at this meeting. Although Tho was formally characterized as “Adviser to the North Vietnamese Delegation,” he was actually the North Vietnamese Politburo member in charge of negotiations with the United States. In effect, he was Kissinger’s opposite number in the talks, and Xuan Thuy, titular Chief of Delegation, was subordinate to Le Duc Tho.


3. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 852, For the President’s File—Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. II. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. No drafting information appears on the memorandum of conversation. The meeting took place at the North Vietnamese Residence at 11 Rue Darthé. This was Kissinger’s second meeting that day with the North Vietnamese delegation. He broke off the morning session to attend a previously scheduled luncheon with French President Georges Pompidou. In an attached note, Kissinger wrote that he “indicated the most important remarks by a line in the margin” for Nixon.

This memorandum of conversation is in the form of a verbatim transcript and represents a change from how the two previous meetings—those of August 4, 1969, and the morning of February 21, 1970—were recorded, which were in the form of third person narratives. From this time onward, memoranda of conversations between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in Paris and later in Hanoi (and Xuan Thuy in Paris on the few occasions he substituted for Le Duc Tho) were in verbatim transcript form.

A notable aspect of this meeting was Tho’s denunciation of U.S. policy, which Kissinger characterized for the President in an undated memorandum reporting on the meeting as “a long, rather defensive speech in which he rejected my statement that our situation had improved and claimed that in fact it had deteriorated. He even claimed that we had lost the war.” Kissinger added: “His long speech was apparently triggered by my suggesting that our position had improved since my August meeting with Xuan Thuy.” But the bottom line for Kissinger in his report was: “The atmosphere during the meeting was remarkably frank and free of trivia.” Although a number of issues and procedures were discussed, the parties decided nothing of substance but did agree to meet again on March 16. ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970, Document 191)


4. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 852, For the President’s File—Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. III. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 11 Rue Darthé. No drafting information appears on the original, but Smyser and Lake sent it to Kissinger for transmittal to the President. Kissinger forwarded it to Nixon, explaining in an attached note that “the important passages have been sidelined in red. I have not sidelined any of my opening statement.”

In two memoranda drafted for the President before this meeting, Kissinger developed his approach to the meeting and asked the President to approve it. Nixon did so in a handwritten note on the first memorandum that reads: “We need a breakthrough on principle—& substance—Tell them we want to go immediately to the core of the problem. ” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970, Document 192, footnote 5)

In the first memorandum, dated February 27, Kissinger wrote:

“There are basically two issues involved in the talks:

“—mutual withdrawal of non-South Vietnamese military forces [i.e., North Vietnamese, United States, and United States’ allies], which we have raised; and

“—political settlement in South Vietnam, which they have raised.

“Agreement with the North Vietnamese on a verifiable mutual withdrawal is in our and the GVN’s fundamental interests, even if there is no political settlement. But the North Vietnamese will almost certainly not wish to withdraw their forces until they have a good idea of the shape of a political settlement, since the GVN seems at the moment to have the upper hand over the VC.

“As a general line of approach in the next meetings, therefore, I propose that I put forward a precise and fairly attractive proposal for mutual withdrawal, which could be negotiated with regard to timing but would necessarily include absolute reciprocity and devices for verification. I would seek to get from them a counter-proposal on this issue and a new proposal on political settlement.” (Ibid., Document 192)

In the second memorandum, undated but typed on March 16, Kissinger observed:

“From our viewpoint, there is one issue to which all others are subordinate—reciprocity in the withdrawal of non-South Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam (and foreign troops from Laos and Cambodia). Our first objective must be to reach agreement on reciprocity in principle or in fact. Once they have done so, they have given up their claim to moral superiority and can no longer argue privately that their forces are in South Vietnam on a different moral and legal basis than ours. This would be a quantum jump in the negotiations.”

Based on earlier negotiating sessions, Kissinger believed that the North Vietnamese would not accept a straightforward concept of publicly agreed upon mutual withdrawal. Therefore, he devised a complex scheme in which the two sides would develop independent plans for troop withdrawal, but each plan, once implementation began in the wake of a negotiated political settlement, would take place over the same span of time and result in all non-South Vietnamese forces being withdrawn by the same date. Thus, they would be implemented not on a single schedule, Kissinger told the President, but “based on two concurrent schedules.Kissinger added that this approach “should make it easier for them to agree to withdraw their troops, since they can save face by not having to agree to a single withdrawal schedule.” (Ibid., Document 200)

Le Duc Tho responded to Kissinger’s plan in the March 16 meeting, saying: “But when speaking about a schedule, your program shows two concurrent programs for the withdrawal of yours and North Vietnamese troops, to be completed in the same period. Therefore, your proposal amounts to mutual withdrawal.” It is worth noting the North Vietnamese translation of Tho’s statement: “However, when you speak about the withdrawal of the troops allegedly belonging to the North, you demand that these troops also be completely pulled out [of South Vietnam] within the same time-limit. In fact it is a demand of simultaneous and complete troop withdrawal.” (Luu and Nguyen, Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris, p. 126)


5. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 853, For the President’ File—Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. IV. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at the North Vietnamese Residence at 11 Rue Darthé.

In his April 6 memorandum to Nixon on the meeting, Kissinger reported that, as instructed by the President, he took a strong line with Le Duc Tho, “stressing that there was no sense in another meeting unless they were prepared to say something new. Though they were obviously prepared to meet again, without precondition, they were not prepared to promise this. Therefore, we agreed not to set another date now but to get in touch when either side was ready to meet next.” Kissinger further stated: “Since we are obviously at the end of a phase (and perhaps at the end of the meetings), it may be useful to sum up their results.” He then provided the President with a list of accomplishments from the talks so far, but concluded his list on this note: “It is probably just as well that there is not another meeting soon, since we would have been hard put to develop further proposals at the time.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970, Document 223)

Kissinger later summed up the February 21, March 16, and April 4 meetings by noting Tho’s statement that “unless we [the United States] changed our position, there was nothing more to discuss.” (Kissinger, White House Years, p. 446)


6. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 853, For the President’s File—Lord, Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David Vol. V. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at the North Vietnamese Residence at 11 Rue Darthé.

In reporting to the President later in the day, Kissinger wrote: “As you know I had expected little but vituperation. Instead, the atmosphere was the friendliest of any of these sessions—indeed of any session with the Vietnamese in the whole history of the negotiations. This was particularly striking since it was the first meeting since Cambodia.” He continued: “Not only did they change their tone, but they also indicated a readiness to move on substance.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. VII, Vietnam, July 1970–January 1972, Document 35)

At this meeting, according to Kissinger, the United States made an important change in its negotiating position. “The most significant concession,” he later wrote, “was to make clear that the American withdrawal after the war would be complete; no residual forces, bases, or advisers would be left behind.” He also modified the schedule of U.S. troop withdrawals from 16 months to 12, calling this a cosmetic change since the United States had elsewhere committed to the 12-month timeframe. Although Kissinger made his points within the context of mutual withdrawal he did not emphasize this aspect of the U.S. position. (Kissinger, White House Years, p. 976)

The North Vietnamese, however, considered the U.S. position, in Xuan Thuy’s report to the Politburo, to be “actually a trap.” He continued: “Now the US was aware that a great part of our main forces had been pulled out [of South Vietnam] and the guerrilla forces were weak. That is why Kissinger posed the question of troop withdrawal without clearly demanding the withdrawal of our forces. On the contrary he stressed the settlement of political issues.” (Luu and Nguyen, Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris, p. 151)


7. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1039, Files for the President, Vietnam Negotiations, HAK I, July 1969–September 27, 1970. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at the North Vietnamese Residence at 11 Rue Darthé. Smyser and Lord forwarded the memorandum of conversation to Kissinger under an October 14 covering memorandum, and Kissinger approved it. (Ibid.)

After this session, Kissinger told the President: “My four and a half hour meeting with Xuan Thuy and Mai Van Bo was thoroughly unproductive and we adjourned without setting a new date.” That is, “Xuan Thuy gave little on the military issues and was very unyielding on political questions.” Therefore, Kissinger concluded that “it was clear that there was no reason to continue the channel at this time.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. VII, Vietnam, July 1970–January 1972, Document 45)