Stalemate and the Nadir of Negotiations, May 1972

14. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 864, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David Memcons, May–October 1972 [5 of 5]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at the North Vietnamese Residence at 11 Rue Darthé. Tab A is attached but not printed.

This session was conducted during a major North Vietnamese offensive, known in the United States as the Easter Offensive, which was then reaching its high water mark with the fall of provincial capital Quang Tri. Nixon had responded to the offensive by ordering a massive air and naval reinforcement of South Vietnam, and by resuming air attacks on North Vietnam. The strategic situation was further complicated by the prospect of the Moscow Summit, which was planned for May 22–29.

In his May 2 report to the President about the meeting, Kissinger wrote: “I spent three hours today with Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy in a session that was thoroughly unproductive on substance but served to bolster further our negotiating record. I laid out various approaches for discussion, all of which they rejected. They made very clear that they were not prepared either to deescalate the fighting or offer anything new concerning a settlement.” Therefore, Kissinger continued, “I broke off the private talks until either side has something new to say or their offensive stops.” A stamped notation on Kissinger’s memorandum indicates that the President saw it. (Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. VIII, Vietnam, January–October 1972, Document 110)

In a conversation with Haldeman that day, the President noted how disappointed Kissinger had been with the lack of progress in the negotiations. Nixon continued: “But the point is, Bob, we have got to realize that on this whole business of negotiating with North Vietnam, Henry has never been right. Now, I just can’t help it, but just have to say that, just a straight, flat-out conclusion.” Haldeman replied: “Well, Al [Haig] never thought he [Kissinger] was going to get anything.” To this, Nixon responded: “Well, I didn’t either.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 717–19; transcribed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. VIII, Vietnam, January–October 1972, Document 110, footnote 2)

In reporting to the Politburo about this meeting, Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy wrote: “We rejected Kissinger’s demand that we reduce the level of military activities, we rejected Kissinger’s slanderous statement that we have violated the 1954 Geneva Agreement, and we said that his statement that we violated the secret accord was baseless. We demanded that the U.S. talk directly to us about any ideas they have about a settlement and not speak to us through intermediaries.” (Message from Nguyen Duy Trinh and Le Duc Tho to Xuan Thuy, 2 May 1972, in Doan Duc, et al., compilers, Major Events: The Diplomatic Struggle and International Activities during the Resistance War Against the Americans to Save the Nation, 1954–1975, volume 4, pp. 319–320)