Breakdown of Negotiations, November 1972–December 1972


26. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 858, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. XXI, Minutes of Meetings. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 108 Avenue Du Général Leclerc in Gif-sur-Yvette. All brackets except where noted are in the original. The tabs are attached but not printed.

Since Kissinger’s last meeting with the North Vietnamese in Paris on October 17, South Vietnamese President Thieu had blocked the settlement, rejecting the agreement negotiated by Kissinger and Le Duc Tho despite Kissinger’s attempt to persuade Thieu during his (Kissinger’s) October 19–22 visit. Thieu had numerous criticisms of the agreement but central to his objections was that it did not require North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam, estimated to be 140,000–300,000, to leave the South. Believing it was critical that the United States and South Vietnam be on the same page regarding the negotiations, President Nixon directed Kissinger at this next meeting in Paris to present and argue for the changes Thieu requested. For documentation on Kissinger’s visit to Saigon and his meetings with Thieu, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Documents 27, 29, 32, 34 36, 39, 41 44, 48 50, and 52 58.

The number of changes demanded by the South Vietnamese numbered 69, and Le Duc Tho was, as Kissinger noted in his November 20 memorandum to the President reporting on the meeting, “obviously somewhat taken aback by the extent of our proposed modifications and indicated that they may have some changes of their own.” While most modifications desired by South Vietnam were less than significant, a few were, and the question of North Vietnamese troops in the South was the most significant for both Hanoi and Saigon. Kissinger, according to his memorandum to Nixon, made it clear to Le Duc Tho that “the most important remaining obstacle was the issue of North Vietnamese troops in the South. Although he [Tho] did not reject some give on this issue he was essentially noncommittal in expressing any degree of flexibility.” (Ibid., Document 115) It should be recalled that Tho had said many times in the negotiations that the question of North Vietnamese soldiers in the South would not, as a matter of principle, be discussed.

After Le Duc Tho reported to the Politburo on the developments at this November 20 meeting, the Politburo sent the following analysis and directive: “Based on the points that Kissinger demands be changed both as part of the Agreement and outside the written agreement, the Politburo believes that the U.S has changed the content of the Agreement and has reversed its position on many important issues to which it had previously agreed. This means that we must view this as a re-negotiation of the agreement.” To this the Politburo added: “You need to concentrate on arguing hard to defeat the American plan to change the content of the Agreement and to reverse themselves on issues about which agreement has previously been reached.” (Message from the Politburo to Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy, 22 November 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, p. 349)


27. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 858, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. XXI, Minutes of Meetings. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 108 Avenue du Général Leclerc in Gif-sur-Yvette. All brackets are in the original. The tabs are attached but not printed.

Le Duc Tho made the following report to the Politburo:

“We criticized Kissinger’s suggested changes to the Agreement and raised four matters of principle:

“+The Agreement must include the name of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam along with the names of the other governments participating in the agreement.

“+The areas controlled by the two sides must be clearly delineated.

“+No withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops.

“+Article IV must mention the South Vietnamese people’s right to determine their own future.” (Message from Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy to the Politburo, 21 November 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, p. 350)

On November 22, Kissinger reported to the President, describing the North Vietnamese response to the 69 proposed changes as follows:

“—They accepted a few changes which were slanted primarily in the direction of preserving U.S. prestige or adopting technical improvements.

“—They demonstrated absolutely no substantive give and in fact drastically hardened their position on the political conditions, the problem of political prisoners, and the presence of U.S. civilian personnel in South Vietnam following the 60-day withdrawal period.

“—In several important areas they returned to former (pre-October 8) negotiating positions.”

Kissinger continued:

“It is patently clear that in typical Communist fashion they have hardened their position in order to neutralize the many changes we have asked of them. It is now apparent that we have some very difficult negotiations ahead of us which will probably keep us here for the remainder of the week.” He continued: “During tomorrow’s session we will attempt to reduce the now-serious areas of difference and focus more clearly on the more crucial changes which we must have. The task ahead is a considerable one but it is still obvious that the North Vietnamese do want a settlement. One of the main difficulties now will be to convince Saigon of the urgent necessity of dropping their petty demands and the need to focus on the few really critical issues.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 116)


28. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 858, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. XXI, Minutes of Meetings. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 108 Avenue du Général Leclerc in Gif-sur-Yvette. All brackets are in the original. The tabs are attached but not printed.

Kissinger assessed this day’s meeting for the President as follows:

“I touched upon each of the positions outlined by Le Duc Tho at yesterday’s session. We dropped several of our less important changes, calling concessions what actually amounted to returning to previously agreed upon language in the October draft. I stayed firm on the political section, the troops in the South issue, withdrawal of U.S. civilian personnel, South Vietnamese civilian prisoners, and Laos and Cambodia. I deferred our definitive position on the status of the DMZ, on which they had moved part way yesterday.”

Le Duc Tho continued to focus on Kissinger’s attempts to change the text of the agreement negotiated in October. Kissinger told Nixon that he answered Tho “firmly,” telling him: “we were not asking Hanoi to abandon principles but rather to elaborate more fully on principles they had already agreed to. I noted that you [Nixon] were making an exceptional effort in search of peace at a time when you had a strong mandate from the American people which removed any restrictions on your course of action.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 117)


29. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 858, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. XXI, Minutes of Meetings. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 108 Avenue du Général Leclerc in Gif-sur-Yvette. All brackets, except where noted, are in the original. Tab A is attached but not printed.

In reporting to Nixon on this meeting, the general point that Kissinger made was that the 6-hour meeting “proved to be every bit as difficult as predicted.” He noted specifically that “the other side held rigidly firm that there would be only minor changes in the political chapter, and no improvements whatsoever in the text of the agreement with respect to the issue of their troops in South Vietnam.” Outside of the written text, however, Le Duc Tho had shown some flexibility and offered a deal, which Kissinger summarized as follows: “a commitment to relocate some of their forces in MR–1 [in North Vietnam] and to bring the ceasefire in Laos close to the time of the ceasefire in South Vietnam. He [Le Duc Tho] insisted that both of these arrangements should be in the form of understandings rather than firm written commitments.”

In return, the United States would have to meet North Vietnam’s demands on the release of political prisoners held by South Vietnam, and that release would be linked to the release of U.S. prisoners of war in Communist captivity. Kissinger’s assessment of this deal was not positive: “we have received a vague commitment based on an understanding to relocate some troops from the northern part of South Vietnam and to bring the ceasefire in Laos somewhat closer to the ceasefire in South Vietnam.” In short, “barring a sudden give by the North Vietnamese, we do not have an acceptable deal.” The negative tone of the North Vietnamese had trumped the modest evidence of their flexibility. The consequence of the talks going badly, Kissinger told Nixon, was that “it is very possible that we will have face a breakdown in the talks and the need for a drastic step-up in our bombing of the North accompanied by a review of our negotiating strategy.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 120)

The North Vietnamese rejected Kissinger’s continued attempts to include in the text of the agreement a commitment to withdraw its troops from the South. According to the North Vietnamese official history of the negotiations, Le Duc Tho became “infuriated” at Kissinger for these attempts and, as had Kissinger, came to an overall negative assessment of the meetings, concluding: “The [November 23] discussions ended in a heavy atmosphere. No date was fixed for the next meeting. Kissinger said only that contact would be made the next morning. The situation appeared to be a stalemate.” (Luu and Nguyen, Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris, pp. 376 and 380, respectively)


30. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 858, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. XXI, Minutes of Meetings. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 11 Rue Darthé, Choisy-le-Roi. Tab A is attached but not printed.


31. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 858, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. XXI, Minutes of Meetings. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 11 Rue Darthé, Choisy-le-Roi.

The meeting this day made no progress. The sides remained far apart on the few remaining issues separating them. In fact, as Kissinger told Nixon, he had purposely set up the meeting as a private one, between Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy and himself and Haig, rather than a formal delegation-to-delegation negotiating session. During the meeting, as Kissinger informed Nixon: “I pressed home to him [Tho] that if we were to hold a regular business session today it was apparent from my discussions with him yesterday that we would have quickly reached an impasse. The result would be a breakdown in negotiations and a resumption of military activity, this time on a scale not heretofore contemplated.” Kissinger proposed a week’s delay in which each side would study the other’s positions and he would carry out necessary personal consultations in Washington, pushing the next meeting to December 4. Le Duc Tho, despite wanting an agreement then, reluctantly agreed to the delay. ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 126)

During this round of negotiations after his return from Saigon, Kissinger met nightly with the South Vietnamese Ambassadors to the United States and United Kingdom and the head of the South Vietnamese delegation to the plenary talks to brief them on his meeting earlier in the day with Le Duc Tho. In his memoir, Kissinger recalled: “Their instructions [from South Vietnamese President Thieu] were simple. They were authorized to accept Hanoi’s surrender on all the sixty-nine changes proposed by the inventive Nha [Hoang Duc Nha, confidant and close adviser to Thieu]. They had no authority to consider less or to discuss any compromise or to entertain any alternative language.” (Kissinger, White House Years, p. 1418) The key issue for the South Vietnamese was the presence of North Vietnamese troops. And because the South Vietnamese demanded the withdrawal of these troops before Thieu would sign a settlement, and because the North Vietnamese refused to consider this demand, or even to admit that North Vietnamese troops were in the South, Kissinger, as Nixon’s representative, found himself in an almost impossible position.

Kissinger, Haig, and Ambassador William Sullivan, a new and senior member of the U.S. negotiating team, met with the South Vietnamese diplomats on the evening of November 25. Kissinger read to them a message from President Nixon in which Nixon said that the October 8 agreement, with improvements added since, was the best the United States and South Vietnam would get and that if South Vietnam wished U.S. support in the future in the event North Vietnam violated the agreement, the South Vietnamese had to accept the less than perfect agreement. There was no chance at all, given the diminishing support in the U.S. Congress for the war, that he could continue the war; if South Vietnam wished to continue, it was on its own. After discussing the message with the South Vietnamese diplomats, joined at the meeting by Thieu’s special assistant from Saigon, Nguyen Phu Duc, Kissinger told the South Vietnamese they had to accept the cease-fire and the agreement he had negotiated, assuming he could get the North Vietnamese back to this point. “Your choice,” he said, “is to join with us ordestroy yourselves. These are facts.” Ambassador Sullivan added: “If you had driven out the North Vietnamese you would, of course, be in a different position in a ceasefire.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 125)

Kissinger reported to Nixon that the meeting had one good result: these senior South Vietnamese “are now seized with the realities of the situation.” However, he continued, “I seriously doubt that President Thieu himself has yet grasped the problem accurately.” (Ibid., Document 126)

The North Vietnamese understood well that the South Vietnamese were making it difficult for the United States to achieve a settlement and that this offered an opportunity for them. Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy, reporting on their November 25 meeting with Kissinger and Haig, informed the Politburo: “The U.S. is having problems with its puppets. We need to watch this and exploit this contradiction [conflict].” (Message from Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy to the Politburo, 25 November 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, p. 351)


32. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 865, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Camp David Memcons, December 1972 [3 of 3]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 11 Rue Darthé, Choisy-le-Roi. All brackets are in the original.

Shortly before this new round of meetings in Paris, Kissinger, according to Haldeman, “seemed to be in better spirits today and ready to go on a positive basis on his new negotiating round. He is concerned because he will have to convince the North Vietnamese that if we don’t get an agreement we’re going to stay in [South Vietnam], and he has to convince the South Vietnamese that if we don’t get an agreement we’re going to get out, so it’s a little touchy to play both sides against the center, but I think that he and Haig both feel that they are going to get the deal and wrap it up on this trip.” (Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition, December 2, 1972)


33. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 865, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Camp David Memcons, December 1972 [3 of 3]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 2 Rue de Marroniers, Ste. Gemme (par Feucherolles), Yvelines. All brackets are in the original.

Going into the December round of meetings, the Politburo expressed some unhappiness with Le Duc Tho’s performance in the November meetings. Although expressed impersonally, it nonetheless represented sharp criticism. A December 1 assessment of the round sent to Tho and Thuy noted: “After the U.S. double-crossed us and refused to sign the Agreement to which both sides had already agreed, we fought them and severely criticized them. However, during the first few days [of the November meetings] we did not steadfastly follow our principle of firmly maintaining the content of the Agreement, and instead we hastily presented a number of soft, flexible ideas.” (Message from the Politburo to Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy, 1 December 1972, Doan Duc, et al., Major Events: The Diplomatic Struggle and International Activities during the Resistance War Against the Americans to Save the Nation, 1954–1975, volume 4, p. 352) Tho and Thuy accepted this criticism and even put it a little more starkly in a November 28 report to the Politburo: “we have made a number of concessions too early.” (Luu and Nguyen, Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris, p. 356)

When Kissinger reported to the President from Paris about the December 4 afternoon session, he stated that “we are at a point where a break-off of the talks looks almost certain.” In the meeting, according to Kissinger, Le Duc Tho “rejected every change we asked for, asked for a change on civilian prisoners [in South Vietnam], demanded the withdrawal of American civilians from South Vietnam thus making the maintenance of the Vietnam Air Force impossible, and withdrew some concessions from last week.” If the United States went along with Tho’s demands, he concluded, “we would wind up with an agreement significantly worse than what we started with.” Consequently, as Kissinger informed the President, he had told Tho “flatly that his approach did not provide the basis for a settlement.” Nevertheless, Tho “stuck firmly by his intransigent position. The only alternative he offered to his presentation this afternoon was to go back to the October agreement literally with no changes by either side.”

Kissinger was pessimistic:

“It is not impossible that Tho is playing chicken and is waiting for us to cave tomorrow. But I do not think so. There is almost no doubt that Hanoi is prepared now to break off the negotiations and go another military round. Their own needs for a settlement are now outweighed by the attractive vision they see of our having to choose between a complete split with Saigon or an unmanageable domestic situation. We have two basic choices, assuming as we must that their position is final: (1) go back to the October agreement or (2) run a risk of a break-off of the talks.

“I believe the first option is impossible:

“—After all our dealings with Saigon and his insistence on some changes these past weeks, this would be tantamount to overthrowing Thieu. He could not survive such a demonstration of his and our impotence.

“—We would have no way of explaining our actions since late October.

“—It would be an enormous propaganda victory for Hanoi.

“—Most importantly, it would deprive us of any ability to police the agreement, because if the Communists know we are willing to swallow this backdown, they will also know that we will not have the capacity to react to violations.

“Thus while the October agreement was a good one, intervening events make it impossible to accept it now.

“4. Therefore I believe we must be prepared to break off negotiations.”

Kissinger also put the afternoon meeting into a larger context for Nixon, observing: “The central issue is that Hanoi has apparently decided to mount a frontal challenge to us such as we faced last May. If so, they are gambling on our unwillingness to do what is necessary; they are playing for a clearcut victory through our split with Saigon or our domestic collapse rather than run the risk of a negotiated settlement. This is the basic question; the rest is tactics.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 139)


34. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 865, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Camp David Memcons, December 1972 [3 of 3]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 31 Boulevard de la Saussaye, Neuilly-sur-Seine. All brackets are in the original. The tabs are attached but not printed.

On the day before this meeting, President Nixon sent Kissinger a message with instructions. He was not to go back to the October agreement, but was to follow a course that Kissinger and Nixon both felt would probably lead to a breakdown of the talks. That is, Kissinger was to insist that the agreement now be based on the changes negotiated in the November round. It should also include 1) a better translation of the term “administrative structure” so that the organization established by the agreement to implement the negotiated settlement could not be seen as a governmental structure and 2) a formulation that made clear that North Vietnamese troops in the South had no right to be there indefinitely.

Furthermore, Nixon’s message continued:

“You should make the record as clear as possible in the talks that the responsibility for the breakdown rests with the North Vietnamese. You should make a clear record of the fact that they have reneged; first as to the meaning of the agreement on the political side by reasons of the translation problem and second because they have insisted on maintaining the right of North Vietnamese forces to remain permanently in South Vietnam.”

In anticipation of the possible failure of the talks, Nixon also focused on the military option:

“Keeping the negotiations going with postponements, etc. is in our interest. In the meantime, however, you can assume that I will order a very substantial increase in military action against the North, including the use of B–52s over the Hanoi-Haiphong complex. I would be willing to order that tomorrow prior to the next meeting. I would like your recommendation on this. In any event we should have the whole salvo ready to go when the talks break down, if they do.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 141)

In contrast, the Politburo directed Le Duc Tho to return to the October agreement as the basis for a settlement, telling him: “The points that were agreed to on 23 November are not good for our side.” (Message from Politburo to Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy, 5–6 December 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, p. 355)

In summary, the negotiations seemed to have reached absolute gridlock. While Nixon instructed Kissinger not to return to the October draft agreement, the Politburo instructed Le Duc Tho to insist on a return to it.

Kissinger replied to Nixon’s guidance several hours later:

“Assuming the negotiations do break off, here are my further thoughts on our course of action. We will have to take the initiative both on the military front, by drastically stepping up the bombing, and on the public relations front, by seizing the initiative with respect to explaining the negotiations. I should of course give a detailed briefing on the negotiating record which I will make as impeccable as possible from our standpoint before any breakdown. We have a strong case.” (Message Hakto 13 quoted in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 142)

After the meeting, Kissinger filed the following report to the President:

“We held a brutal five-hour session this afternoon at our location. Both sides reviewed the present negotiating situation and essentially stuck to their positions. I again emphasized your willingness to make a settlement but only if we got the changes needed to undertake the necessary massive effort with Saigon. Their position remained essentially as it was on Monday, i.e., offering us the choice of returning to the October agreement or exacting concessions from us in exchange for any changes they would accept. All their proposed changes are unacceptable. At the end we decided to make one final effort tomorrow in which I told them we would present our absolute minimum conditions on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Tho held to his position that there would be no changes in the provisions of the agreement, but that we could discuss ʻdetails’.” (Ibid., Document 144)


35. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 865, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Camp David Memcons, December 1972 [3 of 3]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 108 Avenue du Général Leclerc in Gif-sur-Yvette. All brackets are in the original. The tabs are attached but not printed.

In his report to the President after the meeting, Kissinger first went into the details of the various proposals and counterproposals, amendments, and revisions presented during the session. Then he developed a broader view of what was happening and what it meant, observing that “it is now obvious as the result of our additional exploration of Hanoi’s intentions that they have not in any way abandoned their objectives or ambitions with respect to South Vietnam. What they have done is decide to modify their strategy by moving from conventional and main force warfare to a political and insurgency strategy within the framework of the draft agreement. Thus, we can anticipate no lasting peace in the wake of a consummated agreement, but merely a shift in Hanoi’s modus operandi. We will probably have little chance of maintaining the agreement without evident hair-trigger U.S. readiness, which may in fact be challenged at any time, to enforce its provisions.

“Thus we are now down to my original question: is it better to continue to fight on by scuttling the agreement now; or be forced to react later, vindicated by the violation of a solemnly entered agreement? Were we to opt for the former, I can with ample justification recess the talks tomorrow on grounds that would leave us in a good public position, emphasizing Hanoi’s absolute unwillingness to give us any assurance on the issue of their troops in the South or to even accept modifications to the text of the agreement which would establish the principle of nonintervention in the future. If on the other hand we opt for an agreement, we would then have to be prepared to react promptly and decisively at the first instance of North Vietnamese violation. I raise these issues not because the agreement itself is bad but because the balance of existing forces cannot get us a better agreement; no war in history has been settled on better terms than the reality of forces on the battlefield could justify. Nor can our worries be fixed by specific provisions at this point. The GVN approach and our vigilance are the key factors.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 147)

Kissinger did not express a preference in his report, but in a telephone conversation with Haldeman that day he made it clear that he favored the second option, and Haldeman so informed the President. (Ibid., Document 150, footnote 3)

Nixon’s immediate reply gave Kissinger instructions for the December 8 meeting. “I have decided,” the President’s message reads, “that we should go forward with the second option with the only condition being that the agreement we get must be some improvement over the October agreement as you have indicated it is.” He added: “I am completely aware of all the problems we will have in getting agreement from Thieu and in policing the agreement if it is reached, however I believe the risks of the other option of breaking off the talks and escalating the bombing are far greater.” (Ibid., Document 150)


36. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 859, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord) China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. XXII, Minutes of Meetings, Paris, December 4–13, 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 31 Boulevard de la Saussaye, Neuilly-sur-Seine. All brackets are in the original.

According to Kissinger’s report to the President, this meeting was “a brutal four-and-a-half hour session.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 151) Tentatively, however, the outcome was positive. In his memoir, Kissinger wrote that after the meeting, “we were now down essentially to two issues: the DMZ and American civilian personnel. Compared with what had already been settled, these could be dealt with in one session provided the desire was there. On this assumption I asked Haig to return to Washington. If we settled on December 9, I wanted him ready to leave for Saigon the next morning with the Vice President to obtain Thieu’s concurrence.” (Kissinger, White House Years, p. 1436)

The Politburo, however, remained unwilling to reach a settlement on those terms. A Politburo message to Le Duc Tho the next day commenting on the meeting and giving him guidance stated:

“The 8 December meeting reveals that even though the U.S. is being forced to withdraw from the war in Vietnam, they still want to achieve the best possible settlement for the U.S. and their puppets.

“We will not agree to any settlement that includes anything that might be interpreted as stating that South Vietnam is a separate country. This includes such wording as, ʻ. . . the four countries of Indochina,’ ʻ. . . within the territories of North and South Vietnam,’ etc. We must continue to demand the withdrawal of U.S. civilian personnel because this is an important aspect of ending U.S. involvement in South Vietnam.” (Message from the Politburo to Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy, 9 December 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. 357–358)


37. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 865, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Camp David Memcons, December 1972 [2 of 3]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 108 Avenue du Général Leclerc in Gif-sur-Yvette. All brackets are in the original. Tab A is attached but not printed.

Late on December 9, Kissinger reported to Nixon about the meeting:

“During the break Le Duc Tho took me aside and suggested that if I could start the next phase of the meeting with a concession, he would make a big concession. I thereupon at the meeting offered to drop our demand for the deletion of Article 4, and in return he agreed that American civilian personnel could continue to service complex military equipment in South Vietnam.”

He continued:

“5. We then settled all the other remaining issues, except for the DMZ. On that issue he stated with some conviction that on the language he had agreed to in November (ʻNorth and South Vietnam shall respect the DMZ’), he had been overruled by Hanoi. I suspect this may be true. My view is as follows: I do not honestly believe we can go to Saigon with anything that weakens what we now have on the DMZ (ʻNorth and South Vietnam shall respect the DMZ’). Therefore, difficult as it may be, I recommend that we hold firm on this.

“6. If we can hold the line at this point, we will have accomplished the following since October:

“—Deletion of the phrase ʻadministrative structure’, which removes any remaining ambiguity about the fact that the National Council is not a government.

“—The sentence obligating both North and South Vietnam to respect the DMZ.

“—Greatly strengthened provisions on Laos and Cambodia including the obligation to respect the Geneva Agreements.

“—Deletion of the reference to ʻthree’ Indochinese countries, a usage to which the GVN strongly objected.

“—A ceasefire in Laos closer to simultaneity with the one in Vietnam.

“—An improved military replacements provision, which gives greater assurance that we can continue to provide all the military aid needed by Saigon under ceasefire conditions.

“—Other less important changes which improve the tone or precision of the document.

“—In addition to these improvements in the text, the last several weeks have given Thieu a billion dollars in military aid and considerable time to make preparations for the ceasefire, have disrupted enemy military plans geared to a late-October agreement, and have shown both Hanoi and Saigon that we go to bat for our allies. We have also insured that at least some of the international control machinery will be in place at the time of the ceasefire.

“—Thus our requirements I indicated publicly on October 26 have been essentially met. In exchange for this, our only ʻconcessions’ have been to drop other changes we were requesting in an agreed text which Hanoi considered sacrosanct to start with.

“7. This will be no mean achievement, considering we had no chips to play with.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 152)

Absent from this list of achievements was any mention of North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam, despite the fact that their continued presence remained, as had been the case throughout the multi-year negotiations, unacceptable to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu.

After reading Kissinger’s report, Nixon conveyed his instructions to Kissinger via Haig, who had just returned from Paris and had briefed the President on the talks. Haig first told Kissinger: “I described to him [Nixon] at great length the brutal atmosphere of the negotiations and the incalculably frustrating tactics which had been used by the other side. I pointed out how carefully you had played the scenario with absolutely nothing but bluff, skill and determination to elicit what is now a very substantial list of North Vietnamese concessions.”

Haig continued:

“Concerning the negotiations from this point on, the President suggests the following strategy which I believe is consistent with your own outlook. He understands, of course, that you must have sufficient leeway to manage the tactics. Assuming you are able to slip Monday’s meeting to late Monday afternoon, you should then hold tough on the DMZ issue confirming that the President remains adamant. If Moscow’s assistance is evident, we may then find Hanoi caving. If not, the President believes, and I know you do as well, that we must not break off the talks on Monday. In that event you should return for a new session hopefully as early as possible on Tuesday morning thus giving me maximum time to leave Tuesday evening with the Vice President.” He continued: “Also on Tuesday you should again enter the talks in a tough posture by which time Moscow’s ultimate leverage should be evident if, in fact, they exercise it at all. If Le Duc Tho is still intransigent, you should then try our compromise as the final U.S. concession. If even this fails, the President, as we predicted, would even be willing to cave completely with the hopes that we can still bring Thieu around.” (Ibid., Document 155)


38. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 865, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Camp David Memcons, December 1972 [2 of 3]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 31 Boulevard de la Saussaye, Neuilly-sur-Seine. All brackets are in the original.

Kissinger, reporting to the President via a message to Haig, who was in Washington, characterized the day’s proceedings as being “composed of equal parts of insolence, guile, and stalling by the North Vietnamese.” His appraisal of what might happen next and his recommendation of what he should do was as follows:

“It is not impossible that we could conclude the agreement tomorrow, but nothing in their behavior suggests any urgency and much in their manner suggests cock-sure insolence. They could, of course, be without instructions, and may in any event want to play with us until the last minute. The amount of work left for tomorrow is staggering and could make for a sloppy conclusion, which is precisely one of their favorite tactics. I believe in any event that I should return home tomorrow night.”

He added:

“All of this may prove academic, however, since we must face other facts. It is obvious that an agreement was easily achievable on any day since last Thursday. Hanoi may well have concluded that we have been outmaneuvered and dare not continue the war because of domestic and international expectations. They may believe that Saigon and we have hopelessly split and that the imminence of Christmas makes it impossible for us to renew bombing the North. If this is the case we will face a decision of major magnitude. I believe a total collapse by us now would make an agreement unenforceable. The President must also understand that an agreement at this point and under conditions that led to the collapse of South Vietnam would have grave consequences for his historic position later.”

Kissinger concluded: “No matter what happens tomorrow I will not repeat not break off the negotiations but rather we could take the line that the two sides are close enough to continue work through diplomatic channels.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 156)

Later that evening, Haig replied for the President:

“The President considers that if Hanoi remains unmanageably intransigent that in any event we should not break off the talks in a formal sense. Rather, we should recess, informing them that we believe that this past week’s discussions suggest that both sides should take some time for consultations and to reconsider the gravity of the situation.

You are returning to Washington and will be prepared to meet with them again after Christmas or before if they believe it would be constructive. We would then reseed the mines and resume military activity at an intensified pre-October pace. (You should decide whether to tell this to Tho or not.)”

Haig then summed up:

“I believe the President is perfectly amenable to your returning home on Tuesday [December 12] if in your judgment there is no hope of a settlement or if we would risk fundamentally our ability to ultimately achieve a workable settlement as a result of your staying longer. On the other hand, he is very clear that if you obtain sufficient movement tomorrow to indicate that a day or two more labor will resolve the matter, you should extend your stay.”

At the same time, Haig observed: “I am absolutely convinced that the President is fully aware of the seriousness of the situation and, especially, the difficulties which we have faced at the negotiating table. He is fully prepared to react strongly and to weather through a continuing intransigent position by Hanoi.” To drive home this point, Haig told Kissinger that the President had “just called again and urged that we reseed the mines tomorrow and be prepared to move immediately with around-the-clock bombing of the Hanoi area. I told him we should definitely hold on this until after tomorrow’s session and until you return. Based on the foregoing, I am convinced that there is absolutely no problem here with respect to our strategy and what must be done if it is forced upon us.” (Ibid., Document 158)


39. Memorandum of Conversation of a Ministers Meeting

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 859, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Sensitive, Camp David, Vol. XXII, Minutes of Meetings, Paris, December 4–13, 1972. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 31 Boulevard de la Saussaye, Neuilly-sur-Seine. All brackets are in the original. The tabs are attached but not printed.


40. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 865, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Camp David Memcons, December 1972 [1 of 3]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 108 Avenue du Général Leclerc in Gif-sur-Yvette. All brackets are in the original. The tabs are attached but not printed.

It is clear from message traffic before the meeting that the North Vietnamese negotiators in Paris and the Politburo in Hanoi differed over how to proceed. A day or two before this meeting, Tho and Thuy informed Hanoi that if they presented Hanoi’s rigid approach to a draft on the demilitarized zone (DMZ) as instructed, the U.S. negotiators would reject it. In consequence, they continued, “it is possible that the talks may be suspended for a period of time and the war will continue. Even though they are not capable of protracting the war for an extended period, they will make massive concentrated attacks for a time and then request resumption of the talks. If we refuse to meet with them the war will continue and the U.S. will place the blame on us. If we announce the suspension of talks and the only remaining issue is the question of the demilitarized zone, it will be hard for us to explain our position. The public may mistakenly think that we do not want to respect the demilitarized zone and that we want to continue sending troops down into the South. If we agree to meet with them, we will be under pressure and if we simply deal with the issue of the demilitarized zone using the Politburo’s formula it will be very difficult for us to achieve acceptance of this formula, and we will also suffer additional losses in North Vietnam, losses that will have at least some effect on the situation in South Vietnam.”

Tho and Thuy therefore recommended that Hanoi consider settling on the agreement as then negotiated: “We are not under any time pressure, but we need to recognize our opportunity. Right now the U.S. needs a settlement, but if we leave things too long we will miss this opportunity and then our pressure on them will have little effect, because everything has limits.”

Hanoi refused to allow a more flexible response and directed Tho and Thuy to maintain the previous hard-line offer which Kissinger, as the negotiators expected, quickly rejected. (Luu and Nguyen, Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris [Cac Cuoc Thuong Luong Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Tai Paris], pp. 581–582; Vietnamese edition)

Kissinger provided a narrative of the meeting for Haig and Nixon in Washington and then an interpretation of the events vis-à-vis the future. In a message to Haig, he wrote:

“Hanoi has decided to play for time, either because of the public split between us and Saigon; or because they have a pipeline into the South Vietnamese and know about our exchanges; or because their leadership is divided and they are still making up their minds on whether to conclude the agreement. Their consistent pattern is to give us just enough each day to keep us going but nothing decisive which could conclude an agreement. On the other hand, they wish to insure that we have no solid pretext for taking tough actions. They keep matters low key to prevent a resumption of bombing. They could have settled in three hours any time these past few days if they wanted to, but they have deliberately avoided this. For every one of their semi-concessions they introduce a counter-demand. Thus their sentence on the DMZ, which in itself is unacceptable, was counterbalanced today by the withdrawal of their proposal for the signing procedure made yesterday. Moreover, the DMZ sentence, as you recognize, takes away the significance of the respect for the DMZ. I tried in innumerable ways to get the word ʻcivil’ included but they totally refused this. Thus what they offered after supposedly more than two days of communication with Hanoi was to move a still objectionable sentence further down in the text, and even here they link all the sentences by semicolons in the same paragraph.”

Thus, he concluded: “We now find ourselves in an increasingly uncomfortable position. We have no leverage on Hanoi or Saigon, and we are becoming prisoners of both sides’ internecine conflicts. Our task clearly is to get some leverage on both of them.” To that end, he made the following recommendations:

“—As soon as Tho has left Paris we should reseed the mines, as heavily as possible including of course north of the 20th parallel. This is desirable in any event because the longer the mines are in DRV ports the less likely they are to violate the agreement if it is finally concluded.

“—We should take off all restrictions on bombing south of the 20th parallel and step up our attacks, particularly by B–52s.

“—We should resume reconnaissance activities north of the 20th parallel immediately which would serve as a warning to Hanoi.

“—We should plan a two or three day strike including B–52’s north of the 20th parallel for early next week. Please get plans. The power plants seem attractive.

“—I would like you [Haig] to look at the bombing situation in southern Laos. Yesterday’s noon report mentioned the fact that infiltration was much heavier because the bombing in that area had fallen off.

“It is essential that the military perform effectively for once in the above tasks. I would not resume daily bombing north of the 20th parallel at this point until we can discuss it.”

Giving vent to his frustration with the North and South Vietnamese, Kissinger concluded his analysis with these words:

“The North Vietnamese strategy seems to me to be as follows: they have reduced the issues to a point where a settlement can be reached with one exchange of telegrams. I do not think they will send this telegram, however, in the absence of strong pressures. These pressures in turn cannot really be applied now because of Thieu. If Thieu had adopted a common position with us we would have an excellent ground on which to stand now with North Vietnam’s insistence on maintaining troops in the South and total refusal to recognize any aspect of sovereignty for South Vietnam. What makes it intolerable is the inability to defend an agreement that Thieu attacks. Moreover his short-sighted device for preventing a settlement has deprived us of the pressure which could bring us a settlement. His offer of prolonged Christmas truce almost guarantees that Hanoi will wait on sending the telegram until the truce breaks down or Congress is heard from. This is why the visit with Thieu is now essential and I know no one else than Agnew who can possibly do it. The present course will guarantee that Congress will cut off the funds and that everything we have striven four years to avoid will be imposed on us. If this is to happen we are better off knowing it early on than to die the death of a thousand cuts.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 163)


41. Memorandum of Conversation

Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 865, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam Negotiations, Camp David Memcons, December 1972 [1 of 3]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at 31 Boulevard de la Saussaye, Neuilly-sur-Seine. All brackets are in the original. Tab A is attached but not printed.

A paper by NSC staffer John Negroponte, prepared for Kissinger on December 14, summarized “Hanoi’s negotiating behavior both in substance and procedure” in the negotiations since their reopening on November 20. Negroponte concluded that “Hanoi has no intention to meet any of the basic requirements that we made clear to them at the end of October; and through a series of irritating dilatory tactics has pursued a course which can be interpreted as desire to achieve either no agreement at all or an agreement substantially worse than that achieved in late October. Hanoi’s tactics have been clumsy, blatant, and fundamentally contemptuous of the United States.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 174)

Kissinger flew back to Washington on December 13, and he, Nixon, and Haig met the next morning to decide on a course of action. As Kissinger summarized: “We are now in this position: as of today, we are caught between Hanoi and Saigon, both of them facing us down in a position of total impotence, in which Hanoi is just stringing us along, and Saigon is just ignoring us. Hanoi—I do not see why Hanoi would want to settle three weeks from now when they didn’t settle this week. I do not see what additional factors are going to operate. I’m making a cold-blooded analysis.”

Gradually, a consensus emerged at the meeting that if Saigon absolutely rejected the settlement, the United States would be forced to deal directly with Hanoi to achieve a bilateral agreement, and leave South Vietnam to go it alone. But first the United States would unleash a massive air campaign to shock the North Vietnamese into the minimal concessions necessary to reach an agreement.

Given the threat of Congressional action to cut off funding for the war, Kissinger suggested: “Now, I would recommend that we leave open the possibility of this settlement, if the other side meets the very minimum conditions that we have indicated. I would then recommend that we start bombing the bejeezus out of them within 48 hours of having put the negotiating record out. And I would then recommend that after about two weeks of that, we offer withdrawal for prisoners, about the time that the Congress comes back and say, ʻIt is now been proved that the—the negotiation’s too complex involving all the Vietnamese parties. Let them settle their problems among each other. The South is strong enough to defend itself.’”

The course of action selected in the end was to conduct an all-out air offensive against the North Vietnamese heartland. If the North Vietnamese had not offered the necessary concessions by December 28, the United States would move to propose a bilateral deal with Hanoi: the return of U.S. prisoners of war and an end to the bombing, in exchange for U.S. withdrawal from the war. While Kissinger and Haig focused on the strategic aspects of the decision, Nixon repeatedly worked through the political implications of the renewed bombing and the means by which it could be explained to the U.S. people. (Ibid., Document 175)

Senior planners on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the direction of the Chairman, Admiral Thomas Moorer, had previously prepared and recently updated contingency plans for the bombing. U.S. forces, therefore, could begin the bombing, officially called Operation Linebacker II, in a matter of days. For documentation on the planning, see ibid., Documents 132, 149, 164, 169, 176, and 184.

Despite the increasing willingness to go it alone, Nixon wanted to give Thieu another opportunity to accept the agreement in return for continued U.S. support. To this end he sent Haig to Saigon to meet with Thieu and personally deliver a letter from him regarding America’s determination to go it alone if Thieu did not accept the agreement. The letter, drafted by Kissinger and revised by Nixon, is printed ibid., Document 189. Haig later characterized the letter as being “brutally frank.” (Haig, Inner Circles, p. 309) Haig saw Thieu on December 19 and 20. Thieu remained noncommittal on the agreement, despite the sustained pressure imposed by Nixon over the previous months. For Haig’s reports on the meetings, including the text of a letter from Thieu to Nixon, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Documents 197, 198, and 206.

The bombing began on December 18 and continued until December 29, with a 36-hour break at Christmas. For contrasting narratives of the course of the bombing and its impact on the negotiations, see Kissinger, White House Years, pp. 1446–1461, and Luu and Nguyen, Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris, pp. 415–422.