Richard Nixon, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, and Henry A. Kissinger on 18 February 1971


Transcript

Edited by Ken Hughes, with Patrick J. Garrity, Erin R. Mahan, Kieran K. Matthews, and Marc J. Selverstone

The President and National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger discuss the perennial Vietnam-era question of whether China might intervene in the war. That day, Hanoi's negotiators at the Paris peace talks had accused the United States of threatening North Vietnamese territory, with spokesman Nguyen Thanh Le telling reporters, "China will not remain with its arms folded and watch her neighbors being attacked by the United States."[note 1] “China Won’t Be Idle; Hanoi Warns Nixon,” Washington Post, 19 February 1971. As this conversation reveals, the North Vietnamese were responding to diversionary tactics designed to make them think that their homeland was under threat and that they therefore couldn’t risk dispatching troops to reinforce the ones currently under attack in Laos as part of Lamson 719, a South Vietnamese ground offensive undertaken with American air support to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The recording begins with the conversation in progress.

Henry A. Kissinger

—because they couldn’t get a large number of troops that far South. They’re not—the North Vietnamese are not limited by troop size—manpower. They’re limited by the difficulty of access. And . . . yet that problem is solved by putting the Chinese in there. If we went North, if we landed in Haiphong, or if we landed in Vinh or someplace like that, then it’s conceivable. But I don’t think under present circumstances they’d come in.

President Nixon

But they're bent out of shape now.

Kissinger

Yeah.

President Nixon

[Unclear.]

Kissinger

Oh, yeah. But they are practically committing their entire strategic reserve.

President Nixon

What does the intelligence say? Are they still confused or are they finding now that they’re—they’ve got—

Kissinger

Now, that [unclear]

President Nixon

What are the intercepts showing? Anything new there?

Kissinger

No. Well, now they’re pretty sure what it is and they’re moving in whatever they can.

President Nixon

Our diversionary tactics aren’t fooling them much.

Kissinger

Well, they’re still fooling them some.[note 2] On 13 February 1971, the North Vietnamese government warned its provinces that U.S. marines were getting ready to land along the DMZ. "Hanoi Says U.S. Marines Are Set for DMZ Landing," New York Times, 14 February 1971. They’re holding some, but they’re not moving anyone from the coast. But again, they—

President Nixon

The South Vietnamese try those torpedo boat attacks yet?

Kissinger

They tried one and they’re trying another one tonight. They did one. They’re doing another one tonight. Now, some people scream that that’s a violation of the understanding.[note 3] Kissinger refers to the 1968 bombing halt understanding. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to halt the aerial and naval bombardment of North Vietnam in return for the North's agreement to (1) respect the Demilitarized Zone dividing Vietnam, (2) allow the South to participate in the Paris peace talks, and (3) stop shelling the civilian populations of South Vietnamese cities.

President Nixon

By the South Vietnamese?

Kissinger

Yeah, because they’re technically part of the—but I think we should just state that [unclear] violated the understanding of, and [unclear]. [Pause.]

President Nixon

Well, I see—the point being that they’re a part of the understanding.

Kissinger

Yeah, that all attacks would stop on North Vietnam.

President Nixon

What’ll they do when you go? Just yell?

Kissinger

Shake their fists. They actually claim they sank eight ships last time. I don’t know whether that’s true. . . . Well, they’ve got one more scheduled—probably already over—today and that’s all that’s authorized against the—what the reaction [unclear].

President Nixon

Well, how do your people think, WSAG and the rest? How are they all feeling these days?

Kissinger

They’re feeling fine.

President Nixon

They’re not getting jumpy? [Melvin R.] Laird is a bit.

Kissinger

Well, Laird is a little bit jumpy, but I had breakfast with him this morning.

President Nixon

He told me he was going to see you.

Kissinger

Yeah. I had breakfast with him, and he’s all right.

President Nixon

He’s calmed down a little.

Kissinger

Yes. Laird is a funny guy. He maneuvers like a maniac, but when the chips are really down, he’s a patriot and he's also loyal to you.

President Nixon

[Unclear.]

Kissinger

So, I—

President Nixon

Well, he is. He’s a—

Kissinger

I rather like Mel.

President Nixon

He’s a rascal, but, by golly, he’s our rascal.

Kissinger

That’s right.

President Nixon

Other than that [unclear] fellow. I think, too, on this thing now. By God, we’re not going to lose it. That’s all there is to it.

Kissinger

In Laos.

President Nixon

We can’t—we can’t lose.

Kissinger

No.

President Nixon

Well, I mean, really more in terms of Vietnam. For us, after all this pain and suffering, to get out of there—a defeat would be—I’m just not going to be the one—regardless of [unclear]. We can lose an election, but we’re not going to lose this war, Henry. That’s my view. Do you agree?

Kissinger

I agree, Mr. President.

President Nixon

And that's really what Laos is about.

Kissinger

That's right.

President Nixon

It isn't a question [unclear]. [Unclear exchange.] It makes a hell of a difference. You say that the air is really pounding them pretty good.

Kissinger

I thought the weather has been off and on, but for the next three days, it's expected to be perfect. It's perfect now, and they're pounding them. They're putting every B-52 they've got in there. They're putting practically—they are pounding them around the clock.

President Nixon

[Unclear] on the ground, or any way we can determine?

Kissinger

They've set up special radars. I think they can bomb within, I think, 150 yards of the front-line troops.

President Nixon

Are—

Kissinger

Of the South Vietnamese.

President Nixon

Is their mining done? These—

Kissinger

It's going to be awfully tough for them to take this pounding. They took a terrific pounding in Khe Sanh three years ago.

President Nixon

Did they? And that turned out all right for us.

Kissinger

That worked out all right. We chewed up a lot of their troops. I've got to be—if they still cut—I just don't know if the press is going to try to cut us up. After May, the worst should be over and it should pay off if they keep their roads cut. They're in the—oh, and the Chup operation is going extremely well.[note 4] In addition to the major ground offensive in Laos, South Vietnamese armed forces were engaging in a smaller operation against Communist bases in Cambodia’s Chup Plantation. In his memoirs, Kissinger wrote that the Chup operation was “inconclusive.” Following the death of “General Do Cao Tri, one of the few offensive-minded commanders in the South Vietnamese army . . . it bogged down in the kind of South Vietnamese caution that invited what it sought to avoid. Gradually, the operation simply petered out, though not without a sharp local setback near the Cambodian town of Snuol.” Henry A. Kissinger, The White House Years, 1st ed. (London: George Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1979), 1009.

President Nixon

[Unclear] it seems to be everybody's agreed. That's what I'm going to say then.

Kissinger

Well, in Laos, we expected Laos to be much tougher. If they would roll over and play dead ten miles from their border, then they'd be completely through. On the other hand, all of the units they're going to lose up there will not be available for an offensive next year or later this year.

President Nixon

The main thing I'm interested in is just to be sure the South Vietnamese fight well.

Kissinger

That's it.

President Nixon

They're going to be battling here for years to come. I guess if they fight well, North Vietnam can never beat South Vietnam.[note 5] For Nixon and Kissinger’s increasing doubts about Lamson 719, see the first footnote of conversation 450-011, Excerpt A. Never. Because South Vietnam has more people and more—

Kissinger

And more equipment.

President Nixon

[Unclear.]

Kissinger

North Vietnam will be at the end of its supply line. The geography will work against it.

Forty-one seconds excised by the National Archives and Records Administration on national security grounds.
President Nixon

[Unclear.] So your ten thousand that are in reserve, though, that's—[Creighton W.] Abrams told me is an adequate reserve. Whatever North Viet—

Kissinger

Yeah, except there's another division he's got in reserve, too. We've just got to stay cool now and shove in whatever reserves are needed. It's going to be tough, and we'll need strong will the next few weeks. There'll be panicky moments. But, I think, having paid the price, we ought to stay in there now to the rainy season—until the rainy season starts—and just chew them up.

President Nixon

We've got [unclear] in terms of being able to stay as long as needed there.

Kissinger

And [Thomas H.] Moorer gave me some statistics today on helicopter losses. But actually they lost only six more helicopters last week than in a normal operating week for all of Southeast Asia and less than they did in a comparable week last year. That's even with the Laos operation and even with all these horror stories, they lost fewer helicopters last week than they did in a comparable period—

President Nixon

I wonder if the—good—I wonder if the situation with regard to fellows like [John] Gardner—if Gardner should be going.[note 6] John Gardner, the secretary of health, education and welfare during the Johnson administration, had formed Common Cause in August 1970 and, on the morning of this conversation, unveiled plans to mobilize public opinion nationwide against Nixon's Vietnam policies. Common Cause had hired Morton Halperin, formerly of Johnson's Defense Department and Nixon's own National Security Council staff, as a consultant. Marilyn Berger, "McGovern: Nixon Risks 'World War,'" Washington Post, 19 February 1971.

H. R. “Bob” Haldeman

[Unclear.] If they start to press buttons, the libs—

President Nixon

Can all get together and go. This time they aren’t all going together. [Unclear.]

Kissinger

What I’m beginning to think [unclear] those who are subject to Communist influence are all going now.

President Nixon

Exactly.

Kissinger

And—

President Nixon

I think Gardner's subject to Communist influence.[note 7] Nixon never produced any evidence, nor has any emerged, that Gardner was influenced by the Communists. Gardner’s position on the Vietnam War was that Congress should set a withdrawal deadline—a position shared by more than 60 percent of Americans at this time.

Kissinger

I'm afraid so. And he’s got this bastard, [Morton] Halperin, who used to be on my staff for three months. [note 8] Halperin was on the National Security staff much longer than Kissinger indicated. According to Halperin’s sworn testimony during the trial of Daniel Ellsberg, he began working as a special assistant to Kissinger in the transition period after the 1968 presidential election, worked full time for the White House at the beginning of the Nixon administration, and resigned his full-time position in September 1969, so he was an employee of the Nixon administration for eight months, not just three. Halperin continued as a consultant to the NSC until May 1970, when he resigned over Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia. Halperin testimony, 23 March 1973, Trial Transcripts, U.S. v. Ellsberg, Box 40, Fielding Break-In Investigation, Plumbers Task Force, Watergate Special Prosecution Task Force, pp. 16754, 16765. He was—

President Nixon

He’s got Halperin now?[note 9] For their efforts to end the Vietnam War, both Gardner and Halperin landed on Nixon’s original enemies list.

Kissinger

Yeah, who’s his chief aide.

President Nixon

Gardner?

Kissinger

Yeah. But at some moment I'm going to surface some memos that Halperin wrote for me when he was trying to butter me up.

President Nixon

He has got Halperin. Son of a bitch. What’s happened to—

Kissinger

Well, I fired Halperin—

President Nixon

No, not Halperin—[Edmund S.] Muskie’s man, [Anthony] Lake? I noticed Muskie reorganizing his staff.[note 10] Sen. Edmund S. Muskie [D–Maine] was the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. W. Anthony Lake had resigned from Kissinger’s NSC staff in protest of Nixon’s April 1970 decision to send U.S. ground forces into Cambodia. This Lake [unclear].

Kissinger

I haven’t seen it. Well, he’s certainly not in charge of policy research, which is what he thought he was going to be. And I don’t think Lake is—

President Nixon

Not that heavy?

Kissinger

A) He isn’t that heavy. B) His knowledge is out—really out of date. Halperin doesn’t have any inside knowledge anyway because he was across the street writing [unclear] papers for me. He didn’t even see any documents. In fact, as I said, I got rid of him in July ’69. And . . . but Halperin is probably very much under left-wing influence.

President Nixon

Yeah, I know, I—I heard that he is. [speaking over Kissinger ] [Unclear] whatever that’s supposed to do.

Kissinger

And those are the guys that are going now.

At this point, the President’s half of the conversation grows unclear. A two-minute, 43-second discussion of Italy and Vietnam followed, but the federal government withheld it on national security grounds. Nixon and Kissinger then briefly discussed and rejected a suggestion for Vice President Spiro T. Agnew to visit U.S. allies in Asia, and Kissinger recounted a conversation he’d had with columnist Joseph C. Kraft about radicalism in America.
Kissinger

Besides that, I love Hubert [H. Humphrey] [D–Minnesota]. And I said, “But can you really feel that if there were a Democrat here, this country wouldn’t be torn to pieces?” He asked me what you’re—I said the thing you never get credit for is—you’ve kept the Right in this country related to the government where, in all normal situations, if anyone else had had to do this difficult thing, and so you’ll still turn out to be the best protection of the students who are rioting against you, even though they’ll never thank you for it. Because the alternative to you in 1968 was not a liberal Democrat, but a [George C.] Wallace or a [Ronald W.] Reagan. And I think if this country is radicalized, it will not be from the Left. The Left will start it, but the Right will take it over.

President Nixon

Yeah. Well, right now, the important thing [unclear]. They ought—the North Vietnamese [unclear] want to settle the thing. [Unclear] they’re just—ha—that was a long shot, Jesus, [unclear] the Chinese come and save them.

Kissinger

That’s against their national—

President Nixon

[Unclear.] I know.

Kissinger

I mean, [Le] Duc [Tho] called them their hereditary enemy.[note 11] Le Duc Tho, the member of North Vietnam’s Politburo who conducted the most important secret negotiations over the war with Kissinger in Paris, referred to China as Vietnam's hereditary enemy. What I think we can do—what I would recommend, Mr. President, in our game plan is: We get through this, [unclear]. Then about September, close to the election, I ask for a meeting with Le Duc Tho.[note 12] The election Kissinger refers to is South Vietnam’s presidential election of October 1971. Then have it October 15th and tell him, “Look, we’re willing to give you a fixed deadline of total withdrawal next year for the release of all prisoners and a cease-fire.” What we can then tell the South Vietnamese—you’ve got a year without war to build up. And I think then we can settle. We may have a 50-50 chance to get it.

President Nixon

Should be able to get it. What the hell other choice? I mean, bomb the bastards?

Kissinger

I think they may take it. It’s too early because it would panic the South Vietnamese, but after [Nguyen Van] Thieu’s election, [President Nixon acknowledges] I think we may be able to do that.

Cite as

“Richard Nixon, H. R. ‘Bob’ Haldeman, and Henry A. Kissinger on 18 February 1971,” Conversation 451-023 (PRDE Excerpt A), Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon’s First Week of Taping, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006172