Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger on 10 March 1971


Transcript

Edited by Ken Hughes, with Kieran K. Matthews and Marc J. Selverstone

The President and National Security Adviser discuss a forthcoming book about the Nixon administration by syndicated newspaper columnists Rowland Evans and Robert D. Novak. The Adviser then turns the conversation to Lam Son 719, the current offensive by the South Vietnamese military, backed by American airpower, to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

Henry A. Kissinger

We are having . . . I can't tell if it's a problem, but I think the South Vietnamese want to get out of Laos and do it within the next few weeks. And . . . I've been in touch with [Ellsworth F.] Bunker and [Creighton W.] Abrams and I said, "Of course, their military judgment is governing, but they should just make sure that they do it because [President Nixon acknowledges] that's the reason."[note 1] Ellsworth F. Bunker was U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, April 1967–May 1973. Gen. Creighton W. Abrams was commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, July 1968–June 1972. My view is that politically—diplomatically, the North Vietnamese will [unclear] this into a big victory if they leave, no matter how they leave, [if] they leave this quickly. And then militarily, we won't get everything out of this operation. We'll get the caches, which are important, and the casualties, but the interruption of supplies—if they could hang in there another three or four weeks. They're not under bad attack right now. What I think it is, and what Bunker thinks it is, is that [Nguyen Van] Thieu wants to have a victory parade in Saigon and use it . . . that way.[note 2] Nguyen Van Thieu was president of South Vietnam, June 1965–April 1975. Well, I don't think we should do anything. I don't think we should force them to stay.

President Nixon

No.

Kissinger

I just want you to be aware of the fact. Abrams is going up to talk to them today and tomorrow, and—

President Nixon

How will he be reporting this to us? Through back channels?

Kissinger

Back-channel to [Adm. Thomas H.] Moorer.[note 3] Adm. Thomas H. Moorer was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 1970–June 1974.

President Nixon

Yeah. He isn't sending them to State?

Kissinger

No, and not to [Melvin R.] Laird, because Laird will just—now, but one thing Laird has done, which I didn't know [President Nixon acknowledges] he has put a limit on American support only until April 5th.[note 4] Melvin R. Laird was secretary of defense, January 1969–January 1973. And I've told Moorer that that's nonsense. That if they want to stay beyond that, you'd certainly authorize that.

President Nixon

Good God, yes. [Kissinger attempts to interject.] May 1st.

Kissinger

That's right. That's what we—that May 1st . . . my view is if they could—

President Nixon

You see, it's March 10th now.

Kissinger

Well, it’s—

President Nixon

[Unclear.]

Kissinger

It's March 10th now.

President Nixon

Then you can end in a month and a day—oh, about 29 days, 30 days.

Kissinger

Yeah. But I don't think—I've watched these truck movements. They haven't really got a stranglehold on the [President Nixon acknowledges] movements until the last few days. If they could stay . . . say, another month, until about April 5th or 10th, and then start slowly to withdraw, then they can't ship any—then the rainy season will prevent any shipments. As it is now, they could probably make up in April what they lost in March. I think the strategic gain for us next year is worth some casualties this year. But we can't insist on it. We can't—

President Nixon

No, no, we can't insist on it, particularly, Henry, because . . . if we insist and they take a bang, they'll squeal.

Kissinger

That's right. Absolutely. But—

President Nixon

And Laird will squeal. And everybody will squeal.

Kissinger

Well, Laird doesn't know they're planning to do it, thank God. So . . .

President Nixon

Well, what is the situation? How bad is the buildup? Is it really hairy?

Kissinger

That isn't the reason. I think it's [speaking over President Nixon] electoral politics. I think Thieu—and I must tell you honestly, now that I've seen the operation, this South Vietnamese army is not as good as we all thought last year.

President Nixon

I know [unclear].

Kissinger

For example, in the Chup operation, now that [Do Cao] Tri is dead . . .[note 5] Gen. Do Cao Tri was leading the South Vietnamese ground offensive in Cambodia’s Chup plantation when he died in a helicopter crash on 23 February 1971.

President Nixon

They're just fooling around [unclear].

Kissinger

They are just—wherever the North Vietnamese are, they are not. I mean, you can see—they're moving like crazy, but they're always moving in areas where there are no North Vietnamese and if we're—

President Nixon

When you finally come down to it, Henry, let's face it: We're just—this was all worth doing, though. We knew they weren't that good. We knew they were not ten feet—

Kissinger

They'd be dead without this.

President Nixon

They weren't ten feet [tall]. But this has helped. [Kissinger acknowledges.] This has helped, for them to be in there and do a little fighting.

Kissinger

Oh, without this—

President Nixon

And they will be a lot better. They're better now. They're about like the Austrians were in 1915 and '16, when they were a little bit better than they were when they took the hell of a beating at Lemberg. But they aren't worth a damn. They're never—they're not going to be the Germans, and the North Vietnamese are up to the Germans. That's just what it is.

Kissinger

Well, whatever chance they've got, we gave them with Cambodia and Laos. But I think now that after this is over, particularly if they could stay through April, we ought to go back to the North Vietnamese and see whether we can't get this thing wound up. And I think we might. They've extended their deadline now. They said if, you know, they used to say June 30th this year. Now, they're saying December 31st [1971], and [in] another three months, they may say July 1st [1972] and then we're in business. [Unclear] don't have to make that decision now. I just—

President Nixon

Well, what should we do? I wonder if I shouldn't get Moorer over here and talk a little about this subject.

Kissinger

Well, let's wait till we hear from Abrams.

President Nixon

I don't want to talk to Laird about it, but I've got to know—I've got [Kissinger attempts to interject] to know what Abrams thinks about this.

Kissinger

Well, I had—Abrams is opposed to it.

President Nixon

No, I know, but I want to know . . . well, who is pushing it then? [Kissinger attempts to interject.] Is he getting it from Thieu?

Kissinger

Yeah.

President Nixon

Thieu is what? What is he directly pushing?

Kissinger

Well, he's pushing a plan for withdrawal [unclear]

President Nixon

Starting now?

Kissinger

Starting in about a week. Starting in three days, in fact.

President Nixon

Yeah?

Kissinger

Out of Tchepone and then ten more days out of other areas.[note 6] Tchepone was a Laotian border town that the North Vietnamese had used as a hub on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

President Nixon

And going back through 611, or no?[note 7] The numbers Nixon and Kissinger use in this exchange refer to Laotian roads.

Kissinger

Well, this isn't so clear to me.

President Nixon

What's the—and what would be the argument for it, on the ground that . . . ?

Kissinger

He gives no argument. But this—we will know more—Moorer doesn't know any more than is—

President Nixon

Let me say this—

Kissinger

—in this cable.

President Nixon

It could work both ways, though. Sure, the North Vietnamese can claim anything they want, but nevertheless, if the South Vietnamese do withdraw, however, we've just got to make the best of it.

Kissinger

Oh, yeah.

President Nixon

And fortunately, we have gotten a couple of good stories. We've had about three day’s ride with pretty good stories [unclear]

Kissinger

[speaking over President Nixon] We've had nothing but good stories this week.

President Nixon

—and the rest, and now they can say “We've accomplished our objective and we're moving out.” They should go down through 611 or whatever the hell it is and do something like that. I would prefer they stay. [Kissinger acknowledges.] I'm with you. But, Henry, I have become completely fatalistic about the goddamn thing. I don't think they're up to a real bang. I don't think they're up to it.

Kissinger

That's what worries me.

President Nixon

And if they're not up to it, I don't want them to take a hell of a bang. I'd rather have them get out, and then we're going to get the hell out and hope and pray that nothing happens before 1972. Let's face it.

Kissinger

Well, we'll get the report of Bu—of Abrams tomorrow.

President Nixon

And we also want to remember that even though, you know, we're still going to bang the hell out of them with that air. [Kissinger acknowledges.] [Unclear]—did the air strikes ever go?

Kissinger

[Unclear] no, we've had bad weather and it's a pity [President Nixon attempts to interject] because now they're pushing a lot of supplies in there and the bad weather is going to stay there another three or four days, [unclear].

President Nixon

Bad weather, you mean? Yeah.

Kissinger

In North Vietnam. And it really is bad. It's even bad in southern Laos. So bad that they couldn't even fly helicopters. And Abrams—

President Nixon

Let me say this—let me point out: At this point, [unclear] that there is a pretty good damn risk [unclear] will do it anyway. If there is that—if Abrams determines that—then the thing to do is to claim a psychological victory and then just hang on.

Kissinger

Oh, if Abrams [speaking over President Nixon] determines they can't do it, we shouldn't. Then we must let them get out. If they're just going through one of their periodic depressions, I think the benefits now, of three weeks now could be worth two months and three months next year.

President Nixon

I'm sure of that.

Kissinger

And that the—and to be hit next February with a major offensive there . . . I still think your original judgment was right to take the heat now [President Nixon acknowledges] rather than next year, and you have. And in a way, we've turned the corner. But I just wanted to prepare you. If—we've done what we can. We've told Abrams that in our judgment—that the restriction of April 5th that you had given—May 1st, really—that that is—it should not govern him.

President Nixon

That's right.

Kissinger

But that if, for other military reasons, they have to do it, he's the judge of it and we don't interfere in that. And he's now taking a trip out there to assess the situation. He'll report back tomorrow. And I'll get in touch with you and Moorer will get in touch with you immediately.

President Nixon

How is this working, then? Abrams reports how? Through Moorer—

Kissinger

To Moorer.

President Nixon

—in this back channel?

Kissinger

Right.

President Nixon

Does Moorer knows that he's got to not let that go to Laird, though?

Kissinger

Oh, God. He knows that.

President Nixon

Does he know? Jesus, I noticed something in here to the effect that Laird—Laird put out some story or he said that—Robert Pursley did—to the effect that he's pushing for a faster withdrawal [unclear]

Kissinger

[speaking over President Nixon] Oh, he's playing his usual game again.

President Nixon

—than the White House. The usual one for making him look like a hero.

Kissinger

Oh, he's already putting out the stuff—

President Nixon

As to how fast you want to withdraw.

Kissinger

Yes.

President Nixon

Well, that's why we've got to—we've got to take that control and handle it our own way. And from now on, Henry, it's—from now on—we've been heroes long enough. We're—now we've just got to remember [Kissinger attempts to interject] that all that matters is the psychology, believe me.

Kissinger

That's right.

President Nixon

All that matters. And we've given them a hell of a chance. And we've given our guys a chance. And that the North Vietnamese are tough. The South Vietnamese aren't as good, despite what we [unclear]—aren't as good as we thought. I think you're right. I don't think they're as bad, though, as you've indicated.

Kissinger

Oh, no, they're not as bad.

President Nixon

I think they're doing pretty well, considering.

Kissinger

They're doing pretty well and whatever chance they've got, they got through what we did for them. I think we ought to send [Alexander M.] Haig [Jr.] out next week—and Laird is agreeable to it now—to look at the withdrawal plans.

President Nixon

Send him right now.

Kissinger

And also at the peace thing.

President Nixon

Why next week? Why not this week? Maybe there’s a chance [unclear]

Kissinger

[speaking over President Nixon] Well, we know Abrams won't be there till Sunday. Any time from the weekend on he should go.

President Nixon

All right, let's get him off right away [Kissinger acknowledges throughout] and get him out there and get him to look around.

Kissinger

And while he's at it, he ought to hop over to Cambodia and see [President Nixon acknowledges] and talk to [Jonathan] Ladd.[note 8] Jonathan Frederic “Fred” Ladd was politco-military counselor at the U.S. embassy in Cambodia as well as commander of U.S. special forces in Cambodia from 1970 to 1972.

President Nixon

And talk to Ladd. You see—you see, you know that—just think: That's been out of the news. Cambodia. Practically every day they were losing Cambodia. Now every day we're going to lose Laos.

Kissinger

Well, it's clear we’re not going to—

President Nixon

And the other side is having some problems. They've got to be having some damn serious problems.

Kissinger

Oh, the other side is shaken to its core, Mr. President.

President Nixon

I mean we’ve got to just pour it on. [Unclear]

Kissinger

They would—that's why I think the only factor on the troop thing that we ought to keep in mind is how to play it vis-à-vis the chance for a home run this summer. But I'm getting various schemes together for you, among which some very big ones and some medium ones and some smaller ones, so you can decide. And you will—

President Nixon

Well, the idea of a home run being that you give them a small troop withdrawal announcement and then—

Kissinger

Well, a fairly small one, [speaking over President Nixon] you—you're committed to 12,500 a month.

President Nixon

Oh, yes, well, we—that's—that we know we're going to do.

Kissinger

But give them a fairly small one, then meet Le Duc Tho in Paris and say, "Look, let's separate the military issue. Let's agree on a total U.S. withdrawal by, say, next July 1st [1972] in return for freeing of the prisoners, cease-fire,” and that's essentially it.

President Nixon

By total withdrawal it means everything?

Kissinger

If they release all the prisoners.

President Nixon

We'd do it.

Kissinger

And I think it'd be a home run. You'd be a—

President Nixon

[Unclear] may do it.

Kissinger

It'd be better if we could get the cease-fire through '72—

President Nixon

Yeah, the idea, for example, that we have to keep people there [unclear] would do it. The idea that we have to keep a residual force in South Vietnam, I'm not really for it. I don't think the South Vietnamese are . . .

Kissinger

Well, it'd be desirable, but I don't—

President Nixon

Face it: I don't think the American people are going to support it and it isn't like Korea somewhere—

Kissinger

[speaking over President Nixon] Above all, Mr. President, your reelection is—

President Nixon

Yeah.

Kissinger

—really important for the future.

President Nixon

I'm afraid [unclear], I'm afraid we have too many chips on South Vietnam. And if my reelection is important, let's remember, I've got to get this off our plate. And if it's important, then, Henry, we've got to get it off the plate.

Kissinger

But at this point, I think you're—

President Nixon

Well, I don't know.

Kissinger

—but a negotiation would get it off your plate in a way that establishes your dominance.

President Nixon

I would much prefer that.

Kissinger

Because if you sort of dribble out and then—

President Nixon

I know. I know.

Kissinger

You can't really get out completely. You've got to have a residual force there without a negotiation. And I think there is now a 50-50 chance that they'd buy that. They're uncharacteristically shaky right now. That's why [unclear]

President Nixon

What's Zhou Enlai—that picture is solely for propaganda, wasn't it?[note 9] The People’s Republic of China and North Vietnam had issued a joint communique that day that included the following warning: “Should United States imperialism go down the road of expanding its war of aggression in Indochina, the Chinese people are determined to take all necessary measures, not flinching even from the greatest national sacrifices, to give all-out support and assistance to the Vietnamese and other Indochinese peoples for the thorough defeat of the United States aggressors.” “China Pledges ‘Sacrifice’ to Aid Hanoi,” New York Times, 11 March 1971, www.proquest.com. [Unclear]

Kissinger

Oh, yes, but the mere fact that they trot out the Chinese this way, and Zhou Enlai made a speech, which will probably be reported as very tough, but what he said was, "If the U.S. expands the war further, then we will do whatever is necessary." But that means, "We will not do it now."

President Nixon

I [unclear] they’re really meaning expanding to the North.

Kissinger

That's right.

President Nixon

It's scared Laird off of the bombing. Oh, no. No, I think [unclear]

Kissinger

[speaking over President Nixon] I think the bombing is a good—and if this happens—actually, the bombing now is militarily very useful, both for the attack they may be planning. But they may not attack so quickly. They're also repositioning their forces—the North Vietnamese.

President Nixon

They have problems.

Kissinger

They're pulling them, actually, a little further back, but they're putting them along the route we are planning to go out on. So they may be—they may have the South Vietnamese penetrated.

President Nixon

Hmm. You say they're putting them along the route we're planning [unclear]

Kissinger

Well, you see, they're trying to go out on Route 914, which is the one that goes through Area 611. And that's where they're putting their forces. It actually helps us in the present phase of the operation because the pressure from the South has diminished. We haven't—af—since the battle on Hill 31, there hasn't been any major North Vietnamese attack.

President Nixon

They sure made a hell of a lot of going into Tchepone, didn't they?

Kissinger

Yeah.

President Nixon

They apparently haven't—they have finally gone into Tchepone.

Kissinger

Oh, yeah. No question.

President Nixon

There's no doubt?

Kissinger

No doubt. Everyone—

President Nixon

[Unclear] made that happen?

Kissinger

And they're getting a lot of caches.

President Nixon

Are they really?

Kissinger

Well, the truth is we're getting them by bombing them and they’re uncovering them. I mean, they blow up the caches and then they find the uncovered caches.

President Nixon

I wouldn't be back on my bombing [unclear] before [unclear] bombing all that area.

Kissinger

Well, because we didn't have them so pinpointed before.

President Nixon

Spotters? Spotters on the ground?

Kissinger

Yes. I mean, now we're getting . . . we're getting—and we're concentrating it in this area. But they are getting some on their own. And they are cutting into the truck traffic now.

President Nixon

They have to.

Kissinger

Yeah, there's no doubt.

President Nixon

They're bound to. They've got [Route] 9 closed. That we know.

Kissinger

Oh, yes, well, that's—

President Nixon

They're on 9—914.

Kissinger

Well, they're within 100 yards of 914 now.

President Nixon

For Christ's sake then, Henry, I wouldn't think [there's] much to do down there.

Kissinger

No. No, and they are at 914 at its northern leg before 234 branches off. And I know Moorer usually thinks [unclear] the road.

President Nixon

Yeah.

Kissinger

And it would be useless a year from now on [unclear]. So . . .

President Nixon

I think, though, getting to—well, I did a lot of thinking about this . . . I agree. The best way to end this is diplomatically. And I told [Mike] Mansfield that this morning. I said, "Mike, I mean, I always, you know, put a little carrot out there." I said, "[Unclear] now, I know all of you fellows are pushing for this."[note 10] Mike Mansfield, D-Montana, was a U.S. senator from Montana, January 1953–January 1977, and Senate majority leader, January 1961–January 1977. I said, "I can't do this. I can't agree to it. [Unclear.] There's still a chance for negotiation. If we can, I’ve just—I've got to keep that card. I can't indicate in advance that they can get everything they want without negotiating.”

Kissinger

But that's true.

President Nixon

And so I said, "Therefore, we're going to continue to push on our own course. If we could get a negotiation—we think there's a chance for it." On the other hand, in terms of keeping these fellows in here, let me say—you remember, I told you once before: Do not risk Thieu's reelection. Do not risk a South Vietnamese defeat. Now, if—in other words, even though we know that next year—it is true—that this is going to guarantee it or something, that maybe if they stay—but if there's a really a modest chance even of the South Vietnamese taking a rap, tell them to get the hell out.

Kissinger

Well—

President Nixon

Do the best they can.

Kissinger

Well, Abrams is up there now to take a look at the situation. And I [President Nixon acknowledges] and he'll make a report. And then—well, actually, it's not our decision.

President Nixon

Yes.

Kissinger

We are not pushing them. All we told them was that the aid—that we are not putting a limit on it in terms of our support.

President Nixon

And I think in terms of victory and defeat, and so forth and so on, it's now gone long enough, frankly, that it—it'll—because if—[unclear] we're talking about now is not four weeks. It'll take two weeks for them to get the hell out.

Kissinger

Well, we have to—

President Nixon

If they decided to get out today, it'd take them two weeks to get out of there, wouldn't it?

Kissinger

Yeah.

President Nixon

All right. My point is that we still say, "Well, that's—they have accomplished their objective, you know. They have destroyed the caches. They have done this and now, according to plan, they're withdrawing, and that there's nothing there, deh-deh deh-deh,” you know? Isn't that about right?

Kissinger

Oh, we can handle the public relations battle easily enough. In substance, the fact is we would not have gained a—the strategic success—

President Nixon

That I understand.

Kissinger

[speaking over President Nixon] We would have inflicted a defeat on them, and a bigger one than any alternative we could have produced.

President Nixon

I understand. I understand. But it will have accomplished something.

Kissinger

Oh, yes. No question.

President Nixon

The second point: You've got to weigh what you would gain by inflicting a strategic defeat upon them by risk, and it is a risk—a very real risk—of any kind of defeat on the South Vietnamese at this point.

Kissinger

Yeah.

President Nixon

If that has happened, it not only has an effect on us here—that we’ve screwed this thing up—but it also has an effect on Thieu's reelection. And so therefore, Henry, we've just got to weigh those two things.

Kissinger

No question.

President Nixon

That's the point. There—and there is where I think we've got to listen very damn carefully to what they have to say.

Kissinger

Oh, no question. And they're—we're not pushing them at all.

The conversation turns to strategic arms negotiations with the Soviet Union.

Cite as

“Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger on 10 March 1971,” Conversation 465-008 (PRDE Excerpt B), Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Fatal Politics, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006731