Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger on 29 May 1971


Transcript

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

Nixon suggested that National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger open his next, secret negotiating session with the North Vietnamese on 31 May 1971, by bluntly stating that he was there to make a final offer on behalf of the President and that Hanoi needed to act on it immediately.

President Nixon

But at this point we’re dealing with a bunch of goddamn bandits, and we have got—and I think the way to do it is to put it right to them. They don’t want to play? Fine. And say [unclear] “if you don’t want to kick, boys, we’re leaving.”

Henry A. Kissinger

Right.

President Nixon

And I [unclear]. And I think if you do that, you’ll find out pretty quickly they're either going to take it or they’re not going to take it.

Kissinger

Absolutely.

President Nixon

So that’s what I would do—

Kissinger

I think, Mr. President, you’re absolutely right. I wrote it—

President Nixon

I don’t know that I’m right, but I mean—

Kissinger

[speaking over President Nixon] I’m sure you’re right.

President Nixon

I have a feeling that at this stage in the negotiations, Henry, not from our standpoint but from theirs, that these bandits, they need some shock treatment and [unclear]

Kissinger

I looked it from the point of view of . . .

President Nixon

How it would look?

Kissinger

—of may—of having—perhaps you wanted to surface it. But—

President Nixon

That’s right.

Kissinger

—that’s not clear thinking, because if we surface it, you’ll make a speech. And you can make the proposal then any way you want.

President Nixon

Make it any way we want. When we surface it, you don’t have to put it—

Kissinger

At this point, the major thing is to get an impact on them.

President Nixon

I think that might impact in some way. He may be right but he may not be, either.[note 1] The identity of the man Nixon is referring to is not clear. He thinks that they might take this, huh?

Kissinger

No, I didn’t tell him what we were going to do. I asked him what he thought they would settle for.

President Nixon

And what’d he say?

Kissinger

And he said, well, they’ll start out—he said what we should do, rather than make another offer to them, is ask them, "What are you willing to settle for?" Well, there he’s wrong.

President Nixon

Uh-uh.

Kissinger

And he said, well, they will start by saying "prisoners for a deadline". But a deadline for prisoners isn’t good enough. He’ll lose—everyone in Asia will think we’re just running. Therefore, we have to get something else. [President Nixon acknowledges.] And he said, "Therefore, we have to get a cease-fire." He thinks we can get it through ’72. He said they’re not children and they will give us—and he said they’ll also—

President Nixon

A cease-fire?

Kissinger

Yeah, and even—he thinks they would stagger the—let us withdraw throughout ’72, that it doesn’t have to be early in ’72. I’m just giving you his views.

President Nixon

Yeah, I’m telling you the political—well, it remains to be seen.

Kissinger

But—

President Nixon

From the political standpoint, we . . . our major goal is not the cease-fire through ’72. That is—that’s damn—that’s important, because we don’t want South Vietnam to fall. Our major goal is to get our ground forces the hell out of there long before the elections.

Kissinger

Oh, yeah.

President Nixon

And be prepared to bomb the hell out of them in the event that they break it. We can still do that.

Kissinger

Right.

President Nixon

If they break the cease-fire against the South Vietnamese, we’ll bomb them. That’s enough. Listen, [Creighton] Abrams and those people with a little few goddamn—if they couldn’t do it with 500,000 people there or 400,000 or 350,000 the other time with Laos, what the Christ do you figure they’re going to do with 100,000?

Kissinger

Oh, no, 100,000—[President Nixon attempts to interject] the only problem is to prevent the collapse in ’72.

President Nixon

I know. I know! It won’t collapse in ’72, though, if we have a cease-fire and the American Air Force sitting in Thailand and a few other places, that’s a hell of a deterrent.

Kissinger

Yeah. But don’t you think—I have no political judgment. If there were an agreement this summer that said we’d be out with everything by September 1st next year, that this would kill the issue? No one would talk any more after there’s an agreement and a cease-fire that the war is stopping.

President Nixon

I’d put it—I tell you, September 1st has the ring of—smack dab of politics. You could do it on Aug—I’d say that August 1st is the latest you could do it, [Kissinger acknowledges] because you’ve got to get it so it doesn’t appear as if you’re doing it just as the election campaign begins, we’re getting out. Democratic [National] Convention’s in July. I mean, that’s—

Kissinger

That’s—

President Nixon

You have to get what you can get, but my point is that [unclear]

Kissinger

I’ll start asking. If they agree to all the other propositions and say, "Now, give us the date," I’ll say “January 1st, ’73”—

President Nixon

That’s right.

Kissinger

—because they’ll certainly not accept it. And we can go back to as far as July 1st, ’72 [unclear]

President Nixon

And they’ll come out—they’ll go with January 1st, ’72.

Kissinger

Exactly, and then—

President Nixon

Then settle in between.

Kissinger

For July 1st.

President Nixon

Which would be about the date—I think that isn’t going to make that much difference.

Kissinger

That’s not [unclear].

President Nixon

Particularly [Kissinger attempts to interject] with our Air Force—with our Air Force, as I say, we’ve got to remember, we’re going to keep—we’re going to withdraw that Air Force—air power in Thailand and a few other damn places. Now, what [unclear]

Kissinger

Yeah, but the Thais won’t let us bomb from there anymore after that.

President Nixon

Through the cease-fire?

Kissinger

No. Maybe through the cease-fire. I doubt it.

President Nixon

Well, that’s the point with that, isn’t it?

Kissinger

You see, the thing is, these North Vietnamese are mean enough so that if they dare, they might want you—might want to have one hell of a blow-up to ruin the . . .

President Nixon

All right then, what you could do would be to have a deal that everything but our air power would be gone.

Kissinger

That’s fine.

President Nixon

Maybe that’s the way to do it. In other words, get all ground forces out by July 1st and all air power out by January 1st.[note 2] The President is referring to 1 July 1972 for withdrawing American ground forces and 1 January 1973 for withdrawing American air power.

Kissinger

That’s easy.

President Nixon

I think that’s the better way to do it. And stagger it that way. But I think that—I just—my intuition tells me that if there is any chance—and I don’t know that there is; there may be. But if there’s any chance you’re going to get a—just a straight thing—and [unclear]—and then I’d forget what P—what they said about POWs: “Are you willing to discuss that?”

Kissinger

Oh, you are right.

President Nixon

What they said about that.

Kissinger

Absolutely.

President Nixon

All that is [unclear]

Kissinger

We’ll fight that out in answer to the proposition.

President Nixon

Then that’s debating points. Let him—let [David] Bruce handle that, as to whether—what they meant when they talked about POWs and so forth and so on. What you’re gaining here is to get a, if you can, is to get them to consider a POW/cease-fire/withdrawal agreement. That’s all. Those three things. Infiltration, I think you—look, on infiltration, sure. Put it down, but you—but as far as international supervision and infiltration, they’re never going to agree to that, Henry. Never.

Kissinger

I’m not sure. They can agree to it. I don’t think it makes a . . . well, we have the problem—

President Nixon

It’s something—that you can give them.

Kissinger

Yes.

President Nixon

The main thing you can’t give on, you can’t give on the cease-fire. You can’t give on POW[s]. That—those are the two. [Kissinger acknowledges throughout.] That’s your rock bottom. Forget the rest. Anything else you can get, get. But remember that you can’t give on the others. It’s just you always know what your final deal is. That’s your final deal. You can’t give on a cease-fire and you can’t give on POW[s]. Every—that we can under—that we can stand on very easily.

Kissinger

Well, what we have to prevent next year, one way or the other, is—if there’s a cease-fire, we’re going to stop bombing throughout Indochina.

President Nixon

That’s right. [Unclear] we want to prevent—of course, we’d like to prevent the infiltration. My point is, how much effect is the international supervision going to have on them?

Kissinger

Well, just enough so that Cambodia and Laos don’t collapse on us during that period. That—

President Nixon

Well, I just don’t have much confidence in the supervision aspects.

Kissinger

I don’t either.

President Nixon

See, that’s my point.

Kissinger

It just slows it down a little bit.

President Nixon

So. So.

Kissinger

So we get through ’72. I’m being perfectly cynical about this, Mr. President.

President Nixon

Christ, yes, [unclear]

Kissinger

If we can, in October ’72, go around the country saying, "We ended the war and the Democrats wanted to turn it over to the Communists"—

President Nixon

That’s right.

Kissinger

—then we’re in great shape.

President Nixon

Then let the Democrats have—and have the Communists have [unclear].

Kissinger

Frankly, I don’t [unclear]

President Nixon

If necessary.

Kissinger

That’s fine with me.

President Nixon

[Unclear] big stakes.

Kissinger

In fact, if it’s got to go—

President Nixon

With the Chinese.

Kissinger

If it’s got to go to the Communists, it’d be better to have it happen in the first six months of the new term than have it go on and on and on.

President Nixon

Sure.

Kissinger

I’m being very cold-blooded about it.

President Nixon

I know exactly what we’re up to.

Kissinger

But—

President Nixon

Well, here we are, we’ve got—we’re going to have a whole hell of a—

Kissinger

But on the other hand, if Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam go down the drain in September ’72, then they’ll say you went into these, you say—you spoiled so many lives, just to wind up where you could’ve been in the first year.

President Nixon

Yeah.

The President turned the conversation to a statement by Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird about the imminent end of American ground combat in Vietnam and asked how he should handle a question about it at an upcoming press conference.

Cite as

“Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger on 29 May 1971,” Conversation 507-004 (PRDE Excerpt A), Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Fatal Politics, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006735