Podcast: Luke Nichter on the Nixon Tapes and the End of the Vietnam War
President Nixon with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu during a visit to Saigon in August 1969. (AP Photo)
Luke Nichter is Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Central Texas.
On this edition of the Nixon Now podcast, we’re talking the Nixon Tapes again, with specific focus on President Nixon’s taped conversations about the end of the Vietnam War in 1972 and 1973.
Our guest again is Luke Nichter, Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Central Texas. He’s the nation’s foremost expert on the Nixon White House Tapes, and founder of NixonTapes.org.
Conversation Oval Office 788-001. 29 September 1972. 9:45am-10:45am. Haldeman, H.R.; Kissinger, Henry; Nixon. Richard.
Executive Office Building 366-006. 12 October 1972. 7:05pm-8:46pm. Haig, Alexander; Haldeman, H.R.; Kissinger, Henry.
White House Telephone 033-089. 18 November 1972. 12:02pm-12:08pm.
White House Telephone 035-035. 28 December 1972. 4:00 pm – 4:15 pm. Kissinger, Henry; Nixon, Richard.
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to “The Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org.
Today, we’re talking the Nixon tapes again with specific focus on President Nixon’s taped conversations about the end of the Vietnam War in 1972 and 1973. Our guest, again, is Luke Nichter, Professor of History at Texas A&M University-Central Texas. He’s the nation’s foremost expert on the Nixon White House tapes and founder of nixontapes.org. Luke, welcome back.
Luke Nichter: Well, thanks for welcoming me back, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s start the story before the 1972 election. That year, President Nixon had embarked on the historic trip to China in February of 1972. And then, two months later, he goes to the Soviet Union in May to sign the SALT and ABM treaties. The North Vietnamese launched an offensive against the South in March and April. At this point before the election, overall, what is happening with negotiations with the North Vietnamese to end this war?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think after a long period where there wasn’t much happening or it was a lot of struggles in ’70 and ’71, it was the spring of ’72 period where things started getting going again in terms of negotiations with Vietnam. And, you know, how much of that had to do with North Vietnamese fatigue, how much of that had to do with Nixon’s other overtures to China and the Soviet Union, I mean, it’s hard to tease these things out. Certainly, they were all related in the constellation of activities and just things that were going on during that year.
But, I mean, the short answer to your question is, you know, after… The Easter Offensive was pretty rough on the North Vietnamese. It was a decisive victory for the Americans and the South Vietnamese. And I think it’s widely regarded, you know, by those in government and by scholars as being the key event that kinda…you know, the final straw that broke the camel’s back and caused the North Vietnamese to, once again, become serious about peace talks.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s listen to the first audio tape of September 29th, 1972. This is about a month before Nixon’s presidential reelection.
Henry Kissinger: See my worry, Mr. President, isn’t the election. My
worry is that—
Richard Nixon: Oh, I know, I know. That’s just what I—just what—Bob agrees with me, and I said exactly that I was prepared, that I’m prepared, and I know we have to end the war. I know that now, but when we really decimate the place, you’ve got pretty serious problems. But nevertheless, the real question is, it’s the old—the old irony: if we don’t end it, end it before the election, we’ve got a hell of a problem. But, if we end it in the wrong way, we’ve got a hell of a problem—not in the election. As I said, forget the election. We’ll win the election. We could—Bob, we could surrender in Vietnam and win the election, because who the hell is going to take advantage of it? McGovern says surrender, right?
H.R. Haldeman: Yeah—
Richard Nixon: But the point I make—
H.R. Haldeman: It doesn’t affect the election; it affects—
Richard Nixon: It affects what we’re going to do later. It affects our world position. [unclear] And, so that’s why—why Thieu will. Hell, yes they’re hurting—
Henry Kissinger: Let me—
Richard Nixon: —if we get a landslide.
Henry Kissinger: Let me make a few things. See, I don’t think it is technically possible—even though these silly North Vietnamese think it is—to get all the documents signed by the election.
Richard Nixon: Yeah. Yeah.
Henry Kissinger: The best we can do by the election is a statement of principles.
Richard Nixon: Right.
Henry Kissinger: That can absolutely do you no damage, and must help you, because it has—
Richard Nixon: Forget about it—
Henry Kissinger: —prisoner release in it—
Richard Nixon: It sounds right.
Henry Kissinger: —cease-fire—
Richard Nixon: Right—
Henry Kissinger: —with withdrawal—
Richard Nixon: Oh, oh. That’s, that’s fine, but even if—
Henry Kissinger: —and no coalition government, and continuation of the GVN.
Richard Nixon: Right.
Henry Kissinger: And no withdrawal—no resignation of Thieu.
Richard Nixon: Both a Committee of Reconciliation, or a Committee—
Henry Kissinger: A Commission of National Concord or Commission—
Richard Nixon: Right.
Henry Kissinger: —of National Reconciliation, and any knowing person—I mean, this will go like SALT, believe me.
Richard Nixon: Yeah. I—I agree with you on that. The question, though, there is what we do require Thieu to do. If we do—if he does get out, does it unravel in South Vietnam, Henry? That’s the point.
Henry Kissinger: That is—
Richard Nixon: Goddamnit, you know, you can’t have.
Henry Kissinger: That, Mr. President, we cannot do.
Richard Nixon: That worries me.
Henry Kissinger: Me too.
Richard Nixon: Especially.
Henry Kissinger: And if—because if we had wanted to do that—
Richard Nixon: Yeah. Well, if we’d wanted to do it, also—
Henry Kissinger: We had—
Richard Nixon: —Henry, the effect, when you didn’t see what’s happening, if it is happening as always. But what you see is—you know, you know these little Indonesians and all the rest. They’ll all come apart at the seams. There is—there is a domino.
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, let’s unpack this conversation a bit. Nixon and Kissinger weigh getting a deal done before the 1972 presidential election. It seems that Nixon and Kissinger conclude that it doesn’t matter. Do you think, though, this was an important consideration?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think, there’s no question that politics is… You know, these are people who operate at a very high level politically and do so intrinsically. I mean, it doesn’t even have to be said. So, you know, whether they discussed the role of politics or not on the tapes, obviously, there’s a role here for politics.
You know, at the same time, I think what they’re saying is, you know, this is now, as you say, a month before, five, six weeks before the election. You know, Labor Day kind of used to traditionally kick off the campaigns. And so, you know, we’re three, four weeks into the campaign now. It’s clear who Nixon’s opponent is, Senator George McGovern. We’re well after the conventions that nominated in both parties the candidates.
So, I think, Nixon can speak pretty confidently about, you know, where does he sit in the polls? What’s the messaging of the McGovern side? And, frankly, I think what Nixon’s saying is, “We don’t have a lot of competition.” I mean, if McGovern is taking a view that the United States ought to get surrender and pull out of Vietnam, you know, unilaterally, then, what Nixon’s saying is, you know, “Hey, that gives me a lot of room. There’s a lot of room for error. You know, the agreement itself doesn’t have to be perfect. And there’s not really gonna be much of a domestic political consequence for me.” That’s my reading of that part of it.
So, you know, I think that politics is an important part, but I think more than that, I mean, this has been a goal now of Nixon’s for four years to end this war. And so, while politics is, you know, one of the most immediate hurdles sitting in front of him on this track, you know, earlier writings suggest that, you know, Nixon really thought, “You know, in my first term, I’ve gotta make sure I’m out of this war. You know, I can’t have a second term and let the war go into that, you know, like, second four years.”
So, I think there’s a lot of different thoughts here and it’s hard to know exactly what he thinks about all of them. But, you know, that’s kinda my reaction to this particular segment of tape.
Jonathan Movroydis: Are the North Vietnamese negotiators putting the administration on a timetable to get this deal done?
Luke Nichter: This is a tough one. You know, we simply, as Americans, do not know nearly as much about the North or South Vietnamese as we do about, you know… I mean, here we are. We’re trying to grasp at what, you know… We have tapes of our American leaders and we’re trying to parse words and figure out what’s really meant and what’s really being said. And we don’t have, you know, any kind of pieces of evidence like this, you know, for the Vietnamese side, North or South.
So, I mean, the North Vietnamese are falling into their pattern, you know, as they did in ’68 of kind of launching some kind of peace initiative just before an American presidential election, knowing that that’s when, you know, many Americans will be focused on these issues.
So, you know, I mean, my take there is… I mean, to me, the facts are they were hit pretty hard by the Easter Offensive. That did cause them to negotiate. But I think one of the major weaknesses of the United States both in ’68 as well here in ’72 is out of the three major parties, the North, the South, and the U.S., only one of those really wants to get out and end the war. And that’s the United States.
I mean, the North has been fighting almost a continual war since the end of World War II and even during the war, we’re gonna include the Japanese and then the French and then the South. They’re not really in a hurry. I mean, yeah, they are tired but, I mean, they’re not gonna get…after fighting for decades, they’re not gonna just quit here unless the terms are obviously in their favor. Otherwise, they would make the last 30 years of effort look foolish.
And the South, I mean, this is their homeland. I mean, they’re fighting, you know, to the last man. So, the North and the South… I mean, my take on this, the U.S., I think, never fully came to terms in ’68 or ’72 or any other time with the fact that we were the ones who wanted the war to end, not nearly as much, you know, the other sides as much as they lost, far more than the 58,000 that we lost. They lost in the millions, not to mention civilians and the destruction of their homeland.
So, I think this was always gonna be a tough thing for us to get a deal that was good for all sides when most of the other sides, a majority of the other sides, didn’t want out as much as we did.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s talk about the deal a little bit. Kissinger mentions a statement of principles with the North Vietnamese that includes the following, prisoner release, cease-fire, withdrawal, and Committee of Reconciliation. Can you talk about these specific principles and what do they exactly mean?
Luke Nichter: Sure. And, you know, I think here is a case where this tape suggests to me that the Americans have learned a little bit in ’72 that maybe they didn’t know in ’68. I think in ’68, there was kind of no such lack of optimism. You know, the Johnson White House led talks led by Harriman and Vance, I think, really hoped they could get a deal, you know, by Election Day.
And, really, they didn’t get moving until about mid-October. And so, we’re in a very tight time period. And we’re talking three weeks or so. And here, this is Kissinger in late September saying, you know, “We don’t really have enough time to get a deal and get all the documents signed. You know, we can get kind of a verbal agreement, a gentleman’s agreement. You know, we can basically come to agreement on the points that will be in the eventual signed agreement.” But there isn’t just time.
So, I think, you know, we’re taking a much slower pace this time and not getting our hopes up after four more years of war. But, you know, the main points have been the ones that mostly have been the around for a few years. You know, how many POWs do we have? What shape are they? Where are they at? How do we get them home and on what timetable? You know, how many days after the agreed-upon signing date does POWs have to be returned? A cease-fire, you know, what does that mean? You know, restoration of the DMZ, no rocketing attacks on southern cities by the North, combat troops pulled out either one side…
You know, are we talking about a unilateral withdrawal, a mutual withdrawal according, to what timetable, who goes first, you know, that kind of thing. And a Committee of Reconciliation is the idea it would be, sort of, an internationally-supervised peace that would make sure that all sides were following, you know, the thing they agreed to, the document.
So, these are basic points that have been in-flux. And the only other one that’s not mentioned in your list that’s been a problem since the start is the National Liberation Front. That is, communist soldiers already in the South. For the longest time, the North insisted on toppling the Thieu government and bringing the communist into the government either completely or, at least, just part of a coalition with the South.
And that’s the one thing that’s different in ’68 to ’72 is that Nixon and Kissinger are able to make progress on that particular issue, at least not to make that part of the agreement, and stand by it, too, a little tougher. But, you know, these are the basic issues. And the key is just, you know, how do we make them work, in what sequence? You know, how many days? You know, how many days? You know, how do we define success? You know, that’s the remaining steps they need to work on.
Jonathan Movroydis: As you mentioned, the statement of principles talks about the South a little bit and the stipulation that Thieu not be overthrown. President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger are little worried about the future of Thieu, nonetheless, and the political leadership in the South at this point. Could you tell us why?
Luke Nichter: Well, I mean, President Thieu’s domestic political situation has been tough for…I mean, it was tough in ’68, going back to ’68. You know, any time he does anything, he’s got the hawks and doves just like, you know, President Johnson and President Nixon has hawks and doves, you know, criticizing him from the right, criticizing him from the left. And any time Thieu does anything that looks like weakness, you know, there’s talk of a leadership challenge. There’s talk of coups. Actually, he had been threatened by assassination numerous times.
So, you know, Thieu’s got a whole range of his own political problems that we Americans don’t seem to pay much attention to, well, because, we’re so focused on our own. So, you know, Thieu has this unstable situation. I mean, if he goes along with some kind of agreement and his hawks and his National Security Council and his National Assembly don’t agree, he could be toppled.
And if he’s toppled by his own people and it brings together, say, a much more hawkish leader, you know, or a much more dovish dealer, you know, that makes peace all that much more precarious. So, you know, this is a difficult balancing act between, you know… You can imagine, obviously, we think, as Americans, of this primarily as a foreign policy issue to end a war. But there are domestic consequences here. There are domestic consequences in Saigon. And there are domestic consequences in Hanoi. You know, so each side has its own balancing act while the considerations at the negotiating table also have to be balanced.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s continue the story two weeks later. This is Nixon, Kissinger, and Military Assistant Alexander Haig in the executive office building on October 12th, 1972.
Richard Nixon: Well, it was a long, long day—
Henry Kissinger: [unclear] Mr. President—
Richard Nixon: Sure.
Henry Kissinger: Well, you got three out of three, Mr. President. It’s well on the way.
Richard Nixon: You got an agreement? Are you kidding?
Henry Kissinger: No, I’m not kidding.
Richard Nixon: Did you agree on it? Three out of three?
Henry Kissinger: Although it’s done, we got to—
Richard Nixon: [laughs]
Henry Kissinger: We got it word for—
Richard Nixon: I see.
Henry Kissinger: —word. We got a—we got a text.
Richard Nixon: [humorously] Al—I’m going to ask Al, because you’re too prejudiced, Henry. You’re so prejudiced to the peace camp that I can’t trust you. Don’t you think so, Al?
Alexander Haig: Yes, sir.
Henry Kissinger: If it is done—?
Richard Nixon: What about Thieu?
Alexander Haig: It isn’t done.
Henry Kissinger: Well, that’s the problem, but it is a commitment.
Alexander Haig: He wanted this agreement.
Richard Nixon: It’s not insurmountable. How do we handle it?
Henry Kissinger: I have to—I have to go up—out—here is what we have to do: I have to go to Paris on Tuesday [October 17] to go over the agreed things word-for-word with Le [Duc Tho].
Richard Nixon: You could then get it?
Henry Kissinger: No problem. I think we have an agreed text. I’ve left a man behind to go over it. Except, but I’ve—you know, just in case there’s any last minute treachery. Then I go to Saigon to get Thieu aboard. Then I have to go to Hanoi if they’re willing [unclear]—
Richard Nixon: I understand.
Henry Kissinger: That was the price we had to pay.
Richard Nixon: Well, that’s no price if we get Thieu aboard. What do you think, Al? When do you get him aboard?
Henry Kissinger: That’s—
Alexander Haig: He’s already aboard—
Henry Kissinger: But the deal we got, Mr. President, is so far better than anything we dreamt of. I mean it was absolutely, totally hard line with them.
Richard Nixon: Good.
Henry Kissinger: The deal is [unclear]—
Richard Nixon: Won’t it totally wipe out Thieu, Henry?
H.R. Haldeman: Yeah.
Henry Kissinger: Oh, no. It’s so far better than anything we discussed. He won’t like it because he thinks he’s winning, but here is the deal, just to give you the main points, then I’ll tell you [unclear]—
Richard Nixon: We can do that after.
Henry Kissinger: All right, afterwards. The cease-fire will go into effect—
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, why at this point is Dr. Kissinger so confident that the President has gone three for three for diplomatic achievements with China, Russia, and the Vietnam War?
Luke Nichter: Well, this three for three thing is kind of a…I mean, it’s clearly some kind of an organizing method of the foreign policy achievements for that year because, you know, you hear it a couple of other times, that exact phrase, or, you know, talk like this. I don’t recall anything like it after China, which was the first one of three achievements. But I recall another conversation after the Soviet Summit where either Nixon or Kissinger says to the other, “Well, you’ve got two out of three,” meaning just Vietnam is left to do this year.
And then, also, after the election, they talk about three for three again and Nixon says to Haldeman, you know, something like, “There’s never been another year like it. It would be a great book, you know, someone should write is kind of, you know, three for three.” And so, that was kind of the inspiration…
You know, when I heard that tape and had time to reflect on it, you know, that was kind of the inspiration for me to do that first Nixon Tapes book with Douglas Brinkley, was to kind of really fashion it around, you know, three for three, you know, to try to keep other things out of it as much as possible, to keep Watergate out of it. That kind of comes later. But, you know, I thought, “Well, he’s right.” You know, and that kind of became the idea of Bill Safire’s book, “Before the Fall.” But he wasn’t really involved in foreign policy.
So, this idea, this organizing principle of three for three, had been around, you know, at least kind of throughout ’72, at least since their return from China. They started getting them thinking like, “Wow. We just had this great breakthrough. Maybe we can get two more, you know, all in one year.”
And so, the two were done. And so, Kissinger here is confident that… You know, according to this audio we listened to, we don’t have an agreement yet but we have kind of an agreement in principle, again, a handshake, a gentleman’s agreement. And at this point, maybe… You know, I mean, at least, to slightly prematurely because there’s not an agreement yet, Kissinger says, “Well, at least in principle, you know, we now have the third out of three, the three for three.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Kissinger says on this audiotape, “The deal we got, Mr. President, is so far better than anything we’ve dreamt of. I mean, it was absolutely totally hard line with them.” What kind of agreement did Kissinger get?
Luke Nichter: Well, in my view, you know, we’re still learning about those conversation Thieu’s having in Paris. You know, he has just returned from the very long negotiating session in Paris. That’s why at the very beginning of this audio, the first thing Nixon says in that clip is, “Well, it’s been a long day,” is because, you know, he’s had kind of a full day in Paris. Then, he returns to Washington to brief Nixon on the day.
I believe, you know, the most reliable record of those talks were National Security Agency wiretaps that were going on. It was just starting to be released, wiretaps on the talks, wiretaps, as I understand it, even at the CIA’s safehouses and other locations where the private talks took.
So, those are starting to come out. So, you know, even in the future years, we’re still gonna be figuring out, you know, were things going as well as we’ve been told, you know, because other tapes, other Nixon Tapes, you know, Kissinger says to Nixon, “Our biggest problem right now is that everything I’m giving them, every condition, they’re approving it so quickly, I don’t know what else to ask for.”
And so, I think if these wiretap records come out in the future, they’ll help to bear out whether that really was what was happening in Paris because, you know, here we are listening to this audio, you know, Kissinger coming back from the talks. But we don’t have a similar kind of evidence from the talks themselves.
So, I think Kissinger is optimistic according to other tapes because he feels as though, you know, every condition the United States place is placing before the North, you know, they’re accepting it. I mean, they’re sort of writing it into the agreement right away.
So, you know, they’re not insisting on Thieu’s overthrow. They’re not setting a lot of conditions on a withdrawal. I mean, they’re pretty easy negotiating partners. And certainly, you know, we’re two weeks out from the election. That has to play a…well, we’re about a little less than a month out from the election. That surely plays a role. I mean, the Americans can see that clearly. The North Vietnamese can see that clearly.
So, this is another factor that we don’t know from this audio, as interesting as these audio tapes are, is how much of this is the North just saying, “You know, we’re just gonna agree to everything. And, you know, they’re gonna pull out and then we’ll just do what we want.” So, I mean, these kinds of things are not addressed, you know, by the sources of archival evidence, including tapes. We have their words. We have their actions but we don’t always have their intentions.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon says somewhat humorously in response to Kissinger on this tape, “Al,” Al Haig, “I’m going to ask you, Al, because you’re too prejudiced, Henry. You’re so prejudiced to the peace camp that I can’t trust you. Don’t you think so, Al? Alexander Haig’s response, “Yes, Sir.” Are Nixon and Haig skeptical?
Luke Nichter: Well, Nixon does this. He does on the tapes. He does this a number of times. He kinda ribs Kissinger after he…because, I mean, at this point, Haig’s kind of on negotiations for China, for the Soviets, for the Vietnamese. And so, you know, it’s a way of Nixon kind of reminding Kissinger, you know, “You’re from Harvard. You’re from, you know, all of those guys who prefer peace and they want us to get out.”
So, I think it’s part genuine but it’s part kind of, you know, humorous ribbing of Kissinger. But it is true. You know, in the final approach to the peace, these final months, in part because there is so much activity. I mean, imagine this. You’ve got to negotiate simultaneously in Paris. Sometimes, you have to go to Hanoi. Sometimes, you have to go to Saigon. You’ve got to deal with Washington. You’ve got to brief Nixon. You’ve got brief The Hill. And there’s a lot of different simultaneous things going on.
And so, Haig comes along in part to share the burden, you know, with Kissinger, of all these Thieu’s negotiations. But also, because, I mean, Haig’s reputation was more of the military guy, the hard liner.
And so, sometimes…as we get in the final months here when Kissinger and Haig split up and go different places to handle different parts of negotiations, you start seeing Haig more and more being the one who’s sent to Saigon because, I think, the view of Nixon was that the Saigon government that Thieu liked to sit across from a military guy and liked to hear it straight. Like Kissinger deal with the North Vietnamese and the communists, but, you know, Haig was considered to be a little more hardline and somebody that the South Vietnamese military could look eyeball to eyeball, you know, and be on the same page.
So, I’d say it’s a little…your question, to go back to that, it’s a little bit of each. It’s kind of a little ribbing. It’s a reminder of Kissinger’s background. It’s a division of labor with all that’s going on. But I think it is true that the fellow military and our allies saw Haig to be more hardlined.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was he effective at all in negotiating with Thieu?
Luke Nichter: Well, as far as we know, based on the available records, you know, Thieu’s ultimate problem, I think, in ’72 is very much like in ’68. I think he felt pressured to come to a peace agreement that it wasn’t really in his interests. I mean, again, it was the Americans, primarily, who wanted to get out of the war. The South Vietnamese weren’t going anywhere. The North Vietnamese weren’t going anywhere.
And I think Thieu’s objective was probably something along the lines of, “I need to find a way to let the Americans out of the war but not to sever our ties or to sever their support of me. And so, if we need to call it something else, if we need to, you know, play a game of words.” And so, I think Thieu came to a point where he was willing to let the Americans out of the war but he wanted to make sure that American support continued because that’s how he would survive once the Americans were gone.
Jonathan Movroydis: About two weeks later on October 26th, 1972, Dr. Kissinger, during a press conference, said, “Peace is at hand as we’ll see the war continued on through the end of the year.” What did Kissinger mean when he said peace was at hand?
Luke Nichter: I’ve always been curious about this because, you know, Nixon, sometimes, is into grandstanding and slogans. But I don’t get that take that this was a Nixon idea, you know, “Peace is at hand.” Just shortly after this press conference, Kissinger goes to the Oval Office and briefs Nixon because Kissinger has, once again, returned from a long negotiating session in Paris and he’s very…I recall he’s hoarse and he asked Nixon for some chicken soup or a consommé or…so, it’s kind of a funny conversation.
But, you know, Colson then comes in after that, Chuck Colson. And he and Nixon say something like, “Well, you know, Henry said peace was at hand, well, until it wasn’t.” So, I’ve always been curious about this because I don’t think it was necessary, you know, to use that phrase to turn an agreement into a lightning rod, a political lightning rod. And this is days prior to the election.
So, I’ve never been clear on the origins of the phrase and why it was used. But I think, you know, Kissinger’s point to the press…and so, he used the phrase…to a packed press conference. He told Nixon… You can find the audio or the video of what he said to the press. What he said to Nixon afterwards was, “They were hanging from the rafters.” Of course, they were. You know, this was a big deal. And so, this is, again, Kissinger’s way of saying to the press, “You know, we don’t have…I can’t show you a text but we have agreed in principle.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Why, ultimately, did the war continue on through, after the election?
Luke Nichter: Well, I mean, it was a variety of factors. And perhaps the biggest one is that, you know, Thieu, in ’72, as in ’68, four years before, you know, ultimately balked, hesitated and, by hesitating to go along, allowed the North Vietnamese to say, “Well, it doesn’t look like your side are on the same page.” And so, once, you know, the South kind of balks, then the North pulls out. And so, something similar… Again, there are parallels here between ’68 as well in ’72. You know, the closer to the election while the Americans are feverishly trying to get a deal before the election while, you know, the American people are focused on this issue, as I say, the Vietnamese are just as aware of the American political timing playing a factor in this. And in ’72 as in ’68, Thieu hesitated. The North seized a propaganda initiative and decided not to go along.
Jonathan Movroydis: Now, we’re after the election. Let’s listen to the next telephone conversation between Nixon and Kissinger on November 18th, 1972.
Henry Kissinger: What I wanted to mention and check with you since we now—we had a phone call from Bunker. We haven’t got the actual message yet saying that now, apparently the South Vietnamese are beginning to kick over the [traces] again.
Richard Nixon: Oh, Christ.
Henry Kissinger: And I believe that we just have to continue now and get the best agreement we can—
Richard Nixon: Yeah.
Henry Kissinger: —and then face them with it afterwards.
Richard Nixon: How are they kicking it over?
Henry Kissinger: Well, they’ve apparently submitted memorandum to him. He just said the news is not good. And their ambassador here has also raised some questions with Sullivan. It’s their old pattern. What they always do is they first read what you give them then they raise a few technical objections and they just keep escalating it.
Richard Nixon: Um-hmmm.
Henry Kissinger: But—
Richard Nixon: Well, shall I send them another letter?
Henry Kissinger: No, I think we now have to wait, Mr. President until we get a—until we see at least what’s going to happen in Paris.
Richard Nixon: Um-hmmm.
Henry Kissinger: And once we have the text of an agreement in Paris we’ll have a new situation
Richard Nixon: So, Bunker says that they’re kicking over the [traces] and just being unreasonable as hell. Is that it?
Henry Kissinger: That seems to be the case. But I don’t—We can’t delay the negotiations and we can’t tell Hanoi that we’re having trouble.
Richard Nixon: No, sir.
Henry Kissinger: They’re going to play it like an accordion.
Richard Nixon: All right.
Henry Kissinger: The other—
Richard Nixon: When you really come down to it, though, I just can’t see how Thieu has got any other choice. Goddamn it, we’ve told him we’re doing everything we can and that’s going to be it—
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, what exactly are the South Vietnamese, specifically President Thieu, objecting to?
Luke Nichter: Well, I mean, imagine being a South Vietnamese military leader or being on the hawkish side of one of Thieu’s advisors. You know, here you are. You’re faced with hostile actions, hostile takeover by the North, presumably, supported by two much larger hostile powers, the Chinese and the Russians.
You know, I think, there’s almost a kind of a parallel with like in Israel, you know, being supported by, you know, on all sides by well-armed opponents. And, you know, here you are and you’re being asked to sign an agreement that releases the United States from the war. I mean, under what conditions are you gonna be for that?
And so, I think, this just underlines the fact that, you know, Thieu had a very complicated, difficult, domestic political issue. And imagine being Thieu and having to argue to these hawks that, you know, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. You know, I’ll make sure they continue to support us.” I mean, it’s gonna be almost impossible to convince your hawks.
And so, it’s fine, you know, to negotiate with Thieu. But even in our own system, you know, a president can propose treaties but you still need a Senate to ratify a treaty. And so, it’s one thing to get Thieu’s approval but it’s another thing entirely to get the approval of the National Security Council, his Cabinet, you know, and his National Assembly.
And so, I think, I mean, from the documentation that I have seen, I think the South Vietnamese were just against the whole idea, you know, of a peace agreement, like…I mean, if you’re getting shelled and you live in Saigon and you had a family who are injured during the Tet Offensive or, you know, in ’68 and you’ve lost family members and you think, “Peace agreement? There’s no peace here,” what you see and live and breathe every day is the opposite of peace.
And so, I just think, you know, Americans were… In ’68 and ’72, there was almost no chance of getting any kind of an agreement is my take. I think the U.S. wanted this done because we ourselves needed to get out of the war for domestic political opinion. And so, I think probably, you know, Thieu’s people had a problem with just about every aspect of what we were proposing to him.
Jonathan Movroydis: Kissinger says here, “We can’t tell Hanoi that we’re having trouble with the South Vietnamese.” Nixon responds, “No, sir.” Kissinger says, “They’re going to play it like an accordion.” How do you think the North Vietnamese would take advantage of the South’s objections?
Luke Nichter: Well, now, imagine you’re a North Vietnamese negotiator in Paris. And you’ve had Kissinger come in and, you know, in the North, you’ve given everything you’re authorized to give in this agreement. Maybe you’ve gone even a little too far and had to explain that to your government in Hanoi. You know, Kissinger’s come in. You’re tired. He’s tired. And, you know, he said, “You must give up this right now because we’re ready to sign. We’re ready to agree. You have to go along. You’re the problem. You’re the one.”
And then, all of a sudden, you see the South is balking. Well, if you’re sitting…if you’re the North and you’re saying, “Well, maybe we don’t need to give so much anymore.” So, you perceive an advantage in the negotiations, maybe that last thing or two that you went along with or promised, now you don’t need to because now you see how urgent it is for the United States to get some kind of an agreement. So, I think, you know, this just deals cards right into the North Vietnamese hands when they see that the U.S. and the South might not completely be on the same page.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon says, “When you really come down to it, I just can’t see how Thieu has got any other choice. We’ve told him we’re doing everything we can and that’s going to be it.” Why do you think Nixon believes that Thieu doesn’t have a choice but to accept this?
Luke Nichter: I think it’s just political considerations. That’s Nixon’s way of saying, “Thieu has never had a friendlier American government in power than the one he’s got right now. He’s never gonna get a better situation than right now, that the American people will demand that the U.S. get out. The American Congress will demand it. You know, if he misses this opportunity, as flawed as it is for him to agree to peace, future opportunities are only gonna be, you know, less favorable than the one he has right now and possibly with a less favorable American government in power.”
So, I think, you know, it’s just a political consideration that as much as Thieu didn’t like the medicine that Americans were giving him, the fact was is that if you wait longer, odds are it’ll be even worse.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s listen to the next conversation of December 28th of 1972. This is, again, President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger.
Henry Kissinger: So this has been another spectacular for you, Mr. President—
Richard Nixon: Yeah. Well, hell, we don’t know whether it’s that—
Henry Kissinger: Well, it took terrific courage to do it.
Richard Nixon: Yeah. Well, at least, it pricked the boil, didn’t it?
Henry Kissinger: Mr. President, anything else would have been ruined in the long run.
Richard Nixon: Um-hmm.
Henry Kissinger: And all the guys who are now saying, “Well, why do we it with B–52s?”
Richard Nixon: [laughs]
Henry Kissinger: These are the people who oppose this thing—
Richard Nixon: What with?
Henry Kissinger: If you did it with DC–3s, they’d be upset.
Richard Nixon: The point is that, as we know, we couldn’t do it with anything but B–52s because, goddamnit, there’s nothing else that can fly at this time of year.
Henry Kissinger: Mr. President, within 10 days, you got these guys back to the table, which no other method could have done.
Richard Nixon: Well, that’s a—just keep right on and—
Henry Kissinger: And I think it—this way, it makes the weekend papers, and the excitement is going to die—
Richard Nixon: Boy, it’ll make the news magazines, too.
Henry Kissinger: Yeah.
Richard Nixon: They’ll open up for this, don’t worry.
Henry Kissinger: Mac Bundy called me last night.6 He said he’s going to write a letter—write a public letter to you and—
Richard Nixon: I’ve seen it. Protesting?
Henry Kissinger: [unclear]—
Richard Nixon: Yeah. Well, of course.
Henry Kissinger: I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because, what am I going to tell my son?” I said, “I’ll tell you what you can tell your son: Tell him: ‘I got us into this war and now I’m keeping—I’m preventing us from getting out,’” and hung up on him.
Richard Nixon: Good.
Henry Kissinger: But that New York establishment hasn’t—
Richard Nixon: They’re done. They’re done.
Henry Kissinger: —hasn’t ever come—
Richard Nixon: Well, the main thing now, Henry, is that we have to pull this off, and it’s going to be tough titty.
Henry Kissinger: I think now we’re going to turn—we’ve already got a list of economic pressures—
Richard Nixon: Right.
Henry Kissinger: —and we’re going to start implementing those next week.
Richard Nixon: On?
Henry Kissinger: Saigon.
Richard Nixon: Well, yes. Right. On Saigon, though, as I see—and I’m talking to Kennedy a little, which he’ll fill you in, a little this morning, about, you know, some of the concerns as to the options that we had to be considering, here. That’s assuming we go forward with our plan by just talking to the North. My view is, we talk and we settle. Right? With that—?
Henry Kissinger: Exactly.
Richard Nixon: Now then—then, what do we—at what point do we inform Saigon that we are going to proceed in that way, or that we have proceeded in that way?
Henry Kissinger: Well, I think this thing is going to happen just before your inauguration. Basically, I’d—I would still send Agnew and Haig out there to give them a face-saving way off. [unclear]
Richard Nixon: Yeah, but, [laughs] suppose he doesn’t. That’s, I suppose, our problem—
Henry Kissinger: Then we just proceed and sign the documents.
Jonathan Movroydis: This is President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger talking about Linebacker II, the bombing of North Vietnam after the election. What went into Nixon’s decision to restart bombing of North Vietnam in Linebacker II?
Luke Nichter: Well, here you get another significant phrase that Nixon uses every once in a while, “Prick the boil.” And he uses “prick the boil” a few times throughout the Nixon tapes. And one of the times I can recall that he talked about why that was important. Long before this, as I recall, he said something in the tapes like, you know, “When I was a young the Vice President in 1953, I sat in these rooms as Eisenhower struggled with how to end the war. The peace talks were stalemated.”
And what Nixon suggests in a different tape was what he learned from Eisenhower in those opening months of his presidency in ’53 was that, you know, when the talks are stalemated and you’re…you know, you’re moving, you’re advancing and taking a hill, and then you’re losing it, you’re falling back and you’re just going kind of back and forth and back and forth.
For a long period of time, you know, the Korean negotiations were stalemated for, you know, two and a half years almost. But what Nixon said was, “Finally, Eisenhower pricked the boil.” You know, and he had to do something…a kind of shock and awe thing, you know, to bring the sides back to a negotiating table. You have to be willing, even in the course of peace talks, Nixon said to sort of do something brutal.
And so, that was Nixon’s Christmas bombing, his operation, Linebacker II. That when, you know, we’re trying to figure out what does Saigon really want, what does Hanoi really want, in the midst of that, Nixon does something brutal by launching the fiercest bombing campaign of the entire Vietnam War. And it starts, you know, around the 14th of the middle of December. You know, after it’s over, after about 10 days, and Kissinger is saying, “It worked.” You know, “It’s your great thing.”
You know, what it did was…I mean, it was really unnecessary. I mean, from a military standpoint, I mean, they weren’t any important targets left. But what it was it provided a kind of shock and awe, you know, politically for the North Vietnamese to show how far Nixon was willing to go to regain the momentum. And the outcome of this is that the North has just announced that they’re willing to return to the negotiating table.
And it’s this round of negotiating that actually produces the agreement that should have been wrapped up a few months before. And so, this call that we just heard takes place right sort of in the endzone, so to speak, you know, of Nixon’s final bombing drive. And we’re about to go into several days of intense talks that will produce the agreement.
Jonathan Movroydis: After Linebacker II, did the Nixon Administration get better terms on this agreement than before the election?
Luke Nichter: I’ve never looked at all the details and compared them to what they had in October. But, I mean, I think, the Nixon Administration got what it wanted. I mean, it got POWs within 60 days. It probably gave a little more to the South, I mean, in terms of reassurances. You know, one of the big sticky points in the agreement was the claws that permitted sort of the repair and replacement of military equipment but that no side should introduce new equipment or personnel.
So, in other words, there should not be fresh deployments of soldiers. There should not be, you know, new tanks, you know, and, you know, new planes, and new equipment. But it’s okay to repair and to replace equipment that becomes defunct. Now, that’s where some fudging can happen, you know, on all sides. But, you know, this was what Thieu was able to get out of this final agreement so that he could go back to his people and say, you know, “The American support will continue. It will just continue under another name. You know, they’re not gonna be officially at war but this support is gonna help us to survive.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Kissinger says in this conversation that economic pressures needed to be put on Saigon. What did he mean by that?
Luke Nichter: Well, economic aid, military, and non-military and humanitarian aid had forever, had always, been both an accelerator and a break in relations between the United States and South Vietnam. So, when the South is doing something that you like, you increase the aid, military, and non-military aid. And when you’re unhappy, you threaten to pull it back. You threaten to pull it back whether it be financing for the South Vietnamese military, whether it be a trade agreement, whether it be, you know, industrial goods. I mean, the scope of our foreign aid to Saigon is about as vast as it can be.
And so, this has always been probably the most important lever the United States has had to get better behavior out of the Saigon government is either, you know, to offer to increase it or to threaten to decrease it.
And so, that’s what Kissinger’s talking about here is that, you know, we can suggest to Thieu that we might make cuts and maybe that’ll, you know, help him to be more serious and to, you know, “Hey, let’s get peace. Let’s get peace. Let’s take advantage of the moment.” And so, I think, Nixon and Kissinger are thinking of just about every final card they can possibly play and modifying foreign aid to Saigon is one of those.
Jonathan Movroydis: Does Thieu and the South Vietnamese ultimately come to the table in negotiations?
Luke Nichter: They do. They do, I think, get probably the best agreement they could have gotten. You know, it’s still…I say that but it’s still, you know, terribly flawed. You know, I think for the North, they were looking at the Laos agreement in ’62 and seeing ways that they could cheat and hedge and… You know, I mean, for the North, you know, the main thing is just to have the Americans go home 10,000 miles.
And when the Americans go home 10,000 miles, you know, we can do what we want, in some cases. So, I think it probably was the best agreement possible but, you know, once the die was cast at the ’62 Laos negotiations, we were gonna have that problem of making sure the North adhered to it. You know, arguably, the U.S. and the South also didn’t keep their part of it. Nixon had his own domestic problems, you know, with Congress and an American electorate that just was tired of war.
So, you know, and the agreement didn’t include the whole area. I mean, Laos had also been threatened by communist takeover. Cambodia had also been threatened by communist takeover and would be taken over. Thailand faced such threats. And so, even to make an agreement, I think, even getting the best agreement we could and allowing it to focus just on Vietnam, it really needed to focus on all of what was known as French Indochina. That was really the…because that was the vacuum that was created when the French withdrew and which, you know, the communists moved in as quickly as they could.
So, you know, in the end, it was probably the best thing we could have gotten. It was essential that Nixon got something. But I think it would…does not take a Vietnam expert to arrive at the conclusion that it was flawed, you know, even before the ink was dried.
Jonathan Movroydis: In a podcast earlier this month, I asked Ambassador Winston Lord about whether Nixon and Kissinger believed that South Vietnam had a chance to succeed against the North or did the administration abandon the South in favor of political expediency, the so-called theory of a decent interval. What is your opinion on this?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think the idea of a decent interval theory, as I’ve said before, is just silly. I mean, this idea that in the ebb and flow of a war that goes on many years that we’ve always had one strategy that we’re gonna adhere to and not modify. You know, the idea that Nixon and Kissinger always thought, “Well, you know, we just can’t let communist takeover happen for two years or three years or four years or five years.”
I think the Nixon tapes show the decent interval theory is silly because there are some days that the war is not going very well at all and Nixon and Kissinger don’t care about any interval except the time just to get out of there and get our POWs out. So, I think Nixon and Kissinger and react like human beings, not like people who adhere to a rigid theory. I think, you know, that there are weeks they’re up when the casuality reports are down and things are going well. And there are weeks they’re down, probably like the reactions of any president during any war in human history.
So, I think that part is flawed. You know, I think, where I come down is the fact that it’s very complex. You know, I think Nixon knew he had to get out. One side, the U.S., wanted to get out much more, you know, than the other sides. I think we still don’t totally understand the role of China and the Soviet Union. And, of course, their archives are not open nearly the way that ours are. So, you know, I think the idea that the whole…we can put a bow on the whole story with some tidy theory, I think that explains some actions but there’s a lot of actions that it can’t explain.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Luke Nichter, Professor of History at Texas A&M University-Central Texas. Our topic is the Nixon White House taping system as it pertains at the end of the Vietnam War in 1972 and 1973. Luke, thank you so much for joining us.
Luke Nichter: Thanks, Jonathan. My pleasure.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.