Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger in 1972

Word For Word / Nixon and Vietnam


By Tim Weiner, April 29, 2000


LAST Thursday the National Archives, as part of its routine declassification of government records, released thousands of secret documents from President Richard M. Nixon's National Security Council, which was led by his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger. Many deal with the war in Vietnam, which ended 25 years ago today.

The records capture the sulfurous scent of anger and desperation at the White House and the American Embassy in Saigon as the war went wrong, at home and abroad.

The following excerpts convey a whiff of that rage.

March 17, 1970: A telephone conversation between President Nixon and Mr. Kissinger touches on the Army's investigation of the My Lai massacre, in which American troops murdered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians.

NIXON: It's a pretty cheap shot to allow the generals to be put on the rack for the My Lai business. It was covered up because it was in the interest of the

KISSINGER: My first instinct was the same but some of the stories are awful. Four hundred people were killed there and it went on for days. . . . I don't think the public likes it.

NIXON: We know why it was done. These boys being killed by women carrying that stuff in their satchels.

May 1972: In three top-secret eyes-only memos to Mr. Kissinger, President Nixon explains his thinking behind escalating the bombing and mining of North Vietnam's harbors. He demands better propaganda from the C.I.A. And he denounces "sabotage" of his war effort within his own government.

May 9: You have often mentioned the necessity of creating the impression in the enemy's mind that I am absolutely determined to end the war and will take whatever steps are necessary to accomplish this goal. The time to take those steps is now. . . . I cannot emphasize too strongly that I have determined that we should go for broke. . . . Our greatest failure would be to do too little too late.

May 10: On an urgent basis, I want the C.I.A. to implement . . . broadcasts, leaflets and every other device so that the North Vietnamese . . . are told of the massive public support for the president's decision . . . and any other story that might discourage the North Vietnamese leaders.

May 19: I am thoroughly disgusted with the consistent failure to carry out orders that I have given over the past three and a half years. . . . I have ordered, on occasion after occasion, an increase in the quantity and quality of weapons made available to the South Vietnamese. All that we have gotten from the Pentagon is the run-around and a sometimes deliberate sabotage of the orders I have given. . . .

The performance in the psychological warfare field is nothing short of disgraceful. The [intelligence bureaucracy] has labored for seven weeks and when it finally produced, it produced not much more than a mouse. Or to put it more honestly, it produced a rat. . . . I do not simply blame [the director of central intelligence, Richard] Helms and the C.I.A. After all, they do not support my policies because they are basically for the most part Ivy League. . . .

The Pentagon deserves an even greater share of the blame. . . . The crowning insult to all this injury is to have the military whine around to [Vice President Spiro] Agnew that they were not getting enough support from the commander-in-chief in giving them targets they could hit in North Vietnam.

I want you to convey directly to the Air Force that I am thoroughly disgusted with their performance. . . . I want you to convey my utter disgust to [the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the senior American commanders in Vietnam]. It is time for these people either to shape up or get out.

Oct. 22, 1972: A series of top-secret cables from Mr. Kissinger in Saigon to the White House explain a sticky situation. Days before the 1972 American presidential elections, after months of secret negotiations, Mr. Kissinger had declared: "Peace is at hand." But he had not yet explained its terms to South Vietnam's president, Nguyen Van Thieu.

I will proceed with some shock tactics with Thieu today. . . . We face the paradoxical situation that the North, which has effectively lost, is acting as if it has won, while the South, which has effectively won, is acting as if it has lost. One of the major tasks now is to restore realities and get the psychological upper hand. . . .

It is hard to exaggerate the toughness of Thieu's position. His demands verge on insanity. . . . He is totally oblivious to the scope of North Vietnam's concessions.

If North Vietnam offers to sign a peace agreement, Mr. Kissinger continues, then . . .

Given Thieu's present state of mind, it is not at all certain that he would maintain his outward balance and my trip might just push him over the edge. . . .

[But the alternative] is another round of war. I know the president's objections to ending the bombing, but I do not think they apply to the present situation. Ending the bombing would support the public impression that an agreement is near. Failure to end it would ask Hanoi to endure several more weeks of punishment because of a refusal by Saigon to go along with an agreement in which North Vietnam made almost unbelievable concessions. . . .

While we have a moral case for bombing North Vietnam when it does not accept our proposals, it seems to be really stretching the point to bomb North Vietnam when it has accepted our proposals and when South Vietnam has not. [The United States bombed Hanoi severely during Christmas 1972.]

That same day, Oct. 22, the American ambassador in South Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker, sent top secret cables to the White House describing President Thieu's side of the conversation with Mr. Kissinger.

President Thieu responded by saying. . . . "The issue is the life and death of South Vietnam and its 17 million people. . . . Our position is very unfortunate. We have been very faithful to the Americans and now feel we are being sacrificed. . . . If the United States wants to abandon the South Vietnamese people, that is their right. . . . If we accept the document as it stands, we will commit suicide -- and I will be committing suicide."

Oct. 1, 1974: President Nixon has already resigned. The fall of Saigon is seven months away. In a characteristic cable, Graham A. Martin, the final United States ambassador to South Vietnam, sends a situation report to Mr. Kissinger, now secretary of state.

Propaganda by those American puppets of Hanoi [in the American press and among American politicians] has almost totally obscured the fact that enormous changes have taken place here in the past year: It is now my objective conclusion that South Vietnam's forces have matured into an effective military machine, increasingly capable of handling, successfully, the entire range of the capabilities possessed by North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces arrayed against it. . . .

Winning more money for the war from Congress, Mr. Martin continues, and winning the upper hand in the war . . .

. . . will require a determination to take on the well-organized propaganda apparatus and expose its gross distortions for what they really are: the most blatant and vicious campaign to deceive the Congress and the American people that has been mounted since the early 50's. . . .

It will also require overcoming the tendency of the bureaucracy to be paralyzed by the passion to be "credible" and "apologetic" to the critics on the Hill being manipulated by the network of Hanoi puppets. . . .

Washington is where the trouble is -- not Vietnam. I do not minimize the difficulties, but I regard the achievement of the goal as a perfectly feasible one -- assuming, as I do, that the new team in Washington has the guts and the same capacity for plain hard work as currently is in evidence in Saigon.

Given the importance of the stakes -- nothing less will do. Martin.

Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

© 2000 by Neil Mishalov