Conversation between Presidents Nixon and Thiêu Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Midway Atoll was the scene for two very important moments in United States history. It served as the location for both an important US naval victory in World War II over the Japanese in 1942 and also as the setting for the first official meeting between President Nixon and President Thiêu of South Vietnam in 1969. This memorandum reports the discussion between Nixon and Thiêu from the American perspective. In this conversation, Nixon and Thiêu discussed a radical change in US policy toward Vietnam since the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president authority to use whatever means he deemed necessary for the security of Southeast Asia. The United States would begin “phased withdrawals” of armed forces, but still provide support to South Vietnam through funds and advisors. Nixon subsequently called this process “Vietnamization.” The United States thus appeared to be faithful in promoting security in South Vietnam and in honoring domestic voices calling for the end of foreign military engagement.

Summary Overview

Midway Atoll was the scene for two very important moments in United States history. It served as the location for both an important US naval victory in World War II over the Japanese in 1942 and also as the setting for the first official meeting between President Nixon and President Thiêu of South Vietnam in 1969. This memorandum reports the discussion between Nixon and Thiêu from the American perspective. In this conversation, Nixon and Thiêu discussed a radical change in US policy toward Vietnam since the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president authority to use whatever means he deemed necessary for the security of Southeast Asia. The United States would begin “phased withdrawals” of armed forces, but still provide support to South Vietnam through funds and advisors. Nixon subsequently called this process “Vietnamization.” The United States thus appeared to be faithful in promoting security in South Vietnam and in honoring domestic voices calling for the end of foreign military engagement.

Defining Moment

Support for the Vietnam War in the United States began to dramatically decrease in 1968 as no ostensible progress had been made in checking the advance of the North Vietnamese. At the start of the year, the North Vietnamese violated the truce to launch a surprise campaign, known as the Tet Offensive, which targeted military and civilian centers in South Vietnam. Both sides suffered tremendous casualties; the Tet Offensive also created thousands of new South Vietnamese refugees and crippled infrastructure. Faith in President Lyndon Johnson's leadership was another casualty of the Tet Offensive. Recognizing that his supporters had vanished, Johnson declined to run for reelection at the end of March.

Richard Nixon urged a more subtle approach to Vietnam in his 1968 presidential campaign, one that he hoped would satisfy both proponents and opponents of the war. In order to become president and enact his plan, Nixon needed the South Vietnamese to refrain from any hasty agreements in the peace talks. In speeches, Nixon painted the Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey, the current vice president under Johnson, as sabotaging American interests by favoring compromise with the communists in North Vietnam. In reality, Nixon used Kissinger as his foreign envoy and Anna Chennault, a Chinese American citizen-diplomat, to convince President Thiêu in Saigon to delay the peace talks. A Nixon presidency, Thiêu was told, would result in a better bargain for South Vietnam.

Nixon's gambit paid off: in November 1968, President Thiêu announced that he opposed negotiations and the cessation of bombings over North Vietnam. Shortly thereafter, Nixon won the presidential election. However, President Thiêu and his government were left with some anxieties. Thiêu was uneasy because the United States had already abandoned his predecessor, Ngo Dinh Diem, to a coup (and assassination) in 1964. The South Vietnamese government questioned, too, how much US military intelligence knew about the Tet Offensive before it began; divided US advice concerning negotiations from both American political parties during an election year increased their insecurities. This memorandum records how presidents Nixon and Thiêu confirmed their alliance to the world in their first official meeting at Midway.

Author Biography

Richard M. Nixon won the United States presidency in 1968 on the promise that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War. As National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger worked with the president on this plan. The two men spent the next four years publically and privately working on an end to the conflict in a way that preserved US credibility. Kissinger eventually received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his work in creating the Paris Peace Accords, although the provisions of this agreement had little effect in creating lasting peace. Nixon was credited with drawing down US participation in the war at the same time that he ramped up bombing and seemingly prolonged the war.

Nguyen Van Thiêu attended school in France before returning to Vietnam. Once there, he served briefly in the predominantly communist Viet Minh. Thiêu switched his allegiance to the French-backed army, continued to serve once the French withdrew, and eventually was part of a military junta in 1963 that overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1967, Thiêu won the election to become the president of the Republic of Vietnam despite widespread claims of election rigging. Allegations of corruption and complacency tarnished Thiêu's tenure as president. Shortly before the fall of Saigon, Thiêu fled to Britain. Nguyen Phu Duc was the special assistant to the president in South Vietnam; he participated in many of the tense peace talks with Kissinger.

Historical Document

Memorandum of Conversation

Midway Island, June 8, 1969.

PRESENT

President Nixon

President Thiêu

Henry Kissinger

Nguyen Phu Duc

President Nixon began the meeting by stressing that he preferred to have private talks. He assured President Thiêu that what he would say would be in confidence. They could agree on that.

President Thiêu said that speculation as to differences between them is untrue; that he was very glad to have this opportunity to talk with the President.

President Nixon stated that the press is trying to drive a wedge between the two Presidents with respect to reports about American pressure. Unless President Thiêu heard something from him directly, he should disregard it. There is currently a lot of speculation regarding American pressures for a coalition government and it is entirely unfounded. (The President called on Henry Kissinger to confirm that fact.) The President gave a general appraisal of the situation, stating that the war in Vietnam concerns not only Vietnam but the entire Pacific. The people of South Vietnam, however, have the greatest stake. If the peace is inadequate, there will be repercussions all over Asia. There can be no reward for those engaged in aggression. At the same time, self-determination is not only in the Vietnamese interest, but in the American interest as well. It would improve the prospects of peace throughout the Pacific.

The President mentioned that we have a difficult political problem in the U.S. and that he appreciated Saigon's understanding for his domestic problems. At the same time, he understood President Thiêu's problems. It is not our wish for President Thiêu to get too far ahead and wind up with no country to lead. President Nixon described the Congressional situation and the importance of the 1970 elections. The U.S. domestic situation is a weapon in the war. (At this point the President asked Henry Kissinger to explain the Cambodian strikes.)

President Thiêu felt that the intentions of the enemy are crucial; the issue is the spread of Communism. Any false peace will affect all of Asia. Both the Vietnamese people and the world need peace. He recognized the U.S. desire for peace. He knew that the U.S. had no desire to occupy Vietnam but that its sole objective was to achieve peace. The Vietnamese should be reasonable and must consider not only Vietnamese opinions but those of the U.S. as well. The war in Vietnam is not a military one and neither side can win militarily. Therefore, there must be a reasonable compromise. President Thiêu understood the difficulties of the President with a large army abroad incurring constant casualties. He felt that his country must make progress in order to help us to withdraw.

Thiêu stated that Hanoi deliberately creates a deadlock in Paris and attacks the GVN as the chief obstacle to peace. The Communists are weaker, but Hanoi can continue the war at a reduced rate of casualties for many years. Hence, a negotiated peace is essential. Thiêu said he was trying to make progress in winning the political war. Even if Hanoi continues the war, the GVN will win the population.

The President next turned to the subject of troop replacements. Thiêu stated that troop replacements, if not handled carefully, could be misunderstood by the North Vietnamese and their allies. He pointed out that we have kept saying the war is going better. We must now prove it; it is important for both U.S. and Vietnamese opinion. Even though the war is going on, we must use the troop replacement to fight Communist propaganda.

By July 15, Thiêu said, it should be possible to phase out one-third of the Third Marine Division and six battalions from the Delta. At the same time, he wanted to emphasize a difference of opinion with General Abrams. His aim was to extend administrative control over 100% of the population next year. Therefore, the regional and popular forces are crucial. As they improve, they can replace mobile U.S. forces and ARVN combat divisions. The regional and popular forces can free regular forces to fight a mobile war. This was better than building up new combat divisions.

President Nixon said that we have confused the press by not denying any conflict between us. It would be obvious after today that no conflict existed. The two Presidents then discussed plans for the communiqué.

Turning to the negotiations, President Nixon asked how we should respond to Le Duc Tho's proposal for bilateral talks.

President Thiêu misunderstood the President's question about the Tho proposal and said the GVN would object to any U.S. attempt to talk to the NLF. After Mr. Kissinger clarified the issue, President Thiêu said that he agrees to bilateral talks unless the U.S. tries to settle directly with the NLF. The United States should introduce the military subject and listen to the political projections of the other side. Before replying, the GVN would have to be fully consulted.

President Nixon asked several questions regarding Vietnamese political institutions, commenting that Thiêu knew his people and required timing. He emphasized that there was no wedge between the U.S. and GVN nor between Thiêu and his people.

Break for Lunch

Thiêu asked about how we should respond to Communist strategy in Paris. President Nixon replied that we should not seem overanxious.

Thiêu asked about military operations. President Nixon said he thought the Communists were suffering badly and intelligence indicated there was very little in the pipeline to the South from Hanoi. Thiêu felt that the reason for the latest attacks was to maintain an impression of strength for the Communist world conference and to bring pressure on U.S. public opinion. The Communists faced a dilemma: they wanted to economize their human resources but also wished to maintain U.S. casualties. Thus they continue the tactics of pressure. The Communists pretend that the current deadlock is our fault. The only way to overcome this strategy is to set a deadline. Hanoi knows that delay is to their advantage. Thiêu suggested we make our most conciliatory proposal and then establish a deadline for a response, so that time does not work for the other side.

President Nixon asked whether Thiêu planned to go on in his political program from his March 25 speech. Thiêu replied that we must not be put into the position of always making new proposals. At some early point, we must state (a) that the U.S. and Saigon agree, and (b) that our proposals are as far as we can go. President Thiêu stated that he did not want to be pushed from one position to another—as was the case with the shape-of-the-table issue. If he could have the assurance that we would back some set of Saigon proposals, he was certain that we could work out a common position. But he did not want to have an escalation of proposals. Hanoi tended to take 15 small concessions and parlay them into one major concession.

Thiêu asked for assurances that we would not use every concession by the GVN as a signal for new demands. There must be an end to it. Mr. Kissinger asked, “But how do you play the political game?” Thiêu replied that if there were a withdrawal of forces and an end of terrorism, the GVN could consider the NLF as another party in elections. If the NLF wants guarantees, the GVN was ready to discuss it with them in generous terms. Thiêu said he was ready to accept an international body. It could not interfere in the GVN's area of sovereignty but it could organize and supervise elections. The GVN was willing to accept as many as 10,000 international inspectors and frontier guards. He was prepared to implement free choice and self-determination; in other words, a free vote and free candidature. Thiêu felt that everyone was aware that political competition was inevitable.

President Nixon urged Thiêu to do everything possible and asked if it would be any help to him if we provided a political organizer. The U.S. had done this with Magsaysay and it had been helpful. It is up to President Thiêu if he wants this kind of assistance. Thiêu responded that more support for cadres was necessary.

President Nixon mentioned that Hanoi has never had real elections and is thus employing a double standard. Thiêu pointed out that 56% of those “elected” in North Vietnam were women. This shows the magnitude of their manpower problem. He reiterated that there would be elections after the withdrawal of non-South Vietnamese forces. Thiêu was prepared for good international supervision—even without troops.

President Nixon wondered whether the GVN could siphon off the political forces in the center to weaken the Viet Cong. Thiêu responded that when we have a common position on our side, we can have a united front. What made the middle ground in Saigon so uncertain was the fear that the U.S. would withdraw support. Hence, many politicians were holding themselves available for a coalition government with the NLF.

President Nixon asked why not a united front now; the GVN is going to win and that is a great asset. Thiêu stated very frankly that there was a sagging of spirit in Saigon. Many still believe that the Viet Cong can have political concessions. The intellectuals are waiting for political concessions imposed on Saigon by the U.S. They were encouraged in this by loose statements from U.S. cabinet members. Mr. Duc interjected that the Saigon population was very worried.

President Thiêu asked what had been meant by local elections in the early drafts of the President's May 14 speech. The President replied that he meant that elections could be held in provinces where ceasefires had been arranged. Thiêu said that this was an interesting possibility.

President Nixon said that the fact that the people in Saigon were jittery worried him. Thiêu returned to his view that territorial forces had to be strengthened. General Abrams wants to train divisions. Thiêu wants to train 130,000 Regional Forces and Popular Forces. Abrams doubts the manpower resources are available. Thiêu thinks it easier to form RF and PF than regular forces. If the GVN has more RF and PF, it can phase out combat divisions. Thiêu wants the U.S. to reconsider his plan regarding the RF and PF, and for someone to talk to General Abrams.

President Nixon mentioned the stories in the press about the poor performance of the 5th and 18th Divisions. Thiêu said it is a question of leadership. President Nixon recalled the story of when General Pershing's desire to attack was thwarted by a classmate who said the morale of his divisions was shot. Pershing replied, your morale is shot and fired him. There are no tired divisions, only tired commanders.

Glossary

GVN: Government of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam)

NLF: National Liberation Front, the political arm of the Viet Cong in North Vietnam

ARVN: the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), included the PF (Popular Forces) and RF (Regional Forces)

Document Analysis

The purpose of the meeting between the President Nixon and President Thiêu on Midway Island was to clarify what US de-escalation meant for South Vietnamese self-determination. After all, Nixon won the presidency by promising the American public that he would shift from the old policy of bombardment in Vietnam. What did this mean for the safety of President Thiêu's government? Soon after the conversation that this memorandum records, Nixon and Thiêu released a joint communiqué that announced American troop withdrawals publicly. Written from the US perspective, this memorandum verifies the communiqué released following the meeting that stated the United States and South Vietnam were still united. The United States would support South Vietnamese military and political decisions, but would not be chiefly responsible for them, a policy also known as the Nixon Doctrine.

The meeting begins with both sides assuring the other that they have similar interests and ought to present a united front. Nixon first tells Thiêu “self-determination is not only in the Vietnamese interest, but in the American interest as well.” Thiêu ought not heed reports claiming that there were differences between their administrations. Nixon's success at home is connected to Thiêu's survival: “U.S. domestic situation is a weapon in the war.” In turn, Thiêu assures Nixon that he “understood the difficulties of the President with a large army abroad” and he is aware that the US is not trying to replace South Vietnamese sovereignty with its own agenda.

Although both presidents reassured one another of their support, this memorandum also shows that Thiêu was hopeful that Vietnamization was not simply US abandonment. Military control, in Thiêu's perspective, had to support political control. South Vietnam needed to make progress in order to facilitate US withdrawal, and Thiêu could not affirm yet that his country was able to defend itself alone. The progress of the South Vietnamese army and the withdrawal of US forces needed to happen on a schedule that both countries agreed upon. The success of Vietnamization relied on this cooperation, yet Thiêu already shows that he has a difference of opinion with General Creighton Abrams, US commander of military operations in Vietnam. Thiêu wanted to focus on regional and popular forces in the country side rather than regular combat troops so he could “extend administrative control over 100% of the population.”

The US and South Vietnam also needed to agree on free elections. When Nixon questions Thiêu about elections, the South Vietnamese president quickly assures him that a free state needs political competition. Thiêu reiterates, however, that success will come from full support. “When we have a common position on our side,” says Thiêu, “we can have a united front.” Saigon could not be united if the US was not united: “the fear that the U.S. would withdraw support” caused consternation in Saigon. In order to prove to Thiêu that Vietnamization is not abandonment, Nixon quotes from General Pershing, an exemplary commander in the US military: “there are no tired divisions, only tired commanders.” Nixon's use of a paradigm of heroic leadership supports the premise that he considered the policy of de-escalation part of an honorable system of foreign policy.

Essential Themes

The end of hostilities in World War II was also the end of a certain type of war. A war of ideologies took over in its place. Although the communist threat consumed American minds and politics in the 1950s and 60s, actual confrontation only occurred by proxy wars. Each side in the tense Cold War supported smaller-scale combat in developing nations as a way to check the other side's global hegemony. This memorandum traces the plans of Nixon and Thiêu to thwart North Vietnam ideologically.

Instead of staging large battles, United States administrations, starting with Eisenhower, placed emphasis on small-unit action, gathering intelligence, and pacification. President Johnson's administration seemed to stray from this policy: there were increased draft quotas and major bombings over North Vietnam during 1964–1968. Nixon's administration returned, at least ostensibly, to the idea of pacification. Phased American troop withdrawals from Vietnam would place greater combat responsibility on the South Vietnamese; the Americans could return to fighting by proxy and provide only money and equipment. The meeting between Presidents Nixon and Thiêu at Midway Atoll in June 1969 set the framework for this process, later known as Vietnamization (also as de-Americanization).

The key component to Vietnamization's success had to be a united front between the two allies against their enemy. Inability to compromise with the North proved fatal to the success of Vietnamization. Ideology could not be inflexible in this new warfare. The Nixon administration needed more unconditional support from the American public than it had in order to implement its designs; an ineffectual government in Saigon did not have the popular support to manage the defense of its own independence without significant American military support. North Vietnam, however, had a dedicated communist foundation.

Regardless, the central tenants of Vietnamization have survived well into the 2000s. United States' involvement in Latin America and the Middle East shows remarkable similarities to the ideas propagated during Nixon's administration. Similar to Nixon's situation in Vietnam, the United States has found it difficult to wage a successful ideological war without grassroots support.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin, 1991. Print.
  • Kimball, Jeffrey P. Nixon's Vietnam War. Lawrence, KS: U of Kansas, 1998. Print.
  • Kissinger, Henry. Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print.
  • Nguyen, Phu Duc, & Arthur J. Dommen. The Viet-Nam Peace Negotiations: Saigon's Side of the Story. Christiansburg, VA: Dalley Book Service, 2005. Print.
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