Taped Conversation between Nixon and Kissinger Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the summer of 1972, President Nixon's mind was on his upcoming reelection. Although his public approval rating was high, Nixon still worried about his legacy. Expanded military operations in Cambodia stirred increasingly violent demonstrations at home: Nixon won no popularity contests when four students were killed during a 1970 protest at Kent State University. Additionally, decreased troop morale, desertion, and increased fragging (killing of another soldier or commander, usually by fragmentation grenade) weakened the US armed forces in Vietnam. Determined to preserve his own and the United States' prestige, Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, discussed their options in a private, taped meeting. The men discussed delaying the end of US involvement for a “decent interval” until a weak and corrupt government in South Vietnam could justifiably take the blame for its own downfall in the media. The revelation of this tape after the end of the war seemed to support the picture of Nixon and Kissinger as realpolitik strategists, who subordinated individual suffering to the needs of the state.

Summary Overview

In the summer of 1972, President Nixon's mind was on his upcoming reelection. Although his public approval rating was high, Nixon still worried about his legacy. Expanded military operations in Cambodia stirred increasingly violent demonstrations at home: Nixon won no popularity contests when four students were killed during a 1970 protest at Kent State University. Additionally, decreased troop morale, desertion, and increased fragging (killing of another soldier or commander, usually by fragmentation grenade) weakened the US armed forces in Vietnam. Determined to preserve his own and the United States' prestige, Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, discussed their options in a private, taped meeting. The men discussed delaying the end of US involvement for a “decent interval” until a weak and corrupt government in South Vietnam could justifiably take the blame for its own downfall in the media. The revelation of this tape after the end of the war seemed to support the picture of Nixon and Kissinger as realpolitik strategists, who subordinated individual suffering to the needs of the state.

Defining Moment

Nixon and Kissinger inherited a difficult situation in Vietnam from their predecessors. Deception, intransigence, and stalling tactics on both sides characterized the ceasefire negotiations between Saigon and Hanoi. South Vietnam's president Nguyen Van Thiêu was subject to the United States' demands in order to maintain his government's legitimacy. Often relying on Soviet and Chinese support, North Vietnam pressed for the removal of Thiêu and the coalition government. Hanoi's proposals were unacceptable for the United States: the “leader of the free world” could not tolerate communist government after supporting their opponents for so long. At the time of this private conversation between the American president and foreign policy advisor, the United States had mediated negotiations for nearly four years.

Rather than give in to an embarrassing compromise, the Nixon administration secretly decided to stall for a “decent interval” until both the presidential election was concluded and Saigon could be blamed for its own defeat. The conversation between Nixon and Kissinger exemplifies an increasingly pragmatic and pessimistic trend in American foreign policy. South Vietnam was no longer as important to Nixon's image as it had been in Nixon's first presidential campaign. By 1972, several events complicated the status of American foreign relations. First, as part of a plan to gain leverage over the Soviets, Nixon planned a historic trip to reopen relations with communist China in February. Nixon then met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in May: the two opposed nations signed a series of agreements in a stunning moment of détente, a period of less strained political relations between the United States and Soviet Russia. Finally, an aggressive campaign designed by North Vietnam to improve their bargaining position in peace talks (the Easter Offensive) occupied American and South Vietnamese military corps from March–October 1972.

Although audiotapes of White House conversations did not begin with Nixon, his implementation of automatic voice-activated recordings was more extensive and secretive. The revelation of the scope and content on these tapes after the investigation of the Watergate scandal would inextricably link Nixon's administration to a history of secrecy and manipulation. Kissinger, too, as participant in such machinations, would tarnish his reputation as peacemaker by the information revealed in these tapes.

Author Biography

Richard M. Nixon showed himself to be a political opportunist from 1950–60 both as a member of Congress and as Eisenhower's vice president by encouraging anticommunist hysteria. Nixon returned to power with the presidency in 1968 by capitalizing on dissension among the Democrats over the unpopular Vietnam War. Citing the need to win “peace with honor” to the public, Nixon was privately intent on maintaining his own popularity and the United States' leadership at any cost. Disparities between Nixon's public promises to curb the war and covert, escalated bombing stirred US dissatisfaction. As a result, Nixon increased pressure on his advisor Kissinger to find a formula to resolve the war.

Henry Kissinger, a Jewish immigrant from Nazi Germany, served in the US military during World War II. Afterwards, he attained his PhD in political science at Harvard in 1954 and then involved himself as an advisor in several different political capacities. As Nixon's national security advisor, Kissinger conducted negotiations to reduce American involvement and end the war in Vietnam. Although Kissinger would eventually receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his participation in the Paris Peace Accords, bombardment continued in Vietnam.

Historical Document

President Nixon: Now, let's look at that just a moment again, think about it some more, but let's be perfectly cold-blooded about it. If you look at it from the standpoint of our game with the Soviets and the Chinese, from the standpoint of running this country, I think we could take, in my view, almost anything, frankly, that we can force on Thiêu. Almost anything. I just come down to that. You know what I mean? Because I have a feeling we would not be doing, like I feel about the Israeli, I feel that in the long run we're probably not doing them an in— uh… a disfavor due to the fact that I feel that the North Vietnamese are so badly hurt that the South Vietnamese are probably going to do fairly well. [Kissinger attempts to interject.] But also due to the fact—because I look at the tide of history out there—South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway. I'm just being perfectly candid. I—

Henry A. Kissinger: In the pull-out area—

President Nixon: [Unclear] we've got to be—if we can get certain guarantees so that they aren't… as you know, looking at the foreign policy process, though, I mean, you've got to be—we also have to realize, Henry, that winning an election is terribly important. It's terribly important this year—but can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That's the real question.

Kissinger: If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it's the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say, within a three- to four-month period, we have pushed President Thiêu over the brink—we ourselves—I think, there is going to be—even the Chinese won't like that. I mean, they'll pay verbal—verbally, they'll like it.

President Nixon: But it'll worry them.

Kissinger: But it will worry everybody. And domestically in the long run it won't help us all that much because our opponents will say we should've done it three years ago.

President Nixon: I know.

Kissinger: So we've got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which—after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January '74 no one will give a damn.

President Nixon: Yeah, having in mind the fact that, you know, as we all know, the—the analogy—comparison [to] Algeria is not on—is not at all for us. But on the other hand, nobody gives a goddamn about what happened to Algeria—

Kissinger: Mm-hmm.

President Nixon: —after they got out. [chuckling] You know what I mean? But Vietnam, I must say… Jesus, they've fought so long, dying, and now… I don't know.

Document Analysis

Nixon won his first presidential term by manipulating the South Vietnamese president, Thiêu, into delaying peace talk concessions in 1968; the incumbent president won his second term in part by yet again manipulating events in South Vietnam. If Kissinger could delay a resolution about a ceasefire in Vietnam until Nixon won reelection, This conversation, secretly recorded before the results of the 1972 election, shows that Kissinger and Nixon entertained notions of political expediency and fatalism in their approach to foreign affairs.

First, the conversation between the two men shows that they considered South Vietnam part of a small piece in a larger game. “Let's be perfectly cold-blooded about it,” Nixon says to Kissinger. The US had been playing a game with Soviet Russia and China since the 1950s, and Thiêu was merely a pawn on whom the Americans could force “almost anything” in the negotiations. Additionally, Nixon tells Kissinger: “winning an election is terribly important,” but he gives no other reason for its importance than having a “viable foreign policy.” Kissinger responds that the Chinese and domestic opponents would not look favorably on them if they could blame Saigon's collapse on the Nixon administration. Absent from these remarks are the earlier rhetorical ploys about the need to win “peace with honor” and the “silent majority” who believed in the war. By a certain point, Kissinger asserts, the administration can preserve its power at Saigon's expense, and no one in the American public “will give a damn.”

In addition to showing that the American government's interests justify the means, this conversation indicates that Nixon believed in a postcolonial fatalism that doomed Saigon before he came to office. The president recognizes that even though the Easter Offensive caused a great amount of damage to North Vietnam, “South Vietnam probably can never survive anyway.” In the course of the conversation, Nixon mentions both the Israelis and the Algerians, two groups who were fighting or had struggled over sovereignty with different, but disastrous, results. Of course, the United States was not fighting for its own independence in Vietnam. The fact that Nixon states “nobody gives a goddamn about what happened in Algeria” connects his fatalism back again to a political philosophy that expediency was morally justified for a world superpower. The French left the Algerians to kill each other after independence; the same thing would likely happen in Vietnam. If the United States and China no longer cared about Saigon's fated fall, then it was no longer necessary to preserve South Vietnam against its opponents.

Finally, this taped conversation is another piece of evidence that Kissinger and Nixon were anxious about the legacy the administration would leave. However, Nixon's closing words do prove that the man was capable of comprehending the scale of human suffering. “Jesus, they've fought for so long, dying, and now…I don't know,” remarks Nixon. Behind the “decent interval” strategy lay not only calculated policy, but also aporia—doubt or puzzlement—after years of no political progress.

Essential Themes

The extent of Nixon and Kissinger's secret plans were not known until years after this conversation. The transcript of this conversation between Nixon and Kissinger supports the belief of those who criticize the Nixon administration for damaging faith in the ethics of American foreign policy. How far were US leaders willing to go without the consent of the constituents who elected them? What was the difference between a US ally and a pawn? The “decent interval” plan damaged credibility in Nixon's foreign policy program, even though it remained a popular model for presidents after him.

At the beginning of his first term, President Nixon proposed an approach to foreign policy that was called the Nixon Doctrine: the United States would use its military might only to assist in the defense of allies, not to assume the entire responsibility of the defense. Viewed positively, the Nixon Doctrine was supposed to support legitimate governments against insurrection. However, the United States continued to employ this policy to support ineffective and unpopular governments. A primary fault behind the Nixon Doctrine was an optimistic belief that the United States can apply its own systems to countries with different histories and demographics. For example, the United States refused to withdraw support from President Thiêu, who granted favors to the Catholic minority in a Buddhist country. In turn, Saigon could not maintain a strong military without a strong government. The political structure in Saigon proved to be ill-prepared to handle the organization of local defense despite years of US assistance. Once all US combat troops left, South Vietnam withstood northern assault for a little less than two years.

A critic could also view the Nixon Doctrine as a tool of imperialism that imposed US policy on foreign nationals. Nixon's concern about the Algerian analogy alludes to this negative view. France's colonialist failures in both Algeria and Vietnam were an inescapable comparison for the United States' involvement in Vietnam during the 1970s, just as the mistakes made in Vietnam would become an analogy later for the United States' intervention in the Middle East thirty years later.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Greenberg, David. Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. Print.
  • Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin, 1991. Print.
  • Kimball, Jeffrey P. Nixon's Vietnam War. Lawrence, KS: U of Kansas, 1998. 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.
  • Snep, Frank. Decent Interval: An Insider's Account of Saigon's Indecent End Told by the CIA's Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam. New York: Random, 1977. Print.
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