After I asked how Richard Nixon got two bastions of political conservatism, Barry Goldwater and John Stennis, to make his threat of a congressional cutoff of aid to South Vietnam credible, I discovered I didn’t have to wait until Tuesday’s release of Nixon tapes from January and February 1973 to learn (most of) the answer. 


Thanks to the bounties of the National Security Archive. Without its diligent, industrious, ultra-skilled researchers, the government would still be keeping a lot more unnecessary secrets (the kind that protect politicians’ images rather than the nation’s security) than it currently does. Among the documents the National Security Archive has helped pry loose are the Kissinger Telcons. As national security adviser and later as Secretary of State, Kissinger had secretaries transcribe his telephone calls. You can read them online at the Digital National Security Archive


The Kissinger Telcons from mid-January 1973 provide the edifying spectacle of a President crafting a veiled threat. 


Quick recap: In the October 8, 1972, round of negotiations, North Vietnam agreed to settle on Nixon’s terms: A ceasefire-in-place leaving North Vietnamese troops militarily occupying and governing parts of South Vietnam, total withdrawal of American troops, release of American POWs, and a designed-to-deadlock commission for South Vietnamese elections. The North had also agreed that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu could remain in office at the time the settlement was to be signed. The North accepted these terms for the same reason that the South rejected them: both sides realized such a settlement would lead to Communist military victory. Nixon acknowledged this privately, despite his public promises to withdraw American troops only when South Vietnam could defend and govern itself.


On January 17, 1973, over three months after the North had agreed to Nixon’s “decent interval” terms, the South still had not. Nixon thought it time to send South Vietnam’s President a particularly threatening letter:

President Nixon:  . . . I would make the letter this time very tough in substance and I would smooth off the edges in its content — you know what I mean.

Kissinger: Exactly. Absolutely.

President Nixon: So that it is one that — so that he doesn’t look as if we are — it must have the veiled threat — one that can be clearly seen. We know what is beneath the veil — there is no other choice but that the Congress and I will not be able to resist it under these circumstances — that the aid will be cut off. This is what is at stake. . . . Your going along with the settlement and going along enthusiastically, as I will, would have an enormous effect on American public opinion and provide the continued support which we so desperately need in our Congress for a military and economic aid to South Vietnam. 

Kissinger: Absolutely. Exactly. 

(17 January 1973, 9:44 AM, KA09292subscription.)

The next day, the President had an idea: A public statement by “Mr. Conservative,” Senator Barry M. Goldwater, R-Arizona:

President Nixon: . . . the only thing I wonder, would it be useful to have Goldwater take a little — say, “Look, come along boy?”

Kissinger: I think that might do some good. 

. . . 

President Nixon: I think if Goldwater could  just come out and say it’s time to quit this nonsense, stop all this jabbering . . .

. . . 

President Nixon: I don’t want one of the left to do it, but somebody like Goldwater from the right should say it.

Kissinger: Exactly. 

President Nixon: And maybe [Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John C.] Stennis will say it if he won’t. Stennis should be another good one.

Kissinger: Right. 

(18 January 1973, 9:40 AMKA09303, subscription)

To further veil the threat, Nixon and Kissinger would hide their own hands in it:

Kissinger: None of them would say they talked to me, they keep their–

President Nixon: Yeah, well, you can tell them that it’s very important that this not appear to come from the White House.

(18 January 1973, 9:40 AMKA09303, subscription)
Goldwater didn’t hesitate:

Kissinger: Barry, what I called you about is this: I was wondering whether you would consider making a statement today in effect saying to Thieu, what’s important now isn’t this or that comma or word or clause; what’s important now is to maintain unity between us. 

Goldwater: This is directed to President Thieu.

Kissinger: That’s right. Because we are at a point now where if they keep nitpicking around in Saigon on these abstruse theological points, they are going to get so much opposition to themselves triggered here.

Goldwater: Yes.

Kissinger: The difference is between them and us. I mean, we shouldn’t say that, but just for your information — cannot be explained to the American people.

Goldwater: No, that’s for sure.

(18 January 1973, 11:13 AMKA09307, subscription) 

Thieu wanted any settlement to include the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from the South — hardly an “abstruse theological” point. 
Stennis was even more amenable to Kissinger:

Kissinger: I was wondering whether I could make a suggestion to you. 

Stennis: Yes, sir, always.

Kissinger: We think given your long-term commitment to defense and so forth, that if you 

made a statement saying that you thought that this would be — that this was now the time for Thieu and us to close ranks and that there shouldn’t be legal quibbles, that to restore the unity between our two governments, or something like that that puts a little pressure on Thieu, so that he doesn’t think that the conservative element in this country is behind him. (Emphasis added.)

Stennis: Yes, sure.

Kissinger: Today would be a good day to do it. 

Stennis: I heartily agree . . . 

The public statements by Goldwater and Stennis managed to sound like they were predicting, rather than promising, an aid cutoff. But South Vietnam’s President got the message: “He realized that even his staunchest supporters had deserted him.” (Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold L. Schecter, The Palace File, p. 155.) 


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