December 2001 Newsletter

Some More "Smoking Guns"?
The Vietnam War and Kissiger's Summitry
With Moscow and Beijing, 1971-73

Jussi M. Hanhimaki
(Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, Switzerland)

I enjoyed reading Jeffrey Kimball's recent brief regarding Nixon and Kissinger's search for a _decent interval' rather than a 'peace with honor.'(1) While somewhat uncharitable to Larry Berman, Kimball did make an important point about a topic that has remained at the forefront of Kissingerology - particularly as it pertains to research on the last years of American involvement in the Vietnam War - for the past several decades.

My point is, as the title shows, to simply add an additional angle to this discussion. Although I am personally more obsessed with the issue of triangular diplomacy rather than the end of the Vietnam War, I have found a number revealing citations in the recently declassified conversations between Kissinger and his key Chinese and Soviet interlocutors.(2) They certainly seem to indicate that - whatever the public posture of the Nixon administration and the assurances of continued support given to Nguyen Thieu's South Vietnamese government - Kissinger was doing his best, in 1971-72, to sell the 'decent interval' solution to Hanoi via the Soviets and the Chinese. Thus, they seem to add a few extra _smoking guns' to the debate over the decent interval.

Let me begin by citing a few examples of Kissinger's discussions with his main Chinese interlocutor, Zhou Enlai. In early July 1971, amidst great secrecy as is well known, Kissinger boarded a plane from Pakistan to Beijing where he spent two days in discussions with the Chinese premier. While the most public outcome of these talks was the July 15, 1971 announcement that President Nixon would be travelling to China in the spring of 1972, much of the Kissinger-Zhou dialogue focussed on Vietnam. They provided, I presume, the first instance when Kissinger effectively stated the Nixon administration's willingness to comply with a _decent interval' solution.

While in Beijing Kissinger told Zhou although the U.S. needed to look at the Vietnam situation "from the point of view of a great country, not in terms of a local problem," he was ready to set a deadline for American troop withdrawals provided that they were complemented by a ceasefire. More significantly, Kissinger added to Zhou, there should be "some attempt at negotiations [between the Vietnamese parties]. If the agreement breaks down, then it is quite possible that the people of Vietnam will fight it out." He further added that: "We cannot participate in the overthrow of people with whom we have been allied, whatever the origins of the alliance. If the government [of South Vietnam] is as unpopular as you seem to think, then the quicker our forces are withdrawn the quicker it will be overthrown." Most significantly, Kissinger offered that "if it is overthrown after we withdraw, we will not intervene." Later on, he volunteered that the ceasefire could have "a time limit, say 18 months." Pressed by the Chinese premier on this issue, Kissinger ultimately told Zhou that "What we require is a transition period between the military withdrawal and the political evolution.... If after complete American withdrawal, the Indochinese people change their government, the US will not interfere."(3)

Kissinger next went to China in October 1971. Again, while discussions focussed on the forthcoming presidential visit, Zhou and Kissinger continued their exchange on Vietnam. This time his point was less explicit than during the secret trip; Kissinger simply asked: "Why should we want to maintain bases in one little corner of Asia when the whole trend of our policy is to form a new relationship with the most important country in Asia?"(4) A few months later Nixon was rather less explicit but again assured Zhou that "I am removing this irritant as fast as anyone in my position could."(5)

The true _smoking guns' come, though, from Kissinger's last trip to China prior to the conclusion of the Paris Agreements; a trip to which Kissinger, incidentally, devotes a mere paragraph in his memoirs.(6) The major purpose of the June 1972 visit was to brief Beijing on the Soviet-American discussions at the Moscow summit the previous month. Zhou Enlai, however, peppered Kissinger on Vietnam and elicited an interesting series of responses. On June 20, for example, Kissinger volunteered that: "if our May 8 proposal were accepted, which has a four-month withdrawal and four months for exchange of prisoners, if in the fifth month the war starts again, it is quite possible we would say this was just a trick to get us out and we cannot accept this. If the North Vietnamese, on the other hand, engage in a serious negotiation with the South Vietnamese, and if after a long period it starts again after we were all disengaged, my personal judgement is that it is much less likely that we will go back again, much less likely." The following day, following Zhou's long expose regarding the criminal nature of American policy, Kissinger, perhaps frustrated by what he, much like Nixon, considered an "irritant," exploded: "It should be self-evident that in the second term we would not be looking for excuses to re-enter Indochina. But still it is important that there is a reasonable interval between the agreement on the ceasefire, and a reasonable opportunity for political negotiation...the outcome of my logic is that we are putting a time interval between the military outcome and the political outcome."(7)

One can find similar examples of an effort to sell the decent interval from Kissinger's discussions with the Soviets. During his secret trip to Moscow in April 1972, for example, Kissinger told Leonid Brezhnev: "We have two principal objectives. One is to bring about an honorable withdrawal of all our forces; secondly, to put a time frame between our withdrawal and the political process which would then start."(8) During the Moscow Summit the following month Kissinger continued along the same lines. "If North Vietnam were wise," he told Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, "it would make an agreement now and not haggle over every detail, because one year after the agreement there would be a new condition, a new reality." Kissinger further added that: "If the DRV were creative, it would have great possibilities.... All we ask is a degree of time so as to leave Vietnam for Americans in a better perspective.... We are prepared to leave so that a communist victory is not excluded, though not guaranteed." When Gromyko asked whether this was the "official" U.S. perspective, Kissinger simply replied: "You can communicate this to the North Vietnamese."(9) In September 1972, in between meetings with the North Vietnamese in Paris and the South Vietnamese in Saigon, Kissinger once again visited Moscow. This time he assured Brezhnev that "we are realists. We know that if we stopped certain activities, it would be hard to resume them."(10)

The above are, naturally, only a few examples from Kissinger's 1971-72 conversations with the top Chinese and Soviet leaders. Yet, they do seem to indicate that the decent interval (fallback) option - which may have emerged as early as the fall of 1970 but was most certainly a serious policy option by the summer of 1971 - was much more than a secret Nixon-Kissinger scheme. It was, in fact, a _carrot' used on several occasions in trying to elicit the help of North Vietnam's two major benefactors in bringing about an _honorable' end to American engagement in Vietnam. Effectively, Kissinger told Zhou, Brezhnev and Gromyko that the United States wanted to get out but could only do so provided that the collapse of the Saigon government would take place immediately afterwards.

Lastly, it is necessary to ask what impact Kissinger's signalling had on the respective relations of the Chinese and the Soviets with Hanoi. Did they transfer Kissinger's assurances of future U.S. non-intervention? Did they press the North Vietnamese to settle?

Without getting into a detailed discussion on these issues let me simply stress that the latest evidence on the Soviet and Chinese role in bringing about the January 1973 Paris Agreements seem to confirm that both Beijing and Moscow did urge a negotiated settlement throughout 1972. That they also increased their aid to Vietnam at that time also indicates, however, the degree to which _post-US' Vietnam was seen as an important subject for future Sino-Soviet competition.(11) Whether this was the result of Kissinger's efforts to sell what amounted to a 'decent interval' or not I will leave, at this point, for others to judge.

     1Jeffrey Kimball, "The Case of the _Decent Interval': Do We Now Have a Smoking Gun?" SHAFR Newsletter 32:3 (September 2001), 35-39.
     2Most of the documents cited below were released in April 2001.
     3Kissinger, Zhou, July 9 and 10, 1971, "China visit: Record of previous meetings," box 90, HAK Office Files, NPMP.
     4Kissinger and Zhou, October 21, 1971, "China visit: Record of previous meetings," box 90, HAK Office Files, NPMP.
     5Memcon: Nixon, Zhou, February 22, 1972, POF, Memoranda for the President, box 87: "Beginning February 20, 1972," NPMP. Emphasis added.
     6According to Kissinger's memoirs there were "no new developments on Vietnam" during these talks. Kissinger, White House Years (Boston, 1979), 1304.
     7Kissinger and Zhou, June 20 and 21, 1972, "Dr. Kissinger's visit June 1972," box 97, HAK Office Files, NPMP. Emphasis added.
     8Memcon: Kissinger, Brezhnev, April 21, 1972, "HAK Moscow Trip - April 1972 Memcons," Country Files Europe/USSR, box 72, HAK Office Files, NPMP.
     9Memcon: Kissinger, Gromyko, May 27, 1972, "Mr. Kissinger's conversations in Moscow May 1972," box 21, NSC HAK Office files, NPMP.
     10Memcon: Kissinger, Brezhnev, September 13, 1972, "HAK Trip to Moscow September 1972 Memcons," box 74, HAK Office Files, NPMP.
     11See, for example: Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam Wars (Chapel Hill, 2000) and Iliya Gaiduk, The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War (Chicago, 1996).