Nixon Threatened U.S. Aid Cut-Off to Make South Vietnam Take ‘Decent Interval’ Deal

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger boast in their respective memoirs that North Vietnam caved in and accepted a settlement on their terms in October of 1972.
Neither memoirist mentions their critical Oct. 6 Oval Office discussion of what these terms meant for South Vietnam–its destruction. The conversation took place at a pivotal moment–right after Kissinger’s deputy Alexander Haig briefed South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu on the settlement terms (Oct. 4) and right before North Vietnam accepted them (Oct. 8).
“I read Haig’s transcript,” the national security adviser told the President, “and these guys are scared. And they’re desperate. And they know what’s coming.”
South Vietnam’s President had said that under Nixon’s peace terms “sooner or later the government will crumble and Nguyen Van Thieu will have to commit suicide somewhere along the line.” Haig said the briefing “became highly charged and emotional with Thieu in tears through much of its duration.” Thieu was certain the settlement–which, among other things, would leave 145,000 North Vietnamese troops (Thieu said 300,000) in the South–meant defeat. It would, he told Haig, “culminate in the ultimate collapse of the government of South Vietnam.”
Kissinger gave Nixon the gist: “Thieu says that, sure, these proposals keep him going, but somewhere down the road he’ll have no choice except to commit suicide. And he’s probably right. I mean, we–“
“Let’s talk among ourselves,” Nixon said.
“We have to be honest–“
“–among ourselves.” Kissinger thought the North, unlike the South, was ready to take the deal. “And I also think that Thieu is right, that our terms will eventually destroy him.”
Hanoi accepted Nixon’s settlement offer in October of 1972 for the same reason that Saigon rejected it that same month. Both sides realized that it would lead to a Communist military victory.
On Oct. 26, less than two weeks before Election Day, Kissinger stood before the TV cameras and said, “We believe peace is at hand.” He knew it wasn’t peace. It wasn’t “at hand,” either, since the South Vietnamese government was dead set against signing a deal that spelled its destruction. Still, Nixon won reelection with the biggest share of the popular vote a Republican had ever received, 60.7 percent.

Cut-Off Threat

After the election, to force the deal on Saigon, Nixon made the ultimate threat–a cutoff of American aid. “I have checked today as to the attitude of the leading Democrats and Republicans who support us in the Senate on Vietnam,” Nixon wrote Kissinger in a Nov. 24, 1972, letter that the adviser made a point of reading out loud to South Vietnamese officials. “The result of this check indicates that they were not only unanimous but vehement in stating their conclusions that if Saigon is the only roadblock for reaching agreement on this basis they will personally lead the fight when the new Congress reconvenes on January 3 to cut off all military and economic assistance to Saigon.”
An American aid cutoff would have destroyed the South faster than Nixon’s settlement. “Without U.S. aid, Saigon could not survive,” Nixon told Nguyen Phu Duc, a Thieu aide, on Nov. 29. “Saigon had the option of saying it would not go along. The United States did not want that, but without U.S. funds, Saigon would be through.” South Vietnam had depended on U.S. aid for all 18 years of its existence.
Kissinger went through the motions of present the South’s demands to the North’s negotiators. The South, of course, demanded a North Vietnamese military retreat. This was essential to Saigon’s survival, but the combined might of its army and the greatest military in world history had been unable to achieve it on the battlefield, so the North, of course, refused. The Communists responded to the stepped up demands on the deal they thought was already done as any negotiators would. They ratcheted up their own demands. The “peace” Kissinger said was “at hand” right before the election receded from his fingers right after.

‘Christmas Bombing’

This was the real reason for the “Christmas bombing” of December 1972, as Nixon explained to Haig on Dec. 13: “The President then went through a long exposition of the fact of how difficult this would be. The American people would not understand and the realities were that it was the U.S. and not Hanoi that was backing away from the agreement because we had, in effect, placed additional demands on them. He also added that the other culpable party was Saigon and not Hanoi . . .” But Nixon decided to send the B-52s in anyway and blamed North Vietnam’s “unacceptable demands.” At the same time he asked Haig to “prepare a menu of economic and military pressures which he could apply to Thieu,” the real obstacle to completing the “decent interval” deal. “The President then stated that we are obviously very much in a corner,” Haig cabled Kissinger. “It does not seem possible that he can break Thieu in the process of agreeing with Hanoi, for this will ultimately lose us the entire game, and if we are to do that, it would be preferable to continue our alliance with Thieu and have Congress do the evil deed.”
Without the conservatives, however, the votes to do the “evil deed” of cutting off U.S. aid to Saigon just weren’t there.
In their memoirs, Nixon and Kissinger make too much of a couple of January 1973 Democratic caucus votes. Nixon claims there was a real risk that “Congress would force us to accept defeat by agreeing to a withdrawal in exchange for our POWs.” To force Nixon to make a withdrawal-for-POWs deal over his veto would have required a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress–67 votes in the full Senate and 290 in the full House of Representatives. The caucus votes fell far short of both marks. The House Democratic caucus mustered 154 votes to cut off military operations in Indochina “subject only to arrangements necessary to assure the safe withdrawal of American troops and to return the American prisoners of war.” Two days later in the Senate Democratic Caucus, the same proposal got 36 votes. It was not even close. And the Democrats did not even discuss cutting off aid to Saigon.
Saigon understood American politics well enough to know that Nixon couldn’t do the “evil deed” himself. “I don’t think Saigon believes that the funds would be cut by the White House,” South Vietnamese Ambassador Tran Kim Phuong told Kissinger on Jan. 3, 1973. The South continued to resist the deal, even after the North accepted Nixon’s terms (again) in January 1973.

‘Mr. Conservative’

Nixon searched for a way to give his threat credibility, and on January 18, 1973, he hit on it. The President would have an icon of the conservative political movement issue the threat. When Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona won the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, Nixon had introduced him to the convention with these words: “He is the man who earned and proudly carries the title of Mr. Conservative.” Goldwater had been a strong supporter of Nixon on the war. If a hawk of his stature signaled that U.S. aid to Saigon was in jeopardy, Thieu would have to take the threat seriously.
“Would it be useful,” Nixon asked Kissinger, “to have Goldwater take a little–say, ‘Look, come along, boy?'”
“I think that might do some good,” Kissinger said.
“I don’t want one of the left to do it,” Nixon said, “but somebody like Goldwater from the right should say it.” As a backup, Nixon suggested Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John C. Stennis, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi.
The national security adviser would conceal his hand. “None of them would say they talked to me,” Kissinger said.
“Yeah,” Nixon said, “well, you can tell them it’s very important that this not appear to come from the White House.”
Goldwater agreed immediately to send Saigon the signal. “The difference is between them and us,” Kissinger told Goldwater. “I mean, we shouldn’t say that, but just for your information–cannot be explained to the American people.”
“No,” Goldwater said, “that’s for sure.”
Kissinger also asked Stennis to make a statement that “puts a little pressure on Thieu, so that he doesn’t think that the conservative element in this country is behind him.”
“Yes, sure,” Stennis said. (All these Jan. 18, 1973, quotes come from the Kissinger “telcons,” transcripts of the national security adviser’s telephone conversations by his secretaries, and can be read in their entirety at the Digital National Security Archive, an invaluable scholarly resource.)
Goldwater and Stennis had their reputations on the line as well. When Saigon said Nixon’s terms would destroy the government that over 58,000 Americans had died defending, it hurt lawmakers who had supported him on the war.
“Two of the Saigon government’s strongest supporters in the United States Senate–Barry Goldwater and John C. Stennis,” the New York Times reported the next day, “warned that South Vietnam would lose support in the United States for further economic and military assistance if President Nguyen Van Thieu blocked a settlement of the war.”
“The South Vietnamese will need economic and military aid in the coming years,” Goldwater said. “However, the South Vietnamese can jeopardize American support for such programs if they emerge now as the obstacle to peace in Southeast Asia.” The Times noted that the statement made by Stennis was “markedly similar.”
A letter from the White House to Saigon drove it home: “It is obvious that we face a situation of most extreme gravity when long-time friends of South Viet-Nam such as Senators Goldwater and Stennis, on whom we have relied for four years to carry our programs of assistance through Congress, make public declarations that a refusal by your Government of reasonable peace terms would make it impossible to continue aid.”
Saigon was out of options. “For Nixon to use Goldwater in the letter as evidence that support against Thieu was building up in Congress had a strong influence on Thieu,” wrote Nguyen Tien Hung, a special assistant to the South Vietnamese President. “He realized that even his staunchest supporters had deserted him.”
Hours before Nixon was sworn in for the second term that his “decent interval” exit strategy had made possible, he told Kissinger, “I don’t know whether the threat goes too far or not, but I’d do any damn thing, that is, or to cut off his head if necessary.”
Thieu caved. To avoid the immediate destruction of his government, he took the deal that would destroy it in a couple of years.
Nixon structured his second inaugural address around the theme of peace. “The peace we seek in the world,” he declared, “is not the flimsy peace which is merely an interlude between wars, but a peace which can endure for generations to come.”

Read Part One of “Legends of the Fall of Saigon.” And here’s Part Three.

Learn more about the Presidential Recordings Program of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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