If the negotiations break down tomorrow we will have to resume massive bombing.
In early December, Kissinger returned to Paris to resume the negotiations. On December 4, the first day of negotiations, Kissinger cabled President Nixon that the outlook for an acceptable settlement was bleak. Tho had not only withdrawn concessions that Hanoi had made earlier but demanded that, as part of any new agreement, all American civilians would also have to be withdrawn from South Vietnam. Tho, however, indicated that this new demand would be dropped and the old concessions renewed, if Washington agreed to return to the October 12 draft agreement and not request any more changes. In reporting on these new developments to President Nixon, Kissinger suggested two options:
- Option One – Go back to the October agreement.
- Option Two – Run a risk of a break off of the talks.
Although he presented it as an option, Kissinger did not believe that the October agreement should be resurrected. Writing that the "first option is impossible," he advised the President to pursue Option Two. In pursuing this course, Kissinger recommended that it "will require your addressing the American people directly. We will have to step up bombing again."11 This was the second time that Kissinger recommended resorting to a military attack to force a political settlement. This cable also shows that Kissinger was advocating for the President to address the nation in a televised speech explaining that negotiations had failed, which President Nixon believed would tie him to any failure. For a second time, President Nixon advised patience and requested that Kissinger continue to negotiate. The President said it was inadvisable to go on television and announce a new bombing campaign. In this instance, however, the President accepted that a return to the October 12 agreement might not be possible. He instructed Kissinger to make the record show that, if there was a breakdown, he was to "put the blame squarely"12 on North Vietnamese then "we will let our actions speak this time rather than our words."13
Kissinger would not relent in pushing for an air attack on North Vietnam to alter the political dynamic at the talks. Two days later, on December 6, he wrote the President that "if the negotiations break down tomorrow we will have to resume massive bombing." Kissinger had apparently lost all hope for any kind of settlement without punishing the North. A swap of POWs, he argued, would only happen if "we keep up the bombing."14 Again, President Nixon advised caution and patience. He instructed Kissinger, not to "paint ourselves in a corner by saying anything like "this is our final offer."" He also instructed him to "leave a crack of the door open for further discussion."15
The tapes reinforce the impression from President Nixon's cables that, disagreeing with Kissinger, the President preferred to let the talks continue and was not in a rush to move to a military option. While at Camp David, President Nixon discussed Kissinger's emotional state with his Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. Both he and Haldeman observed that Kissinger tended to overreact in stressful situations, and that this tendency was exacerbated in this case because Kissinger had gone "out on a limb"16 because of his October 26 "peace is at hand" statement. Overlooking Kissinger's advice to break off the talks and launch a bombing campaign, President Nixon kept him in Paris for another nine days.
When this round of talks finally broke down on December 13, both sides placed blame on each other. Although the talks were scheduled to resume in two weeks, the Nixon administration decided to reassess its entire approach. On December 14, in a meeting captured on tape, Kissinger and Haig discussed the next steps with the President. The tape is a unique record. "All of us in the December 14 Oval Office meeting," Kissinger wrote in his memoirs, "agreed that some military response was necessary. But we were not at first in accord about what kind, and it is difficult to reconstruct now because there seem to be no written records." During this meeting Kissinger gave President Nixon a point-by-point recounting of the November and December negotiations and his growing frustration with what he perceived as Vietnamese—North and South—duplicity. In an uncharacteristic outburst, Kissinger told Nixon that the Vietnamese, were "tawdry miserable, filthy people [and] they make the Russians look good."17
This presidential recording is our best evidence of how Kissinger persuaded President Nixon it was time to bomb. The President continued to believe the talks had reached an "impasse," whereas Kissinger was convinced the talks were finished without a change in the situation on the ground in Vietnam. Joined by Haig, Kissinger advocated "bombing the bejesus out of them"18 and stated the US needed to continue the bombing campaign for six months. Although less resistant than he had been earlier in the month to the idea of launching a new bombing campaign, President Nixon thought Kissinger unrealistic in thinking Congress would fund a six-month bombing assault on the North. President Nixon knew that a priority of the new Congress would be extricating the US from Vietnam. Any bombing would have to be done before they came back into session.
At no point during the conversation does the President say, "OK, Henry, you are right. It's time to bomb." But by the end of the 1 hour 39 minute conversation, all three men are speaking of bombing as an inevitability. At no point, do any of them explain why North Vietnam needed to be bombed to force Saigon to agree to a settlement, or what, if any concession would have to be granted by Hanoi for Saigon to agree. Although his reasons are never articulated, by the end, President Nixon states that bombing North Vietnam was the best option to get around this impasse. Assuring him that, "they [the North Vietnamese] are scared out of their minds that you'll resume bombing,"19 Kissinger plays on the President's self-esteem by assuring him that if the US does not bomb Hanoi, the President himself will "really be impotent."20 There is no debate over whether the bombing should occur above or below the 20th parallel. When making the decision to bomb, President Nixon does not specify whether Hanoi and its major port, Haiphong, would be targeted. The decision is simply that a massive bombing campaign would begin in a few days. Despite Kissinger's earlier request for months of destruction, it would last two weeks.