On February 3, 1973, President Richard Nixon took a moment from managing the start of his second term to review a controversial decision he had made in the final months of his first term. In a confidential conversation with his long-time personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, the President recalled the secret back-story to his decision to initiate a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam in December 1972. In this conversation, which the Nixon Library released in December 2010, President Nixon lamented to Woods that the press blamed him for what was called "the Christmas bombing," when, in fact, it was Henry Kissinger who had been the greater advocate for bombing North Vietnam. Indeed, Nixon told Woods, the public view of how the decision had been made—that Kissinger was the advocate for more negotiations whereas Nixon had run out of patience and was eager to bomb Hanoi—was actually the reverse of what had happened. The President assured Woods that he had forced a reluctant Kissinger to continue the Paris negotiations when his national security advisor wanted to break off the talks and resume heavy bombing. In this conversation with Woods, the President also offered a partly psychological explanation for why he and Kissinger had approached the final stage of negotiations so differently. First, Kissinger was publicly identified with a rosy assessment of the prospects for a diplomatic settlement of the Vietnam conflict. In late October, he had told the press corps that "peace is at hand." "[That was] the greatest misstatement he ever made," Nixon explained to Woods, adding that Kissinger's statement had both hindered the negotiations and made Kissinger anxious for a settlement. Second, Nixon claimed that, in general, Kissinger had a preference for tough policies—using military force where possible—which was the product of a deep-seated "sense of inferiority."1
The general contours of what President Nixon told Woods in February 1973 reappeared in the President's memoirs five years later. In RN, Nixon describes Kissinger as the one who wanted to break off negotiations early and initiate a step-up in bombing on North Vietnam in December 1972. Just as he said to Woods, Nixon writes in his memoirs that his preference had been to continue negotiations until it was apparent that there was no alternative approach left to achieving a political settlement. It was only after a difficult meeting between Kissinger and the North Vietnamese on December 13 that he reluctantly came to the decision that they needed to bomb Hanoi in order to motivate the North Vietnamese to accept a fair settlement. When Kissinger wrote his memoirs of the first term, which appeared in 1979, he presented a different reconstruction of the decision-making before the December bombings. In White House Years, Kissinger admits that he increasingly advocated the use of force to discourage Hanoi from its stalling tactics in Paris, but he added that President Nixon often agreed with him. The President, he wrote, "had no trouble with my view that in case of a breakup we would have to step up military pressure. Indeed, he was eager to order an attack by B-52s on the Hanoi-Haiphong complex even before my talks resumed on December 6." Kissinger also emphasized that he was never the architect of "using B-52s on a sustained basis for the first time over the northern part of North Vietnam." Instead he states, it was Deputy National Security Adviser General Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s idea, supported by President Nixon.
Can the newly released tapes, when combined with declassified documents, help resolve the contradiction between these two versions? Was President Nixon accurately recollecting the events of December 1972 when he unburdened himself to Rose Mary Woods? Or is Henry Kissinger's detailed memoirs a more accurate recreation of the decision to launch the December bombing campaign?
Although sometimes difficult to understand, the Nixon White House Tapes allow us to go back in time and listen to history as it happened. When the President was in Washington, D.C., or at the Camp David presidential retreat, the taping system covered most of the areas where he did business. But when he was in California, on Air Force One or in Florida, the President's conversations took place outside the hearing of the recorders. Do the tapes from the fall of 1972 capture the decision-making process? Throughout this exhibit you will be able to listen to President Nixon and his closest advisors discuss the Vietnam War, the progress and delays of the Paris Peace talks, and their discussions on the bombing of North Vietnam. Then you can make up your own mind about the accuracy of recollections and memoirs about this turning point in America's Vietnam commitment.
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