Roanoke, Va. Three months before the 1972 presidential election, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger huddled together in the Oval Office to discuss when and how to get the United States out of Vietnam.
Despite a massive bombing campaign during the spring and summer in the north, the Republican president had concluded that U.S.-backed "South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway."
"We also have to realize, Henry, that winning an election is terribly important," Nixon told his national security adviser. "It's terribly important this year, but can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That's the real question."
The conversation, recorded by Nixon's voice-activated taping system, was transcribed by the University of Virginia Miller Center of Public Affairs to be released today, the 30th anniversary of Nixon's resignation.
Some historians, including biographer Jeffrey Kimball, consider it evidence that Nixon sacrificed American forces in his quest for a second term, keeping them engaged to ensure that the South Vietnamese government wouldn't collapse before the election.
"It became increasingly apparent to them by 1972, if not before, that they couldn't win the war, and they'd have to end it," said Kimball, who has compiled similar conversations and documents from Nixon's first term.
"But here's the problem: say they pulled out at the end of '71, or at the beginning of '72. Saigon might fall before the election. Or right after the election. What would that look like? It's clear -- you can read from the transcripts -- the election plays a part in their timing."
Kissinger, now a foreign policy consultant, said in an interview with The Associated Press that Kimball and other historians are focusing too much on an informal conversation that he said did not reflect Nixon's policies.
"Every once in a while he got discouraged and said 'chuck the whole thing,' but that was never his policy," Kissinger said.
Historians said the conversation reflected Nixon's "decent interval" exit strategy in Vietnam. By propping up Saigon, the theory goes, the government could survive at least a few years on its own and Nixon would be able to distance himself from any political fallout when it collapsed.
Nixon began reducing the American military presence in 1969. After beating Democrat George McGovern in a landslide, Nixon agreed in January 1973 to bring the rest of the troops home. As expected, Saigon fell two years later, on April 30, 1975.
Viable foreign policy
The Aug. 3, 1972 conversation, which was released in December by the National Archives with other recorded conversations, shows that Nixon did worry about how his administration would be viewed if South Vietnam fell.
Kissinger, who would share the Nobel Peace Prize the following year with North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho for brokering a peace agreement, advised the president that they could avoid being seen as failures as long as South Vietnam held on for a few years.
"If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it's the result of South Vietnamese incompetence," Kissinger said.
He added later in the tape: "But it will worry everybody. And domestically in the long run it won't help us all that much because our opponents will say we should've done it three years ago."
"I know," Nixon said.
"So we've got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater," Kissinger said. "If we settle it, say, this October, by January '74 no one will give a damn."
Ken Hughes, who transcribed the tape for the Miller Center, considers the recording a "taped confession" by Nixon, who denied until his death in 1994 that the 1972 election affected his policies in Vietnam.
Larry Berman, a Nixon scholar and director of the University of California Washington Center in Washington D.C., disagrees with Hughes: "It confirms that Kissinger certainly was an advocate for the decent interval, but my view was that there was always a difference between what Nixon and Kissinger thought. I believe Nixon was much more questioning of the decent interval than Kissinger."
Kissinger: not the thrust
Kissinger told the AP that Nixon never seriously considered abandoning Saigon.
"There are in my memoirs letters he wrote me while I was conducting the negotiations, which say the exact opposite of what's on this conversation, in which he says 'Go ahead and do what you need to do, but don't be affected by the election, and we want an agreement that lasts.'
"The trouble with writing history the way it is now done on the Internet, is that you guys find one sentence, or one conversation ... something that everyone can run with and have a good time. And have a sentence that proves it. But it was not the thrust of his policy."