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 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.
Kissinger, now a foreign policy consultant, said in an interview 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.
The Aug. 3, 1972 conversation shows that Nixon did worry about how his administration would be viewed if South Vietnam fell.
Kissinger 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."
Kissinger said 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."
On the Net: