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By Calvin Woodward
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Henry Kissinger quietly acknowledged to China in 1972 that the United States could accept a communist takeover of South Vietnam after a withdrawal of U.S. troops, even as the war against the communist North Vietnamese dragged on and deaths mounted.
As President Nixon's envoy, he told Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, "If we can live with a communist government in China, we ought to be able to accept it in Indochina."
Kissinger's remarks were included in a collection of papers from National Archives released Friday by George Washington University's National Security Archive, a research group that obtained them through declassification requests.
The papers consist of some 2,100 memoranda of Kissinger's secret conversations with senior officials abroad and at home from 1969 to 1977 while he served under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as national-security adviser and/or secretary of state.
Kissinger's comments appear to lend credence to the "decent interval" theory posed by some historians who say the United States was prepared to see communists take over South Vietnam as long as that happened long enough after a U.S. troop departure to save face.
But Kissinger cautioned Friday against reaching easy conclusions from his words of more than 30 years ago. "One of my objectives had to be to get Chinese acquiescence in our policy," he said.
"We succeeded in it, and then when we had achieved our goal, our domestic situation made it impossible to sustain it," he said, explaining that he meant Watergate and its consequences.
The meeting with Zhou took place in Beijing on June 22, 1972, during a period of increased U.S. bombing and the mining of harbors meant to stall a North Vietnamese offensive. China, Vietnam's ally, objected to the U.S. course but was engaged in a historic thaw of relations with the U.S.
Kissinger told Zhou the U.S. acknowledged its North Vietnamese enemy was a "permanent factor" and probably the "strongest entity" in the region. "And we have had no interest in destroying it or even defeating it," he insisted.
He complained that North Vietnam had made one demand in negotiations that he could never accept: that the U.S. force out the South Vietnamese government in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City.
"This isn't because of any particular personal liking for any of the individuals concerned," he said. "It is because a country cannot be asked to engage in major acts of betrayal as a basis of its foreign policy."
However, Kissinger said, "If, as a result of historical evolution it should happen over a period of time, if we can live with a communist government in China, we ought to be able to accept it in Indochina."
Pressed by Zhou, Kissinger further acknowledged that a communist takeover by force might be tolerated if it happened long enough after a U.S. withdrawal. He said that if civil war erupted a month after a peace deal led to U.S. withdrawal and an exchange of prisoners, the U.S. would probably consider that a trick and have to step back in.
"If the North Vietnamese, on the other hand, engage in serious negotiation with the South Vietnamese, and if after a longer period it starts again after we were all disengaged, my personal judgment is that it is much less likely that we will go back again, much less likely."
The envoy foresaw the possibility of friendly relations with adversaries after a war that, by June 1972, had killed more than 45,000 Americans: "What has Hanoi done to us that would make it impossible to, say in 10 years, establish a new relationship?"