By Joseph B. White
In late September 1971, rumors flew that Chinese leader Mao Zedong had died. In the White House, President Richard Nixon knew…nothing.
Mr. Nixon and his then assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry Kissinger, speculated during an 11 p.m., Sept. 21 phone call about the rumors, which were spurred by the Chinese government’s abrupt cancellation of an Oct. 1 military parade. A transcript of the conversation was among a new trove of records released today by the Nixon Library.
“Any later reports?” Mr. Nixon asked. Mr. Kissinger replied there weren’t, and added: “My instinct tells me, Mr. President, whatever it is it isn’t the death of Mao.”
The two men pondered whether the Chinese were nervous about a possible attack from the Soviet Union. “They may genuinely think that the Soviets are getting ready to jump them,” Mr. Kissinger said.
Later in the call, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger turned to the war in Viet Nam. Mr. Nixon raised the idea of giving the North Vietnamese “an ultimatum” to break the deadlock in peace negotiations and secure the return of U.S. prisoners of war.
“Get these prisoners or…that is until they do we are going to blockade them,” Mr. Nixon told Mr. Kissinger, and ordered that the military “try a little war of nerves” by making preparations to mine North Vietnamese harbors, and conduct more air strikes. Mr. Kissinger said U.S. planes weren’t able to hit certain targets “because we were afraid to hit the civilian population when we couldn’t bomb visually.”
“I am not so g—d—ned concerned about the civilian population,” Mr. Nixon replied. “I am not so concerned about it.”
“Well, it would give them a lot of pictures they could use,” Mr. Kissinger replied.
“Maybe,” Mr. Nixon said, according to the transcript. “Maybe. Well, I think you ought to lay it on…”