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Salisbury’s Stake

The only realistic conclusion that I could draw at the end of four weeks was that we were indeed bombing civilian targets in North Vietnam and that the bombing was, at least in large part, intentional. We were not yet bombing on a grand scale—for example, we still refrained from massive raids on Hanoi and Haiphong—but we were doing it selectively, consistently and deliberately.

THIS SHOULD NOT COME as any great shock to Americans. If one can accept the idea of bombing in principle, then one can also accept the idea of bombing civilians. North Vietnam is an underdeveloped country, and the main targets in underdeveloped countries ultimately turn out to be the people. One can imagine the frustration of our military leaders at finding that no matter how hard and long they bomb the factories, the roads, the rails, and the bridges, supplies keep moving and infiltration increases. For such men, committed by training and temperament to seek a military decision at all costs, the next logical step would almost certainly be to begin bombing the nonmilitary areas with the aim of crushing the morale of the populace and bringing the country psychologically to heel. That is what the North Vietnamese believe we are trying to do, and the facts support their conviction. 6

Indeed, we have accomplished the exact opposite. Far from breaking the will of the North Vietnamese, the bombing has stiffened it immeasurably. The most recent historical parallel that comes to mind is the Battle of Britain, in which the tremendous and unceasing bombardment by the Germans day and night left the English more firmly resolved to win the war than ever. A fact about North Vietnam that is little known in this country, conditioned as we are to regard every Communist society as blood-red from top to bottom, is that before 1965, when we began the bombing, there existed considerable ideological disunity and some dissension within the North Vietnamese society. Premier Pham Van Dong, whom I interviewed in Hanoi in late February, spoke candidly of North Vietnam’s “national bourgeoisie”—which he defined as including former capitalists and landowners, shopkeepers, intellectuals, and high-ranking clergy and laity of the Buddhist and Catholic churches. The premier implied that these people had put aside their opposition to Ho Chi Minh’s communism and united against the direct threat to their country’s sovereignty. Premier Dong said to me:

This war has hurt everybody’s interests and feelings, even those of the upper classes; it has affected them politically, economically, and personally as well. They realize that their future is in danger. Most of all, their nationalist spirit is hurt.

IF THE WAR cannot be won, can it be ended by diplomacy? Several excellent studies, notably The Politics of Escalation and a recent article by Theodore Draper in this publication entitled “Vietnam: How Not to Negotiate” have provided convincing demonstrations that either we are totally inept at making the most of our diplomatic opportunities, or else we really don’t want to negotiate—whatever our protests to the contrary.

Mr. Salisbury returned from Hanoi early in January convinced that the time was ripe for talks to begin between Hanoi and Washington. Mr. Draper, looking back, agrees that a turning point in the diplomacy over negotiations was reached last winter. Probably only those who follow Vietnamese affairs closely will recall that near the end of January North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh, in an interview with Wilfred Burchett, the Australian Communist correspondent, indicated publicly for the first time that if the US would stop the bombing, conditions would be created for talks between Washington and Hanoi. This important interview was carried by the Associated Press but received almost no notice in this country’s press and produced no public reaction from the State Department, much to the consternation of the North Vietnamese, who felt that they had offered a major concession in the diplomatic war.

So Hanoi tried again. On February 7, the eve of the Têt truce, Burchett, who has close contacts with the North Vietnamese leadership, transmitted another long dispatch to the AP. “North Vietnam is ready to sit down with the United States to hold preliminary talks to explore what steps can be taken to end the war in Vietnam,” Burchett began, and went on:

The next move—following Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh’s declaration to me that if the bombings stopped, “the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the United States could enter into talks”—is believed by the North Vietnamese to be up to Washington.

He then added the following “clarification” of Trinh’s statement which, he said, he had received from the DRVN’s leaders:

If bombings cease completely, good and favorable conditions will be created for the talks. Halt the bombings, come and talk. Let’s see what can be done next. President Johnson said he was only waiting for a sign. Well, now he has it. We’ve shown our goodwill. The United States must do the same.

In the same dispatch, Burchett also noted that when this clear offer was published in Nhan Dan, Hanoi’s official daily, it created a great deal of surprise and excitement, even among the North Vietnamese.

My own experience seemed to confirm Burchett’s report. On the same day that Burchett filed his dispatch to the AP, I was in Pnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, on my way to Hanoi, and I paid a courtesy call at the North Vietnamese embassy (which is located, with curious symbolism, at the corner of Mao Tse-tung Boulevard and USSR Road). I was greeted by a first secretary of the embassy who, scarcely bothering with the formal amenities of introduction (this was uncharacteristic behavior for a Vietnamese), began to question me in an agitated fashion. “Can you please tell me,” he asked, “what has been the reaction in your country to our Foreign Minister’s interview with Burchett in which we offered to hold talks if you stop the bombing?” I replied, somewhat concerned, that I had not read about it, perhaps because I had been traveling for two weeks, having come by way of Cuba. “But that is just the point!” he answered, growing more excited. “We are unable to find any indication that this proposal has been published in the American press. How can that be? It was a most important statement!”

In Hanoi a few days later, I had a talk with Colonel Ha Van Lao, the sophisticated Chief of the Vietnamese War Crimes Commission who often heads DRVN diplomatic missions abroad and was a member of his country’s delegation to the Geneva Convention in 1954. Our conversation was calm and friendly, even punctuated by moments of humor, until I asked what North Vietnam might be willing to offer as a gesture of good will to get talks started. For the first and only time, Colonel Lao seemed incredulous and angry. “But we have made our offer!” he said, emphasizing every word. “We have taken a very significant step! We can go no further! Why don’t you people understand this?”

Foreign diplomats in Hanoi from both sides of the Iron Curtain with whom I talked agreed that the North Vietnamese had made what was for them an important move. Their position had always been one of principle: The US had started the bombings, therefore it must stop them before any talks could be held. But the Soviet Union and other European socialist countries had long been urging Hanoi to be less unbending and to offer some evidence of good will that might lead to negotiations. Their influence bore greater weight at that moment because China, which firmly opposed negotiations of any kind, was preoccupied with the mounting excesses of its Cultural Revolution.

Now the possibility had been turned into a promise. More than one diplomat told me that the decision to make a concrete offer was the result of a protracted debate in the Council of Ministers. It represented, they said, something of a victory for the “moderates” over the more “hawkish” elements in the Hanoi leadership. But, they cautioned, the moderates had also put themselves out on a limb. If the US rebuffed the offer, it would mean loss of face for North Vietnam in the eyes of the world, and this in turn might compromise the influence of the moderates and polarize the Hanoi leadership in favor of the advocates of all-out resistance without negotiations—the Peking line.

The stage was set. The Têt truce was on. Soviet Premier Kosygin was in London, making it clear to the White House through Prime Minister Wilson that Hanoi meant business. At that moment, on February 10, President Johnson’s letter to Ho Chi Minh arrived. Not only did it reject Hanoi’s gesture, but the letter set more preconditions for stopping the bombing than ever before. Three days later on February 13, before President Ho Chi Minh even had time to send his reply, the US resumed the bombing under the pretext that Hanoi had taken unfair advantage of the truce to rebuild some bridges and step up supplies to the South.7 To the Hanoi leaders these two acts seemed calculated affronts, evidence that the United States had never intended to negotiate in good faith in the first place.

WHAT HAPPENED? Why was Hanoi’s offer turned down by Washington in such peremptory fashion, just when it seemed that conditions for talks were better than ever before? It may very well be as Hanoi claimed: that President Johnson, having called for talks for more than a year and then finding himself on the verge of actual conversations, suddenly came to the embarrassing realization that Hanoi and Washington had nothing to talk about.

For both sides, the fundamental issue was—and is—not the bombing of the North but the war in the South. It is impossible to negotiate this issue because the two sides view it from antithetical and irreconcilable sets of premises. In Hanoi’s view, the war in the South is a civil war into which the US has intruded imperialistically and from which it must withdraw. The National Liberation Front (Viet Cong), not North Vietnam, is our principal enemy in the South, and there can be no negotiations to end the war until first the US recognizes the NLF and grants it full and independent representation at the conference table. In Washington’s stated view, the war is the result of “Communist aggression” from North Vietnam. The Viet Cong is a satellite of Hanoi. We are bombing in the North and fighting in the South against the same enemy. The NLF may sit at the conference table only if it comes as part of the Hanoi delegation.

The resolution of this impasse obviously hinges on the true identity of the National Liberation Front. Although there is strong evidence to support the Front’s claim that it is an indigenous Southern revolutionary movement, supported by a large segment of the native population, this does not seem to have impressed the State Department. Nor does Washington seem interested in exploring the differences of purpose and ideology between North Vietnam and the NLF, which various representatives of the Front have expressed in interviews with Harrison Salisbury, myself, and others. Some of them are quite startling. When I spoke to Nguyen Van Tien, the official NLF representative to Hanoi, he put to me the following points: South Vietnam cannot under any circumstances ever be Communist—even the Communists in the Front know this and accept it; political reunification of Vietnam will not take place, but North and South will remain two separate, independent countries; South Vietnam will be non-aligned and will ask for aid from all countries for reconstruction, even from the US.

Certainly it is difficult to know whether or not all these statements are genuine positions of the NLF, and whether the NLF would be able to act on the basis of them. If they are genuine, they unquestionably come closer than does Hanoi’s position to the kind of result which we claim we would like to see in South Vietnam. At the very least, there seem to be serious differences in the two programs, which ought to be explored by American diplomats. But this would mean dealing directly with the Viet Cong in some way, which we are unwilling to do since it would be a tacit admission that the NLF is not merely the puppet of Hanoi, and since it would undermine the confidence of the Saigon government, our own puppet, to which we are fully, though unhappily, committed.

The political theorists of the Johnson Administration have striven long and indefatigably to convince the world that Peking and/or Moscow dominate Hanoi, which in turn invented and totally controls the Viet Cong; and that if South Vietnam “falls” to the Communists so will all of Southeast Asia. Few intelligent people who have studied the facts still subscribe to this mechanistic vision of political hegemony. Paradoxically, however, America’s interventionist policy in Vietnam may now be transforming the myth into a reality. With each new escalation of the war the North Vietnamese become more unified, the Viet Cong leadership becomes more radical in character and more dependent on Hanoi, and the Soviet Union is forced closer and closer to an undesired rapprochement with the Red Chinese and direct military intervention on the side of North Vietnam. So, indeed, may China herself. The Cultural Revolution will not last forever, but China’s nuclear and missile capabilities will grow. As James Reston remarked recently, Peking is now down to its last 700 million men. It ought to be a sobering thought to those gentlemen in the Pentagon who are now drawing up plans for the invasion of North Vietnam.

  1. 6

    The following quotations are from a US Air Force manual entitled “Fundamentals of Aerospace Weapons Systems,” issued May 20, 1966 and in current use in Air Force ROTC classes in American universities.

    A military target is any person, thing, idea, entity or location selected for destruction, inactivation or rendering nonusable with weapons which will destroy the will or ability of the enemy to resist…

    Targets within a nation fall into four categories: military, economic, political, and psychosocial [italics mine]…

    Some of the conventional targets for morale attacks have been water supplies, food supplies, housing areas, transportation centers and industrial sites. The objectives of these attacks in the past have been to dispel the people’s belief in the invincibility of their forces, to create unrest, to reduce the output of the labor force, to cause strikes, sabotage, riots, fear, panic, hunger and passive resistance to the government, and to create a general feeling that the war should be terminated….

    For a more extensive discussion of the destruction of North Vietnam’s “psychosocial” targets, see Dave Dellinger’s articles in the April and May 1967 issues of Liberation.

  2. 7

    Draper points out that there were no prohibitions in the truce agreement against making repairs or moving supplies. The US, in fact, took at least equal advantage of the cease-fire to resupply its own forces in the South (NYR, May 4, 1967, p. 21).

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