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How Not to Negotiate

In response to:

A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Not to Negotiate from the May 4, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

…Diplomacy, agreements, and wars ave ends in view. Our diplomacy can be good or wrong depending on whether its tactical moves serve or handicap the policy goals.

Mr. Draper does not tell us what the purpose of our military intervention is, whether he approves it or not or what kind of peace we do or ought to seek. Yet, he sets judgment over the acts of diplomacy which have been performed in order to serve it.

This exercise in a purpose-free vacuum makes it possible to disprove every single tack, the unavoidable modifications which have occurred since 1962 on our side depending whether we have sailed against, with, before or close to the military and political winds. He has no difficulty in finding contradictory moves and statements which occurred in different and changing situations at different times. Then, he misinterpreted the changes of tactics as hoaxes and deceits.

The Administration and its spokesmen are not the only ones who take the rap. The American press committed one of the greatest derelictions. An eloquent editorial of The Reporter magazine constituted the most extreme effort thus far to whip up wartime hysteria. Prime Minister Wilson is running ignoble interference for President Johnson’s foreign policy. U Thant tries to have his cake and eat it, earning for himself the gratitude of those who formerly execrated him most.

Meanwhile, the zigzagging of Hanoi’s negotiating moves appears to Mr. Draper as laudable signals of sincere peace-seeking. He gives full credence to the varying formulas in Hanoi’s statements for foreign consumption. He pays no attention to tough bellicosities in their newspapers nor to the curt rejection of peace appeals by the Pope and the British Prime Minister; he ignores the contemptuous gesture of sending to Rangoon a minor underling to a meeting with U Thant.

Mr. Draper’s article is deaf to the Chinese Master’s voice that objects to the idea of negotiations anyway, and the minimum terms which we could accept. It gives a benevolent interpretation even to the Viet Cong acts of terror and cruelties saying that “political terrorism does not have the same cultural roots or stigmas in all countries.”

My objection against the article is not its partisan bias which is not concealed and may please people who have the same views. My objection is that Mr. Draper has wasted his valuable talent on chronicling matters which do not matter. He contributed a new chapter to a well-known German book: Die Wissenschaft der Nichi-Wissenswerten and to a yet to be compiled Scholarly Encyclopaedia of Irrelevancies!

Victor Bator

New York City

Theodore Draper replies:

The striking thing about the Gregory and Bator letters is that they would prefer to change the subject. For at least two years, Washington has maintained that it has always been ready and willing to negotiate a Vietnamese peace settlement in good faith. The Johnson-Ho Chi Minh correspondence of February 1967 was particularly paraded as evidence of Washington’s good will, and US officials professed to wonder why Hanoi had made the correspondence public, since it supposedly played into President Johnson’s hands. I addressed myself to questions such as these because a study of the record convinced me that the Johnson Administration has been willing to “negotiate” little more than the Vietnamese Communists’ abdication in the Southern struggle for power.

Now, Mr. Gregory tells us that I was wasting my time because “no negotiated solution is possible,” and Mr. Bator (who has apparently experienced a remarkable change of heart since he wrote his book which was unrelievedly critical of past US policy in Vietnam), accuses me of dealing with “matters which do not matter” and “irrelevancies.” They represent the “fall-back” position in the controversy over negotiations. If the American case cannot stand critical examination, then its proponents counter not by defending it but by pooh-poohing the very possibility of meaningful negotiations. In effect, they cannot fall back on the second line of defense without agreeing with me that the first line cannot be defended. Mr. Gregory is brutally cynical: All our “continual setting forth of proposals, multi-point plans, and pious avowals of willingness to negotiate” are nothing more than “rhetoric” and cheap public-relations maneuvers.

So be it. On this score, apparently, there is no argument. The only complaint against me, then, seems to be that I was naïve to take the American proposals seriously in the first place. Thus the starting point of this criticism is that I was right—so right that I was wasting my time. But I am not sure that everyone was equally aware that all the offers to negotiate were merely “rhetoric.” For some few, perhaps, my article may have performed a useful service. One wonders whether our policy-makers in Washington will be grateful or embarrassed by this line of defense.

Is it so certain, however, that we must rule out “meaningful negotiations” in this increasingly futile conflict? I am persuaded of two things: (1) there could be no negotiations without a prior cessation of the American bombing of North Vietnam or so long as the United States takes the position that North Vietnam must pay in advance for a cessation of the bombing by, in effect, abandoning the struggle in the South; and (2) the bombing has gone on for so long, and it has been so expanded since February 1967, that a cessation of the bombing has become increasingly less significant because there must be less and less to bomb in a country like North Vietnam. Consequently, the offers to negotiate have become more and more “rhetorical.” But I do not see that this was inherent in the situation in February 1965 or even in February 1967. John M. Hightower of the Associated Press and Chalmers M. Roberts of the Washington Post have given further reason to believe that a genuine opportunity to bring both sides together was missed earlier this year. All that one can say is that US policy and a series of accomplished facts have made negotiations increasingly more difficult, but that is not the same thing as saying that they have always been hopeless or impossible.

Negotiations may have become more difficult, but has the alternative to negotiations become any easier? If “surrender” on the part of one side or the other is the only way out, are we prepared to face the consequences? They almost certainly entail sending many more thousands of American troops to Vietnam, waging an indefinite war of attrition lasting as much as ten years (if we can believe some of our own military estimates), moving toward the invasion of North Vietnam, and thereby inviting Chinese and/or Soviet physical intervention. If we concentrate only on the malaise of a negotiated settlement, we may be driven to choosing to fight the war to the bitter end; but if we consider the cost of chasing the phantom of “military victory,” we may infinitely prefer the shortcomings of a negotiated settlement. The Vietnam war is, after all, only one front and one phase of a much larger struggle, and we may have to pay for it not only there but elsewhere. The fixation on Vietnam is supposed to deter similar crises elsewhere; in fact, as the Israeli-Arab conflict has demonstrated, it is more likely to make us gun-shy even when we do have unmistakable commitments and the Soviet Union is clearly guilty of playing with fire.

I pursued the theme of “negotiations” because that is how the Administration itself had stated the problem by repeatedly protesting its eagerness to negotiate. But the deeper question is something else: Shall the United States “conceive of nothing except military victory” in Vietnam (as former President Eisenhower expressed it on June 2)? This is a decision we must make irrespective of what North Vietnam does or does not do. Indeed, we will permit North Vietnam to make this decision for us if we make North Vietnam’s willingness to negotiate the determining factor in our own policy. When Mr. Bator says that “the zigzagging of Hanoi’s negotiating moves appears to Mr. Draper as laudable signals of sincere peace-seeking,” he is guilty of vulgar misrepresentation (and not in this instance alone). I was mainly concerned with how “sincere” our “peace-seeking” had been. We have never tested North Vietnam’s “sincerity” because we have demanded an unacceptable price for the cessation of the bombing. In any case, this war will be brought to an end not on the basis of the “sincerity” of either side but on the ground of their self-interest. It is my conviction that both sides have plenty of reason to end it short of “military victory.”

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