The lunar New Year truce in Vietnam last month seemed to offer an unusually good opportunity, not only to bring about an acceptable peace in Vietnam but to help accomplish four stated goals of US foreign policy. At last the Soviet Government, which long claimed no jurisdiction in Vietnam, was ready to join with the State Department in a limited partnership, to bring off some sort of compromise settlement. The significance of this development was heightened by the fact that Soviet-American cooperation would obviously take place at the expense of a convulsed and diplomatically inert China. Within Vietnam itself, in the opinion of many qualified observers, a military stalemate prevailed and this too seemed to lend itself to the limited ends of measured diplomacy rather than to the millenial hopes of unrestricted force. Finally, and perhaps of greatest importance, the Administration had recently been confronted with solid evidence, in the testimony of Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times, that the objectives of Hanoi and the National Liberation Front differed in important ways; in particular, Mr. Salisbury reported, the NLF seemed as publicly committed to an independent, non-socialist South Vietnam as Walter Lippman himself. Thus there appeared to be room for a settlement which would preserve not only Washington’s “face” but also the substance of the policy which, it is said, led to US intervention in Vietnam in the first place. In short, if events were ruled by “pragmatism,” hard-nosed “realism,” tough-minded “moderation,” and all the other somewhat unattractive but obviously utilarian characteristics so cherished by our foreign policy establishment, the Tet cease-fire was but a prelude to better things. Or so it would seem.
What in fact happened was quite a different matter. Each of those factors which should have promoted a compromise settlement became for Washington a reason for hardening its line and going on to a considerable expansion of the war. It is an unhappy but illuminating tale.
DIPLOMATIC ACTIVITY concerning the cease-fire began with Wilfred Burchett’s now famous interview with Hanoi’s Foreign Minister, Nguyen Duy Trinh, on January 28. Trinh spoke in an obviously conciliatory way. He took pains to emphasize that the famous Four Points of the North Vietnamese formed a basis for discussion, not a series of demands or conditions. He offered talks with the US and asked only for an end to the bombing of the North. He suggested that Hanoi was sensitive to the need to “fulfill [its] duty to the peoples of the friendly [read ‘Soviet’] countries” in order to “contribute to the maintenance of peace in South East Asia and the world.” Significantly, the Foreign Minister made no demands with regard to the situation in South Vietnam. Broadly implying that he was in a position to speak for the South, he went on to express the view that Hanoi’s conciliatory Four Points took precedence over the Front’s hardline Five Points of March 22, 1965, and he failed to restate the ritual demand that the US “recognize” the NLF.
There was no response from Washington. The response came, not surprisingly, from Huynh Tan Phat, a founder, Vice President, and still prime mover of the NLF. In a January 30 interview with the Front’s own Liberation Press Agency, Phat, who is reputed to be a moderate within the Front’s political spectrum, supported Trinh’s demand for an end to the bombing of the North but then went on to repudiate virtually everything else Trinh had said. He began by pointing out categorically that there could be no talks with Washington since the latter had not given up its designs on South Vietnam. Then, asked to comment on Trinh’s remarks, Phat revealed fear that the North Vietnamese were prepared to drop their now considerable assistance to the South. His remarks were indirect, but unmistakably clear. First he emphasized the essential unity of the Vietnamese struggle, North and South. Then he went on to underline the determination of the NLF to fight so long as the North was under attack. Finally, he praised Trinh’s expression of the “profound sentiments and firm support of the North Vietnamese people to their South Vietnamese kith and kin”—precisely the sentiments which Trinh had not uttered. Phat then announced the NLF’S hard line: The US must get out of Vietnam, respect the national rights of the South Vietnamese people, and recognize the Front as their “only genuine representative.” Phat strongly reiterated the Five Point stand of the NLF, emphasizing its special and fundamental importance to the South Vietnamese situation. It is worth noting that the Five Points contain the first open request from the NLF for northern assistance in arms and men. He then concluded by observing that the “world’s people” would more and more come to accept and approve the Front’s stand and recognize in it a contribution to freedom and peace in the world.
After the Phat interview became known to Washington, on February 1, the Administration, for the first time, began to show extraordinary interest in Trinh’s remarks. The next day, at the President’s press conference, a new line began to develop. One might have expected the US to exploit the differences on the opposing side by agreeing to meet with Hanoi. Instead, the Administration reacted to the apparent division among its adversaries by starting to raise its own demands: we would end the bombing of the North in exchange for a reduction of Northern assistance to the South. We are looking for a sign, the President said, almost any sign would do, and then went on to point out that our pacification efforts in the South would certainly continue. The President noted, too, that developments in China were not likely to strengthen North Vietnam’s position, a theme which was to recur over and over in Washington for the next two weeks.
Following the press conference, the Administration sat back to wait. For several days official comment dried up: it was, as Walt Rostow pointed out when cornered at a student conference on February 4, “an extremely interesting and delicate phase.” The Administration was awaiting the assistance of Soviet Premier Kosygin, who was to arrive in Britain on the 6th. In the interim a special study was ordered by the Pentagon to check whether Hanoi had already diminished its assistance to the South.
BY ALL REPORTS the opening conversations between Kosygin and Harold Wilson were very encouraging. The Soviets had changed their view: not only were they interested in a settlement but for the first time they were willing to encourage North Vietnam to deescalate its war effort, provided the US would cease for good its bombing. Once again the Administration raised its demands. In a hastily called press conference on the 9th, Secretary Rusk noted that while there had been some diminution of northern assistance to the South, it was not yet, as the Secretary put it, of a magnitude to carry “political consequences.” Rusk demanded “elementary reciprocity”: an end to the bombing for an end to “aggression” against South Vietnam. The next day, in a speech officially dubbed the “benchmark” of the US position, the Administration’s most prominent “dove,” Arthur Goldberg, reiterated the position, returning seven different times to the fundamental demand that northern assistance to the South be dropped. Goldberg’s remarks about the NLF, though couched in a reasonable prose calling for a “political solution,” revealed that the Administration had retreated to an older and harder position. Quoting President Johnson’s remarks of April, 1965, Goldberg indicated that we had no objection to the NLF being represented at any future peace conference within the Hanoi delegation. Similarly, he paraphrased one of Dean Rusk’s old formulations to point out that members of the NLF might in the future participate freely in the political life of South Vietnam, provided only that they first give over their arms to the Saigon Government of General Thieu and Marshall Ky.
When these views failed to chill London’s optimism a bombing pause was decided on at the last minute. Thus while the end of the truce in South Vietnam on the morning of February 12th (local time) was marked “within minutes” by a B-52 raid on Quang Ngai Province and the resumption or initiation of sixty-nine major “allied” operations, no bombers penetrated North Vietnam. As Washington spokesmen freely admitted, the pause was keyed to what appeared to be the progress of the London talks.
During this period, as a rapid series of messages was exchanged through London by Washington and Hanoi, the NLF made what appears to have been a transparent effort to interrupt negotiations. On the morning of the 13th (local time) the Front broke its several-months-old moratorium on terror within Saigon and attempted (unsuccessfully) to fire mortars at US Military Headquarters in the downtown section. Unlike its response to the attack on Pleiku in February, 1965, the US still withheld its bombers.
Meanwhile in London the Wilson-Kosygin talks had terminated very cordially and hopefully but without achieving agreement. Then at 1 A.M. on the morning of the 13th, just six hours before Kosygin was to depart, the British Prime Minister paid a surprise visit to his Soviet guest. He brought with him a final and formal US offer to Hanoi proposing an end to the bombing in exchange for the cessation of northern assistance to the Front. According to reports in the British and French press, Kosygin communicated this offer, apparently along with his own approval, to the North Vietnamese Government. Whether Hanoi actually refused or merely failed to reply is uncertain. In any case, within five hours of Kosygin’s departure US planes had bombed North Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh’s message to the Pope later the same day made it clear that Hanoi had rejected the Administration’s demand. He now hewed closely to the NLF’s harder terms for a final settlement of the war—not just “talks”: the US had to halt the bombing of North Vietnam, recognize the NLF as the leader of popular resistance in the South, and undertake to withdraw all of its forces from South Vietnam. Administration spokesmen were “surprised” at the intransigence of the statement.
They should not have been. As Hanoi has since made clear, Ho’s statement was only the ritual conclusion to yet another abortive peace flurry. Against the combined weight of three nuclear powers and, I am nearly convinced, of their wavering compatriots, it would seem that the revolutionaries of the South have once more prevailed. They demand that the war in the South be settled in the South, that Ky and Thieu must go. As Salisbury made clear, they offer to support a coalition government, pledge South Vietnam’s neutrality, accept limited international supervision of any agreement; but they will not allow US guidance—friendly or otherwise—of South Vietnam’s future. Their war of “national liberation” has not been defeated.
If the United States had seized the opportunity offered by Trinh, would the dissent of the NLF still have made negotiations fruitless or impossible? No one in the West can answer this question with confidence. But the US insured by its actions that it would not be raised at all.
WHY DID THE US reject what appears to have been an opportunity to achieve an end to the war, on favorable terms, with Soviet assistance and to the embarrassment of the Chinese? Part of the answer, of course, is that it falsely interpreted Trinh’s stand as one born of weakness and tried to exploit that “weakness” in an opportunistic way. More important, however, is the fact that the Administration, on the evidence of its recent performance, does not want an “acceptable peace”; it wants victory. And as the Vietnamese have now demonstrated to the Russians, the British, and the rest of the world, even the so-called peace forces within the Administration are prepared to continue to seek this elusive victory.
Diplomacy is of no use to persons who have set off on a holy mission to defeat revolutions everywhere. In a speech at the University of Leeds on February 23, W.W. Rostow, the Ngo Dinh Nhu of the Johnson Administration and the architect since 1961 of our Vietnam policy, revealed that this was indeed the avowed aim of the Johnson Administration. Reviewing international events since the close of the Second World War, Rostow asserted that US policy, especially in Vietnam, had brought about the coming world-historical victory of the forces of “pragmatism and moderation” over those of “a line of romantic revolutionaries reaching back to 1789” (New York Times, Feb. 24). Thus, contrary to all appearances, Mr. Rostow has not been defeated either.