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A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Not to Negotiate

The Vietnam war again seems bound to become dirtier, larger, and costlier on both sides. It may even have passed the point of no return and may settle down as a grim, pestilential “protracted war,” the Chinese Communist equivalent of the old-fashioned “war of attrition.” If so, the fatal turning point came in February 1967, preceded and followed by weeks of fancy diplomatic footwork, false hopes, and phony peace formulas.

As each move and maneuver comes into the news, it tends to live a life of its own, undefiled by previous moves and maneuvers. Yet, as every historian knows, history is not made that way, and it is necessary to put the pieces together to understand any one of them. The fate of the Johnson-Ho Chi Minh correspondence in February or of Secretary-General U Thant’s new three point peace plan in March cannot be understood by itself, divorced from the events which led up to it or the consequences that flowed from it. Both these episodes and others in the recent past need to be seen in a somewhat larger historical perspective if they are to be rescued from providing more pretexts for waging an ever more brutalizing and destructive war.

The most striking and peculiar aspect of the latest turn of the war is that both sides seemed to be coming closer to a basis for negotiation just before the United States made the decision in February to intensify and broaden the scale of the attack on North Vietnam. The form of the complex, deceptive, and promising diplomatic maneuvers resulted in large part from the “negotiating positions” which both sides had previously taken. To see these positions clearly, it is necessary to go back about two years.

The basic North Vietnamese position went back to the four-point program enunciated by Premier Pham Van Dong on April 8, 1965. This had called, in substance, for (1) withdrawal of all United States military forces from South Vietnam, (2) neutralization of both South and North Vietnam, (3) settlement of South Vietnam’s internal affairs “in accordance with the program” of the National Liberation Front, and (4) peaceful reunification. Pham Van Dong had offered it as “the basis for the soundest political settlement of the Vietnam problem.” If this basis were “recognized,” he said, “favorable conditions” for the peaceful settlement of the problem would be created and an international conference “along the pattern of” the Geneva conference of 1954 could be reconvened.1

On the surface, none of these four points appeared to be an insuperable obstacle to some form of peaceful negotiations. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 18, 1966, Secretary of State Rusk said that the United States could accept three of the four points, the first, second, and fourth. The only exception he took was to the third, which he called “the core of the Communist position.” In order to make it totally unacceptable, however, Secretary Rusk had to engage in one of his most tortuous intellectual exercises.

Instead of being content, for diplomatic purposes, to view the disputed third point as meaning no more and no less than what it said, he chose to reinterpret it according to the original NLF program of December 1960, issued in the heyday of Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime. By this means Secretary Rusk sought to convince the committee that Pham Van Dong’s third point implied prior recognition of the National Liberation Front as “the sole spokesman for the people of South Vietnam,” which “hence should control them.” Yet the earlier document had merely called for the overthrow of Diem’s regime and its replacement by a broad “coalition government.” Mr. Rusk leaped from the 1965 point to the 1960 program to arrive at the utterly gratuitous conclusion that Hanoi had really demanded the acceptance in advance of the NLF “as the sole bargaining representative of the South Vietnamese people.”2 In reality, the December 1960 program was such a lengthy, diffuse, and essentially moderate political mosaic, carefully contrived to appeal to the greatest number and variety of anti-Diem elements, that it could have been used as a basis of negotiations without committing anyone to anything very much in advance.3 Unfortunately, no one on the committee seemed to know the documents intimately enough to challenge the Secretary’s fanciful exegesis.

In its own propaganda, the NLF had styled itself “the only genuine representative of the fourteen million South Vietnamese people,” a type of claim even democratic politicians have been known to make. But Pham Van Dong had made the issue the NLF’S nebulous “program,” designed to be all things to all men, rather than its organizational status. Only after the bombing of North Vietnam had gone on for almost a year did Ho Chi Minh demand that the United States “must recognize the NLFSV as the sole genuine representative of the people of South Vietnam and engage in negotiations with it.” 4 Whatever significance this hardening of the North Vietnamese position may have had in 1966, it was not at issue in 1965 except to the extent that American diplomacy chose to give the most extreme interpretation to Pham Van Dong’s third point, the only one that ostensibly stood in the way of accepting all four as a basis of negotiations. And even for that purpose, it would have been necessary for Secretary Rusk to reinterpret the third point in terms of later rather than earlier Communist statements.

It may be suspected that the real reason for straining at this point was less semantic than military. In April 1965, the United States feared the total collapse of the South Vietnamese military front. Experience has shown that diplomatic negotiations, whatever their “basis” may be, tend to reflect the relative positions of power. This is, in my view, reason enough to explain American reluctance to engage in negotiations at that time. The American ability to bring its own overwhelming military power quickly into the balance, however, may easily have given the Communist side pause and forced it to settle for much less than the existing balance of forces within South Vietnam seemed to indicate. In any case, negotiations in the first half of 1965—the last time they might have taken place in a relatively restrained atmosphere—would have demanded that both sides be content with something short of “victory.” Instead, the impression was created of irreconcilable positions that were virtually mirror images of each other—of a National Liberation Front that claimed to “represent” all the people of South Vietnam, and of a National Liberation Front that represented virtually no one in South Vietnam.


The American negotiating position can be traced back to April 1965. Until that time, the United States did not really have a negotiating position because it did not believe in negotiations as a means of ending the war. As late as April 2, Secretary of State Rusk spoke disparagingly: “What is there to be negotiated? Who is going to negotiate, and to what end?” He complained that what was missing was “some private contact that indicates that a satisfactory basis of settlement can be found.” A British correspondent asked: “You’ve had silence, completely?” To which Mr. Rusk seemed to give an affirmative, if somewhat ambiguous, answer: “No indication that—despite a number of contacts of various sorts—no indication that Hanoi is prepared to leave Laos and South Vietnam alone.” In this period, the United States position, as expressed by Mr. Rusk, was to look for an “indication,” or what he had previously called a “crucial element,” from Hanoi “to stop doing what it is doing and what it knows it is doing against its neighbors.” This attitude was a corollary of the State Department thesis, adopted publicly in February 1965, that North Vietnam was and had always been the cause of the trouble in South Vietnam. Instead of negotiating, Mr. Rusk merely advised North Vietnam to stop “what it is doing.” It was this approach which had doomed Secretary General Thant’s efforts at the end of 1964 and the beginning of 1965.

On April 7, only five days after Secretary Rusk’s brush-off of possible negotiations, President Johnson abruptly inserted in his speech at Johns Hopkins University a passage which put him on record in favor of “unconditional discussions.”5 The same words were used in the US reply the following day to an appeal from seventeen nations for negotiations without preconditions. It was not clear whether “discussions” were the same as “negotiations,” but the important word seemed to be “unconditional.”

At this point, a French initiative gave Secretary Rusk an opportunity to reveal just how unconditional this unconditional offer was. In May 1965, Foreign Minister Couve de Murville confidentially told a group of correspondents in Paris that North Vietnam had signified a willingness to talk without conditions, but that he had found Washington unreceptive to the news. At a press conference on August 27, Secretary Rusk was asked about reports that President de Gaulle was waiting for the right moment “to personally negotiate an end to the Vietnam war.” The question was raised: “Would we welcome any such efforts by de Gaulle?” After remarking, somewhat acidly, that neither side had “nominated attorneys in this field,” as if that were the issue, Mr. Rusk went on to give some insight into what he considered to be “unconditional discussions.” He said that he was waiting for a “key signal” to turn up, and that his “antennae” had not yet picked it up. Thus, it appeared, the “unconditional discussions” were dependent on a prior condition that Mr.Rusk’s antennae should pick up a “key signal,” the nature of which he coyly refused to reveal. At least something new had been added to the language of diplomacy—the conditional unconditional.

From this and other statements and incidents later that year—including Eric Sevareid’s disclosure of the late Adlai Stevenson’s troubled conscience over the State Department’s handling of U Thant’s peace efforts—the US negotiating position in 1965 was made unmistakably clear. First, the impression was created early that year that there was nothing, and no one with whom, to negotiate. Second, the other side was outbid with what seemed like a most magnanimous commitment to engage in “unconditional discussions.” Third, the unconditional was gradually conditioned to mean that the United States had to be previously convinced of the other side’s intention to be “serious” and “meaningful.” Fourth, this in turn depended on Secretary Rusk’s “antennae” receiving a “key signal” in advance. Fifth, the “key signal” was nothing less than the other side’s precedent undertaking “to stop trying to impose their will by force on South Vietnam,” that is, to agree to unilateral renunciation of the armed struggle. No doubt mere words would not have carried conviction with Mr. Rusk and the enemy would have had to satisfy some test of deeds to get the “key signal” through to his antennae.

  1. 1

    The full text of the four points first appeared in The New York Times, April 14, 1965, and this version may be found in The Viet-Nam Reader, edited by Marcus Raskin and Bernard B. Fall, pp. 42-43. The problem of correctly interpreting or even translating the third point is discussed in George McTurnan Kahin and John W. Lewis, The United States in Vietnam (Dial, 1967, p. 210). They report that the Chinese version would have made the third point completely innocuous. A literal English translation of the text used by the Jenmin Jih-pao (People’s Daily), the official Peking organ, of April 14, 1965, reads: “According to the program of the Southern National Liberation Front, the affairs of the South must be settled by the Southern people themselves without foreign interference.” Of such stuff are diplomatic imbroglios sometimes made, when there is no will to get together.

  2. 2

    The Vietnam Hearings (Vintage Books, 1966), pp. 246-247.

  3. 3

    The December 20, 1960, “action program” of the NLF called for a “broad, national, and democratic coalition government composed of representatives of every sector of the population, various nationalities, political parties, religious communities, and patriotic personalities.” It wanted to “abolish the present constitution of the Ngo Dinh Diem dictatorial government and with universal suffrage elect a new National Assembly. Freedom of expression, press, assembly, association, travel, religion, and other democratic liberties will be promulgated. Religious, political, and patriotic organizations will be permitted freedom of activity regardless of beliefs and tendencies,” etc. The entire document may be found in Douglas Pike, The Viet Cong, pp. 344-47, who devotes an entire chapter to tracing the various changes in the NLF’S programmatic efforts (pp. 344-71). There is a somewhat different but similar translation in Bernard Fall, The Two Viet-Nams, pp. 449-53. It may be argued that the NLF program was democratic window-dressing to lure the greatest number of anti-Diem opponents; it cannot be argued that it was an outright bid for sole Communist control. Secretary Rusk refers to the NLF program as announced from Hanoi on January 29, 1961, instead of using the more usual date, December 20, 1960, when it was first issued.

  4. 4

    Ho Chi Minh, Letter to World Communist leaders, dated Hanoi, January 24, 1966.

  5. 5

    The circumstances tend to support the assertion of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that the reference to “unconditional discussions” was “a last-minute concession to the Peace Bloc that amazed those who had seen the earlier version of the speech” (Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power, New American Library, 1966, p. 544).

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