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A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Not to Negotiate

As long as this was the United States negotiating position, all efforts to arrange for negotiations were bound to fail because the missing “crucial element” and “key signal” were designed to give the United States what it wanted in advance as the price of so-called negotiations. Whether a different policy might have led to meaningful negotiations in 1965 is another question. But at least the United States would not have stood in the way. And, as a fringe benefit, we would at least have been spared some peculiarly irritating double talk.


In 1966, the key issue increasingly became the cessation of American bombing of North Vietnam. The more destructive the bombing, the more determined the North Vietnamese were to stop it before entering into anything resembling negotiations.

But the United States again demanded a price, this time for stopping the bombing, and henceforth the American negotiating position hinged on the concept of “reciprocity.” Throughout 1966, American spokesmen tried to define this accordion-like term. Secretary Rusk tended to stretch it the most. He usually demanded that the “other side” had to give up its “aggression” or “abandon [its] attempt to take South Vietnam over by force” in return for a cessation of the bombing. In the summer of 1966, President Johnson seemed to put forward a more concrete condition. He said that the United States had offered to stop the bombing immediately “if they will stop sending troops into South Vietnam.” This seemed to imply that North Vietnam did not have to withdraw troops, but the President went on to observe that the South Vietnamese could not decide the kind of government and country they wanted “while armed troops from North Vietnam are waging war against their people and against their villages,” which suggested that he expected far more than a cessation of North Vietnamese reinforcements in exchange for a cessation of the bombing.

The various formulas employed in this period were sufficiently vague to give North Vietnam considerable leeway in making known its decision to satisfy the American demand, but the essence of that demand was never left in doubt—the abandonment by North Vietnam of the struggle for power in the South. If, as the United States claimed, the North was responsible for that struggle, the withdrawal of the North was equivalent to its total abandonment. While much ink and breath were wasted over such questions as which side had to make the first move, whether the North demanded permanent as well as unconditional cessation of the bombing, and how the North could convince the United States of its “serious” intentions, the “key signal” had not changed and was well understood by both sides—Communist abdication in the struggle for power in South Vietnam. The United States was deliberately vague because it was less interested in the form than in the substance, and because it preferred to treat the struggle for political power as if it were merely a foreign military aggression.

Toward the end of 1966, another effort was made to break through the diplomatic impasse. According to the most circumstantial report, United States Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge met on December 2 and 3 with the Polish representative on the International Control Commission, Ambassador Janusz Lewandowski, at the home of the Italian ambassador in Saigon. As reported by Robert H. Estabrook in the Washington Post, Lodge asked Lewandowski to set up “contacts” with Hanoi. On or about December 4, Estabrook wrote, Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rapacki sent back word that Hanoi had agreed to unconditional talks on the ambassadorial level in Warsaw, and Washington was asked to send a special representative for this purpose. Before the talks could be held, however, the American bombing offensive was suddenly stepped up. On December 13 and 14, a railway yard only six miles from the heart of Hanoi and a trucking depot only five were heavily attacked—the first time President Johnson had permitted the bombing of targets so close to the city limits of the North Vietnamese capital. For the next two weeks, a debate raged whether these attacks had caused widespread damage to civilian areas. 6 Far more significant perhaps, but still unknown to the general public, was the fact that the bombings had abruptly cut short a seemingly promising peace approach. Oddly, almost the same thing had occurred in somewhat similar circumstances exactly a year before.7

The December 1966 incident was handled in a most peculiar way. At a news conference on February 2, 1967, President Johnson gave the impression that the “other side” had shown little or no interest in any steps toward peace. At one point he said that he was not “aware of any serious effort”; at another that there were no “serious indications”; and at still another that they had “not taken any [step] yet.” On February 4, the day after the President’s interview was published, interested sources enabled Estabrook to divulge the story of the December overtures in the Washington Post. That same day, confirmation that something unusual had been going on came from Walt W. Rostow, the President’s Special Assistant. Professor Rostow refused to comment directly on the Washington Post‘s version on the ground that “this is an extremely interesting and delicate phase in what is or might turn out to be a negotiating process.” But then he, too, made “serious” the key word in the American attitude to such situations: “Nothing has yet happened that would justify us as saying we have a serious offer to negotiate.” One would be justified in interpreting these words to mean that some kind of “pre-negotiating” moves had been going on, and that some sort of “offer,” serious or not, had been made.

Finally, on February 7, Prime Minister Harold Wilson told the House of Commons that he knew all about “events in December” relating to what he referred to as “Polish discussions,” whose failure he attributed to “a very considerable two-way misunderstanding,” the nature of which he did not specify. The Australian Communist journalist Wilfred G. Burchett later disclosed that “first contacts for talks” had been “foiled” by the bombings of December 13-14.8 If, as Prime Minister Wilson claimed, the breakdown had been caused by a “misunderstanding,” the question still remained why, with so much at stake, it could not have been rectified and the “Polish discussions” somehow reinstated.

For a time, indeed, it seemed that such an effort was being made. Until the end of 1966, the main obstacle seemed to be Hanoi’s four points, despite the incongruity that three of them were acceptable to the United States and the only objectionable one had to be given the most extreme and arbitrary interpretation to make it unacceptable. Early in January 1967, however, the Hanoi leaders apparently made an attempt to remove the four points as the main source of confusion and disagreement. In an interview with Harrison E. Salisbury on January 3, Premier Pham Van Dong referred to them as matters for “discussion” rather than as “conditions” prior to negotiations. At the same time, Secretary-General U Thant made known his view, after two weeks of behind-the-scenes probing, that the only thing which stood in the way of peace talks was the question of unconditional cessation of the United States bombing of North Vietnam. The reduction of the problem to this one point seemed to bring both sides closer than ever before to some kind of accommodation. In his press conference on February 2, President Johnson was asked, “Are you prepared at all to tell us what kind of other steps the other side should take for this suspension of bombing?” The President replied, “Just almost any step.” Though he had previously stressed the word “serious” rather than “any”—another accordion-like use of terms—the latter received much publicity and seemed to narrow the gap to a merely formal gesture. In any event, a reply soon came from North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh. Through Burchett, who had not anticipated such a concession9 , the North Vietnamese made known that “if the bombings cease completely, good and favorable conditions will be created for the talks.” That this was intended by Trinh as a response to the President was shown by the following remark: “President Johnson said he was only awaiting a sign. Well, he’s had the sign.” 10

Pressure steadily mounted, during the first two weeks of February, for the United States to respond to this “sign.” Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who had been silent on the subject for several months, returned from Paris on February 4, amid reports that he had brought back with him a new North Vietnamese “peace plan.” The story was later traced to a “leak” in the State Department, and the “peace plan” turned out to be a secondhand version by a French Foreign Ministry official. Nevertheless, Mr. Kennedy made known that he was critical of the official United States negotiating policy, as a result of which a heated, if not sulfurous, meeting took place between him and President Johnson on February 6.

The following day, on the eve of an agreed-upon four-day Têt (lunar new year) truce, Pope Paul VI sent messages to President Johnson, President Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnamese Chief of State, Nguyen Van Thieu, urging them to find ways to end the war. The responses from the first two were not encouraging. On February 8, President Johnson stressed that the United States could not be expected “to reduce military action unless the other side is willing to do likewise” and consider a “balanced reduction” in military activity. Ho Chi Minh insisted, in an answer made public on February 13, that “real peace” could be restored in Vietnam only if the United States “put an end to their aggression in Vietnam, end unconditionally and definitely the bombing and all other acts of war against the Democratic Republic of [North] Vietnam, withdraw from South Vietnam all American and satellite troops, recognize the South Vietnam National Front for Liberation and let the Vietnamese people settle themselves their own affairs.” Though there was nothing new in either of these public postures, the Pope’s intervention at this moment was not without significance.

On February 8, as the military truce in Vietnam went into effect, Soviet Premier Kosygin arrived in London for talks with Prime Minister Harold Wilson. On that same day, Kosygin pointedly referred to Nguyen Duy Trinh’s offer to negotiate in return for a cessation of bombing, and gave it his blessings. He saw fit to offer the same advice the following day. Since the Soviet leaders had previously refrained from injecting themselves publicly into the North Vietnam-United States negotiating problem, this deliberate repetition represented a new policy. There is reason to believe that the Soviet leaders decided to back publicly North Vietnam’s new one-point negotiating position because they had had something to do with bringing it about. According to Burchett, it was “open knowledge that a number of Socialist-bloc countries were urging such a move over a year ago,” but the North Vietnamese leaders had resisted on the ground that it would have been regarded as a sign of weakness by the United States and would have invited an intensification of the bombing.

  1. 6

    It took almost two weeks for American officials to admit officially that the bombings had caused civilian casualties as well as widespread damage to civilian areas, and then only after The New York Times of December 27, 1966, had published Harrison Salisbury’s eye-witness report of such damage. At this time, American officials still stressed that the bombs were aimed at “military targets” only but that civilian casualties were incidental, unavoidable, and, above all, not “deliberate.” On December 30, 1966, the military correspondent of The New York Times, Hanson W. Baldwin, disclosed that “United States ordnance is being expended in North and South Vietnam at an annual rate of about 500,000 tons, somewhat more than the Army Air Forces expended against Japan in the Pacific during World War II.” At this rate, which soon rose sharply, the problem arises whether the inevitability of the consequences are not more important than the deliberateness of the motivation. One who fires a machine gun into a crowd in order to kill a single person can hardly protest that he did not mean to injure anyone else “deliberately”—especially if he misses his intended victim, as sometimes happens in the bombing of military targets. The indirect but unavoidable by-products of a course of action cannot be exempted morally. The same problem is raised by Viet Cong terrorists, but the moral equation here is, to my mind, complicated by two questions: (1) whether the terror and counter-terror of Vietnamese against Vietnamese should be put on the same level as the violence and counter-violence of a foreign power against Vietnamese, and (2) whether the scale of destructiveness of a few mortar shells balances that of a sustained downpour of 1000-pound bombs. The scale of destructiveness cannot, in my view, be disregarded in this consideration of “moral double bookkeeping.” If the Nazis had exterminated 600 or even 6000 Jews, it would have been an unmitigated moral crime but it would not have been a moral enormity on the scale of 6,000,000. Hiroshima has shaken the conscience of the world not because a bomb was used but a bomb of unprecedented destructiveness. If there is no moral distinction between a terrorist and an atomic or nuclear bomb, we have already prepared the ground, psychologically and morally, for using weapons of unimaginable destructiveness.

  2. 7

    On November 11, 1965, two wellknown Italian visitors to Hanoi, one of them the former Mayor of Florence, Giorgio La Pira, were received by Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong. They came away with what they regarded as a statement of two conditions considered necessary by the North Vietnamese for peace negotiations: (a) a total cease-fire in North and South Vietnam, without the prior evacuation of any United States troops, and (b) acceptance as the basis for negotiations of the 1954 Geneva Agreements, which the Vietnamese chose to regard as embodied in Pham Van Dong’s four points of April 8, 1965. The latter lent itself to the interpretation that the North Vietnamese wanted to reduce the four points, only one of which was disputed by the United States, to the Geneva Agreements, the return of which the United States had already accepted. On November 20, the Italian message was communicated to President Johnson by Italian Foreign Minister Amintore Fanfani, Instead of seizing the opportunity to see whether a cease-fire and a reapplication of the Geneva Agreements could bring the two sides together, the United States took two weeks to reply. On December 4, Secretary of State Rusk sent Fanfani a letter raising questions about the Italian version of the Hanoi offer, including a disagreement with the contention that the four points constituted an “authentic interpretation” of the Geneva Agreements, and asked Fanfani to get further clarification from Hanoi. On December 13, Fanfani informed Rusk that such a communication had started on its way to Hanoi five days earlier. On December 15, before any reply could be received, United States planes for the first time bombed and destroyed a major North Vietnamese industrial target, a thermal power plant fourteen miles from the key port of Haiphong. And that was the end of that interesting and delicate phase of what was or might have turned out to be a negotiating process, to use Professor Rostow’s later words. (The Fanfani correspondence may be found in the Department of State Bulletin, January 3, 1966, pp. 11-13.)

  3. 8

    Washington Post, February 8.

  4. 9

    In a letter dated October 29, 1966, Burchett had expressed extreme pessimism with respect to a possible basis for negotiations. Previously, he said, the North Vietnamese leaders had not demanded prior withdrawal of any American forces as a condition of negotiations, but the continued build-up had convinced them that some “concrete acts” of withdrawal would be necessary (War/Peace Report, November 1966, p. 5).

  5. 10

    Washington Post, February 8. Curiously, the otherwise similar version of Burchett’s article published in The New York Times, February 8, 1967, does not contain the second sentence. Trinh had first broached this line to Burchett in an interview on January 28, 1967.

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