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A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Not to Negotiate


Most important, a letter from President Johnson to President Ho Chi Minh, dated February 2, was delivered to a North Vietnamese representative in Moscow on February 8. The letter was not made public until March 21, and therefore it could not be directly related by outsiders to anything said publicly in the intervening time. Yet its contents enable us to reconstruct more clearly the kind of thinking that went into the making of American policy before February 8.

By that date, it had become perfectly clear that the North Vietnamese negotiating position had been reduced to its irreducible minimum. There was no doubt in President Johnson’s mind what it was, because he explicitly stated it in his letter—“direct bilateral talks with representatives of the United States Government provided that we ceased ‘unconditionally’ and permanently our bombing operations against your country and all military actions against it.” He noted that this position had been confirmed in the last day by “serious and responsible parties”—one of them, no doubt, Premier Kosygin.

The next point of particular interest in President Johnson’s letter is why this proposal could not be accepted. It gave two reasons: a halt in the bombing would tell the world that discussions were going on and impair their “privacy and secrecy”; and North Vietnam would use the halt to “improve its military position.” The American counter-proposal was then put forward to get around these seemingly dire eventualities.

I am prepared to order a cessation of bombing against your country and the stopping of further augmentation of US forces in South Vietnam as soon as I am assured that infiltration into South Vietnam by land and by sea has stopped. These acts of restraint on both sides would, I believe, make it possible for us to conduct serious and private discussions leading toward an early peace.

The question which will be long debated is whether this counterproposal was justified by the two reasons given for making it necessary. If an unconditional cessation of the bombing would have given away the projected discussions and impaired their privacy and secrecy, would not a cessation of the bombing plus demonstrated North Vietnamese cessation of infiltration have resulted in exactly the same thing? Would anyone have been deceived any more by North Vietnamese acceptance of the United States terms than United States acceptance of North Vietnam’s terms? The first “difficulty,” then, could hardly be taken seriously.

The second objection raised by President Johnson was more troublesome—but only if one side used it exclusively against the other. Both sides were capable of improving their military positions in South Vietnam, if they so desired, with or without bombing of North Vietnam. Moreover, the transport facilities of the United States forces were vastly greater than those of North Vietnam. Indeed, the Têt truce was actually used by both sides to bring in new equipment and troops. United States officials charged that North Vietnam made an unprecedented effort to move arms and supplies into the South.11 But US Air Force officials in Saigon reported that US cargo planes had carried a one-day record of 2762 tons of equipment to US troops on February 8, the first day of the truce and the very day President Johnson’s letter was handed to Moscow. The total for February 8-10 was 7042 tons of equipment and more than 17,000 troops delivered by the Air Force alone.12 One wonders what the United States would have done and how its citizens would have felt if the positions had been reversed and they had read the following report from the official French news agency in Le Monde of February 12-13, 1967:

Saigon, February 11 (A.P.F.,)—While American agencies call attention to a considerable intensification of road, railroad, river and sea traffic in North Vietnam, press correspondents could affirm on Friday [February 10] on the Saigon-Tay Ninh road that the American commissariat also took advantage of the Têt truce to increase troop resupply in combat rations as well as arms.

Long rows of trucks belonging to military transport companies were lined up on the North-West road. They were protected by tanks and helicopters flying at tree level. In the area of Tay Ninh, enormous trucks or towing tractors brought shells for 105 mm. and 155 mm. guns to the American units stationed on the periphery of the Vietcong’s Zone C.

Thus, at worst, the United States was quite capable of holding its own in the improvement of the relative military position. It might have made more sense for North Vietnam to worry about what the United States could do to improve its military strength in the South, in the event of negotiations based wholly on a halt of bombing in the North. Only the United States, in fact, was by this time capable of mounting large-scale offensives on the ground in the South. On February 22, more than 25,000 United States and South Vietnamese troops were able to launch a major offensive, “Operation Junction City,” in “War Zone C,” northwest of Saigon near the Cambodian border, no doubt with some of the material brought in during the Têt truce. By this time, whatever their resupply efforts were, the North Vietnam-Viet Cong forces were not capable of mounting a remotely comparable military effort.13

On March 15, President Johnson himself bore witness to the fact that the enemy’s tactics had been adapted to “a war of infiltration, of subversion, of ambush: pitched battles are very rare and even more rarely are they decisive.” It was almost certainly true that North Vietnam would try by all means to improve its military position during the truce and thus endanger more American lives; it was questionable whether North Vietnam could improve its position so much or so unilaterally as to change the balance of military power in South Vietnam; and it was extremely doubtful whether fewer American lives would be lost by risking an improvement in North Vietnam’s military position to get negotiations than by risking negotiations to prevent an indefinite extension of the struggle.

President Johnson’s letter of February 8 did not reach Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi until February 10. While Washington was waiting for an answer, other voices made themselves heard. On February 10, Secretary-General U Thant urged an “indefinite and unconditional extension” of the truce and renewed his three-point plan, “starting with an unconditional end to the bombing of North Vietnam,” which, he said, could “bring about a favorable climate for peaceful talks between the parties.” Before the four-day truce ended, Premier Kosygin and Prime Minister Wilson asked for an extension of two days, which was granted. Presumably they would not have asked for it if they had given up hope. On February 12, the last day of the now six-day truce, Republican Senator Jacob K. Javits of New York, a serious and thoughtful legislator, came out in support of “unconditional cessation” of the United States bombing of the North. The next day, Sunday, Neil Sheehan of The New York Times noted, “diplomatic activity appeared to be intense” and senior United States officials in the White House and State Department spent the afternoon in their offices.

FEBRUARY 12 was apparently the day of decision. For on February 13, President Johnson announced the resumption of “full-scale hostilities,” including the renewed bombing of North Vietnam. He blamed the decision on the Hanoi Government which, he said, had used the truce for “major resupply efforts of their troops in South Vietnam.”

Thus, it appears, only three days elapsed between the time Ho Chi Minh received President Johnson’s letter in Hanoi and the President’s decision to resume the fighting and bombing. Ho Chi Minh’s reply to the letter had nothing to do with the decision because it was not sent until two days later, February 15. Indeed, Ho Chi Minh’s reply may have been influenced by the President’s decision, not vice versa. The “resupply” of North Vietnamese troops was admittedly not a violation of the truce, which had merely called for a temporary halt to the fighting. Both sides, as we have seen, were using the cease-fire to bring in men, arms, and supplies, as they were legally entitled to do; it is hard to imagine that the United States was not able to do at least as well as North Vietnam in this respect.

Ho Chi Minh’s reply of February 15 was obviously intended to influence world opinion rather than to persuade President Johnson. Most of the reply charged the United States with aggression and war crimes. Toward the end, however, one section was devoted to conditions for restoring peace and another to a basis for direct talks, the two apparently treated in different terms. To restore peace, Ho demanded that the United States should “definitively and unconditionally” stop the bombing of North Vietnam and all other acts of war against North Vietnam; withdraw all United States and “satellite” troops from South Vietnam; recognize the South Vietnam National Liberation Front; and permit the Vietnamese people to settle their own affairs. To initiate direct talks between the United States and North Vietnam, he repeated only the first demand.

Other questions which will be long debated are whether three days were long enough to wait for Ho Chi Minh’s reply, whether North Vietnam’s “resupply efforts” were sufficient reason to resume hostilities, and whether they should have been resumed without warning Ho Chi Minh how long the United States was willing to wait. The manner in which the entire exchange was handled suggests that both sides were responding more to outside pressures than to their inner convictions. It had taken its allies more than a year to get North Vietnam to agree to a one-point negotiating position, namely, cessation of the bombing. The United States was constrained to make some gesture at the start of the Têt truce and the Wilson-Kosygin meeting in London.14 The tenuousness of the President’s reasoning for rejecting cessation of the bombing, the precipitancy of his decision to resume hostilities, and the almost immediately enlarged scale of those hostilities did not give the impression of a man whose heart was in successful peace negotiations. Indeed his letter of February 8 seemed a gauntlet flung before an opponent to make him accept terms which he had already declined to accept, and which would have put him at a disadvantage. The Johnson-Ho Chi Minh letters of February 1967 were designed to stake out positions rather than to come to terms with a reality that neither party was yet prepared to accept. They were not the first or the last moves of their kind, and they can only be understood with reference to what had gone on before as well as what would come after them.


Suddenly, after all the meetings and letters and go-betweens, the war broke loose again, and more destructively than ever before.

  1. 11

    This may have been one of the greatest hoaxes of the war, and one of the greatest derelictions of the American press. With the exception of I. F. Stone’s Weekly, I have seen no serious questioning of the propaganda handed out by the Department of Defense to justify the resumption of the bombing. As reported in U.S. News & World Report of March 27, 1967, a lavish briefing at the Pentagon on March 17, 1967, was said to demonstrate: “While US bombers were grounded from February 8 through February 11, the Communists made hay in the North, moving a staggering volume of arms, equipment, food and supplies toward infiltration routes into South Vietnam for use against American and Allied forces.” The tonnage moved from North to South was first given as 35,000 tons and then reduced to 23,000 tons, all based on “photographic and visual sightings” from the air. As I. F. Stone pointed out (March 27, 1967), the reporting was incredibly sloppy; the Pentagon spokesman did not go farther than to claim a knowledge of “Resupply Activities Within North Vietnam,” and there was no evidence that any of the trucks sighted had moved out of the North; there was no way of identifying whether the trucks carried military supplies or not; and it was even admitted that some of the supplies were non-military and “not all bound for South Vietnam.” Since the scare stories about the North Vietnamese “resupply efforts” were crucial to the resumption of the bombing, which was crucial to all the subsequent events, a thorough examination of this dubious justification for breaking the truce is by now long overdue.

  2. 12

    The New York Times, February 6, 1967; Newsweek, February 13, 1967; The New York Times, March 13, 1967; Time, March 17, 1967.

  3. 13

    On January 17, 1967, in an address at Washington, D.C., General Earle G. Wheeler, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared: “Where regimental attacks were once common, and division attacks clearly pended [in 1965], we now find ourselves fighting mostly companies and battalions. We estimate that their battalions are now averaging only one day’s fighting per month. And where once the enemy could sustain combat for a month at a time, as in the Ia Drang, he now hits and runs to avoid disaster.” If this was the state of the enemy’s forces in mid-January, it is hard to imagine that three or four days of resupply efforts, which the United States could more than match, would have made all that difference only three weeks later.

  4. 14

    One of the more curious aspects of this period has been the ignoble spectacle of a Labour Prime Minister running interference for Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy. After assiduously playing the role of middleman, Prime Minister Wilson declared on February 14: “It is true that one gesture by North Vietnam, which could have cost them nothing in terms of security or even face, could have set in motion events which could have led to peace.” Was this “gesture” something other than what President Johnson demanded of Ho Chi Minh in his letter of February 8, namely, the halt of North Vietnamese “infiltration” into South Vietnam? If it was more or less the same thing, could it be described as costing North Vietnam nothing, not even a loss of face? And if it was much less, why did the February 8 letter ask for more? Moreover, Mr. Wilson went to the trouble of justifying intensified American suspicions on the ground that “there were massive military movements by North Vietnam aimed at securing a military advantage” during the Têt truce, but he did not find it necessary to say anything about massive American military movements. The Times (London) of February 15, 1967, said that only Mr. Wilson and Foreign Secretary George Brown know the “secret” of what Mr. Wilson was talking about in his mysterious allusions to the required North Vietnamese “gesture” and other references. If Mr. Wilson was right, incidentally, it would seem to have been fitting for him to ask, not only why North Vietnam did not make this “gesture,” but also why the peace of the world should be jeopardized for something that would not even have caused North Vietnam to lose face. Surely Mr. Wilson owes his party, his people, and the world an explanation.

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