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A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Not to Negotiate

The resumption of hostilities was on not only a full but also a new scale. On February 22, United States artillery for the first time fired across the demilitarized zone into North Vietnamese territory. On February 26, United States warships for the first time shelled supply routes in North Vietnam on a continuing basis without restrictions. On February 27, United States planes for the first time began to mine North Vietnam’s rivers. On March 10, United States bombers for the first time attacked a major industrial plant in North Vietnam, the iron and steel combine at Thainguyen, 38 miles north of Hanoi. The military decisions for this raid were made in mid-February, but unfavorable weather conditions and technical preparations had delayed the operation itself for about three weeks. Subsequent attacks on this and other industrial installations made clear that the new US bombing policy was intended to destroy the economic foundation or “infrastructure” of North Vietnam’s military capability.

The thinking behind this “escalation”—a forbidden word for a familiar fact—began to emerge in statements that were probably less guarded because they were made before the Johnson Ho Chi Minh correspondence came out publicly. On February 27, President Johnson described, with uncharacteristic understatement, the three new military actions of the preceding five days as a “step up” and “more far-reaching.” He restated the logic of every turning point in these terms: “Our principal objective is to provide the maximum deterrent to people who believe aggression pays with a minimum cost to us and to them.” As always, the “maximum deterrent” and “minimum cost” had been forced up to higher and higher levels.

Though he had not concealed his mis-givings, Senator Robert F. Kennedy waited until March 2, after the peace efforts had failed and the new United States military policy had gone into effect, to make known his views in some detail. He first associated himself with “nearly all Americans” who, he said, were determined to remain in Vietnam “until we have fulfilled our commitments.” He saw the United States “at a critical turning point,” instead of having just passed one, and he offered a three-point program, which might have had greater relevance a few weeks earlier. He proposed that the United States should offer to halt the bombings and give North Vietnam a week to start negotiations; to negotiate for a limited period, while the military forces on both sides remained substantially the same; and to seek a final settlement which would permit “all the major political elements,” including the National Liberation Front, to participate in choosing a new national leadership and future course in South Vietnam. It was obviously a compromise plan which, according to Senator Kennedy, had to be accepted as a whole; it did not satisfy the North Vietnamese demand for “unconditional” cessation of the bombing; it provided against an indefinite prolongation of negotiations; it merely tried to put to the test the previous intimations by the Northern Foreign Minister, Nguyen Duy Trinh, and Soviet Premier Kosygin that the way to break the deadlock was to exchange some form of a bombing halt for some form of negotiations. Nevertheless, Senator Kennedy’s proposals were officially knocked down as fast as he set them up, and he himself came under attack as if he were serving the Communist cause or attempting to overthrow the American system.15

More significant perhaps than anything said by Senator Kennedy were the official reactions to his words. One line was taken by Secretary of State Rusk. He tried to blunt the effect of the Kennedy speech by declaring that the United States had already made “substantially similar” proposals without result. If this had been the case, Senator Kennedy could hardly have been attacked for making his proposals; the only thing apparently wrong with them were lack of originality and Ho Chi Minh’s disapproval; Secretary Rusk could, in effect, enter a plea of innocence only by pleading guilty to the Senator’s alleged sins. The first impulse of the State Department was evidently to embrace the Senator’s proposals to death.

When the Johnson-Ho Chi Minh correspondence became known, Secretary Rusk’s line of defense seemed to have been based on the assumption that the truth would never—or only after a long delay—come out. President Johnson’s proposal of February 8 and Senator Kennedy’s plan of March 2 were not “substantially similar”; the essential difference lay in the President’s insistence on a military condition for halting the bombing and the Senator’s insistence on halting the bombing without military conditions. Even before the facts were known, the Senator protested that Secretary Rusk had distorted both positions by endowing them with a fictitious similarity. But then the Senator himself went too far by implying that he had been willing to accept the North Vietnam-Kosygin offer; in fact, he had, for better or worse, accept the North Vietnam-Kosygin offer; in fact, he had, for better or worse, substituted three points for their one; the Kennedy position might have been mathematically calibrated to stand somewhere between Nguyen Duy Trinh’s approach of late January and President Johnson’s proposal of February 8.

The differences were soon spelled out more sharply. On the day of Senator Kennedy’s speech, Democratic Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington, who had become a chief Administration spokesman on the war, was able to produce a letter from the President demanding an “equivalent action” from the other side as the price to end the bombing. On March 9, President Johnson was asked what the “military quid pro quo and reciprocal action” might be, and his reply compressed in a few sentences the accordion-like ambiguities and contradictions of his peculiar diplomacy:

Just almost any reciprocal action on their part. We have said that we would be glad to stop our invasion of North Vietnam if they would stop their invasion of South Vietnam. That we would be glad to halt our bombing if they would halt their aggression and their infiltration.

In one sentence, he seemed to be demanding almost nothing in return. In the very next sentence, he seemed to be asking for almost everything. Perhaps inadvertently, he told more than he intended by referring to the new phase of American policy as an “invasion” of North Vietnam equivalent in kind to the North Vietnamese “invasion” of South Vietnam. At another point in the same press conference, he spoke as if stopping the bombing were the same as stopping “half the war,” by which he meant the American half.

Further insight into the new policy came in a major address by President Johnson in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 15. In it he reincarnated the “domino theory” in one of its many manifestations by maintaining that “the defense of Vietnam held the key to the political and economic future of free Asia.”16 He again demanded “reciprocal concessions” and made reciprocity “the fundamental principle of any reduction in hostilities.” He hotly accused his critics of “moral double bookkeeping” because they did not equate Viet Cong terrorism17 with United States bombing. He referred contemptuously to what he called the recent “flurry of rumors of ‘peace feelers,”’ as if there had not been any reality to them at all.

But the most curious section of the speech had a bearing on both President Johnson’s letter to Ho Chi Minh of February 8—which had not yet been released—and the dispute with Senator Kennedy. The President stated the question that the Senator had been asking: “Why don’t we stop bombing to make it easier to begin negotiations?” The answer, he said, was “a simple one.” To show how simple it was, he recapitulated the three times that the United States had stopped its bombing—five days and twenty hours in May 1965, thirty-six days and fifteen hours in December 1965 and January 1966, and five days and eighteen hours in February 1967. After this recital, he summed up triumphantly: “They have three times rejected a bombing pause as a means to open the way to ending the war and going to the negotiating table.”

From this one might have gathered that the President would have been delighted with North Vietnam’s change of heart at the end of January 1967 and its Foreign Minister’s open bid for negotiations in exchange for a cessation of the bombing. It would have seemed, as Senator Kennedy pointed out, that this had been the United States position during the first two bombing pauses but not during the third. President Johnson, however, plainly implied that it had still been the United States position the third time, during the Têt truce from February 8 to 12, because he bracketed all three together without distinction. But six days later, it became known that this was precisely the position the United States had explicitly rejected in President Johnson’s letter of February 8 to Ho Chi Minh. In it he had gone to the trouble of giving two reasons, good or bad, why the United States could not accept the formula of “stop bombing” for “begin negotiations.” Instead, he assured his Nashville audience that “Hanoi has just simply refused to consider coming to a peace table.” Even Ho Chi Minh’s letter of February 15 did not justify such an excessive distortion of Hanoi’s position; Hanoi had certainly considered coming to a peace table—on its own terms, perhaps, but that was no less true of Washington.


Meanwhile, however, the United States uncompromising rejection of prior cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam unexpectedly paid off in an unexpected quarter. On March 14, 1967, Secretary-General U Thant submitted a new three-point plan which clearly reflected concessions to the American position. For more than two years, he had steadfastly maintained that only unconditional cessation of the bombing could lead the way to a settlement; now he was merely content to mention it in passing as a “vital need,” but to leave it out entirely as a practical consideration. His old Point One—cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam—was replaced by a new Point One: “a general standstill trace” without supervision. Old Point Two—substantial reduction of all military activities in South Vietnam—was replaced by new Point Two: “preliminary talks” between the United States and North Vietnam. Old Point Three—participation of the National Liberation Front or Viet Cong in any peaceful settlement—was replaced by new Point Three: “reconvening of the Geneva Conference.” A favorable reply was received from the United States on March 18, though it deviated from the Secretary-General’s proposal in two ways which might have, in any case, proved trouble-some. First, it implied that it was not enough for both sides to agree to a cease-fire, and instead demanded preliminary discussions to decide how it would be carried out; second, it required that the South Vietnamese government, but not the National Liberation Front, would have to be “appropriately involved throughout this entire process.” A North Vietnamese spokesman unequivocally rejected the new plan on March 27.

  1. 15

    A column by Kenneth Crawford in Newsweek, March 20, 1967, was entitled “Henry A. Kennedy?” It sought to give the impression that Senator Kennedy’s role in 1967 was similar to that of former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who had permitted the Communists to become “his managers, manipulators and all-out partisans” in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1948. Mr. Crawford argued that, in spite of some apparent differences in the criticism of the official policy by the two men, “in domestic political terms it amounts to the same thing.” To identify Kennedy with the Communists, Crawford had to mislead himself or his readers into believing that “Kennedy attracts the New Left,” which had actually been trying to expose the Senator as a political opportunist and false liberal, more dangerous even than the outright reactionaries. Crawford’s column was not the most extreme example of the genre but it showed that, by March 1967, even the most cautious and circumscribed proposal to settle the war by negotiation was beginning to bring out the worst in American politics and journalism even in relatively respectable quarters. If anything, Senator Kennedy had opened himself to the charge that his proposals were both too little and too late.

    In The Reporter of March 23, 1967, the editor chose to interpret the Kennedy speech as if it were the signal for an incipient civil war between, as he put it, “The Two USAs.” The editorial accused the Kennedy “family” of plotting to impose on the United States “its own Bonapartism that aims at permanent power” and to induce the United States to give “itself and its power of decision to the enemy it is facing in Vietnam.” Even an overheated imagination might find it difficult to consider the Kennedys powerful enough to hand over the United States to Ho Chi Minh. But the war had brought on such an unhealthy political climate in the United States that treason, defeatism, dictatorship, and a new stab-in-the-back legend could be read into this speech, so carefully modulated and so long delayed that it was almost defused politically in advance. To make Senator Kennedy feel better, perhaps, the editorialist put Secretary-General U Thant, whom he scorned rather than pitied, and Pope Paul VI, whom he pitied rather than scorned, in the same camp. The moral would seem to be that, if this could happen to Robert F. Kennedy, it could happen to anyone—all in the name of “freedom” and “that America which has its leader in Lyndon Johnson.” This editorial constituted the most extreme effort thus far to whip up a wartime hysteria. Significantly, it did not come from a right-wing organ, possibly because the Republicans were somewhat inhibited from making such an effort by the temptation to cash in on a peace move in the presidential election of 1968 as Eisenhower had succeeded in doing for them in 1952.

  2. 16

    By 1967, the “domino theory” was in such disrepute that even Secretary of State Rusk felt called upon to disavow it, saying that “there’s no need for something called the domino theory” (Department of State Bulletin, January 30, 1967, p. 169). But evidently there was still a need for various and changing paraphrases of the theory.

  3. 17

    Mr. Johnson said: “Tens of thousands of innocent Vietnamese civilians have been killed and tortured and kidnapped by the Vietcong.” Four days later, a report from Saigon stated: “New US official figures show that Vietcong terrorists have killed 11,967 civilians and kidnapped 40,988 in the last nine years” (The Washington Post, March 19, 1967). Presumably only the killed did not survive their ordeal. In nine years, the annual average was 1330; some may not have been so “innocent.” This figure would have to be equated with the United States bombing in North and South Vietnam, heavier than the bombing of enemy territory in Europe in World War II at its peak. And it would be necessary to take into consideration that political “terrorism” does not have the same cultural roots or stigma in all countries.

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