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A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Not to Negotiate

Secretary-General Thant’s new plan was only a distant relative of his old one, in spite of his claim that it was merely an “adaptation.” The latter had implied that the Vietnamese struggle was essentially a civil war which could be settled by primarily concentrating on South rather than on North Vietnam. This was the essential meaning of the first and third points in the former formula. The new plan, in effect, shifted the emphasis from the South to the North and pitted North Vietnam against the United States in the crucial first steps toward a settlement; it provided for the South Vietnamese on both sides a role only in “a future formal conference”; it thus inferentially endorsed the American thesis that the key to the war and the peace was in the North.18

Even the South’s Premier Nguyen Cao Ky did not like the way the United States had taken over the peace as well as the war strategy: “We hear too much about President Johnson’s talking to Ho Chi Minh,” he said on March 28, “but what about the South?”

In any event, Thant’s new plan was doomed because it was based on seemingly formal equality between unequal forces, resulting in unequal consequences. Without a prior cessation of the bombing, North Vietnam was still placed in the position of agreeing to terms with a gun at the temple. The relatively compact, traditionally organized American military forces could easily be regrouped and supplied during a cease-fire; their morale was likely to rise in the absence of combat. The Viet Cong guerrillas were by their very nature difficult to co-ordinate especially if North Vietnam did not control them as much as the United States wanted to believe; their morale was bound to fall in the absence of combat. The North’s regular troops in the South ran the risk of becoming hostages, cut off hundreds of miles from their home bases, scattered in jungles and forests. The only conceivable modus vivendi for an effective cease-fire in the peculiar South Vietnamese circumstances would have required a physical separation of the two sides, amounting to de facto division of South Vietnam into regrouping zones—a form of provisional partition which the United States had many times ruled out. The very nature of guerrilla warfare made an old fashioned cease-fire, based on some fixed line, incongruous. The Viet Cong guerrillas and even the North Vietnamese regulars cooperating closly with the guerrillas could not be made to “stand still,” suddenly and indefinitely, without risking their disintegration as a fighting force, a danger not faced by the US troops. Since Thant’s new plan was introduced at a very late date, after the diplomatic breakdown of the preceding two months and the exacerbation of the bombing against key North Vietnamese economic centers, already largely or partially destroyed, the time was not propitious for another effort which on its face posed almost insuperable practical problems and represented a sharp political shift in favor of the United States position. In the end, this initiative did no good and merely compromised the Secretary-General.

At the United States-South Vietnam conference on Guam on March 20-21, Premier Nguyen Cao Ky may have blurted out, as he had done before on other matters, what “negotiations” and an “honorable peace” were really supposed to mean. On the first day of the meeting, he exhorted the Americans to intensify and enlarge the war against North Vietnam even more, and then proceeded to explain:

We must convince Hanoi that its cause is hopeless. Only then will Hanoi be ready to negotiate. Then, when we do negotiate, we must, Mr. President, work for an honorable peace.

A power which has been bludgeoned into hopelessness is, of course, in no position to “negotiate.” It can only come to the “peace table” to beg for crumbs from the victor—if it chooses to beg. A one-way “honorable peace” is merely a gentle circumlocution for one side’s victory. Premier Ky was not the only one to misuse these terms, but he did it somewhat more crudely and clearly than did others. In any meaningful negotiation, both sides must be able to bargain from a position of some strength, though they may be strong in different ways, as in the bargaining power between private corporations and trade unions. The Japanese came to a “peace table” aboard the USS Missouri in September 1945, but they were in no sense capable of negotiating. A “peaceful settlement” may be a total surrender as well as a mutual compromise which by its very nature cannot be totally satisfactory to either side or totally unsatisfactory, either. The issue was not whether Premier Ky had the “right” to demand that the United States should batter North Vietnam into virtual surrender for him; it was rather that these words—“negotiation” and “peace” and “honor”—were misused so much that they portended the opposite of what they seemed to convey. The chief victims of this systematic abuse of language were not the leaders in Hanoi, who knew just what would happen to them if they tried to “negotiate” with a hopeless cause; the main effect, if not the purpose, was to pollute the political stream in the United States with words that said one thing and meant another.

At the core of the American case, making meaningful negotiations difficult, if not impossible, was the concept of “reciprocity.” It became the leitmotif of official American policy in 1966-67, though it was another word that lent itself to different interpretations. When President Johnson asked almost plaintitively on March 9, 1967 for “just almost any reciprocal action on their part,” it seemed to mean any kind of North Vietnamese response, even of a purely symbolic character. Yet when he went on, almost in the same breath, to demand that North Vietnam should stop its “aggression and infiltration,” he implied that he expected something that he considered to be a more or less equivalent or analogous response. On March 15, he made reciprocity “the fundamental principle of any reduction in hostilities,” and again seemed to be using the concept in the second, more inclusive and far-reaching sense. When his February 8 letter to Ho Chi Minh was made public on March 21, the latter interpretation could no longer be questioned. The letter concretely defined reciprocity as: the United States to halt the bombing of North Vietnam and stop further augmentation of its forces in South Vietnam; and North Vietnam to provide assurance that its infiltration forces in South Vietnam by land and sea had ceased. Clearly, when President Johnson called on February 2 for “just almost any [step],” and on March 9 for “just almost any reciprocal action,” he had not intended these words to be taken literally.

But—and this was the critical question—what could “reciprocity” mean between a strong, rich power like the United States and a weak, poor power like North Vietnam?

In February 1967, for example, the United States and allied foreign forces in South Vietnam numbered: United States, more than 400,000; South Korea, 45,000; Australia, 4,500, New Zealand, 360—a total of more than 450,000. The North Vietnamese forces in the South were estimated at about 50,000. President Johnson’s proposal of February 8 amounted, in effect, to freezing the forces on both sides in the South in return turn for a cessation of United States bombing in the North but not in the South. By stopping all movement to the South, which was undoubtedly what would have been required, North Vietnam could not even have maintained the forces which it already had in the South because it could not provision them by plane and ship, as the United States was able to do. Just as the United States felt that it could not accept any offer which might discourage or demoralize its South Vietnamese wards, so the North Vietnamese leaders doubtless felt the same way about their own troops and protégés in the South.

President Johnson, it should be noted, did not offer a military truce or ceasefire in the South in exchange for halting the bombing of the North. In the event of a total cessation of the fighting in both North and South, the freezing of the numbers in the South would not have mattered so much. But if the war in the South went on unabated, with the North Vietnamese troops cut off from their sources at home and the United States committed only to a limitation of men but not materiel, the latter factor would have become increasingly decisive in the further conduct of the war. On the American side particularly, firepower rather than manpower counts. Thus, morally, numerically, and materially, the proposal of February 8 was palpably unequal because the sides were so unequal.

The United States was, in effect, doing what General James M. Gavin (Ret.) warned against in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 21—using the bombing of the North as a bargaining instrument. The bombing had been initiated in February 1965, primarily to bolster the South Vietnamese government’s faltering morale. At that time, according to Secretary of Defense McNamara, North Vietnam’s regular troops in the South had numbered only about 400, and the bombing could not have been justified on the ground that it was necessary to interdict their lines of communication with the North.19 First came the bombing, and then came an escalation of the war on both sides, which provided the major justification for the bombing. In February 1965, the bombing of the North represented a desperate United States effort to save the South Vietnamese forces from defeat; in February 1967, it represented an offensive effort to bring about North Vietnam’s defeat. After two years of bombing which had unilaterally changed the pre-1965 rules of the war, the North Vietnamese and United States conceptions of “reciprocity” were understandably different. North Vietnam could not stop bombing the United States in exchange for a similar courtesy on the part of the United States in North Vietnam. The price the United States demanded was in South Vietnam, where the advantages and disadvantages on both sides were so different that the concept of “reciprocity” was far from the simple numerical arrangement that President Johnson proposed on February 8.

A cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam was vital to the latter precisely because it had nothing to exchange for it in the North or in the United States and could pay for it only by reciprocating unequally in the South. The bombing was so important to the bargaining position of the US that President Johnson had, perhaps excessively, referred to it on March 9 as if it were the United State’s entire “half the war,” or as if its half depended on it. For the United States, the bombing was an infinitely extensible threat. In January 1967, Secretary McNamara told a Senate committee; “I don’t believe that bombing up to the present has significantly reduced, nor any bombing that I could contemplate in the future would significantly reduce, the actual flow of men and materiel to the south.” When this was established, the United States stepped up its bombing the following month to reduce North Vietnam’s industrial base to a mass of rubble. At best North Vietnam could retaliate only against South Vietnam, which it considered part of its own country, not against the United States, which it considered its main enemy. Germany’s indiscriminate bombing of Britain in late 1940 was answered with equally indiscriminate and even more punishing bombing of Germany later in the war. But the positions of the United States and North Vietnam were so different that nothing comparable could take place.


The United States escalation of February 1967 invited North Vietnam to step up and enlarge those tactical operations for which it and its South Vietnamese partners were best suited, such as terrorism. For anything more, North Vietnam was dependent on China and Russia, especially the latter. As soon as United States bombing raids were resumed on North Vietnam that month, Soviet President Nikolai V. Podgorny pledged the Soviet Union to continue to provide North Vietnam and “the South Vietnamese patriots” with the necessary assistance. Later Soviet statements promised to meet United States escalation with escalating Soviet aid. The most recent turning point, then, was almost as much a form of pressure on the Soviet Union as on North Vietnam. Indeed, for some time, United States policy makers had been watching the increasing Soviet aid to North Vietnam with mixed feelings: it gave North Vietnam more and more effective arms for fighting American troops, but it also gave the Soviet Union a larger place in North Vietnam’s military planning and capability. Secretary Rusk’s unusual solicitude for Soviet sensibilities was not without its pragmatic calculations. In January 1967, before the truce and resumption of the bombings on a larger scale, he had commented favorably on the “prudence” of the present Soviet generation and had commended it to the Chinese. Two months later, he inferentially exculpated the Soviet leaders from responsibility for North Vietnam’s obduracy. “They cannot tell Hanoi what to do,” he said. “The problem of peace out there is with Hanoi.”20 He even seemed to associate the United States and the Soviet Union in order to emphasize the “great gulf which exists between all of us and Hanoi.” Considering the enormous importance which Soviet-bloc aid to North Vietnam had assumed, these were singularly amiable intimations of how he regarded the Soviet role in the war, at least for public consumption.

But if the Soviets could not tell Hanoi what to do, they still had to tell themselves what to do. By giving North Vietnam so much aid since 1965, they had committed themselves more and more deeply to preventing the North from collapsing just as the United States had committed itself to the South. The United States’s favorable appreciation of the Soviet role had been based on the well-founded assumption that the Soviet leaders were not happy about expending so much of their country’s substance in North Vietnam and risking another confrontation with the United States. The Soviets had clearly influenced Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues to come down from their four points and to rest their negotiating case wholly on a cessation of the bombing. When this had proved unsatisfactory from Washington’s point of view, the next step was to hope that the Soviets might put even more pressure on North Vietnam to accept something resembling President Johnson’s February 8 version of “reciprocity,” or to get the Soviets to induce North Vietnam to back down in some other way. As some influential political figures in Washington saw it, the Soviet Union was caught in a most disagreeable dilemma in its relations with the United States, North Vietnam, and Communist China. This thinking was openly expressed by the Johnson Administration’s spokesman, Senator Jackson, in the Senate on February 24, soon after United States artillery for the first time shelled North Vietnam across the demilitarized zone:

There are some reasons for thinking that the Soviet leaders would prefer a settlement. The bombing of the North, for example, is probably a source of embarrassment, for it demonstrates that the Soviet Union cannot prevent the United States from bombing a brother Communist state. One can surmise that the Russians are having to do a lot of explaining in other Communist capitals. For Moscow’s situation in Vietnam puts in doubt what she could do to protect the interests of other Communists states if they sometime found themselves in similar jeopardy. In this sense, the bombing of North Vietnam has political significance—control over it is one of the few political assets and bargaining levels we have in encouraging the Russians to pressure Hanoi to de-escalate militarily and to negotiate.

It must also be a source of some worry to the Soviet rulers that their aid to Vietnam, particularly in connection with their anti-aircraft defense system, is steadily mounting.

At the same time, however, without Russian aid and support Hanoi would probably be unable to sustain its efforts, and the Russians are therefore partly responsible for the prolongation of the war.

We have here a strange combination of giving the Soviets credit for wanting a settlement, of gloating over them for not being able to do anything about the bombing of North Vietnam, and of holding them partially responsible for our predicament. It typifies the temptations into which the United States had been led by its disproportionate investment in the Vietnamese war. In a peculiar way, the United States seems to be faced with a variety of frustrations in South Vietnam at the same time that it is able to do almost as it pleases to North Vietnam. So long as the American leaders consider the bombing to be one of their few assets and bargaining levers, they are bound to try to extort as high a price as possible for it in the guise of “reciprocity.” Senator Jackson was quite right to suggest that the bombing of North Vietnam is the United States trump card—and that is why the game has become so dangerous. The bombing is the one thing that can be most easily and destructively intensified and enlarged to increase the pressure on North Vietnam and enhance the embarrassment of its allies. The power at the disposal of the United States is so great and so unprecedented that the only questions are how much power it is willing to use and how much punishment North Vietnam is willing to take. Inescapably, the more punishment North Vietnam is willing to take, the more power the United States is willing to use. The more power the United States uses, the less difference it makes how much more power it will use, for beyond a certain point, degrees of destructiveness begin to lose their meaning.

This is the vicious circle which was set in motion by transferring the main arena of the war from South to North Vietnam and by deciding to use bombing to impose the will of the United States on North Vietnam. The only way to break the circle is to halt the bombing and reconsider the problem of South Vietnam on the basis of genuine reciprocity—among the Vietnamese. Once the United States threw its weight into the balance, there could be no meaningful reciprocity, unless a great Communist power reciprocated on behalf of North Vietnam. Instead of bringing peace nearer, this concept is more likely to bring about a Vietnamese edition of the 1962 missiles crisis in circumstances far less favorable to the United States. In 1962, the United States could claim to be directly threatened by offensive missiles only 90 miles from its shores; in 1967, the United States is not directly threatened, and cannot appeal to world opinion on that ground; and it is inviting two or more to play at its own game. The escalation of the war in Vietnam is bound to bring about an escalation of the war over Vietnam. Those who wish to taunt or goad the Soviets, if not the Chinese, to put up or shut up are living in a fantasy world if they think that the Cuban precedent will necessarily be followed in Vietnam. On the contrary, there has been and continues to be a stubborn underestimation of how far the Communists can go to escalate their side of the war. And if the war over Vietnam in some form materializes, will it be another instance of the “politics of inadvertence”?

When one gets away from each individual move and maneuver, and views them as a whole over the past two years, the guidelines of American policy emerge quite clearly—to separate North Vietnam from the Soviet Union, and to separate North Vietnam from the Viet Cong in the South. Even if the United States were successful in either or both of these objectives, the war in the South would admittedly still go on, though certainly not on the vast scale as at present. But neither of these objectives has been achieved; on the contrary, North Vietnam is likely to get more Soviet aid, and the North is likely to gird itself for an even more determined effort in the South, escalating whatever it can escalate. Ironically, the United States itself made it more difficult for North Vietnam to abandon the South by attributing such preponderance to the Northern role in the South. The American propaganda line first maintained that the war in the South could not go on without the North’s “aggression,” and then insisted that the North should get out of the South. This line was conceived to justify US bombing of the North, but it does not help to facilitate the North’s withdrawal from the South. The main thing that has been achieved by the recent diplomatic maneuvers is what Washington considers to be a more favorable public-relations ambience for making the war bigger, bloodier, and beastlier. This is the transcendent triumph of Johnsonian diplomacy which the American press has recently been celebrating. Recent events have demonstrated that outsiders are not capable of ending the war in South Vietnam. Their own interests and need to save face have infinitely complicated the indigenous difficulties. The best chances for peace probably lie with the Vietnamese themselves. The more patriotic or nationalistic among them, on both sides, will not forever tolerate this orgy of destruction which was started to save them and which will end by leaving little or nothing to save. The decisive impulse for peace, in some way not yet perceptible, may have to come from the Vietnamese themselves.


How Not to Negotiate July 13, 1967

How Not to Negotiate July 13, 1967

How Not to Negotiate July 13, 1967

  1. 18

    The shift in U Thant’s position is one of the more perplexing phenomena of this period. In the first days of March 1967, Mr. Thant conferred with two North Vietnamese government officials in Rangoon; he later revealed that he had orally presented them with the new three-point plan which he wrote down for the first time on March 14. On March 5, Mr. Thant returned to the United States. As of March 7, Raymond Daniell, The New York Times‘s UN correspondent, wrote that Mr. Thant had “returned from his talks in Burma ‘more convinced than ever’ that cessation of the raids ‘is an absolute prerequisite’ to bringing Hanoi to the conference table” (New York Times March 8, 1967). In his press conference on March 28, at which he made public his aide-mémoire of March 14, Mr. Thant still expressed this view in his introductory remarks. At one point he said that “I have never ceased to consider that the bombing of North Vietnam constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to discussions.” In reply to a question, he reiterated that “I still maintain that a cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam is an imperative necessity to create conditions for peaceful talks.” In the aide-mémoire itself, however, the “absolute prerequisite,” “insurmountable obstacle,” and “imperative necessity” were watered down to a “vital need,” and, in any case, left out of the new three points. The question is how Mr. Thant could bring himself to bypass the cessation of the bombing in the points themselves if it was an “absolute prerequisite,” an “insurmountable obstacle,” or an “imperative necessity” to get to the conference table. One gets the impression that at his press conference on March 28, Mr. Thant tried to have his cake and eat it, too; he may not have changed his mind about the need for a cessation of the bombing but, for some reason, he saw fit to change his practical proposals, which received most of the publicity and earned him the gratitude of those who had formerly execrated him most.

  2. 19

    On April 16, 1965, Secretary McNamara stated that “evidence accumulated within the last month,” that is, since late March, had confirmed the presence in the northwest sector of South Vietnam “of the 2nd Battalion of the 325th Division of the regular North Vietnamese Army,” and he estimated the size of the battalion “on the order of 400 to 500 men” (Department of State Bulletin, May 17, 1965, pp. 750 and 753). On June 16, 1966, in an address at Yeshiva University, Senator Mike Mansfield declared: “When the sharp increase in the American military effort began in early 1965, it was estimated that only about 400 North Vietnamese soldiers were among the enemy force in the South which totaled 140,000 at that time.” The Pentagon soon confirmed that it was the source of Senator Mansfield’s figure (Ted Knap, Washington Daily News, June 28, 1966). The strange and persistent efforts by Secretary of State Rusk to blow up the North Vietnamese “invasion” to at least the proportions of an entire division by January 1965 in the face of both Secretary McNamara’s and Senator Mansfield’s testimony are dealt with at length in my forthcoming book, Abuse of Power.

  3. 20

    Consistency has never been Secretary Rusk’s hobgoblin. In 1965, he insisted that Hanoi owed so much to Peking that it was virtually the latter’s prisoner or puppet. In 1967, Hanoi owed even more to Moscow but could not be told “what to do.”

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