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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.

II

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.

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.

III

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.

IV

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.

V

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

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.

VI

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.

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.

VII

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.

Letters

How Not to Negotiate July 13, 1967

How Not to Negotiate July 13, 1967

How Not to Negotiate July 13, 1967

  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).

  6. 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.

  7. 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.)

  8. 8

    Washington Post, February 8.

  9. 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).

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 12

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

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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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