After five months of “official conversations,” US and North Vietnamese negotiators privately agree upon only one thing: If an end to the war comes, it will have very little to do with what is said here. Neither Averell Harriman nor Xuan Thuy is under any illusion that he can persuade the other to his position, and neither is trying. Both sides understand that the Paris talks are a public window through which one can catch glimpses of three distant dramas which will ultimately decide the war: the war on the ground in South Vietnam, the struggle for life of the Saigon Government, and the dispute over war policy in the United States.
Apart from this realistic appraisal of their own roles, however, there is almost nothing on which the American and North Vietnamese delegations agree. Their communiques even disagree on the length of the “tea breaks” where, according to optimistic press speculation, the real negotiations have taken place. More significantly, each side has a different official interpretation of what the talks have accomplished and what the prospects for progress are. “If you poll the delegation,” a member of the American negotiating team told me, “you will find that most of them think that we are now in a terminal phase.” Conceding that this opinion was based on little concrete evidence, he nevertheless insisted that “this is where it will all end.” He admitted there had been no progress to date. But perhaps, he suggested, recalling that in the past the Soviets had often caved in after months of arduous negotiation and settled some of the postwar peace treaties virtually on US terms, the end will come here through a dramatic breakthrough rather than piecemeal progress.
When I asked Xuan Thuy the same questions, his answer was unequivocal. There has been no progress whatever. “The Americans wish to create the impression of progress to deceive world opinion, but they are talking for talking only.” Whenever the American delegation, Vice President Humphrey, or other political figures in the United States issue optimistic statements about “straws in the wind” or “signs of progress,” the North Vietnamese go out of their way to counter such rumors. At a recent press conference the official North Vietnamese spokesman repeated their position on unconditional cessation of the bombing more than twenty-five times. And to underscore his anger, he added that he hoped that Harriman (who wears a hearing aid) “heard it with both his ears.”
The Americans want to appease American public opinion by making people think that we are making progress at the “tea breaks,” Xuan Thuy told me. “Let me tell you what actually goes on there. At the first stage of the talks we talked about the weather. I asked Mr. Harriman how he was enjoying himself in Paris and when he got his hearing aid, and he too had things to say of similar moment.” In recent weeks, however, the talk has turned to more serious matters. The North Vietnamese protested the …