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The North Vietnamese in Paris I. The Impasse


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 bombings by B-52’s in South Vietnam. They denounced the July 31st statement of Secretary Rusk in which he seemed to set new and tougher conditions for the cessation of bombing. The American delegation has used the social hour (actually between twenty and forty minutes) to protest infiltration of North Vietnamese regulars and to warn against new escalation of the war. The only substantial accomplishment has been the exchange of assurances on the release of some prisoners.

Both sides seem to perceive that, for the moment at least, the real victories or defeats emerging from the Paris talks will be in the propaganda war. The United States delegation clearly feels that being at Paris is a public relations advantage for the United States and a political asset for the Johnson Administration. The White House has been able to disarm, at least partially, domestic and international critics who condemn the United States for appearing to resist a political settlement of the war. “A few months ago,” a member of the American delegation pointed out, “the whole country was in anguish.” Now, he added, the President has a freer hand. Most US politicians are reluctant to expose themselves to the charge that they are interfering with delicate negotiations. The North Vietnamese know this and are troubled.

On the other hand, the North Vietnamese also derive some propaganda advantages from the talks. Most important, the opening of the negotiations has blunted domestic pressure in the United States for military escalation. While fighting and talking are, in strictly logical terms, not inconsistent policies, no government would have enough political dexterity to stay at the negotiating table while it was experimenting with mass flooding, nuclear bombing, or invasion. The North Vietnamese understand that some future American administration might in desperation choose genocide as the final solution to the Vietnam problem, and this is one reason why they will be slow to break off the talks, despite the pacifying effects they have on American anti-war sentiment.

There are other propaganda advantages for the North Vietnamese too. They are able to summon the world press on short notice to listen to long, detailed accounts of American bombardment of North and South Vietnam. Each official North Vietnamese statement is an indictment of the American conduct of the war. Recently, Harriman suggested that both sides stop distributing the text of the official statements. “Why is he afraid to let the people know?” Xuan Thuy asked me. The more the Americans press for secrecy, the more the Vietnamese are convinced the talks are helping their own cause.

IN ACCEPTING President Johnson’s proposal of March 31, the North Vietnamese made it clear that they were coming to Paris to discuss one thing only: The unconditional cessation of the bombing and all other acts of war against North Vietnam. As it became increasingly clear that the Johnson formula for ending the bombing was unacceptable to the Vietnamese, Harriman sought to introduce other subjects such as a cease-fire in the demilitarized zone. “As I told Mr. Harriman, this is not a banquet where you can change the menu,” Xuan Thuy told me. “There is only one question before us. The bombing issue is a door behind which the solution to Vietnam is locked. Once the door is opened, many things are possible.”

The bombing halt has from the start been the symbolic issue of the negotiations. For each side it has a significance far beyond the immediate battlefield effects. It is essentially a political, not a military issue. “Though it is useful to have a couple hundred more miles of road to shoot at North Vietnamese trucks coming down from the North,” a member of the US delegation said, “it is not essential.” He indicated that only the US military command in Vietnam strongly favors the continuation of the bombing. Important elements of the “intelligence community” and in the State Department have long believed it to be “counter-productive.” Indeed, many South Vietnamese generals see no substantial military advantage to the bombing. But the Thieu government is another matter. For them the bombing continues to symbolize unwavering American support. “Many people in South Vietnam think we are just going through a ballet in preparation for getting out,” one of the US negotiators told me. To stop the bombing on North Vietnam’s terms would look like the beginning of the end to the Saigon politicians, who wisely understand that the squadrons of US bombers are their only symbols of power. The US delegation fears that if the substantive negotiations begin on the basis of a major American concession, the North Vietnamese, pressing their advantage, will sweep to a total diplomatic victory.

The North Vietnamese appear to be adamant about making any compromise whatever on the bombing issue. They believe that the United States’ demand for “reciprocity” implies a recognition of equal guilt. In effect, what they are saying is this: If we tell the world that we are willing to curtail our military activities in Vietnam in return for cessation of the American bombardment, we are admitting that these activities are morally equivalent. But to the Vietnamese, who think of Vietnam as one country, there is a big difference between Vietnamese soldiers fighting to liberate their country and American soldiers fighting to maintain a puppet government. We are fighting an anti-colonial war against a foreign power. Compared with America, we don’t have very much except our national pride and a desire for independence. “This is not like the negotiations between great powers,” one of the members of the North Vietnamese delegation told me, “a dispute where each side can give a little. On the issue of independence we have nothing to give.” Xuan Thuy pointed out that to make a public concession, in order to get the United States to stop the bombing which it had no legal or moral right to have begun in the first place, would be incomprehensible to those who have been struggling for twenty years to free their country of foreign domination. Such a symbolic act would signal to those doing the fighting that the diplomats were once again prepared, as in Geneva in 1954, to give up at the conference table what had been won on the battlefield. Once again he asked the question that North Vietnamese never cease to put to American visitors: “Would you negotiate with someone who is bombing your country?”

The American delegation calls this “their theological argument.” It is clear that the American negotiators understand the Vietnamese position, and I had the impression that some members of the delegation would like to accede to it. Harriman has tried to come up with more subtle diplomatic language which would soften the notion of reciprocity but at the same time extract an admission from the North Vietnamese that they are prepared to give something in exchange for a bombing halt. “Our devices were too obvious,” one of the American delegates observed with a smile.

But in addition to “theological” reasons, the Vietnamese have practical grounds for not buying a bombing halt even at a discount. For one thing, as Xuan Thuy asked in our conversation, what kind of reciprocity is it that the US is demanding? They want reinforcements by the National Liberation Front to be curtailed, but they do not offer to curtail American reinforcements. Indeed, they are substantially increasing the strength of the South Vietnamese army. The so-called “limited bombing” is actually an intensification of their war. The number of sorties over North Vietnam has increased almost five times since the March 31 speech. That the bombing is concentrated in four provinces, with a population the size of that of Chicago, has inspired little gratitude. When US politicians talk about “de-Americanizing the war” by “beefing up” the ARVN forces, this may be good domestic politics, but to the North Vietnamese and the NLF such a strategy is simply a device to prolong American control. It is another form of escalation.

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