The North Vietnamese in Paris II. What They Don’t Say

The “Talks” in Paris have dragged on for more than twenty sessions and so far as I know Richard Barnet leaves no publicly stated opinion unexamined, including the disillusion of the American team and the confusion of the Vietnamese about our motives. It is by now plain that even Ambassador Harriman is fed up with American intransigence (Times, September 20), and that President Johnson alone holds the key to the locked door—to use Minister Xuan Thuy’s phrase. But although their deeds seem clear enough there is still much confusion about the position of the North Vietnamese. What do they not say, and why can’t they say it?

During thirteen hours of discussion with the Hanoi delegation several weeks ago, George Kahin, Howard Zinn, Marilyn Young, Douglas Dowd, and I listened to detailed analyses of the 1954 Geneva treaty. Several of us had written on this subject, all of us knew it well, and the Vietnamese knew we knew it. They also repeated bombing and casualty figures—usually from published American sources, and easily available. Why tell us yet again?

The language of our informants was passionate, accurate, and undogmatic. It could not fail to move us. But why were they for so long reluctant to state plainly that they have troops in the South, when they claim “Vietnamese have a sacred right to defend their country anywhere they choose”? We had come to their residence at Choisy-le-Roi at their invitation, to try to understand why the talks were stalled and to test our impression that there had been serious Vietnamese efforts to lessen the fighting in order to show good will and to break the impasse in Paris. We did obtain from them—I almost said pry—grudging admission of a number of significant de-escalating actions.

Since President Johnson and Secretary Rusk insist that the “other side” never gives an inch, why are the Vietnamese so unwilling to discuss their own restraint? But it may not occur to the Vietnamese to say something that seems to us very easy for them to say; it is also likely that they cannot say certain things because of problems with their constituencies in both North and South Vietnam. What these underlying considerations are may help to explain the reaction of the North Vietnamese in Paris.

1. Their Assumptions about Our Purposes

The Vietnamese know, as we do, that the United States did not intervene in their affairs out of altruism. They understand expressions like raison d’état, even where the raison may be a bad one. Since the attempt to defeat the NLF and to maintain a puppet government has not succeeded, they are suspicious about US intentions in Paris. Is the US purpose to defuse the Peace Movement? To help elect Humphrey? To prevent the collapse of the Saigon regime? A trick to allow a military build-up? All of these we know to be likely; so do they. Their wariness should not surprise us. At dinner in Paris, a …

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