The following is the full text of a report to Senator J. W. Fulbright on my conversations with the North Vietnamese ambassador in Paris, Xuan Thuy. A small part of this letter was made public by Senator Fulbright on November 19.
Mr. Ronald Ziegler of the White House then stated that my efforts to seek a basis for negotiation over Vietnam took place on my own initiative, and this is certainly true. Xuan Thuy has since confirmed the substance of the proposals I report here in an interview carried in The New York Times of November 24th, while also making clear that my role was entirely independent of the North Vietnamese side.
It was alleged by Mr. Ziegler that there was nothing new in Hanoi’s offer to negotiate. The Administration, however, has now been placed on notice by the Xuan Thuy interview that—the North Vietnamese do wish to negotiate and this memorandum discloses that such has been the case since early September. The problem, of course, is that what our Government wishes to talk about does not correspond to the vital interests of the North Vietnamese as they see them; and what they wish to talk about affects our continuing commitment to the Saigon government.
November 6, 1969
Senator J. W. Fulbright,
Committee on Foreign Relations
The United States Senate
Washington, D. C. 20510.
Dear Senator Fulbright:
I hereby submit to you as full an account as I can give of the proposals made by Xuan Thuy, the North Vietnamese ambassador to the Paris talks, to Dr. Henry Kissinger, the special adviser to the President.
I am responding to your request of October 28, 1969 which came in answer to my own letter of October 15, including enclosures of several clippings, one from the N.Y. Times and another from the N.Y. Post which had elements of this episode. Forgive me for having delayed this submission, since like everyone else I was awaiting President Nixon’s policy address of Tuesday last.
I enclose also a copy of the memorandum which was sent to Dr. Kissinger at his request on what I believed to be the situation in Hanoi following Ho Chi Minh’s death; this memorandum, while strictly analytical, also contains in its closing passages something of my own views on the problem of negotiating an end to this war. I should add that the memorandum was acknowledged by Dr. Kissinger, with thanks.
The proposals by Xuan Thuy were made to me on September 1st, at his headquarters in Paris, at Choisy-le-Roi, in the presence of his interpreter and his private secretary both of whom had taken extensive notes of our discussion which lasted for several hours. The proposals were made in the knowledge that I was planning to see Dr. Kissinger within a week; I had made this arrangement following an earlier interview with Dr. Kissinger on August 12th at San Clemente; that interview followed in turn a still earlier discussion with Xuan Thuy which took place in Paris on July 26th. Thus Dr. Kissinger knew that I was in intimate discussions with the North Vietnamese and he invited me after I gave him an initial report on August 12th to be in touch with him if I had anything further to report upon his return from the West. I was able to see Kissinger at the White House on September 10, two days before the comprehensive review of Vietnam policy that week.
Thus, everyone was aware on both sides that an attempt was being made to find a new negotiating formula. This formula has been before Kissinger and I would assume the President, as well, since September 10th.
In my second encounter with Xuan Thuy I had argued that there was a genuine desire for extrication from this war not only among wide and diverse sections of the American public but also among important policy-makers and I had argued that it was in the common interests of both sides to find some formula which would break the deadlock at Paris and set in motion the process of peace. It was at this encounter with Xuan Thuy that he gave me to understand that Ho Chi Minh was dying although the actual news did not become public until two days later. I had alluded to the well-known flexibility and farsightedness of Ho Chi Minh (whom I had met in the jungles of north Vietnam in 1953) as an argument in favor of a similar flexibility on north Vietnam’s part in the present deadlock. I also had stressed to Xuan Thuy that the United States was placing itself in a position to negotiate seriously with both the Soviet Union and Communist China and hence the era of trying to take advantage of the Sino-Soviet rift was coming to a close; it therefore seemed to me that it was in north Vietnam’s interest to find a way of negotiating directly with the United States and not to allow their negotiations to become part of the great-power rivalry or the great-power settlement, as had happened in 1954.
I had, of course, summarized for Xuan Thuy the essential elements of my conversations with Kissinger at San Clemente two weeks earlier and given him my own impressions of Kissinger as a person and a thinker. Basically, it was my view that Kissinger wanted very much to get out of the war, and above all wanted to save President Nixon’s political career for 1972 but was trying to get out of the war cheaply, paying a minimum price and was convinced it was possible to do so while retaining control of the situation in Saigon, avoiding either the sharing of power with the Viet Cong or a coup from the “Right” or from independent forces which might lead to a coalition to the exclusion of an American role in the matter. You will find my views in this regard in my memorandum to Kissinger himself but I emphasize this in order to make clear the context of the discussion with Xuan Thuy in which his proposals were made.
After a long, heated exchange of views within the framework, of course, of our long-term relationship, Xuan Thuy declared: “Very well, let us assume, as you say, that Mr. Kissinger does want peace…. The United States side has for a long time been asking for private talks with our side. We are willing to have such private talks provided that the United States accepts the principle of a complete and total withdrawal and shows its good faith by withdrawing 100,000 troops. On this basis, we are prepared for private talks either among ourselves, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (the Viet Cong) and the United States, or pending the possibility that the United States will not wish to talk with us in the presence of the PRG, we are prepared for talks between ourselves and the United States. In those talks, he continued, we propose to examine the various points which have been advanced by both sides. It is not true that we reject everything that the United States may propose. On the crucial question of who will organize the elections we do not mean that the PRG proposes only a provisional government headed by itself. We have in mind a provisional government that will include others who stand for peace, independence, democracy and neutrality including some members of the present Saigon administration.”
He then concluded that the PRG, that is, the Viet Cong governing body is prepared a) either for a settlement that is reached rapidly, peacefully, logically and reasonably, or b) that the war will drag on, or c) be expanded.
I realized that Xuan Thuy was herewith saying something very substantive and at this point left the room, and returned to ask him whether he would re-state what he had just said since it seemed to me of great importance. He re-formulated the same propositions, asking his interpreter to check what he had said a moment before.
That something new was being said was underlined the next day, when Xuan Thuy spoke to the newspapermen of Paris who had come to the September 2 anniversary celebrations. It was at this occasion that he repeated Hanoi’s flexibility; if the United States would accept the principle of complete withdrawal and actually withdraw 100,000 troops, North Vietnam “would take this into consideration.” This was quoted in Le Monde and the Paris Herald-Tribune the next day but it was noted in the State Department which was quoted that next day as saying that the proposal was “ambiguous” and required further clarification. President Nixon’s address to the United Nations General Assembly also noted Xuan Thuy’s statement and maintained that the U.S. had in fact met this proposal and did in fact accept the principle of withdrawal, but Mr. Nixon argued that the withdrawal of 35,000 troops was in fact enough. It should be noted that the remainder of what Xuan Thuy proposed—namely, private talks and a readiness for flexibility on the make-up of a provisional coalition government was not made public. This was left to me for transmission to Dr. Kissinger.
To summarize this crucial point: early in September, as part of a cross-discussion in which I was twice an intermediary, the North Vietnamese indicated that they would accept the principle of complete withdrawal instead of total and prior withdrawal as the condition which could open the way to private talks with the United States; they also indicated a readiness to talk without the presence of the Viet Cong (at least as of September 1st) and thirdly, they indicated they would not be adamant on a provisional coalition government defined by their side but were ready to bargain for something between their conceptions and the American conceptions, making “room for some members of the present Saigon administration.” And they also indicated strongly their readiness for a reasonable, logical and speedy end of the war, using the phrase “within four or five months.”
All of this, plus much more of the background of both my conversations with Xuan Thuy—in July and in September—were communicated by me to Dr. Kissinger, the second time upon his invitation. I would not have made any part of this public were it not for the fact that toward the end of September an inspired story in the Knight papers gave the impression that negotiations were going on when in fact they were not, and when the terms for starting them had not, as I knew, been fulfilled. I have made parts of all this public only because to remain silent would have been a tacit complicity with the Administration’s unwillingness to negotiate except on its own terms. I do not believe negotiations are possible except as both sides indicate flexibility. On our side, it is now clear from the President’s address, the attempt is being made to give the impression that the other side will not be flexible, which is untrue, and to cling to the Thieu regime as the only legitimate regime and to hold the card of further troop withdrawals as a bargaining counter.
My own opinion is that the Administration is trying to do something which most poker-playing Americans would recognize as untenable in their own daily lives: the war has been played with poor cards and has not been a winning proposition but the Administration is trying to walk away from the game not only refusing to pay any price, but wanting to keep the chips in the center of the table at the same time!
I am at your disposal with any further data you may wish on the whole exchange of July 26, August 12, September 1 and September 10, but this would require a much more elaborate memorandum since it involves establishing the context of each meeting with each side and also involves disclosing the detailed exchanges and the assumptions between all the interlocutors. Since much of this has a confidential character, and may not be essential to the main point—namely that there was a serious and flexible proposal from Hanoi’s side—I am reluctant to do so, except with your encouragement.
I am, of course, prepared to testify under oath on all these matters contained herewith if you should consider this necessary, and I have privately taped, after each interview, my best recollection of what was said by me and by the people with whom I spoke, tapes made immediately after each conversation. This was done for my personal record.
I trust all this will be helpful, and I remain,
Joseph R. Starobin