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I.F. Stone Reports: The Hidden Traps in Nixon’s Peace Plan

Q: Mr. President, you had some public advice today and yesterday about how critics of the war should conduct themselves. Do you have any public advice for Mr. Haldeman?

A: I have answered the question. Anything further?

—Nixon’s press conference of February 10

I

Treason has always been the spécialité of Nixon cookery. It was served up piping hot in his first campaign for Congress against Helen Gahagan Douglas. After the Republican return to power in 1953, Nixon launched the “twenty years of treason” campaign against the Democrats, with the assistance of J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Herbert Brownell. Two decades of epochal social reform and a world victory over Fascism were thus smeared as “aid and comfort,” presumably to the enemies Nixon is about to meet in Peking and Moscow. The old tactic reappeared when his White House Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, charged that critics of Nixon’s new eight-point peace plan were “consciously” giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Explicitly or implicitly treason has suddenly become a major theme of Administration oratory as the air war escalates in Indochina and Nixon runs for re-election on the charge that the Democrats block peace by encouraging the enemy to continue the war.1

The Democrats are not guilty of treason. What they are guilty of is running a divided and ill-organized campaign. They have been outfoxed and outmaneuvered. The new peace plan produced by Nixon and Dr. Kissinger is as subtle and complicated as a champion chess game. Not only is the board crowded but the American public have been allowed to see only the pieces and only the moves Nixon wants them to see. The Democrats were silly to let themselves be trapped into instant comment after the Nixon speech because it hid more than it disclosed of last year’s secret negotiations. The antiwar candidates have yet to understand and make the public understand just how tricky the proposals are.2

To start with, the Nixon plan does not set “a date certain” for withdrawal. Indeed the so-called eight-point peace plan unveiled on January 25 is vaguer on withdrawal than were the proposals tabled privately at the Paris talks on October 11. All the Administration spokesmen have insisted that the former is “essentially” the same as the latter. But the October 11 proposal differed in a number of respects; among them it would have reduced the negotiating time and offered a shorter and more precise withdrawal promise.3

On October 11 the other side was told that if they accepted the US proposal as a “statement of principles” to govern negotiations and signed it by December 1, 1971, then we would withdraw all troops from South Vietnam within seven months or no later than July 1, 1972, “except for a small number of personnel needed for technical advice, logistics and observance of the cease-fire.” The cease-fire was to cover all Indochina and to begin on the signing of the peace agreement. In six months from the date of that signing, an election was to be held in South Vietnam. Our residual force would be “progressively withdrawn” beginning one month before the election “and simultaneously with the resignations of the incumbent President and Vice President,” and the withdrawal would be completed by election day.

The January 25 version of the peace proposals is vaguer on withdrawal. Three time spans are involved in the new proposals. The first would cover the time required for an agreement in principle, something which has yet to be reached in three years of negotiation. The second period would begin with the signing of this preliminary agreement. In this time span the two sides would hammer out the details of the final agreement. Six months from the signing of this final agreement the US would withdraw all troops from Vietnam, though not from the Thai air bases or the adjacent seas from which the Seventh Fleet and its bombers operate.4

The only firm date offered for total withdrawal is six months from the signing of the final agreement. Thus the total time would be x (the time needed to achieve the preliminary agreement on principle) plus y (the time needed to negotiate and sign the final agreement) plus six months. This might best be described as six months after two mañanas. The whole process, like the SALT talks, could easily stretch out for years. This would give Thieu another period of reprieve in which to solidify his dictatorship, for that is really what it is. This is very far from “a date certain,” and the Democratic candidates who said Nixon had been offering privately what he opposed publicly when the Senate passed the various Mansfield and Cooper-Church amendments designed to establish a fixed deadline were deluded. They played into Nixon’s hands, which again proved swifter than their eye.

II

The Democrats have also failed to understand, or been afraid to touch upon, another aspect of the Nixon plan—the false hope it raises for our POWs. The peace proposals are made unacceptable to the other side by provisions that would require them to release most of the prisoners before a final agreement had been negotiated and signed. This is one of the most intricate and tricky parts of the Nixon proposals. The President mentioned it in passing in his January 25 address, but emphasis was placed upon it in the background briefings which preceded that telecast. “Because some parts of that agreement,” Nixon said, “could prove more difficult to negotiate than others, we would be willing to begin implementing certain military aspects while negotiations continue on the implementation of other issues, just as we suggested in our private proposal in October.”

The White House briefer told the radio and TV men it was proposed October 11 that “after an agreement in principle is signed the clock could start running on certain military aspects, especially withdrawals and prisoners [italics added], and while that clock is running, the further details of the final agreement could be negotiated, after which the clock would start running on the election.”

The clearest picture of what the Administration has in mind was given by the State Department’s top official on Vietnamese policy in little noticed testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on February 3. Ambassador William H. Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, explained that the over-all settlement would be implemented in two phases:

There would first be an agreement in principle covering the major military and political issues; once the details of these issues had been worked out a final agreement would be signed. Recognizing that more time would presumably be needed to reach agreement on such difficult political problems as elections, our plan envisages implementing prisoner release in parallel with troop withdrawals during the first phase; that is, as soon as the agreement in principle is reached but without waiting for the final agreement to be signed.

This is pretty cute. Even in buying a house or negotiating for a new job, there is apt to be a wide difference between agreement in principle and the final contract. It is the details on which deals most often break down. No good lawyer allows a client to begin delivering valuable property or services until the final agreement has been signed and sealed. But under this proposal the other side would begin “implementing prisoner release” before the final agreement, and if the talks broke down, we would have regained some or most of the POWs in the meantime.

Of course there would have to be troop withdrawals on our part to match the POW releases, but Nixon is committed to withdraw all our remaining troops except a small residual force as part of “Vietnamization” anyway. As Ambassador Sullivan put it, “It is our hope that such a phased approach to a comprehensive settlement would facilitate the earliest possible return of our prisoners without sacrificing the goal of assuring the South Vietnamese people of a chance to decide freely their own political future.”

The likelihood that the other side would release these prisoners in advance of a final settlement is nil, especially since they are almost all pilots and Laird himself has revealed that at least one released pilot has already been used to brief other pilots on Southeast Asia. Pilots, who cost as much as a half million dollars to train, are too valuable to expect their release until peace has finally been restored, especially when the air war is constantly being escalated.

III

The Democratic antiwar candidates ought to be telling the country that Nixon missed a chance to obtain the release of the prisoners during the elections in South Vietnam last year rather than risk Thieu’s defeat. “The time has come,” Nixon said in his peace plan broadcast of January 25, “to lay the record of our secret negotiations on the table.” So it has. But what he and Dr. Kissinger have laid on the table is not the full record but only another of those “selective declassifications” which have misled the American people about our Vietnamese entanglement ever since we took over from the French. The full record would once and for all settle the question of whether the other side last year was willing, as it hinted to McGovern and others, to release the POWs for a total US withdrawal.

To exchange the prisoners for total withdrawal would be to separate the military issues from the political, leaving the latter to be settled between the Vietnamese themselves. The other side is not willing to do this so long as Thieu—and the kind of regime he represents—is in power. The key to their willingness to separate the two issues for a time last year is that the presidential elections in South Vietnam last year offered the US a peaceful and face-saving way to get rid of the Thieu regime in a really open and fair election. The full record would show, I believe, that if the US had made such an election possible, instead of stage-managing the charade of Thieu’s one-man one-vote one-candidate election, the other side might have been willing to exchange the prisoners for total withdrawal.

Two pieces of the puzzle have surfaced in recent Nixon Administration statements. The first, to which I called attention in the February 24 issue of The New York Review, turned up in Dr. Kissinger’s on-the-record backgrounder of January 26, when he perhaps inadvertently revealed that last year’s elections figured in last year’s secret peace negotiations. For he disclosed that an offer made last August 16 included “specific proposals for American neutrality in the forthcoming South Vietnamese elections.” This was rejected by the other side September 13, Dr. Kissinger revealed, on the ground that “a simple declaration of American neutrality while the existing government stayed in office would not overcome” its electoral advantage. Now that the curtain has been lifted a little on last year’s secret talks, the public has a right to the full record. Could we have gotten the POWs back by ensuring a really fair election last year in South Vietnam?

  1. 1

    In the division of labor between “high road” and “low road” rhetoric, the White House would go no further in commenting on the Haldeman accusation than to have Press Secretary Ziegler say that it did not “necessarily” reflect the President’s thinking! The day after the Nixon peace plan speech, Dr. Kissinger had explained that “composing the domestic disharmony is a very major objective of our entire policy.” This drew from the Washington Post, February 9, the tart comment that “the imputation of treason to prominent members of the political opposition is a curious way to go about” it. Dr. Kissinger, to his credit, in a press conference that same day prefaced his own statement of disagreement with McGovern by acknowledging the senator’s integrity, conviction, and patriotism. We hope Dr. Kissinger will not be accused of giving aid and comfort to traitors.

  2. 2

    I certainly would not hazard the claim that I understand them fully either. They cannot be understood without collating diverse sources, as one would a jigsaw puzzle. In preparing this article I have read and reread (among others) the following documents: the President’s speech of January 25, the eight-point proposal released with it, the two White House backgrounders just before the speech, one for the press and the other for the radio and TV men; Dr. Kissinger’s on-the-record briefing the next day; the transcripts of the public statements and press briefings by both sides after the Paris meetings of January 27, February 3, and February 10; and the Vietnam portions of the President’s State of the World message of February 9 and Dr. Kissinger’s press briefing on it the same day. These are basic but still insufficient. In a dozen or more phone calls to the State Department and the White House I found that, except at the very highest level, many officials are still confused about what the new peace plan really means. There is no complete presentation. Every speech or briefing has opaque spots calculated to confuse the unwary.

  3. 3

    The differences have escaped attention because the actual text of the October 11 proposals was made public only after the other side in Paris on January 27 released their own version and the exchange of messages about the November 20 meeting to show that it was canceled by the US and not the other side as falsely implied by Nixon and Dr. Kissinger. The US versions of these documents were then made available at the State Department rather than the White House. Since the “secret peace talks” was a White House story, the White House press corps seems to have missed the significance of the documents released three days later and a half-mile away.

  4. 4

    The question of the Thai bases and the Seventh Fleet was touched upon at the White House backgrounder for radio and TV men just before the President’s broadcast January 25. The briefer, who cannot be named under the rules of that backgrounder, was asked, “Are we giving them any kind of guarantee on further withdrawal from Thailand, elimination of air bases or anything on that subject?” The briefer replied, “That issue has never been raised.” This is hard to believe. He added that if there were a general cease-fire, it would mean the end of all military activity over Indochina. Apparently the bombers of the Seventh Fleet and on the Thai bases would not be part of the withdrawal.

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