The Pause That Refreshes

Alexey Kosygin
Alexey Kosygin; drawing by David Levine

The lunar New Year truce in Vietnam last month seemed to offer an unusually good opportunity, not only to bring about an acceptable peace in Vietnam but to help accomplish four stated goals of US foreign policy. At last the Soviet Government, which long claimed no jurisdiction in Vietnam, was ready to join with the State Department in a limited partnership, to bring off some sort of compromise settlement. The significance of this development was heightened by the fact that Soviet-American cooperation would obviously take place at the expense of a convulsed and diplomatically inert China. Within Vietnam itself, in the opinion of many qualified observers, a military stalemate prevailed and this too seemed to lend itself to the limited ends of measured diplomacy rather than to the millenial hopes of unrestricted force. Finally, and perhaps of greatest importance, the Administration had recently been confronted with solid evidence, in the testimony of Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times, that the objectives of Hanoi and the National Liberation Front differed in important ways; in particular, Mr. Salisbury reported, the NLF seemed as publicly committed to an independent, non-socialist South Vietnam as Walter Lippman himself. Thus there appeared to be room for a settlement which would preserve not only Washington’s “face” but also the substance of the policy which, it is said, led to US intervention in Vietnam in the first place. In short, if events were ruled by “pragmatism,” hard-nosed “realism,” tough-minded “moderation,” and all the other somewhat unattractive but obviously utilarian characteristics so cherished by our foreign policy establishment, the Tet cease-fire was but a prelude to better things. Or so it would seem.

What in fact happened was quite a different matter. Each of those factors which should have promoted a compromise settlement became for Washington a reason for hardening its line and going on to a considerable expansion of the war. It is an unhappy but illuminating tale.

DIPLOMATIC ACTIVITY concerning the cease-fire began with Wilfred Burchett’s now famous interview with Hanoi’s Foreign Minister, Nguyen Duy Trinh, on January 28. Trinh spoke in an obviously conciliatory way. He took pains to emphasize that the famous Four Points of the North Vietnamese formed a basis for discussion, not a series of demands or conditions. He offered talks with the US and asked only for an end to the bombing of the North. He suggested that Hanoi was sensitive to the need to “fulfill [its] duty to the peoples of the friendly [read ‘Soviet’] countries” in order to “contribute to the maintenance of peace in South East Asia and the world.” Significantly, the Foreign Minister made no demands with regard to the situation in South Vietnam. Broadly implying that he was in a position to speak for the South, he went on to express the view that Hanoi’s conciliatory Four Points took precedence over the Front’s hardline Five Points of…

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