A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Not to Negotiate

Lyndon Johnson and Ho Chi Minh
Lyndon Johnson and Ho Chi Minh; drawing by David Levine

The Vietnam war again seems bound to become dirtier, larger, and costlier on both sides. It may even have passed the point of no return and may settle down as a grim, pestilential “protracted war,” the Chinese Communist equivalent of the old-fashioned “war of attrition.” If so, the fatal turning point came in February 1967, preceded and followed by weeks of fancy diplomatic footwork, false hopes, and phony peace formulas.

As each move and maneuver comes into the news, it tends to live a life of its own, undefiled by previous moves and maneuvers. Yet, as every historian knows, history is not made that way, and it is necessary to put the pieces together to understand any one of them. The fate of the Johnson-Ho Chi Minh correspondence in February or of Secretary-General U Thant’s new three point peace plan in March cannot be understood by itself, divorced from the events which led up to it or the consequences that flowed from it. Both these episodes and others in the recent past need to be seen in a somewhat larger historical perspective if they are to be rescued from providing more pretexts for waging an ever more brutalizing and destructive war.

The most striking and peculiar aspect of the latest turn of the war is that both sides seemed to be coming closer to a basis for negotiation just before the United States made the decision in February to intensify and broaden the scale of the attack on North Vietnam. The form of the complex, deceptive, and promising diplomatic maneuvers resulted in large part from the “negotiating positions” which both sides had previously taken. To see these positions clearly, it is necessary to go back about two years.

The basic North Vietnamese position went back to the four-point program enunciated by Premier Pham Van Dong on April 8, 1965. This had called, in substance, for (1) withdrawal of all United States military forces from South Vietnam, (2) neutralization of both South and North Vietnam, (3) settlement of South Vietnam’s internal affairs “in accordance with the program” of the National Liberation Front, and (4) peaceful reunification. Pham Van Dong had offered it as “the basis for the soundest political settlement of the Vietnam problem.” If this basis were “recognized,” he said, “favorable conditions” for the peaceful settlement of the problem would be created and an international conference “along the pattern of” the Geneva conference of 1954 could be reconvened.1

On the surface, none of these four points appeared to be an insuperable obstacle to some form of peaceful negotiations. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 18, 1966, Secretary of State Rusk said that the United States could accept three of the four points, the first, second, and fourth. The only exception he took was to the third, which he…

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