Harrison Salisbury
Harrison Salisbury; drawing by David Levine

Among the many anomalies of the Vietnamese war none has been more startling than the experience of opening our newspapers last Christmas Day and reading the first of a series of dispatches by Harrison Salisbury, filed directly from Hanoi, describing life in North Vietnam and the effects of the US bombing. During the following ten weeks, the Hanoi government granted visas to half a dozen American journalists, including myself, to visit North Vietnam. All of us were given facilities to travel, were allowed to take photographs, and those who cabled their reports from the scene were not subjected to censorship of any kind. It was as if US reporters had been welcomed in Berlin or Tokyo during World War II or even as if German news-men had been invited to London in 1940 to cover the Battle of Britain for the Volk back home. One can think of no precedent for these visits in recent history.

The motive behind Hanoi’s action was clear. North Vietnam was slowly being bombed into rubble, yet the American people knew very little about it. On December 13 and 14, American planes had bombed civilian areas in Hanoi itself. Yet both the Pentagon and the White House denied it, and because of the reluctance of the US press to give credence to reports by European newsmen on the scene, the public generally accepted the denial. The North Vietnamese leaders themselves, frustrated and under increasing pressure from their Soviet-bloc allies, concluded that they had nothing to lose by bringing in American newsmen to see for themselves.

The first American journalist to be invited was Harrison Salisbury, the Assistant Editor of The New York Times. Hanoi’s choice of the Times, America’s most influential newspaper, was premeditated and obvious. The choice of Salisbury may have been accidental, yet it could hardly have been more fortunate. Not only is Salisbury a good, professional reporter, but he is undoubtedly one of the most prolific journalists on the current scene. He spent only two weeks in North Vietnam, during which he was able to leave Hanoi only twice—once on an overnight trip to Nam Dinh, and once for a half-day visit to Phat Diem. Out of this relatively meager experience Salisbury produced eighteen separate news dispatches filed directly from Hanoi; eight long articles recapitulating his entire trip (all of which he cabled to the Times from Hong Kong a mere three days after he left North Vietnam); and now a 243-page book, Behind the Lines—Hanoi, completed only weeks after his return to New York. Between December 25, 1966 and January 18, 1967—a period of three-and-one-half weeks—there was at least one Salisbury article on North Vietnam in every issue but two of The New York Times.

ANYONE WHO reads Salisbury’s early dispatches from Hanoi must be impressed by their cool clarity and completeness of detail. Although the eight longer articles from Hong Kong are prolix and repetitious, his reports from the scene are journalism of the best kind: The observer is invisible; the style is spare and the tone understated; the narrative flows through a series of images clearly seen and simply told. In the best of Salisbury’s dispatches there is a sense of immediate communication, not only of events, but of the ambiance in which they took place:

HANOI, NORTH VIETNAM, DEC. 27—Just before 2:35 P.M. yesterday, there was a muffled distant roar, 10-foot windows in this old French-built hotel rattled and heavy gray curtains gently swayed inward.

At the count of three there was another tremendous distant rumble and again the windows shook and the curtains swayed. Moments later came a third.

The wail of a siren then sounded the alert, and the hotel’s defense staff scrambled for tin hats and rifles.

Guests emerged from their rooms and hurried down the great marble staircase, through the long lounge with its slightly bedraggled tropical Christmas tree, its bar with a remarkable collection of liquors of all lands—including Stolichnaya vodka from Moscow, rice wine from Peking and Gordon’s gin from London—and out across the interior court-yard, where shelters are situated.

By the time the guests had begun to descend into the sturdy concrete bunker, little waitresses in their black sateen trousers and white blouses stood ready with rifles to fire at any low-flying planes.

Salisbury’s detailed descriptions of the bombing of North Vietnam, especially of the damage to civilian areas, created a great uproar in America and elicited quick denials and recriminations from all branches of the Administration. This was ironic, because, as Salisbury himself points out, most of the information that created the controversy had long been known and available to the public. For months Warl Peace Report, Liberation. The Progressive, and other magazines of the Left had been publishing articles about the bombing by European journalists and by American semi-professionals who had been to Hanoi. But most Americans did not read these magazines and would not trust them if they did. It was the enormous prestige of The New York Times standing behind Salisbury’s reports that made the facts credible.


Still, it was Salisbury’s own reportorial skill that made his dispatches so effective. We had let ourselves be lulled into believing what we were told: that we were dropping bombs with “surgical precision” exclusively on targets of “concrete and steel.” Salisbury’s articles made us face the reality which subconsciously we had suspected all along: a great many people were being killed. Of course, that is mainly why the Pentagon and its supporters in Congress gave Salisbury such a virulent going-over. He had, momentarily at least, destroyed their chief advantage—the apathetic indulgence of the American people.

UNFORTUNATELY, Salisbury’s reporting contained one flaw which was legitimately criticized by the Pentagon chiefs and the dons of journalism: in certain instances he gave figures about damage from US bombing raids without stating that they came from North Vietnamese sources and could not be verified. It was a temporary lapse, but one that seems unaccountable in an experienced reporter—doubly so because his first dispatch from Hanoi, dated December 24, 1966, was beyond reproach in that respect:

Five persons were reported killed [in a bombing raid over Hanoi] and 11 injured, and 39 families were said to be homeless…. The North Vietnamese say that almost simultaneously about 300 thatch and brick homes and huts…were hit. [Italics mine.]

The trouble began in the second dispatch, written the following day, after an overnight trip to Nam Dinh. Nam Dinh, North Vietnam’s third largest city, had been heavily bombed, and many civilian areas were devastated. The evidence perhaps shocked Salisbury into carelessness:

The textile plant has been bombed 19 times…. Almost every house on the street was blasted down April 14 at about 6:30 A.M., just as the factory shifts were changing. Forty-nine people were killed, 135 were wounded on Hang Thao St. and 240 houses collapsed. Eight bombs—MK-84’s accomplished this…[etc. etc.]

The problem is that Salisbury is writing about things he cannot verify. He had not been in Nam Dinh on April 14, 1966 and thus could not know how many people were killed or wounded then. Nor had he ever been within 100 miles of the Seventeenth Parallel, although he wrote that US bombs had leveled the whole countryside there, while “movement continues by night with little impediment.” Salisbury must have received cables from New York about these lapses, for in the fifth dispatch (datelined December 28) a description of a visit to an evacuated high school is interrupted by a laconic statement:

It should be noted, incidentally, that all casualty estimates and statistics in these dispatches are those of North Vietnamese officials.

Yet the controversy did not die down. So, in his seventh dispatch (December 30), Salisbury wrote an entirely new article about the bombing of Nam Dinh. In it, he repeated almost exactly what he had written in his second dispatch, listing the same statistics but prefacing each paragraph with such phrases as “According to the officials,” “The officials said,” “The officials contend,” etc.

Salisbury, a proud man, is plainly annoyed at those US officials, “notably civilians in the Pentagon,” who attacked him for failing to cite his sources and thus “diverted some attention from the essence of what I was able to garner.” Of course the information came from the North Vietnamese, he complains—“what other source one might have in a Communist country I really don’t know.”

The point Salisbury misses is that though the figures may very well be authentic, he needlessly left himself open to attack by neglecting to identify his sources. The Administration had been lying about what it was doing in North Vietnam, and Salisbury was in a position to demolish that lie singlehandedly. Instead, through carelessness, he gratuitously created a little credibility gap of his own, which inevitably dulled the impact of his on-the-scene observations.

ANYONE WHO DID NOT READ Salisbury’s original reports from North Vietnam will find this book interesting, because all the material is there. Those who did read them, however, will find it disappointing. A journalist who attempts to rewrite a series of dispatches into a book is usually playing with trouble. In turning articles into chapters, Salisbury has fluffed up the descriptions and slackened the pace of the narratives with a great many personal anecdotes and asides. We don’t even get to Hanoi until Chapter Five. More deplorable is the jarring shift in tone. In the Times reports the observer was unobtrusive and the emphasis was on the story. In the book the first-person singular has become dominant, and the story often takes second place. Salisbury tends to see himself as the protagonist in a life-and-death drama of cosmic proportions. In the opening chapter he subjects us to a soliloquy spoken, ostensibly, as he walked down Fifth Avenue a week before Christmas and forty-eight hours before he was to depart for Hanoi. He would miss Christmas with his family, for he is going off to:


a world where the germinal issues of our day were being delineated in shapes and forms such as even Goya had not imagined, a world of primitive drama, new experience, new adventure and blinding conflict.

Fortunately, there is considerably less of this sort of thing once he gets inside North Vietnam.

Arriving in Hanoi, Salisbury took a tour of the areas damaged during the air raids of December 13 and 14 and found that bombs had indeed fallen on civilian quarters in various parts of the city, destroying homes and schools and killing people. He concedes that most of the damage may have come from missed targets. But he criticizes the Pentagon for having convinced America that new advances in bombing techniques had made it possible to drop bombs on “military” targets with “surgical precision.” The target areas themselves were small and nearly impossible to hit; moreover, their military importance (a nearly empty truck park, a railroad overpass, etc.) was slight when compared to the risks, in such a heavily defended area: the bombs could fall on people; our two million-dollar airplanes could be shot down and their pilots captured. In fact, Salisbury concludes, the pilots who had bombed Hanoi had been under “orders which lay on the far horizon of their capability.” In other words, he implies that the military leaders who selected the targets had understood perfectly well that civilian areas would almost certainly be hit.

Here Salisbury raises what is probably the most important issue in the book:

I had long heard that President Johnson himself approved every target and every operation in the vicinity of Hanoi and Haiphong. I wondered whether the military had been frank in the briefings they had given their Commander in Chief…whether in their deep commitment to the theory of air power they might not have overlooked some basic considerations of national welfare and American in-interest.1

IF HE WAS SHOCKED by the bombing of Hanoi, Salisbury was confounded by the tremendous destruction he encountered during his two brief trips south of the capital. The crossroads town of Phu Ly, forty miles south of Hanoi, had “vanished.” All that was left was “just ruins of buildings strung out along the highway.” In Nam Dinh, a textile mill city thirty-five miles further south, where not a single military objective was in sight, whole residential areas had been razed. 2

Salisbury also saw convincing evidence that planes had bombed the Cao River dikes outside Nam Dinh at least twice, although the Pentagon has denied bombing dikes. Since Nam Dinh lies several feet below water-level during the rainy season, a breach in the dikes could be fatal to the entire city. A week later, on New Year’s Day, he visited the village of Phat Diem, in the Red River delta region, an agricultural community that is overwhelmingly Catholic. Here, again, he found that almost all substantial buildings, including most of the churches, had been bombed, as well as several clusters of thatched huts and some dikes and sluices. There was also evidence that peasants had been strafed in the rice fields.

Salisbury found on his travels that US planes were applying an almost continuous pasting to North Vietnam’s roads, bridges, and railroads, but noticed also that the traffic of trucks and trains, though slowed down, was still moving—an observation with which others, including myself, who have traveled more extensively through the countryside, would agree. Craters in the highways are filled up as quickly as they are made, the rails are repaired with disciplined celerity, and easily dismantled pontoon bridges take the place of the bombed-out spans across the country’s rivers and streams. The traffic moves at a difficult crawl, but it moves continuously. For the Vietnamese, whose patience far exceeds our own, this is sufficient. If an unending stream of supplies is flowing south, it follows that an unending stream of supplies is also arriving at the other end. Salisbury draws a cogent parallel with our experience in the Korean war, when we also commanded the skies and bombed the Chinese supply lines day and night with impunity, yet were unable to prevent the flow of support to hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops. In other words, we can inflict casualties, we can destroy some matériel, but we cannot, with all our best efforts, effectively prevent the North Vietnamese from supplying and reinforcing their allies in South Vietnam. In fact, if one can believe official Pentagon figures, since the bombing began in August 1965, the rate of infiltration of North Vietnamese troops into the South has increased steadily in almost direct proportion to the escalation of the bombing.

According to our government, we are attacking only two types of targets in North Vietnam: military and industrial. Military objectives include, in addition to roads, rails, and bridges, supply depots, radar, SAM and anti-aircraft emplacements, and, only recently MIO bases.3 In other words, most of the military targets are defensive ones—we bomb them in order to be able to bomb the rest of the country more easily. The “industrial” targets are neither numerous nor impressive. The closest thing to heavy industry in North Vietnam is a small, outmoded, iron-and-steel factory near Thai Nguyen, which was only partially in operation when it was first hit early this spring. Beyond that, there are only a small tin factory, a cement plant, several textile mills, two paper factories, a bicycle factory, factories for fertilizers, insecticides, glassware, pots and pans, cigarettes, soap and other sundries, and several power plants. It is not exactly what you would call heavy industry. Most of the production is meant for civilian, rather than military consumption. North Vietnam is, after all, a backward, underdeveloped country. Its economy is mainly agricultural, its people mostly peasants. This fact does not come through in US military communiqués, where one somehow gets the idea that we are bombing a modern, industrialized nation. Indeed, of late, the planners in the Pentagon are reported to be somewhat embarrassed because they are rapidly running out of targets. Anticipating that this would happen, Salisbury poses the logical question:

When you totaled all the “military objectives” in North Vietnam, they didn’t total much…. North Vietnam was paying a tragic price in order that the architects of our bombing policy might prove its validity. But I wondered whether, in the end, the heaviest price might not be paid by us Americans for our stubborn pursuit of a military theory which seemed to have little connection with reality. Would we not in the end suffer more deeply for permitting this folly to continue than the poor, battered, destitute people and their habitations upon which we insisted on imposing the grandiose title of “military objective”?

Salisbury does not hesitate to castigate our military leaders for relying too heavily on bombing to win the war or to criticize them for what he implies are calculated misrepresentations to the President of their real capabilities. Yet he stops short of the conclusion toward which his own eyewitness experiences inevitably lead him: that we are bombing populated areas of North Vietnam deliberately.

…the thousands of tons of bombs that fell on the countryside, on the fields, on the villages, on the peasants in the fields….

Accidents, all accidents. This was our version. This might well be the literal truth. But how to make it credible to the peasants of North Vietnam?

How, indeed, to make it credible (or understandable) to anyone?

OF COURSE accidents do occur. Some are the result of simple pilot error. In zones of heavy flak the planes must sweep in low and very fast, and the bombs often miss the target. Sometimes US planes are attacked by MIGS and forced to unload willy-nilly in order to get away. Inevitably some of these bombs must land in civilian areas. It is also possible that an occasional SAM missile launched by the Vietnamese fails to go off in the air and falls back into a populated sector and explodes, as the Pentagon says.4 Nevertheless, even the most generous allowance for arithmetical probability could not even begin to account for the tremendous amount and variety of bomb damage to civilian areas one finds all over North Vietnam. The evidence is, simply, overwhelming. Like Harrison Salisbury, whom I followed about a month later, I arrived in Hanoi naturally skeptical of reports that the US was intentionally hitting noncombatant areas. Whenever I was taken to look at a bomb-damaged area, I also went all around it and scrupulously searched the vicinity for anti-aircraft emplacements or factories or railroad lines or any other possible military target. Sometimes I found one; more often I did not. When I did not, I tried to think of some other rational explanation of what had happened. The more I saw, the less skeptical I became. After four weeks in North Vietnam, during which I traveled 1,000 miles on five separate trips to the north, east, south, and west of Hanoi, I had seen so many instances of inexplicable bombing of people and habitations that I was forced to the conclusion that there was a willful pattern to it.

Two examples. In the Red River delta hamlet of Antiem, which is nothing more than a few dozen rice farmers’ clay huts entirely surrounded by rice fields, and which I reached by walking across dikes for two miles beyond the nearest road, I saw bomb craters and a rubble heap where once had stood an elementary school; it is now marked by a plain stone monument listing the names of the twenty-nine children and one teacher who had died during the raid. Some peasants told me that two US planes had flown in at the height of morning, circled once, circled again, then dove upon them dropping two bombs each. The hamlet was unprotected even by rifles. Another night, in a jeep riding south on Route 1, I was roused by a jet which streaked down out of a light cloud cover, swept across the road, and laid down a stick of six bombs, one rocket, and a skein of tracer bullets in the fields to our right. It was a frightening and definitive experience. Some seconds later, still shaking, I looked up and could see nothing from the road to the horizon except rice fields and a small cluster of peasant huts, brightly lit by a tropical moon. These two experiences are representative of dozens I and others have had in North Vietnam, where any attempt to draw a connection between the destruction and military necessity seems absurd.

An increasingly important feature of our bombing of the North is the use of the CBU anti-personnel bomb. CBU stands for Cluster Bomb Unit. This is a pontoon-shaped metal canister which contains about 300 spherical “bomblets” about the size of baseballs. The canister, or “mother unit,”5 opens up at a predetermined altitude and spews out the bomblets over a wide area. Each bomblet rolls across the ground and detonates, exploding 300-400 round steel pellets at tremendous velocity. The pellets are coated with napalm or white phosphorous to facilitate their entry through clothing and skin. One CBU “mother” contains over 100,000 pellets and is capable of killing or immobilizing every human above the ground within an area of several thousand square yards. Pellet bombs have limited use against radar installations and wiring; they are mainly effective against people, not things, and certainly not against steel or concrete.

For a long time, the Pentagon refused to admit it was using pellet bombs in North Vietnam. Quite recently, however, perhaps provoked by the fact that visitors to Hanoi have brought back bomblets and exhibited them on national TV, military dispatches from Saigon have occasionally mentioned that the lead planes on a bombing raid usually drop CBUS on the anti-aircraft installations around the target area to make it easier for the other planes to do their conventional work.

This may be true. But I and many others (including Salisbury, although he mentions it only briefly) have found evidence that the CBUs are being dropped all over North Vietnam in populated areas well removed from anti-aircraft installations. There is no mistaking them when you see them. The canisters are clearly stenciled with all the military ordnance data—serial number, date of loading, and so on. The bomblets, when they detonate, make shallow round craters in the earth, and the pellets spray out in a symmetrical pattern which one can find perfectly preserved on walls or doors in towns and villages everywhere. They can also be found in the hands, arms, legs, feet, intestines, and skulls of numerous living victims, for the pellets are small and fast moving; they penetrate so deeply that they are often impossible to remove.

The only realistic conclusion that I could draw at the end of four weeks was that we were indeed bombing civilian targets in North Vietnam and that the bombing was, at least in large part, intentional. We were not yet bombing on a grand scale—for example, we still refrained from massive raids on Hanoi and Haiphong—but we were doing it selectively, consistently and deliberately.

THIS SHOULD NOT COME as any great shock to Americans. If one can accept the idea of bombing in principle, then one can also accept the idea of bombing civilians. North Vietnam is an underdeveloped country, and the main targets in underdeveloped countries ultimately turn out to be the people. One can imagine the frustration of our military leaders at finding that no matter how hard and long they bomb the factories, the roads, the rails, and the bridges, supplies keep moving and infiltration increases. For such men, committed by training and temperament to seek a military decision at all costs, the next logical step would almost certainly be to begin bombing the nonmilitary areas with the aim of crushing the morale of the populace and bringing the country psychologically to heel. That is what the North Vietnamese believe we are trying to do, and the facts support their conviction. 6

Indeed, we have accomplished the exact opposite. Far from breaking the will of the North Vietnamese, the bombing has stiffened it immeasurably. The most recent historical parallel that comes to mind is the Battle of Britain, in which the tremendous and unceasing bombardment by the Germans day and night left the English more firmly resolved to win the war than ever. A fact about North Vietnam that is little known in this country, conditioned as we are to regard every Communist society as blood-red from top to bottom, is that before 1965, when we began the bombing, there existed considerable ideological disunity and some dissension within the North Vietnamese society. Premier Pham Van Dong, whom I interviewed in Hanoi in late February, spoke candidly of North Vietnam’s “national bourgeoisie”—which he defined as including former capitalists and landowners, shopkeepers, intellectuals, and high-ranking clergy and laity of the Buddhist and Catholic churches. The premier implied that these people had put aside their opposition to Ho Chi Minh’s communism and united against the direct threat to their country’s sovereignty. Premier Dong said to me:

This war has hurt everybody’s interests and feelings, even those of the upper classes; it has affected them politically, economically, and personally as well. They realize that their future is in danger. Most of all, their nationalist spirit is hurt.

IF THE WAR cannot be won, can it be ended by diplomacy? Several excellent studies, notably The Politics of Escalation and a recent article by Theodore Draper in this publication entitled “Vietnam: How Not to Negotiate” have provided convincing demonstrations that either we are totally inept at making the most of our diplomatic opportunities, or else we really don’t want to negotiate—whatever our protests to the contrary.

Mr. Salisbury returned from Hanoi early in January convinced that the time was ripe for talks to begin between Hanoi and Washington. Mr. Draper, looking back, agrees that a turning point in the diplomacy over negotiations was reached last winter. Probably only those who follow Vietnamese affairs closely will recall that near the end of January North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh, in an interview with Wilfred Burchett, the Australian Communist correspondent, indicated publicly for the first time that if the US would stop the bombing, conditions would be created for talks between Washington and Hanoi. This important interview was carried by the Associated Press but received almost no notice in this country’s press and produced no public reaction from the State Department, much to the consternation of the North Vietnamese, who felt that they had offered a major concession in the diplomatic war.

So Hanoi tried again. On February 7, the eve of the Têt truce, Burchett, who has close contacts with the North Vietnamese leadership, transmitted another long dispatch to the AP. “North Vietnam is ready to sit down with the United States to hold preliminary talks to explore what steps can be taken to end the war in Vietnam,” Burchett began, and went on:

The next move—following Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh’s declaration to me that if the bombings stopped, “the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the United States could enter into talks”—is believed by the North Vietnamese to be up to Washington.

He then added the following “clarification” of Trinh’s statement which, he said, he had received from the DRVN’s leaders:

If bombings cease completely, good and favorable conditions will be created for the talks. Halt the bombings, come and talk. Let’s see what can be done next. President Johnson said he was only waiting for a sign. Well, now he has it. We’ve shown our goodwill. The United States must do the same.

In the same dispatch, Burchett also noted that when this clear offer was published in Nhan Dan, Hanoi’s official daily, it created a great deal of surprise and excitement, even among the North Vietnamese.

My own experience seemed to confirm Burchett’s report. On the same day that Burchett filed his dispatch to the AP, I was in Pnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, on my way to Hanoi, and I paid a courtesy call at the North Vietnamese embassy (which is located, with curious symbolism, at the corner of Mao Tse-tung Boulevard and USSR Road). I was greeted by a first secretary of the embassy who, scarcely bothering with the formal amenities of introduction (this was uncharacteristic behavior for a Vietnamese), began to question me in an agitated fashion. “Can you please tell me,” he asked, “what has been the reaction in your country to our Foreign Minister’s interview with Burchett in which we offered to hold talks if you stop the bombing?” I replied, somewhat concerned, that I had not read about it, perhaps because I had been traveling for two weeks, having come by way of Cuba. “But that is just the point!” he answered, growing more excited. “We are unable to find any indication that this proposal has been published in the American press. How can that be? It was a most important statement!”

In Hanoi a few days later, I had a talk with Colonel Ha Van Lao, the sophisticated Chief of the Vietnamese War Crimes Commission who often heads DRVN diplomatic missions abroad and was a member of his country’s delegation to the Geneva Convention in 1954. Our conversation was calm and friendly, even punctuated by moments of humor, until I asked what North Vietnam might be willing to offer as a gesture of good will to get talks started. For the first and only time, Colonel Lao seemed incredulous and angry. “But we have made our offer!” he said, emphasizing every word. “We have taken a very significant step! We can go no further! Why don’t you people understand this?”

Foreign diplomats in Hanoi from both sides of the Iron Curtain with whom I talked agreed that the North Vietnamese had made what was for them an important move. Their position had always been one of principle: The US had started the bombings, therefore it must stop them before any talks could be held. But the Soviet Union and other European socialist countries had long been urging Hanoi to be less unbending and to offer some evidence of good will that might lead to negotiations. Their influence bore greater weight at that moment because China, which firmly opposed negotiations of any kind, was preoccupied with the mounting excesses of its Cultural Revolution.

Now the possibility had been turned into a promise. More than one diplomat told me that the decision to make a concrete offer was the result of a protracted debate in the Council of Ministers. It represented, they said, something of a victory for the “moderates” over the more “hawkish” elements in the Hanoi leadership. But, they cautioned, the moderates had also put themselves out on a limb. If the US rebuffed the offer, it would mean loss of face for North Vietnam in the eyes of the world, and this in turn might compromise the influence of the moderates and polarize the Hanoi leadership in favor of the advocates of all-out resistance without negotiations—the Peking line.

The stage was set. The Têt truce was on. Soviet Premier Kosygin was in London, making it clear to the White House through Prime Minister Wilson that Hanoi meant business. At that moment, on February 10, President Johnson’s letter to Ho Chi Minh arrived. Not only did it reject Hanoi’s gesture, but the letter set more preconditions for stopping the bombing than ever before. Three days later on February 13, before President Ho Chi Minh even had time to send his reply, the US resumed the bombing under the pretext that Hanoi had taken unfair advantage of the truce to rebuild some bridges and step up supplies to the South.7 To the Hanoi leaders these two acts seemed calculated affronts, evidence that the United States had never intended to negotiate in good faith in the first place.

WHAT HAPPENED? Why was Hanoi’s offer turned down by Washington in such peremptory fashion, just when it seemed that conditions for talks were better than ever before? It may very well be as Hanoi claimed: that President Johnson, having called for talks for more than a year and then finding himself on the verge of actual conversations, suddenly came to the embarrassing realization that Hanoi and Washington had nothing to talk about.

For both sides, the fundamental issue was—and is—not the bombing of the North but the war in the South. It is impossible to negotiate this issue because the two sides view it from antithetical and irreconcilable sets of premises. In Hanoi’s view, the war in the South is a civil war into which the US has intruded imperialistically and from which it must withdraw. The National Liberation Front (Viet Cong), not North Vietnam, is our principal enemy in the South, and there can be no negotiations to end the war until first the US recognizes the NLF and grants it full and independent representation at the conference table. In Washington’s stated view, the war is the result of “Communist aggression” from North Vietnam. The Viet Cong is a satellite of Hanoi. We are bombing in the North and fighting in the South against the same enemy. The NLF may sit at the conference table only if it comes as part of the Hanoi delegation.

The resolution of this impasse obviously hinges on the true identity of the National Liberation Front. Although there is strong evidence to support the Front’s claim that it is an indigenous Southern revolutionary movement, supported by a large segment of the native population, this does not seem to have impressed the State Department. Nor does Washington seem interested in exploring the differences of purpose and ideology between North Vietnam and the NLF, which various representatives of the Front have expressed in interviews with Harrison Salisbury, myself, and others. Some of them are quite startling. When I spoke to Nguyen Van Tien, the official NLF representative to Hanoi, he put to me the following points: South Vietnam cannot under any circumstances ever be Communist—even the Communists in the Front know this and accept it; political reunification of Vietnam will not take place, but North and South will remain two separate, independent countries; South Vietnam will be non-aligned and will ask for aid from all countries for reconstruction, even from the US.

Certainly it is difficult to know whether or not all these statements are genuine positions of the NLF, and whether the NLF would be able to act on the basis of them. If they are genuine, they unquestionably come closer than does Hanoi’s position to the kind of result which we claim we would like to see in South Vietnam. At the very least, there seem to be serious differences in the two programs, which ought to be explored by American diplomats. But this would mean dealing directly with the Viet Cong in some way, which we are unwilling to do since it would be a tacit admission that the NLF is not merely the puppet of Hanoi, and since it would undermine the confidence of the Saigon government, our own puppet, to which we are fully, though unhappily, committed.

The political theorists of the Johnson Administration have striven long and indefatigably to convince the world that Peking and/or Moscow dominate Hanoi, which in turn invented and totally controls the Viet Cong; and that if South Vietnam “falls” to the Communists so will all of Southeast Asia. Few intelligent people who have studied the facts still subscribe to this mechanistic vision of political hegemony. Paradoxically, however, America’s interventionist policy in Vietnam may now be transforming the myth into a reality. With each new escalation of the war the North Vietnamese become more unified, the Viet Cong leadership becomes more radical in character and more dependent on Hanoi, and the Soviet Union is forced closer and closer to an undesired rapprochement with the Red Chinese and direct military intervention on the side of North Vietnam. So, indeed, may China herself. The Cultural Revolution will not last forever, but China’s nuclear and missile capabilities will grow. As James Reston remarked recently, Peking is now down to its last 700 million men. It ought to be a sobering thought to those gentlemen in the Pentagon who are now drawing up plans for the invasion of North Vietnam.

This Issue

August 3, 1967