Averell Harriman
Averell Harriman; drawing by David Levine


After five months of “official conversations,” US and North Vietnamese negotiators privately agree upon only one thing: If an end to the war comes, it will have very little to do with what is said here. Neither Averell Harriman nor Xuan Thuy is under any illusion that he can persuade the other to his position, and neither is trying. Both sides understand that the Paris talks are a public window through which one can catch glimpses of three distant dramas which will ultimately decide the war: the war on the ground in South Vietnam, the struggle for life of the Saigon Government, and the dispute over war policy in the United States.

Apart from this realistic appraisal of their own roles, however, there is almost nothing on which the American and North Vietnamese delegations agree. Their communiques even disagree on the length of the “tea breaks” where, according to optimistic press speculation, the real negotiations have taken place. More significantly, each side has a different official interpretation of what the talks have accomplished and what the prospects for progress are. “If you poll the delegation,” a member of the American negotiating team told me, “you will find that most of them think that we are now in a terminal phase.” Conceding that this opinion was based on little concrete evidence, he nevertheless insisted that “this is where it will all end.” He admitted there had been no progress to date. But perhaps, he suggested, recalling that in the past the Soviets had often caved in after months of arduous negotiation and settled some of the postwar peace treaties virtually on US terms, the end will come here through a dramatic breakthrough rather than piecemeal progress.

When I asked Xuan Thuy the same questions, his answer was unequivocal. There has been no progress whatever. “The Americans wish to create the impression of progress to deceive world opinion, but they are talking for talking only.” Whenever the American delegation, Vice President Humphrey, or other political figures in the United States issue optimistic statements about “straws in the wind” or “signs of progress,” the North Vietnamese go out of their way to counter such rumors. At a recent press conference the official North Vietnamese spokesman repeated their position on unconditional cessation of the bombing more than twenty-five times. And to underscore his anger, he added that he hoped that Harriman (who wears a hearing aid) “heard it with both his ears.”

The Americans want to appease American public opinion by making people think that we are making progress at the “tea breaks,” Xuan Thuy told me. “Let me tell you what actually goes on there. At the first stage of the talks we talked about the weather. I asked Mr. Harriman how he was enjoying himself in Paris and when he got his hearing aid, and he too had things to say of similar moment.” In recent weeks, however, the talk has turned to more serious matters. The North Vietnamese protested the bombings by B-52’s in South Vietnam. They denounced the July 31st statement of Secretary Rusk in which he seemed to set new and tougher conditions for the cessation of bombing. The American delegation has used the social hour (actually between twenty and forty minutes) to protest infiltration of North Vietnamese regulars and to warn against new escalation of the war. The only substantial accomplishment has been the exchange of assurances on the release of some prisoners.

Both sides seem to perceive that, for the moment at least, the real victories or defeats emerging from the Paris talks will be in the propaganda war. The United States delegation clearly feels that being at Paris is a public relations advantage for the United States and a political asset for the Johnson Administration. The White House has been able to disarm, at least partially, domestic and international critics who condemn the United States for appearing to resist a political settlement of the war. “A few months ago,” a member of the American delegation pointed out, “the whole country was in anguish.” Now, he added, the President has a freer hand. Most US politicians are reluctant to expose themselves to the charge that they are interfering with delicate negotiations. The North Vietnamese know this and are troubled.

On the other hand, the North Vietnamese also derive some propaganda advantages from the talks. Most important, the opening of the negotiations has blunted domestic pressure in the United States for military escalation. While fighting and talking are, in strictly logical terms, not inconsistent policies, no government would have enough political dexterity to stay at the negotiating table while it was experimenting with mass flooding, nuclear bombing, or invasion. The North Vietnamese understand that some future American administration might in desperation choose genocide as the final solution to the Vietnam problem, and this is one reason why they will be slow to break off the talks, despite the pacifying effects they have on American anti-war sentiment.


There are other propaganda advantages for the North Vietnamese too. They are able to summon the world press on short notice to listen to long, detailed accounts of American bombardment of North and South Vietnam. Each official North Vietnamese statement is an indictment of the American conduct of the war. Recently, Harriman suggested that both sides stop distributing the text of the official statements. “Why is he afraid to let the people know?” Xuan Thuy asked me. The more the Americans press for secrecy, the more the Vietnamese are convinced the talks are helping their own cause.

IN ACCEPTING President Johnson’s proposal of March 31, the North Vietnamese made it clear that they were coming to Paris to discuss one thing only: The unconditional cessation of the bombing and all other acts of war against North Vietnam. As it became increasingly clear that the Johnson formula for ending the bombing was unacceptable to the Vietnamese, Harriman sought to introduce other subjects such as a cease-fire in the demilitarized zone. “As I told Mr. Harriman, this is not a banquet where you can change the menu,” Xuan Thuy told me. “There is only one question before us. The bombing issue is a door behind which the solution to Vietnam is locked. Once the door is opened, many things are possible.”

The bombing halt has from the start been the symbolic issue of the negotiations. For each side it has a significance far beyond the immediate battlefield effects. It is essentially a political, not a military issue. “Though it is useful to have a couple hundred more miles of road to shoot at North Vietnamese trucks coming down from the North,” a member of the US delegation said, “it is not essential.” He indicated that only the US military command in Vietnam strongly favors the continuation of the bombing. Important elements of the “intelligence community” and in the State Department have long believed it to be “counter-productive.” Indeed, many South Vietnamese generals see no substantial military advantage to the bombing. But the Thieu government is another matter. For them the bombing continues to symbolize unwavering American support. “Many people in South Vietnam think we are just going through a ballet in preparation for getting out,” one of the US negotiators told me. To stop the bombing on North Vietnam’s terms would look like the beginning of the end to the Saigon politicians, who wisely understand that the squadrons of US bombers are their only symbols of power. The US delegation fears that if the substantive negotiations begin on the basis of a major American concession, the North Vietnamese, pressing their advantage, will sweep to a total diplomatic victory.

The North Vietnamese appear to be adamant about making any compromise whatever on the bombing issue. They believe that the United States’ demand for “reciprocity” implies a recognition of equal guilt. In effect, what they are saying is this: If we tell the world that we are willing to curtail our military activities in Vietnam in return for cessation of the American bombardment, we are admitting that these activities are morally equivalent. But to the Vietnamese, who think of Vietnam as one country, there is a big difference between Vietnamese soldiers fighting to liberate their country and American soldiers fighting to maintain a puppet government. We are fighting an anti-colonial war against a foreign power. Compared with America, we don’t have very much except our national pride and a desire for independence. “This is not like the negotiations between great powers,” one of the members of the North Vietnamese delegation told me, “a dispute where each side can give a little. On the issue of independence we have nothing to give.” Xuan Thuy pointed out that to make a public concession, in order to get the United States to stop the bombing which it had no legal or moral right to have begun in the first place, would be incomprehensible to those who have been struggling for twenty years to free their country of foreign domination. Such a symbolic act would signal to those doing the fighting that the diplomats were once again prepared, as in Geneva in 1954, to give up at the conference table what had been won on the battlefield. Once again he asked the question that North Vietnamese never cease to put to American visitors: “Would you negotiate with someone who is bombing your country?”

The American delegation calls this “their theological argument.” It is clear that the American negotiators understand the Vietnamese position, and I had the impression that some members of the delegation would like to accede to it. Harriman has tried to come up with more subtle diplomatic language which would soften the notion of reciprocity but at the same time extract an admission from the North Vietnamese that they are prepared to give something in exchange for a bombing halt. “Our devices were too obvious,” one of the American delegates observed with a smile.


But in addition to “theological” reasons, the Vietnamese have practical grounds for not buying a bombing halt even at a discount. For one thing, as Xuan Thuy asked in our conversation, what kind of reciprocity is it that the US is demanding? They want reinforcements by the National Liberation Front to be curtailed, but they do not offer to curtail American reinforcements. Indeed, they are substantially increasing the strength of the South Vietnamese army. The so-called “limited bombing” is actually an intensification of their war. The number of sorties over North Vietnam has increased almost five times since the March 31 speech. That the bombing is concentrated in four provinces, with a population the size of that of Chicago, has inspired little gratitude. When US politicians talk about “de-Americanizing the war” by “beefing up” the ARVN forces, this may be good domestic politics, but to the North Vietnamese and the NLF such a strategy is simply a device to prolong American control. It is another form of escalation.

WHEN I ASKED Xuan Thuy what could break the deadlock, he replied rather sharply, “Look, during the past three months there have been many opportunities. When we pulled our troops back from Khe Sanh and allowed the Americans to escape the trap, they kept on bombing. When the rocket attacks were suspended for over two months, the bombing kept on anyway. Your diplomats hinted that if the level of military activity in the South were reduced, that would lead to a bombing halt. The military operations dropped off sharply but the bombing has been intensified.” Although only a few days earlier he had refused to admit to a US newsman that the pattern of military restraint had “political significance” (presumably because such an admission sounded too much like “reciprocity”), he went out of his way to make clear to me, as he had to others, that Hanoi had for a long time been giving Washington clear and repeated signals. A few hours after our talk the war in the South resumed and the first rockets in months landed on Saigon.

I kept asking the North Vietnamese diplomats what they thought the American strategy was. Don’t you think the Americans want to see the war over? Of course, they replied, but not enough to give up their effort to dominate the politics of Vietnam. Johnson talked at Honolulu of eventual military withdrawal, but everything he does suggests that he has no intention of giving up America’s dominant political role in South Vietnam. The Americans are determined to maintain a puppet government. They might eventually be willing to admit individual members of the NLF, but the power will continue to be centered in those whose political life depends on an uninterrupted flow of US gas and dollars. That the Americans are occasionally embarrassed by Ky and Thieu only reinforces the Vietnamese suspicion that Washington is not prepared to give up this instrument of domination, however unsatisfactory it is. The present strategy, according to the Vietnamese, is merely a continuation of earlier unsuccessful US efforts to maintain control of South Vietnam through such means as the installation of the Diem government and its successors and the landing of the expeditionary force. The Americans, Thuy insisted, will try to accomplish through negotiations for the removal of their troops the very results they tried to bring about by sending them.

The North Vietnamese see the US handling of the Saigon government as the key to American intentions, and it is in this connection that the bombing issue is so crucial to them. If the Johnson Administration were prepared to accept a political solution in South Vietnam that reflected the actual political strength of opposing forces therein—in other words, self-determination—then it would no longer insist on propping up its weak reed in Saigon with promises to continue the systematic bombardment of the country. Moreover, until the United States realizes that they cannot have both Thieu and peace, the North Vietnamese feel there is no point in getting to the substantive issues. Perhaps a government in Washington that has stopped the bombing will still insist on surrender, but, until Washington is prepared to take that risk when so much of US and world opinion favors it, there is no hope that America is prepared to make the minimal concessions that could move the war to a close.

WHEN I PRESSED the Vietnamese for their analysis of America’s objectives in Vietnam and, particularly, of the reasons the United States might have to dominate their small country, their response was at first the expected reflex explanations, the official Marxist slogans of “monopoly capital,” “exploitation of raw materials,” and “neo-colonialism.” Yet when I pointed out that important leaders of American business were against the war, and that there was relatively little US investment in Vietnam, they agreed that the official theory was inadequate. They mentioned military containment of China as an explanation, but they were plainly puzzled by the tenacity of the American commitment, especially now that it appears so self-defeating. “It seems to be a disease of great countries,” one of the Vietnamese diplomats remarked. “We have been fighting great countries on our soil for 2000 years.”

What do the North Vietnamese expect to happen when and if the bombing is halted? Their diplomats are reticent about engaging in hypothetical discussion of substantive issues with people who come to interview them, not only because they are determined not to negotiate in any way until the bombing is halted, but also because they appear unsure of the precise form such negotiations would take. While they have a preferred “scenario,” they know that the actual pace and character of the negotiations will depend upon events on the battlefield and in Saigon.

Nevertheless, they have opened a few small cracks in what Xuan Thuy called their “closed door.” There would be “immediate” negotiations with the United States on the issue of mutual military withdrawals. On this issue they are prepared to be “flexible” and “reasonable.” They appreciate the importance to themselves of smoothing America’s extrication from Vietnam, and they will go to some lengths to “help” the Americans on such questions as the timing and order of withdrawal.

On the crucial issue of the political future of South Vietnam. Hanoi’s strategy is becoming clearer. The American delegation fears that once substantive negotiations begin, the Vietnamese will insist that the US deal with the NLF. “They can’t afford to take responsibility for the Front. That’s what the whole argument is about,” an American delegate explained. The Americans believe that once they deal with the Front as a political unit, that very act of recognition will be enough to topple the Thieu government. Those Saigon politicians unable to get plane reservations for Paris will discover virtues in the NLF. Nothing has been said by the Americans, officially or unofficially, to suggest that the State Department is now ready to negotiate with the Front. Quite the opposite, for the whole official analysis of the war, that it is “aggression from the North,” and the whole strategy for fighting it, that the insurgency will wither if Americans can keep the “foreigners” from crossing the 17th parallel, are all based on the premise of the non-existence of the Front as a legitimate political force in South Vietnam.

SHORTLY AFTER the Têt offensive, a new political organization, “The Alliance of National, Democratic, and Peace Forces,” came into being in South Vietnam. When I asked a member of the American delegation about it, he answered with the evident relief of a man able to keep new facts from disturbing old ideas. “Oh, that’s just a front.” The label, though accurate, hardly conveys the significance of this development. Anyone interested in a compromise political settlement in Vietnam should welcome the fact that the NLF has made a point of broadening its political support. The appearance of the Alliance, the publication of its moderate program, and the softening of the NLF claim to be the “sole representative of the South Vietnamese people” are the most conciliatory signals the “other side” has yet given.

The Alliance was set up in Saigon and Hue as a direct consequence of the Têt successes. Of course the effort has been encouraged by the NLF and Hanoi: it could hardly exist in the face of this opposition. But the fact remains that prominent members of the urban middle class such as Trinh dinh Thao, a well-known non-communist Saigon lawyer, and Professor Le Van Hao, an anticommunist who had never before been a member of an anti-American movement, are now willing to associate themselves publicly with a political force calling for reconciliation with the NLF. The Alliance is centered largely in the cities where the political support for the NLF has been weaker than in the countryside. It is designed to enlist the support of the middle class and the intellectuals, whereas the principal base of support for the NLF has been the peasant population.

What is interesting about the Alliance is not the NLF’s role in bringing it into being, but their reasons for doing so. From my conversations with the North Vietnamese, I concluded that Hanoi and the NLF are in effect saying to the Americans: “We are ready to compromise with the various political elements in South Vietnam except those who have no constituency beyond the American Embassy. We know that we will have to reconcile conflicting interests and traditions in Vietnam. We can get overwhelming support on one issue only—ending the war and securing the American withdrawal. On reconstructing the country we shall have to move slowly and bring the warring factions along with us.” To the people of South Vietnam they seem to be admitting that they are unable to bring about immediate reunification of the country and they will not try. They will not try to impose the economic and social system of the North on the South. Many different groups will participate in the process of reconciliation and it will take a long time. Significantly, the program of the Alliance, endorsed by both Hanoi and the NLF, speaks of an “independent, sovereign South Vietnam.” In a recent conversation with an American, Premier Pham Phon Dong talked about the Alliance as a “third force.” Representatives of the NLF take pains to point out, however, that the Alliance is a “little brother” of the Front; the NLF with its peasant base will remain the principal political force in South Vietnam.

A source close to the NLF told me that several members of the Alliance’s Central Committee not yet publicly identified are now serving in high positions in the Saigon government. At a strategic moment they plan to defect and, the NLF is confident, topple the government. In the cities the Saigon police may continue to patrol the streets, my informant remarked, but inside the houses the NLF and the Alliance are forming the future government of South Vietnam. Thus the decisive development, as the Hanoi negotiators see it, is the impending collapse of the Saigon government, what the American negotiators themselves candidly call “our weakest link.” As the negotiators in Hanoi see it, the process of collapse will be speeded up by further dramatic NLF military successes in the cities, accelerating corruption and disillusionment in Saigon, and the spectacular defections of prominent anti-communist politicians to the NLF cause. Ultimately, the Americans will be faced with the choice of permitting negotiations among the Vietnamese for the evolution of a coalition government, in which the NLF will be the dominant force, or, on the other hand, of setting up an occupation government in Saigon and making war on the whole Vietnamese people. The North Vietnamese believe that it will be harder in the coming months to maintain the fiction of an independent Saigon government. “How can you say they are puppets?” an American negotiator asked his Vietnamese counterpart at the end of a session. “They don’t do what we tell them.” The Vietnamese diplomat answered with a wry smile, “they’re bad puppets.”

HANOI hopes the corruption, weakness, disloyalty, and the increasingly anti-American tone of the Thieu government will discredit American policy. As the US sacrifice mounts and it becomes increasingly clear that the beneficiaries are neither deserving nor grateful, the Vietnamese believe that at some point it will no longer be possible to convince the American public that continuing such a commitment is patriotism.

Only when that point is reached, the North Vietnamese believe, will American public opinion play a decisive role. Contrary to what the Administration has suggested, the Vietnamese have a conservative view of the significance of American public opinion. They want understanding and support from Americans and they clearly appreciate the: risks which war protesters like Dr. Spock have undertaken. But they read their own history as proof that little countries cannot depend upon anyone else to secure their independence. Again and again they have been sold out by foreign friends who, understandably, are not and cannot be Vietnamese patriots. They believe that their own efforts and the justice of their cause have already defeated the United States. It may take a long time for the consciousness of that fact to sink in, but they have no choice but to wait. In the long run they do put some trust in world opinion. “It will sweep you away.” Ambassador Ha Van Lau told an American delegate in a “tea break.” The American diplomat, relating the incident to me, remarked, “How very naive of him. But it’s rather touching, you know.”

The Vietnamese negotiators know that the decisions that can turn the “official conversations” into real negotiations must be made in Washington. They would not be surprised if Lyndon Johnson halted the bombing at an opportune moment to help the Democrats’ fading prospects. But they are not counting on it. They understand, as I think the American negotiators understand, what must be done to bring an early peace to Vietnam. In the simplest terms, the US must act in such a way as to make credible that we are prepared to leave and to permit the play of local forces in Vietnam to determine their political future, even if this means a communist government. There are many ways to communicate this, and many paths to a settlement. But the basic decision has to be made. There is nothing to suggest that either the military or the political trend is favorable to the United States. Indeed, the morale of the Saigon government is deteriorating rapidly, and its reliability is becoming increasingly doubtful. We no longer hear the promises of military victory. It will be a long time before a general gives another rousing speech on Vietnam before a joint session of Congress.

DURING THE LAST MONTH the issue of the Vietnam war has entered a new phase in US politics. Opposition to Johnson’s policy within the Democratic Party moved toward a climax with the preconvention speeches of George McGovern, who came closer to advocating unilateral withdrawal than any other major US political figure, and Edward Kennedy. It reached its crest in the platform fight at Chicago. But the rabbit that Lyndon Johnson was supposed to pull out of Humphrey’s hat did not materialize, and the prospects are dwindling that it ever will. Humphrey’s equivocal pledge to stop the bombing if Hanoi will respond with some satisfactory “deed or word” concerning the demilitarized zone, and his invitation to “members” of the NLF to participate in elections presumably arranged by the Saigon government, is fully consistent with the Johnson war policy. To be sure, there are differences in tone between Humphrey’s desperate campaign appeal to the liberal and peace vote and Johnson’s fighting speech to the American Legion. But the essence of Humphrey’s new points have already been made in Paris. If the Vice President intended to communicate a shift of policy he emitted a weak signal indeed. The speech expressed the fear of the Democrats that although opposition to the war has become almost mute, it runs deep enough to keep many voters at home on Election Day. The fear is well-founded, for after a month of the Humphrey-Nixon campaign, most Americans do not see any way to exert influence on the Vietnam issue through the electoral process.

Nixon, so far at least, has said nothing about Vietnam except that he will bring peace and honor, two standard words in every politician’s Vietnam lexicon that no one, including Nixon, has ever bothered to define. His earlier prescription for ending the war by pressing the Soviets to press Hanoi to accept US terms revealed a bizarre view of who is doing the fighting, what it is about, and, especially, what an outside power can do to make or break a revolution. Nevertheless a Nixon Administration would have a strong political incentive to liquidate the war. It is an open question whether Nixon would be more or less vulnerable to the demand of the military for one more chance to vindicate the honor of the Armed Forces and to rehabilitate their reputations.

The North Vietnamese made it clear to me that they would not stay in Paris indefinitely, although they are evidently reluctant to break off the talks until after a new Administration takes office. I had the impression that despite their evident eagerness to have the war over, they have disciplined themselves not to expect much from the next President. They have played a waiting game for a long time. They know that they hold the political cards and that ultimately the political forces in Vietnam, not military power, will decide the conflict. They are well aware that the decision of the South Vietnamese government to drop all pretense of democracy by jailing its opponents has further eroded its already tiny base of political support and strengthened the hand of the NLF.

The US is now down to two principal assets as it tries to outwait the patient warriors of Vietnam. One is pure Micawberism, a faith that for the world’s most powerful nation something better than the settlement we could have gotten three or five or fifteen years ago is bound to turn up. The other is the knowledge that we have the physical power to blow up the dikes and flood North Vietnam, to mount raids or an invasion into the North Vietnamese countryside, or even to experiment with small nuclear weapons as the ultimate demonstration of American will. The US negotiators in Paris know that this is hardly “negotiating from strength,” and their morale reflects this reality. One of Harriman’s aides in Washington put it this way when I asked him how he thought it was all going to end. “I think Rusk knows we’re going to have to surrender, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to be the one to do it.”

This Issue

October 24, 1968