Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

What really happened behind the scenes when the bombing of North Vietnam finally stopped? It is time Averell Harriman told us the full truth. He has been dropping tantalizing clues since he returned home from the Paris talks. These lead one to believe that he could make no greater contribution to peace than to tell the whole story. When the bits and pieces he has let slip are added to what we already know it looks as if it is the story of how Lyndon Johnson might have won the election for the Democrats and put the US firmly on the road to withdrawal and settlement.

Harriman’s latest and clearest hints indicate that the other side made a substantial withdrawal as the bombing stopped. The US, instead of reciprocating with a comparable withdrawal of its own, took advantage of the other side’s withdrawal to escalate and widen the war in South Vietnam. It is important for the country to get the facts clearly now because Nixon has not changed the military orders with which Johnson accompanied the bombing halt. Until those orders are changed, the chance of peace is slim, and the casualties will rise as our military commanders under the cover of the peace talks pursue their dream of a military victory.

Ever since Harriman came back from Paris where he was our chief negotiator, he has talked of the need to cut down the level of the fighting. In the aftermath of Nixon’s report on Vietnam Harriman has lifted the curtain on the fact that as the bombing stopped the enemy did exactly that. This was either part of the price they paid for the end of the bombing, or a concrete move toward de-escalation which they hoped we would reciprocate. Harriman made this revelation on two occasions. One was on CBS May 14 immediately after Nixon’s address. The other was in his speech next day to the American Jewish Committee at the Waldorf. Seldom have more momentous revelations been given less attention by press and public. This is an attempt to call wider attention to them, to place them in perspective, and to ask Governor Harriman to speak out more clearly and fully.

On CBS, after the President’s address, Harriman said:

Well, to me, the all-important question wasn’t touched on, which is how to reduce the violence. I’ve come to believe as a result of my talks in Paris that we won’t get very far as long as both sides are hitting the other as hard as they can. Now the President mentioned the fact that the VC were hitting us. He didn’t mention the fact that General Abrams’s orders were to use all of our ability to put maximum pressure on the other side. And that’s something they have objected to when I was in Paris and they’ve made it very plain—I think this is the most important subject to me to talk about quickly is how to get the violence down, how to stop people from getting killed.

A few minutes later in the discussion he moved on to this revelation:

I want to point out the one thing which very few—which hasn’t been thoroughly pointed out and that is that very early in the end of October and early November [the bombing ended the night of October 31—IFS], the North Vietnamese took out practically all of their troops from the Northern Provinces, what’s called I Corps, you know, just below the DMZ. And half of those they took as far north as the 20th parallel, that’s nearly 200 miles north. [Our italics.]

A quick check back over the records after Harriman’s TV appearance disclosed that this pullback leaked out at the time but US press briefings did their best to disparage its importance and hide its significance. On October 17th the New York Times reported that the Johnson Administration had offered to end the bombing of the North if Hanoi would restore the DMZ, refrain from using the bombing pause to step up infiltration, and lessen attacks on South Vietnamese cities. Concurrently with these secret negotiations, there was a lull on the battlefield. American deaths for the period October 6-12 fell to their lowest point since July. On October 15th US authorities in Saigon reported that most if not all North Vietnamese regulars had moved out of range of South Vietnam’s heavily populated areas, and one US general was even quoted as saying that the enemy had been “fading away all over the place.”1 On October 18 the AP reported US intelligence speculation that between 40,000 and 60,000 Communist troops might have pulled out of South Vietnam.

When questioned by the press, military sources played down the possibility that the pullback was connected with the negotiations in Paris. Their press briefings succeeded in creating the general impression that this was a move by a battered and defeated enemy back into his “sanctuaries” across the border in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to re-equip and reorganize for renewed combat. Harriman’s disclosure was the first time we had been told that the enemy had actually moved troops back as far north as the 20th parallel 200 miles above the DMZ.


Johnson had been asking for North Vietnamese de-escalation in return for an end to the bombing. This pullback seems to have been the enemy’s reply. But instead of reciprocating their de-escalation we intensified and widened the war in the South. This is the second revelation made by Harriman in his account on CBS:

But the orders then were for Abrams to put the pressure on and he took the First Cavalry Division from I Corps, moved it down the river to III Corps, put as much pressure as possible, B-52s—I’m not being critical at all but that is the reality of the situation.

Now they’ve hit back and I think the President is quite right to be angry with them for hitting again but I think we better say something to them about the orders of General Abrams being rescinded and that we’ll let up, too. You can’t expect—we can’t expect to put out all our pressure on them and expect them to lie [down] and be a dead dog…. They’re very little people but they’re proud and they’ve been fighting a long time and you can’t deal with them high-handedly.

Harriman didn’t say so, but the other side may have felt that Johnson had tricked them. He took advantage of the restoration of the DMZ to move the crack First Cavalry from the north into Tay Ninh and Bien Hoa for search-and-destroy operations accompanied by heavy B-52 raids on an area which had been a Viet Cong stronghold as far back as the French war. Hanoi could not protest publicly that this was an act of bad faith since it had insisted that the US had ended the bombing of the North “unconditionally” and it had never admitted having troops in the South. It could hardly turn around to protest that the US had failed to reciprocate its deescalation. Johnson had craftily outwitted Hanoi, but at the expense of continuing the war and lessening the chances of progress in the Paris talks.

Unfortunately, the CBS interviewer, John Hart, was so anxious to get Harriman to say whether he thought Nixon’s proposals were a step forward that he made no effort to draw Harriman out on these revelations. “In a word, Governor,” Hart concluded rather impatiently, “and in summary, is this Nixon address an advance—is this a step forward?” Harriman replied, “Oh I agree it’s a very definite step forward.”

But next day in his speech to the American Jewish Committee, Governor Harriman returned to the subject. He said there were “important matters” which the Nixon address “did not cover.” He expressed the hope that these would be referred to Ambassador Lodge for private negotiations in Paris. He then went on to emphasize and elaborate the points he had tried to make on TV the night before. Harriman told the AJC:

To me, of first importance is agreement on the mutual reduction of hostilities and violence leading to a cease-fire. To be realistic, we cannot expect the Viet Cong to stop their attacks as long as we are exerting maximum military pressure on them. Such an agreement would mean a sharp reduction in American casualties. It is an essential move towards peace as well. I do not believe we can make substantial progress in talks in Paris unless the tempo of the fighting and violence is reduced by both sides.

Governor Harriman said he hoped Ambassador Lodge would be “authorized to negotiate such an agreement as a matter of urgency.” Harriman said he would not even wait for an agreement. “In fact it is my judgment,” he went on, “that we should act ourselves by taking a more defensive position and at the same time demand that the other side respond. I believe they will.” He explained:

They did in early November when they practically disengaged in the Northern provinces of I Corps. If the Saigon government had sent representatives to Paris then to join the talks as we thought they had agreed to, the violence would then have been mutually reduced, resulting in much fewer American casualties. There might not have been a winter offensive by the enemy, which took such a tragic and useless toll of lives on both sides or, at least, it might have been less violent.

Here Harriman seemed less than can did, and perhaps anxious to protect Johnson. It was Johnson’s order, not the failure of Saigon to send delegates to the peace talks, which stepped up the tempo of the fighting. In his AJC speech, Harriman went on to advance his own proposals for mutual de-escalation:


I have gained the belief that little serious progress will be made in Paris until both sides cut their offensive action. For instance, as an early step we should insist that the Viet Cong stop all terrorist acts in Saigon and in other major cities. I believe it would be useful to bring 50,000 troops home as soon as transport can be provided. Then increasing numbers, in accordance with President Nixon’s proposal, can be withdrawn as the Vietnamese withdraw theirs—not just to Cambodia, but north of the 20th parallel, about 200 miles above the DMZ.

North Vietnam did take a number of regiments that far in November. This permitted General Abrams to transfer the First Cavalry division from I Corps to the Third Corps and thus increase our offensive actions there. [Italics added.]

Did Harriman object to this when he was our Ambassador to the peace talks in Paris? Did he feel that the road to a political settlement might be quickly opened if we de-escalated? Did he then propose that we match the other side’s withdrawal with one of our own? Were his efforts undermined by the US Embassy and the US military in Saigon? It is time these questions were clearly answered. Governor Harriman gave a hint of the answer many weeks ago in a telephone interview with James A. Wechsler of the New York Post. In his column last March 6, Mr. Wechsler reported that Harriman “somberly warned the outgoing Administration” that the order to Abrams to step up the war when the bombing ended “would inevitably invite the military reaction that we have been facing in recent days,” i.e., in the spring offensive. Harriman said he had made his views known “during the debate that preceded the escalation of our military effort.” Mr. Wechsler reported that Harriman “said it was important for the country to understand that the headlined new offensives of the Viet Cong were essentially a response to our actions rather than a deliberate, reckless attempt to dictate the peace terms or torpedo the talks.”

But beyond that statement Harriman would not go. He told Mr. Wechsler, “I don’t want to say anything that could be regarded as a hostile judgment of the way Mr. Nixon is handling things. The big decisions are still to be made.”

That was in March. Now two months later he has lifted the curtain a little higher. But the big decisions to which he referred have yet to be made. The biggest, as he has suggested, is an order to scale down the fighting.

If, with the bombing halt at the end of October, the Johnson Administration had made known the extent and significance of the enemy withdrawal and announced a withdrawal of our own, the road to a settlement would have been opened, and many thousands of lives, American and Vietnamese, might have been saved. The Democrats might have won the election. Instead Johnson took advantage of that enemy withdrawal to transfer the First Cavalry south to III Corps for a new try at a military victory.2 So much we can piece together from Harriman’s new revelations. But to make the country aware of their significance Harriman would have to stop dropping hints and speak out clearly. All who want peace must appeal to him, who has done much in the past, to make this major effort and major contribution. Won’t he help the cause of peace by telling the whole story now?

P.S. On the third try Harriman finally made The New York Times. Ten days after the TV interview and the A.J.C. speech (and after this piece had been written) the Times finally carried the gist of his revelations sunday, May 25, but for some inexplicable reason buried them far down in a Hedrick-Smith interview, “Harriman Calls On U.S. To Lead In Reduction Of Vietnam Combat.” We noticed in The New York Times next day, in a story by Henry Raymont, that Harriman had said wryly in another connection, “I’ve always found you have to tell things twenty times before they sink into the public mind.” These still haven’t sunk in, but at least in part because Harriman hasn’t told the whole story.

As not infrequently happens when military matters are involved in our not always so open society, the facts about the North Vietnamese withdrawal last fall seem to have been known to insiders but kept from the rest of us. Thus on May 23 the Associated Press, at the tail end of a story on Ron Ziegler’s White House defense of the bloody nonsense on Hamburger Hill,3 quoted Senator Mansfield as telling reporters he sympathized with Senator Kennedy’s criticism of that operation but attributed it to orders to “keep the pressure on” the enemy.

“Mansfield said,” the AP went on, “It is very difficult to keep such military pressures up and achieve agreements on peace elsewhere. He said Hanoi withdrew some of its troops last November but Allied forces instead of similarly backing away, continued aggressive military operations. The result, Mansfield said, was that ‘They (the enemy) came back and the chances for peace in Paris decreased.’ ” (Our italics.) But the only paper in which we saw this part of the AP dispatch was the Washington Star (May 23). Mansfield also could help by speaking up more fully and clearly. Perhaps the august New York Times, which did not carry his remarks, might interview him, too.

This Issue

June 19, 1969