Three decades later, mystery still
envelops the negotiations leading to the January 1973 Paris
agreement which ended the American combat role in the Vietnam
War. The Nixon administration carried out a grand negotiation
in Paris. There were two tracks. One was an open forum in
which delegations from the United States, South Vietnam, North
Vietnam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South
Vietnam (PRG, formerly the National Liberation Front or
Vietcong) spoke for public consumption. There was also the
more important private track, where National Security Adviser
Henry A. Kissinger talked with top North Vietnamese officials
and actually formulated the document signed in January 1973.
The mystery lies in identifying whether Kissinger's true
target lay in North Vietnam or in the South, and whether the
main concessions were made in Hanoi or Saigon.
The memoirs of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and his deputy,
Army Gen. Alexander M. Haig, Jr., adhere to the conventional
wisdom that Washington conducted negotiations in close concert
with South Vietnam. In this version, the United States and
North Vietnam (also called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam,
or DRV) were close to a settlement by October 1972, but South
Vietnam refused to accept an agreement too favorable to Hanoi.
The United States then returned to the table with the DRV,
which resisted concessions so vociferously that Kissinger
broke off the talks in disgust and Nixon ordered the Christmas
Bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. The bombing forced the DRV to
make the desired concessions, and a final agreement was signed
in Paris on January 27, after which Nixon announced that he
had achieved "Peace with Honor."
account, based on the public record and on what former
officials were willing to divulge, was created at a time when
the records of the Nixon years were a deeply held secret. With
the appearance of those documents, the standard account needs
modification. The real story of the final negotiations and
Christmas Bombing is both less and more than advertised.
Kissinger had been involved in secret talks with Hanoi since
August 1969, and directly with North Vietnamese politburo
member Le Duc Tho beginning in 1970. Until the 1972 Easter
Offensive, the conversations had proceeded in a desultory
fashion. Each side presented negotiating "points," or
positions, but never presented a formula that stood a chance
of garnering mutual agreement.
Washington kept the South Vietnamese government loosely
informed of the course of the talks. Kissinger decided what
would be said and fed his material through the American
ambassador to South Vietnam, Ellsworth D. Bunker. Political
opposition to the war in the United States gradually forced
the Nixon administration into revamping its war strategy, with
an American withdrawal and stand down from ground operations,
combined with the Vietnamization initiative, reducing
casualties and the visibility of the war, but also yielding
one of the main points (a U.S. withdrawal) that Washington had
initially tried to negotiate with Hanoi.
The South Vietnamese government remained a key player in a
settlement, even one agreed upon between Washington and Hanoi.
President Nguyen Van Thieu's position was critical; hence
Kissinger's efforts to keep him in touch with the process.
Kissinger, Haig, and Nixon all publicly maintained that Thieu
was on board and fully agreed with each successive American
In actuality, however, Thieu's views, expressed as early as
the Johnson years, never changed and began to diverge from
Kissinger's as early as 1969. Thieu consistently held out for
a North Vietnamese withdrawal from South Vietnam, which
Kissinger abandoned in 1969 after Hanoi rejected any solution
that included mutual withdrawal. In his memoirs, Kissinger
reports that when the United States offered a ceasefire in
place in October 1970, that act conceded that Hanoi would keep
its forces in the South. Thieu rejected any coalition
government and was unwilling to countenance political
participation in the South by the PRG unless it renounced
communism and disarmed - in effect, surrendered. Thieu
described those conditions in a July 1969 speech. Kissinger
and Nixon were well aware of their ally's bottom line.
Richard Nixon went on national television on January 27, 1972,
and revealed Kissinger's secret talks with Le Duc Tho. The
United States and South Vietnam simultaneously made a new
joint peace proposal that again provided for a ceasefire in
place. Thieu was offering provisions he was not willing to
accept. In his memoir, Kissinger speculates that Thieu's
acquiescence was based on the belief that North Vietnam would
reject the proposal, leaving Saigon under no obligations.
The question of Saigon's bottom line remained moot through the
onset of the Easter Offensive and even a little beyond. The
United States, then Hanoi, canceled negotiating sessions when
the North opened its attacks and the United States mined
Haiphong harbor and resumed the bombing. But Kissinger and Le
Duc Tho met again outside Paris in late July and twice more in
August 1972. Suddenly there was movement in the talks.
Kissinger perceived an urgency in Hanoi's bargaining attitude,
and Le Duc Tho abandoned his standard practice of perpetually
revisiting the same issues and produced new or modified
proposals at every meeting.
By mid-August it had begun to look like the Washington-Hanoi
private talks might yield an agreement under which a ceasefire
would end the American combat role in Vietnam, that Hanoi
would hand over its American prisoners, and that the
Vietnamese would settle their political issues among
themselves. Because the Saigon government would be expected to
sign the agreement, Kissinger had to review its provisions
with Thieu. The national security adviser went to Saigon and
met with the South Vietnamese president on August 17 and 18.
The declassified transcripts of the Kissinger-Thieu meetings
in Saigon reveal a very different picture than those portrayed
by Nixon's adviser in his memoirs. In The White House Years,
Kissinger said he warned Thieu four times that if Hanoi
offered a ceasefire in exchange for the return of prisoners,
Nixon would have to accept the deal. Those warnings are in the
record, but Kissinger's account is far from complete, and the
memoranda of the conversations reveal very different American
intentions. Kissinger went to great lengths to portray the
main problem as one of delaying any agreement until after the
American presidential election in November. Kissinger warned
Thieu the United States would take an offer, but he told the
Saigon leader (six times) that he expected to delay agreement
until after the election.
Kissinger said, "we will step up our air campaign and force a
resolution that way." The following day, he added: "If there
is a ceasefire before the election, it will be harder for us
to resume the bombing, although we will probably do it
"We are determined to have a showdown on prisoners of war
before the end of the year," Kissinger said a few moments
later. "In this effort I can assure you we will stop at very
little." The hint of a powerful strike at North Vietnam was
Kissinger made other promises to the South Vietnamese. The
United States was about to declare another round of
withdrawals, to be completed by December 15, that would leave
American forces in South Vietnam at about 27,000 troops.
"After that," Kissinger said, "we do not intend to withdraw
anything significant." Nixon's emissary also promised there
would be no reduction in American naval forces off the
Vietnamese coast. As for the bombing, Kissinger envisioned it
ending "maybe in the second half of next year , at a
point where we have severely weakened them."
States, Kissinger declared, expected to reduce its direct
involvement in 1974. "Although the war may not end, the
balance of forces will shift preponderantly in your favor,"
Kissinger added. Kissinger also suggested the possibility of
large-scale South Vietnamese amphibious raids on North
Vietnam. Much bigger that the OPLAN 34-A operations of the
early war years, he envisioned brigade or division-size forces
that would land in North Vietnam for 24 to 48 hours, stirring
up the DRV rear areas. Kissinger briefly mentions this
suggestion in his memoir and indicates Thieu expressed only
In fact, Thieu remarked, "It could be done" and later brought
up Vinh or Thanh Hoa as potential targets. "Maybe the way the
war will end is by continued bombing on our part and the
landing of your forces in the North," the American emissary
speculated. "You should plan on it," Kissinger added.
Saigon meetings, articles began to appear in the media hinting
at differences between Kissinger and the South Vietnamese. In
their August conversations, Kissinger had told the South
Vietnamese half a dozen times that it would be good ammunition
for his negotiations if such rumors were to appear. "I like
the stories that you treated me coolly," went one typical
promises, and Kissinger's glossing over of elements of a
prospective agreement about which he knew Saigon to be
sensitive - and at least four declarations that he expected
Hanoi to reject the offer - Thieu ran true to form. He and his
advisers probed the political aspects of the negotiation. They
were concerned about the representation of the PRG in the
prospective agreement and the presence of North Vietnamese
troops in the South.
In a flight back to the United States, Kissinger sent a
memorandum to Saigon answering the most serious concerns. The
South Vietnamese responded on August 26 with a paper that
rejected any formula for a coalition government and demanded
Hanoi's withdrawal from South Vietnam. In at least one respect
the Kissinger memoir is entirely correct: Saigon was hardly
going to be able to force Hanoi to accept in negotiation what
could not be achieved on the battlefield. At that very moment
its forces were stalled outside Quang Tri and unable to eject
DRV troops even from a provincial capital.
The climax of
the negotiation with Hanoi came in September. In two sets of
meetings Kissinger and Le Duc Tho hammered out the elements of
an agreement. The DRV gave up its demand for a coalition
government in South Vietnam, a so-called Government of
National Reconciliation. A much diluted Committee for National
Reconciliation would be established to organize an election.
This body was stripped of such functions as writing a new
constitution. The committee also would be subject to a unit
veto rule (any party could prevent action by refusing its
agreement). There would be a ceasefire in place, the United
States would withdraw remaining forces, the DRV would return
prisoners, and ceasefires would also be negotiated for
Cambodia and Laos.
stated intention of delaying any accord until after election
day disappeared. Suddenly a concord between Washington and
Saigon became urgent. The South Vietnamese had not been
mollified by Kissinger's answers to their concerns, and the
vague criticisms by Saigon sources of the national security
adviser became strident.
split Kissinger had exploited in earlier negotiations was
quickly hardening into a real difference. Haig was sent to
Saigon to stroke Thieu and hear his objections. The Haig visit
at the beginning of October is crucial to the story of the
Paris agreement because of the gifts he brought, items
intended to bring the Thieu government on board for the push
to an agreement. One was an initiative for massive additional
deliveries of military equipment to the South Vietnamese.
Haig met with
Gen. Fred Weyand of Military Assistance Command Vietnam,
where he focused on the supply issues, following up on the
memoranda from South Vietnamese General Cao Van Vien that
Thieu had handed to Kissinger in August. Already underway was
an effort called Project Enhance, which Nixon had ordered in
National Security Decision Memorandum 162 in June, which was
supposed to replace all South Vietnamese losses from the
Easter Offensive. The new move was called Enhance-Plus.
handed to Weyand on October 3 directed him to plan on the
assumption that "There will be a settlement which would become
effective in the next three months which would prohibit
reinforcement in the form of arms, munitions, and other war
materials. It would be understood, however, that war material,
arms, and munitions which have been destroyed, damaged, worn
out, or used up after the cessation of hostilities could be
replaced on the basis of piece for piece."
Gen. Haig's other carrot for Saigon was the Christmas Bombing.
Nixon had been demanding strong action against Hanoi for
months. As early as April 30, he sent a memorandum to
Kissinger: "I believe it is essential," it said, to plan "a
major strike for three days involving a minimum of 100 B-52s,
as well as as much [tactical air] as can be spared" on the
Hanoi-Haiphong complex. On May 18, he sent a memo to Haig
ordering commanders in Vietnam "to have for my consideration a
major B-52 strike in the Hanoi-Haiphong area."
The next day
he ordered Kissinger to get a hundred more B-52s into the
theater "regardless of how many heads have to roll." In the
context of the August meetings with Thieu, the Kissinger
memoir claims Nixon conceived the option of escalating
dramatically after the election. An outline plan for a Hanoi-Haiphong
bombing had been drafted in late September by Vice-Admiral
John P. Weinel, director of the Joint Staff that serves the
Joint Chiefs of Staff. The top-secret plan was considered so
sensitive that Weinel wrote it out by hand and distributed no
27, the outline was in the hands of the NSC staff, where
Commander Jonathan Howe wrote an analysis that observed, among
other points, that the November-December time frame "has the
advantage of being a period when the President will have a
tremendous election victory mandate and Congress is out of
session." The Weinel plan provided for two phases, the first
of which would be the big bombing.
list included 205 B-52s, 20 to 30 A-6s (among an estimated 370
total aircraft), and 48 F-111 aircraft for all weather
bombing, plus 72 A-7s and 240 F-4s capable of
radio-beacon-assisted operations. He provided climatological
data and a target list. During that period South Vietnamese
troops "will be trained for regimental size hit-destroy-run
operations" against the DRV. Dong Hoi, Vinh, Thanh Hoa, and
Haiphong were mentioned. Weinel's list of phase-two activities
included "hit-destroy-run raids by SVN forces."
visiting Saigon, Haig met with Southeast Asia Air Force
commander Gen. John Vogt on October 1. Weather data and
general concept sheets of the Weinel plan were added to his
list of talking points. Haig's talking points for his session
with Gen. Weyand the same day include "discuss
November/December weather options which will not be present in
January," as well as probing South Vietnamese "capabilities
against North," and "when could [the South Vietnamese]
Airborne or Marines be ready to conduct raid operations?"
records of Haig's meetings with President Thieu do not show
how much he discussed the attack plans with Saigon officials,
but at their first session on October 2 Haig told Thieu he
wanted to speak "general to general" and listen to the South
Vietnamese concerns. They let him have it on Kissinger, his
manipulations, the short time he gave Saigon to consider its
responses, and specific elements of the possible peace
On the final
day of their meetings, Thieu gave Haig a Saigon government
document that termed Hanoi's peace proposals "absurd" and
demanded that all political issues be settled in accordance
with Thieu's formula of July 1969, which made excessive
demands even then. Haig reported that he had not anticipated
the depth of Saigon's opposition to an agreement.Kissinger
rejected his deputy's subsequent advice that the best course
would be to repair relations with Saigon. He had a new round
of talks coming up with the North Vietnamese and saw no basis
for stonewalling, given the rapid progress being made.
By October 8,
Kissinger felt that the essential goals of the negotiations
had been achieved, and he spent the evening walking the
streets of Paris contemplating how the agreement would serve
Washington's interests and Saigon's. Hanoi then pressed
for a schedule under which the last points would be cleared
up, Kissinger would visit and initial the agreement, and the
final document would be signed by the four parties in Paris.
13, Kissinger felt he was progressing so rapidly that he
cabled Ambassador Bunker: "We have reached point where it is
necessary that I have your best estimate of what we may be
able to get Thieu to do" in the context of an agreement on the
DRV and PRG prisoners held by Saigon. The negotiation ended
with Kissinger, after meeting with Nixon and Haig, returning
to Paris for a final airing of points with the North
Vietnamese and then flying to Saigon to sell the agreement to
October meetings in Saigon were a diplomatic disaster. South
Vietnamese officials rejected the prospective agreement on
many grounds. The main sticking points were the demand for a
North Vietnamese withdrawal, the objection that the Committee
on National Reconciliation be a coalition government, the
refusal to sign any agreement that included the PRG,
objections regarding treatment of the DMZ, plus a host of
minor points, some arising from differences between the
English and Vietnamese-language versions of the agreement.
In view of
the objections, there was no way Kissinger could proceed to
Hanoi to initial an agreement. He was obliged to request a new
negotiating session. The North Vietnamese called a news
conference and announced the prospective accord and the sudden
worried for months that Hanoi would go public. That had been
among his reasons in August for asking the South Vietnamese to
agree to certain things. But he felt he was in a strong
position and called his own press conference on October 28 to
put the onus on the DRV. The reality behind the public
expressions was far different.
meantime, Project Enhance-Plus was in full swing, involving a
massive airlift and about two dozen shiploads of material. All
of Saigon's August requests, except for F-4 fighter-bombers,
were met. The South Vietnamese were given 47 F-5A jets
instead, as well as 42 A-37Bs and 32 C-130 transports. Large
amounts of broken equipment went to South Vietnam on the
supposition that it could be repaired by contractors in
Vietnam or replaced under a one-for-one formula. The
unserviceable items included 1,302 two-and-a-half ton trucks
and 96 quad-.50 caliber machine guns, more than half of the
424 five-ton dump trucks and 700 60mm mortars, about 40
percent of the 4,769 M-79 grenade launchers, and small numbers
of other pieces of equipment furnished to Saigon. The South
Vietnamese kept the equipment, but stood fast on their
objections to the ceasefire agreement.
attended several more negotiating sessions with Le Duc Tho and
North Vietnamese representatives. He tried to present the new
demands as clarifications, but once the main questions were
reopened, Hanoi, too, began to revisit issues. In early
November, MACV was instructed to begin planning for
post-ceasefire activities and a final American withdrawal, as
well as for cooperation with an International Commission for
Supervision and Control that would be put in place by the
10, Haig met again in Saigon with President Thieu. Nixon had
won the election against George McGovern, but he sent a letter
to Thieu through Haig declaring that the United States
intended to go ahead with a cease-fire agreement with Hanoi.
Nixon said Washington would press for modifications favorable
to Saigon but would proceed in any event. At their meeting,
Haig encouraged Thieu to prioritize the changes he desired.
The next day Thieu demanded all the changes be made without
on November 14 with another letter going over the same ground
but also emphasizing the American ability to enforce the
agreement: "You have my absolute assurance that if Hanoi fails
to abide by the terms of this agreement it is my intention to
take swift and severe retaliatory action." Public revelation
that peace was at hand triggered a flurry of excitement in the
United States and further eroded remaining support for the war
went off to Paris for a futile session with the North
Vietnamese, while Thieu announced he was sending his special
adviser Nguyen Phu Duc to Paris and then to Washington with
his own letter for Nixon. The Paris talks proved sterile, the
Washington ones key.
Kissinger's staff prepared a set of talking points for Nixon
prior to his November 29 showdown with Duc. Nixon was advised
to "combine brutality with reassurance in your approach" and
to emphasize that Kissinger would carry instructions with him
to Paris the following week to make a final settlement, but
that "if the agreement is violated the U.S. will respond with
full force against the communists."
meeting, Nixon warned Duc that Congress was determined to cut
off funds for the war in Vietnam so he was obliged to settle.
But the United States, Nixon
said, would maintain military assets in Thailand, offshore,
and in "other adjacent locations" and these would assure its
ability to react if there were a violation. "The total
withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces was out of the
question," Nixon said, but he emphasized retaliation
repeatedly and stressed that the agreement would provide a
political basis for that.
At 10:15 the
next morning, Nixon and Kissinger met with the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, headed by Adm. Thomas A. Moorer, to consider Vietnam
contingencies. Nixon posed the question of what action ought
to be taken if the negotiations had to be broken off and later
noted that Moorer had prepared contingency plans for three-day
and six-day strikes against the DRV. Nixon instructed the
Joint Chiefs that "they should now review these plans and
strengthen them to include the resumption of mining and the
use of B-52s over Hanoi." But he also conceded that
"continuation of the war is no longer a viable proposition."
after this session, Nixon met with Nguyen Phu Duc. He referred
to his conversation with the chiefs and their willingness to
respond to violations. Duc reported that "President Thieu felt
it would be preferable to die now than to die bit by bit."
Saigon would not yield, and now Hanoi, too, dug in. At
Kissinger's next negotiating session there was no give at all.
4, Le Duc Tho declared that the United States was making
statements amounting to threats: "Maybe you would even use
massive B-52 raids perhaps even to level Hanoi and Haiphong."
emerged since that North Vietnam began to evacuate civilians
from Hanoi that day, something that helped reduce casualties
from the Christmas Bombing. By December 13 there was a
complete impasse, and Kissinger and Haig advised Nixon to
break off the talks.
12, President Thieu delivered a speech to the National
Assembly condemning the prospective agreement. Nixon ordered
the bombing on December 14. Diplomatically, the Christmas
Bombing was aimed at Saigon as much as at Hanoi. The bombing
was intended as evidence that Washington would keep its
promises to Thieu. Moreover, Nixon's demands for B-52 bombing
of Hanoi, the Kissinger-Thieu talks in August, and the Weinel
plan in September - all of which antedated any snags with
Hanoi in negotiations - indicate a long-standing intention to
carry out this operation.
This is not
the place for a detailed analysis of the Christmas Bombing
(see "Fighting to a Finish: The Christmas Bombing," The VVA
Veteran, December 1998/January 1999). But the changes
between the pre-bombing and post-bombing versions of the
agreement were mostly cosmetic. Meanwhile, Saigon still
insisted on a North Vietnamese withdrawal from the South.
President Nixon reiterated his guarantees to Saigon and
reaffirmed that he was taking the United States out of the
war. Only then did Thieu go along.
In the last
analysis, the United States faced two primary negotiations in
reaching an agreement to end the Vietnam War. The talks with
Hanoi, however difficult, were not as hard as those with