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January/February 2003
 
   
 

Diplomacy On Multiple Fronts

BY JOHN PRADOS


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."

This standard 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 peace program.

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.

"Then," 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 anyway."

"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 nearly explicit.

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 [1973], at a point where we have severely weakened them."

The United 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 passing interest.

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.

After the 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 Kissinger formulation.

Despite his 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.

Kissinger's 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.

The public 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.

A paper 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
copies.

By September 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.

His force 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."

While 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?"

The available 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 agreement.

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.

By October 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 Thieu.

The late 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 American backpedaling.

Kissinger had 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.

In the 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.

Kissinger 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 agreement.

On November 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 exception.

Nixon replied 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 effort.

Kissinger 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."

At the 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."

Immediately 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.

On December 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."

Evidence has 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.

On December 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 America's ally.

   

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