Impasse At Paris

by George McT. Kahin | October 12, 1968

After more than four months and 24 sessions, the Paris talks are still at an impasse; no progress has been made; there have been only "official conversations" and no negotiations. These meetings have provided both sides with full opportunity to expound official positions on the origins and development of the conflict and to castigate each other's very different interpretations. But all this has amounted to little more than repetition of statements made publicly elsewhere by spokesmen of both governments. The Johnson Administration has made political capital out of the Paris talks, reducing domestic criticism of its Vietnam policy by giving the American public the impression that there is real movement towards peace and that something of substance is taking place at Paris. At the same time, the proposition that "delicate diplomatic proceedings" were underway and that untutored candidates had a patriotic duty to refrain from interfering, has served to deflect the criticism of Senator McCarthy and provided both Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon with apparently plausible excuses for refusing to elaborate their views on a Vietnam settlement. Nevertheless, nothing of significance has been happening in Paris; the two parties are still quite as far apart as when they first sat down together on May 13. Even in the off-the-record talks during tea breaks, the only achievement which the American delegation cites is the possible expediting of the release of three additional American airmen, but even this could probably have been brought about outside of Paris.

This is not to say that something important could not have been accomplished. For Paris provided the North Vietnamese with the channel for alerting the US to the political significance of de-escalatory signals which they made during the first two months of the summer, but which President Johnson, despite the advice of Ambassador Harriman and others, ignored.

It is essential to recall that the North Vietnamese, in agreeing to the talks before our bombing had been completely halted, regard themselves—and are so regarded by many neutral observers—as having made a significant concession. Hanoi agreed to sit down with the US while the bombing continued, but it stipulated that in these initial talks the agenda would be confined to just one item—the determination of the time when the United States would unconditionally end all bombing and other acts of war against the North. In other words, Washington's limited suspension of bombing resulted in Hanoi's agreement to enter into what from the outset it made clear would be a limited range of talks; full talks and actual substantive negotiations would have to await a full ending of the bombing. Nothing could have been more explicit than the North Vietnamese Foreign Minister's statement concerning the conditions under which his government would participate in talks: "In the course of this contact, the American side will specify the date when the unconditional cessation of the US bombing raids will become effective. Then the two sides will reach agreement on the date, place and level of the formal talks between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the United States." Today, as on May 13, they continue to insist that the talks remain limited to a discussion of when the US will stop all bombing. But once this condition has been met, Hanoi has been and remains prepared to arrange promptly the discussion of all other matters relating to Vietnam, and Indochina as a whole, in which the United States is interested.


Those who have most closely followed the Paris talks know that Ambassador Harriman has himself for some time strongly recommended full cessation of the bombing, but he has been unable to secure the Administration's approval of this essential prerequisite to actual negotiations. American correspondents and French officials see him as an unhappy, disappointed man, clearly more understanding than Lyndon Johnson of the political realities that govern Vietnamese developments, but unable to convince the President to take the essential step that must precede negotiations.

The Johnson Administration was in fact quite unprepared for Hanoi's prompt positive reaction to the President's announcement of March 31, in which he coupled a reduction of the area of North Vietnam subject to American air bombardment with a request for talks. The President's broadcast reiterated his relatively moderate San Antonio formula of September 29, 1967, stating that the US would stop its bombardment of North Vietnam when that would lead promptly to productive discussions, assuming that North Vietnam would not take military advantage of US restraint. The American position, then, on March 31 was that Washington would not require from Hanoi prior acts of de-escalation or any explicit public commitment to reciprocal restraint.

Very quickly the bombing concession promised by the President was severely reduced. In his speech he had stated that the area of North Vietnam which would be immune from bombing would extend over all North Vietnam's territory "except in the area north of the demilitarized zone," and include "almost 98 percent of North Vietnam's population." (Last week. Vice President Humphrey amended this by saying that on March 31 the President "removed the threat of bombing from 90 percent of the people and 78 percent of the land area of North Vietnam.") But within days after March 31, it was clear that the area adjacent to the DMZ still subject to bombardment stretched northwards approximately 200 miles covering more than three entire provinces normally populated by some four million people—well over 20 percent of North Vietnam's population. Although the geographic area subject to American bombardment was reduced, the intensity of the bombardment was not; according to the Administration's statistics, the total number of American sorties flown against North Vietnam increased from 2,654 per month in March to 3,593 in May and 3,792 in June and the total weight of bombs likewise increased. The North Vietnamese maintain that out of 830 villages located between the 20th and 77th parallels American planes bombed 575 in the month of August alone.



Within South Vietnam, there was initially during the Paris talks little indication that either side was practicing military restraint. Saigon became the object of sustained rocket and mortar attacks by enemy forces, and on the very eve of the talks, May 6, American field commanders were given orders to mount an all-out military effort in the South. Major US sweeps were launched in the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta in addition to the more defensive clearing actions around Saigon and other cities. More American soldiers were sent to South Vietnam, and announcements were made that the ARVN was being rearmed with better weapons and that its manpower was to be increased by 19 percent.

Washington's conditions for a complete cessation of the bombardment against the North soon stiffened considerably. On June 21, Secretary of State Rusk stated at a news conference that Hanoi could move towards "de facto" de-escalation—"it could be done by some indication, either directly or indirectly, that such a step is being taken by the other side." Through Ambassador Harriman, the Administration insisted that North Vietnam provide some prior indication of reciprocal restraint before the bombing would be ended, a marked departure from the San Antonio formula. Cessation of rocket attacks on Saigon and evacuation of the Demilitarized Zone were suggested as appropriate examples of the restraint for which the US was looking, a point restated—with some modification on September 30 by Mr. Humphrey: Before taking action to halt the bombing of the North, he would want, "evidence—direct or indirect—by deed or word—of communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam."

In the context of military de-escalation in Vietnam "reciprocity" is a principle which Hanoi's representatives refuse to accept. From the very first session at Paris this has been basic to their position. This is not, they point out, simply because they lack the capacity to wage air war, and have no equivalent capacity to match de-escalation in American air activity. Much more basic is that they see themselves as the victim of aggression and the US as the alien aggressor. "As the victim," they say, "we cannot accept the American view of reciprocity." The American demand for reciprocity in de-escalation "puts the victim and the aggressor on a plane of equality"; the Vietnamese people, they insist, will never submit to a demand that they limit their struggle against aggressors. Moreover, Vietnamese in the North cannot accept the proposition that they abandon their countrymen in the South while the United States continues to have a free and unfettered hand in conducting military operations there.

In the talks, the North Vietnamese made frequent oblique references to the presence of their forces in the South, asserting that there was no question as to the right of all patriotic Vietnamese to resist foreign aggression anywhere within the limits of their nation. "No Vietnamese has harmed a single American on American soil," they said; "since Vietnam is one, as recognized by Geneva, the Vietnamese people can fight against the United States anywhere in their territory where there are US troops."

While as "victim," the North Vietnamese insist that they cannot accept the American view of reciprocity, they point out that they have within the last few months taken significant steps to demonstrate their desire to move forward to substantive negotiations. Many neutral observers and the most knowledgeable French specialists interpret the lifting of the siege at Khe Sanh so shortly after the President's March 31 speech as a move calculated by the North Vietnamese to serve as a sign of restraint. Whether or not they are correct, it is interesting to recall the New York Times editorial of April 4; "The immediate test of intentions will come in the battle zones of Vietnam. If both sides are sincere in their search for a peaceful settlement, Hanoi will restrain its forces now threatening Khe Sanh and other allied positions throughout South Vietnam." In any case, later, some six weeks after the Paris talks had started, there were other important signs of what both the Hanoi delegation in Paris and these observers regarded as military restraint by North Vietnamese and NLF forces. On June 21, the rocket and mortar attacks on Saigon, which American military commanders acknowledged they were powerless to prevent, were halted, and for 66 days no more attacks occurred. Considerable numbers of communist troops withdrew from around Saigon, and in much of South Vietnam it became evident that enemy forces were avoiding combat with American troops. That this was so was demonstrated by the dramatic reduction in US casualties for a period of approximately two months. (American deaths dropped from a weekly high of 562 on May 11, to 187 in the week ending June 29, and a year's low of 157 in the week ending July 20.)



To make certain that these moves were properly interpreted, the North Vietnamese delegation at Paris, in interviews with David Schoenbrun of the American Broadcasting Corporation on July 16 and with Murrey Marder of the Washington Post about two weeks later, indicated that they were indeed to be regarded as examples of military restraint and as having political import in terms of US expectations voiced at Paris concerning reciprocity. It was with this in view that the head of the North Vietnamese delegation at Paris, Xuan Thuy, stated to Ambassador Harriman at the 19th session of the talks on August 28: "For more than three months now, by words and by deeds, we have fully shown our goodwill and readiness to move towards such a solution." On September 6, the North Vietnamese delegation at Paris pointed again to the two-month suspension of rocket attacks against Saigon and the decline in American casualties during this period despite the increase in American ground sweeps in the South. "Tell the people of America the truth as it is," they said to us, "tell them to look at the objective reality of reduced hostilities on our part."

For more than two months this summer, then, the North Vietnamese hold that they and the NLF demonstrated restraint on the battlefield in an effort to meet the US conditions for the full end of the bombing that could lead to substantive negotiations. If the Johnson Administration had really wanted to find the "signs" of North Vietnamese restraint for which it said it was looking, it could have found them.

During the first two months of the Paris talks, the Administration asked the Vietnamese to provide evidence of their reciprocal restraint through deeds. But when this effort had been made and given publicity through Schoenbrun and Marder, Dean Rusk suddenly announced that the rules were changed and that what was now essential were words. On July 30 he stated that the United States would not end its bombing of North Vietnam until Hanoi went on public record with a commitment to reduce its military activities. He called for a "responsible authoritative statement" concerning not what Hanoi had already done by way of reciprocal restraint, but rather what it would do in the future. This raised an additional impediment to any serious move towards substantive negotiations.

In the meantime the Administration's conditions for a political settlement returned to the rigid terms of two years ago. Indeed in his address of July 20, the President revived in all its rigor the formula for a political settlement based upon the enemy's complete capitulation set forth at Manila in October 1966. The Vietnamese, as their representatives in Paris made clear to me, will never accept the proposition that North Vietnamese troops be withdrawn six months before the evacuation of American forces from South Vietnam. If Hanoi does agree to withdraw its own troops from the South prior to an effort by southern groups to work out their own mutual political accommodation, it certainly will not do this while American troops remain. Its representatives stated to us that "there is no possibility for a nation to enjoy self-determination with the presence of half a million foreign troops," and that it would be only "after the withdrawal of foreign troops" that "the Vietnamese will discuss together their own solution of affairs." There will be "two categories to be discussed, those relating to South Vietnam which will be discussed by the South Vietnamese, and those relating to all Vietnam, which will be discussed by those from both zones."

The four-point proposal made by Senator Edward Kennedy on the eve of the Democratic Convention would seem to be sufficiently compatible with the North Vietnamese position to provide the basis for realistic negotiations. It was clear to me that their delegation in Paris had studied his proposals carefully, being able to cite its provisions from memory and stating that once the first of his four points, that relating to a full halt in the bombing, had been carried out, they could readily discuss the other three points of his proposal. Quoting liberally from his speech they emphasized their strong concurrence with his point that those concerned with saving lives—American and Vietnamese—should move to end the war as a whole rather than remain preoccupied with the immediate local tactical military considerations to which the Administration has apparently attached such priority.


If after a bombing halt Hanoi should in fact be prepared to negotiate military matters in behalf of the NLF, it is the opinion of the most knowledgeable French officials that this will only be done on the basis of the same close consultation and careful representation of its actual point of view as has governed the conduct of Hanoi's delegation at Paris thus far. But whereas Hanoi may be able to represent the NLF militarily in negotiations, it cannot do this with respect to a political settlement in the South. It may prove possible to negotiate a military armistice between Hanoi and the United States, with each representing the interests of its South Vietnamese ally; but Hanoi and the NLF will probably continue to insist that any political settlement will have to be worked out by the South Vietnamese parties exclusively.



It is not realistic to expect that the NLF will ever submit to a settlement like that outlined at Manila and revived by President Johnson and General Thieu this July 20 in Honolulu. This dictates that the adherents of the NLF would have just two options—to leave their home area and move north across the 17th parallel, or turn in their arms and take their chances as individuals participating in a political process controlled by General Thieu's government. The NLF can scarcely have been reassured by President Johnson's unqualified endorsement of President Thieu's plans for a settlement, wherein "full participation in political activities" would be offered to all those who "abide by the Constitution of Vietnam," a political instrument drafted to insure that adherents of the NLF are prohibited from engaging in political activity. (Article 4 of the Constitution states: "The Republic of Vietnam opposes communism in any form. Every activity designed to publicize or carry out communism is prohibited.") As a consequence of the Administration's statements since the beginning of the Paris talks, the North Vietnamese delegation see President Johnson as still dedicated to the objective of "maintaining a puppet administration in South Vietnam and the surrender of the NLF."

It is still unclear whether Hanoi and the NLF would be willing to accept some measure of international supervision over the implementation of an agreement. Both still praise the principles of the 1954 Geneva Conference, but they find the machinery of Geneva unacceptable. The Hanoi representatives in Paris dismiss Britain, one of the Geneva Conference's co-chairmen as "an accomplice of the US in its aggression," and state that neither the Indian nor Canadian members of the International Control Commission can now be regarded as neutral. (Undoubtedly they also recognize the difficulties attending the fact that two of the key Geneva powers—China and the Soviet Union—would find it difficult, if not impossible, even to sit down together at the same table.)

Until the bombing is stopped we are precluded from discovering what the negotiating positions of Hanoi and the NLF actually are, and we are in no position to take any realistic measure to arrive at a settlement, or make even the preliminary moves which are necessary in order to prepare for one. The suspicion is so great on both sides, neither is going to divulge now any possible areas of compromise. No one can predict, plan, or think realistically about a settlement until this first step is taken.

Mr. Kahin, co-author of The United States in Vietnam, held intensive interviews with members of the North Vietnam delegation to the Paris talks in early September and subsequently talked with Ambassador Mai Van Bo, French foreign office officials and the US delegation in Paris.

This article originally ran in the October 12, 1968, issue of the magazine.


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